Kenny: Burton's story of adoption shows us how well it can work
Monday March 14 2011
Burton has spoken, movingly, about how she was given a photograph of her
birth mother just before the meeting with Eamon Gilmore which confirmed
her new appointment as Social Protection Minister. It was the first
picture Burton had ever seen of her biological mother -- who is now dead
-- in middle age, and the photo has become "almost a talisman"
in her new ministerial role.
any adopted person, that connection with a birth family has got to be
deeply significant. For any birth mother who has ever placed a child for
adoption -- let's not use the cruel expression "given up for
adoption", which implies rejection -- it must also have carried a
comforting echo. Burton's birth mother would surely be proud to see what
a success her daughter has made of her life.
Burton has always spoken, too, about the wonderful support that her
adoptive family, and particularly her adoptive mother, has played in her
remarkable career. "My adoptive mum was fantastic," she told
interviewer Jason O'Toole in early February. "She encouraged me.
She just had great belief in me. She was a champion. She just believed
in me and was really positive, a really lovable and popular person. She
was really anxious that I would continue my education and do everything
that I could (with my life)."
are many stories of unhappy, or mismatched, adoptions, and many accounts
of marginalised birth mothers being pressurised into yielding their
babies for adoption, and we can never over-emphasise the sorrow that
this must involve. Indeed, the late Archbishop John Charles McQuaid,
ogre though he was in many respects, was against adoption for this very
reason -- that it was too painful to sever the natural link between
biological mother and child (possibly also because his own mother had
died when he was very young).
yet, Burton has emerged as a brilliant example of the successful side of
adoption practice. Rightly, she treasures a picture of her birth mother
-- and she has also made contact with her extended biological family --
but rightly, too, she always paid loving tribute to her adoptive
parents. And not only her adoptive mother and father, but the entire
extended family of uncles and aunts and cousins. (Joan was devastated
when her adoptive mother died at the age of 55, when Joan was 20.)
question must arise: would Burton be the success she is today without
the support of that wonderful adoptive family? No case can be proved
without a laboratory example of the alternative, but many studies
indicate that a loving and supportive extended family usually provides
the best start in life for most individuals. And many a single mother
has placed her child for adoption because, altruistically, she felt that
it would provide her child a better start in life.
important that adoptive people should not think of their birth parents
as rejecting or abandoning them by "giving them up for
adoption", but making a decision that the child would have a better
chance in life in more favourable circumstances.
60 years ago, an adoption controversy arose in Ireland when an Irish
mother brought her son, Tommy, to the Savoy Hotel in London with a view
to having him adopted by the film star Jane Russell. Ms Russell, who was
unable to have children after a botched abortion, had said she would
like to adopt "an Irish baby boy", and was subsequently
contacted by Florence Kavanagh, Tommy's biological mother. Mrs Kavanagh
and her husband Michael were very poor and struggling to raise their
family, and she offered Jane Russell her 15-month-old son for adoption.
was all hurried through very quickly, and soon Ms Russell was on the
plane to America with her newly acquired toddler. Jane Russell wrote
later that Florence Kavanagh simply believed that the child would be
"raised by a Christian family in a land of opportunity".
the transaction was regarded as highly irregular, if not shocking, and
the ease with which the child was handed over served to regulate
adoption law in Ireland, which had been virtually unregulated.
yet, Jane Russell did her best for the three children she adopted. When
she died recently, all three of them were at her bedside, including
Tommy, who has made a success of his life in America.
is a complex area in which hearts are divided, and often hurt, but when
a family is willing to put the best interest of the child first it can
be a remarkable success.
Burton is a shining example of how good practice in this emotional
sphere can produce such a balanced person -- and her insight surely
brings an extra depth of personal experience to her portfolio.
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