A new study from Australia suggests that a significant number of children who languish inside the care system may be going on to suffer much greater levels of psychological and physical harm than children who are placed with appropriate carers at an early age.

The study, which was published in the Australian Social Work Journal, also casts doubt on research from the UK which suggests that children who are adopted from care have similarly high rates of mental health problems to those who stay in state care.

The research paper, “Descriptive Analysis of Foster Care Adoptions in New South Wales, Australia”, was produced by Andrea del Pozo de Bolger, Debra Dunstan and Melissa Kaltner.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first piece of research identifying the care system as potentially posing a risk of harm to children.

In addition, the research also emphasises the need to preserve birth family connections.

Looking at post adoption contact, the researchers concluded that care plans for children being adopted needed to be fluid throughout a child’s life and include contact with birth parents where possible, rather than the current provision of one care plan which is intended to last for the duration of their childhood and which very rarely features face to face contact with birth parents.

Unlike the UK, Australia appears to be committed to keeping birth family connections alive, which the researchers say is demonstrated by the frequency of face-to-face contact in the sample cases they studied from New South Wales (NSW).

In the UK, post adoption contact usually takes the form of indirect letterbox contact twice a year.

The research does make one mistake, though. It claims that recent legislative changes in NSW are consistent with what the researchers see as a drive to increase adoptions in the UK.

That is no longer the case in the UK, after several successful challenges in the European Court of Human Rights clarified the law in this area, namely that adoption should always be a method of last resort.

The researchers make several interesting observations:

  • Children placed with appropriate carers at an early age and who experienced continuity of care displayed “seemingly small numbers of behavioural and emotional disorders.”
  • Positive developmental outcomes may only apply to those adopted children who are placed in favourable circumstances at a very early age.
  • This outcome differs from the high rates of complex psychopathology (attachment difficulties, relationship insecurity, sexual behaviour, trauma-related anxiety, conduct problems, defiance, inattention or hyperactivity, self-injury, food maintenance behaviours) identified in the population of children in care.

The research also offers alternative explanations for these outcomes:

On early adoptive placements that lasted:

“The finding [that children who are adopted at an early age and who receive consistent care] may suggest that an agency is more likely to pursue an adoption application if the child does not experience high needs.”

“Second, the finding may be the product of the timing of the data collection. An English study suggested that children adopted from care have similarly high rates of mental health problems to those who remain in care…

However, the data were gathered some years after adoption, whereas the present study describes functioning at the time of adoption.”

“Therefore, a longitudinal study under the new legislative arrangements is required to determine if this outcome is enduring. This study should include comparison groups featuring children placed early in stable foster placements to ensure that any developmental outcomes observed are not erroneously attributed to placement type.”

On post adoption contact:

“In regards to the arrangements for post adoption contact recorded in adoption plans, some important issues emerged…

Contact plans suggested the NSW Supreme Court attempts to contemplate fluid circumstances as well as consideration for broader birth family ties. This is consistent with recommendations from international literature…

Thus, a single contact plan is unlikely to meet a child’s needs as they develop. Likewise, further exploration of the impact of face-to-face contact on children’s wellbeing is necessary to inform Australian practice, given its infrequent use in other settings.”

Researching Reform advocates for a system which offers birth families in need tailored and dynamic support, while ensuring that contact with birth families remains, wherever possible.

This could be done through a truly open adoption process which allows birth parents to remain in frequent contact with their children while allowing adoptive parents and highly trained child welfare professionals to assist with the day-to-day love and care all children need.

Alternatively, where needs are less great, allowing children to remain with their birth families while providing families with expert support, including regularly updated care plans to reflect the ever changing needs of children.

It is absurd that we don’t do any of this already.

Further Reading:

Adoption 7