Adoptive parents need to be supported to help their child grieve for the past

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 Devon Adoption on how they won local authority adoption team of the year

Devon adoption
The team at a recent event, where they planted 150 daffodils to represent the children waiting to be adopted in Devon at any one time. Photograph: Devon Adoption

The government’s reforms to adoption have been a challenge to many local authorities. The emphasis has been primarily on the numbers of adopters recruited and numbers of children placed in adoptive homes. As resources have become more constrained, there is less reflection and emphasis on the work done with children and adopters.

At Devon Adoption, we recently won an award from the British Association of Adoption and Fostering as local authority adoption team of the year. This was due to our emphasis on services designed for children to support any insecurities that may arise during the critical transition from foster care to adoptive home.

Children in the adoptive system will have suffered separation, loss and trauma. The child’s “journey” through this process is explained first to adopters and then to children, when they reach maturity, through court reports produced by social workers. The creation of a “life story” book with this information in can help the child understand what has happened to them, where they have lived, who has cared for them and the decisions that have happened in their lives.

Just over 18 months ago we set up a small team to complete life story books, develop child appreciation days and provide birth family support.

However, adopters thought that the books were “too special”, and that they contained information that needed to be given at different times in the child’s life. Children found the book difficult to use on a daily basis. Older teenagers and adopted adults told us they liked the books as it made them feel that someone had cared enough to complete them, but that in reality they were kept on high shelves and out of reach in their adoptive homes.

As a result, the team now completes two books, the “special one”, and another where they segment the child’s story into bite-size laminated books. The child can pick up the book when they want and chat about the story or people within it. If they want they can get angry with the book, and draw on or damage it. Adopters can attend workshops to update the story and write the next chapter.

The adoption team also devise story books in which the child is represented as an animal, such as a penguin or bear, with their own story told through the animal’s eyes. This use of the third person helps the child be one step removed from their story. The team also use this work with children who have global developmental delay as it simplifies the story. When the time comes to move to an adoption placement, the animal can be used to explain what is happening.

The move to an adoptive home can be overwhelming for a child. In some cases the child will miss the foster carer’s pet and other foster children and may not want to leave. Within this move the emphasis is usually on the new “forever family”, and the child’s grief sometimes goes unrecognised. At Devon, the team does small things to try and make a difference; such as framing pictures of the foster carer’s dog or compiling DVDs of them together. Children and adopters are encouraged to meet with foster carers after placement to show the child they are well.

All of this gives the child permission to move on with attachments and reassure them that people in their lives have not disappeared. Without this, the foster family are again a family that the child has been removed from, however positive their time with them was. Workers also support birth families which allows for a less adversarial and more trusting relationship.

To recognise and acknowledge the trauma, separation and loss that birth families are feeling, similar examples are used such as framed hand prints of the parents and child. Birth families can be left without any update on how their child is adjusting until the usual annual letter is sent. Adopters are encouraged to produce a “how are we getting on” letter to birth families and foster carers when the child has been in placement for a few months. These methods allows for better conversations and sharing of information across the complex relationships between the adults within adoption. We do not yet know whether this approach will make a difference in longer term relationships with birth families but remain hopeful.

Child appreciation days for all children over three, two life story books and workshops are a challenge for resources. But by supporting the adopters to help the child grieve for the past, it may support better future relationships and is one of the vital components of successful early adoption placement.

The leadership, learning and development hub is funded by Skills for Care. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.

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