Adoption Breakdown

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By Colette Flynn
on 05 February, 2017

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What should schools know about families at risk of adoption disruption?

A Poignant Issue

Recent news reports have reminded us of an upsetting reality; some of the most vulnerable children in our care system get adopted only for this placement to break down.

This can happen despite painstaking efforts from the new family to make the changes work. Government funding is available for families to access services post adoption and typically this is spent on specialist therapeutic provisions. However, last October the government ruled that this funding was to be capped at £5,000 per child per year, a limitation which worries many adoption professionals who fear that this could negatively impact on a number of children and families, resulting in more frequent adoption breakdown.

The route to adoption is long and arduous for the individuals concerned, not least for the child at the centre of the change. It is vital that they are helped to manage this difficult process with emotionally literate psychological support. By the time a child has been taken into care, it is likely that they have experienced a great deal of suffering as a result of their prior experiences. Local authorities decide that it is in the best interests of the child that they are removed from home and relocated within the care system.

This can happen for a number of tragic reasons: perhaps they have experienced severe neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or maybe they have witnessed horrific scenes of domestic violence. Whatever the circumstance, the likelihood is that the child has experienced much anguish and hardship in their original family home and this fact needs addressing. Unfortunately, the sudden upheaval from their familiar environment and the loss of their recognisable surroundings and people can cause additional distress.

The Facts and Figures

Adoption UK estimate a quarter of families post adoption are in crisis and are finding it hard to keep their family together. Research conducted over 12 years (Selwyn et al., 2014) has shown that children adopted after the age of four are 13 times more likely to struggle to settle into their adoptive family.

It seems that the longer children are exposed to adverse experiences in their early years, the more difficulty they have trusting adults, feeling secure and finding happiness in their new setting. Figures suggest that there are around 70,440 children in care in the UK (DfE: 2016), and 5,330 children per year are successfully adopted by families (DfE 2015). It is harrowing to reflect on these figures and remember that behind each of these numeric values is the troubled and dislocated life-experience of a child.

If children are adopted as older infants, then maladaptive behaviour may have become somewhat entrenched. Consequently, these children often need much more than limited access to therapy. Their young encounters are complicated and require extensive, long-term therapeutic interventions to meet their emotional wellbeing needs successfully.

Working Creatively with Grief and Loss

Psychotherapy, in particular creatively informed work, can effectively assist traumatised children in building positive, reliable and trusting relationships with adults. The Arts Therapies, like the ones employed by the Emotional and Trauma Support service at One Education, are useful for children post adoption as they are at times unable to express their complex inner worlds using words.

Trauma is processed and stored within the brain in a fashion which is not linear, coherent or easily unpicked. Therapeutic sessions involving the arts manage to operate and communicate on multiple non-verbal levels, allowing the child to convey the inexpressible via their innate creativity and emergent expressive lexicon. Experimenting with thoughtful processing, relational activity and sensory exploration allow the child to develop their own narrative, furthering understanding of their internal reality and collective past experiences. All this can be very complicated and difficult to comprehend within the limitations of language.

Adoptive children can struggle with integrating their sense of self with the major loss of their biological family. We infer a great deal of our identity from the original blueprint we are ascribed. Adoptees with significant memory of their biological family need to process this fundamental loss and grief in order to develop a renewed and secure sense of identity. Often this requires specialist help in the form of psychological support to consolidate their position, emotionally, within the adoptive family. Incomplete or misunderstood histories cause problems in terms of this integration.

Financial Cost vs. Social Cost

It costs society more long term when we limit the amount of psychological help that we provide to these adopted children. The effect of this sad truth is even more pronounced if the individuals in question are placed into care after the age of four, with strong and powerful memories of their experiences left unprocessed, they can exhibit incongruences through incredibly challenging behaviours and, in turn, put more pressure on the adoptive placement, leaving them vulnerable to breakdown.

The needs of this population are at times extensive, with social, emotional, mental health and educational needs all well documented and the relationship between the severity of children’s behavioural and emotional needs being an important indicator of educational progress and participation (Biehal et al., 2010).

The Containing Relationship in Therapy

The reason that therapy can work well for these children is because the therapist acts as a form of container for the relational disruption the child has experienced. The therapist acts as an accommodating object and holds the child’s feelings. This is maintained as separate from the worlds of family and school, but embedded well within them. It is within this containing relationship that the child is able to explore intense feelings around their biological family in a safe and contained way before going on to be able to grow, and hopefully flourish, in their adoptive family and school environments.

For this to happen, professionals and parents alike need to have compassion, patience and access to bespoke resources to support the young individual through this difficult transition. It is only through working together across all the spheres through which these children move: social care, educational and familial that we are well positioned to provide adequate assistance to them and afford them the best possible chance of flourishing. One Education’s Emotional and Trauma Support team, psychotherapists and educational psychologists are well placed in terms of their relationships with schools and local authorities to provide the right kind of support for these previously looked after and recently adopted children.

For more information on the support we can provide, please contact Colette Flynn on 0844 967 1111.

Additional References 

Gore Langton, Emma. (2016) "Adopted And Permanently Placed Children In Education: From Rainbows To Reality". Educational Psychology in Practice: 1-15.

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