Supporting adoptive families experiencing #CPV: making things better, not worse

This is a post that has been a long time brewing. My thanks to a friend for her contribution in helping me work out the many issues involved. Any errors or lack of clarity in the way this is laid out are down to me.

The experience of violence and abuse from children within adoptive families has been well researched and documented. (See for instance Selwyn et al and the work of Al Coates and Wendy Thorley here and here.) Greater recognition and the provision of the Adoption Support Fund within England have made it slightly easier for parents to access help when needed within the last years, but it remains the case that many families feel let down by services who have misunderstood their requests for help, or their degree of pain, or even the mechanisms by which such violence might have come about. (If you are in any doubt about this, the website of Special Guardians and Adopters Together is a record of the anguish and anger of a group of parents who feel betrayed in this respect by the system.) I can speak personally about the individuals who have contacted me or spoken to me at events.

Within Britain, the vast majority of adoptions take place from care, and children may have been removed from their birth families following quite severe abuse or neglect, then moved between foster parents, before they are eventually settled in their new family. Some of these children will have also experienced the consequences of drug or alcohol use pre-natally, with lasting impact. Adoptive families find themselves thrust into a world of which they might previously have had not even a passing knowledge.

Some (and I emphasise the word deliberately) children, for reasons stated above, will find it hard to form new attachments. They may have difficulties making sense of a neuro-typical world, or in complying with expectations that they will “fit in”. They may struggle to regulate their emotions. They may have poor appreciation of danger, or risk, or consequences. They may have difficulties at school or may be excluded. They may be influenced by current relationships with peers or their first family. They may be vulnerable to exploitation by local gangs because of their needs and experiences. As they reach their teens – with consequent brain changes, hormonal surges, peer group influences and greater expectations of independence – their behaviour within the home may become more and more unpredictable and violent. Children, and young people, in this situation will come to the attention of any number of services. (Indeed, on average about 200 children and young people re-enter care each year. It is not clear how many of these are because of child to parent violence, though “beyond parental control” features regularly among the reasons.) How they are understood or treated, and how their parents are viewed or supported, will be crucial in determining the outcome of any intervention.

As time passes, and possibly in the absence of other support, many parents begin their own research into conditions, diagnoses, behaviour and parenting. Indeed, some may already be experts in their own field, even in social care, child development or mental health … They may have successfully raised other children. They may be advocating for their child on a daily basis to enable them to find security and to thrive. They may already have achieved huge positive changes in a child’s wellbeing. Yet, when they ask for help, too many parents still report feeling patronised, de-skilled, shamed, side-lined and made to feel part of the problem itself. In an escalating and self-destructive spiral, parents have reported responses which contribute to a worsening of the situation (as already vulnerable children feel their security threatened) and of their relationship with helping agencies, rather than the hoped for relief. What can be done to remedy this?

It can be galling to admit that we do not know the answer to something, but in an area of knowledge and work that is moving fast, social workers will engage with families whose lived experience may well match or exceed the training they (professionals) have received; parents who seek to be valued as partners in caring for some of the nation’s most vulnerable children, a role they were given when the child was placed or the adoption order was made. A request for help is met with a child in need or a child protection investigation; without proper understanding of the issues, or in the absence of resources, there is no remedy found; the case is closed without help being offered. This is really a call for social work that is respectful, compassionate, relationship based, and founded on up-to-date knowledge; a model of social work that is increasingly recognised as offering a more humane, and indeed effective, way forward in meeting the needs of those whom we serve. (By which I mean the families – not our employers!)

Sometimes relationships breakdown because of bureaucratic failings – information not passed on, or someone not replaced. Other times individuals feel aggrieved and issues are never addressed or resolved, festering until the relationship is irretrievable. A simple following of procedures without proper explanation, consideration of specific circumstances, or poor feedback afterwards can be as damaging to goodwill and respect as blatant rudeness or the giving of incorrect information. And when relationships do break down, the impact on families can be devastating: additional stress in already over-stretched households, worsening mental health all-round, financial implications of taking time off work to care for further damaged children or to attend multiple meetings … Whereas, when things go right, all win. All feel respected, all learn, all are more understanding of the limitations of what is available, and both children and adults are better protected.

For me, the two most important pieces of information to convey would be around parenting courses and safeguarding / child protection. With children whose experience of life has been so out of the ordinary, an ordinary parenting course cannot hope to match their needs, or those of the parents, and many report that being sent on such courses (often multiple times) has served to worsen the situation and in fact to decrease safety. With increasing understanding of different therapeutic styles of parenting which are so essential in these circumstances, it is important that this information is made available to practitioners as a fundamental principle.

Concerning safeguarding and child protection, I am still contacted regularly by families whose cry for help has been met with a child protection investigation as a first – or eventual – response, when nothing else has been available. “Hurt children hurt” is a maxim you often hear, and this extends of course to those who continue to exert the only control they have through abuse, or allegations against their parents. Of course this should be investigated, but the way in which this is managed will say much about the understanding of trauma, and of the needs of parents in this situation. And with our understanding of the concept of contextual safeguarding, as well as the impact of first family experiences, it would be important not to simply assume that any risk comes from the current home situation, and to seek to work with the parents to afford the greatest protection and safety.

Sometimes, sadly, a child cannot remain in the home because the safety of the whole family is compromised. A parent may themselves have asked for their removal, but this should never be confused with an automatic end to their capacity to care for and love their child. It is possible that the placement was always a mistake: a child whose needs were not suited to conventional family life, or an inappropriate sibling placement perhaps, or it may simply be that the much needed help was never available. Can we be sure that the alternative provision is better, safer, more able to meet the young person’s needs? Is there therapeutic support available? Could the family have accessed that previously? The recent news reports (here for instance and here) of unsuitable and unsafe homes for young people confirm long standing complaints of families whose much-loved children have been removed “for their own safety” to end up further traumatised or exploited in their new situation. Many parents will continue to stay in touch with their children, “parenting at a distance”, whether because both want this, or because their child’s needs are not met in other ways. For parents to feel understood and valued, it is important that communication remains open, that respect is maintained, and that their continued involvement is properly recognised.

Apologies if this has rambled a bit. I have sought to represent the voices of a particular group of parents struggling to be properly heard and to have their concerns taken seriously. In conclusion, I would summarise what they ask for as follows:

  • A better understanding all round of the lasting effects of early trauma and loss
  • A better understanding all round of the lasting effects of alcohol and substance use by mothers while pregnant
  • A better understanding all round of child to parent violence and abuse
  • More comprehensive communication between adoption agencies and prospective adopters
  • Early intervention around loss and trauma as standard, not simply when requested
  • Specific help and training early on, in different, therapeutic parenting styles and practices
  • More joined up work between different arms of children’s social care
  • A non-adversarial approach towards adoptive parents when things go wrong or when help is requested
  • A model of partnership work with parents who may have developed many years’ worth of skills and knowledge in a specific condition or need
  • An appreciation of the lasting bond and commitment to the welfare of adopted children by their parents even when they cannot live at home
  • Continued communication with adoptive families when “parenting from a distance”

As always, your comments are appreciated. Please do join the discussion!

You may find the website of the POTATO group helpful for discussion and further information about parenting traumatised adopted teens.


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