Friday, 12 July 2013

What happens after adoption? How a lack of support is failing children and families

The government is quick to trumpet at every opportunity its commitment to vulnerable children by speeding up adoption processes.  It has recently outlined   measures to ensure adopters are approved more quickly.  Changes include a two-stage approval process for adopters to ensure the majority are approved within six months.   A fast-track procedure for foster carers and previous adopters who wish to adopt will also be introduced.

Announcing some of these reforms in May 2013, Minister for Children and Families Edward Timpson, claimed prospective adopters had been dissuaded from adopting children in the past because of delays.  So we’re overhauling the system to encourage more people to adopt, and making it swifter, more effective and robust,” he said. 

All very commendable.  But what happens next?  What help do families get to manage the complex needs of children and young people who often have had extremely difficult early life experiences? 

There are two answers to that:  one theoretical and one based in reality.

Taking them in that order, local authorities have an obligation to make adoption support services available to adoptive parents and children.  Authorities are required to undertake assessments of adoption support needs when requested by an adoptive child, their adoptive or natural parent/s, or their former guardian/s.

Support, which ought to be tailored to the particular needs of the child and his or her family, might include therapeutic help for the child and training for his or her parents to help them meet any special needs.  Financial support is also available, and may likewise assist in ensuring that the child’s particular needs are met.  Respite care might be offered in appropriate cases, to ensure families are able to continue to cope with stressful and difficult home environments in the aftermath of adoption.

This constellation of resources is designed to ensure that the children affected by adoption – who have often had profoundly damaging and difficult early lives with the corresponding physical, mental and emotional consequences – have the best chance of flourishing. 

So much for the theory:  what’s the reality?

Unfortunately, it is often very different.  As attractive as this package of support might appear, adoption support services are often extremely difficult to engage.  Local authorities, with limited budgets, often fight tooth and nail to avoid having to spend money to help families once the adoption order has been made.

The plight of those affected was the feature of a recent excellent piece in The Guardian.  One father recounted how his adoptive son returned to foster care after eight years.  We couldn't cope, it was just too stressful”.  He and his wife had battled for years to access post-adoption support for the traumatised child.  They never secured funding for the specialist therapy they believed he needed.

"Our lawyer was arguing in court that we needed this help.  The judge was practically begging the social services to do something. But the lawyer for social services said it was a health issue, not their responsibility."

Another mother described post-adoption support as “shocking”.  Her adoptive son had become physically abusive following his childhood experiences.  The local authority, when asked to help, did nothing. 

And another mother told how her adoptive daughter had only been able to get the intensive support that had transformed her through direct payments, as an adult. 

"Social services would say, in shorthand, 'you're the mum, lots of mums with disabled children have difficult things to deal with, you have to manage'."

All too often, local authorities avoid providing help to those in need by sticking to the letter of their obligations.  Whilst they are obliged to undertake post-adoption assessments, there is no corresponding obligation then to fund the services to meet any needs identified. 

Recent changes to adoption law dance around what those working with adopted children and their families recognise is a fundamental problem.  The reality is that no additional resources have been committed by the government to local authorities to ensure that support services are available when and where needed.

As one of the mothers quoted in The Guardian piece observed, there’s no point in the government developing new adoption policies without any corresponding commitment to support parents who take on children with extensive early trauma. 

"Adoption isn't just this lovely thing.  It starts with a terrible loss, and if you don't deal with that at the beginning, then you store up problems in the future."

Children adopted from care have a range of needs due to their early life experiences, often of abuse or neglect.  The behavioural problems that this may cause are not resolved simply by being adopted.  If the government is serious about its commitment to adoption, it ought to put its money where its mouth is.  Make available in an effective way the support that these families need and deserve.  Because speeding up the adoption process is perfectly pointless if what then develops is a series of adoptions that break down because of inadequate post-adoption help. 

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