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