Sally Donovan: adoption services should work with, not against, parents to learn from ‘near misses’

By working openly with adoptive parents, social workers can better learn from placement problems

Near miss
Services should learn from near misses. Photo: Fotolia/Shutterbas

By Sally Donovan

Before parenting dominated my life, I worked in the aerospace industry. Aerospace, like nuclear and bio-tech, is a safety critical industry. If systems fail, people could die. For this and other commercial reasons, learning from mistakes, incidents and ‘near-misses’ is tightly regulated, well-funded and part of the culture. To put it crudely, failure reporting and investigation is normal. This is, broadly speaking, why more aeroplanes don’t fall out of the sky.

Failure in services

Professor Julie Selwyn’s research Beyond the Adoption Order was in some ways a study of failure: not personal failure, but a failure in services. The adoption disruption rate was lower than some had predicted, but the numbers of families facing great challenge and the state of the services around them made for sobering reading.

Some of those who took part in Professor Selwyn’s research set up a peer support group called Parents of Traumatised Adopted Teens Organisation (POTATO). It is for parents of challenging teenagers and young adults, and includes those who are parenting children accommodated by their local authority and those in therapeutic schools and mental health units. Common themes where lessons could be learned crop up again and again among both older and more recent adopters, and while there is a general feeling that practice around adoption is improving, it is slow and patchy.

The knowledge and experience of POTATO members is vast. They are perhaps unique in being able to ‘join the dots’ between social care, mental health, education and the criminal justice system, and the support they offer those trying to navigate their way through is well-informed and compassionate. In a safety critical industry, experience like this would be drawn on and valued.

Parents blamed

And yet I’ve heard many who took part in the research say “it was the first time anyone showed any interest in our experience”. A word used over and over by this group is ‘blame’.

Excuse my clunky metaphor but, with the exception of terrorists, no one blames the passengers when an aeroplane falls out of the sky.

Since I wrote about my family’s experience, many struggling adopters have made contact wanting to tell their stories. There have been long telephone conversations into the night, lengthy email exchanges and frantic whispers on the fringes of conferences. Many families describe a strange dystopian world where their child’s trauma is considered a figment of their imagination and dark forces are employed against them to prove that the problem is their hysteria, their neediness and their poor parenting.

All express frustration that there appears to be no process for learning from failure or, if there is, they are not part of it. One such adopter is Theresa. Her story is distressing and littered with failures and fractures in services. Theresa is an adopter of two children, now young adults. She describes her experience of adoption as “utter carnage”.

Lack of support

The common pattern that plays out in Theresa’s experience is this. First is a lack of information about the early adverse experiences of a child, followed by placement with little or no expectation of support being needed. When things start to become difficult the parent is blamed. Having no other option, the parent becomes better informed about the impacts on children of early loss and trauma, adjusts their parenting, becomes a stronger advocate and pushes for services.

One of Theresa’s children was eventually, after years of fighting for an assessment, diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and Theresa was told her children should never have been placed together. Information about their early experiences was begrudgingly shared. All of it suggested it was likely that life for this adoptive family was going to be difficult from the start, and that they would be in need of a high level of support and therapeutic intervention.

‘I was seen as the enemy’

However, Theresa reports: “I was judged to be controlling and attention-seeking. My opinions and my knowledge were discounted. I was seen as the enemy and the more I advocated the worse I was treated.”

She goes on to say: “I and others like me have been treated dreadfully, as people who have failed, not as people whose children’s needs have brought them to this point.”

Theresa believes that a lack of professional knowledge around trauma and attachment issues, and the significant part they play in modern adoption, meant that the difficulties experienced by her family were underplayed and she was in turn seen to be overstating them. She feels that, since they lacked knowledge and experience, professionals were condemned to misread and misinterpret information and to make decisions that made matters worse.

Mistakes ignored

She was judged as being a controlling parent (it is not uncommon for adopters, particularly female adopters, to be accused of this). While in the care of the local authority and away from Theresa’s ‘over anxious’ parenting, her daughter got into increasingly risky situations. Theresa’s warnings were ignored and her daughter repeatedly came to serious harm.

Theresa told me: “The many mistakes in our case are simply closed off and never mentioned again.”

Is there a better way of meeting children’s needs which doesn’t pitch families against professionals and close down discussion, and which allows practice to improve and strengthen? Theresa’s view is this: “If I had been considered as a co-professional and the best advocate for my child, things could have worked out very differently.”

Shared problem-solving

I think she’s right. A team approach in the broadest sense allows many more opportunities for shared aims, problem-solving and continued improvement.

I’ve been lucky to receive good social work at some critical times. Over the past 12 years I’ve seen definite improvements in social work – and particularly in adoption preparation and in general knowledge around the impact upon children of adverse early experiences – but I still come across adopters who say “I asked for help and instead I’ve been blamed”.

Many parents feel that once blame has been laid, any evidence to the contrary is ignored. What follows for some are harrowing child protection investigations and court proceedings.

If the old adage is true and we have more to learn from failure than success, then Theresa and families like hers should be engaged with as members of the team around the child, positively and with support, throughout their parenting journeys, with full knowledge that parenting children who have experienced neglect and abuse is a tough and complex role.

Report and learn from ‘near misses’

There are, of course, many examples of great practice and support, and it’s important to remember and examine these, but the more the reporting of failures and ‘near misses’ are welcomed by all parties, flagged and dealt with, the more robust adoption and other forms of permanence can become. Comparisons with high tech industry only stretch so far, but for many families and young people, the services around them really are safety critical.

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

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3 Responses to Sally Donovan: adoption services should work with, not against, parents to learn from ‘near misses’

  1. Helen March 3, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

    We are special guardians (of 2 children) and have also experienced asking for help and instead been blamed. The placing local authority has a policy of not providing any support post-placement. Their only advice was “take them home and love them”, no mention of attachment, trauma, therapeutic parenting. The LA said later that as we “like reading” they assumed we would find out for ourselves. Unsurprisingly we had a rocky time which I was told was due to my (not my partner’s) deficient parenting. And generally we were treated as being uppity and unreasonable is asking for help. Luckily I found a local special guardians support group and then we paid to go on some adopting courses.

  2. HelenSparkles March 3, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    There is a need for honesty about what children have experienced and the support they need, SGO or Adoption Order, or in care or in the community. Adoptive children are unique in some ways but not in many others because disrupted attachments feature in zillions of cases where children remain at home for example. Adopters have a louder voice than parents who live in poverty with those children. Expecting an LA at a time of brutal cuts to provide that support for adopters or guardians is unrealistic. There is also a need to be more honest about who the children are and who adopters are. The drive to have children, and most adopters are those who have tried other methods, is a traumatic journey in itself. I do think families are the experts on their own family but I think there is a need to acknowledge that adults who have absorbed (not always recovered because we don’t – traumas have resonances) trauma are parenting traumatised children. All families need specialist support but it isn’t necessarily a social work team who should triage that, it is health and education as well as social care, and services should be designed to meet the needs of all of those children. They won’t be but that is because short term spending is never balanced against long term savings, in the CJS or MH services for example.

  3. Safemum March 3, 2016 at 8:59 pm #

    Thank you Sally for writing this and highlighting the case for many. In “Sparticus” fashion I could stand up and shout “I’m Theresa” and I’m sure many others could too. It felt like you were writing my story too.

    The message we were given was “they just need firm boundaries”. We did not get vital information from the files and still haven’t had it. When I applied I was told “it would not be sensible”!

    Our LA have not worked with us at all and my eldest has also been in increasingly risky situations. She now has no education in place.

    I don’t understand why they won’t work with us, we give our time and advice and knowledge for free!!