Life chances of adopted children undermined by battle for government support
3rd July 2019
Adoption UK calls for radical changes to adoption support in first ever UK-wide assessment of adoption.
Adoption UK this week published The Adoption Barometer revealing that adopted children in Scotland are more than twice as likely not to be in employment, education or training (NEET) as their peers, 31% of them have had contact with the criminal justice system and 41% have needed help from mental health services.
Three quarters of adopted children have suffered significant violence, abuse or neglect in their birth families, with a lasting impact that extends into early childhood and affects life chances, placing huge emotional and often financial strain on adoptive families. There are at least 55,000 adoptive families in the UK.
The Adoption Barometer reveals that while advances have been made in recruitment and preparation of adopters, government policies are still not addressing the heart of the challenges faced by adoptive families, and especially families with older children.
Adoption UK surveyed around 3,500 families across the UK, [Scotland: 330], asking them to reflect on their experiences during 2018. The charity also assessed national policy relating to adoptive families at various stages of their adoption journey.
The report reveals that 85% of families in Scotland would encourage others to adopt, despite 62% facing a continual struggle for support.
Fiona Aitken, Director of Adoption UK in Scotland, said: "There is a clear message here from Scottish adoptive families that they are optimistic about the outcomes of their children, despite the lack of consistent adoption support offered across Scotland. We know there are areas where families receive the help they are asking for, and we are striving to ensure that more families can access these. Adoption is not always a straightforward happy ending for children - we need to acknowledge that many children will require help to thrive within their families because of their early experiences."
All four nations score ‘poor' in at least one area of policy, with every nation having further to go to meet the policy needs of adoptive families. Scotland scores reflect poorly across the board due to lack of national consistency, in particular in relation to adoption support. Policy relating to finding families for children scores best across the board. Policy relating to the education of adopted children scores worst. Adopters' experiences in Wales scored best, and were at similar levels in the other three nations.
Other key themes to emerge from The Adoption Barometer include: high levels of child-to-parent violence, ill-planned and badly-supported contact arrangements with birth families; high rates of health problems including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and mental ill health; and large numbers of families resorting to home education because the formal school system is letting their children down.
Adoption UK is calling for a radical new deal for adoptive families, which provides the support they need to help re-write their children’s futures. This includes detailed therapeutic assessments for every child before they arrive in their new family, with accompanying fully-costed support plans, to be maintained and reviewed into early adulthood. In Scotland AUK is recommending ring-fenced adoption support.
Children’s Minister Maree Todd said: "We welcome the finding that 85% of families in Scotland who have gone through the adoption process would encourage others to do the same.
“We know that adoption is making a positive difference, but we also know that there is more to do. The Independent Care Review will be key in deciding the next steps in looking at the legislation, practices, culture and ethos of the system for care experienced children.
“I am grateful to Adoption UK Scotland for highlighting these important issues and look forward to working together to ensure that all our adopted young people have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential."
85% of adoptive families would encourage others to adopt [as above]
81% of prospective adopters say their social worker understood and supported them through the process of approvals & matching
44% of prospective adopters found the process so difficult that they wondered if they could continue
57% of new adopters experienced stress, anxiety or the symptoms of post-adoption depression during the early weeks [UK: 54%]
47% of established adopters faced significant or extreme challenges
59% of parents experienced violence or aggression from their child
62% feel that it is a continual struggle to get the help and support their child needs
44% feel that contact with birth family is not well-managed by their agency
33% of adoptees aged 13-18 experienced direct birth family contact outside of a formal agreement - often unsolicited, via social media [(n=20)]
Nearly two-thirds of parents agreed that their 16-25 year-olds need significant ongoing support in order to live independently [Scotland: 63%]
16-25 year-olds were twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET) as their peers [as above]
41% of 16-26 year-olds in Scotland had been involved with mental health services
33% of children had diagnosed social, emotional and mental health needs
Adopted children in UK were 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded [Scotland publishes individual numbers of exclusions rather than stats (there were 5 in 2016-17; our survey recorded 4 in 2018);
80% of home educating adoptive families across the UK would prefer their child to be in school [Unable to provide national stats for Scotland as total numbers of home educating respondents was too low.
Case studies July 2019
Some names have been changed to protect people’s identity.
Catherine, 54, and her husband Harry, adopted their daughter, Sophie, 16, when she was five years-old. The family lives in London.
Sophie started self-harming aged 15. Catherine and Harry took Sophie to the family GP, and then A&E (as the GP had deemed her to be at such risk) where she was then referred to social services at the local council and the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Despite being made aware that Sophie was experiencing suicidal thoughts, it was six months before anyone from social services took any meaningful action. The family was under extreme stress during this period and Catherine ended up visiting the doctor herself where she was prescribed sleeping tablets to help her manage her anxiety. It put a strain on her relationship with her husband and she had to take lengthy periods off work, which impacted the family income because Catherine is self-employed.
Catherine and Harry lodged a complaint against the council for failing in their statutory duty to a formerly looked after child. The Ombudsman upheld the complaint after concluding the council had failed to assess both Catherine and Harry's support needs, and those of Sophie.
Sophie is now receiving therapeutic services paid for by the Adoption Support Fund. She is still self-harming, but less frequently.
Catherine said: "Our experience was so horrific that, had our family endured this earlier on in Sophie’s placement, it would have broken down."
"This inexcusable delay could easily have resulted in the death of our daughter.”
Catherine can talk about a range of topics including: self harm and suicide, mental health of adopted children and their families, lack of support for adopted parents and managing work with an adopted child.
NB: The Ombudsman made the following recommendations, which were all accepted by the council: • The council pay a financial remedy to the adoptive parents. • The council reviews its handling of complaints to ensure officers dealing with complaints are “cognisant of the statutory children’s services complaints procedure and how it applies to complaints from adoptive parents”. • The council’s social workers receive training on adoption support services regulations and the council’s duties when dealing with adoptive parents. Full details can be found here: https://www.lgo.org.uk/decisions/children-s-care-services/adoption/18-010-435
Adoptive mother Charlotte says her son’s permanent exclusion from school was the “ultimate rejection” for him. Charlotte, who is a teacher herself, believes all teaching staff need to have a better understanding of adopted children and how to help them in the classroom. She said: “The teachers put David in isolation when he did something wrong. They didn’t understand the huge sense of shame and rejection that adopted children feel. As adoptive parents we know that the best action is 30 seconds of telling them off and then move on. Whenever there was a chance for the school to be negative about David they would take it. He was temporarily excluded on a number of occasions and was then permanently excluded. That has been the ultimate rejection for him. He was sorting his head out about his own rejection but now he’s in a pupil referral unit. His behaviour has gone drastically downhill and there’s been a knock-on for the whole family.”
Adoptee David Neville, from Yorkshire, was bullied at school for being adopted. David is currently not in education, training or employment and has been diagnosed with depression.
He had a number of confrontations with other students before he was permanently excluded. “Some students started saying stuff like ‘Where’s your mum who used-and-abused you?’ I punched one of the lads and had to spend a week working in isolation as a punishment. They bullied me because I was adopted and because I couldn’t read and write like them because of my dyslexia. They called me an ‘adopted pr**k’. It affected me a lot and made me angry, so I’d retaliate but the teacher would only ever seem to catch what I said or did. I’d be in detention at least once a week. I was also put in isolation a few times for kicking off with teachers. How would I describe my time at school? S**t. The teachers couldn’t understand me, and neither could my classmates. If someone was being bullied about their race, culture or if they were gay or lesbian the school took it seriously. But adoption – they didn’t and I couldn’t explain to the teachers what was going on.”
Rob and his wife Julia, who already had four birth children, adopted a sibling group of three children who came to live with them in 2005. Their birth children were aged from 10 to 15 at the time. Their adopted children were removed from their birth family as they witnessed (and may have been involved in) repeated incidents of brutal domestic abuse. They were also emotionally and physically neglected. One of their adopted sons was violent towards Julia from the age of four. Rob said: "My wife now shows the sort of symptoms of someone who's suffered domestic abuse.”
The boy was eventually taken back into care, which Rob describes as “heartbreaking”.
He said had the family been given more support, then the situation might have been different.
Claire is a single adopter and her daughter Annie has Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
This means she displays some quite difficult behaviour which is linked to sensory issues.
“She’s a bit all over... she can’t cope with noise when we leave the house. She’d be all smiles in public but when she got home she would just explode - it was like a top coming off a bottle of Coke which had been shaken up. It’s when she’s home, where she feels safe, that she starts screaming and head-banging. And then she won’t sleep.
But we recently accessed an occupational therapist (OT) through the Adoption Support Fund (ASF). It was the best thing we’ve ever done - for both Annie and me. It has massively improved our lives. It has helped me to understand how Annie’s brain works and what she needs. She’s a very clever child but the outside world doesn’t work for her so we were getting quite isolated. Annie was also exhibiting extreme self-harm for a two year-old and at the time I had no understanding of what was needed to help her cope.”
Diane, 41, and her husband Paul, 47, adopted their son Ryan, nine, six years ago. The family lives in Wales.
Ryan was 18 months old when he was removed from his birth parents because of domestic abuse. He has attachment disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and suffers from anxiety. He is often physically and verbally aggressive towards Diane and Paul.
Diane can talk about a range of topics including: lack of understanding of adopted children’s issues and behaviours in school, effects of early abuse and neglect on youngsters and child to parent violence.
Sally is a single adoptive parent to her ten year-old son. She says: “Teachers struggled to identify Jack’s trauma because they had not had enough training or information on how a child with trauma can present themselves in the classroom. They tried to use traditional techniques which work on children without trauma but not on those who do. My son is unable to learn unless he feels safe. He felt very unsafe at school because of all of the people, the change, the noises, different smells and sounds and the unpredictability. He was often in a state of trauma and high anxiety which meant he often displayed challenging behaviour. I appreciate as a parent that this can be difficult to manage in a class of 30 children.
“The teachers were very open with me and said that they felt helpless. I brought in resources, such as books, for them to learn more about attachment and trauma. If a school
is willing to make changes for children with trauma issues and offer additional support and introduce different ways of working, it really can transform their experience.
“I was repeatedly asked to take my child out of school due to his behaviour so much so that I had to leave my job. Some of his behaviour was quite extreme and did result in formal exclusions. We are lucky in that the school is great and really want him to succeed. There are about 500 pupils at his school of which around seven children are adopted.”
Sally got back in touch recently to tell us that unfortunately Jack was finally excluded from mainstream school, then a Pupil Referral Unit, and then was told he was not suitable for the local special school. Sally is now seeking a placement out of county, probably residential. “I am having huge battle with the LA, have a solicitor and my son has had virtually no education to speak of in the last year.”
Adoptee Jamie, from Scotland, is 11 years old. He remembers missing a lot of school in the early years, before he was adopted, and often felt confused. He knew that he wasn’t keeping up with everybody else. Since being adopted, Jamie has experienced bullying in school, and had to change schools as a result. Although Jamie describes his new school as “much better”, he still faces challenges. He says, “I find schoolwork quite hard . . . Other kids find school easier because they don’t get into as much trouble as me.” Peer relationships continue to be a difficult area for Jamie: “I don’t like it when people whisper about me behind my back . . . They whisper about me more than about other people.” Next year, Jamie will be going to high school. This change is bringing him lots of extra worries, especially that the work is going to be even harder, and he won’t get as much support to help him achieve. Even at the age of 11, Jamie is already feeling pessimistic about his future: “I want to get good exam results so that I can get a good job, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Eleanor (Jamie’s mum)
“Because of everything that was going on in Jamie’s life he had a lot of catching up to do at school when he came to live with us. We did a lot of reading, writing and maths to help him catch up with his peers.
But it’s not just about the school work – it’s also about core skills and emotional skills. One thing that Jamie’s current school has done, which has been really beneficial, is about mind sets and encouraging pupils to have a ‘can do attitude’ so if you’re given a difficult task to complete, rather than thinking ‘That’s too hard for me’ which is what a lot of children with low self-esteem like Jamie often think, instead instilling the belief in these children that they can do this.”
Eleanor can also talk about adopting siblings and adopting older children.
“I’m an adoptive parent to two boys, aged nine and six, who have both had a difficult start in life.
We’re managing with the day-to-day struggles that our children experience but I’m deeply concerned about the current lack of provision of post adoption support in Scotland and how this will impact upon our family into the future.
Incredibly, if we lived just a couple of miles south, the other side of the Anglo-Scottish border, we’d be eligible for the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) - a huge pot of money set aside to support adoptive families in England. In addition, all adopted children in England receive pupil premium plus (£1,900 per child, per year) which their school can use to help them.
But because we’re in Scotland there’s no big pot of money and post adoption support is sporadic, at best.
We’re not at the edge of the cliff but we know plenty of adoptive families in Scotland who are. If there’s a crisis there must be somewhere for these families to go for help. That’s why I’m pleading with the Scottish Government not to make them victims of geography.
My eldest son experienced trauma with his birth parents while our younger son has Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). They both really struggle with transitions. When our children have meltdowns they revert back to three year-olds. These are prolonged tantrums which makes day-to-day life tough and tiring. This is why we need access to therapeutic services, support groups and help for our children at school.
Our children look ‘normal’ but they have a hidden disability.