‘Social work support and therapeutic intervention pulled our adoptive family back from the brink of disaster’

Sally Donovan examines new research on adoption breakdown and finds the true scandal of adoption is being under reported

broken glass
Adoption success is more than 'not broken', writes Sally Donovan (Rex/WestEnd61)

As far as I could see, when Julie Selwyn’s long-awaited research into adoption was published last week it was met either with a scattering of bunting, a mixture of resigned sadness and faint hope or, more commonly, an unnerving silence. I guess it all depends which seat at the adoption party table one occupies (but boy wasn’t that Channel 4 documentary about adoption great.)

Looked at through rose-coloured spectacles (and perhaps with the recruitment of adopters and the numbers of children waiting for families in mind) the results were fantastic. The fictional adoption breakdown rate of 10 – 30%, which grew out of speculation and a vacuum of evidence, was kicked out and replaced by the researched findings of 3.2%.

The research didn’t just look into adoption breakdown though. It measured post-adoption ‘health’ by asking adopters to put themselves into one of four categories; doing well, highs and lows (mainly highs), difficult and disrupted.

Misleading headlines

Adding the two final categories together (from my experience they sit perilously close together), and because that’s where I think the focus should be, the results showed roughly a third of adoptions are reported as doing well. Another third are highs and lows and just under a third are difficult or broken.

So, as reported by adopters in response to a survey, close to a third of adoptions are difficult or broken. Why was that not the headline? A small third is a lot of pain and wasted opportunity (and tax payers money too). A small third asks uncomfortable questions and demands big improvements.

I come at this as an adoptive parent, of two children, both adopted from our local authority. So, you could say I read the research though my own particular shade of spectacles.

Two years ago we were firmly in the difficult/broken category and hurtling towards disruption. At this point in time I would tick the ‘highs and lows’ box. There are mainly highs, although ‘highs’ isn’t quite the right word, and the lows include occasional threats to kill pets, refusals to eat and eye-watering verbal abuse.

‘Lives lived in fear’

What pulled our family back from the brink of disaster was the support of an experienced, but under-resourced social worker and a crucial therapeutic intervention that we paid for ourselves. We paid for it ourselves because there is nothing remotely appropriate on offer through the NHS or social services in our area.

Sometimes I have to remind myself of this inequality because it has become ‘situation normal’ for us, as it is for many families. It’s hard to imagine complete lack of provision in any other area of child health being accepted as ‘situation normal’.

Julie Sewlyn and her team at Bristol University spent many hours interviewing those who were experiencing difficulty and disruption; their testimonies give the human story behind the data. Their accounts are powerful, shocking, dark, and sometimes hopeful.

There are accounts of child to parent and child to sibling violence not taken seriously by professionals, lives lived in fear, lives shut down to such an extent that they are barely lived, advice so pathetic it is almost comical, parents being blamed for the behaviours of their children, blindness to trauma and attachment difficulties, scandalous lack of NHS services and particular lack of support during the crucial teenage years when things can escalate out of control with frightening speed.

‘Raining on the parade’

I had looked forward to Julie Selwyn’s research being published and reported on because I knew many adopters had invested much emotion, time and hope into it – and because we need more than anecdotal evidence to drive long overdue improvements in adoption support services for children and families.

However, highlighting anything other than the good news isn’t always the most popular thing to be doing when it comes to adoption.  It is like raining on the parade. People don’t like it. You feel like you should just shut up and hide somewhere.

Those who reported themselves to be in the ‘breaking or broken’ category and who laid themselves bare to the researchers were once, let’s not forget, prospective adopters who were welcomed into the open arms of the state and given free biscuits.

Now, perhaps ten years in and finding their photogenic toddler a raging, traumatised teenager who needs therapeutic support which they can’t get, they find themselves very much the unwelcome guests at the party.

Whenever we engage in debate around complex, human issues we should, I think, check ourselves against the tests of balance and honesty because it is tempting, for whatever reason, to look away from the pain.

Success is more than ‘not broken’

So, in the interests of balance and honesty I say this: Of course it is positive that less adoptions disrupt than we feared, but success is much more than ‘not broken’. We must be brave enough to let those who are facing significant struggles speak of their tragedies without pushing our fingers into our ears.

We should thank them for doing so because their experiences and recommendations are invaluable in informing change. And we have a moral duty to prospective adopters and children to be honest about what adoption really entails right from the start – because good people make life-changing decisions, for themselves and for children, based on the information they are given.

By deliberately avoiding the less positive news it makes the whole operation look a bit shady and untrustworthy, and it’s better than that. Many, many children and their families benefit significantly from adoption.

I’ll finish on an optimistic note. If, currently, a good two thirds of adoptions are reported as doing well to moderately well, despite support services being frankly pretty disgraceful, imagine what could be achieved with easy access to good quality services?

Sally Donovan is an adoptive parent, author and award-winning columnist

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2 Responses to ‘Social work support and therapeutic intervention pulled our adoptive family back from the brink of disaster’

  1. Spike D April 25, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

    I hear your pain, I am a social worker working within children’s services and have supported a number of families who have adopted children and bar a few ‘theraplay’ sessions when they are small they are cast adrift to manage as best they can to ‘reparent’ often highly traumatised and poorly attached children. I took myself off and got some very specialised training with Dr Dan Hughes who is considered by many to be one of the lead professionals within this field (and a god by many social workers and therapists!!) this has enabled me to actually provide insight, understanding and above all actual strategies that work for your controlling, aggressive frequently destructive ‘little one’ (they are all little ones under the prickly/snarling surface emotionally functioning often many years below their chronological age – try imagining a full on toddler tantrum in the body of a hormonal 15 year old). But very very few social workers have the depth of understanding that enables them to be an effective resource for parents. Social Services departments may offer ‘parenting courses’ which are just inadequate for the specialised therapeutic parenting that adopted youngsters so often need – good or ‘good enough’ parenting just isn’t the same. Schools do not understand the special ways these special kids need to be handled, too often they are excluded thus ratcheting up the stress and anxiety for parents who are already often on the edge. Our children’s mental health services frequently only really focus on ‘mental illness’ so our children end up with diagnoses of ADHD or (my personal fave) ‘Atypical Autism’ – this may cut them a little slack in school and some additional support, but doesn’t begin to deal with the root cause of the behaviours. What these children need is a parents who are really going to stick with them if they are to ever recover from their past experiences, but it is a massive massive ask of these parents. Support for adoptive and foster families has to improve, which means providing suitably skilled professionals to support both the children and their families. Consideration needs to be given to funding implications – budgets for children’s services are being slashed, but if we don’t get this right, these children will cost us for years and years to come – through the mental health or criminal justice system or back to social services when they become parents themselves. Getting it right as early as possible, is the only thing that makes any logical sense on both a human and financial level.

  2. June Jellies April 28, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    As usual , very well written article from Sally Don. This research has still not hit the general media ( other than a mention in the observer editorial on 27/4 – I wonder why – probably because it does rain on the parade.