Published by the Council for Disabled Children, August 2018

Adoption changes the lives of the children and families involved forever. Whilst providing nurturing new families for children can be extremely rewarding for adoptive parents, it also presents significant challenges.

The pressure can multiply if a young child has additional needs that emerge after placement or that parents feel unprepared for. Families can struggle to cope with the extra demands of raising a child with special educational needs, disabilities or health problems.

A new report by the Council for Disabled Children, part of the National Children’s Bureau, sheds light on the experiences of adoptive parents, and highlights the difficulty that professionals face in recognising, understanding and responding to the additional needs of young children placed for adoption.

The vast majority of adopted children have been through the care system following abuse or neglect. They are more likely to have social, emotional and mental health issues and behavioural problems than their peers, and have lower attainment in school.

The research, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), explored how adverse early experiences impact on children’s health and development in highly individual ways and can make health issues or special educational needs, including common conditions such as autism, challenging to identify. Interpreting young children’s symptoms and behaviours is often further complicated by gaps in what is known about them and their family health histories, as a result of these children’s disrupted early lives.

Accounts by parents and professionals published in ‘Realistic Positivity’ underline the dilemmas involved in sharing information about a child’s current and potential future needs with prospective adopters. While parents reported feeling that their child’s needs were downplayed during the matching process, professionals emphasised the uncertainty in what may be known and knowable about a child. Both indicated the need for honesty about what may lie ahead, without losing sight of a child’s strengths and potential.

The report calls upon adoption agencies to ensure clear and open communication with prospective adopters about children, but also about the services and support available to families.

During and after adoption, families may rely on a range of services delivered by different agencies. In Interviews with the Council for Disabled Children, parents and professionals emphasised the importance of responsive and well-informed social work teams, therapeutic providers, health services, early years settings, schools and voluntary agencies. They called for better coordinated multiagency responses centred on the needs of children and families. Some wanted post-adoption services to proactively offer support, based on the presumption that families will require help.

Adoption can be a child’s first chance of a stable and supportive family life, so there is a lot at stake in making sure that adoptive parents get the help they need to make it work. But professionals often find it extremely difficult to assess a young adopted child’s needs, and whether additional needs are linked to traumatic early experiences or other health conditions. There is a lot that services can do to ensure families get the right support at the right time, and much of it involves better cooperation and communication.
- Christine Lenehan, Director, Council for Disabled Children

The report, based on independent research commissioned and funded by the NIHR Children’s Policy Research Unit, stresses that the challenges facing adoptive families come against a backdrop of continued pressure on the budgets of local authorities and other service providers.

It also explores perceptions of the Adoption Support Fund. Parents and professionals described the Adoption Support Fund, which funds therapeutic services for adopted children and their families, as a crucial lifeline. However, some expressed concerns about whether available resources could match expectations in the long term, and about services’ capacity to facilitate access to the ASF whilst supporting families directly.

Drawing upon interviews and other research, the report identifies potential areas for improvement within the current system, and as policy changes are implemented.

To read the report and view the practice briefing, click here.