Changed landscape of overseas adoptions

By Sheila Wayman

September 11, 2012 /

GRUELLING ASSESSMENTS, long waiting lists, exasperating bureaucracy and considerable expense are some of the most discussed challenges facing prospective adoptive parents in Ireland.

But there’s a presumption that the day these parents finally take a child into their arms is the first day of the “happily ever after” for both sides. What we don’t hear so much about is the huge challenge it can be to parent a child when the first months, running into years, of that child’s life have been spent in an institution with multiple carers.

There is a common notion that if you pluck children out of an orphanage and put them in a nice family, they will thrive and develop, says Alan Burnell of the UK-based Family Futures, which specialises in providing therapeutic services for children who have experienced early trauma. Unfortunately, love doesn’t always conquer all.

So-called “attachment issues” is the number one problem for adopted children and the older they are when placed in a family, the deeper the problem is likely to be.

With the Adoption Act of 2010 having changed the landscape of international adoption in Ireland, the days of baby adoptions are basically over as the average age of children being adopted into this country is likely to rise significantly.

The Adoption Authority of Ireland now only authorises adoptions from countries approved under the Hague Convention, part of which stipulates that efforts must be made to place a child with a family in his or her native country before looking for adoptive parents abroad.

“Two years in an orphanage is a quantum leap from a baby adoption,” says Burnell, manager of Family Futures, which will be running a one-day training course for adoptive parents in Ireland next month. However good an orphanage may be, the child is deprived of the vital mother-baby bond.

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now know that 80 per cent of the brain is wired up in the first two years of life – and that becomes the foundation for all subsequent development.

Children who receive poor early parenting have every aspect of their development impaired or impacted to varying degrees by that traumatic early experience, explains Burnell. It has been shown that their brains develop differently from those in babies who are encouraged to develop a secure, loving attachment to a principal carer – usually their mother.

“It is not just that they find it difficult to form secure attachment to their parents, they also have problems with problem-solving and cognitive processing and also with sensory motor development.”

Unless adoptive parents know about the issues, and receive appropriate professional help where necessary, they are parenting on “faulty foundations”, says Burnell.

We are not talking simply about initial problems when an adopted child is settling into a family, but a long-term issue that can re-emerge at various life stages, such as adolescence.

Most parents draw on their own experiences of being parented when raising a family. But adopted children may need different forms of parenting to help with feelings that biological children of their age would not have.

No matter how old newly adopted children are, parents are advised to “think toddler” because that is often how they behave.

“They need a parent to help them make that transition from babyhood to autonomous child of middle childhood. If they haven’t been helped to make that transition by a good parent, they need to go back and do that,” says Burnell.

Children with attachment issues can become overly self-assured and pseudo-independent or they become frustrated and intolerant, often quite aggressive, or they are very compliant and quiet. None of these coping strategies that the child has developed works in the long run and “re-parenting” is needed to make up for what that child has missed.

Neuroscience shows how plastic and changeable the human brain and nervous system is, so it is possible to effect change, he explains.

“You have to go back to go forward. To grow and develop, these children need to go back to the early stages of development with the parent, in order to have a secure foundation for more sophisticated, middle childhood growth and development before reaching adolescence.”

For example, most children by the time they go to pre-school have an internal image of their biological parents and don’t believe that when they leave them they will never see them again. Not so the traumatised adopted child.

That sense of abandonment and separation, which is inherent in these children, can be overcome very simply by putting a photograph of their parent in their lunchbox and telling the pre-school staff that if the child begins to get upset and distressed, they can show them the photograph and “talk them down”, he says.

Likewise some children are “petrified” going to bed – it might have been a time when they felt particularly isolated or insecure, or they were with other children who were crying a lot. It is recommended that they are given something that smells of the mother at bedtime.

“Basically it is a lot of the things you would do with younger children,” says Burnell. Even at bath time it is about helping the older child bath themselves “so everything becomes a pleasurable interpersonal interaction – that’s the aim”.

Human-to-human touch releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, and it is a process that happens all the time between biological parents and babies. Children who have never experienced loving touch may be fearful of it.

“Helping children to learn to touch and be touched sounds very basic but it is something they have never learnt,” says Burnell. Without that they may not understand the pleasure of relating to other people.

Adoptive parents can be slow to look for help because they may not want to admit they are having difficulties. The average age of a child being brought to Family Futures for the first time is eight or nine, yet the average age of placement in the UK is four.

“Other people can be quite disparaging about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” comments Burnell.

Faced with a child who won’t stop crying or tantruming, adoptive parents can feel a huge sense of shame.

“If you don’t have the visceral confidence that ‘this is my child and I know I can do this’, it can be quite harrowing.”

Burnell says they see about half a dozen cases a year from Ireland. “I think that is the tip of the iceberg and it is a problem that needs addressing.”

A not-for-profit organisation, Family Futures is looking for a base in Dublin to run, perhaps, a monthly clinic, to save families the time and expense involved in travelling to London.

Irish adoptive parents who use its services are highly committed and very determined to help their children, says Burnell.

The behaviours they are dealing with in their children include extreme mood swings, aggression, poor performance at school, low self-esteem and sometimes stealing and self-harming behaviour.

“Not all the children have all of them but most of them have some of them.”

Prospective adoptive parents need to know it is not going to be easy. However, it is possible, he stresses, to turn the children’s behaviour around and the sooner the attachment issues are addressed the better.

“We know much more than we did 10 years ago [about] how to make these things work. But it doesn’t just happen overnight and it doesn’t happen by magic.”

For their part, these children are very receptive to professional help and parental guidance – despite appearances to the contrary sometimes.

“At root they desperately want to be loved by these parents,” he explains. Their problem is that the early template on how to live in a family has not been given to them.

“We don’t have a problem with engaging children in therapeutic work because they want to know how to change. A girl said to me recently ‘I want to know how not to be angry all the time’. They are in effect asking for help.”

Health services are geared to working with biological families and often if a child is unhappy or disruptive or difficult, it is seen as symptomatic of poor parenting or a poor couple relationship. In the case of adopted children, it is the reverse, says Burnell.

“Children come into new families with pathologised ways of relating and they pathologise the new family.

It is recognised in psychological literature as the reverse transmission of risk. It is not the parents who are a risk factor, it is the child who is the risk factor.”

Burnell believes it is “morally irresponsible” for agencies to place older children for adoption and not provide the necessary support to the families taking them.

“They are endangering the marriage, they are endangering the mental health of the parent and they are not utilising the potential the child could have from that family to the full,” he adds.

“So it becomes a high-risk undertaking that it shouldn’t be.”

Family Futures will present a one-day training course for adoptive parents on Saturday, October 6th in the Tullamore Court Hotel, Co Offaly. For more information and booking form, see See also


Bulgaria is likely to be the first country to assign children to adoptive parents in Ireland, under the new system brought in here by the Adoption Act of 2010.

Arc, the first of two agencies so far to be accredited to help adopt children from abroad, is running a programme with Bulgaria and its chief executive, Shane Downer, says it is hoping the first referrals of children from there will be made before Christmas.

The average age of adopted children coming into Ireland will be older than in the past, he agrees. It is almost technically impossible to be matched with a child under one from Bulgaria, for instance.

“I think we are talking about the average age of adoption into Ireland being somewhere between two and a half and four.”

The project leader of the Barnardos post-adoption service, Christine Hennessey, says professionals working with adopted children and their families are “extremely concerned” that services won’t be ready to deal with the increase in support that is likely to be needed for older children.

There was no statutory basis in the Adoption Act 2010 for post-adoption support, she points out.

“There is not a dependable funding scheme for services like ourselves in this area.”

As it is, the Barnardos’s post-adoption service, which is funded by the Health Service Executive but also relies on donations by parents, has had cutbacks and operates on less than two full-time posts. It offers individualised services to families in the Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare area, for which there is a three-month waiting list, as well as training events and support groups for parents. It also operates a national helpline.

“The parents we are coming across are just fantastic,” says Hennessey, “but many of them are not as prepared as they might be for the issues the children are presenting.”


“The older child” will be the focus of the International Adoption Association’s annual conference in November.

“That is where we see the future of inter-country adoption in Ireland,” says Trish Connolly of IAA Ireland.

“Are we prepared as applicants to deal with that and is the Government prepared and does it have the wherewithal to provide?”

Although the Adoption Act made no provision for funding of post-adoption services, children’s entitlement to services will be strengthened if the children’s rights referendum is held and passed later this year.

While applicants to adopt need to know the issues an older child may face, not every child who is in an institution or orphanage has problems, she adds.

“However, we as parents need to be trained and aware of what to look out for.”

The full-day IAA Ireland conference on Saturday, November 3rd, in the Carlton Hotel at Dublin Airport is open to members and non-members. For more details and booking, see


Advice for parents returning home with a child adopted from abroad include:

* Keep the house very quiet.

* Limit the number of toys and equipment available to the child. Too much stimulation can be overwhelming.

* Seek support from other parents who have older adopted children, to get a sense of what things are going to be like.

* Expect that the child is going to need a lot of time settling at night.

* Try to get as much information as possible from the care home as to what the child is used to eating and try to mirror those foods.

* It is better if a parent is available on a one-to-one basis for the child for at least a couple of years, if possible, after coming in to the home, says Christine Hennessey of Barnardos. “These children have a lot to learn about attachment. Group situations don’t facilitate that.”

* Be prepared for temper tantrums because they are often the only way a child can express anxiety.

* Be prepared for the child to avoid eye contact or be very stiff on holding, pushing the parent away – this can be very painful for the parents who may have waited many years for the child, she acknowledges. “Time and support will help that.”


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