“You sometimes need someone to talk to who is not associated with social services,” says Tess Slater of the situation potential adopters can find themselves in when going through the adoption process.
“You’re so worried about saying the wrong thing or [that] something will be taken the wrong way, or be used to your detriment, that you just need somebody to offload to.”
Slater, herself an adopter, often felt that parts of her journey were unexplained and that there was no one to speak to on an emotional level about the assessment and matching process, or the turbulent period immediately following an adoption placement.
But she’s now helping ensure that others are better supported, having become a mentor on a scheme for adoptive parents set up by the Cornerstone Partnership, a social enterprise that aims to improve the life chances of children in the care system.
Helen Costa, co-founder of the Cornerstone Partnership, is an adoptive mother herself. Like Slater, she says adopters can feel in a difficult position when it comes to their relationship with their social worker.
“You’re being judged and assessed – and that’s really hard,” she says. “You’re trying to open up to the person who is assessing you.”
Costa says this can leave a “gap” for adopters in terms of emotional support. It’s something the Cornerstone Partnership is attempting to remedy via its mentoring and ‘restorative parenting’ training scheme, which is geared towards helping young people recover from abuse and neglect.
The programme offers adopters going through the assessment and matching process an experienced, trained mentor who has also been an adopter. All mentors are volunteers. Adopters also get a three-day training course with their peers – which Costa says is designed to “blend theory with real-life experience” – and evening support groups, once the placement has been made.
This approach, Costa adds, helps adopters to be ready for difficult situations. “You find yourselves asking the question: ‘If I do this, will I make things worse?’” she says. “The training is about giving you the background and practical tips and strategies so when [the inevitable] happens and you’re faced with the challenges that almost all adoptive families meet, you have some idea about how to approach them.”
A recent evaluation of the scheme by the Coram found adopters were “very satisfied” with it, and that it had made a positive impact on their experience of adopting. Social workers also welcomed the service, the evaluation found, and considered it valuable to adopters they worked with.
‘An additional tool’
“At interview most adopters reported that they would turn to their mentor for support before contacting their social worker. This suggested that Cornerstone’s mentoring scheme may reduce demands on social workers and therefore free up social worker time,” the evaluation said.
Adopters said they would go to their social worker with specific queries about the adoption process, while turning to their mentor for emotional support. Costa says the local authorities involved in the evaluation have continued the scheme into a third year.
“It’s like an additional tool at the social worker’s disposal to make sure the support they want to be giving is there,” Costa says. “We’re starting to show that if you bring in mentors who complement that social work set of skills, then what you’re doing is releasing that really important capacity to be deployed in the things that only social workers can do.”
There’s a flipside to that too. Slater says that as well as its obvious benefit – the value of speaking to someone who has been through the adoption process – mentoring is beneficial because it offers a less formal avenue for support than social workers can.
“I’m in contact with somebody who didn’t have a mentor through their first time [adopting]; now they’re going through it a second time she rang me one night to say: ‘I’m coming to fetch you, we’re going to the pub, I need to talk something through with you’,” Slater says.
“There has to be some kind of kick-back [time], where it’s OK to [just] talk about what you want to talk about,” Slater adds, pointing out that she would have valued having one herself the first time around.
Costa agrees, explaining that access to a similar scheme when she was adopting would have prevented her making some mistakes, and helped her to respond more quickly and effectively to certain issues.
“It was a massively stressful time, it was harder than I ever thought it would be and I felt very isolated,” she recalls. “I felt like nobody could understand what I was going through because I didn’t know any other adoptive parents.”
Ultimately Costa says the scheme, which means adopters get emotional support and practical support from two different sources, “makes sense from a whole system approach”.
“We’ve been able to show that this programme we have put together has made a direct impact on the relationship between parent and child – 68% of people reported an improvement. That’s groundbreaking, really.”