What's happening with the adoption process

Alison Roy
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The experience of adoption, both adopting and being adopted, can stir-up deep emotional pain, often related to loss and early trauma.

The difficulties involved within the adoption experience can begin very early in the process. 

Recent figures reveal that adoptions are down which could be for a number of reasons, including the administrative challenges caused by the pandemic and the restrictions of prospective adopters meeting and visiting children in their foster homes or previous high profile rulings which favour birth parents even when there appears to be evidence of abuse and neglect. 

Another potential reason is the level of support many children who are currently placed for adoption (and their new parents) require, which is significantly higher than it was even 10 years ago. 

This requires further unpicking but I have highlighted a few points worth considering in terms of what may need to be in place to support more viable adoptions going forward.

Adopters who have already experienced the loss of not being able to have a biological child (although this is not the case for all), find that as soon as they become adoptive parents, they are faced with additional losses and traumas brought into their lives by their adopted children.

This is because these children have had their own difficult histories in addition to being separated from their birth parents who themselves may well have had mental health problems, been in care and/or suffered from or been perpetrators of domestic violence or abuse. Birth mothers may also have consumed alcohol or drugs during the pregnancy. 

Many adopters hadn’t realised just how challenging being a family could be, nor had they anticipated how powerful the birth family influence could be. However, admitting that they are struggling, for some parents, equates to failing, so they “hobble on”  as one adopter put it, until they reach a crisis. 

There are, of course, those for whom adoption has worked well without much professional input but in my experience, this is rarer today than it used to be. 

It is important to show balance and reflect how the adoptive process can be positive and that there is such a thing as a good “match”, even if there are struggles. 

However, it is still likely that parents will have plenty of challenges to contend with in addition to the usual demands of family life. 

It is to be expected that there will be times for all families when life will be difficult, but for adoptive parents and adopted children, the loneliness and isolation of feeling different, especially during a pandemic when communities are being encouraged to stay apart rather than pulling together, can feel more intense. 

These are the families who very much need a community around them and the sensitive support from professionals and more acknowledgement of what parents (and children) may face for the duration of their adoption journey – well beyond the adoption order.

As a professional working in this area, I have learned that taking the time to understand the “real” issues for adoptive parents, even if there aren’t clear solutions, can help to validate their experiences and counter some of the feelings of isolation, disappointment and despair.

You feel one day like,life is ok, we’re a family, we can crack this’ and then the next, it feels as if everything is wrong, maybe even worse than it was before and no-one has the energy to start over. You can feel so alone and you don’t want to face anyone. You know that it’s never going

to be what you hoped for and that’s when you just want to give up…you don’t feel you’re ever going to find your way through it all….” 

At the time of writing, resources are sorely stretched within mental health services and social care teams, which means that for many families, by the time help arrives, it is perceived to be “too little too late”. 

These challenges for adoptive families are becoming more publicly known and spoken about in the media, but they are no less painful. 

What’s more, the divisions and rifts between young people and their parents, or parents and professionals can last for a very long time, making it hard for the wounds to be tended to or to have the chance to heal. 

These challenges and potentially complex difficulties need to be taken into account throughout the adoption process, from assessing adopters to the granting of adoption orders in the courts.

Adopted children and young people are also facing their own enormous challenges - like having to quickly become acclimated to a new family and building attachments in totally alien environments. 

The shock and destabilising effect on the personality of this experience, especially after numerous losses, can be difficult to quantify. 

What enables families to stay together, through all of this, remains a mystery to me, but the role of professionals in providing support during the darkest times, is crucial. The value of sticking it out and being willing to be alongside families for a big chunk of their journey should not be underestimated.

Alison Roy is a consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist, spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists and the clinical lead for a specialist adoption service in CAMHS.

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