Here we outline some of the systemic problems we face as adoptive families.

Who do we parent?

Within the care system, adopters parent the children who are the most severely abused and traumatised, according to research conducted on 30,000 children, by Professor Julie Selwyn and her team. Our children can never return to their birth parents so we parent, or care for, children who have suffered great losses, as well as abuse and neglect. Attachment disorder, autism or autistic traits, foetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD, PTSD – our children may have many diagnostic labels, especially by the time they are teenagers. This can be stigmatising for them – as well as potentially leading to support – so a diagnosis can be a double edged sword. We need it to get support to care for our children – but our children may not want the stigma.

Our children are extremely vulnerable, and they may be desperate to belong and need a great deal of attention, at the same time as having intimacy problems – because their trust is shattered. They need plenty of space and may only be able to cope with closeness in small doses, as it can feel overwhelming. Comforting our children when they hurt can be hard – as they can push us away, despite their need for comfort. Our children are often developmentally delayed and younger in terms of emotional age to their chronological age. We work very hard to get our children to trust and feel safe in the world, and feeling safe can take a lifetime – when they are very damaged. On top of what they came with there are the many social problems of today. Our children can be targeted by drug gangs and vulnerable to being groomed. The may be bullied at school, or on social media, struggle to focus, or unable to cope with school because of anxiety issues. Adolescence can be a particularly difficult time for our children. This is also the second stage of autonomy – so they may push away from us, despite their need for us.

Our children came from care and are living at the edge of care. We can find we are discriminated against because we are treated in the same way as ‘normal’ families – when really our needs may be substantially different. We may have more in common with families where there are disabilities such as autism – in fact, recent research has suggested that more than a quarter of UK adopted children have autism or autistic traits.

Support not blame

Help seeking can be problematic for us when those responsible for assessing our support needs do not have an appreciation of the realities of our family life, or do not truly understand adoption and special guardian issues, which can be complex and multilayered.

It is not difficult, when the focus is on a child’s behaviour, to imagine, that the concerns we raise when we seek help, might be because we are not parenting our children correctly. Problems out of the home, where a child struggles, can emerge within the home – where the child feels safe and will test to the limit, to build trust. For example, a child refusing school because of anxiety issues, which may have come about because they were removed from their birth family from school, and they have now formed an attachment to the adopter, can be misconstrued as poor parenting. Instead of support the adopter, who has been therapeutically parenting with the support of a number of therapists, is sent on a parenting course. School refusal is potentially an issue that can leave an adopter compromised in terms of the threshold of ‘beyond parental control’ for a Section 31 Care Order. This threshold is problematic for children with poor mental health – it can see them removed from loving families and capable parents, and cut off from them, until adulthood – by which time there will have been estrangement. This can happen very easily when contact is restricted by social workers – of adopted or disabled children, and their families. A reason for this can also be that it is hard to accommodate children in care locally. We may have to travel many miles to see them if secure accommodation or specialist mental health treatment is required. Our children may not want to see us – they may feel rejected, bereavement and earlier losses will be triggered for them when they re enter care.

There can also be a tendency on the part of professionals to ‘normalise’ behaviours because they are seen in normal populations. It is ‘normal’ these days to self harm (more than 10% of teenagers self harm), and one can be confronted to blase attitudes about this – when it is of deep concern to any loving parent. So concerns for us, when we raise them, do not always lead to the response that is hoped for. We can end up being blamed, which causes harm to those under enormous pressure already, as we inevitably will be, when we seek help. Blame and support are diametrically opposite from each other.

Crisis prevention not risk management

A family will always revolve around its neediest member – and our children have very significant needs. This means family life can be intense and stressful for us – and it can be relentless for many years. Our children are extremely vulnerable and the issues we face mean we often live our lives on the ‘verge of crisis’. We need a crisis prevention approach. In the event that something should go wrong, we need a critical response, geared to supporting the family as a whole, to come through the crisis, and survive it. But our support, in terms of the system, is built on a risk prevention approach – where we can be seen, and assessed, as if we are part of the risk – in the same way as if we were systematically abusing our children.

We were rigorously assessed to adopt, and to care for our children – having to be approved by several panels of many people. We take our care responsibilities very seriously. We made a lifelong commitment that was carefully considered for a long time. We don’t stop being a family or parents if our children have to go into care. There are cases of terrible systematic child abuse – by adoptive parents – but the system should not be set up as if we all might be. It seems likely that these cases might be discovered more quickly if social care and health professionals became involved in a friendly rather than hostile blaming manner – which can deter frightened parents from help seeking. The loss of a beloved child is hard to bear – especially if it comes about as a result of help seeking, not to mention the loss of one’s job and career if one works with children – the stakes are too high to risk being blamed. But we need help, and we do ask for it, and when we do the consequences can be devastating – or it is not provided in a timely manner. Perhaps the social worker has no autonomy to make decisions? It will depend on the local authority and the understanding of the person assessing our needs.

Here is what one mother has said:  “I am still shocked to the core, even after all these years, as to how little the professionals who have trained for years to support us, have so little insight or understanding of the reality of living with children who have experienced trauma and maltreatment – and the impact that this can have on us – on a hourly, daily, weekly, monthly basis. That’s even when you can access them – there is a whole system, set up to support our children – which appears to be inherently unable to do so – they seem dumb-founded by the complexity of our children’s needs and then blame us – when it all becomes even more complex. I had a conversation, on the phone, with a therapist today who seemed to get it – and us and what we experience – and it made me feel like weeping.”

Family focused not child focused

The system, as it is now, focuses solely on the child. In adoption and special guardianship the family is in effect the intervention. Our families require a holistic approach that truly supports us to care for our child(ren). The support should wrap around the family, not just focus on the child. When we ask for help, if those providing it, or assessing us, do not have an appreciation of adoption issues, interventions can become between parent and child. It can be hard to explain to a professional focused solely on the child that we are vitally important to the child if the child is insecurely attached. The system is not family friendly – and ultimately this is not beneficial for the children we parent – because our children do need permanence, stability, parents and families. They need to belong.

Task focused not role focused

Adopters, special guardians and professionals need to find ways to work positively, in partnership with each other, focusing on the task in hand. Common goals should be agreed and a shared vision of each child’s potential, so that this can be realised. Often we find parental responsibility, if our child has re entered care, is shared in an autocratic manner – and we can find ourselves discredited as ‘difficult’ and obstructive’ if we do not agree with the approach taken. Professionals we deal with are inevitably ‘role focused’ rather than task focused. This leads to unmet need and gaps and holes in care planning. It can be frustrating for a parent to deal with a professional who cannot make a decision because they have no authority, or shows little interest in us, or our needs, when we are the lynchpin of our child’s support. We may be quite exhausted and stretched beyond our capacity. We may even suffer with secondary trauma – in our case this is a feeling of powerlessness to help a loved one. But we can find there is only one model when we seek help – the ‘rescue the child’ model. This model does not work for familes where children have poor mental health – it causes harm.

Sometimes, better to live apart than together

With emotional dysregulation being part and parcel of the legacy of trauma, we may often face problems of ‘child to parent violence’. Our children, unable to speak of the unspeakable, or traumatised when very young, at a pre-verbal stage of development,  may ‘act out’ their trauma – which may include sexual abuse. For about a third of adoptive families life can be very tough indeed. Living together as a family is not safe. Sometimes our children must re enter care. This may, sadly, also be the only way we can achieve respite, which we may need, because of the extra demands of the parenting role when there is loss, trauma and neglect – but this may be very difficult for our children, who can feel rejected and find returning to care, or any change in care arrangements destabilising. Going back into care is not necessarily straightforward for a child who has already been removed from their birth parents and spent time in the care system.

Parenting from a distance – a role that needs to be supported

We love our children and want the best for them in life – and living apart does not mean we are no longer a family. Policy makers and legislators must take this on board. At the moment the approach is Procrustean, with the same legislative frameworks for all children in care – children whose parents systematically abused them may be treated in the same way as our children – with the same statutory guidance and legislation.

Our children need us and we try our best to continue to parent our children, who re enter care – from a distance, in a system that may not support this – it is down to luck whether one might achieve support from a professional with a deep understanding of our family needs. Unfortunately there is no formal recognition of this role, which can be very important for a child or young person, especially when they leave care and transition to adult life. It is not supported. There is no Adoption Support Fund when reunification is not the aim. We are treated in the same way, in terms of the system, as if our child had entered care because they were at risk of harm from us. We can contribute just once every six months at Looked after child reviews where care planning is done. It can be incredibly difficult to advocate for one’s child if one is considered a part of the problem, or the reason for the child re entering care. The hope of finally achieving therapy for one’s child can be a lost dream if CAMHS decide that stability is a criteria for provision of therapy – our children who re enter care may never be stable enough again to receive it.

Families where children live separately are under extra pressure. Living apart creates a sense of bereavement and loss for all involved that is not always well understood by professionals. It may also be hard to maintain the family home during a separation – for instance, if the family was a supported one, where we gave up work to care for our child. In worst case scenarios we may be subjected to adversarial care proceedings, which can be harrowing, and that can see us lose our jobs and careers – if we worked with children. The threshold of ‘lack of parental control’ for a Section 31 Care Order can leave us extremely vulnerable – when this is also a symptom of our child’s trauma.

Working towards getting a child back home with a package of support

Getting a child back home, achievable or not, should be a common goal that is worked towards, in true partnership with parents and special guardians. This is why loaded terminology like ‘disruption’ and ‘breakdown’, when they are used to describe this situation of living apart, can be extremely unhelpful – conferring a sense of failure and giving little incentive to support the family, as a whole, and work in partnership with parents, at very difficult time. We can end up feeling like a failed care option when our children re enter care. Contact can be restricted and we may become estranged – which does not help our children at all – especially when they leave care. It should never be the case, as it is now, that a child will have better support and better access to services if they live away from home.

It is a matter of serious concern that there are no models or pathways for reunification other than risk reduction approaches. These see parents as part of the risk to be reduced. These are not appropriate for us or for those parenting children with autism. Reunification, if it does happen, is not well supported because there is no guidance about it – it does not have to be done at all. Children can get stuck in the care system when a package of care could see them far better off at home. But local authorities may rely solely on the Adoption Support Fund for this, which is capped at £5k since September 2016, and which means a child returns home with the family receiving no support at all whilst applications are made. £5k sounds a great deal but this is more likely to be a weekly cost if a child is in residential care.

We have thought deeply about the problems we face as a group and hope that we can be part of developing solutions and systemic change that is specifically designed for our families, to meet our needs. This is what is needed now.

To help us be part of the discussion that is needed, so our problems may be understood and addressed, please visit our ‘How you can help’ page by clicking this link here.