It’s hard to resist the heart-rending mental imagery of brothers and sisters holding onto each other they’re tossed about by the challenges of their young lives.
That image was one of the elements that motivated my wife and I to adopt a sibling group. We wanted a large family, we had ample room and, pragmatically, we couldn’t see any good reason to drag ourselves through the long-winded process of approval more than once. It just seemed so obvious. We thought that we were well informed and able to make decisions about what we thought was best for us as a couple.
When we were taken to the adoption panel, they paused as they considered our request to adopt a sibling group. It felt like they were saying:
‘We need sibling adopters but why are you so stupid as to volunteer to do this?’
The tension was clear – they needed adopters for sibling groups – but how can they be assured that adopters are equipped to parent them and are not just overkeen?
A touch of faith
We were overkeen. I was 27 and blessed with a persuasive nature and an abundance of enthusiasm. After some thought and a second panel we were approved to adopt three siblings.
Social workers and adoption panels have no crystal balls and cannot guarantee the success of any placement. They draw information from a range of sources but, ultimately, it’s an educated guess and a touch of faith.
Our initial shock was purely a practical one. Three children versus two adults, we were just outnumbered. The increase in physical work and move from a life of a married couple to parents was hard. We experienced different responses from our children from unconditional love to downright disdain.
We had to work hard to keep our resolve and hold our nerve through some difficult days.
New Family Social’s ‘Saints or Fools – LGBT People Adopting Sibling Groups’ research considers the experience of prospective adopters in relation to what they wanted to be approved for and how that was reflected in the children that were placed with them.
The research’s findings, though focused on the LGBT community, in all likelihood reflect the experience of all adopters. Three quarters of prospective adopters were considering sibling groups as they started the process, and a third of these describe being subsequently discouraged from adopting sibling groups prior to their approval. Of course each statistic tells a story, but how realistic their desire was cannot be measured.
There is significant need for adopters who are willing to take sibling groups. Brothers and sisters constitute just over half the children waiting to be adopted. It’s a heart-rending picture but the reality is that parenting siblings who have lived through trauma, neglect and loss together can bring unique challenges to parents.
They can present with extreme rivalry, mental ill health and consequential behavioural difficulties. This is not a certainty but in light of early life experiences they are vulnerable and at a higher risk of being negatively impacted. To care for children, brothers and sisters that are manifesting such behaviours is not easy.
Disneyesque adoption narratives
Adopters are usually pretty determined and resilient people, however that will only get them so far.
Popular culture is packed with Disneyesque adoption narratives from Annie to Despicable Me. Though clearly unrealistic they still inform at some level the belief that many prospective adopters have that love is enough and time is a great healer.
As they are drawn into the process then prospective adopters’ appreciation of the reasons for children coming into the care system and the potential impacts are laid out. They then start to realign their expectations but also re-evaluate their own capacity in conversations with social workers and family, or yield to the will of the adoption panel.
Where they may have come wanting a sibling group they have reframed their capacity and decided one would be enough.
Social workers and adoption panels have to help families and come to the right decisions but sometimes they have to make those decisions unilaterally. Of course they sometimes get it wrong and sometimes adopters approved for one are asked to take two and vice versa, but this is usually led by the needs of the children.
Adoption is not a service industry and the customer, the adopter, is not king.
Would I do it differently?
Contemporary adoption practice should be about finding loving, safe, nurturing homes for children with the needs of the children being paramount. Adopters’ expectations have to be aligned with their parenting capacity considered in the light of the behaviours and emotional and practical needs of the children that are waiting for parents. Recruitment should be targeting adopters to the needs of the children waiting, including siblings, and offer guaranteed realistic therapeutic support and financial support.
Over the last 17 years we have had to face a range of challenges, some within the range of ‘normal’ and many without. The crux is that we have to parent children who, though siblings, have had very different experiences of life and consequently have very different parenting needs. From simply not being able to ‘manage’ social occasions to violence of word and deed towards us and each other, it has all slipped outside of the normal spectrum of sibling and child behaviour. This culminated in me leaving work to be a full-time dad, and that eventually put me on the path to training to be a social worker.
The gamble that our social worker took with us in 1999 paid off but our views are more nuanced and pragmatic now. It has overtaken and defined our lives and at times we have wondered if the cost was worth it and if it has benefited all of our children.
Would I do it differently? No.
Al Coates is an adopter, a social worker and a blogger. He writes at alcoates.co.uk