Saccharine Narratives about Adoption Are Disservice to Children and Parents
This National Adoption Week, Andrew Taylor-Dawson – an adoptive parent himself – asks for a more nuanced approach to how Government and society thinks about adoption and its challenges
It’s National Adoption Week, a time that has in the past been marked by relentlessly positive adoption drives and saccharine images of happy families. But this year, there is something different in the air.
It comes with the backdrop of the Independent Review of Children’s Care. The stated purpose of the review is to address reasons why the “system is not delivering a better quality of life and improved outcomes for those it is designed to help”.
The review has proved controversial. As Byline Times has covered, many see it as a way of bringing the market further into the delivery of care.
With discussions ongoing about the future of children’s social care as a whole, there is a push towards a more realistic framing of adoption.
Classically adoption is painted as a walk-off into the sunset or a happily ever after situation. But in truth, it is marked by trauma and challenges that are life-long. This representation is the product of decades of simplistic framing, where adopters are seen as altruistic saviours and adoption as an unequivocal good. Like so many things in life, the reality is a lot more complicated.
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The tone of National Adoption Week has begun to change to challenge this dominant narrative – including with a greater emphasis on the voices of adult adoptees. Adoption organisations such as We Are Family and PAC-UK have hosted panel events with adoptees and the messaging has shifted to incorporate the ongoing impacts of trauma for adult adoptees.
Organisations like Adoptee Futures are also playing a leading role, with the aim of changing perceptions of adoption and bringing the lived experience of adopted adults to prospective, new and long-standing adoptive parents. This represents a real shift from a position where voices of adoptees have been sidelined and, as a result, ignored by policymakers.
Such collaboration between adoptees, adopters, social workers and other professionals challenges the Government’s continued antiquated view of adoption.
The Government’s core focus is recruiting prospective adopters, with campaigns such as #YouCanAdopt. The narratives it promotes seem ever more out of step with the realities of life as an adoptive family and the challenges faced by adoptees as a result of trauma.
Adoption is an extreme option as it legally severs the link between a child and their birth family. The impact of this is not reflected in #YouCanAdopt style recruitment drives or ‘adoption is love’ narratives.
This time last year, then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson spoke of “too many lifestyle judgements” being made during the adoption process, in a speech and accompanying press release calling for an overhaul of the adoption system. Williamson’s focus was firmly on increasing the number of adopters recruited and removing what he saw as unnecessary delays to them being approved.
His approach landed badly with adopters, professionals and organisations in the space as it overlooked the complexity of early trauma and the need for thorough preparation. Speeding up the process would mean a less detailed assessment and ultimately adopters not being as well equipped to support their children with the challenges that will arise.
Nadhim Zahawi has now taken over from Williamson, but there is little evidence that the focus is likely to change. He inherits the National Adoption Strategy and there would be no reason to believe he is likely to shift the dial and put greater focus on issues such as life-long support for adoptees.
A New Conversation
Simplistic recruitment drives for adopters are not only problematic because they misrepresent the realities of adoption, but because they create a disconnect between the expectations people go in with and the realities of the process.
It’s true that adoption approval is difficult and invasive. But this is for good reason.
The trauma caused by early adversity cannot be removed and nor is it something an adoptive family can fix. It is rather something that needs ongoing support. A greater understanding of this in wider society would be of huge benefit to adoptees and adoptive families.
Over time, a greater focus must be put on post-adoption support and extending that support for adopted adults in recognition of their ongoing need.
While adoption of course has its place, we also need to strengthen provision for less drastic options such as special guardianship. This is where a child is cared for by relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles or other carers within the child’s family network.
Special guardianship allows a child to retain the legal link to their birth parents and remain in the extended family. It has the benefit of allowing children to maintain close relationships with birth relatives.
However, as a form of care it lacks the recognition of adoption and carers often feel under supported. Kinship, a charity that works in this area found that 70% of carers feel they don’t receive the support they need from their local authority.
As Kinship point out, most carers are older, often in poor health and feel isolated from mainstream parent groups. There also isn’t the level of training or peer support groups that exist for foster carers. Kinship seeks to address this.
Better support for families in crisis also must be part of the picture. We need to limit removals by providing adequate social support to people who are struggling for a myriad of different reasons.
National Adoption Week should be a time of reflection and education. It should ultimately be a time to listen to the voices of adoptees and learn from their experiences. However, this should be a core part of the adoption system and conversations in the space. Not just something for one week in October.
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