Articles - Paperless Past

He came to us in 1980 from the children's home where he'd been for five years. The social worker explained he was backward 'due to life circumstances' and had no identity documents, which was unusual but would sort itself out. He'd arrived from Vietnam in 1975. So how old was he? The children's home, thinking he stood a better chance educationally if he was as young as possible, initially said "eight". Later they changed this to "nine". He seemed about four. When we took him for a dental check-up, our dentist estimated him to be 12. By then we'd got used to him being nine, so we stuck with that. Besides, what did precise age matter, we thought naively, now that he was receiving the consistent care and affection he craved?

To ensure his security, the social worker encouraged us to pursue adoption. A Queen's Counsel had already been appointed. However, without a birth certificate or other "evidence of birth", the case would have to go to High Court. The QC explained it would be an interesting test case, receiving much public interest. Immediately after the Vietnam War, adoptions had been rushed through the magistrates' courts of supposed orphans whose bone fide relatives later came looking for them. Judges were now more cautious. The QC warned us there was no certainty that an adoption would ultimately be granted. "What would happen then?" "He would be sent back, of course." "Back to the children's home?" "No, to his country of origin."

We could not risk that our, by now, beloved boy be removed. It would be disastrous, for him, for us, for our other children. We withdrew from the proceedings. He remained with us, though without any official status. We began to accumulate unofficial "evidences" of his new identity: library card, swimming club membership, baptism certificate, Cub Scout badges.

We applied for, and eventually received, child benefit for him. We got an affidavit from the children's home of the date he had entered the UK. We applied to the Home Office for the stateless person's travel document. This gave us the freedom to move to France on a temporary job posting. Initially, we encountered no problems crossing the Channel. But by the mid-1980s, immigration control was tightening. Each time we re-entered the UK, the checks on our son's refugee travel number were more painstakingly done. When the car was searched, our son, despite his learning difficulties, was aware of the officials' thoroughness and our apprehension. Meanwhile, his continuing nightmares, daymares, repetitive drawings of violent scenes, indicated that even when there's no documentary evidence of a child's past, memory of the lived experience remains.

No formal adoption ever took place. We merely hung on to him, as our received son, and when his elected age reached 18, applied for naturalisation. With his indistinct speech, minimal reading skills, and tendency to answer questions with "Yes", we were wary of the courts. We approached a cousin who was a Justice of the Peace for advice. She offered to carry out the formalities in her home. We'd no idea whether they'd understand each other, or what the process involved. Our son later described the experience: "One day, I had to sign a promise. I had to swear at a piece of paper. I had to promise to be a British, that kind of thing. Or an English. I had to swear to Queen Elizabeth the Second. And William. That's what it said on the paper. I think that's her son. Then someone had to sign it, a doctor or a law person. It took a long time."

Once we'd received the document of naturalisation from the Home Office we applied for his passport. However, our anticipation that, once he became a British citizen, the uncertainty of his origins would cease to be an issue, shows how little we have learned. The lack of a definitive date of birth continues to irk administrative systems. Recently I had a call from the benefits office asking me to confirm my son's date of birth because, "If the data is not accurate it could seriously affect his pension rights." I gave the date on which we've celebrated our son's birthday every year since 1980, adding that this was an arbitrary date without a birth certificate to back it up. "We have different data," said the clerk, giving a date from the same year but six weeks earlier. "We have reason to believe this to be his birth date." I felt a momentary thrill. Could Benefits and Pensions have amazingly stumbled upon some long-lost information? No such luck. The "new" date turned out to be as random as the previous ones. Where had it come from? It seems possible that our son, with his obliging tendency to give people the answers he thinks they want, had agreed to whatever had been proposed. I suggested to the benefits officer that it was fine to change the date to the one they preferred since neither was genuine. He said, "We can't be doing with fantasy data." He added something about serious penalties for dishonesty. So I explained my son's unknown origins. The investigator listened patiently, then repeated slowly, "We need to resolve this once and for all. You will find the date on his birth certificate."

I anticipate this date of birth query will continue to crop up until it's time for someone to fill in his death certificate. So what are the prospects for today's children arriving in the UK, sans papers, sans age, sans anything? I hope they're finding it easier to forge secure, long-lasting identities.

Times Educational Supplement, March 2006.