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Mary Kenny: Burton's story of adoption shows us how well it can work

By Mary Kenny
Monday March 14 2011

JOAN 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.

For 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.

But 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)."

There 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).

And 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.)

The 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.

It's 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.

Nearly 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.

IT 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".

Afterwards, 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.

And 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.

Adoption 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.

Joan 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.

- Mary Kenny

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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