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Outcomes of inter-country adoption

A recent study from the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF) has investigated what happened to around 100 young girls who, in the 1960s, were in the social care system in Hong Kong and then sent to the UK to be placed for adoption.

The research attempts to assess how their difficult start in life affected their outcomes in later life.


The children involved in the International Social Services UK Hong Kong Adoption Project had mostly been abandoned as infants, and had been in one of four orphanages in Hong Kong for periods ranging from eight to 72 months.

According to the study, the girls received a reasonable quality of physical and medical care and nutrition during their stay in the orphanages, compared to the levels found in other adoption studies, but they didn’t receive the consistent one-to-one care and stimulation that young children typically need for their proper development.

The study

The study, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, focused on 72 women who were involved in the project, in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of the long-term effects and outcomes for children adopted from orphanages and other institutions from abroad.

In particular, researchers wanted to further understand the extent to which early adversity in childhood can create developmental problems and affect the life choices people take in later life.

According to the report’s co–author, Professor Alan Rushton, the background of these 72 women provided a unique opportunity to test the links between early deprivation, international adoption and outcomes and midlife.

Researchers already have increasing amounts of data on the childhood and adolescent outcomes of orphanage care, he claimed, but little is known about the longer-term consequences.

Study findings

The outcomes of the study led researchers to reach a number of important conclusions. These include:

  • When orphanage care is not severely depriving, mid-life outcomes may not lead their mental health outcomes, well-being and life satisfaction to be significantly different from comparison women. Neither was there evidence of severe difficulties in adult social relationships or poor self-esteem.
  • The quality of the adoptive home is an important contributor to well-being as adults.
  • Virtually all the women reported some experience of racism or prejudice in both child and adulthood. This ranged from playground name-calling during childhood to serious racist attacks.
  • When asked how they usually describe their ethnic identity, half identified themselves as Chinese, 19% British, 15% British-Chinese and the remainder used personal definitions. There did not seem to be any evidence that they chose to live in areas with significant Chinese populations.

As the orphanages in Hong Kong seem to have provided a much better level of care than, for example, those in Romania, this might help to explain why this group of women seem to have fared much better than might be predicted based on what we know from child / adolescent / early adult studies of internationally adopted people.

“This study clearly identifies the adaptability, resilience and strength of human beings when faced with significant early adversity,” said co-author of the project, Julia Feast. “It attests to the importance of family life in providing nurture, care, stimulation and opportunity even when children have had a poor start in life.”

"Whilst the findings are in the main very positive.... the challenges and complexities of inter-country adoption should not be underestimated,” she added.

Adoption in the UK today

This study is not alone in reporting important findings with regard to adoption. Adoption is frequently under the spotlight in the UK, with a number of charities highlighting a shortage in the number of adoptive parents or foster carers available to provide a stable home for children in care.

Recent figures from children’s charity Barnardo’s has shown that currently:

  • the number of children waiting to be adopted in the UK is at its highest level since 2007, and now sits at 7,000;
  • an additional 8,750 new foster families are needed across the UK in 2012/13 to keep up with demand. This figure includes 7,100 needed in England, 1,000 in Scotland, 550 in Wales and 100 in Northern Ireland; and
  • two out of three ­fostering services have to split brothers and sisters up because there are not enough foster carers willing to take siblings.


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