National Adoption Week

#YouCanAdopt

Look at me, I’ve used a hashtag. Didn’t even know what one was until this year. I’m very much an analogue dad. Who has time for social media when you’re an adopter?

In the UK it is National Adoption Week this week. This is where the adoption agencies try to recruit new adopters. These agencies used to be local authorities back in my day, but now are bigger regional bodies. I think there still are some voluntary agencies (i.e. mostly ex-church) too, although what purpose they serve nowadays I’m not sure. They only account for about a fifth of adoptions and I’m surprised it is that many. When we shopped around for an agency we spoke to one of these voluntary agencies — being completely naïve to the whole thing — and they didn’t offer any in-person training, nor any real support, and they expected my wife (who actually earns a lot more than I do) to give up work before they’d take us on. Like they were living 50 years in the past rather than the 21st century. Not exactly relevant to modern life or the needs of modern adopters and adopted children.

Anyway no matter what type, all of these agencies obviously need to get people interested in adoption and usually have a week in October where they go all-out for a publicity drive. It was posters and leaflets through the door not that long ago. I’m guessing it is mostly social media nowadays, although in my opinion that is probably not that fruitful a place to look for resilient, well-adjusted, adaptable and empathetic people. But then I’m an analogue dad so what do I know? My own catalyst for adoption was a tug-on-your-heartstrings documentary on Channel 4 following some ‘older’ kids (i.e. 5+) waiting to be placed. The only reason I was watching it was because I was interested in it already but knew becoming a foster carer wasn’t quite going to cut it for me — I wanted more emotional involvement than that offered. I knew it was probably a load of sentimental guff that didn’t reflect the truth — let’s face it, the reason that smart and pleasant 9 year old boy was returned to care after a year was probably not just because his adopters had selfishly had second thoughts — but still fell for it anyway. Whatever it takes I guess.

I just wanted to add my thoughts during this recruitment week, which are probably exactly the same as many others, but hey, in my day there was literally nothing online about the realities of adoption, and only a couple of books too (which I read and thought ‘nah, those kids must be the exception’ and moved on quickly).

I think the word ‘should’ is important actually, rather than ‘can’. ‘Can’ is a given. Yes you can. It isn’t easy but most people would be able to step up and do what’s necessary. You just need to know what’s necessary beforehand so you are not unprepared, and which I think most agencies still gloss over a little. Adopted kids will almost certainly have additional needs. Most will have learning difficulties, physical disabilities or most commonly developmental delay resulting from their abuse. Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is almost certain sadly, so FASD is almost universal among adopted children nowadays — we were told when we adopted that there were no kids waiting who hadn’t been affected by it to some degree. Obviously hundreds of thousands of biological families face the same issues regarding disability, however in most of their cases they probably wouldn’t have known before about them, and sadly when they do it often results in terminated pregnancies. You will know about it before you adopt. It takes a lot to head into parenting knowing that right from the beginning. Not always easy wiping the arse of a 10 year old, and it is certainly mentally exhausting, especially when you’ve think you’ve cracked it and then they regress again. Something I think adopters aren’t recognised enough for.

However the biggest challenge is mental health issues such as anxiety, ADHD, depression and so on. All these result from trauma and all adopted children are likely to have them, and will be on the SEN register at school because of it. Dealing with mental health issues is much more challenging than ‘mere’ disabilities and they can appear later on in childhood too, especially in the teenage years. This is where many adopters can become unstuck and it’s not been an easy road for us either, I have to admit. Training and therapeutic support are the way to go. Look out for the Adoption Support Fund!

That behaviour also leads to financial outlay. Agencies will insist that you don’t need to be rich to adopt, and the standard check is just that you are not in unmanageable debt. But what if the child is clumsy, has proprioceptive and interoceptive issues, anger management issues etc? A lot of things get broken. It is not an exaggeration to say that during the first 3 years of placement we had nearly ten thousand pounds worth of damage to repair and replace stuff, and that was directly related to movement control issues and also ‘challenging behaviour’ as the euphemists love to call it. It is obviously a lot more now but I didn’t really see the point in continuing to list it (I was trying to see if I could get a grant). Is this a lot more than if you had a biologically related child? I think it probably is. If you don’t have a high income you can get adoption grants, but make sure it is more than just to cover board and lodging.

And to not shrink from the inevitable question about behaviour that never seems to be quite addressed in the open in blog posts or podcasts I’ve heard. Yes, that behaviour can result in aggression, violence and injury to yourself, and it isn’t something that is particularly rare, with maybe two thirds of adopters experiencing it at some point according to the Adoption Barometer. I’m not going to talk about our own specifics here, but in a SafeBase support group I went to a few years ago the adopters had experienced a range of things from temporary blindness in one eye for a day, to attempted murder. Sounds horrific, but if you can get through it successfully then that feeling is unmatchable, for both you and the child. SafeBase is sadly discontinued now. Due to a lack of funding. You really need to make as sure as you can that you can access decent support, but that is increasingly difficult to come by apparently. The halcyon days of the early 2010s are a distant memory, as with so many other things too.

Ah, and the schools, yes the schools. We’ve actually been very lucky, all the schools we’ve used ‘get’ attachment and trauma. We still have to keep reminding them though. But most don’t get it and don’t want to. When we were originally looking for schools at least two told us unofficially that they didn’t want ‘previously looked after children’ (i.e. adopted) in their school. And they told us that to our face, no shame there. Some adopters end up home-schooling, so maybe that old-fashioned attitude of voluntary agencies is right after all; one of you might need to stop work in that case.

But, yes you can adopt. There are many, many problems that certainly we never expected. But you can because you have to. The children have no one else. They really don’t. This ‘long lost family’ idea of a birth parent just waiting to love their child happily ever after is, frankly, bollocks. You’ll rise to the challenge.

However the question remains, ‘should you adopt?’. The s-word is doing a lot of work there. From your point of view you do need to make sure that you are not trying to replace a child, either one you’ve lost or one you’ve never had. It should be very much thought of as adding another child to your family who will already have a history separate from you. For this very reason generally you won’t be allowed to apply if you have tried to conceive naturally or via IVF within the last 3 years. Of course you can lie. But don’t.

Getting your head around the fact that they used to be parented by someone else can take a while too. I use the word ‘parented’ in the loosest possible way here, but they still might have received some positive input from the previous parents. It is what they didn’t get that is the problem. I think a lot of people still see adoption as ‘rescuing’ a child. This annoys birth parents, although given the circumstances that most adopted kids are taken into care it is easy to see why that might be sometimes considered a suitable adjective. They’ve dodged a bullet, and in our case I don’t mean that metaphorically. You do need to get used to euphemisms in adoption though. It’s not for you, it’s to keep the cooperation of the birth parents and to try and help reestablish a relationship between them and the child at a later date, which you’ll need to help with. But try to refrain from framing it as rescuing in your own mind too. It isn’t really helpful, all you are doing is looking after the child after a process which involves the following: the child is taken into care (often by a police protection order), then after a year or more of attempting to keep the child with the birth parents a decision is made that she can’t see them for a long time and so needs a new parent, this goes through a court process which can take months or even years, and then after that her family finders will approach you after shortlisting from many potential adopters. You will not have chosen the child (well you can say no but then you are at the bottom of the list again and saying no too much is obviously going to count against you), you had nothing to do with the ‘rescue’, and within social services adoption is generally seen as the least desirable outcome of the situation. You’ll still be the target of ire from the birth parents though, and seen by them as child snatchers no matter how demonstrably absurd that caricature is. ‘F**k the fakes they need to die’ as my own son’s birth mum posted online a few months ago according to another member of her family. Not worrying if you believe the dodged bullet was really a metaphor, but…

A lot of adult adoptees also question whether you should adopt. Not you personally obviously, just generally. They had a bad time, not knowing much about themselves or their birth family and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, which is fair enough. Their narrative has been the dominant narrative about adoption for decades, and still is for the most part as over 8 in 10 adopted people in the UK are adoptees from the 60s, 70s and 80s. They feel that it is getting supplanted by the contemporary story though, and aren’t happy about it. Remember adoption is a word with many meanings, and their experiences are still just as vivid and difficult for them as they’ve always been. When you are dependent on someone, then being separated from them causes trauma. Of course it does. It would do for anyone. Knowing that, should it be inflicted on people? They’d say no, but well, that’s the decision that needs to be made for each individual case. That’s the point of the child protection system. It’s to protect children, not for the (curiously old-fashioned) idea of ‘preserving families’ by placing children in tormented agony with their abusers forever. You might as well ask that about the care system too, but that doesn’t really come into their conversation. That piece of paper which changes the parent (really the only significant practical difference between care and adoption other than a new identity and less frequent direct contact) is crucial for them as in their mind it defines them. They’ve never been helped to process their experiences. You’ll not get much help or relevant advice from adult adoptees generally, especially not online. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored, it just means they’ve had different experiences. We do our best to mitigate against separation trauma nowadays and get a lot more support with meeting the birth family etc. In their mind there is an equivalence between separation trauma and being beaten, starved, locked up and sexually assaulted every few days for the first few years of your life. In my mind there isn’t. I strongly doubt that anyone’s ever tried to literally bite the arm off their carer or adopter (another SafeBase story) because their birth mum‘s family forced her to give them up for adoption as a baby 40 or 50 years ago. But I might be wrong.

So yes, you should adopt too. Good luck, and go in with your eyes open and be open-minded about everything. It is fulfilling for you when it works, but just like it would be for any parent it is pretty thankless. Nowadays it is more of team effort; you’ll need the help of therapists, social workers, teachers and any family member willing to give you a bit of respite every now and again. But despite all the difficulties you can certainly say that you’ve helped that child after a tough start, and if that is all the reward you need then you’ve got what it takes to be an adopter.

Of course I’ve only been an adopter for 7 years. Whether I’ll still think that in another 7 we’ll see.

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