by Peter McParlin
Possibly one of the greatest fears for adoptive parents receiving an unknown child into their lives is that their special and or complex needs will be too much to handle.
Any clinical child psychologist will tell you that what breaks adoptive families, far more than any other reason, is where a child presents with violence and aggression and brings it into the dynamic of the family.
Adoption UK’s Scott Casson Rennie spoke a few years ago of how it can come as a considerable shock when it happens – and even more so when away from home and all that’s familiar.
My shock, as a consultant psychologist who is also an adoptive parent, is just how low the fact of a six-year-old beating you up most days for the first two years can make you feel. Not least the embarrassment of letting family and friends learn of it.
Some of our closest friends and family suggested we should physically punish our child, and that if we didn’t then the blame would lie squarely on our shoulders.
That feels like another good reason to not speak out about it, because you can become the object of criticism – and trying to avoid that leads to further isolation. That happy circle of friends and family you drew on a chart with your adoption social worker can be depleted overnight.
Luckily for us, our child has turned out to be loving and adorable, with all violence vanishing once his medical condition was treated (for us by the intervention of private medicine, as we were rejected by CAMHS). Our health authority, in response to our petitioning, eventually agreed that the protocol and access for adoptive children to CAMHS would be changed so no child was denied access.
Staggering impact of violence
Repeated studies have underlined the frequency with which adoptive parents have experienced physical aggression from a child, with Adoption UK’s most recent report putting the figure at 65% during 2018.
Meanwhile a 2017 BBC survey found half of all adopters had faced violence – and that a quarter of families could be said to be living in crisis.
Another study, by Bristol University academics for the Department for Education in 2014, tracked 37,335 adoptions over a 12-year period and estimated only 3.2% ended in a disruption.
While that headline sounds positive, physical aggression towards the adoptive family was reported by 86% of parents whose adoptive child had ended up leaving their home.
A similar proportion (83%) of parents who were finding things “very challenging” also reported violence. In both groups, it was almost as common as oppositional behaviour and verbal abuse from children.
“We had not expected child-to-parent violence to feature so strongly in parental accounts of challenging behaviour,” said the study’s co-author, Professor Julie Selwyn. “Young people were mainly violent to their mothers, but fathers, siblings, pets and in one case, grandparents had also been assaulted.”
The figures are of course staggering – but so are some of the known and observable factors behind them.
Among families where adoptions were disrupted, nine out of 10 children had witnessed domestic violence while a third had been sexually abused before they were adopted, the study found.
Mental health problems were also far higher among all adopted children than the general population, and particularly among those whose placements had broken down.
“Previous research has shown that children who have multiple placements in care are more likely to experience disruptions compared with those who had experienced few moves,” the study found.
Some very young children had been moved in care up to 58 times – comparable to my own experience of 59 moves pre-adoption. My son also had a great many placements, as his birth family moved rapidly between cities to keep one step ahead of authorities.
‘Children’s problems don’t just disappear overnight’
Adoption UK’s chief executive Sue Armstrong Brown said in response to the BBC’s research that it is important “not to demonise children”.
This is a useful insight, given that sometimes the child can be regarded as the problem, rather than taking a more ecological perspective of circumstances such as fraught nurturing and witnessing of events children should never see.
“We’re talking about trauma-fuelled violence from children who will have witnessed the unthinkable in their early lives,” Armstrong Brown added. “Adoption is not a silver bullet. These children’s problems don’t just disappear overnight. Both adoptive parents and adopted children need skilled help and support.”
Unfortunately the observation that problems do not go away overnight may well be an understatement. For the lucky few, problems can be tackled therapeutically with good medium-term results; but for others the therapy can be for many years – way into their mid-teens and beyond.
For some children who have not had access to consultant child psychiatrists the concerns can be undetected mental health conditions – some neurological, in the sense that the brain functioning responds well to various medical compounds.
Here it is so necessary to have quick and prompt access to a consultant and not be lost in a hideous waiting game of accessing CAMHS – waits that can ultimately be responsible for tragic, and avoidable adoptive family breakdowns.
We need more therapists
We know we have to get well-experienced and qualified therapists on the front line. Clinicians and therapists, before they go near the children as patients, need to be clear they know the effects of breakdown of placement – the shattering of identity, of personality, and the fracturing of motivation and hope that give children poor mental health outcomes and profiles.
We may well also need to give adoptive parents the training other childcare professionals get around safe restraint, which so far is denied to all adoptive parents via any post-adoption fund support.
In June 2019 £3.6 million of lottery funding was awarded to Adoption UK, for a programme supporting adoptive parents to raise traumatised children in a therapeutic way. Not a moment too soon, given that half of adopted children see CAMHS while another, unknown percentage are turned away.
We have to get serious, immediately, on child-on-parent violence and aggression. Even in the ‘new adoptive’ circumstances of special guardianship, this same violence will no doubt be played out – in some of these cases the child’s kin, who have stepped in to help out and offer them a home, will have to be made safe from violence.
A bridge must be built to this desert island of violence, and adoptive parents rescued – not left stranded.
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