Adoption can bring huge long-term gains for children, but leaving a previous carer also involves a major loss. So how do we help children manage this huge upheaval in their lives?
Received wisdom in social work suggests that a quick, clean break is best. It is usual practice for children to move home seven to 10 days after meeting their new parents, and contact with their foster carer after the move is generally no earlier than three months, and often a long time after that. In reality, many children never see their foster carer again.
As two child psychotherapists working in a social work team, we became concerned about the impact these abrupt moves were having on the children. The sudden loss, we felt, was likely to leave them bewildered, distressed and fearful of future losses – not the best position from which to try to build a trusting relationship with their new parents.
We could see that the adults involved were sensitive and thoughtful people whose aim was to make the transition as painless as possible. And yet, when the time came, these rigid procedures appeared to be adhered to blindly, with no one able to say exactly why this clean break approach was best, and nobody confident enough to try another way.
One example is Kyle*, who was placed with his foster carer, Liz, at a few weeks old. For the first three years of his life she provided him with love and stability, comforting him after the intense weekly contact sessions with his birth parents and welcoming him into her family as if he were her own child. A deep bond grew between them, and he clearly felt safe and loved. When adoptive parents were found for him, amid the excitement, both Kyle’s social worker and Liz expressed great anxiety about how he would cope with the separation.
Despite much discussion about what this might mean for Kyle, we were still told that Kyle would have to move home 10 days after meeting his new parents, and would then have no contact with Liz for three months. Any deviation from this was seen as too risky, undermining the adoptive placement and confusing Kyle. This, we were told, was how moves had always been done.
On his last night with Liz, Kyle slept with his arms clasped around her neck. When the time came to say goodbye, he was surprisingly quiet and compliant, and this was interpreted as a sign that he was fine. Once he had moved in with his new parents, they were left to make the decision about whether he would ever see Liz again.
Soon after this, we began work on a research project into why moves were carried out in this way. Through analysing semi-structured interviews with social workers, foster carers and adopters, we identified a blind spot in people’s minds that prevented them from seeing what was going on with the child at an emotional level.
Various reasons for this stood out: anxiety about undermining the adoptive parents, fear of encountering unbearable pain in the children and, more generally, a systemic reliance on procedure as a defence against distress. Like Kyle, the children usually withdrew into a compliant state, which people took as evidence that they were fine.
We think these moves should be brought in line with what we know about attachment and loss in early childhood. Wherever possible, the relationship between child and foster carer should be maintained by all the adults throughout the transition and beyond, at least until the child has begun to settle and feel safe with their new family. In Kyle’s case, with support from professionals, the adopters did arrange contact with Liz and went on to build a positive relationship with her, which continues today. This is still unusual.
However, things are beginning to change. A few adoption agencies are experimenting with slowing down timescales and introducing early and regular contact with former carers. More research is being planned, and we are getting feedback from other professionals, foster carers and adopters who share our concerns and desire for change.
If the care system and the professionals involved can provide a thoughtful and safe environment for the adults and the children at this turbulent time, we believe the transitions can be more gradual, less traumatic for children and provide a better foundation for new relationships.
* Names have been changed