A fair number of adopters will be parenting children and young people who were sexually abused before coming into care. We are astonished by the radio silence about the trauma of child sex abuse by the Care Review that is currently underway. The Department of Education and the adoption charities also never seem to speak about child sex abuse. So we thought it was time to speak out about it in National Adoption Week – to counteract the sugary sweet happy ending stories you will be hearing in the media about adoption.
Social workers may well have been trying to take the children into care for a long time before they are finally removed. Birth parents might be known sex offenders but it can be surprisingly hard to remove children, especially when their mothers are also involved with the abuse. Deals can be done by the police in these cases that mean the family court is the only court that the birth parents will see. Despite committing heinous crimes (toddlers in nappies with anal genital warts isn’t exactly a good sign when a father is on the sex offenders register) the police don’t prosecute. This is because frightened tiny children would not be reliable witnesses.
Once the child is removed they may not get therapy in foster care – if the plan is to have them adopted. The council will probably wait until the child is adopted and settled – and only if absolutely necessary will therapy be offered. It has to be continually reapplied for from the ASF (Adoption Support Fund) and it is capped at £5k per year. This is better than it used to be however, when children who were disclosing sexual abuse were not given therapy by CAMHS because the cases were beyond the capacity of the agency’s therapists – see the Selwyn Report on Adoption (2014).
One problem that families with adopted children might discover is that hidden disabilities are not recognised as disabilities by the council – even when the child or young person is on Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment. This was also flagged up by the Selwyn researchers who were shocked to discover that children with an autism diagnosis were not able to access disability teams. Section 20 is also a problem – to access respite. Single adopters especially may need respite when caring for a child with disabilities, complex needs and who was sexually abused in early life. Going back into care would terrify the children, but adopters have little choice when disabilities aren’t recognised as they cannot access respite under Section 17/ Child in Need. Refusing Section 20 is not likely to have a positive outcome for an adoptive family. Court proceedings will probably ensue and these may well be instigated with false allegations that a parent is mentally abusing the child – if the parent has reported self harm. Also that the parent is mentally ill. This is another approach being used by councils to cover negligence in austerity. Its happening with special guardianship too – and with birth families.
School refusal can be a real problem for adoptive parents too – because they may well get blamed for this, and fined – or even have the children removed – because the child’s school refusal means the parents are considered to be a significant risk of harm to the adopted child. A child who doesn’t go to school may be considered ‘beyond parental control’. If the child’s school is not supportive of the family, which it may not be if there has been child sexual abuse that they do not know about (because the child/family have a right of privacy), families can end up in big trouble – with adopted children who were sexually abused pre-care and adoption being returned to the care system instead of helped.
One of the most difficult situations is when agencies – the police, CAMHS and the council – all close ranks against the parent(s) and decide the adopter should be swapped out with foster care again, regardless of what the child wants – after a parent has reported trauma related problems. When this becomes the ‘system goal’ it is an extremely hard situation for adoptive children and their adoptive parents. The parent will be described as ‘difficult’ to work with in this scenario and courts need to be looking out for this. Single mothers seem to be especially vulnerable to being described as ‘difficult’. Social care professionals might also hypothesise the mother has a personality disorder – even though there is nothing to suggest this is likely other than a disagreement with the social worker and the management team. The rigorous assessments done before the parents were approved as adopters seem to be disregarded.
The child’s risk of harm to the parent can also be greatly exaggerated, as a way to control the child. This is the risk monster at its worst. Male child sex abuse victims are especially vulnerable and any sexually inappropriate behaviour that comes from their trauma can so easily be used to portray them as a risk of sexual harm. Little consideration will be given to the negative impact on their identity or how confusing this will be for them when it was they who were raped as children. Adoptive families might fall into the clutches of agencies who deal with sexual harm that take a divisive approach (this tends to happen when our children re-enter care) and they can be quite parent blaming and persecutory when misled by professionals. These agencies will also only deal with statutory bodies, not parents trying to keep themselves and their children safe.
Our lived experience suggests the suicide attempts of adopted children re-entering care are not likely to be taken seriously by agencies. These desperate cries for help are very easily attributed to the child’s early life abuse – rather than draconian decisions and the exaggerated risk of sexual harm that means an abuse survivor is treated as a sexual perpetrator.
The privately owned residential care homes where our children live when foster carers can’t be found (foster carers are not keen to care for children who are assessed as a risk of sexual harm) can easily cost £5k per week. Once the child is 16, they can be sent into unregulated accommodation. In the end, if the child and family survive all this, the police will hold onto arrest records like grim death when an adoptive parent has made the mistake of trusting them and reported that the child has acted out their sexual abuse trauma towards them. A signal that the child needed urgent help. Child sex abuse victims who were tragically sexually aware from a young age are being criminalised by the police – but those who perpetrated horrific sexual crimes upon their children walk free.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse is drawing to a close now. Adopted children abused within their birth families were not within the remit of this review.