Community Care’s visit to Essex council’s adoption service followed months of headlines suggesting the adoption system is in a national crisis that only swift government action can solve. What is life really like for modern adoption teams? Camilla Pemberton reports
Holly and Ben sit cross-legged on the floor of a small, terraced house in Essex, captivated by a giggling two-year-old boy waddling towards them. He reaches Holly first, collapses into her lap and buries himself in her chest. This is Charlie, her soon-to-be adopted son. Holly may not have given birth to him, but she and Ben have been preparing for his arrival for months. Gathered around the couple, chatting and drinking tea, are Charlie’s foster carer and four social workers.
Each has played a key role in the adoption, from finding and assessing the couple to matching them with Charlie and preparing them, Charlie’s foster carer and birth family for the road ahead. “So that just leaves me to ask, are you still sure you want to go ahead with this adoption and take Charlie home today?” says Judith Adams, manager of Essex’s south adoption team. The answer is a resounding yes.
It is just two weeks since the pair first met Charlie, although they saw his care files and photographs months ago. Over the past fortnight, they have been gently introduced into his life. Every day had a purpose, slowly building in intimacy and giving the couple more responsibility – from the first visit to helping at meal times, bath times and bedtimes. They will now live as a family, with regular social work visits, until they are ready to apply for an adoption order.
Although Charlie will have to get to know his new parents, cope with the loss of his foster carer and deal with the reality of growing up in a family with no biological connections, his is a relatively uncomplicated adoption. He has no known disabilities or complex needs and, having lived with his foster carer since he was two days old, never experienced prolonged abuse, neglect or placement moves. “We also found adopters quickly because of his age,” Adams says. “Everybody wants healthy, ‘normal’ children aged 0-2.”
Many adoptions are not so simple. Often they are contested by birth families and foster carers; often children are older and harder to place. Of the 70 children placed for adoption in Essex last year, only 31 were aged 0-2 and just two were ‘relinquished babies’ – given up voluntarily at birth.
Social workers in Essex work hard to convince adopters to consider older children, siblings or children with disabilities, yet even when adoptions appear straightforward there can be hidden problems – identity issues, undiagnosed conditions, fetal alcohol syndrome. Essex’s social workers know this is the reality of adoption today, but for adopters, most of whom arrive at their door via the crushing disappointment of infertility, it’s a lot to take in.
Amid a range of modern pressures – rising care numbers, ever-growing caseloads, budget cuts and new government targets – the team has to support adopters to reimagine their futures and grow into confident, therapeutic parents, no matter what obstacles are thrown their way.
*names have been changed
How social workers manage key adoption stages
During a family linking meeting, two managers and a social worker discuss the prospective adopter reports (PARs) of two couples to decide if either could be matched with a four-year-old girl.
There is concern she could have a metabolic disorder and a family history of mental illness. Is either couple willing, or able, to parent a child with such a history? Can both couples manage twice-yearly letterbox contact with the birth family, as per the care plan?
Concerns are discussed, from each couple’s ability to handle the child’s challenging behaviour, to their capacity to understand the neurological and psychological impact of her early experiences.
The child also has an unusual name. Will it be easier for her birth family to track her down online?
The questions are exhaustive and intimate but, as one manager points out, “we are trying to predict the future with the information available to us and our experience”.
Since 1981, Essex has been finding families for difficult-to-place children through its specialist Family Finders service in Chelmsford.
The team has a specific remit: to find families for children aged four and a half and over, sibling groups of three or more and children with complex needs. The team’s success – they place more over fives than the national average and, despite their age and needs, nearly 60% of children are placed within national timescales – stems from a belief that adoption is possible for all children.
“Our remit has always been to find families for this group of children so we really believe it can work,” explains team manager Diane Cecil. “We’re always looking for new ways to get the message out there and thinking about what will help people to consider our children.”
The government’s recently unveiled adoption reforms include a four-month deadline for detailed assessments of adopters. Essex tested the target on a recent case.
Social worker Michaela explains: “In November 2011, a couple expressed an interest in adopting a six-year-old boy who we had been trying to match with a family for a long time. After hearing some information about his needs and background, they still wanted to proceed so we fast-tracked their application.
In January, I began to see the couple on a weekly basis to assess their parenting capacity. I assessed them in four months but they took time off work to attend meetings. They admitted it was quite ‘full on’.
I’m not sure all adopters could be assessed so quickly. We’d have to restructure the way we work, but adopters would have to be able to make weekly meetings. It’s the only way we could ensure a quality service in four months.”
Like 70% of social care professionals, Essex’s social workers are worried about some of the government’s adoption reforms.
Adams is concerned the four-month assessment target is ambitious. “I worry it won’t give anyone enough time to reflect. It’s not uncommon for people to spend four months researching their next car or holiday, yet we’ll have to assess families with real feelings in the same time.” But what about tackling delay? “We should challenge ourselves, but most delay comes from courts, adopters needing more time or capacity issues – sometimes we have a couple who need to be assessed but no social worker free,” she says.
“In the past, adoption reform was followed up with adoption growth money so we could develop our services,” points out Tony Sharp, manager of Essex’s adoption service (pictured). ”Everyone’s stretched to their limits at the moment”.
What does Ofsted say?
Delay: Delays are identified early and action is taken to remedy the situation. Every attempt is made to prevent drift in the adoption process.
Assessments: The service undertakes good assessments of prospective adopters that prepare them well to look after children. Assessments of applicants’ suitability are sound and this is reflected in the very good quality of prospective adopter reports (PARs).
Post-adoption: The service provides excellent post-adoption support to children and adults affected by adoption. It engages creatively with children, birth parents and adopters to provide flexible, individualised, proactive and effective support wherever this is needed.
(Source: Ofsted inspection, Feb 2012)
The post-adoption team in Chelmsford helps families with a wide range of needs, including life story work, group sessions for adopted children and teens, managing contact with birth families and Theraplay.
All children adopted and living in Essex are entitled to ongoing support and much of the team’s time is spent supporting fragile placements.
Sometimes families will request an assessment, in other cases letterbox contact may highlight problems, which the team will explore with a family. “Adopters are encouraged to contact post-adoption if they have any issues, and people are starting to get in touch earlier, which is good,” one social worker explains.
“We’re constantly amazed by adopters’ capacity to manage very traumatised children, but I’d like to think that’s because they’re well prepared and supported.”
Essex’s post-adoption workers are all trained to deliver Theraplay, a therapeutic approach that uses elements of play to build better relationships between parents and children.
For social workers Pam and Shona – who have both worked in child protection and youth offending – it felt strange to work so directly with children, “rubbing lotion on their hands and feet, singing with them”, but the approach aims to recreate the nurture children missed in their early years.
All sessions are recorded and later watched by the team so they can reflect on their practice and observe the relationship between children and parents.
“We’ve seen huge progress with families after just a few sessions,” Pam says. The adoption service also runs free Theraplay training workshops for adoptive parents.
“It pains me when non-adoptive parents tell me they know what it’s like, that their children are just the same. They don’t and they aren’t. Nothing can prepare you for adopting a child from the care system.
The most important message is that it doesn’t matter how much of a ‘loving family’ you are. Love is not always enough; sometimes families will need help.
Our seven-year-old, Karl, self harms and has real self-hatred. He destroys everything that’s meaningful to him.
I could not be a therapeutic parent without support from the post-adoption service and Karl’s school. We recently took part in a group session for adopted children and their parents. It was so valuable. I realised I’d totally isolated myself and it was great to meet other families who really had had the same experiences as us.”
*names have been changed
Adopted children often need intensive psychotherapy to deal with their early experiences, but it can be an uphill battle to get a timely response from child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs).
“We have one particular child who desperately needs psychotherapy but Camhs can’t provide it right now,” says Pam. “So we’ve had to put a bid in to fund it.”
Julia Venables (pictured), post-adoption team manager, believes the mental health needs of many adopted young people are not being met. She is “deeply concerned” that the government’s reforms could lead to increased numbers of adoptive families “who have been created quickly, with less assessment and possibly less preparation”, deepening their needs.
“This poses a real threat to our service and to other post-adoption services across the country; social workers cannot deliver psychotherapy or psychological services,” she says.
Most Essex children have ‘letterbox contact’ with their birth families: letters sent via post-adoption who monitor them before sending them on, protecting a child’s address and ensuring content is safe. The arrangement can be adapted, or even terminated, to reflect changes in a young person’s circumstances. If a letter highlights concerns, social workers can intervene.
An emotional letter, from 16-year-old Amy to her birth father, led a social worker to call the family “to check the placement was ok and gently explore any issues”.
It emerged Amy had been searching for her father online and was confused about her identity. Concerned they would meet unsupervised, social workers planned a meeting between Amy, her adoptive parents and her birth father. This proved cathartic, helping Amy to understand her family history and reinforcing the success of her adoption.
*names have been changed
For the last two and a half years, Essex has delivered a comprehensive training and development programme for adopters and prospective adopters.
The programmes include training courses on a variety of topics – Making Contact Work, Building your Child’s Self-Esteem, Adoption and Social Networking – as well as informal coffee mornings and picnics.
“Staff from all our teams are involved in different workshops and coffee mornings,” says adoption support services manager Marie Higgins (pictured), who coordinates the programme. “We feel we’re really making in-roads and connecting with families. The feedback has been brilliant.”
Higgins also leads an editorial team of social workers and adoptive parents who produce Family Times, a seasonal newsletter that shares news, events and adopters’ own stories with adoptive families in Essex.