Counselling for birthparents of looked after children

While adoption work tends to centre on the children being adopted and the adoptive parents, there is a third element to the adoption equation that is often excluded or marginalised in the process: the birthparents.

In 2004, Northamptonshire Council looked to commission a service that would lead the way in understanding and meeting the needs of parents whose children were destined to call someone else mum or dad. It found it with the agency Fosterplus and its independent birthfamily counselling service.

“With a focus on the kids and new parents, my sense was that birthparents and grandparents were being discarded by the court process,” says Phillip Maddock, permanence team manager at Northamptonshire Council. “The idea of thinking about their needs was so new and innovative I thought it would take a long time to take off.”

The first year was patchy, but now just three years on the books are full and about 300 parents (mostly women) have used the service.

With a small team of counsellors, Fosterplus adoption support service manager Joanne Alper designed and developed a service, with support from Maddock. “We had no set model to work from,” says Alper. “We soon realised we needed flexibility to shape the service around the needs we came across, rather than define it from the outset.”

At first it was thought that everyone should have six sessions, followed by a review. “But people don’t fit into such boxes,” says Alper. “Some people need 80 sessions, others might just need one. If you are going to be talking about 20 or 30 years of trauma and pain, six sessions isn’t going to cover it. We let sessions run for as long as the person and the counsellor both feel it is useful. But we also keep the door open should they need to come back later.”

An example of the service’s flexibility is that the parents decide when and where to meet – or, indeed, whether to meet at all. “One client was homeless, a drug user and working as a prostitute,” says Alper. “She wanted counselling but, because of her lifestyle, getting to any place on time was difficult. But she was happy and confident talking on the phone – it is less intimate than face-to-face. So we did all her counselling sessions by mobile.”

The flexibility also means that parents who repeatedly missed sessions do not risk having the service withdrawn. “People might want help but it’s scary for them,” says Alper. “The feelings they are going to be talking about are overwhelming – it might be a lifetime of pain. A lot of parents have histories of being in care, abuse, and huge amounts of loss.”

A common theme for parents has been a feeling of worthlessness. Mother Candice, who has used the service, explains: “When you lose your children, people make you feel inconsequential. But when you lose them, it doesn’t stop you loving them, thinking about them and worrying about them – even if you don’t know how to mother them.”

Alper agrees: “Parents have had very poor parenting experiences themselves and subsequently often don’t understand what it is they are supposed to be doing as a parent – and often can’t look after themselves let alone their children.”

To tackle this issue, Alper set up a nurture day for parents who had lost their children. “We wanted to help them experience healthy nurture,” she says. “We had an aromatherapist doing massages. We wanted to help them feel cared about.” At the end of the day everyone was given some lavender to take away – partly as a memory of the day and partly to represent the day’s message of growth and healing.

Knowing they were not alone was hugely significant for the women who attended. “It was good to be with people in the same situation as me,” says Jean. “It felt really supportive. I didn’t feel like an outcast.” A mums’ group has been set up as a result.

The project’s impressive success is undoubtedly rooted in the time taken to get to know the parents, value them, and then meet their needs in a way that suits them.

In this, it resembles good old fashioned social work. “That’s exactly what it is,” says Maddock. Alper agrees: “You feel that you are making a positive difference to people’s lives. As the needs become apparent, we are free enough to respond to those needs.”

Candice adds: “I feel like I have lived all my life in a coma, and now the window is beginning to open.” The service is certainly a breath of fresh air.

● For more information, contact Joanne Alper on 01525 405 281 or Phillip Maddock on 01604 432 550 


● Recognise the long-term mental health of parents who have lost their children to adoption. “Having lost their kids they need some healing. It is crass not to offer something,” says Maddock.

● Allow the service to grow organically.

● Use a variety of therapies, including creative therapy. Birthparents have decorated and filled “family boxes”. “I gave the box I made to my eldest daughter,” says Clare. “I put some family photos in for her she thought it was brilliant.”

This article appeared in the 25 October issue under the headline “Project for the forgotten mothers”

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