Marketing is a familiar concept to me. My Dad, once a teacher, has been self employed most of my life and remains so into his eighties. I have been self employed for the past 16 years. I have to market a small business in order to make sales to pay the wages, the HMRC and our families rent and bills in that order. I couldn’t work for anyone else because as an adopter I suddenly had to be at home for my children who couldn’t cope at school. I’ve had to be creative and watch every penny as a business person who believes in fair trade and sustainability. We avoid spending money on marketing. We communicate openly and honestly on social media and provide good customer service. We rely extensively on feedback, direct customer involvement and word of mouth.
I am also extremely interested, in a broader sense, in the representation of consumer groups via advertising and marketing. Many of us are familiar with that sinking feeling when marketing tries to address us as a particular generic group based on age or gender or feel depressed seeing marketing based upon our supposed aspirations as human beings. Often we can’t relate to a marketing companies view of us as a generic consumer group and it can seem comical or at worst offensive.
This time of year, as a multi faith country, we see the resurrection of Jesus as an opportunity for profit in the marketing of chocolate eggs and fluffy bunnies, and then his birth is marketed via the consumption of food, drink and luxury goods. We see the irony in adverts for slimming, fitness, ‘bikini bodies’ and beach holidays after the mass consumerism of Christmas. But it works. Adverts are designed to sell products or ideas. There is a psychological science to it all. Marketing is a very lucrative business.
Citizens are increasingly valued by their ability to consume. Spend without getting into debt and eat as much as you can but don’t show the curves and you will be a perfect consumer.
Marketing to and around children is a tricky and uncomfortable part of being a consumer society. It gives rise to branded snacks and drinks being placed in educational settings where the playing fields have been sold off for profit and children feeling they are lacking as human beings if they don’t have the right junk food, technology or trainers.
I became an adopter over 16 years ago after answering a small advert in our local paper. Seeing the advert was not the first time I had considered adoption. It had been in my mind for years. The advert nudged me at the right time. The result of answering the advert was that I met my daughter. I’m guessing I’m a statistic for that particular adoption agency that says marketing works to attract adopters. It also worked financially for the agency as they received nearly £30,000 as the private adoption agent and salaries were paid. Of course there was no meaningful after care service and my daughter and I just muddled on into the future together as best we could. We certainly didn’t see the agency for dust when the going got tough.
When we sought urgent support those on the end of numerous agency telephones acted much like crap call centres for some major consumer products do. Stock answers, defensive responses, lack of actual care. Passed around from one department to another. It’s bad enough when it’s about your broadband but when it’s about a child’s life and security it’s torturous and scary. People get hurt. We got hurt.
When the current government decided to reform adoption the central focus of reform was the recruitment of adopters. In line with this approach, the initial budgets were firmly rooted in attracting more people to give a secure home to children unable to stay with their birth family and apparently waiting to be loved and made happy. Phrases like ‘languishing in care’ were (and remain) key campaign strap lines.
The ‘unable to stay with their birth family’ bit of the campaign does not question any inequality in support to children dependent on class, race or legal status. Diminishing funds for early intervention programmes, children’s social, housing, financial, educational and health issues, alongside government commitment to austerity policies are whitewashed out in most adoption recruitment campaigns.
The first round of money for adoption recruitment came from The Early Intervention Fund. One hundred and fifty million pounds was shifted from the early intervention budgets to adoption recruitment. This was overseen by Michael Gove and attracted criticism from some children’s services professionals. To put it in a simplistic nutshell, if you remove early intervention at the same time as removing funding from support services to families you are likely to have more children needing state care and support . Add into that a speeding up of the adoption process, adoption target cultures and cuts in legal aid and you’re on a clear mission.
Next rounds of funding included the providing of adoption recruitment budgets to local authorities, a £2 million pound contract was tendered to become the ‘adoption gateway’ a one stop advice and information service for prospective adopters, specific funding for marketing adoption (including roadshows, light projections, leaflets, balloons, cake and children’s profiles on Twitter) funding to specific government approved support agencies and £1.5 million pounds worth of government funded new adoption agencies, each with specific number targets to reach.
As well as marketing adoption in a way that suggests it is a ‘happy smiley’ product via the use of happy smiley family photos, the government also bestows public praise and public honours upon key players in the ongoing reform, further promoting the idea through the mainstream media that adoption is without question an act for social good and that making it the golden permanence option or increasing numbers should and will be publicly rewarded.
Watching it all unfold as an experienced adopter and long term foster carer made me feel like I do when I watch candidates ignore the market research or make cheesy sales adverts on The Apprentice. But much worse.
If you’re going to market children at all, then ethics has to be at the top of the agenda. Personally I wouldn’t go with marketing adoption to people heading into Tescos for some washing powder or cat food. I wouldn’t put pictures of children in care on social media. I wouldn’t hold adoption parties or make National Adoption Week all about recruitment. But that’s just me. I especially can’t help but imagine I was the child on Facebook or Twitter and how I might feel seeing the previous marketing of myself as an adopted (or not) adult. Imagining being the relative of the child makes me shudder.
I’m absolutely sure my daughter was a child who couldn’t stay with her birth parents. I think without the public resources to provide long term skilled therapeutic foster care, adoption was right for her. I think the adoption system was wrong for us all. I could have done with some much bigger truths in the transaction. I could certainly have done without learning on the job at my daughters expense.
If I was given the job of finding families for children and not children for families I would market permanence, safety and security differently. The millions of pounds spent on marketing adoption would have been spent on education around children’s mental health, the effects of poverty and inequality on families and the marketing of permanence in all its forms. The largest proportion of the budget would have been spent on improving children’s mental health assessments and improving the provision and delivery of children’s mental health services. Adoption would of course be included but as a very specialist intervention suitable not only for few children but also for few families. An intervention with complex needs.
Each child placed for adoption would have a skilled needs assessment and a support budget designed to meet their ongoing and individual needs and this budget would be attached to the child prior to the adoption order.
Prospective Adopter Application
Are you a family who would be able to voluntarily care for and love somebody else’s child or children up until the age of 18 and beyond. Can you commit to caring for one or more of the very few children in the UK for whom being legally severed from their historical and geographical roots is without any doubt necessary for safety reasons.
Are you willing and able to maintain all meaningful and safe connections for that child throughout its childhood. This may be with birth family members, siblings and previous carers who are not a danger to the child.
You will need to demonstrate that you have the knowledge to access the support services that your individual child has been assessed as needing in advance of placement. These may focus on loss, grief, dual identity, displacement and in most cases the life changing effects of neglectful or abusive relationships. You will be required to demonstrate empathy towards and full understanding of the social and political circumstances and inequalities faced by most families who lose their children.
You will need to manage a support budget which will be paid directly to your family. You must show evidence of being able to account for money spent through the support budget and present accounts annually.
You will be expected to manage anger and potentially aggressive responses from your child if they are anxious and angry following being removed from their family and adopted. You must be able to demonstrate understanding of valid anger, power relations, triggers to trauma and trauma related responses. You must be able to remain calm and focused under extreme pressure and in all confrontations. You must provide evidence of at least two other people who can voluntarily provide specialist care to your child when you take the breaks required to provide empathic parenting.
You will need to demonstrate the ability to deal with the unexpected in terms of your child’s development and be prepared for sudden changes in plans due to the needs of your child. You may need to consider a change in career or your working hours if your child cannot manage at school.
You must be able to professionally advocate for your child and be able to show evidence and understanding around mental health issues, developmental uncertainties, benefits entitlement, special educational needs, attachment difficulties and be able to manage skilled family history work,life story work and complex family relationships.
You will be required to pass on your specialist knowledge to all those supporting your child professionally. A knowledge of the social care system and the differing approaches and language used in health, education and social care is essential.
In today’s consumer society there exists thousands of mailing lists based upon professions, spending and lifestyle habits. Distasteful as these are, it would be possible to directly target specific groups with truthful and realistic marketing.
If I had to ‘sell’ adoption in order to help children I would first approach groups such as teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, care workers, therapists, psychologists and other specialist childcare and care professionals.
I believe I would have replied to such an approach as a prospective adopter. I don’t think I would be put off but would feel security in the fact that the ‘advertiser’ was taking the requirements of ‘the job’ seriously.
I would feel confident that with the right assessment and support in place from the beginning, I would be more likely to be able to provide the right care to a child or children displaced from their family. I would believe the system would support the child, its birth family and my family in dealing with the complexity and sadness of modern adoption and I would hopefully understand that good adoption practice and parenting was not necessarily about transferring ownership from one family to another.
Sadly, but still relevantly, western cultures have a long history of ‘consuming’, assimilating or destroying cultures perceived as being other to the patriarchal and white based model of what is considered to be desirable, successful or good.
Current reform marketing often presents, probably in good faith, a concept of adoption that is culturally close to adoptions western cultural roots. It is presented to the general public as a charitable intervention that without question, saves and subsequently heals children. Appealing only to the charitable, saviour or ‘consumer’ side of those that adoption adverts are aimed at whitewashes the adoptee experience from the outset.
As many people are now marketing and media savvy consumers, I feel a more honest approach to the reality of broken families and the resilience, empathy and awareness needed to succeed in supporting them would be more likely to ensure the right parents are found for children experiencing trauma, grief and loss.