In National Adoption Week there is much talk about the joys of adoption and stories of love and happiness after a child has suffered immense loss. But I am more interested in adoptive families that try to nurture children and young people where joys are few and far between. Stories about struggle and sadness.

The challenges we face as families and the difficulties some of our children face, can be immense and insurmountable, and it may take more than one lifetime for our children to heal. It may be that all that we can give can never be enough.

I believe it is vitally important to talk about the difficulties and challenges faced by families coping with the legacy of trauma and neglect in National Adoption Week. To me, the courage and fortitude of parents and children who often seem to deserve so much more shines through – in their stories of hope, love and sometimes loss – and it inspires me as much as any story with only happiness, joy and a positive outcome.

This is why I feel it is so important to include stories of heartache and courage in this national week, where we think about adoption and what it means.

The harm that may be caused by the legal framework of Section 20

Too many adopters are faced with impossible choices, and it seems no one is there to support them when things can go horribly wrong in a system that is child focused rather than family centred. The legal frameworks for our children, which have been in place since the 1980s, were never designed with them in mind and one of the most problematic frameworks is Section 20. This legislation means that in order to have a break, to keep yourself from going under – or keep other children in the family safe – you must put your adopted child back into the care system. This can, in too many cases it seems, because the system is so divisive of parent and child, make the child feel they have failed or are rejected and it can re-evoke their original separation trauma. Not all adopted children are born of harmful parents. There are many reasons why parents cannot care for their children – they may have learning difficulties, or suffer with mental health problems. Increasingly, research is showing, children are removed and put up for adoption because of the potential risk of ‘future emotional harm’. And if the child has suffered harm in their birth family, their going back into the care system does not make them feel safer – if they came from a safe loving home. It undermines their sense of permanence and carries a high risk of destabilising them. Section 20 can therefore undo all the hard work you have done for years to make the child feel safe.

Although parents retain parental responsibility under Section 20 they will find the treatment is EXACTLY THE SAME as if there had been abuse and neglect in the family home. The same six monthly Looked After Child Reviews. The same care system. Adopters who have battled for years for therapy may find that they can now no longer access the Adoption Support Fund for their child and they will find that no models of reunification exist apart from the NSPCC framework, which begins with the premise that reunification may lead to further abuse and neglect. We have evidence that this inappropriate framework is being routinely used in local authorities, and it used with families even when it is requested that it is not used.

I believe we need to find a better way now. Family life can be very intense when the child carries a legacy of early life trauma and immense losses. We do desperately need space as families, especially during the turbulent years of adolescence, which leave our children and families so vulnerable. Our children need space and so do we sometimes. When they go back into care they are so incredibly vulnerable- and we may struggle to protect them. Advocating for them is impossible if we are seen through a prism of risk and our pleas for help are viewed as a ‘disagreement’ about the approach.

When we ask for respite and time apart because of a child’s mental and emotional health issues this is not a ‘disruption’, and it should not be described as such. We should not be described as a ‘failure’ or breakdown’ and find there is no support for the child to come home. No dialogue is achievable about it. Our children left feeling it is they who have failed, in the same way children can take on responsibility for parents separating if parents split or there is divorce. Asking the child over and over again if the they want to go home, as if the parent is unsafe, is wrong. Why should parents become ‘unsafe’ because they have asked for help? Why should they be treated as if they are a potential cause of harm to their child because they wished for therapy, or respite that they struggled to access?

Sometimes these families received all the help that could be offered – when insufficient central government funding is provided, and it is down only to a cash strapped the local authority – but what these parents did not receive was the understanding that all the support in the world would not be enough to help a child heal or rebuild their shattered sense of trust. When professionals and organisations struggle to help our children and families we find they leave our lives and move onto other cases. Social workers and health professionals move on. It is not unusual for a child who has re-entered care to have over a hundred professionals and carers involved directly or indirectly over a number of years. We can often find that managers with no personal knowledge of the child tend to make the decisions. But we stay – and we will be there long after everyone who makes decisions about our children are long gone.

We don’t give up on our children when we adopt – and in National Adoption Week we ask the government not to give up on us as families. Help us find a better way. Work with us. Talk to us. We can do better and we need to for the sake of our children.

Dr Sylvia Schroer – co-founder and chair Special Guardians and Adopters Together. 16th October 2018.

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