What is adoption disruption in the UK?

What is adoption disruption? A tornado in a stormy sky
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Adoption disruption is when a placement breaks down and the child is taken into care again by the local authority. If it’s a permanent disruption, the child doesn’t go back to live with their adopters and will either remain in foster care, or be placed with a new family after a new matching process.

Clearly disruption is an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved. Adoption can be complex and therefore the reasons why a placement breaks down vary. No two situations will ever be the same therefore there isn’t a “one size fits all” guide to disruption.

This article provides some basic detail around what disruption is and signposts to some places where you can get help and support.

The reasons why children require adoption

We live in a world where those who are struggling often fall through the gaps. The current cost of living crisis means money is tight for everyone. And that includes governments and local authorities.

The reality is that help and support isn’t there in the levels that some people need it.

Sometimes children require adoption because their parents don’t have the skills to be able to safely parent them. That could be due to extreme poverty, lack of understanding of the basic needs of a child, or a whole host of other things.

Drug and alcohol misuse often plays a large part in why some children can’t be safely parented by the birth families.

Violence and abuse are also often factors in birth parents lives that means it isn’t safe for them to have children in their care.

All of these issues have a massive impact on a child, regardless of whether they’ve lived with their birth family. Trauma can begin in utero and the impact of this is often misunderstood. Preventing disruption from happening starts by understanding (as much as is possible) the reasons that led to the court concluding it wasn’t safe for the child to live with their birth family.

The matching process

This is probably the most difficult part of the adoption process for many. Waiting to find the “right” child for your family is incredibly hard. And whilst this part of the process should involve an honest and open exchange of information, sometimes it isn’t that simple.

If there are gaps in the information, ask questions. Why are there gaps? Who can answer the questions? If they can’t be answered, how will that affect you? If you can’t get answers to the questions, you will need to be prepared for there to be a lot of unknowns. Some of those may things you said you weren’t able to manage. So, you’ll need to assess whether the gaps means that the match isn’t right for you.

There will always be some missing information, simply because of the nature of adoption. But only you can say whether the gaps are too big and create too much of a risk of you not being able to cope with behaviours or issues. There’s no shame in saying that at all.

Knowing when to say no

The key to making sure a match is a good fit is to get as much information as possible about all of the issues a child is facing. Knowledge is power and if you have a lot of information, you can make a realistic assessment as to whether you feel able to meet the needs of the child you’re reading about.

This can be incredibly hard. There are so many children waiting to be matched (2,030 in England as at October 2023) and adopters often feel like they want to say yes to every child. They’ve done nothing wrong and are in the situation they are because they’ve been let down by the people who were supposed to love and protect them. Clearly, there are many, many reason for this. But that is the reality.

Be realistic

So, one of the key things for adopters to bear in mind during matching that will help to avoid disruption further down the line is to be completely realistic about what they can and can’t manage. And understand that there will always be some issues. Adoption is trauma, whatever age a child is.

What is adoption disruption? Storm clouds
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I struggled with this massively when we were waiting to be matched. It felt like we were picking and choosing which child we wanted based on their level of needs. That felt wrong because we wouldn’t get to choose if we’d had a birth child.

But that’s the thing. You aren’t having a birth child. You are being assessed to look after a child who has experienced some level of early life trauma. And it may be that the full extent of that trauma isn’t yet known. So we have to be open and honest about what we can and can’t deal with.

Adopters aren’t doing anyone, least of all the child, any favours by saying they can cope with something when they know they can’t. Matching usually involves listening to your head more than your heart.

Having a realistic match makes it more likely that the placement will last.

How does adoption disruption happen?

There is no simple answer to this because it will vary for each situation. But there are likely to be two scenarios. The first is where the local authority have concerns about either the child or the adopter’s ability to parent them (or both).

Or, the adopters may have concerns and don’t feel able to manage certain behaviours. It may also be that certain issues come to light which weren’t originally known about that affect the placement. This may be something like a particular behaviour that puts other children in the home at risk.

Whichever way it happens, unless there’s an emergency that means the child needs to be removed immediately, wherever possible, disruption should happen in a planned and careful way.

A plan needs to be made about how, when and where it will happen. Who will be there? How will their belongings be packed up discretely? At what stage are they told and by whom?

A lot of the answers to those questions will depend on the age of the child. If the child is school aged, a social worker may collect them at the end of the school day and take them to their new carer.

Contact will have to be agreed in the short term, unless something happened that led to the disruption meaning that it’s not safe or appropriate.

Where does the child go?

The child will be placed back in foster care. In an ideal world, this would be with carers who have previously looked after them, if that was safe. But it is likely to be new carers who the child doesn’t know.

Depending on the reasons why the placement has broken down, there may be further assessments of the child and adopters. This will be to work out what the best way forward is for example, would intensive support make the placement work, or is the child being placed with their sibling more important than one of them staying where they are.

If there’s more than one child in the placement, it may be that disruption only happens with one child. That was the situation in the disruption stories shared in the magazine by two adopters.

What to do if you think disruption may happen

The most important thing with all aspects of adoption is open and honest communication. If you’re struggling, contact your social worker or post-adoption support. They can’t help if they don’t know what’s going on.

However, it can sometimes be the case that adopters feel that what they have said is being misinterpreted, or ignored, particularly if it’s felt that certain pieces of information were not disclosed as part of the matching process. That leads to a breakdown in the relationship between them and social services which isn’t conducive to finding a workable solution.

In those circumstances, it may be best to seek the advice of an independent body. Adoption UK is a good place to start if you’d like some independent advice. If you need legal advice, the Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to help you find a solicitor, or contact an adoption specialist such as The Adoption Legal Centre.

There are several Facebook groups for parents who are experiencing or think they may be at the point of disruption. And the #ukadoptioncommunity is a great source of help and support.

This policy document about Disruption of Adoption Placements created by Birmingham Children’s Trust gives a lot of detail about their procedures which might be a useful read if you want to know more about what happens. The procedure won’t be the same for all local authority’s but it will give you an idea of the processes.

Wat is adoption disruption? Storm clouds above a beach
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  1. I used to work in Foster Care and used to see it there, too. It is heartbreaking for everyone involved. But, like you said, it’s about communicating and getting help as soon as possible. I’m sure this article will be super helpful for those who find themselves in this situation.


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