On 13th February 2020 the Lords debated a motion from Lord Russell of Liverpool, “That this House takes note of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence’s Report Investing in families: the Adoption Support Fund beyond 2020, published in July 2019”. The Bishop of Worcester, Rt Revd John Inge, spoke in the debate, drawing on his own family experience:
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I add my congratulations and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, for securing this debate. I declare an interest: mine is one of the 50,000 or so families who have received support from the adoption support fund. I am immensely grateful for that support. It came at a very difficult time after the death of my wife, my children’s adoptive mother, six years ago, when they were very young. It was invaluable. That is the most important thing I have to say this afternoon. It is a privilege to be able to speak from first-hand experience as an adoptive parent and as someone who has benefited immeasurably from the ASF.
I am no longer in receipt of the fund but I offer my heartfelt thanks—to the Government for this excellent initiative, to the all-party parliamentary group for its excellent report and to Home for Good, the wonderful charity involved in compiling that report. I add my voice to those asking for the ASF to be continued after the spending review so that others are able to access the crucial help that it gave us.
Being an adoptive parent has brought me untold joy, but the great demands of being such a parent need to be recognised and appropriate support given. My children are not among the three-quarters of adopted children who, according to the Department for Education, have been removed from their birth families because of abuse and neglect. That heartbreaking statistic brings home how vital it is fully to comprehend the necessity for support of the sort we are discussing. That said, it is also crucial to be aware that all adoptive children will face challenges as a result of what adoption specialists term “the primal wound”—being separated from someone to whom they have been attached, not just psychologically but physiologically in the womb.
It is not surprising, therefore, that adopted children and young people are statistically more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system and to need mental health support; the complications that some adopted children face at school and at home are very great. We should note that—as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, intimated—any such support will enable considerable long-term savings for the Government in the future by reducing the child’s likelihood of exclusion and engagement with the police.
Feedback from parents and children who have accessed the scheme, like me, has been overwhelmingly positive. According to the Adoption Barometer survey, 94% of those who received support from the fund are likely to apply again in the future, with four out of five parents who accessed it saying that it had a significant positive impact on their child and family situation. Such positive feedback makes it clear that for many parents the fund is a vital service. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, noted, the charity Investing in Families reported that 79% of parents state that the fund is
“meeting a need which cannot be met elsewhere”.
Mental health and family support should be easily accessible to all children and parents, but in this case the vulnerability of the children in question means that the fund is a vital source of support, not only for the health, happiness and well-being of the child but for the parents, many of whom are unprepared for the realities of the complexity that often surrounds the adoption of a child. Many parents go into adoption full of good will but without the skills or training to support their child, and may have only basic knowledge of their child’s background or psychological history.
The ASF not only equips children with the tools to help to look after their own mental health and process their past but equips parents will the skills and confidence needed to support their child. As a mental health practitioner in East Sussex explained, nearly all the parents they came into contact with
“underestimated just how demanding some of these children’s needs were and found themselves at a complete loss on how to parent such challenging behaviour.”
However, the practitioner went on to say:
“Once the family receive therapeutic services it opens up all kinds of opportunities for them. In addition, family life can slowly return to some ‘normality’ once adoptive parents have the skills, knowledge and support for their child.”
The adoption support fund has been found in multiple surveys to prevent or reduce the risk of adoption breakdown. It hardly needs to be said that such breakdown is devastating for everyone involved, particularly the children.
As one might expect, and as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, observed, there is room for improvement in the operation of the fund. Most significant is the impact of long waiting lists, coupled with a general lack of knowledge of its existence. However, it has been working well. In anticipation of this debate, I was in touch with a very experienced and well-respected clinical psychologist in Worcestershire, Dr Kim Golding, who has been working with and supporting families of looked-after and adopted children for over 30 years. She is an expert in the sort of therapy that we received, dyadic development therapy, an excellent and effective intervention. She states that she has witnessed at first hand
“how this fund has helped these families get the support that they need.”
Dr Golding stresses the importance of understanding the needs of adoptive families, not just the children in question. When many think of adoption, they envision a fairytale ending to a story. The reality is of course very different. As she observes:
“Adopting a child from care means adopting a child who comes with a history of trauma, separation and loss of birth family. The impact of this experience is felt by the child and all family members. This can make the parenting of this child extremely challenging. Ordinary parenting does not come near to meeting the complex needs of a child who is grieving the loss of previous parents (birth and foster parents); who has learnt not to trust in the parenting that they are now receiving and who anticipates that they are going to lose this too, often with a sense of identity formed around them being a bad kid who somehow deserved what has happened to them. This can lead to a range of challenging behaviours”
and vulnerabilities. Dr Golding stresses the need for “wraparound support”, where packages of intervention are focused on, rather than single instances of therapy or counselling. The nuanced history of many children in care and adoption means that there are no easy fixes. She says:
“Interventions are needed in a timely manner and for as long as needed”,
and should involve a range of teams and specialists working in collaboration to create and implement a package of interventions for families. She states:
“The impact of trauma does not resolve quickly, and it can reassert itself at critical developmental stages throughout a child and adult’s life.”
This longer-term intervention should be supported and recognised as vital.
Additionally, as I have intimated, Dr Golding says:
“Such therapy will only be helpful if the support needs of the whole family are also met. Therapy and support is needed for the whole family and not just the child.”
As a judge observed at the time of our first adoption, conception is often a biological accident but adoption is always an act of love. That act of love is undertaken by adoptive parents for the child on behalf of all society. They deserve the support of all society as they live it out.
Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD):…It is also very important for those of us who do not have direct experience of adoption to be able to hear the moving testimony of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, because the ability to understand in more detail how the adoption support fund can work, not just in theory but in practice, is hugely important…
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Lord Agnew of Oulton) (Con):..I was certainly very moved to hear the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester about his personal experience of the fund. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, was right to end his comments by reminding us that these children did not choose their circumstances, so we must do everything possible to improve their lives.