A Service User ‘Rant’ About Adoption Reform

I am compelled as someone who loves an adoptee and is also a firm believer in children’s rights, to write about adoption reform today.

I’m mighty pissed off. Another great big law changing DfE adoption reform announcement (even the Queens involved) this time on the Saturday of a bank holiday weekend. What’s that about?

The usual, age old professional adoption commentators, Adoption UK and BAAF, were ‘interviewed’ via press releases fed to the media.

Sky TV contacted us last minute as a charity to see if we knew any adopters who wanted to chat about what a difficult time they had had going through a recent adoption process. This would be for the evening news alongside the DfE announcement. The theme of any potential interview was clearly pre planned. It was to add proof from a service user that the system needed to change and ‘speed up’. That forcing change by law was justified. When I mentioned that as an adoptee/adopter support charity we had grave concerns about certain aspects of speeding up the process, as well as having confusion over the financial focus on adoption as only one form of permanence for children, that we had adopters/adoptees who felt that way, the reporter seemed surprised…and uninterested. Debate from service users was not on the agenda.

When I agreed to talk about the adoption support fund on BBC Breakfast a few weeks ago, all the political bits were edited out. The bits where I talked about millions being spent on marketing not support and the plight of kinship carers. Adopters are allowed to speak alongside adoption professionals but really only when positioned as charitable saviours, adoption champions or stoic martyrs, politely and patiently hoping for desperately needed support.

Most terrible is that adult adoptees don’t seem to get a look in. It really is most peculiar that a major and very expensive reform of a care system that affects adoptees more than anyone else, essentially omits their voice. There is no independent adult adoptees on reform boards despite the boards being run since 2011. Throughout the reform, money has been given to some organisations that sit on the boards that they have used to represent the voices of adoptees. These tend to involve non politicised younger children and sadly, although well intended, can have an air of tokenism about them in the bigger scheme of service user involvement.

Where are the loud voices of adult adoptees and experienced adopters to be found and heard? After years of the current adoption reform agenda being prescribed to this country it seems it is ‘not allowed’ by service users to oppose it in public media, certainly not in any strident way. Charities and professionals working with children and families who are not on the adoption reform boards make polite public statements and calls for caution over and over again but the airtime and column inches afforded to the truly affected doubters is scant compared to the quite frankly astonishing government led PR machine for adoption. Funded and advised by the DfE, adoption agencies and local authorities are wheeling out adoption marketing all over the place. Previously ‘quiet’ old school agencies are employing marketing and communications bods to engage on social media with potential customers. Lots of shiny promotional material, pop up stands, podcasts and even mobile ‘adoption promotion’ units appear at all kinds of events to maximise sales. (Some of the marketing has made me giggle a little bit as a watcher of BBC’s W1!)

Most public call to caution over all this is met by Sir Martin Narey’s child protection mantra about our countries terrible tolerance of child neglect that makes any critic of ‘his’ reform feel like they are at risk of being an apologist for child abusers.

(Before I really get much further into the rant or get ranted at, here’s the disclaimer; I don’t condone leaving children in abusive homes. I don’t hate adoption. Done properly It’s best for a minority of children)

I genuinely cannot understand why the current DfE financial focus on adoption is not questioned by more taxpayers. In the bigger scheme of children’s rights to quality care when unable to live with their parents, adoption serves a small percentage. Rough figures are 65,000 children in care, 5000 adoptions per year. What percentage is hoped for as a result of reform?

Whilst the government place adoption as a premium permanence solution for some neglected children, they also allow thousands of vulnerable children to be forced out of local authority care before they are ready, rendering them at risk of exploitation, abuse and homelessness. They ignore the great resource of family members willing and able to look after their own child relatives if given the right support. Whilst the government are happy to tell the public about the need for much quicker removal of children from abusive situations and into adoption they haven’t yet tackled, in any quick or meaningful way, the shameful culture of the institutional sexual abuse of children that seems to be rife in the UK.

It seems to me that perhaps it’s not questioned because outside of those working on the front line of it, to members of the public, adoption still has the ‘ahhhhhhh’ factor (as an adoptee described it to me today). The cultural rescue mentality around adoption is alive and well. The simplistic notion of a happy ending is believed by the majority. To publicly criticise the almost religious mission feel of some of the rhetoric means you’re perhaps just like a big old Scrooge not allowing poor children the opportunity to experience the magic of Christmas.

It’s actually a very sad thing, adoption. Things have to have been really bad to be removed permanently from all of your family, your culture and your history. If you’ve been wrongfully or unjustly removed (yes it does happen!) it’s even more tragic. As well as the many good and happy bits of adoption it is also serious, scary and sad for many children. Many lose so very much as their identity is legally changed forever.
When adoptive parents truly understand this loss, have no notions of ownership of a child’s identity and get the right free support to manage loss, anger and identity properly for a child, and themselves, adoption can be a real chance of a healthy safe haven throughout childhood.

Many adopters and adoptees know though, that support to adoptees has not been the main focus of this current reform agenda. If it was, the budget set aside (out of the over two hundred million pound reform) would be a lot more guaranteed than one years worth of support at 19.5 million.
Social workers would have been trained in how to implement the adoption support budget at least a year before it’s launch, not two weeks.

A quote from yesterday’s press release;

” I have long held the view that 180 agencies in England does not make sense when only 5000 children are being placed” Hugh Thornbery: Adoption UK, member of Adoption Leadership Board.

Hugh has a point. I’m certainly surprised more people are not curious as to why the DfE funded three brand new regional adoption agencies to the tune of £1.5 million last year as part of its reform. Including, most surprisingly, a ‘substantial’ grant to massive multi million pound profit making, private care company, Core Assets to open an agency ‘Adopters For Adoption’.

Core Assets were the same company employed by the government to do a diagnostic assessment of local authority adoption services leading up to adoption reform. Their assessments found LA adoption services severely lacking and as a result controversial performance scorecards were bought in as an attempt to boost adoption numbers by LA’s or risk having their adoption services taken over.

Did we need £1.5 million worth of new voluntary/private adoption agencies? If we did why? How were the agencies chosen for funding? Are these agencies to lead LA’s on the regional reform of adoption services?

The DfE “called plans for regional adoption agencies a “triple win” that would also widen the availability of support services and improve recruitment of adopters. It expects councils to see the writing on the wall…” The Guardian

As a lay person it seems to me that the road to privatisation of adoption and adoption support has perhaps been paved for some time. Great some might say. About time those pesky underfunded and overworked LA adoption social workers get booted out. Many social care experts, practitioners and researchers feel the privatisation of adoption is one arm of an aim to privatise all child protection services, much like the slow but steady privatisation of prisons and the NHS.

As a business woman I’m not so naive that I don’t know that great and ethical work can be done by private companies. Where vulnerable children are concerned though, profit making will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I would prefer that LA children and families services were fully funded, that social workers and teachers were allowed more time and funding to engage in good training opportunities. That service users and front line LA social workers were given real power to influence service provision.

As an adopter it has annoyed me to see this current reform result in many more events and profit making products being produced by participating agencies to ‘talk’ and ‘learn’ about adoption issues. Most with a hefty price tag. Courses that parents, social workers and teachers can buy in order to help traumatised children, courses to buy that teach professionals about how to use the adoption support fund. Shouldn’t these things all be free in relation to children’s needs being met? No more decent and swift access to CAMHS for us but we can buy a parenting course for £700 (each). As an adopter of some time, it seems many of these type of products have been around for a long time, certainly the agencies and the issues they aim to address have been. I couldn’t afford them fifteen years ago and I can’t now. There’s something in all the hype of current reform that over complicates things and certainly doesn’t seem, so far, to lead to easy access of free information and support to urgently meet adopted children’s health and educational needs, despite the apparent wealth of expertise behind it.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe every penny spent on the current adoption reform and its byproducts will prove to be justified. I guess only time will tell. In the meantime we continue as a user led peer support charity to gather the information and views handed to us by social workers, adoptees and adopters on a weekly basis. We feel some of it needs open public debate that includes service users truly at the forefront. Some of it is listed below:

1. Many adoptees want to search for their birth family and/or cultural roots as soon as they can. Adopters are living in fear as articles about the dangers of adoptees searching out potentially dangerous family on Facebook without any support are churned out. Many worried adopters spy on their children’s birth family on Facebook. Sometimes Facebook is where adopters find information about the child’s life story that is sadly missing in the files.

2. It pains but suits some adopters to attempt ‘ a fresh start’ for a child. This is not because they are bad people it is because they find the ‘other’ family, sometimes including siblings, too far away, too frightening or too emotionally triggering and messy. Sometimes social workers disagree with this practice but don’t want to ruin the chances of the adoption going smoothly. They sometimes allow adopters to renege on contact arrangements made during matching as there is no budget available to therapeutically support all parties around contact or safe open adoption where possible.

3. Lack of support, from legal aid through to financial support, means some children’s birth relatives can’t look after them even when they are very desperate to do so. Some of those heartbroken relatives lose contact over years with that loved member of their family. Adult adoptees can feel very sad and angry, even if they love their adoptive parents, when they learn it was lack of support to their family that led to their life and identity being changed forever.

4. Parents lose their children to care having been victims of domestic violence. This happens to both birth parents and adoptive parents. Many adopters learn what it might have been like for birth parents to be involved with child protection services when they become parents involved with child protection services themselves.

5. As service users, prospective adopters, adopters and adoptees wish to understand better the current adoption reforms and how they will be affected by them in the long term. They would benefit from seeing detailed documents that show the work of the DFE and it’s adoption reform boards. How were decisions made and by whom. How and why were commissions, contracts and budgets sought, managed and implemented. Who was consulted and by whom. What was the independent research used to inform changes. What are the long term aims of adoption reform. What are the adoption numbers being aimed at and why.

6. Adopters and adoptees feel they can offer a wealth of expertise. Professional non adopters and adoptees get paid well to inform, implement and deliver reform, information and support. Adopters and adoptees often feel they are reduced to ‘least expert’ when expected to be volunteers or low waged when at the invitation of agencies they take part in research, sit on panels, be adoption ‘buddies’ or provide training and support.

7. Some social workers feel out of their depth around providing adoption support. They don’t know where agencies/individuals exist to commission quality services and feel confusion about what status those agencies or individuals need to have to be commissioned. They don’t fully understand the adoption support fund budget and are worried they will commission important long term therapeutic work that may have to end when/if the budget runs out.
They are worried they are being set up to fail and will get the blame when adopters can’t access what their children urgently need.

For free peer support, advice and information contact theopennest@yahoo.co.uk

8 thoughts on “A Service User ‘Rant’ About Adoption Reform

    • I agree with a lot of Amanda’s comments in particular the need for all looked after children to be supported in whichever permanent placement they are in – kinship, SGO etc. But I also want to raise a few points. I wasn’t sure what you meant by a financial focus on adoption. If you meant providing the finance for the Adoption Support Fund I would argue that this should be welcomed. Our research found that many adoptive families had no access to CAMHS or effective support services although they were desperate for help. The ASF, for the first time, is a real acknowledgement that children’s early experiences of abuse and neglect do not disappear simply because they have been adopted and the effects can be long lasting. As with anything new it will take a short while for everyone to understand the process but from conversations I’ve had with social workers ( and email messages from adopters and professionals) many applications are being submitted and accepted for funding. Why should this be queried by tax payers? Keeping a child in the care system is far costlier. The ASF has a website http://www.adoptionsupportfund.co.uk/

      There are over 3,000 children with placement orders who need a new family and last year about 500 children were never placed and had to have a new plan made. So agencies certainly need to get better at recruiting families for the waiting children and maybe this can be done better by agencies working together. But we do need services to be measured by ‘excellence of services ‘ not just simply the fact that they have merged together.

      At the beginning of the adoption reforms less than 3,000 children were being adopted out of care. At Bristol we examined the histories of a group of children who had an adoption decision ( Costs and Outcomes of non infant adoption). Not all those children were found an adoptive family. Some of the children although they entered care as infants had lengthy delays- years of delays – while no-one was focused on what the plan should be. The children were deemed ‘safe’ in foster care but they were moved around and there were examples of children being very distressed by the lack of action. Children who entered care at young ages but who were never placed did not do well. All the evidence ( not just from our study but from other research too) points to getting children into their permanent placement as soon as possible and minimising delay. The adoption reforms have forced LAs to be much more mindful of the detrimental impact of delay and again I think this should be welcomed. Even with the reforms many children are still spending too many years in care before being placed.

      The impact of the speeding up of the assessment of adoptive parents has not been researched. We do know that before the reforms many adoptive parents complained about the process and the delays they experienced. AUK and other organisations published surveys showing parent’s dissatisfaction. The recent survey of parents who used Adoption Link found that those parents who had come through the reformed system were more satisfied than those who had experienced the old system. Of course that does not mean that speeding up is right for everyone and there must always be the capacity to take individual circumstances into account- we have commented many times at the Hadley Centre that issues of grief and loss ( the child’s, foster carer’s, parents and adoptive parents) are often glossed over.

      The voice of adoptive parents and children is important. Adoptive parents sit on some of the adoption leadership boards and groups. AUK is a key member of the national board and is there to represent the views of parents. I also hope that as a researcher I make sure that the messages from the many adults and children I have spoken to are heard in the debates. I hope that I have never devalued the views of the adoptive parents that have taken part in research and am very aware of how privileged I have been to be entrusted with very personal and private accounts of people’s lives. I agree it would be good to have adoptees included but there is no agency or charity that has a primary focus on supporting the adults who were adopted from care and therefore it is difficult to represent their views. There is always more than can be done and I will take the messages from this post and the comments into the next board.

      • The lack of involvement of adoptees in adoption reform is astounding, and I am glad people are speaking about this. Most people would take a dim view if a government organisation intended to help LGBT teenagers did not contain any LGBT people on its board. It’s true that there aren’t really any organisations which soley represent people adopted from care. However, there are adoptee organisations which contain an increasing proportion of care-adoptees, and I don’t think there’s been any real attempt to engage with them. The only adoptees who are ever engaged with are under 25 (I have theories about this).

        I would argue that it is the responsibility of those in positions of power to seek out those who are disenfranchised, rather than take the easiest route of listening to those who are already shouting loudly (and often in chorus). Certainly, it takes more effort to locate minority individuals when they have not yet established a group consciousness with like-experienced others. However, I do wonder how far people actually want adult adoptees to develop such a consciousness – let alone organise themselves into a lobbying power! The adopted adult is, one presumes, the intended product of all adoption reform. (Although I do sometimes doubt this). Why not check up on them? And if the government will persist in focussing on adoption, which lasts the whole life course, they ought to be seeing how adoption works out, across the whole life course.

        Engagement with adoptees can start simply. I have on occasion found myself having to tick the box that says ‘Other’ when responding to questionnaires about fostering and adoption. This is bizarre when more or less everyone, including adopters, charities, and social workers, has a box to tick. Clearly adoptees are not stakeholders in adoption, and neither do they have any knowledge that can be shared. Creating a situation where an adoptee is forced to ‘Other’ themselves in a conversation about adoption is really quite an achievement. It is also – may I say – a psychologically weird thing to have done to you. I could write a book on being forced to author my own othering with a pen. But I digress. A very simple thing that ALL organisations can do: unless it is a very specific study, have a box for adult adoptees. Not just ‘young people’: there is a danger that these opinions are immediately disregarded as ‘aaw, that’s so sad, but…’, and you also disenfranchise an awful lot of people. Something like ‘Adult adoptee’ or ‘Adult adoped from care’ or ‘formerly-fostered adult’ will do. A survey just for adopters? Fine. But for the love of everything that is sane: do not have a box for everyone BUT adoptees. Simple, but effective.

        Furthermore, as an adoptee, I find the focus on timescales extremely odd. Time is not even on the list of things I would discuss. Certainly, how long it takes to place children with adopters can be a useful proxy for measuring success, but it is not without its problems, and it is only one of many measurements.

        The truth of it? How successful different LAs are in their current adoption practices will not be known until 20-30 years from now.

        I’m glad it’s been mentioned how relationships and grief are glossed over. I do not see how inhumane practises can ever be seen as successful. Focussing on timescales and not on relationships reeks of being a little too efficient with people’s lives. Why is the government not doing anything about the findings of The Care Inquiry, which identified relationships – and broken relationships – as the dominant (and self-identified) narrative and thread in children’s lives? Why is the government focussing instead on timescales and lopping off a month here and there?

        I was “waiting” for so long that the length of time I was “waiting” isn’t even found on the current adoption timetable spreadsheets (I kid you not). Yet after a frankly horrific year of the worst the care system can perpetrate upon a child (far worse than anything I was supposedly ‘rescued’ from), I finally made my way to a loving, secure, foster home where I thrived. I was there perhaps too long, but when Mr Timpson says “Every single day a child spends waiting in care for their new family is a further delay to a life full of love and stability. This just isn’t good enough”, I am mightily worried by the short-sightedness, and the lack of realisation that even in care children should be living a life of love and stability. Does he really mean to suggest that his foster carer parents did not give their foster children a life full of love? Children should be allowed to live fulfilling lives at EVERY stage. Never once did I feel I was “waiting”: I was busy in the present, going to school, doing my homework, etc. One worries that sometimes the rhetoric about waiting, being chosen, and adoption being superior may be absorbed unknowingly by some children and damage the self-esteem of those not ‘chosen’ quickly. Instead, ensure that these children – including pre-adoptees – are secure (not moving), and that they feel valued.

        If there was investment in the foster care system, there would be much less need to speed things up on account of supposed ‘languishing’ or poor outcomes. No one (and certainly not me) is saying that children should sit around for years on end with no decision. But why are the poor experiences of children in local authority care seen as a reason to speed up adoption, and not seen a reason to invest in the care system? Does the government maybe think that improvement there is impossible, and has simply abdicated its responsibility to provide for all children in care?

        Will there be similar attempts to improve foster care matching, and central government involvement in this too? Will the central government have a drive for foster parents, as with adoptive parents? Will questions be asked of the foster care landscape, with its mix of LA and independent providers, competitive bidding, and different ways of commissioning placements? And will proper attention be given to how far these processes and this hodgepodge of for-profit, not-for-profit and LA providers truly help or hinder the welfare of foster children (or bring down costs to the state)?

        Why not look at the reasons for moves? Some of my moves were ‘structural’, such as my (heavily traumatic) move from my foster parents to adoptive parents. Others were due to the unavailability of suitable foster placements and therefore having to move between emergency carers because of a ‘shortage of beds’. If care is so poor, why not have a central government recruitment drive for foster parents, and government investment in foster care matching and support?

        If you invest in the care system, adopters may find that their children are that little less damaged, as, where this is an issue, any pre-natal and birth family damage has not been compounded by the care system. And if you invest in the care system, a little extra time can be bought for proper decision-making to occur – because, whilst all avenues of support and care are properly explored, the children thrive. Adopters can therefore also rest safe in the knowledge that everything possible was done. (This is, of course, assuming that adopters are happy for their children to have thrived with previous foster parents….). And, taking a long-term view – longer than a 5-year Parliament term – investing in the care system can do a lot for your adult homeless, prisoner, and unemployed populations. But maybe the government just sees all this as too intractable – or perhaps the most vulnerable in society are not worth public investment in our apparently cash-strapped times.

        In the UK only around 9-16% of children are adopted by their foster carers (it varies year to year – when people bother measuring it). In the US (speaking of foster care adoption, which they do have a lot of), the situation is reversed: it is rare to adopt from foster care as a ‘straight adoption’ adopter, and in some states it is simply impossible to adopt from foster care without being registered as a foster parent first. Whether or not this is the right approach (to cut structural moves and to prevent broken relationships), this does show how wedded the UK is to certain models. Even recent forays into foster-adoption still emphasise that they are adopters first and foremost – they just have to do this pesky thing first. And then of course there are emergency foster placements, short-term, long-term, etc. The system is built around the convenience of the adults involved. And this does not even bring into the dicussion foster placements that break down due to a lack of support, training, or proper matching.

        I could go on and on. I could talk about place, and ask how far the need of some adoptees to be near certain places will be properly considered in this Brave New World, or how far the need for slow introductions is accounted for by league tables. One day I may write about being sped through the introductions process (six weeks), or the effect of my parents’ re-approval for an older age range (due to a lack of younger children). Speeding up the adopter approval process, and perhaps overlooking the want for a particular kind of child, or altering a child’s contact arrangements to make them more attractive – these have long-term effects that really need to be looked at in more depth.

        Adoption needs to be done properly, not just quickly. When asked in The Care Inquiry, children in care, adoptees, and care leavers did not speak of efficiency, they spoke of relationships. Let’s not let companies become too efficient with people’s lives.

  1. Too bloody true Amanda! I’d very much like to know more about the decision making processes and the decision makers themselves with regards to the adoption support fund and the adoption reforms. It also saddens and worries me that so much of this reform is being pushed through and those affected don’t get to hear about it. Considering the vast amount of money spent on promotion/advertising/adopter recruitment, how come existing adopters aren’t approached? I must be on an adopters database somewhere, yet I didn’t get that letter to adopters that Edward Timpson wrote last year. (In fact, my social worker knew nothing about it when I asked!) Nor have I received any information about the adoption support fund or how to apply.

    Let’s get this post circulated as far as we can because I can’t imagine many adoptive parents or adoptees will disagree with what you’ve said. Thanks for linking it up to #WASO too xx

  2. Very well said! I could add lots to this too!

    It seems the country and leaders are still living in the Victorian era of “stiff upper lip” and where it used to be “don’t mention the war” it feels like it’s now “don’t mention the child’s abuse”. This is driving every action and response from all concerned, except us adopters and adoptees are still living with our “war wounds” that no-one wants to acknowledge.

  3. I don’t disagree with a word of this Amanda, but, in relationship to the failure to pursue kinship options and the appropriateness of adoption, even assuming a successful outcome for a “minority of children”, I’d love to know what advice you’d give, based on everything you now know, to prospective adopters particularly in terms of matching. We recently turned down a child based on two factors – one was do with a strong genetic risk factor for a condition we felt unable to manage, but also because we felt so uncomfortable that their SW team had really done their due diligence in terms of placing him into care, obtaining a placement order and exploring kinship options. The picture they painted of his “failing” Mother made us incredibly uncomfortable, as it had made the judge, and we just didn’t feel personably we’d be able to defend the decision made to our future son. It may have been a failure of communications but we don’t buy the “lucky child” to be placed with us nonsense, and the child is still available, just “not our problem”. It seems a very tough place to be for adopters and prospective adopters. Who guards the guards? Is that the new adopters role?

  4. Wow Amanda, I’m going to read and re-read that again- it was a lot to digest! Well said, adult adoptees are ignored – it may be a good idea for some of the people making the decisions listen to others experiences .

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