A tale of two experiences

30 October 2015

Following National Adoption Week, Pat Ashworth interviews two families with different perspectives on the adoption process

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Harder to place: older children and pairs or groups of brothers and sisters take longer to be adopted than individual children

Harder to place: older children and pairs or groups of brothers and sisters take longer to be adopted than individual children

EMBARKING on the adoption process takes courage and staying power, and is clearly not for the faint-hearted. Many who start this journey have already been through the distress of miscarriage and the trials of IVF.

“It gets to the point where [continuing to try for a baby] isn’t worth the pain and misery,” Emma Fraser says. She and her husband had managed to have a daughter, then aged three; so they decided to try to adopt a baby rather than an older child.

A friend recommended an agency, and the couple went to an introductory evening. “You sit there, and social workers explain exactly what’s involved, and what kind of children come up for adoption. And there was nothing rosy about what they said,” Mrs Fraser remembers.

“These children might have been exposed to drugs, alcohol, HIV; their parents have often led very transient lives and been in care themselves. It’s a path you read about constantly, but you are now coming upon it emotionally, which is a big step.”

The agency then provided a series of follow-up workshops, at which couples were invited to take part in role-play exercises that required them to put themselves in the position of the parents whose child was being removed, and of the social workers involved.

“It is a brilliant exercise,” Mrs Fraser says. “There are no bad people and good people. Being forced to say what you feel makes you empathise with everyone in the situation.”

The couple were assigned a social worker, and proceeded to a series of in-depth interviews. “People say that’s the most traumatic part of the process, but actually we quite enjoyed it,” Mrs Fraser acknowledges. “Some professional asking you about significant moments in your life — it’s quite like therapy. I liked the fact that the conversation was very open.”

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So far, so good. The couple were approved as adoptive parents, and the process of finding the right child began. But this is where, in Mrs Fraser’s eyes, the experience became less satisfactory — particularly the fact that couples were not given the reason that they had not been selected for a particular child.

“What disappointed me was that, after we had laid ourselves bare, the moment we were approved the conversation was not so frank,” she says.

Mrs Fraser is uneasy, too, about aspects of the dissemination of information about children. She explains: “You know why the child is being removed from the mother, and you are given a flyer, almost like an estate agent’s leaflet, describing the positive and negative aspects.

"What’s very difficult with this, we found, was that sometimes potentially negative consequences were masked in defective language.”

She talks about the case of a baby with a particular but seemingly cosmetic aspect of physical appearance, which, on investigation, turned out to be a certain indication of one of several potentially life-limiting syndromes. “None of this is flagged up. So then you become aware that you are not reading so much as decoding the information you are being given,” she says.

And, while the lengthy process takes its course, adoptive parents must put their lives on hold. “You are told that a child could come up at a moment’s notice. If you are serious about it, you don’t book holidays the entire time you are waiting,” Mrs Fraser says. “And it means, if you are not already in a job, not applying for other jobs.”

After 20 months of “nothing happening”, Mrs Fraser and her family are now wondering how long they should remain in the process before simply getting on with their lives. “Obviously, if we manage to get a small child or a baby, all this will fall away,” she says. “But conditions are tough. We would love to help a child, but the obstacles to that right now are significant.”

 

WILSON and Francesca decided to go down the adoption route in their late forties, after unsuccessful attempts at IVF; and chose to look for a pair of older siblings.

“More than half the children waiting to be adopted are aged four or over,” the Director for Adoption at Parents and Children Together (PACT), Shirley Elliott, says. “National Adoption Week is a brilliant opportunity to talk about the advantages of considering these children.

"They often wait longer for a forever family, being overlooked in favour of younger children, when in fact you know a lot more about school-age children, and it can be easier to support them.”

Wilson and Francesca opted to go through Barnado's, aware that such agencies tended to deal with children who were harder to place, and aware, too, of the prevailing climate that made local authority social workers reluctant to give older children to outside families at all, preferring to get an adoption order from within the family.

Initially, the couple were invited to an introductory three-day course. “You got your eyes opened,” Wilson says. “I did feel there was a bit too much eye-opening, and not enough of the positive; but we went away and talked about it, and decided we wanted to go ahead.”

The first meeting is always going to be a difficult one, he acknowledges. “You’re so nervous that you’ll say something wrong. All your eggs are in one basket. But the thing with Barnardo's is that they more or less promise that, unless there’s something really out of order, they will find you someone, and our social worker did everything possible to put us at ease.”

“They go through absolutely everything, so that when you go to panel, nothing comes up that hasn’t been dealt with. The panel will be 13 people who’ve read everything you have done in your entire life.”

The couple thought that they were in trouble when, with their lives under huge pressure, they had an argument, and Wilson went to stay with his mother for a couple of days.

Then there was the discovery that Francesca had once owned a dog that had chased a neighbour’s cat, leading to a complaint, and all that had to be investigated.

They learned that their honest reflection that they might, in some circumstances, shop at a charity shop for children’s clothes was not the answer a panel would want to hear.

But Barnardo's recommended, and paid for, relationship counselling after the argument. The couple also appreciated a willing suspension of the process while Francesca dealt with the death of her father.

Once approved, the process of choosing children began, using the profiles and pictures presented to them. “It’s horrible, an entire industry with magazines like Be My Parent. You look at them, and you’d like to adopt them all.”

The more profiles they collected, the more difficult it became. They learned what they felt they could cope with. “One had watched her father kill her mother, and we realised we just didn’t have the strength and abilities that that child needed,” Wilson says.

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A boy of six and a girl of two, who had “been passed from pillar to post”, kept coming to the top of their pile, and the children’s social workers were enthusiastic about the pair.

Things rapidly accelerated when a problem with the foster placement came up. Books about their new home and family were lovingly created, and conveyed to the children. Wilson and Francesca met all the people who had been involved in their foster care, and then went to meet the children themselves.

“It was nerve-racking. We were so, so nervous,” he remembers. “We drove up to the house, and we could see all these toys in the window, and two little heads. We rang the doorbell, and they ran down the hallway, shouting: ‘Mummy, Daddy, Mummy, Daddy!’ They adopted us more than we adopted them.”

Members of the congregation at the couple’s church took the children to their hearts, and made them a very special part of the family, he says.

The process, from going on the course to taking the children home, took 18 months. Barnardo's continues to be there for the family. “They regard it as a lifetime commitment, even after the children have gone. They get in touch once a month, and tell us: ‘Always give us a shout if you need us,’” Wilson says.

His advice to would be-adopters is: “All that scrutiny is right and proper. Don’t worry when you go to panel, because it isn’t in anyone’s interests to fail you. And know that there are a lot of children with nothing wrong with them, who just need someone to look after them.”

All names have been changed.

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