More than a quarter of adoptive families are in crisis, new research has revealed, as parents with adopted children tell The Independent they are “overwhelmed” by pressures and face a lack of support.
Half of parents reported living with a child who was violent – including being punched, kicked or threatened with knives – with more serious incidents including hospital visits and sexual assault, according to a survey by Adoption UK and the BBC.
More than a quarter of families said they were facing serious challenges that had an impact on the wider family, were at risk of breakdown or disruption or had already been disrupted.
Adoptive parents have said they feel “extraordinarily unsupported” by social services, saying they have been “bandied” around different agencies and receive no help.
One such case is that of Sarah and Dave, who adopted Ollie* 14 years ago when he was 10-months old. In the early years of the adoption, Ollie’s development followed a normal course, but issues soon started to emerge.
“His speech was very slow. He always struggled with friendships. He was very hyper, and was later diagnosed with ADHD and autism – both of which were connected with the heroin dependency of his mother during pregnancy,” Sarah told The Independent.
“He had an inability to connect with his own emotions. He had a lack of empathy, and found it very hard to understand consequences – these are all very isolating traits. He always had terrible issues making friends. We had increasing problems with him at school.”
Ollie got through primary school – although Sarah said he always appeared to be a bit excluded, and recalls that as a mother she felt “a bit ostracised in the school car park”.
When he went to secondary school, Ollie was “overwhelmed” by the size and scale, struggling to deal with the social elements that came with it, Sarah said.
“He found it all very hard to access, and increasingly got into awful trouble there. His language became fruity, he easily abused people, it would all escalate quickly,” she said.
It soon became clear Ollie wouldn’t last at the secondary school, so Sarah fought hard to get him an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) – a package of special needs support from the local council – at which point she said she ran into the start of a series of difficulties with social services.
“There’s this pretence that the different services know how to work together, but they constantly proved not to. I was constantly being bandied around between the services,” said Sarah.
“It took an extraordinary amount of resilience to fight with all the services at the same time. It was very difficult.”
Finally, after 18 months, Sarah and Dave managed to get an EHCP plan for Ollie, but after starting at a special school – where he boarded – he fell deeper into trouble.
“Ollie was extraordinarily disruptive to the family – he bullied his older brother. In order to maintain his place in the family, we decided it was better to go to boarding school,” Sarah said.
“But there, surrounded by kids with social and emotional issues, and desperate for a connection, Ollie was drawn to the most edgy kids who challenged authority. He became involved with gangs and drugs.”
The family has since moved to a different part of the country, where Sarah said support has been even more difficult to access.
Since trying to access support in their new local authority, she said she had been referred to nine different departments, including post adoption support, crisis intervention, youth offending and Child and Adolescent Mental Health – but none had managed to help.
“They purport to offer adoption support services – all adoptive parents should get it, but I’ve made 20 to 30 phone calls and sent as many letters, and received no response,” said Sarah.
“It shocked me that when you need these things they are just unavailable. They make big promises through a slick website detailing all their services, yet once you begin to ask for some of that help you realise it’s just scaffolding that masks the fact they provide nothing.
“As a parent, feeling a bit overwhelmed and wanting help. It’s such a miserable experience battling against an external bureaucracy that doesn’t do what it says.
“They are good at writing letters and holding multi-professional meetings so they can tick all their boxes but there is nothing substantial beyond it.”
Sarah said Ollie has since been “increasingly erratic”, and was recently arrested for carrying a knife, subsequently ran away for a week and was reported missing, only to return to steal money.
She said his increasingly abusive and erratic behaviour had got to the point where she feels unable to keep either him, herself or other family members safe – yet the local authority response has only “tried to stick things together despite gaping chasms”.
The family is still trying to access support and funds to have the family properly assessed so they can access “more appropriate therapeutic input” through the adoption support fund, she said.
“We always have felt our love and commitment would prevail, but our situation definitely is now at a crisis. Had the services been more responsive, there might have been more ways out. We still feel extraordinarily unsupported,” Sarah added.
“It seems extraordinary that it should be this hard, or that parents already going through such trauma should need such persistence resilience to battle through bureaucratic and obstructive systems.”
The family’s local authority has been contacted for comment, but had not provided a response at the time of writing.
Responding to the survey results, Dr Sue Armstrong Brown, chief executive of Adoption UK said: “The survey results broadly mirror what we already knew – that many families are experiencing serious challenges.
“In a utopian world all adoptive parents’ experiences would be ‘fulfilling and stable’ but we’re talking about some of the most vulnerable children in society.”
Around 5,500 children are adopted every year in the UK, with the majority of adoptions involving children over the age of one, siblings and children with disabilities, who have been taken into care.
Many have suffered trauma, neglect and abuse, which can result in a range of complex developmental and psychological difficulties. Research suggests almost three-quarters of adopted children have significant mental health problems of one kind or another.
*Names have been changed to protect the family’s identity