Recommendations For Future Practice
We hope that this research will generate a much-needed debate on this topic. We believe that what is needed is a better integration of theory and practice so that we can become more sensitive to children’s experiences during adoption, keeping the experience of the child central in this as in every other transition in their lives.
Obviously all transitions are different. This is a highly emotive area and we are well aware of the tensions and vulnerabilities that can be stirred up among adults during these moves. Sometimes foster carers or adopters will find the prospect of ongoing contact incredibly distressing, and if they are forced into it without these feelings being contained, contact may become an ordeal for all concerned. We also know that it is not uncommon for adults to make careful plans for slow moves or for early contact only to find that when the time comes they cannot bear to go through with it. It is not uncommon that when a child shows distress after or during a contact, the adults can panic and cancel further meetings, fearing that the contact in itself is upsetting a child who has otherwise appeared ‘fine’.
We believe that there is an underlying confusion and anxiety in the system about whether contact with foster carers creates distress, or merely reveals it. If the network can maintain a firmer grasp of what a sudden loss means for a child, remain aware that children need their feelings to be received and understood, rather than avoided, then we believe everyone will be in a much stronger position to provide help and support to one another and allow upset feelings to be expressed and contained rather than overlooked.
Specific Guidelines For Transitions
Social workers have a huge responsibility in planning these transitions and often ask for specific guidance about timescales, numbers of visits required and so on. We understand the desire for structure and certainty, but we believe that above all there needs to be a change in mindset rather than a rigid formula to replace the old formulas. With a change of mindset all plans could be made – and carried out - in a more thoughtful, child-centred way.
We are urging that one central, guiding principle should be held in mind throughout the planning period, the transition and beyond: it should be taken as a given that the child’s relationship with their foster carer is important and will remain important. The foster carer and her family should be allowed to remain present and important in the child’s life during the move and for a long time after it. Ongoing visits from foster carers should be welcomed and encouraged, as soon and as frequently as possible, gradually being reduced as the child begins to settle in their new home.
Where this is impossible, all of the adults involved should be absolutely committed to ensuring that the relationship with the former carer remains alive in everybody’s minds, in whatever way this is possible. This could be through phone calls between child and carer, through text messages, emails, Skype, the sharing of photos, through talking about the former carers and families; giving a clear and consistent message that it is natural to miss absent loved ones, and that the adoptive parents not only expect this but can tolerate and help them with it.
All of this can be emotionally demanding for adopters and for foster carers, and requires exceptional reserves of personal strength and resilience, not to mention self-confidence. The role of social workers is crucial in helping all the parties involved to manage their feelings and anxieties in what is bound to be a turbulent and emotional time, keeping the message alive that this is painful but important, and that feelings are better expressed than hidden.
And we believe that if adults can embrace the belief that ongoing contact is beneficial for children, even if it reveals feelings of distress which would otherwise be hidden, children will feel that their feelings can be understood and contained by those caring for them, and this will give them a powerful message of acceptance and love.
Over time, we hope that policy and practice will change so that the need for continuity in their lives is taken as a given and everyone works together to achieve this.
To see examples of how some local authorities are already beginning to change their policies, and how transition plans are beginning to change to reflect these guiding principles, please see the Feedback From The Field section.
We would like to suggest a set of guiding principles that we believe would help to keep the child’s attachment needs firmly in the centre of everyone’s minds and allow more clarity in making decisions.
The child’s relationship with their foster carer should be maintained throughout the transition and beyond
This may involve significant logistical, practical and emotional challenges, but we believe that perseverance with keeping up this relationship is crucial in improving the child’s experience of this transition. A more gradual transition, giving them the chance to settle in with their new parents with the benign ongoing presence of their carer would be less traumatic.
Tangentially, there is evidence that when foster carers know they will remain in children’s lives they are less likely to withdraw emotionally from the child to protect themselves from the anticipated pain of separation (Dozier, 2007).
The relationship between foster carer and adopter is a long-term commitment and needs to be supported and sustained
Many interviewees cited a good relationship between carers and adopters as crucial in determining the ‘success’ of the transition and whether or not there was some form of ongoing contact. We believe this should not be left to chance. The process needs to provide an environment in which the child is helped to mourn the loss of their first carer while attaching to a new one; this transition should not be seen as taking place in a finite period of time but needs to be sustained over time, so that the child’s gains and losses are held in mind by both old and new attachment figures before, during and after the move.
Foster carers and their families need support and training during and after transition
Foster carers and their families are already tasked with committing to a close and meaningful relationship with a child, then bearing the pain of letting them go. We are suggesting that they also be asked to remain emotionally and practically available to each child, albeit in the background, as they settle into their adoptive families. In order to do this, we need to provide foster carers with a setting that accords a high status to their importance to the child, even after the move, and supports them both practically and emotionally in taking seriously what the separation means to themselves and to the children. Like the children, they will need a support network that understands and is sympathetic to the feelings of loss involved, rather than one which gives a message that painful feelings are unprofessional and unwelcome.
Adopters should be given training and support on understanding attachment and loss not just before but after the move
For adoptive parents offers of help from social services or CAMHS can easily be experienced as a vote of ‘no confidence’, undermining their sense of their competence as new parents. We suggest that training should also be provided to adopters after the child has moved and that it should be offered as standard practice – possibly in groups – and should include a training component on the emotional experience of the child after adoption. This would address the fact that all adopters are facing a steep learning curve and will need help thinking about the complex feelings that might be going on for the child below the surface.
Across the network training should be provided on recognising and responding to unspoken or latent feelings in a young child who appears to be ‘fine’
Children can be surprisingly ‘compliant’ but a child who appears cut off or ‘fine’ after a major loss is more worrying than one who is overtly distressed. Looked after children in particular can on the surface appear to adapt to new situations very quickly, not expressing the distress, anger or confusion that one would expect when faced with sudden change. In these situations the whole network of social workers, adopters and foster carers needs to be very sensitive to the feelings that are not being expressed, and resist the temptation to feel relieved rather than worried when children appear not to mind what is happening to them.Training and support for all these groups would help ensure this becomes a central part of their mindset and is reinforced throughout the system.
Ongoing training should be provided by adoption agencies to ensure an awareness of organisational dynamics and defences
Remaining open to the primitive pain of a child’s distress when faced with traumatic loss is extremely difficult, especially for professionals who are subjected to many such experiences in their working lives. In adoption there is a particular challenge, as remaining in touch with the pain of loss and grieving can feel like a ‘downer’ that spoils something uniquely positive. From the top downwards we feel that regular training and consultation around the phenomenon of organisational defences against pain could help all involved to be more vigilant against the kind of ‘blind-eye’ state of mind which cannot bear to see the losses amid the happiness of a ‘forever family’.