Adoption was once viewed as the best solution for children in care, but research has proven that the only winners are councils and companies investing in the process.
While the world has become familiar with the UK government’s misguided practices when it comes to adoption – from financial incentives and targets for placing children, to taking children from birth parents without their consent – the phenomenon of disrupted adoptions has been kept quiet by agencies and local authorities with a vested interested in child placements.
This secrecy also validates the myth that adoptions are permanent, and are never undone. But adoptive families can give children back, and they are doing so at an alarming rate.
The technical term for this is adoption disruption, and happens when an adoption falls through, or adoptive parents decide to give their adopted children back to the agencies which hosted them.
Whether by omission or design, stats on adoption disruption are sketchy and there is currently no legal requirement on adoption services to keep a record of how many adoptions fall through or fail.
A Freedom of Information request in 2018 found that adoption disruption had been on the rise since 2012, peaking at 2016 and included breakdowns which happened after an initial placement was made.
Across all 152 local authorities the request revealed that there had been 87 breakdowns in 2012-13, increasing to 160 in 2015-16 and 132 in 2016-17. The figures offered are likely to be conservative estimates, according to Children and Young People Now Magazine which made the request.
However, some experts say at least one in five adoptions (20%) in the UK fail.
The latest stats, which haven’t been collected for 2018-2019 are likely to show a spike in disrupted adoptions, after several parents who spoke to the BBC said they had given back their adopted children because they were unable to cope with their needs.
It’s a heartbreaking scenario, and one which councils and adoption agencies must shoulder a large portion of the blame.
Adoption is a much cheaper option when compared to foster care and family support, as it allows councils to shed themselves of children, and the associated and often significant costs that go with fostering and social care.
Placing children in adoptive families means councils and agencies no longer have to bear the financial costs of child care, which are transferred, often in full, to the adoptive parents.
To enable these placements, social services teams and independent adoption agencies are not being honest with adoptive families about the children on their books.
Poor data collection and an at times wilful failure to produce proper Life Story Books – which are supposed to chronicle a child’s life fully before, during and after adoption – allows adoption bodies to present piecemeal information about a child’s complex needs.
Adoption agents gloss over details, ‘forget’ to mention a child’s complicated history and tell adoptive families whatever they want to hear to secure an adoption.
The end result: even more adoption disruption, as adoptive parents overwhelmed and un-prepared to look after a child with sophisticated needs find they can’t cope, and give their adopted children back.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Press in 2018, a woman who gave back her adopted children said she felt social services “placed the children with us and ran for the hills. I felt abandoned. None of it was the children’s fault. Their behaviour is a result of their life experience. They are not responsible for anything to do with the breakdown.”
She went on to say, “There is a lack of support, energy and finance to do anything to help. I was spinning into a point of total despair and all the social workers would say was: ‘don’t worry, you are doing a fantastic job’. There was no recognition, no offer of support. What me and the children needed was just dismissed.”
And it’s not just adoptive parents who get short changed in the process. Birth parents are also abandoned, as councils prioritise cost-cutting over genuine care.
Birth families who need support and assistance have for a long time accused local authorities of removing children from them when they’ve approached their local councils for help.
Councils can see the costs coming a mile away, and the temptation to remove children and place them in adoptive homes is enormous. Adoption is much easier and more cost-effective than providing birth families with therapeutic services or specialist support.
And when an adoption order is made, birth families lose all legal rights to their children, so that when adoption disruption takes place there is no onus on the adoptive family or the agency to notify the birth parents of the change.
This oversight also limits the ability of councils to place children back with their birth parents, who may have turned their lives around or may now be able to demonstrate meaningful changes in their lives which would allow reunification.
But what about the children? By far the most important people in this process, they are reduced to numbers, data and failed policy, rather than highlighted and held up as our central priority, which of course, they should be.
We already know that an unprecedented number of children are being bounced around the care system, and research shows this is damaging children and their development.
We also know that adoption only works for a minority of children, and that quality of life is far more important than securing an adoption placement with families who are clearly not appropriate.
The myth that adoption is permanent, and offers a fairytale ending to a child’s difficult life journey, falls far short of the truth.
Image by Hans Kretzmann