Adoption first became a legal order in England in 1926. Since then, the legislation and process have changed immeasurable to meet the needs of our ever-changing society.
In the early days of adoption, up until the 1960s and 70s, the reasons children were adopted often stemmed from a child being born out of wedlock. This was particularly the case if the mother followed certain religions.
My lasting memory from our preparation course was an adult adoptee who talked to us. His mother was Irish and her parents were strict Catholics. When she became pregnant, she was hidden away by her family until it was almost time for her to give birth. She was then taken to the North East of England to have her baby.
She and her child were looked after by nuns. One day, she was told to go to the hairdresser which she dutifully did. When she returned, her baby was gone. She was told he was going to be adopted and that she needed to get on with her life and forget about him.
I was horrified as he told us his story. I can’t begin to imagine how his birth mum felt. She was, understandably, completely devastated. But she wasn’t prepared to follow expectations and carry on as if nothing had happened. She didn’t go back to Ireland, deciding instead to stay in the North East to feel close to her son and hoped that one day, she’d get to meet him again.
In the end, her wish came true. I was in tears when he explained how he decided to look for his birth family. He’d been in the pub with a friend who commented that a man he was standing beside, looked the double of him. Lo and behold, a few months later when he knocked on his birth mum’s door for the first time, the man opened the door and turned out to be his brother.
The reasons for adoption today
The days of a child having to be adopted if they were born out of wedlock are, thankfully, long gone. Issues such as severe neglect, drug or alcohol abuse, violence, or sexual abuse, tend to be the reasons why children require adoption now.
As adoption has changed over the decades, the organisations that support children and families have changed too. However, one organisation that has supported children throughout is Coram.
Adoption over the decades: Coram
Coram is the UK’s oldest children’s charity, and this year they’re marking 50 years of their work in adoption. They have been leaders in many new practices to help protect some of the most vulnerable children in our society.
Dr. Carol Homden, CEO of Coram, said: “As the UK’s first children’s charity, Coram has a long history of offering care to children who cannot grow up within their birth families. Over the past five decades, Coram‘s adoption work has been dedicated to putting children first and foremost to ensure they can grow up in safe loving families. We have pursued this aim by working with others across the sector through national programmes, forming progressive partnerships, and now leading one of the regional adoption agencies with local authority partners.
“In the coming decade, we will continue to innovate in practice, in multi-cultural perspectives, co-production with adopted young people, and addressing contact issues in the digital era. With children waiting longer to be adopted, we will continue to champion greater use of early permanence and all available approaches to matching, so that every child who needs it has the chance to thrive in a loving adoptive family.”
Over the years, Coram has supported many adopters through the assessment process and beyond. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some of their moving and inspirational stories, starting with Nina and Steven who cared for two children through Coram’s early permanence scheme, going on to adopt their daughter Jasmine in October 2019.
Nina and Steven’s adoption journey
Early permanence placements, pioneered by Coram, enable children under two to be placed with carers who are approved to adopt them later if the courts decide they cannot be cared for permanently by their birth family. Early permanence carers are approved as adopters but also receive additional high-quality and intensive training and support from Coram to help them prepare for the process of being a foster carer as well, which involves working with the professional network around the child, contact meetings with the birth family, and managing a return of the child to their birth family where this is the outcome.
Nina and Steven’s journey with Coram began in 2016 when they started to explore the adoption process. Sadly, they had experienced four miscarriages and after some time spent travelling, decided it was the right time for them to look into adoption.
They had started out by looking at ‘mainstream’ adoption but came across early permanence on the Coram website and felt drawn to it. The benefits of the scheme and its child-centred approach resonated with them, as Nina says: “We’d never heard of early permanence before but it touched something inside. We liked how respect and acknowledgment are given to the birth parents, and knowing we could meet them and understand the child’s background struck a chord with us. Knowing if the child had questions later on about their looks, hair colour, and so on, we can say we know because we met the birth family. It felt powerful.”
After further discussion with the adoption team, Nina and Steven started the approval process to become early permanence carers. They were assigned a social worker and began a programme of training sessions, written work, and personal interviews. They say: “We found the training incredible and still think back today to things we learned. It completely sold us on the whole ethos of early permanence.” Steven adds: “A big part of the training was meeting other prospective adopters. It convinced me that we could do this too.”
Shortly before they were jointly approved to foster and adopt, their social worker started to show them profiles of children they might want to look after. Very quickly after approval, in 2017, they considered a profile of a baby yet to be born who would most likely be taken into care due to the mother’s circumstances. Nina and Steven expressed an interest and when the baby was born a few months later, they became early permanence carers for that little girl, Leah.
Nina and Steven first met Leah when she was two weeks old. She was still in hospital due to health issues at birth and they came to visit her every day. Nina and Steven describe the months that followed as “a rollercoaster ride” as they dealt with the huge uncertainties around Leah’s future, contact with Leah’s birth mother, and the outcome of numerous court hearings.
Leah was not able to be cared for by her mother, and there was uncertainty about Leah’s paternity, which the local authority were not certain would be resolved. However after Nina and Steven became Leah’s foster carers, they were told that Leah’s father had come forward and his paternity had been confirmed. This led to Leah’s paternal grandmother being assessed as a potential permanent carer.
Nina says: “The uncertainty was so full on and confronting for us. You feel totally powerless at that point and you are fielding so much stuff. We just wanted to know that Leah would be safe. It was also very hard for our family and friends. We had to shield them a little bit from everything going on at that time. One of the best decisions we made was not ever calling ourselves ‘mum and dad’ through the process – we were really strict on that.”
Nina continues: “The uncertainty was almost intolerable. But life goes on around you and you have to deal with everything else that comes up. You are also busy looking after a young baby, which is of course tiring and stressful. But the support from Coram the whole way was amazing. Our social worker was always at the end of the phone and so supportive, and helped us through day to day, through all the meetings with social services and all that they entailed.”
Moving to birth family
Seven months after becoming Leah’s carers, it was decided in the courts that Leah would go to live permanently with her grandmother. Nina and Steven had been to many contact sessions with Leah and her grandmother organised through the local authority, with support from the team at Coram.
Nina and Steven recall the handover meeting with Leah and her grandmother: “It was really heartbreaking but amazing. Coram’s contact supervisor had quickly established a great relationship with Leah’s gran and encouraged her to tell us she would keep Leah safe. She knew we had been worried. For us, this session with her turned things around. It all made sense and completed the journey. We knew Leah was going to be loved and cared for within her birth family, so we came out feeling positive.”
Despite being an extremely challenging period, Nina and Steven felt it was “the best thing they had ever done” and say: “There were big ups and downs but it was incredible, a good experience and so worthwhile. We knew we had done our job. We had looked after Leah really well, kept her safe when she had needed it, and provided a calm oasis for her at a very uncertain time.”
Nina and Steven are still in touch with Leah’s grandmother – they write to each other, and she sends photos of Leah. They say: “It feels really special. All our family and friends still ask about Leah too, she was very loved by everyone.”
Nina and Steven say they went through a period of grief after Leah left but after some time away, made the decision that they wanted to try adopting through early permanence again.
They spoke to their social worker who wanted to be sure that they were doing the right thing and advised that Nina and Steven explore ‘mainstream’ adoption. However, they decided to go ahead with the early permanence scheme for a second time, aware that any child placed might not stay with them.
One day they were told about a baby, Jasmine. Her situation was very unusual in that she had been relinquished due to her mother’s personal circumstances, which is rare in the care system today. Nina and Steven say they felt unsure at first but that their social worker helped them by talking it all through. Nina says: “We had a long think about it. There were lots of questions, would the mum change her mind? But then the learning from our training kicked in and you remember the most important thing – it’s a baby who needs looking after. You can’t second guess everything.”
Jasmine’s birth mother is from a similar cultural background as Nina, which Nina says is a positive thing, as it helped her to understand the circumstances around why she wasn’t able to care for her.
Nina and Steven said: “The contact meetings were really positive. It was good that Jasmine’s mother wanted to meet us and we felt she gave us a sort of ‘seal of approval’ to care for Jasmine, which we feel is something that will be really helpful for Jasmine later on. We will be able to tell her about her birth mum and share photos from our contact meetings.”
Even though it seemed to be more likely that they would go on to adopt this time around, Nina and Steven didn’t take anything for granted and felt there was always a possibility Jasmine’s mother could change her mind.
Coping with uncertainty
Nina and Steven say that the second time round was also quite hard for their friends and family: “We made a conscious decision to keep information about the process brief with them. Many of our friends and family had been shocked that Leah returned to her birth family and were worried we had chosen the same route with all the uncertainty again. They just wanted us to be happy.”
They continue: “However, a lot of friends weren’t surprised that we chose to do it again and we even have friends now who have been through the process themselves – they said they saw everything we went through and how we came out the other end. So that’s been amazing to see.”
In 2018, Nina and Steven were approved to adopt Jasmine, and say she is doing really well: “She is brilliant. She’s talking loads, she’s super-chatty, sweet, funny, and cheeky, a real adventurer!”
Nina and Steven have started doing some life story work to help Jasmine understand her early life and say: “Coram has been amazing. We did a workshop to understand what questions Jasmine might have in the future. We know that being relinquished may bring up different kinds of questions about birth parents, and Coram altered a life story template for us to use with Jasmine and gave us pointers on language.”
Training and support
The couple knows that training and support from Coram are there whenever they need it: “It was the ongoing support from Coram that also attracted us. We’ve attended stay-and-play sessions and the family picnic to meet other adoptive families. It’s a reminder that we aren’t alone. And Jasmine will have a network too – she’ll have access to high-quality support if she needs it. We’ve also made good friends with other adoptive families. It’s great to have someone else who understands what you’re going through and it’s really nice for Jasmine to know other adopted children as well.”
Looking back on their journey now, Nina and Steven say: “We’ve learned that no matter what gets thrown at us, no matter how stressful and emotional, we can get through it as a couple. We realised you can love someone else’s child as your own, even knowing they might only be with you for a short time. It has made being parents all the more special to us – the story, how and why we did it.”
Nina and Steven conclude: “Early permanence won’t be suitable for everybody. But if you keep the child at the centre and come at it from the right place, then it can be incredible. It’s a special way to give stability to a child when they really need it and an element of support for the birth family. It’s given us so much as well.”
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