Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Name Game - a response to The Guardian's article "What's in a name?"

An aside...

This week an article in the Guardian by Fraser McAlpine has been causing something of a stir in the adoption blogosphere. From my own reading of the article it seems to be a grossly misinformed, poorly argued and shoddy piece of journalism. Which is a shame because, ironically, I happen to agree with the main premise which Mr McAlpine is slowly edging towards.

Names are important. Identity is important. You meddle with it at your peril and only with very good reason.

The article concludes... “Can't we just give the children new names?

Unless there's an issue of security, in which case identity takes second place to personal safety, the answer to that question should most often be no. And the reason is simple: an adopted child should never grow up ashamed of where they came from. Otherwise there's a risk that they will develop void people of their own, and that's a competition all parents can well do without.”

Hear hear, well said that man. Unfortunately in getting to that conclusion Mr McAlpine manages to misrepresent both adoptive parents and the adoption preparation process. And insult adopters and social workers into the process. This is from someone who, apparently, is a member of an Adoption Panel. For the uninitiated, the Adoption Panel is the semi independent body within an adoption agency or local authority which takes decisions on who should and should not be approved to join the the adoption register and what adoption placements should and should not be approved.

He should know better.

His description of the adoption process bears little resemblance to the process my wife and I went through. At best it’s a caricature, a cheap sitcom vision of the process and the considerations which any adoptive parent goes through in accepting a child for adoption.

The inaccuracies are manifold. Fair enough, statistics suggest that the pool of adoptive parents in the UK is biased towards the white and middle class – but not exclusively so. However, presumably spurred on by the debate over, The Apprentice contestant, Katie Hopkins’ TV outburst he seems to go on to tar all other middle class people (and by inference all adopters) with the same snobby brush.

Katie Hopkins is not a good (or a typical) role model. I’m not a fan of The Apprentice It has always seemed to me that the contestants chosen for each series are specifically designed to form the most, self-opinionated, pushy, self righteous, egotistical, outspoken and (frankly) obnoxious group of people imaginable. That way lies great car crash telly.

Here is the first big problem. He makes an assumption that all adopters are gagging to change their child’s name at the first opportunity and that the adoption services are complicit with this action. Not in my experience.

Throughout our adoption training the importance of establishing and maintaining a child’s identity was underlined. And that was, at the most basic level, their name. Our trainers pointed out to us that for most adopted children the only thing they retain of their previous life is their given name. The first discussions we had in our preparation days centred around what our names meant to us and what they would mean to a child. Throughout our home-study the theme was revisited. We were literally asked to consider “How would you react if you were matched with a ‘Chardonnay’?” This was linked with constant reminders all the way through the process to approval and finally placement that changing a first name (other than for reasons of security) would be strictly frowned upon.

Another generalisation – all adopters go baby shopping through “Be My Parent” or “Children Who Wait” and then make snap decisions on accepting a child. Certainly some (many?) do adopt through one of the various lists of children who are available. However, they do so with great thought and consideration. Many more, however, are matched by their agencies on the basis of very detailed criteria of what will or will not be acceptable to them in a child. Then when profiles are made available there is a detailed consideration and approval before a match is approved by exactly the type of Adoption/Matching Panel of which Mr McAlpine seems to be a member. Has he not been paying attention?

The article talks about the stylised “Void-Baby” which adoptive parents carry in their heads and how this then colours their view of their adoptive child. Sure there may be some of this. However, once again, the approval process concentrates on de-constructing this image and ensuring that parents enter into adoption with their eyes open.

Looking through the article one more time I think I’ve boiled down the main problem with it. Fraser McAlpine is seeking to propose a solution for a problem which simply doesn’t exist in the majority of cases. In the process he seems to have offended many of those about whom he is writing.

We have got to know a lot of adoptive parents since adopting ourselves. A goodly number of them are proud parents of their own little Fifi-Trixibelles or Jayzees. Others are proud parents of their own little Johns, Janes and Jeremys. All have come to terms with their children’s names, the fact that they are not of their own choosing and are weaving them into the narrative of their lives through detailed (and sometimes painful) “life story work” - another concept which Mr McAlpine seems not to have ever heard of.

In our own case our child retained their first name, given to them by their birth parents - something with which we were perfectly comfortable. What we did do, apparently quite common, was to add an additional middle name of our own choosing. That was an arrangement with which our social workers were quite content and, indeed, encouraged. Our child has now, post adoption order, taken on our surname. Life story work still lies ahead of us. However, creating a coherent narrative for them of who they are from birth to the present is something to which we are committed and which we see as vital in assisting them to grow up into their own, complete person.

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