The adjective most used to describe my work is ‘honest’. Sometimes it is prefaced with ‘searingly’ and expressed in a way that might indicate my honesty is not entirely welcome.
When the manuscript for my first book was in the process of finding a home, several publishers found it ‘not miserable enough’. It didn’t fit comfortably into the ‘misery memoir’ box, just as it doesn’t fit into the ‘happily ever after’ box either. Neither fish nor foul. But that’s real life for you; it’s complicated and takes time and effort to appreciate.
There are powerful but subtle drivers that can, if we’re not careful, nudge us away from honesty when talking and writing about adoption. Many children are awaiting placements and many of them are ‘hard to place’ – such as sibling groups, older children or those with a disability or behaviour problem.
We know adoption can be transformative for children, so who in their right mind would risk putting off prospective adopters by emphasising potential difficulties?
A discussion thread on the Adoption UK forum explores the pressures that adopters and adoptees feel under to talk up the positives of adoption at local authority preparation sessions. When family life has been hard beyond the comprehension of most, how far do you go in describing that to prospective adopters?
And besides, how much of the message is really heard by those who carry fragile hopes and dreams of having or completing a family? The psychological distance between desperately wanting a family and really appreciating what it takes to parent a child who has experienced terrible times is very great indeed. It needs to be better understood.
I used to speak at such sessions and was well aware of the tensions that existed. It was not the social workers from whom I felt a pressure to gloss over reality though (they encouraged me to be honest), it was some, but not all, prospective adopters.
I understand, in my bones, the need for adoption to be a kind of ending, or a fresh start. I really do. And I don’t seek to blame anyone for feeling that need. But adopting a child from the care system is not about neat beginnings or endings.
Local authorities are under increasing pressure to recruit adopters and place children. Their success is measured and the worst performers may be sanctioned. As a result, many have, quite rightly, become more proactive about recruiting adopters and working towards placing the children in their care, particularly the so-called ‘hard to place’ children.
Their shop fronts have become more attractive. There are photos of families having a blast, many ‘it’s hard, but the best thing we’ve ever done’ accounts and, despite all we know about the long-term impact of neglect and abuse, much emphasis on adoption as a happy ending. (Shopkeepers don’t display broken hopes and dreams.)
Professor Julie Selwyn’s research is jam-packed with broken hopes and dreams. It predicts that roughly one third of adoptions will go along happily, one third will experience ups and downs (although the mental health scores of the parents in this group should be ringing alarm bells) and one third will have a very difficult time. It’s unlikely to be included in adoption recruitment campaigns.
The terrible truth
It’s terrible advertising. And yet it’s the truth as things currently stand. But if you were considering making the ultimate in life-changing decisions, wouldn’t you want someone to be compassionately honest with you?
Professor Selwyn’s work tells us a great deal about the common factors among families in difficulty, but we need ongoing research to delve into the factors that go towards making successful and less successful adoptions. And perhaps even to define what success looks like. We need these findings to inform improvements in practice and ongoing support.
I’m lucky to have the opportunity to communicate with, and learn from, many adopters with a range of experiences. Many connect via social media and many contact me privately. Lack of honesty around the preparation for adoption, and more specifically around the information they were given about the children they were matched with, are recurring themes.
While researching this article, I asked adopters whether they felt they had been generally prepared well, and also whether they thought they’d been given the right information about the child with whom they’d been placed. As well as the public twitter responses many adopters contacted me privately. One adopter told me: “I found out after placement that there was clear evidence of grooming and possible sexual abuse. Her behaviour was very sexualized and when I expressed my concerns I was belittled by professionals. Why lie? Did they not think I would find out?”
I’ve received a number of accounts of this nature. Some adopters told me that access to medical records, not made available at the time of placement, had revealed injuries consistent with sexual abuse. Others knew birth family members were serving prison sentences, but had not been told they were convicted of child sexual abuse.
In some cases, this information only came to light when children bravely started sharing their experiences and their adoptive parents and support agencies worked hard to put the pieces together. This raises challenging questions about how we can ever hope to effectively support children through the fallout from these experiences, and how we keep them (and their future children) safe should direct contact come about. One has to ask whose best interests are served by keeping information from families.
Another adopter, with a wealth of professional experience in the field of adoption, said: “Their recall of events was far more than we had been told about. The information the child provided hit the ‘shock’ factor scale between 5 -10 almost on a daily basis. We believe a lot of this information could and should have been provided prior to placement.”
One couple were told their son had a ‘straightforward’ background and were encouraged to apply for the adoption order quickly and without a support plan in place. When significant problems did arise they felt abandoned. They said they felt “duped by social services, like they saw us coming and then ran a mile”.
One foster carer had a different perspective. She questioned who the expert on the child is, saying there are many changing social workers and others involved in a child’s life and some barely know the child. She described feeling a great love for children in her care and a desire to see them move into an adoptive placement and a natural tug to tell the positives.
She also questioned how well-prepared prospective adopters are to really hear and appreciate the possible legacies of the past.
I contacted several experienced adopters, for their longer-term perspectives. Writer and trainer Helen Oakwater said: “As a society we still don’t see adoption as parenting a child with trauma, we don’t think of it in terms of the Baby Peters who survived. The emphasis is still too much on the happy ending. Adopters need the information from the start in order that they can hold the child and their story simultaneously.”
Amanda Boorman – founder of the charity The Open Nest who discovered crucial information only after her daughter was placed with her – said: “I have no regrets over adopting my daughter and feel I was the right person for her. My regrets are that I was unqualified for the position and as a consequence had to learn ‘on the job’ at her emotional expense.”
The vast majority of adopters who contact me say exactly this, that had they been party to all the information from the start, and with the right support in place, they would still have adopted their child, but would have been able to parent them far more appropriately.
The key statement is, ‘with the right support in place’. As is now accepted, the right support is not in place for many adoptive families. The Adoption Support Fund, which launches across England in May 2015, will hopefully address at least some of that shortfall. But right now, what is the incentive for the state to be entirely honest about the children it seeks to find adoptive families for?
Performance measures encourage short-term thinking; lack of wraparound support discourages full honesty about the challenges ahead; some adopters may exert pressure towards telling the positives; and social workers may not always be experienced enough, or have the time, to understand the long-term impact of child neglect and abuse. All of these factors collide and prop up the idealism of the ‘happily ever after’ ending, which least serves the children at the centre of all this.
The consequences of shielding ourselves from a child’s past experiences are that we send them off, with a wing and a prayer, into an adoptive family who are in no way – at that time – prepared or equipped to support them. How does that child gain the confidence to even start to share some of their most shaming experiences? How are families expected to be able to respond correctly to what can be horrific disclosures? By acting to meet short-term goals, are families and children being set up to fail?
No easy options
We need to accept there is no such thing as a guaranteed straightforward adoption, much as it might suit us to believe otherwise. Dr Amber Elliott, a chartered clinical psychologist, says we still don’t know enough about how different experiences of trauma impact on children and their future relationships. Society is also just starting to grasp the effects of pre-natal exposure to drugs and alcohol.
An experienced adoptive parent reflects: “Generalisations are fine to begin with when no child is matched or identified, but once matched this is part of who they are and how they came to be so; making them unique and individual it is part of their humanity and helps them move out of the ‘category’ of looked-after child and into the family as one of the family.”
In some ways, it’s easy for me to suggest how adoption needs to improve. I don’t have to wrestle with limited resources, or meet measures imposed upon me and I don’t fear repercussions from an employer because I don’t have one.
All of us involved in adoption must also be brave enough to support adopters and adoptees who have experienced very tough times indeed. In their experiences lie the seeds of future improvements in adopter recruitment, preparation and support, as well as education and child and adolescent mental health services.
Their experiences and ‘searing’ honesty may be too hot for some to bear, but they are gold dust and should be treasured as such.
Sally Donovan is an adoptive parent of two children, the author of two books on adoption and an award-winning columnist