The great adoption mismatch

The untargeted recruitment of adopters is hard to justify while many sit on the register losing hope of ever achieving a match, writes Sally Donovan

Picture credit: Gary Brigden/Community Care

Like all good things (chickpeas, curly kale, Mother Teresa), National Adoption Week, for me at least, has an unpalatable side. Every year, the closer it looms, the heavier the cloud of vague anxiety that presses down on me. By the time the week arrives, with its strange and forced air of celebration, its worthy media coverage of needy children and happy endings, its stock photos of glossy families frolicking among glossy autumn leaves, I am in such a state of moral entanglement I just want to escape before my head explodes.

That’s an unhelpful reaction and I am rather ashamed of myself, especially when I think of all those having to make difficult and imperfect decisions on behalf of children. But, at the same time, I have experience that tells me the truth about adoption isn’t to be found in the primary colours of posed family photographs, nor in the polarising nature of much media coverage of adoption: it’s in the detail.

National Adoption Week 2015, which runs from 19 to 25 October, is possibly the most problematic yet and I’m glad I’m not the person tasked with orchestrating it. At the last count (end of March 2015), 2,810 children were waiting to be matched with a prospective family. Good enough reason to be pushing for more adopters to come forward; however, at March 2015, 3,350 adopters were approved and awaiting a match (an increase of 44% on the June 2014 figure).

Why, then, are children – and prospective adopters – still waiting? And why is there a need for precious resources to be invested in additional recruitment?


We know the answer and it’s always been the answer: it’s the mismatch between the types of children that adopters have been approved for and the types of children with plans for adoption. There just isn’t enough overlap in this two-set, potential parent/child Venn diagram.

In the outer edges of one half of the diagram are the children considered ‘hard to place’; older children, those with complex needs, large sibling groups and those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. In the other are prospective adopters who have been approved to adopt an easier to place child or children. Many will have come forward while the numbers of children waiting were significantly higher and before the recent and much talked about drop in children with a placement order.

Just who are those adopters waiting for a match? Firstly, it’s obvious, but still important to remember, that they are real people who have invested a lot personally in order to become approved adopters. Many, but by no means all, are not for whatever reason in a position to have birth children easily. Some are well acquainted with deep loss and disappointment. Despite this, most I speak to have arrived at adoption as a conscious decision to offer permanence to a child or children after much deep consideration and reflection. This is not something people do for selfish reasons. At the risk of coming over all ‘private sector’, what this group of people could represent is an unrealised and valuable social resource.

Unvalued resource

How valued then does this valuable resource feel? The answer is ‘not very’. It’s not uncommon now to hear of prospective adopters waiting more than a year and even two to find a suitable match and their experiences during that time leave a lot of be desired. One could simply say ‘twas ever thus’ but I’m not sure that’s quite true. The matching part of the process has always been cumbersome, inefficient and frustrating, but this feels different.

One could counsel patience and point out (as some do) that the endless waiting, searching and rejection is good preparation for the life-long experience of parenting a traumatised child, as if plunging someone into pain and rejection is a great way to kick off the adoptive parenting journey. It’s not.

It’s justifying crapness with more crapness. We must value and nurture prospective parents, because we ask them, on behalf of children in our care, to do something exceptional.
Message boards and forums prickle with the frustration of the matching process; rejection, lack of constructive feedback, no feedback, drawn out delay and eye-watering levels of competition.

One couple contacted me recently to say they had found themselves competing against more than 140 approved adopters for a particular child. Choice when matching children is a good thing, but generating and processing this level of competition is heavy on resources and goodwill. And loss of trust in the system could be hard to repair.

‘Heart-breaking and brutal’

One prospective adopter told me: “It is painfully frustrating when your enquiries go unanswered for weeks on matching sites or you are rejected within a matter of seconds of submitting an enquiry.”

Many talk about how punishing the process is. They describe feeling like commodities, under-valued and treated with disdain. Some describe the situation they find themselves in as ‘heart-breaking’ and ‘brutal’.

Another said: “The feeling on the forums is of complete and utter frustration, with many people thinking about giving up.”

One publication in the sector now accepts advertising from approved adopters who publicise what they have to offer in the hope of achieving a match. An adopter told me it can be “soul-destroying reading about the brilliance of everyone else”.

One prospective adopter expressed grave doubts about the current system, saying: “Social workers are rationalising what they know is terrible by talking about ‘more choice’ for kids but it’s clear to me from conversations that they no longer believe that. They’re all simply mesmerised by a slow motion car crash. Plus the systems are disconnected and it’s clearly not in the interests of the agencies at the top of the supply chain to take twelve months off from shovelling. So yes, it’s immoral and it’s been depressing me for some time.”

Untargeted recruitment

Many have spoken about the ‘glut’ of adopters and whether continued untargeted recruitment is just setting up those who come forward for a fruitless and long-winded journey to disappointment and loss. Some question whether this has more to do with propping up agencies rather than finding families for children.

Whatever the motivation, the ongoing and untargeted recruitment of adopters is hard to justify while, at the same time, many sit on the register losing hope of ever achieving a match.

(I recently overheard a local authority employee explain that the reason they didn’t have the resources to properly support existing adoptive families is because they are too busy assessing new adopters for children they don’t have). Local authorities and agencies are starting to close their doors to generalised recruitment, but not all.

National Adoption Week is targeting its efforts by posing the question ‘is four too old?’ One wants to rush in and shout ‘no, of course not’. A more considered answer might be ‘it depends’. It depends on lots of things, which the media campaign will find it challenging to address in any depth, such as exposure to maltreatment, pre-natal exposure to drugs and alcohol, moves within the care system, the likelihood of complex mental health difficulties, and the risk of poor access to education, health and therapeutic services and social care.

In simple terms, people want to know how difficult could it be and, if it is difficult, will the support be there when they need it? Providing clear and honest answers to these questions goes to the heart of finding adoptive families for ‘hard to place’ children.

Do the ends justify the means?

Conveying the complexities while trying to appeal to those thinking of adopting a ‘hard to place’ child is an incredibly difficult line to tread and I have great respect for those tasked with doing that. There are going to be some bum notes along the way for sure and we shouldn’t come down too hard on the organisers for those.

Forgive me, though, if I run for cover during National Adoption Week. Last year, as I was almost knocked off my feet by Hurricane Teen Trauma, a bouncy tweet told me: ‘It’s time to celebrate National Adoption Week!’. There may have been pictures of party accessories. There was definitely an exclamation mark. I wasn’t in the mood for either. Despite my unbecoming grumpiness, though, I remain optimistic about adoption. Done well, it can be transformative. It’s only that I’m not sure whether the means are always justified by the end.

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

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22 Responses to The great adoption mismatch

  1. Bridget Rose October 19, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    What an insightful article this is.
    The mismatches can indeed be a reality that is overlooked, but in addition, one of the other reasons why I would also be less than delighted at celebrating ‘National Adoption Week’ is that it overlooks birth parents and grandparents who for all manner of reasons just weren’t able to meet the demands of parenting given the mire of negative social factors, such as poverty, mental ill health, miscommunication, being victims within the culture of victim blaming.
    When you’ve got Michael Gove championing adoption, one of the worst, most uncaring, unfeeling and insensitive men in this rotten government, is it any wonder that the whole adoption system is flawed?
    We need to be asking ourselves if we’re really doing enough prevention work in the first instance rather than trying to mismatch square pegs with round holes way too far down the line

  2. TiglathIII October 19, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    As a Christian who will not compromise his faith I am naturally de-selected from being suitable as an adopter despite having successfully raised 3 children. This has only been the case in about the last 10 years. There are about 1 million of us who fit into this “unsuitable” category because the moment you declare that you are Christian, so the whole “Gay” question rears its ugly head and you find yourself “dead in the water”. So I will not be celebrating National Adoption Week because I am excluded from this club. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons it gets more difficult each year to find suitable matches?

    • Stuart. October 22, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

      ”… the gay question rears it’s ugly head… ???
      Please explain yourself!

    • Bob October 22, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      TiglathIII, I too am a committed ‘bible-believing’ Christian and have been recently matched with a child. We begin introductions soon. What you say is wrong. We were never asked questions on what we think on certain topics, trying to catch us out. On the contrary, every social worker and panel has seen that our faith provides a wonderful support network and our lives are marked by compassion, gentleness, empathy, kindness, faithfulness – just what adopted kids need! Our answer to a general diversity question is the truth… “No matter what they do, no matter what decisions they make, we will always love our child”. A godly response. As for your comment ‘ I am excluded from this club’ It sounds like you have excluded yourself, did you even try?

  3. Marshall125 October 19, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    What a senstively written article. This is just how it feels to be an adopter in waiting. Thank you.

  4. sarah Harrison October 19, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

    what a well written article this is exactly how I feel after trying to become a mum for 15 years and waiting to be matched almost 2 years now. Yet we keep being told there are no children 🙁

    • HelenSparkles October 19, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

      There are no children that you can be matched to is more accurate. Adoption is about the children, not the adults.

  5. Satwinder Sandhu October 19, 2015 at 5:09 pm #

    Great piece Sally. The mismatch has always been an issue for me as a social worker and then a manager. The processes involved in matching are inconsistent regionally and don’t have a massive evidence base to really justify them anyway. The adoption debates seem to have shifted with the court focus on keeping children within the birth family but all these children will have similar issues / needs in the long run. It’s definitely time to rethink permanence options and matching, and put the resources and energy into supporting anyone who cares for a child via the care system. As for the waiting adopters they need real and creative options fast before frustration and knock backs turn them away for good.

  6. Bruno Robinson October 19, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

    What a timely piece, sensitively written as usual by Sally. It’s frustrating to hear that decisions are made to place children with little known distant relatives with 2/3 weeks training, when as Sally says, there is now such a rich and unrealised valuable resource just waiting to get used. The continuing recruitment of largely naive adopters ( in terms of knowing the current number and type of children available) seems crazy.

    • HelenSparkles October 19, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

      Even distant and hardly known relatives give children the opportunity to grow up within their family of origin, which is always preferable to adoption, if permeance can be achieved.

      • Marshall125 October 20, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

        Yes, providing they have the support and training to understand how to help a child come to terms with the trauma it may have experienced. Adopters have very ready access to this support (or should) which guardians may not have.

    • Mike Cox October 20, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

      Sadly, in the real world, prospective adopters aren’t a rich and valuable resource – they are simply well-intentioned amateurs without the necessary psychological and therapeutic skills, let alone effective back-up support from LA and CAMHS, that abused and attachment-deprived children require and deserve.

      Frankly, the idea of exposing the existing children of any adoptive family to these damaged children makes my blood run cold!

      This Dept for Education report gives some insight into the carnage being wreaked in people’s lives

  7. mrmoon October 19, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

    The issue is there is so much choice when it comes to adopters and hardly any children there are bound to be issues that rule adopters out easily. This combined with the crazy decisions by judges to force Local Authorities to place children with distant family members at the expense of adoption creates a broken system. The Family Courts are only looking at the short term, they don’t care about placing a baby with a grandparent who has proven they cannot parent adolescents as it isn’t a problem now, but in 12 years it will be and the cycle will repeat!

  8. Elizabeth mark October 19, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

    Thankyou Sally!a great article, It’s even a bit worse than reported though. We are in our mid 40’s I’m an Sen and safeguarding teacher, we are approved and looking for a sibling group aged 0-7, we have never expressed a preference for babies, we are able to accept some uncertainty and have expressed interest in children with additional needs and who are considered hard to place. Still we wait! We were approved a year ago, so are two years into our adoption journey. There is so much misreporting – today alone I have read that there are 6,000 children waiting, in Scotland there are 2 children to every one adopter.

    I wrote to my MP to raise concerns about the system, who in turn wrote to Edward Timpson, we had lots of sympathy, even more platitudes. The sign off from our MP to Edward Timpson was to offer to run a campaign locally to encourage more recruitment. Lots of heads in sand me thinks, largely due to the lag in data!

  9. Ann Smogie October 20, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

    Everyone should remember that as soon as you take a child from its natural family no matter the age they are traumatised………..research has shown that memories begin in the womb, and some research suggests that some memories are passed down through DNA……children have rights and time and time again adoptees state they have been denied so much by their adopters

  10. Tammy October 21, 2015 at 11:53 am #

    As a student social worker I found this article incredibly moving, sobering and insightful. I think the ‘powers that be’ could go a long way to listening to the experiences feelings and opinions of adopters/prospective adopters in greater depth, not just during adoption week. Just my two cents.

  11. David October 21, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

    Great article. This is absolutely the reality except for a lucky few. ‘Waiting ‘to be matched’ is a completely misleading euphemistic phrase for the one-sided and opaque ‘buyers market’ that it seems to be.

    It’s been a constant cycle of many months of expressing an interest in one or two children of all ages and genders, waiting weeks or months for a rejection (often never getting any response) and never getting feedback that would help next time (just a boilerplate ‘you weren’t the most suitable match’). We’re encouraged to spend time writing carefully considered covering information to applications to increase our chances but it’s pretty brutal to spend an hour doing this and be rejected in literally seconds with no feedback. How can there be any balance or humanity to a system where have to bare your soul during the recruitment process, put the most private and emotionally charged details of your life in writing and send it electronically to complete strangers who at best say ‘no thanks’?

    Every time I read another adopter recruitment press release thinly repackaged as a news article in the media I grind my teeth in anger and frustration. There’s very little honesty about the prolonged and raw reality of this experience in the official adopter recruitment PR. The media presents a very one sided view of adoption because on the whole prospective adopters keep quiet about their experiences in public. We don’t want to do anything that would decrease our chances even further in a system that seems entirely unaccountable to us. If we question the system we’re told it’s all about the children and there are no guarantees of any kind for adopters. It seems that the child-centric focus can be used as a justification for treating prospective adopters in any way that’s convenient or ignoring them without any concern for their well being.

    It’s inhumane to stack the odds so heavily against prospective adopters. It often seems that the glut of adopter choice is slowing the matching process down even further. Agencies should be recruiting at a balanced rate and contacting those who are never likely to be matched in the current system to allow them to pursue an international adoption, fostering or even last chance fertility treatment. Many children’s’ profiles now specify a maximum adopter age of 45 with no apparent reason other than differing policies between different agencies. Aggressively recruiting yet more adopters while allowing prospective adopters to wait for years in limbo with their lives on hold until they give up in despair because they’re too old to have any options left is cruel. It’s no justification that this outcome seems to be happening largely through indifference and inaction.

    Alternatively, give prospective adopters some accredited practical training that would actually be recognised by family finders as equipping adopters to cope with more ‘difficult’ children and increase their real chances of being matched (yes, there is already training but much of it is theoretical and I doubt it makes any difference to matching chances).

    • youthworker October 25, 2015 at 10:22 am #

      David, thank you for putting into words exactly what I feel about this whole process… as a youth worker who has spent a career empowering young people I find it bizarre how disempowered I feel as a potential adopter, unable to move in any direction or voicing any valued debate with social workers or our agency due to the fear of being viewed as putting our concerns in front of those of a potential child who we haven’t responsibility for yet!

  12. Stuart Holmes October 23, 2015 at 12:06 am #

    As an adoption homefinding social worker I’ve always been in favour of valuing adopters as a resource for children. Just so long as it’s not the other way round.

    • Marshall125 October 26, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      Don’t worry, no adopter would ever think it was the other way around.

  13. Julie Pearce October 24, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

    As an approved adopter, along with my husband, I have to say this is the best article about the adoption matching process I have read in ages.

  14. Andrea November 15, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    The remark that adoption is ‘not something people do for selfish reasons’ is not wholly accurate, and may be a feature in why some approved to adopt are not chosen for specific children.
    In a 20yrs+ career I have worked with some adopters who I wish it were possible to clone. There are others who should not have been approved, and who it appeared clear to me that they had become so focused on parenting by any means that they had lost sight of their relationship and separated shortly after adoption, following which the introduction of a new partner was insensitively managed and the adoptive child was ‘returned’ to the care system – this only becomes clear of course once re-entering the care system.
    The truth both (as in the article) the Venn diagram mis-match, but also a refusal to recognise the truth which is that adopters (as a generalisation) want as close to a perfect (i.e. without the damaging impact of the child’s history) parenting experience as possible.
    Part of the problem is the lack of honesty in the conversation, the article focuses on the needs of the adopters – not the children.
    P.S. Tiglathhill – it wasn’t your Christianity that was at issue – it was your rigidity of thought – as questioned by Stuart.