Adoption disruption isn’t something that’s talked about very much. We didn’t cover it on any of our preparation training or assessments. But it’s something that happens more often that we think.
Disruption is where the adoption placement breaks down and a child is placed back into foster care. It can happen early on in a placement. It can happen months or even years after placement. Whenever it happens, it’s obviously an incredibly traumatic experience for everyone.
I’m extremely grateful to the adopter who answered my questions for this article sharing their family’s experience of partial disruption. The personal details of their experience isn’t what I wanted to share. I wanted to give you an idea of the process. The kinds of things that happen, how and where to get help from and the practicalities of how things worked for them.
It’s so important that conversations about disruption happen. We need to know that it happens. And we need to call for changes so that help and support are given as soon as it’s asked for, in the form it was promised in the first place. There also needs to be massive improvements in the support that’s given post disruption. To adopters and to children.
How many children were you matched with and what were their ages when they came home?
Two siblings both aged under six.
Did you feel you had full disclosure about the issues faced by your children before you went to matching Panel?
We were given a lot of information about the children, about their backgrounds and about their family history. We read their CPRs which were both very detailed and comprehensively written, and we attended the life appreciation meeting as well as meeting with school and the foster carers.
We asked a lot of questions. From this, we were given lots of different people’s experiences and perspectives of the children. However, what we felt was missing was a realistic, honest and true picture of how the past experiences and trauma of the children impacted on them in the present and how the trauma that they had experienced was displayed.
Whenever we tried to delve into the reality of the behavioural and emotional needs, we felt we were given a response that suggested ‘it’ll all be fine once they’re settled’ and left at that. We felt that the emotional, behavioural and relational impacts of the trauma were glossed over and never discussed in detail or they were minimised and described as ‘minor behavioural issues’.
Was there a lot of information in the reports you read or did you have to ask a lot of additional questions once you’d read them?
As I’ve mentioned above, we were given a lot of information both during meetings and paperwork to read. However, at no stage did any of the social workers involved in the children’s case sit us down and explain explicitly quite how much support the elder child would need to overcome the trauma she had experienced or explain how significant her needs were.
If we had been given a full, honest and realistic picture of what her needs were and how significant the trauma was that she had experienced, we may not have felt equipped to pursue this particular match. We both had reasons in our own personal histories which meant we may not have chosen to parent a child with such extreme needs and behaviours if we had known about them.
We both felt, when we met with the foster carer, that she had been discouraged about being entirely honest with us about the difficulties the elder child was displaying and the impact it had on her own functioning and that of her younger sibling.
At what stage did you start to have concerns?
Within a couple of months of the children coming home, we had begun to have growing concerns about the elder child’s attachment issues, ability to settle, to accept us as parents, her readiness for a new family, interactions with other children and her sibling, and some extreme behaviours.
It’s not appropriate to go into the details of any specific behaviours, but we saw enough to have serious concerns about the ability of the elder child to settle in a new family and for the placement to remain stable and secure for both children if they remained together.
Were the concerns consistent with the information you had about your children?
In hindsight, it is clear that the elder child’s extreme behaviours and attachment issues were due to her background and the traumatic experiences that she had had, but we had not been told directly and explicitly that she demonstrated such severe behaviours and attachment issues as a result of these.
The way she presented with us was very different than how we had been led to believe she presented with her foster carer. Additionally, the support that had been written into the support plan both did not happen as it should have done, and was insufficient for her needs.
Did you act on the concerns straight away? If not, when did you seek professional help?
We spoke regularly to the social workers – both ours and the children’s – about our concerns about the children right from the beginning of placement. We were always honest, open and truthful about the challenges that we were facing with them, sharing with them the therapeutic and PACE parenting strategies we had tried, and which ones were effective. We liaised with school and had nurture groups and emotional literacy support put in place to provide support at school.
Who did you contact? Was the help easy to access?
Initially we contacted our social workers – ours and the children’s – but they were not forthcoming with support. It had been written into the support plan at the placement meeting that we would have regular sessions with the adoption support worker who would provide structured direct work for us and the children to help us to attach and bond. However, this direct work did not happen.
We were visited by the adoption support worker but she did not approach the children or us about direct work. She would chat generally about how things were going but not provide the specialist support that we had expected.
We challenged this and pushed for the structured direct work that had been promised, but this resulted in relations becoming strained between us and the social work team when we pointed out that we were not receiving the support that we had been promised.
What happened once you’d asked for help?
Once we had asked for help, we were visited more frequently by social workers. This did not improve the situation and wasn’t the specialist support that we had asked for.
The children became very dysregulated following frequent social worker visits which made things more challenging at home and further prevented the children from settling. We attempted to explain this, stressing that we wanted the best for both children and to help them to settle. But this was seen negatively and portrayed as us not engaging with support.
We asked for support from the Adoption Support Fund for a sensory assessment but we were discouraged from pursuing this as we were told it was a very long process to put in the application (and were later told that we wouldn’t have received help from this fund prior to the adoption order being granted). We were told that a sensory checklist would be completed by the support worker but this did not happen.
Did the help you received improve things?
No, the more frequent social worker visits did not improve things at home and often caused the children to become more unsettled and dysregulated.
Did you realise the placement wasn’t right or was it something that the professionals raised once they were involved?
It became increasingly apparent to us that the placement was not right. The extreme behaviours continued to worsen and the elder child’s inability to settle began to very negatively impact the younger sibling’s ability to settle with us too. We had conversations about this with the professionals involved in the case as the placement progressed, expressing our concerns for the wellbeing and happiness of both children.
What kinds of things happened to decide the best way forward for everyone?
Once we had expressed concerns that the support being provided was not sufficient to meet the children’s needs, a professionals meeting was held. We were not invited or asked to contribute to this meeting.
The outcome of this meeting was that the Theraplay / structured direct work that we had asked for was to be offered to us (which it should have been at the beginning of placement) and that we should have an adoption buddy to share mutual support. This was problematic as this was not an area we needed support in and the buddy we were linked with was having serious issues with her children so not able to offer advice on our situation.
In the end, we were not able to access the Theraplay direct work with the children and us because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our concerns rose during lockdown as the elder child was at home and our concerns about the sibling relationship grew and grew.
My concerns about the elder child grew significantly as she remained at home during the lockdown period as her behaviour became more and more erratic and concerning. However, when I tried to reach someone to discuss this and to ask if there was any specialist support available, I was told there was none.
When the disruption became the only choice, we had a meeting to discuss the practicalities of it with the children’s social worker and her manager on the day of the move.
Did you get any legal advice? If you did, who funded it?
We accessed legal advice and we funded it. We were advised to put in the adoption order application while the sibling assessment was being completed as this would mean that the social workers would not be able to remove the younger child from our home without a court order.
Due to the concerning behaviours and interactions that we had seen, we were very worried about him being removed to foster care with his sister and the negative sibling relationship continuing.
Who made the decision that disruption was the only way forward?
This was a mutual decision between ourselves and the social work team.
What help and support did you all get after that decision was made?
We did not receive any help or support following the disruption. Following the disruption we were sent a letter by the children’s social work manager which was slanderous in tone as it consisted of lies about things we had said or done, and many misinterpretations of our intentions when we had asked for help.
Instead of receiving help and support, we were blamed for causing the situation and not engaging with support, even though we had stressed all along that we needed help and support that would meet the needs of us and the children but we were not given this.
Did you have any input in how your child was told they were going to move or did the professionals decide that? How were your told?
The way she was told was decided between us and the social workers prior to her being told and it was done in a kind and sensitive manner with us present.
There was a lot of work done around this to minimise distress as much as possible. Bags were packed and placed in the boot of the car prior to her being told and moved so she didn’t have to see them.
How did the move happen?
The social worker and adoption support workers came to our house and moved her following the conversation about the move. They told us that they always have two workers to do this so that one can drive the car and one can sit in the back with the child.
What help and support have you all had since the move? Was it easy to access?
We have not received any help or support since the move. We have not been offered any advice, counselling or support for us as parents. I have independently contacted a private therapist who specialises in adoption disruption to access support.
We take our boy to contact with his sister once a week. This is sometime a positive, sometimes a more challenging experience depending on how she is doing at the time. We support this.
We have continued to have visits from our social work team who are supporting our adoption application with our boy as the sibling assessment supported the children living apart due to the concerns that were raised.
What advice would you give to adopters who are facing disruption or who are having concerns about the placement?
Our experience of our social work team – as you can see – was not always positive and our requests for help and support were not always received well. It became apparent that the more specialist support that we were hoping for – that we knew our girl needed – was just not available pre-adoption order.
My advice would be to trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, ask for help. Talk about it, and be honest and open, even if the help and support doesn’t appear to be available at first. It may be that disruption is the only option for the child/ren to thrive. It may be that there is another way forward.
If disruption is the only option, try and find support wherever you can because you will need it. Find a therapist, find friends who have been through the same, find a support group (there is a very good one on Facebook) because it is an incredibly hard and often isolating thing to go through and it is not spoken about enough.
Click here to read more articles about adoption disruption.