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.
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.”
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.