AL COATES first became scared of his adopted daughter when she was four. Although he is a “big burly man”, he says, “I’d become afraid of her, nervous of when the next assault would come. I was covered in bites, scratches, and bruises. I couldn’t sleep, lying awake waiting for the inevitable screams that would start our day at 4 a.m.”
He was forced to leave his job to help his wife to co-parent. Both were seasoned parents, with three other adopted children, but they found that none of the normal strategies for dealing with difficult behaviour worked with their daughter.
“We weren’t permissive or draconian parents, but the strategies we had to deal with behaviour, which had worked on our other children, like reward charts and time out, just didn’t work. Those strategies, we realised, were built on the notion of managing a secure and happy child. But giving time out to a child who is fearful or rejected just exacerbates those fears.
“She was very little when she came to us — 18 months old — but she had had some very negative experiences. And, as she grew up, it became clear those experiences had had a very big impact on her, and her strategies for managing the world around her. She was very fearful.”
Opening up for the first time about his own fear of his daughter — in a blog post, “Hurt” — brought a torrent of responses from other parents, grateful that he had been so honest.
One said he’d touched a “raw nerve”; another parent shared her story of life with her adoptive son: “I have often had to physically restrain my son from hurting us, himself, or smashing up the house, and it has nearly broken me every single time.”
SO, LAST November, Mr Coates ran a survey on his blog, asking fellow adoptive parents how many had experienced violence at the hands of their children. “From the 300 responses I received, 98 per cent of people had experienced some form of violence, predominantly from young children. The impact on adoptive families is enormous: people do not know where to go, and they often they feel that social workers deflect the blame for the behaviour back on to them as families.”
His daughter is now older, but the challenges of parenting her remain. Mr Coates, now a trained social worker, addresses conferences to raise awareness of child-on-parent violence.
A larger survey of nearly 3000 adoptive parents, published last month by Adoption UK and the BBC, found that almost two thirds said their child had been aggressive towards them, at a level which was serious and sustained. Incidents raised by parents ranged from punching, kicking, and biting to threats with knives, sexual assaults, and attacks that required hospital treatment.
One parent said: “Frequently violent due to inherent high anxiety. He is now bigger than me, and, with huge regret, we have to call the police. If he were my husband, I would get a divorce, but you can’t divorce your child. I cannot give up on him, because we are the only stable thing in his life. We live with child-on-parent domestic violence.”
The chief executive of Adoption UK, Dr Sue Armstrong Brown, said: “We’re talking about trauma-fuelled violence from children who will have witnessed the unthinkable in their early lives. Adoption is not a silver-bullet: these children’s problems don’t just disappear overnight.
“Children who have suffered the trauma of abuse or neglect have experienced the world being an unsafe and dangerous place. The child’s violent behaviour reveals extreme distress and a need to feel safe and protected. These children need particular parenting techniques, and access to therapy, to overcome early childhood trauma, and they may reject any attempts at parental affection or management of their behaviour.”
One of Mr Coates’s concerns, shared by the parents who contacted him after reading his blog, was that he and his wife should be taught safe ways of stopping their child from hurting herself, or others. But he, and many of the other parents who have approached social services for help, were told that they did not believe in parents’ restraining children.
Some charities do offer training, including the Post Adoption Centre UK, and Open Nest, a charity in the north-east. Open Nest published some research into the number of adoptive parents who are forced to use restraint, saying that it was the “lived reality” for many adoptive families; two-thirds of them had not been able to find training to help them do it safely.
SEVERAL years on, Mr Coates says that his daughter’s behaviour has not changed dramatically, but his behaviour has.
“If my daughter slams a door, I know that if I go after her for it, she can’t regulate her emotions, and she will perceive that as a threat, and it will be like pouring petrol on to the fire. So I have to let that door be slammed.”
The support of friends, and Christian faith, has kept Mr Coates and his family going. He wants to raise awareness now of what other adoptive families can go through, and the support that they need from friends, churches, social services, and the Government, to ensure that there is better support for families.
“The message you hear when you foster and adopt is that the children are incredibly vulnerable. But parents need to know that [that] fact does not make them doe-eyed little darlings: it can make them very challenging.”
Phil Green, the chief executive of Home For Good, agrees that more support is needed for parents after adoption. “This just hasn’t been talked about before, it’s been a hidden issue, and it needs to be talked about. More support is needed for adoption across the board. Parents need to know that it can be a reality, without making them too fearful.
“Children need homes, and I hope we can talk about this in a way that does not put people off adoption. We want to present an accurate picture to people so they are not looking through rose-tinted glasses. But we want parents who want to adopt, because they know that children need homes.”
Mr Coates and his wife have not been put off, and they subsequently went on to adopt two more children. And, in common with nine out of ten parents who responded to the Adoption UK survey, they are glad that they have adopted, even though it has been difficult.
“Despite the challenges,” Dr Armstrong Brown says, “adopters are resilient and devoted to their children, and these results reinforce that adoption can work for the majority, with the right support.”
Al Coates’s blog: www.alcoates.co.uk