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Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

February 14, 2001

Motive, consent key in successful step-parent adoptions, study finds

The motive of step-parents to adopt their spouses’ children has everything to do with whether the adoption is a success or failure, according to a first-ever study on the subject by a University of Guelph professor.

Preliminary findings of research by psychology professor Michael Sobol also reveal that children should be given say in whether they are adopted by their step-parents and allowed contact with their birth parent or other relatives.

“There are few good data on step-parent adoptions, despite the fact that there are four times as many step-adoptions as ‘full’ ones,” said Sobol, who has been studying Canadian adoption laws and policies for more than 20 years. “We can’t ignore step-parent adoptions or pretend they are just legal acts of little significance, nor can we lump them in with other kinds of adoptions, because the circumstances are unique.”

The study was based on interviews with adults aged 19 to 56 who had been adopted by a step-parent when they were between the ages of six and 12. It’s most basic finding verifies what common sense already dictates: adoptions motivated out of love are more successful than those prompted by other reasons, such as pleasing a spouse or taking financial responsibility for a child, Sobol said. The reasons step- parents adopt children typically fall into two categories: utilitarian and emotional. The former includes motives such as pleasing a spouse, the desire for everyone in the family to have the same name, taking on the legal role as parent and increasing commitment to the marriage. The latter, by comparison, uses an adoption to reflect what is already happening in a family. “That is, the adoption is simply the legal reflection of the emotional bond that the step-parent and child already share,” Sobol said.

“Our study shows that even in cases where the adoptive parent and biological parent later divorced, if the adoption was originally motivated by love, the relationship endured.”

The research also found that in the vast majority of “unsuccessful” adoptions, consent was imposed and the resulting resentment often carried over into adulthood. “Many of our participants felt that the adoption represented a loss of self and that it was a betrayal of their past relationships,” Sobol said. By contrast, in adoptions rated a “success,” there was no coercion to give consent. “Trust and respect had already been established in these relationships, and the birth parents and adoptive parents were open to discussion, so the adoptee felt secure about the change.”

The study also showed that continued contact with the birth parent or birth parent’s family influenced whether an adoptee considered his or her adoption a “success.” “When the adoptive parent encouraged the child to continue these relationships, or talked respectfully about the birth parent or other relatives, it made the adoptee feel closer to the adoptive parent,” Sobol said. “In “unsuccessful” adoptions, there was usually little access to the birth parent or his other family. The adoptee felt cheated out of a relationship and was angry about this.”

Other findings include:

  • The chances of a successful adoption are highly dependent on the quality of the marital relationship. If the adoptee sees the marriage as “good,” then the adoption is seen in parallel terms.

  • How extended family members of the adoptive parent treat the adopted child also influences whether the child perceives his or her adoption to be “good” or “bad.”

  • In “successful” adoptions, children did not oppose changing their name, where applicable, but those who felt they were in “bad” adoptions felt that changing their name was a betrayal of their past.

  • Adoptions should not be rushed to avoid the step-parent being seen as an “attack” on the relationship between the adoptee and birth parent.

Prof. Michael Sobol,
Department of Psychology
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 2107;

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Communications and Public Affairs,
519-824-4120, Ext. 3338.

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