We can’t hide from the dark side of adoption

Many children are so traumatised by the time they are placed with a family that it’s difficult to repair the damage

New year is a time to open a can of worms and expose society’s writhings to a critical gaze. There are measured, chin-stroking ways to do this so as not to offend — peering under the lid, as it were — but sometimes it is useful to take a hammer and chisel to it. This was the approach taken by the journalist Carol Sarler when she exposed the ordeal of parents whose adopted children become frighteningly unmanageable.

Of course this does not always happen, even to children who had an abominable start in life, pushed for years between foster homes, bad parents and institutions in our intricate adoption system (one of the slowest in the West).

Many adoptions — at least 75 per cent — are successful and joyful. But some create deep problems, either because of children’s memories of abuse or through physical problems such as foetal alcohol syndrome. Persistent chaotic behaviour can wrench families apart, alarm existing siblings and exhaust well-meaning parents who look in vain for help.

Children with special behavioural needs require intensive, expensive professional therapies, but can’t rely on getting them. Local authorities are obliged by law to assess adopted children’s needs, but not thereafter to fund them — there is no “duty to provide”.

The pupil premium paid to schools is not necessarily used for the relevant child; the newish Adoption Support Fund is capped, and in one alarming case the whole allowance was used up in “assessment”, leaving nothing for any actual treatment. Readers of this paper’s Time to Mind campaign are well aware of the general shortcomings of mental health services for children.

So that’s the can of worms. But all too often we just lift the lid cautiously, shake our head and turn away. It is easier to talk and write about mental health services for “normal” children with depression over exams or low self-esteem brought on by social media than it is to face up to more alarming problems.

When children’s first memories are of sexual abuse, beatings, hunger and loneliness, or when they are poisoned in the womb by maternal drug and alcohol use, it has results. As Alan Burnell of the adoption support agency Family Futures says: “It’s naive to think that if a baby comes from a background of drugs, alcohol and violence that child won’t have impairments. But you can see them at two months. Or even at two years.”

It is enough to put anyone off adoption, which is one reason why the critical article met with such a roar of outrage, joined by people as measured and experienced as Sir Martin Narey, formerly of both Barnardo’s and HM Prison Service, and by the Family Rights Group.

Any fool can see that in 2017 there is more likelihood than 40 years ago that a child presented for adoption will have had a bad start in life. Today, thank goodness, a healthy single young woman is not shamed or forced into giving up her child.

There is simply not enough skilled support available to families after adoption

Howls of fury met Sarler’s stark phrase about adopted children being now most likely to be “offspring of our drunks, our derelicts, our damaged and our junkies”. Yet this has been confirmed, albeit less rudely, by the select committee on adoption legislation, which pointed out that most children are now adopted from care and may have complex needs.

Anyone suggesting that many families are better off without extremely difficult children to care for is certain to face a furious backlash. Yet maybe in extreme cases they would be: failing at longed-for parenthood is a harsh thing to accept.

As for the accusation that we risk demonising mothers with severe problems, what is the merit in piously virtue-signalling your disgust while conveniently forgetting that to a helpless infant a really chaotic mother may indeed sometimes seem a demon?

Cue more rage, directed at me this time. But to hell with it: I have raised young children and known many more. I have seen their extraordinary, almost frightening ability to absorb things in the first two years (most adoptees are over two). Everything registers: every mood and word and gesture, every small disappointment and deprivation, every reassurance and cuddle. Take the good things away and inflict only bad ones, neglect and lash out and ignore, and you do demonic damage. Even if you can’t help it, and are a sad case yourself, that doesn’t reduce the effect.

There is simply not enough skilled support available to families after adoption. A local authority only has to “decide whether to provide” services, and authorities are increasingly short of money and cutting children’s services.

We need a hard-hitting discussion about this problem: we can’t slam the lid back down and parade our virtuous compassion for even the worst parents. They need looking after and redeeming too, but children are weak and they must come first.

One diatribe against strongly worded accounts of troubled children concluded piously: “Let’s have a debate, yes, but not like this.” Why not? As a habitually wet, liberal, nuanced debater myself, I see that our lot have had our chance and failed. Time to be blunt, for the sake of both parents and children.