Failure of long view in adoption is a strategic, economic & humanitarian mistake


National Adoption Week is always emotive. The intent is to recruit adopters. Unsurprisingly some experienced adopters rant at the saccharine articles in newspapers, knowing that below the rhetoric is a deficit of ongoing, deep, appropriate support.

Failing to take the long view, over decades is a strategic, economic and humanitarian mistake.

PAC-UK had a splendid series of truthful and useful blogs during NAW which might resonate with you. In Mondays PAC-UK blog I explored strategies to avoid disappointment: spoiler alert, it’s you that has to change. Having been quiet for months (completing my next book) it’s the most personal blog I’ve ever written.

Sally Donovans letter to the state (Fridays PAC-UK blog) is a cracker explaining how adopted teenagers require so much from their parents, often for few rewards.

The message of all seven blogs is for me; take the long view. Its hard. Bloody hard. Get support. Be honest with yourself and about your situation.

Also the NAW emphasis on siblings worries me. This video explains why and how their trauma bonds can block therapeutic parenting. (Sorry it has a slow start, as I battle with the flip chart paper, but worth staying with it, imho, as the concept is transformational).

BTW: Over the next few weeks the cost for  Trauma Triggered Behaviour on line course will be increasing incrementally. (Because it is being licensed elsewhere, I will be price matching). Buy now, while still in double figures. Risk free with a 100% money back guarantee.

SANDY & TIM start in life

Compare and contrast these two babies.

SANDY (Securely Attached Normally Developed Youngster) all needs met regularly.

TIM (Traumatised Infant Maltreated) neglected, ignored, hurt.

This is the draft cartoon of the opening to my next book; “So you want(ed) to adopt.

Ponder their probable life path.

Ponder the sort of parenting Tim will need in adoptive or foster placement a few years later.

Don’t assume keeping a sibling group together is right

Today’s Daily Mirror featured a sibling group of four looking for one set of adoptive parents.

I’ve read the article with increasing anger. The children had a chaotic background, but had settled in well  ….. blah, blah. Unlike prospective adopters; I and other adults experienced in parenting traumatised children could read between the lines. These kids are deeply damaged.

My guess is that, similar to my three children (placed together at 2,4,5)  these kids will have different attachment styles (Take your pick from avoidant, anxious, ambivalent, disorganised, none will be securely attached).  This matters because different attachment patterns require a specific, appropriate and distinct  parenting style. The Theraplay model explains the different levels of Structure, Nurture, Engagement and Challenge that are required, depending on the child’s attachment pattern.

How can two adults provide different types of parenting styles to four hurt children every day  24/7 for 20 years? Because that is what each of these individual children need: bespoke parenting, to fill in the developmental gaps and heal the trauma; both of which is unique for each child. That is beyond any humans capability and capacity. It’s asking the impossible.

Remember these four kids will, like all adopted children, have already experienced “significant harm”. That’s why they were removed from the birth family.

Each of the children need parents who can help them fill in their developmental gaps, melt their trauma, provide an environment that feels safe to the child, where playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy are always available from calm, self regulated adults.

How can child #3 feel safe when child #1 is angry and violent? How can adoptive Mum nurture child #2, while child #1 and #4 are fighting or masturbating each other? (Oh yes that does happen).

Often siblings like these have a trauma bond, not a healthy bond. Trauma bonds play out over years and decades. They may feel obligated or wired to support each other because they have been through so much. Desperate phone calls “I need money now, otherwise the dealer will beat me up”. Sometimes they hate each other, which manifests in violence and constant arguments. The recent BBC File on Four survey and Julie Selwyns disruption research, evidence this dynamic.

If siblings have a toxic bond which excludes adults; how can proper attuned parenting occur? The emotional barriers which worked in the old traumatic home environment will block therapeutic parenting  in the new adoptive family. All the old (now unnecessary, unhelpful) behaviours will continue between siblings unless there is a dramatic interruption to these patterns.

Providing an environment where a child has the opportunity to form healthy attachments and heal past trauma is more important than staying with siblings. Attachment is thicker than blood.

Siblings need to know that their brothers and sisters are safe and thriving in a new home with adults they can eventually trust. This can, and is, achieved with regular contact between siblings placed in different adoptive families. Healthy relationships and regular connection rather than retraumatising each other daily. Thats future-proofing.

This media story is based on “Find My Family” adoptions (pre-contraception and abortion) which are decades old and bear no resemblance to adoption today.  They were often the result of an unlucky yet responsible, intelligent woman living in a  strict society where pregnancy outside marriage was shameful.

By contrast, today kids are removed and placed for adoption “when nothing else will do”,  having experienced “significant harm”, resulting from frequent maltreatment and/or neglect and/or exposure to drugs and/or alcohol and /or prostitution and/or poverty and/or domestic violence and/or paedophiles and/or mental health difficulties.

Remove them from that environment, place them with a foster family, give them decent food, baths, haircuts and clean clothes; put them in front of a professional photographer and they look adorably cute.  The internal damage  only visible to trauma informed specialists who can see below the presenting behaviour. They know that children #3 and #4 are “very friendly” indicating serious attachment issues. Child #1 never cries while child #4 never stops. None is ‘normal’ age appropriate behaviour.

Any prospective adopters taking on these four cute looking, but traumatised, children is being set up to fail.

This story generated much gasping and horror in the experienced adoption community. By “experienced” I mean those with at least 12 years parenting under their belt. Adoptive parents who are now living with hostile and/or disturbed adolescents, who having failed to receive the frequently requested support and therapy they desperately needed to melt infant trauma, are now self medicating  with drugs and alcohol and/or are self harming or suicidal.

Other experienced adopters have been forced to return their kids to the care system for everyone’s protection. Other kids are now “secure’; either in prison or locked in an institution. Slow motion car crashes, painful for all.

I will not stand by and witness another set of well intentioned, compassionate, hopeful adults slowly be destroyed by a system which fails to identify the real needs of traumatised children and then a few years later blames the inevitable disruption and breakdowns on the adoptive parents. It is systemic abuse. I’ve seen too much of it already.

Aren’t you wonderful to adopt, especially a sibling group”, people said to me in the early stages. They didn’t say that years later, when my kids hit their little darlings, when they stole, lied, disrupted lessons or self harmed. They didn’t offer to help me when I was an exhausted, highly stressed, now single parent, trying to be therapeutic. Between 6 and 7 on a school night I spoon fed a tired 16 year old (filling a gap from her toddler days), helped with GCSE homework, discussed contact with birth family and explained the fraud perpetrated by one of my kids to a visiting police officer.  That was pretty typical.

Tapping into an unrealistic, sentimental idealised view of the perfect ‘happy ever after family’, successfully adopting a sibling group of four is a media fantasy. Society wants to swallow it too, to make themselves feel better.  Watch Gogglebox if you don’t believe me. We all love a feel good story.

Adoption today is frequently a car crash, due to inadequate ongoing support, poor understanding, lack of trauma informed therapists, and naive professionals who do not see the long term outcome of the children they place. However that car crash could be avoided or reduced to a minor dent with a better route map and a full detailed robust assessment of the children and the adults before the journey starts. Then instigate frequent five star servicing from a Formula 1 support crew in a high tech specialist garage which constantly updates maps and tools.  We’ve had enough of Slack Harry wielding his rusty spanner (which includes setting a £5000 limit on the Adoption Support Fund).

Please do not send four traumatised children to a set of prospective adopters. It is not in the childrens interest or the adults.  It may be cheaper short term and produce a few paragraphs in newspapers, but long term it will be a disaster, because the childrens needs can’t be met in that environment.  Please make a courageous decision, not a saccharine choice.

Radical proposal. Lets start assuming siblings should be separated unless there is robust evidence from expert assessors  that they should be placed together. Monthly meet ups, long weekends in holidays can keep the “blood’ tie active. Maybe harder short term, but long term it will enable a child to blossom into their own space, unhindered by a toxic bond with a sibling in a home which never feels safe.

A successful adoption is one that works over decades, not years. It satisfies the needs of the child and the adults.

Adopted teens reconnect to their birth family (thanks Facebook).  We must add that to the mix. Birth families grieve for the children removed. We must support them (more PAUSE projects please) so that inevitable reunion can be positive for all sides.

Adoption is complex. Done well it heals hurt children and provides adults with rewarding parenting experiences. Done thoughtlessly is makes things worse. Done by media, ignorant of the deep issues it can be destructive.

I’ve made a video to dive deeply into the impact of poor self regulation skills on siblings and parents. It’s here.

Want to know more about assesing? Practice Paper from Family Futures “Siblings: Together or Apart” 32 pages of wisdom and research.

Recent Research: Influence of adoption on sibling Relationships: Experiences and Support Needs of Newly Formed Adoptive Families. British Journal of Social Work. Published 14 October 2017


How to Futureproof adoptive families from Facebook contact

Yesterday I read a blog from yet another adoptive parent who’s adopted son is reconnecting with his birth parents. (Befuddled mum) It’s a scenario I have witnessed many times in the last eight years; watching hundreds of adoptive families grieve as their teenage rejected them and returned emotionally and/or physically to their birth family. Sometimes they stayed connected to their adoptive parents, sometimes they didn’t.

Some adopters feel they have lost their child forever. Uncontactable. Lost but not dead. They grieve, but with a tiny glimmer of hope still flickering. Maybe this year a birthday or mothers card? Adopters unable to digest the loss of their “forever family”.

For the teens who reconnected, generally their hopes have been dashed on the rocks of credibility, reliability, bitter experience and broken promises. Often overwhelmed by confusing emotions, their young lives are irreversibly impacted by this derailment. (Exams missed or failed, college places lost, self harming, dropping out of university, mental health deterioration, arrests and convictions).

Few birth families provided the answers, intimacy or security the teens craved. Many  birth parents are still entwined in the same problems which originally caused their children to be removed. Drugs, alcohol, criminality, transient and hedonistic life styles still evidenced. The dark parts of ‘Benefit Street’ and Trainspotting. Worst of all, the continued denial of any wrong doing and failing to take responsibility for any harm suffered by the infant. Unable to comprehend that “I always loved you”  is, and  never was, a substitute for consistent nurturing parenting.


We must share a child’s history with them. 100% truth telling in a sensitive, age appropriate way. This needs to be a “Chronicle” (a factual, written chronological account of important events) not a “Story” (an account of events or people told for entertainment).

We must evidence their history  with accurate information; a coherent narrative. Court reports which show all perspectives. Photographs  of the squalor they lived in, not just smiling birthday snaps. Medical reports documenting bruising, malnourishment and health concerns in black and white. Police videos. We must stop the saccharin half truths frequently shared with adopted and foster kids in “life story books”.

Obviously kids will need help processing this information. They need creative, therapeutic methods to make sense of their childhood experiences, not just words. It is the meaning the child makes of their experiences which will either enhance, or damage, his self concept. Was it really Tim’s fault (as he believes) that as a two year old his mummy beat him? It’s what she screamed at the time (I hit you because your crying made me angry). Reworked in drama therapy eight year old Tim can see it wasn’t his fault and re-frame that event into: “sometimes mummy got angry and lost control; that was wrong, she could not look after any child”.

We must provide adopters (and foster carers) with ongoing support which:

  • honours the permanent parents role in the child’s healing
  • gives the child an age appropriate full and balanced picture of their birth family (she prioritised finding drugs above caring for you … and was really good at PE and science in school … and left you with strangers for 5 days … and has a good sense of humour … and … and … and). Every dimension: the good, bad, ugly and beautiful.
  • allows safe contact between child and birth family wherever possible so curiosity is sated, gaps are filled, fantasises punctured. This benefits every corner of the adoption triangle.

In 2012,I wrote Bubble Wrapped Children: How Social Networking is transforming the face of 21st century adoption, because of my own and other peoples experience of contact via Facebook. Since then, many vintage adopters saw their children reconnect to birth family via Facebook. This exacerbated the existing problems and challenging behaviour of these teens.  Sadly some of these families cracked  or disintegrated. Some adoptees, racked with pervasive shame have disconnected from both their birth and adoptive family, cast adrift with no family support.


Put simply; we must pre-frame the issues throughout childhood, rather than repair during adolescence.

So, if you are an adopter, foster carer, social worker of therapist; how do you prevent contact via Facebook becoming a massive emotional crisis for a child?

Answer: you drip feed material. You share information throughout childhood. If its safe, establish some level of contact while you can control it. You can manage a 6/9/12 year old relatively easily. By 15 its a thousand times harder; they vote with their feet.


We must recognise and accept that an adopted child has two families and needs to know the ongoing truth about both of them throughout childhood; not the historical “wait till your 18”. Facebook destroyed that option. We must honour the inner turmoil of an adoptee who is pulled in two, often contradictory, directions and strengthen them from the inside.

Yes, this may mean complex contact arrangements with birth family, which may impact daily life in the adoptive home. Think of it like a pressure cooker. Without the slow exhalation from the pressure release valve, a massive explosion will inevitably occur.

Today’s adoptive families know about the Facebook threat. Are they prepared? Are you taking avoiding action now? Are things so tough you can’t even contemplate this?

Future proofing = Hope for the best and plan for the worst. 

Are you just hoping?