When I was a fairly new adoptive parent, I remember being aware that Adoption Week was taking place, bringing with it a certain discord within the community when it did so. I wasn’t, at the time, too sure why this was.
Year on year since then, my understanding of the complexities of the week have continued to grow until I now find myself hugely conflicted about the rights and wrongs of it all.
So, what is National Adoption Week all about? Is it about adoptees sharing stories and celebrating their adopted status? Err, not really. And the fact of whether they would want to do that at all is a debate within itself. No, Adoption Week is essentially a mass recruitment drive – a way of raising the profile of adoption so as to encourage more prospective parents to come forward. On face value that seems like a sensible enough plan – especially as there are currently over 4100 children waiting for permanence in the UK.
Of course adoptees should be central to adoption week. I think those 4100 potential adoptees are, but not the thousands who have been adopted in the past and are now adults. They are conspicuous by their absence. Currently, adoption week is not about them or for them and I can fully understand their feelings of being cast aside.
Cynically, the real reason behind this is that many adult adoptees are not exponents of adoption. Sure, there are many who are happily adopted; some who have even gone on to adopt children themselves. But there are many who, if given a platform during adoption week, would use it to warn about the dangers of adoption; as an opportunity to press for change; who, if asked, would say, ‘do not adopt’. Clearly, speaking the truth of their lived experience would absolutely be their prerogative. And perhaps some would argue that those voices should be heard loud and clear in order to make necessary change happen in the sector.
Yet I can also see that were the majority of voices saying don’t adopt, this would surely have a significant knock-on to the number of people who would then consider becoming parents via adoption. Some would argue this would be for the better – after all if a person’s experience of adoption has been negative, why would they want it to keep happening to others? They wouldn’t.
Conversely, I can see why adoption agencies try to control this. While some would suggest this makes agencies corrupt, for me, it comes back to the 4100 children waiting. If numbers of prospective adopters dwindle, what happens to those children?
I suppose the majority (if not all) would spend their entire childhood within The Care System. Some might argue that this would be alright – they would be cared for, have stability and still maintain links with their birth families. However, unfortunately, not all foster placements are created equal. And behind the scenes there is the sometimes unfathomable workings of stretched social services teams, which end up moving children multiple times from placement to placement, deeming some children ‘unfoster-able’ and moving them into residential care homes. Like foster carers, some homes are brilliant but others are certainly not. And then there are the issues of permanence post 18 or 21 (depending on the placement type). There are many foster carers who informally offer young people support and family throughout their adult lives but this is not a requirement and by no means a given. A read of Lemn Sissay’s best-selling memoir, My Name is Why, tells you everything you need to know about how the ‘care system’ all too frequently does the opposite of care.
Is this what we want for those 4100 children? An unpredictable childhood? Which may see them thrive, but equally, for others, barely survive?
I have heard arguments for Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) as a more stable alternative to ‘care’ but a less permanent severing of biological ties than adoption. But is it really a viable alternative when there is no SGO version of adoption/maternity leave and no such thing as post-SGO support? Those who currently care for children under SGOs (often grandparents or aunties/uncles) do so in the most challenging of circumstances with little to no support or understanding of the challenges they face. Until the inequalities in support provided for SGOs and adoption are more fairly balanced, I don’t see how SGOs can be a truly viable alternative to use on a wide scale.
So we are left with adoption. It is not a panacea, it is a last resort.
Or is it? Within this great big debate, one also has to consider how children get to be waiting for adoption in the first place. Adoption should be the last resort, to be used in circumstances when every other possible route to permanence has been explored and ruled out, but is it always used that way? We have to think about why children are removed from birth families in the first place. Has it been for a reason that could have been resolved had the birth family been offered more or better support? If so, that family has been dealt a great disservice. It is hard to justify a permanent legal severance in a situation where a struggling mum really just needed more help.
Or what about situations where there has been domestic violence or coercive control? Once the perpetrator is removed from the situation, is the remaining parent (usually the mother) really an unfit parent? Or a victim who should not have to pay twice for her wounds with the subsequent loss of her children?
There are so many huge questions which have to be considered at all stages of the child protection process which ultimately leads to adoption. None of this is easy or clear. For every parent who was given chance after chance and adequate support to parent but didn’t take it, there will be another who was a victim of their circumstances. There will be those children who find themselves waiting for adoption who were removed from their mothers on the ‘risk of future harm’ premise and those who were systematically and horrifically abused. There will be those children who go on to be adopted whose birth parents would not harm them were they to see them every week and there are those children who should never, ever see their parents again after the irreparable harm they caused them. Individual circumstances are so different and so nuanced that it’s impossible to take one story and extrapolate it into a solution for all.
I suppose this is why adoption, as a concept, is so divisive. Where it has been the right solution for one, it has been extremely traumatic for another.
So, if I’m not sure about ‘care’ or SGO’s for the 4100, do I think adoption is the right solution? Well, it’s pretty obvious that I think it can be, because I am an adoptive parent and I wouldn’t have chosen to do something I didn’t believe could be right. I say ‘could be’ because it isn’t a given. It does depend on things such as recruiting the right kind of people to be adopters – those who are resilient and able to appropriately support a traumatised child; who can be there for them through life story work and contact and reuniting with their birth family if/when the young person wants that and, importantly, are motivated to adopt for all the right reasons. It depends on appropriate training of prospective adopters – being truthful with them about the challenges they’ll likely face and not perpetuating the happy ever after myth. It depends on robust post-adoption support.
If all that is in place, can adoption be the right thing for a child? I believe so. I believe it can give them a stability and permanence that cannot currently be achieved any other way. And if we need adoption, we do need to find adopters.
We have to be honest though, and we have to say that adoption does not work out as you would hope in all situations, usually because one of the criteria I described above hasn’t been met.
I think there is a general consensus now, within many corners of the adoption community, that adoption as it stands needs to change. From the few adoptee voices that are being heard, we know that having all ties to biological roots or heritage or culture legally severed is incredibly detrimental and has life-long impacts. Being removed from the parents who conceived and carried and birthed you is not something one ‘just gets over’ as many were told in the past. So it seems increasingly important that where links can safely be maintained with members of children’s birth families, they should be. If we think of the mother who was a victim of domestic abuse or the one who needed more support, we can see that an adopted child still being able to spend time with them could be of great benefit to all.
Again, I don’t think we can start saying that all adoptions should be open because what of the paedophiles and abusers? I am certain there are situations where it is in the child’s best interests to never see their parents again. But should they have as much information as possible about them at their fingertips? Of course. They will still need to know where they got their eyebrows from even if it is too damaging to have those relatives in their lives.
I think what I’m saying is that behind the billboards and newspaper adverts of bonny-looking children, there is a huge swampy, divisive, polarising debate going on. It’s a debate that needs to be had to move adoption forwards and to ensure that we do it better. It’s a debate that involves difficult questions and unpalatable facts and no easy answers. It’s a debate with no single solution.
The pity of it is that it’s a debate which currently divides. It is a shame because the posters and the agencies and the adult adoptees and the more experienced adopters and the grandparents with SGOs and the birth parents who desperately fought to keep their children really all want the same thing: the best for their children and for future children like them. We all want the best for the 4100. It’s just that we all have a different viewpoint of what that best is.
At the moment The Great Adoption Week debate mainly goes on in muttered huddles behind billboards, with many pretending the campaign isn’t happening, yet feeling irked it is. The recruitment aspect still tends to dominate. Wouldn’t it be great if, somehow, the debate in all its meaty complexity could step forward? Punch through the posters? Wouldn’t it be even better if all the groups with vested interests could pull together, with adoptees at their centre, and sort this shit out?
If everyone worked together, perhaps better support for SGO’s could be secured? Perhaps policy around risk-assessing maintaining maximum links with birth relatives could be written and put into practise, instead of every child with a permanency plan just having annual Letterbox automatically added to it? Perhaps more creative solutions could be found. Perhaps plans would be more personalised to individual circumstances and also flexible enough to reflect changes to circumstances. Perhaps every adoption panel and advisory do-dah would have adoptees on it.
I suspect there would still be adoption but it might work differently to how it does now. I suspect it will become more open and get used more carefully as we move forwards. I just hope that together, we can push the debate onward.
In the meantime, 4100 children wait. And aside from the rights or wrongs of the methods employed, National Adoption Week at least endeavours to find them a solution.