As parents and guardians we feel this project is of paramount importance for permanence modernisation.
PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN – there is a contact form at the bottom of the page and we would love to hear from you – especially if you can help us access funding and support for our work.
When a child from a permanence family re-enters care this is called a disruption. Behind almost every disruption is a family that has been pushed beyond its limits.
Disruption is a decision no one ever wants to make as a parent or guardian – if it is a decision at all. Afterwards the love is still there, but the family may struggle to survive – especially if support and intervention comes between parents/guardians and children. This happens when the system focuses on a child in isolation from their family. Children who leave the family home prematurely experience a double trauma and are amongst the most vulnerable within society. A disruption can push our children into defensive coping strategies when memories of earlier separations are triggered. Sometimes children who have suffered loss and trauma reject their permanence families, particularly during adolescence when identity issues come to the fore and there is a natural pushing away of parents. There are also true disruptions, where both parents/guardians and children want nothing more to do with each other – but mostly its parents/guardians who want to see children get the help they need – and it is a desperately hard decision, usually taken to keep family members safe.
Trauma is in the person or child – not the past and our children often have ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores that are hitting 8, 9 or 10. Due to their early life trauma, our children are unable to control themselves in any context or self regulate – rather than being ‘beyond parental control’, which is unfortunately the yardstick or threshold our parenting and care is judged against in court. This threshold of beyond parental control is problematic for us (and problematic for many parents of autistic children), and for the courts – and it can lead to unintentional victimisation of parents who just wanted help for their children, sometimes by legal professionals acting under instruction of their client, whilst a parent has no legal help if they do not meet the legal aid threshold. This is a very difficult situation for a parent or carer to deal with if they are trying to get a child back home because this is the child’s wish. Or perhaps the child is trapped in care because specialist therapy, which is clearly needed, is not provided to help a child heal or make a potential reunification safer. Going home is not the child’s care plan, regardless of the child’s wish. A parent or carer also cannot evidence change because they were never the cause of the problem. Professionals with good expertise around attachment and trauma (and autism) are needed in these complex cases – but courts are under great pressure, there is a shortage of expert witnesses in courts. There is no specialist expertise or help – in fact, according to our experience, it is taken away.
Austerity has its impact most on those who rely on services and the state. A shortage of foster carers if a child is younger, or accomodation (due to the housing crisis), if the child is older, can mean enormous pressure is being put on families to keep children and young people within the family home when this really isn’t safe – particularly for the primary attachment figure, who will bear the brunt of a child’s trauma rage. By the time a child leaves home the family will be exhausted, having lived under pressure for a long time. Sometimes, nothing works to help our children. Professionals also don’t know what to do to help us – or we are offered only behavioural approaches – which have limited value. If there is no empathy for us at this juncture and we are viewed only through a prism of risk as a potential cause of our child’s challenging behaviour, this can add to the burden of care – for we love our children and we take on their pain. We can end up with secondary trauma.
Few seem to really understand the impact of living with early life trauma on family life and arguably the privileging of adopters as permanence providers over other forms of permanence and the child’s birth family (until there is a disruption), through better infrastructure and a special fund – the Adoption Support Fund, causes resentment in the context of non-consensual adoption, which sees second families given better specialist support than the families the children were removed from – including the child’s wider family. Adoption and permanence are very complex – and the system breaks down in these complex cases – offering us a potential glimpse of what needs to be done to improve outcomes for all children and families. For it is at the breaking points of the system where we see its inherent flaws most clearly.
How many permanence families suffer a disruption?
The answer to this is rather unclear. Researchers (see Harwin et al 2019), have looked at five year disruption rates to compare different permanence arrangement orders, which means the comparative data is unlikely to include teenagers, where the risk of disruption increases. This may account for the discrepancy between their findings and our much smaller surveys, which identify higher rates of disruption amongst adopters than special guardians – adopter respondents in our surveys were parenting older children. It would be good to be able to draw comparisons for each form of permanence by child’s age going through until 18. Another problem is the statistical data published by the Department of Education is not reliable when it is not known whether nearly 4,000 children entering care came from a previous permanence arrangement Source SSDA 903 Table C1. Another issue is the lack of consistency about how researchers define a disruption – with Harwin et al taking returns to court/further care proceedings as the yardstick, whist Wade and Selwyn included Section 20, which is a voluntary care order, as defining a disruption.
A question was asked of the Children’s Minister in the House of Lords by the Earl of Listowel on 14th May 2019 (in a debate about adopted children in schools), about why figures are not kept about adoption disruptions (break downs), when it is so clear that this information is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the Adoption Support Fund and government policy.
Going forwards it seems vitally important for the Department of Education to produce accurate and complete data about children living under a permanence arrangement order prior to re-entering care, and provide data on Section 20 separately. Government and permanence modernisers also need to start thinking more long term about permanence than just five years after a permanence order is made. This does not give a true picture when the journey into adoption and special guardianship or kinship care are so different. Kinship carers and special guardian carers are assessed and supported in a totally different way to adopted parents, where adoption panels, with experts by experience involved, scrutinise the care plan for the child and make recommendations.
Disruption and breakdown – problematic terms for the children and families they describe
The terms disruption or breakdown can be deeply problematic because they imply a severance or total loss of relationship – rather than the re-alignment of relationship that is necessary for the family to survive and the child to cope with the separation. Another unfortunate consequence of using the term disruption (government and policy makers use this term and researchers also use it in survival analysis studies that compare different forms of permanence), is that it appears the family is broken apart when this is not the case.
Once a child re-enters care, parents and guardians trying to parent/care from a distance are frequently pushed into conflict. The lessons to be learned from this tragic case of an adopted child living in foster care under Section 20 do not seem to be learned at all. Parents and guardians can suffer stigma and there may be communication blocks after a child has re-entered care – some agencies won’t communicate with parents or guardians at all if there is a Section 31 Care Order made, which makes it almost impossible for us to rectify professional misunderstandings about our children – see this case for example. Yet many parents are given legal advice to apply for a Section 31 Care Order, to share parental responsibility, or need to apply for it to have the child accomodated in secure accomodation.
Evidence from the the Selwyn Report (2014), suggests that the outcomes are poor for our children with the current government policy of severing the relationship between parent/carer and child rather than supporting the parenting/caring from a distance role. Our own personal experiences and evidence from our lived experience research programme, particularly the Connections Survey Report, which showed only 2/41 respondents had managed to achieve good partnership working) after a child re-entered care. It is as if reunification, rather than never being ruled out, as the Selwyn Report, recommended, is not ever considered or thought about. At at the same time the Adoption Support Fund, the specialist support that adoptive and some special guardianship families were eligible for if a child lives at home, simply falls away – arguably when it is most needed. The recent recommendation of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence to extend the fund’s eligibility to adopted children under Section 20 (see page 34), will still leave many extremely vulnerable children trapped in the care system. Just how many we do not know as the figures are not available.
Are we storing up problems for the future?
Recently there has been a growing trend to move foster cared for children onto Special Guardianship Orders and more than 50% of SGOs were granted to a child’s former foster carers last year. The benefits of this approach are the cost savings to the local authorities and the stability offered to children. But what happens in the teenage years? If these children re-enter care, perhaps for reasons of ‘beyond parental control, the Special Guardianship Order is annulled. Academics/children’s rights experts are learning that children as young as six know that if there is no one to fight for them they are in trouble – listen to this excellent Voices of Family Law podcast.
So who will fight for the disenfranchised disconnected children of adopters and special guardians in later years in the event of a disruption that does not allow for a re-alignment of relationship?
What could it be like?
Continuity of relationship is so important for our children and this continuity should be protected by the system to give our children the best chances in life. Permanence providers (who love the child, know the child and will fight for them), can be a tremendous resource for a child who may not be ready for independence at 18 due to developmental delay, which is when children’s services cease to be involved and adult services take over. We could be helping our children transition to adulthood if we weren’t cut off from them by the system and treated as if we were a source of harm by our asking for help.
The Beyond Disruption Project
The Beyond Disruption project is about exploring what really happens before and after a disruption from the perspective of the parents and guardians, and coming together to develop better solutions to help our children and families survive necessary but unwanted separations. Adoption, special guardianship and kinship care are about creating a lifelong bond of love and family, and we feel that much better specialist understanding is needed about how to support our children during care separations to minimise distress and suffering.
As the number of teenagers entering the care system increases, better understanding about disruption support will potentially benefit all children and families enduring difficult care separations when children are hard to care for. As parents and guardians we wish to be a resource for our children throughout their lives. The knowledge gained from the Beyond Disruption Project will greatly benefit those who support us too – giving them invaluable insight into our complex needs as families – when our children have suffered trauma before they came to us.
This short film, entitled Supporting Permanence, by our chair, Dr Sylvia Schroer, explains a little more about disruption.
Lived Experience Research
We will be using a ‘lived experience’ research approach to take this Beyond Disruption project forwards. Lived experience research is a great way to explore knowledge gaps and bring our perspectives as stakeholders to the fore. This approach will enable us, as experts by experience, to come together with policy makers, professionals, academics and each other – to identify problems, share ideas and try to find solutions that work best for those who are actually raising the children.
Please get in touch using this contact form to register your interest in taking forwards this important project together with us as a professional (legal, social care, education or health professional), academic, charity, institution or organisation – or individual parent or guardian. All responses will be treated with strictest confidence.
If you are an Adopter, or Special Guardian, and would like to join our group, please click HERE to complete a membership form.