The image of cute babies given up for adoption by unmarried
mothers belongs to a previous age. One in three children adopted in
Essex last year were older than five, and the average age of all 91
children adopted in the county was more than four. As a result,
children placed for adoption have increasingly complex needs,
ranging from contact arrangements with birth parents and siblings
to emotional and behavioural difficulties.
As one adoptive parent in Essex said: “Children being placed today
come with baggage. If as a society we are asking ordinary people to
look after these children, then as a society we also owe it to
these families to give them the necessary support.”
Until recently, adoption support usually ended with the granting of
the adoption order. Today, the need to provide post-adoption
support is gaining increasing recognition. Last month, the
government announced it had ring-fenced £70m over the next
three years to fund adoption support, as part of chancellor Gordon
Brown’s spending review.
But research in Essex suggests that providing effective
post-adoption support is no simple matter.1 Among
several significant findings, this study, as yet unpublished, found
that many adoptive parents were fearful of social services
intervention. Adopters felt that asking for support would be
tantamount to admitting they were not coping and were afraid their
children might be taken away.
The study suggested that the fear could be addressed by promoting
and publicising post-adoption services in the early stages of
placement and developing post-adoption support plans.
The need to remove the stigma attached to using support services
was a recurring view from adopters and professionals. Adopters said
asking for help was not easy and they did not know who to turn to
or what services were available. Nearly 60 per cent of adoptive
parents would have liked more information about post-adoption
One couple said: “We need to be reminded that post-adoption
services are out there, and we need to feel we can approach them
without fear that our children will be whisked away or we will be
Families’ worries about social worker intervention were reinforced
by the negative images of social services in the media. This
suggests that providing choice, for instance by offering referral
to independent agencies as an alternative to the social services
department’s post-adoption team, could benefit adoptive
Essex’s post-adoption service is part of social services but,
working with independent agencies, it does have a specialist
understanding of the complex needs of adoptive families.
One of the most sensitive and controversial areas of post-adoption
support is respite care, which often arises because support is not
available from extended family and friends. The children’s
difficult behaviour can cause family arguments, making adoptive
parents unwilling or unable to ask for help, and volunteers to
babysit may be few.
Not surprisingly, the Essex survey revealed mixed feelings about
the use of respite care. Some families remained opposed to the
idea, but 18 per cent had used a respite care service and 30 per
cent had considered using one.
The overwhelming concern was the insecurity and rejection the child
may feel, summed up by one parent: “Respite care can compound the
feeling of rejection a child might already be feeling as a result
of life experiences. It has to be handled so carefully.”
Among those in favour of respite care, there was a strong consensus
that a specialist adoption respite care service was the way
forward. Adoptive parents felt that any respite care scheme should
be provided by other adoptive parents, and not by foster carers.
This would reduce the children’s fears of returning to a care
set-up, and ensure that carers were experienced in managing adopted
The research revealed that, although respite care had been the
subject of much debate, few specialist adoption respite care
schemes existed. Many aspects, such as recruiting, assessing and
training respite carers, funding, and implementing and supporting
the service need more detailed research. The Essex study concluded
there was a clear need to provide support outside current foster
care provision to assist families managing difficult situations
and, in some cases, avoid placement breakdown. Essex is now working
towards a pilot scheme to match adoptive families needing respite
care with a specific family to provide the care.
Another much-needed area of support is post-adoption training to
tackle specific issues such as managing difficult behaviour,
attachment disorders and talking to children about adoption.
While 37 per cent of adoptive parents had attended training, 70 per
cent said they would like to attend future training and nearly half
said both parents would attend. Issues that made access to training
difficult were highlighted, mostly notably child care, and the
distance to travel in a county as large as Essex. Time of day was
also crucial: 32 per cent could not attend daytime sessions, while
27 per cent had problems with evenings.
At the outset of the research, Essex Council’s adoption agency was
keen to set up a forum to consult adoptive parents about service
provision. The parents were almost unanimous in their support. More
than half agreed to participate in the forum, showing a clear
demand to be given a voice. The forum met for the first time in
September, when advocacy in the education arena was identified as
one of parents’ strongest post-adoption support needs.
This level of parental involvement was an example of the commitment
of adoptive parents. This emphasises the importance of providing
good quality, comprehensive and co-ordinated post-adoption services
to those affected by the lifelong implications that accompany
Jackie Plenty is the development worker for Essex
post-adoption service, and a senior lecturer in social work at
Anglia Polytechnic University.
1 Synopsis of research
available from Jackie Plenty o 01376 516767.
Addressing parental needs
The provision of a dedicated post-adoption team was one of the
strengths that helped Essex Council’s adoption agency to gain
beacon status this year.
Using Quality Protects funding, the agency appointed Jackie
Plenty as a post-adoption development worker. Her first task was to
establish what services were needed and look at how they should be
delivered to make them accessible.
Supported by the adoption agency and the post-adoption service
team, Plenty asked adoptive parents about four key service areas:
knowledge of and access to post-adoption services, training for
adoptive parents, respite care, and the organisation of an
adopters’ forum to act as a consultation and advisory
Thirty-five adoptive parents were interviewed, a further 38
responded to postal questionnaires and adoption staff took part in
focused discussion groups.