UK telegraph article When adoptions go wrong:
One leading charity estimates that a third of adoptions break down these days. Is it any wonder when so many adoptive parents take their new children home only to find they have a secret history of appalling abuse?
Rachel Humphreys punches in the numbers on her phone. She is calling work, yet again, to tell them she has to take her son, Tom, to an emergency appointment and is going to be in late. She is a management consultant and over the past two years has frequently taken time off at short notice, and occasionally turned up with a black eye or other visible injuries.
'They have been fantastic,’ she says, 'but the last time it happened I also said to them, “If people like me aren’t supported, and this isn’t a success, then these children, children like Tom, are the granny-bashers of the future.” I didn’t need to spell it out.’
If she was going to spell it out, however, it would go something like this: two years ago Rachel adopted a child who, unbeknown to her, had acute emotional and psychological problems. Tom, eight, is frequently violent towards her. He needs psychological support, and Rachel also needs a lot of support. Unfortunately for Rachel, the support and understanding she gets from her employers is about as far as it goes.
Tom first came to live with Rachel and her husband, Richard, in 2008. The social workers had told them that Tom was the youngest of five children who had had a disturbed early life. 'He’d had 27 moves in six years and had been on the at-risk register as an unborn child because of the way the family was and the risk of neglect,’ says Rachel.
'But I didn’t find all that out until quite recently, and we didn’t understand how neglect and abuse can affect a child, so were not at all worried by the little we had been told. We had been trying to adopt for two years and had fallen in love with him on sight. He did swear at his foster carer when we first met him, but we just thought it was the stress of facing another move, and that all he needed was enormous amounts of love and lots of good food.’
It didn’t turn out quite like that. On his second afternoon in his new home Tom told Rachel to 'f— off’. She was rather taken aback. They had visitors so she took him aside quietly, 'but he carried on swearing at me, and hit me. And that was the start… Alarm bells began to ring. A couple of days later something else kicked off, and Richard took Tom upstairs to talk to him and he went for him, saying, “Who the f— do you think you are?” We calmed him down but then he attacked me and that was when Richard said, “I can’t do it.”
'Richard couldn’t cope with seeing Tom being violent and abusive to me all the time. It made him so angry that he was frightened he would hurt Tom, and he wanted us to end the adoption.
I couldn’t contemplate giving up on this child that no one else cared about so soon after he’d come to us, but Richard told me I had to choose: my child or my marriage. Within a week Richard had gone. It was completely out of the blue and it was very hard at the time but we are still great friends.’
Rachel was then left to parent Tom on her own and went on formally to adopt him as a single parent a year later, during which time Tom continued to be violent towards her. 'The social worker had warned me that he sometimes used bad language under stress and showed occasional challenging behaviour. But he used grotesquely sexualised language. I had no understanding that a six-year-old who looks like a four-year-old could talk like that.’
Not knowing what to do and feeling that Tom was, in fact, very frightened by yet another new set of circumstances, Rachel rang social services. 'I said, “This child needs help. We need help.” And they refused.’ Three years later, she says rather grimly, 'We are hanging in there.’
It’s something that, to their deepest regret, Mary and Craig Allen are no longer doing. Eight years ago two sisters from the North West were placed with them, but both girls are now back in care.
Charlotte and Katie were five and six when they were taken into care, and seven and eight when they came to live with Mary and Craig, in Hertfordshire. 'We had been given a reasonable history of the things that had happened in their lives,’ says Mary. 'We knew that they came from a background of extreme neglect and domestic violence, and that their father had been violent to both girls and sexually abused Charlotte. There was a suspicion he’d sexually abused Katie, too.’
But the couple felt that all of the children’s behavioural problems were glossed over. 'It was all about how wonderful they were and how well they’d settled with the foster family. They did say the reports were a bit out of date.’
So Mary and Craig asked for them to be updated and were given the new reports just before the girls came to live with them. 'I was sitting in the hotel room reading Katie’s report when suddenly I saw the words “attachment disorder” [in laymen’s terms, fear of loving] thrown into the long text. It was a worry, but it was 24 hours before we were due to bring them home; we were too far in. We’d fallen in love with them because they are gorgeous, lovely girls; it was too late to turn back.
'This was July 2004 and it had been decided that it was a good idea for the girls to come to us in the summer holidays so we could all get to know each other. Big mistake,’ says Mary. 'Children need routine and structure, and their behaviour was off the rails, extreme. Charlotte was very withdrawn and wetting the bed every night, and Katie was having huge tantrums, hour after hour, day after day.
'If her tantrum was still raging at eight or nine at night, sometimes I’d take her out of the house and walk around the streets to give Charlotte a chance of sleeping. And Katie would try to push me in front of cars, shouting obscenities at me.’
By the end of the holidays Mary and Craig were on their knees and the girls’ social worker referred them to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). 'But we just never got the support we needed,’ says Mary. After three years of struggle the social worker told Mary, 'I think this adoption is about to “disrupt”,’ the formal term for an adoption that is never finalised. 'We had just gone on and on and on – trying, trying, trying,’ recalls Mary. 'To walk away purely because people wouldn’t give us the depth of support we needed? Well, that would have been awful.’
Mary did for a while get some online coaching from the girls’ placing authority. 'One morning I was sobbing down the phone. Katie had hit me so many times and I was trying to get her to go to school and she was whacking me. We had been seriously abused, verbally and physically, for years. We were domestic-violence victims and were falling apart; you can only take so much.’ Meanwhile, they felt powerless to help Charlotte, who, says Mary, had done 'an awful lot of self-harming. She’s cut herself over the years, and threatened suicide.’
As they got into their teens both girls started bunking off school. When she was 14 Charlotte didn’t come home one night. 'And then a week later it happened again for three nights. We knew she was using cannabis and sleeping with unsuitable people – doing horrible, horrible things.
'There was always something new to worry about. The police were frequently called to try to find the girls and get them out of whatever trouble they’d got in. Otherwise it was just me screaming at any professional that would listen, “We can’t keep her safe and we can’t give her an education.” It was all escalating and eventually I called my support worker, sobbing, and said, “I’m not sure I can do this anymore.”’
Mary and Craig asked if Charlotte could go into foster care. A year later they were facing the same situation with Katie: 'She’s in a highly therapeutic unit where she can get an education and where we can still be Mum and Dad. She is still free to come home from time to time.’
It is not known exactly how many families in this country go through the agonising process of having to end an adoption. But the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), estimates that one in five adoptions fall apart before the adoption order is granted, which, if all goes well, happens a year after the child is placed.
Meanwhile the charity Adoption UK estimates that as many as one third of adoptions break down after the adoption order has been granted. Its director, Jonathan Pearce, says, 'Two thirds of adoptive families need significant support to overcome the history of abuse and neglect children bring into their family. Contemporary adoptions are becoming more and more complex; adoptions are at higher levels than they used to be 15 years ago.’
Speak to social workers, child-protection officers, child psychologists and adoptive families and you will hear stories very similar to that of Mary, Craig, Charlotte and Katie. Anecdotally, they will tell you that over the past five years it feels as though there has been an increase in the number of adoptions that disrupt or break down.
In the nine months from April to December 2009 local authorities across Britain saw care applications by social workers rise by an unprecedented 46 per cent, in the wake of the Baby P case, when 17-month-old Peter Connelly was found dead in his cot after suffering months of abuse and neglect. Yet not enough is known about the damage caused by early trauma on the infant brain to be able to help adoptive families to cope.
Professor Stephen Scott, the director of the adoption and fostering team at the Maudsley Hospital in London, says, 'Some adopted children are extremely disruptive. Not only do they fail to learn to regulate their emotions – they were never calmed and comforted by a loving parent – but also it affects their brain function. The slightest frustration can trigger a wave of stress hormones that sends them into an unreachable state of rage.’
Christine Dobson, the director of programmes at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, explains that, 'Neuron development is most rapid at the beginning of life, and all of brain development takes place from zero to three. A child who has a loving, nurturing primary care-giver for the first three years of life will get a good start and will walk through the world assuming that people are good until they learn otherwise. But a child who gets scattershot care-giving in the early months or years will assume the world is not a safe, nurturing place.’
And this in a nutshell is the story of Rachel Humphreys’s son: 'Tom doesn’t want to be bad. He is a damaged child,’ she says. 'He has an attachment disorder. He tells me it is easier not having a mum, as it is really scary to love somebody. I have a child who cannot play. The toys disappear; he cannot allow himself to get attached even to them.’
One thing that is known to make a huge difference to the success of adoptions is the speed with which a child is taken from its potentially perilous birth family and placed with what it is hoped will be its 'forever family’. Martin Narey, the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, says, 'The really successful adoptions are when the child starts with the adoptive parents while still a baby. The older a child is when they are adopted the greater the likelihood of a disruption, and the younger the child is the smaller the likelihood of breakdown. It is better at two than three, but best of all when a child is a few weeks old.’
Julie Selwyn, the director of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the University of Bristol, agrees. Yet across England and Wales, says Selwyn, 'It can commonly take 12 months for the decision to be made. A year in adult terms is not very long, but in the life of a baby it is a long, long time – so much is happening developmentally during that time.’
A new type of adoption called concurrent planning could be the answer. Developed by the children’s charity Coram in 1999 it allows babies at risk to be placed with their putative adoptive families within days of birth. The adoptive family provides foster care for a year, during which time the birth parents are allowed contact with the baby and given every chance to turn their lives around and show that they could parent the child. If they don’t manage that within the 12 months, the child is placed for adoption with the foster family. This way the adults – the potential adoptive parents – have taken the risk rather than the child.
BAAF would like to see concurrent planning rolled out nationally, and while most local authorities agree that the benefits to children are enormous and say they would like to use the system, most of them also say that it is too expensive and they would have to have smaller caseloads or more social workers to make it work. The disruption figure for Coram is consistently 2.8 per cent – one out of the 60 to 80 placements they make each year – whereas the average disruption rate for local authorities is 16 per cent. So they are obviously on to something.
For Rachel Humphreys, this is small consolation. She lays the blame for the problems she and Tom are struggling with squarely on the social workers who placed Tom with her.
'They weren’t honest with us. I have since been able to get hold of his school records, and there are reports in there that he bit other children, and a letter from one of his foster carers saying that he’d attacked other children in her care and she couldn’t allow him to stay overnight with her anymore because he was so violent. We wouldn’t have touched him with a bargepole if we’d been shown that; we’d have known that we couldn’t handle him.’
On a good day, though, Tom’s adoring mum will say, 'My son is a bright spark, a lovely enthusiastic, football-loving child. There are wonderful times and he is lovely until he is in a muddle and it is all there bubbling up and he will smash a plate or a glass and get abusive. Sometimes he says, “I need to kill you because I want to go back to care.” I say, “You will go somewhere really not nice if you kill me, and you will not get apple crumble there.”’
I'm sorry but adopting any child, other than a newborn, and not being prepared for emotional and behavioral problems is akin to meeting a man in bar, starting a relationship and the complaining that he drinks too much. Does it need to be spelled out for you in a written report or flashing lights: "I am in a bar because I like to drink." It's like starting a relationship with a married man and being shocked when he cheats on you! Cheaters cheat. Women do these things all the time....and it is just plain dumb ignoring of obvious red lights!
Children who have been institutionalized or in multiple placements have serious attachment issues!
Children who have been institutionalized or in multiple placements have serious attachment issues!
The proposed "solution" of enforcing a one year period on natural mothers of NEWBORNS does not apply to these older child placements which are the ones at high risk for termination.
Putting such a strict time limit is unnecessarily harsh and punitive and does not address the problems of improper expectations and educational preparedness of potential adopters who are so desperate they ignore the obvious!
What help is being given mothers and their families during that year?