Where's the post-adoption support for traumatised children?
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Adoptive families are put under huge strain when much-needed support is not made available. Louise Tickle reports
by Louise Tickle
June 24, 2013 / guardian.co.uk
"In March our son went back into foster care. We couldn't cope, it was just too stressful. That was after eight years ..." Matthew Clore's voice cracks.
Clore and his wife fought for years to get post-adoption support for their traumatised son, but never secured funding for the specialist therapy they believed he needed.
"Our lawyer was arguing in court that we needed this help," recalls Clore. "The judge was practically begging the social services to do something. But the lawyer for social services said it was a health issue, not their responsibility."
The health service, he continues, never gave any straight answers about what specialist support it would or wouldn't provide, leaving his family in limbo for years. Those were years in which his son's early trauma expressed itself in a variety of destructive ways. He describes his wife as becoming "essentially a battered mother" who was never able to return to work outside the home. Clore himself began to suffer from depression, which led to him being prescribed anti-depressants and increasingly amounts of sick leave.
"Services and support are shocking when you've adopted," says Shirley Feltin, another adoptive parent. She has four grown-up birth children, and with her husband adopted four more following a period of fostering. Three of her adoptive children have complex needs, including one who suffers a life-limiting condition.
"Our son, who we've had since he was two, at age nine became incredibly aggressive and clearly has behavioural problems," she continues. "Now he's a nearly 16-year-old who's over 20 stone, and I've been pinned against the wall and my head smashed in. I regularly would get hit,and his mouth is like a sewer. I love him to bits, but I wouldn't say I'm very proud of him. We've been close many times to picking up the phone and saying 'we can't do this'."
What happens when she's asked social services for help? Feltin laughs. "Nothing." Is she able to create a happy family life for her other adoptive children? "Yes," she says. "But only because of my four grown-up children, who provide respite care in the day and occasionally overnight. Without them, we couldn't cope. I wouldn't get out from behind my front door."
Adoptive families – often including birth children and adopted siblings – are put under enormous strain when the therapeutic, practical and emotional support needed by a child disturbed by early trauma is not made available.
Sometimes the need isn't recognised, says Amanda Boorman, whose adoptive daughter, now 18, has only recently been able to get the intensive support that's transformed her life – through direct payments, as an adult. "There can be resistance because of lack of knowledge in the social work teams of what a severely traumatised child behaves like," Boorman says. "Social services would say, in shorthand, 'you're the mum, lots of mums with disabled children have difficult things to deal with, you have to manage'."
But why isn't help more forthcoming for adoptive children who, it's increasingly known, may well have extensive mental or physical health needs as a result of early trauma, which can affect brain development?
Prospective adopters who believe a traumatised and vulnerable child would naturally be entitled to help from social or health services if in obvious need are mistaken. While social workers may reassure parents during the adoption process that they have the right to an assessment of a child's needs, they may not explicitly communicate that there is no duty on a local authority to provide the services to meet any needs that are identified. And because no statutory agency has any obligation to stump up, all too often, they don't.
This has had disastrous consequences for vulnerable children and their new parents, who began their adoptive journeys with hope, energy and commitment. And every failed adoption is a far-reaching catastrophe for the child, who is by definition already vulnerable and damaged. For adoptive parents too, the guilt of having failed their child is often so enormous it can never be assuaged.
Part of the problem in arguing for funding for post-adoption support, says Hugh Thornberry, chief executive of the charity Adoption UK, which supports adoptive parents pre and post adoption, is that there is no national data on the number of children returned to social care after an adoption has broken down. "We've got some idea of the scale of the issues, but no really good data that builds an economic case for further investment," he says. "If there's going to be any progress on this issue, there's likely to be a bit of a leap of faith, followed by some research."
John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at BAAF (the British Association for Adoption and Fostering) is scathing about the lack of political will to commit to funding for such vulnerable children. "The lack of post-adoptive support is a very serious issue indeed, and it's not one I think the government is addressing at all," he says.
There are two relevant sections in the new children and families bill – which proposes radical changes to the adoption process – that miss the mark entirely, he says.
First is a new duty on local authorities to inform prospective adopters of their right to a needs assessment; second is a new initiative around personal budgets.
"After undertaking an assessment, and if it agrees to provide services, the local authority has to prepare a financial statement on the cost of those services," says Simmonds "The adopters can then elect to receive that money or to receive the services."
The crucial word, he points out, is "if". The local authority is still under no obligation to agree to anything at all. And this is why Adoption UK is arguing for the children and families bill to create a duty to provide post-adoption support.
Their representations – and those of other national adoption organisations – seem so far to hold little sway.
The Department for Education's Passport to Adoption, a new guide for prospective adopters launched last week, is, says Thornberry, "disappointing" in its explicit reiteration of the status quo. It's hardly an enticing prospect for would-be adopters, who are repeatedly told that they stand a far better chance of being matched if they're prepared to take on a child who is disabled, has emotional or developmental needs, is in a sibling group, or is older (and therefore more likely to have endured repeated trauma and multiple placements).
The worst case scenario of all is that more children are approved for adoption, more prospective adopters sign on the dotted line – and more adoptions break down.
There is no point, says Boorman, in the government developing new adoption policies without any commitment to support parents who take on children with extensive early trauma. "Adoption isn't just this lovely thing," she says. "It starts with a terrible loss, and if you don't deal with that at the beginning, then you store up problems in the future."
• Some names have been changed