We discovered that there is very little research into the move from foster care into adoption, particularly around the reasons for moves being carried out so quickly and with such limited ongoing contact between the child and their foster carer.
Social work professionals told us that they were very unclear about the reasons behind current policy, and would welcome further research and input to help improve practice.
With very limited resources, but with the hope of generating further discussion and research into this area, we set up a small qualitative research project to explore the factors that drive current procedures around speed of move and contact with foster carers after adoption.
The research team comprised the authors and three social workers based in the family-finding team of Westminster Children’s Services. This gave us the perspectives of two disciplines and considerable experience between us from many adoptive moves. Our hope was to look in detail at a few moves, to try to unpick what was behind the decisions that were being made, and eventually to generate a dialogue among professionals and adopters leading to clearer and more considered guidelines for the future. The social workers on the team left the department before the writing-up stage, but their contribution to the research was invaluable.
We chose to use Interpersonal Interpretational Analysis (IPA) as it aims to understand lived experience and how participants themselves make sense of their experiences (Smith, 2009). It also gave us the opportunity to think about what was not said, as well as what was. We did not interview or observe the children. This was because we were not tracking the emotional experience of each child during their move, but to understand what informed the adults’ decision-making process.
IPA, with its use of interviews and close analysis, allowed us to explore, in depth, the ways in which the key players experienced this very complex period of time, how their own feelings and responses to what was happening for them and for each other affected the decisions they made on behalf of the children.
Choice Of Cases
We chose cases where the adoption order had been finalised at between one and two years prior to the interview, so that enough time had elapsed for people to have a capacity to reflect on the transition period while it was still relatively fresh in their minds.
We emerged with a relatively young cohort. Four of the five children were aged between nine and 14 months when they moved and one was just over two years old; two of them were siblings. All of the adoptions were felt to have gone relatively smoothly. We had not intended to restrict ourselves to younger children or to smooth transitions and initially this seemed to impose more limitations on our research. However, we realised that one of our key questions was how adults were able to understand children’s reactions to the transition, and this emerged as particularly complex if they were preverbal or less able to show their feelings.
In the language of adoption, babies and younger children tend to be described as less ‘problematic’ and therefore less attention is generally given to their emotional state. We wanted to draw attention to this and to question whether a young child or baby who does not cry or show major signs of upset is taken to be a child who is not suffering; more generally, we wanted to question whether a ‘smooth’ transition is taken to be the most desirable kind.
As one might expect, all of the children in the group had unsettled backgrounds prior to adoption and they were a vulnerable group, carrying experiences of loss, trauma and multiple separations between them. Two had been with their carers from birth: one had been relinquished at birth, the other placed with her carer after a few weeks in hospital with foetal alcohol syndrome. Of the other three, one experienced weeks of parental neglect before being placed; one had experienced two changes of foster carer by the age of two; and the fifth child had suffered serious abuse at the hands of her parents before being taken into care at nine months old.
We carried out semi-structured interviews with foster carers, adopters and at least two members of the social work team around each case – either the child’s social worker, the foster carer’s support worker and/or the social worker who supported the adoptive parents. Wherever possible, each interview was carried out by a child psychotherapist and a social worker together. Interview questions were kept brief and were designed to encourage participants to tell their story. Follow-up questions were used sparingly so that we could follow the interviewees’ train of thought. We asked them about their initial thoughts and feelings about the speed of the move and contact with foster carers, then to describe what actually happened.
Due to sheer volume of data gathered, time restrictions and lack of resources, we were unable to analyse the social workers’ interviews in the depth needed to be included in the research findings. This was a loss, and we hope to analyse this data at a future date. However, we did bear it in mind while analysing the data – and we were very struck by how frequently social workers deferred to foster carers and adopters to make key decisions, particularly on contact with foster carers after the move. Decisions about the speed of the transition almost always was described as ‘the way we’ve always done it’, and the social workers all said they would value more research and guidance on this as they felt ill equipped to either justify or challenge these policies.