A couple of years ago I was asked to write something about child to parent violence with reference to adoptive families. For a variety of reasons I wrote something with an entirely different focus, and in retrospect I’m glad I did. I had met and interviewed an adoptive mother as part of my Masters research but, while acknowledging that an adopted child might bring issues from their early life to a new family, I had no real understanding at that time of early trauma and its effect on attachment and behaviour.
Since then I have started to explore this area further, after a particular twitter exchange about whether or not you should call the police if your child became violent or aggressive to you, and then reading some blogs from the adoption community. Already a contentious area for so many reasons: the criminalising of children, potentially making the problem worse depending on the police response, ineffective as a deterrent, but perhaps necessary if there is real risk to life; I was gently reminded that children who have experienced extreme early neglect or abuse may need a different response altogether.
Last week, the Department for Education published an important research paper, Beyond the Adoption Order: challenges, intervention, disruption. This is the first national study of adoption disruption in England and seeks to quantify disruption rates and to identify factors associated with disruption. Families, young people and social workers were interviewed and the report ends with a series of recommendations. Families were divided for the study into three groups, those where the adoption was going relatively well, those where there were challenges but the child remained at home, and those where the child had left prematurely.
The proportion of adoptions that disrupt post order was estimated to fall between 2% and 9%. Age at entry to care and at adoptive placement, and the number of moves prior to this, were found to be significant indicators of disruption, as was entry to care for reasons of abuse or neglect. The majority of disruptions occurred when children were teenagers (61% between 11 and 16 years old). Violence to parents and siblings was the main reason for children leaving home prematurely (80%); and lack of strong positive support and feeling blamed for the difficulties were particularly prominent in this group.
The report contains graphic accounts of the levels of violence and abuse experienced by families, and, sadly, the same shame, blame, and lack of appropriate response that has been reported generally in parent abuse. While this group of families might be expected to need additional support for their children to deal with early experiences, parents reported that they were unable to access help because of the severity of the need, lack of specialist skills, and ignorance of theory and understanding. Indeed they often reported finding themselves subject to safeguarding investigations, as the division between children and families teams and fostering and adoption teams highlighted a different focus for attention and made a joined up response difficult. This is an important area of research and information that has been missing up to now in the field of child to parent violence. The report gives strong recommendations for improvements to the system, designed to bring in expert support earlier on and to improve training for professionals as well as adoptive families. Mention is made in particular of Break4Change and NVR, as well as other therapeutic techniques found to be helpful.
For additional “colour” I cannot recommend enough Sally Donovan’s book, No Matter What, which gives a heart-wrenching account of the adoption process and a family’s journey together towards “hope, love and healing”. It is an excellent place to start in developing an understanding of the damage done to some children prior to adoption, the impact this has on new family relationships, and the need to adapt and rethink standard responses to behavioural issues.
Julie Selwyn discusses her work towards producing the report here.