Written evidence submitted by Adoption UK
Adoption UK written evidence
- Many adoptive families have additional support needs and adoptive parents face significant challenges as they re-parent children who have experienced childhood trauma and adversity. The challenges facing these families have been greatly exacerbated by the covid-19 crisis and its associated effects on education and social care services.
- This submission addresses how the crisis and lockdown have affected those who are going through the adoption process, newly-placed families and more established families with children who are school-aged or older.
- The experiences of families include: a complete loss of their support network for new adopters; a lack of socialisation for some children; poorly managed transitions for school aged children; and increasing anxiety, aggression and violence in the home.
- In order to address the potential long-term impact of the lockdown on adoptive families, government must take three steps 1) extend adoption leave as a matter of urgency 2) ensure schools have the appropriate resources to support adopted children transition back to school 3) deliver an in-year funding increase for the Adoption Support Fund to meet increased demand.
Who we are and why we are responding
- Adoption UK is the leading charity providing support, awareness and understanding for those parenting or supporting children who cannot live with their birth parents. Our 4,000 members provide us with a strong, supportive community and the largest voice of adopters in the UK.
- Adoptive families have been adversely impacted by the crisis and its associated effects on education and social care services which are so important for these families. Through its membership and reach within the adoption community, Adoption UK is uniquely placed to communicate the experiences of adoptive families to decision-makers.
Adoption and the vulnerable children definition
- The confusion around whether the government’s “vulnerable children” definition included adopted children, and what this cohort is entitled to, has been a recurring issue through the lockdown, starting with the school place offer when schools first closed in March.
- A recent Adoption UK survey showed that one in 10 adopted children were offered a placed despite not strictly meeting the original criteria (Adoption UK, 2020). However, some had to battle to get the place, and some were offered less than was needed. This has caused a level of distress for adoptive parents, who have not always been fully aware of their rights and entitlements through this crisis, and a sense of being overlooked by government.
- This was reinforced with the recent publication of Ofqual guidance on grade objectivity. The guidance did not list either looked after children (LAC) or previously looked after children (PLAC) as groups who teachers should be aware of in terms of ensuring objectivity and having measures in place to reduce the risk over/under-estimating their grade.
- It was a striking omission for several reasons. Firstly, the guidance explicitly lists other characteristics/factors in addition to protected groups under the Equalities Act 2010 e.g. “character” and “appearance”. Secondly, the disadvantage of this group in education recognised through the provision of additional funding via the Pupil Premium mechanism and the provision of additional oversight through the Virtual School Head in each local authority.
- And finally, Adoption UK raised this specific issue with Ofqual prior to publication of the guidance via its public consultation, pointing out the omission of LAC and PLAC in the draft documents it released for consultation. In doing so, we highlighted findings from the Teachers Who Care report, published by the charity Become in 2018.
- This report revealed that the majority of teachers had not received good quality initial teacher training in the needs of care-experienced students, that 87% of respondents had heard at least one colleague express a negative generalisation about children in care. This gives cause for serious concern about the potential for negative teacher bias and low expectations impacting on the awarding of grades for care-experienced students.
- The tendency for adopted and previously looked after children to be omitted from initiatives focusing on vulnerable groups is a problem which predates the covid-19 crisis, despite the fact these children have had traumatic early experiences, have spent time in the care system and are likely to have complex or additional needs (Council for Disabled Children, 2018). It is essential that the introduction of any additional support to help vulnerable children as they return to school is extended to adopted and previously looked after children.
Disruption to the adoption process - this section not finished
- The covid-19 outbreak and lockdown have caused major disruptions to the work of adoption agencies and local authorities in placing children with families. The current circumstances have caused delays to preparation and training for those seeking to be approved as adoptive parents, the process of matching children with families, and introductions once a match has been made.
- Firstly, such delays mean that in some instances children for whom adoption is the most appropriate route out of care have had to wait longer to be placed with their new family. For these vulnerable children who have had traumatic early experiences, such delays only exacerbate feelings of instability.
- Such delays are also challenging for adoptive parents. 50% of prospective adopters who responded to the Adoption Barometer survey (2019) said they found the adoption process so difficult that they wondered if they could continue, with more than half reporting delays in the process. The additional delays and anxieties caused covid-19 are likely to have increased the number who either didn’t complete the process, are still waiting, or are experiencing a very challenging start as a new family.
- The Department for Education has responded to this situation by relaxing certain statutory duties placed on adoption agencies via the The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020. These regulatory changes have proved highly controversial and Adoption UK opposes one specific regulatory change in relation to adoption (see next section).
- However, it is our view that the changes introduced specifically to mitigate delays and waiting times for children – such as removing the requirement for an adoption panel – are proportionate given the circumstances. Furthermore, adoption agencies have also innovated by conducting training and panels virtually in order to keep the system moving and this has generally been welcomed by prospective adopters.
- In October 2019, the Department for Education launched a new adopter recruitment drive in response to adoptions falling by a third in just four years. Following an initial £645,000 investment, the DfE injected a further £1m into the scheme in December 2019. The campaign has been paused due to covid-19 and this is likely to intensify the existing shortfall.
- Adoption UK recommends a significant bolstering of support for new adoptive parents in order to attract more people to come forward to adopt and address this shortfall. This support could come in various forms such as: enhanced adoption leave (see below for more) and financial support; peer support and buddying schemes as universal measure; guaranteed access to therapeutic support via a long-term extension to Adoption Support Fund; and explore flexibility around school starting age and flexi-schooling during the early school years.
Adoption leave and support for newly-placed families
- In June 2019, Adoption UK published its Adoption Barometer report – a comprehensive stock-take of modern-day adoption in the UK. The report’s findings came from the largest ever survey of adoptive parents, with 3,500 responses, and focused on the experience of families in the calendar year 2018. Of those 3,500 respondents, 370 were newly-placed adopters, meaning their child(ren) came to live with them in 2018.
- Worryingly, more than half of all newly-placed adopters wondered in the early months whether they had done the right thing and whether they would be able to cope. 54% experienced stress, anxiety and/or symptoms of post-adoption depression.
- Respondents found that the advice to keep wider family members away during the first few weeks was counter-productive, leaving them feeling unsupported as new parents. This was sometimes compounded by short parental leave from work being mostly taken up by introductions, leaving one parent alone soon after the child moved in.
- These findings led Adoption UK to recommend the introduction of an enhanced parental leave package for adoptive families and a review of advice given to new adopters to keep friends and family at a distance during early placement (Adoption UK, 2019).
- Adoption UK has sought the views of parents who are currently on, or have been on, adoption leave during the covid-19 lockdown to support the House of Commons Petitions Committee’s investigation. The excellent response rate we had to from adopters to our call for evidence at such short notice is reflective of the importance of this issue.
- The most common issue raised by adoptive parents was the complete loss of their support network at a time when they potentially need it most. As mentioned above, our previous research has already shown that those who followed the advice generally given to new adoptive parents – to keep close family and friends away in the early days – struggled greatly.
- During the lockdown, this has been the reality for all newly placed adopters, with only virtual contact with their support network the only option. In many instances, this has meant children have not had the opportunity to spend time and build relationships with those who will be taking on some of the childcare responsibilities once the adoption leave is finished and parents return to work.
- In some cases, there has been a deficit in professional support on offer too. For example, we know that in some cases local authorities will be forced to redeploy adoption support staff to frontline child protection roles through the lockdown period. Or that staff may be off work because they are sick or have suffered a bereavement.
- To compound this situation, The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations potentially reduce the support available to these newly-placed families. Adoption UK’s main concern is around the following regulatory change as set out in the explanatory memorandum (see 7.12):
The amendments relax the requirement for adoption reviews (the reviewing of a child’s plan for adoption if not placed or a review of placement once placed) for agencies where it is not reasonably practical to do so, unless the agency has concerns about the welfare of the child.
- This regulation conflates a child’s plan for adoption before placement and post-placement and potentially absolves local authorities and adoption agencies of their corporate parenting responsibility in the first three months of an adoptive placement. In practice, this means newly-placed adoptive families could be left without vital support at a uniquely challenging time.
- Another common concern for parents was the lack of socialisation their children have had through the lockdown period and how this will affect their long-term development. While parents may still be able to access support from family and friends digitally, there is no alternative to socialisation and interaction with peers where young children are concerned. This is particularly important given the difficulties many adopted children have with forming relationships and unstable attachments due to their early experiences.
- The average age of adoption in England is approximately three and a half. Therefore, many new adoptive parents must move quickly from settling their child into their new home to preparing them for starting school. Transition planning is essential, and adopters will often work closely with school to ensure the child’s transition into school is smooth and gradual.
- Adoption UK research (2017) revealed adopted children in Key Stage 1 are 16 times more likely to receive a fixed period exclusion than their classmates. This highlights the difficulties adopted children have in transitioning to school life generally and led Adoption UK to recommend that education authorities explore flexibility around school starting age and the possible benefits of flexi-schooling during the first school years. The covid-19 crisis has accelerated the need to explore these options.
- For those newly-placed adopters whose children are due to start school in September, there has been no opportunity to engage in proper transition planning as a result of the lockdown. These parents are particularly concerned about how their child(ren) would cope in school without this specific preparation, as well as the general lack of socialisation in lockdown.
- Many parents said that while they formed a strong bond with their child during lockdown, the experience has been extremely draining. This was particularly true for single adopters or those who had adopted a sibling group or children with extremely complex needs. Without access to their usual support networks and with nurseries, schools and other planned activities closed during lockdown, there is no respite available for these new adopters who are often parenting highly traumatised children who will be experienced heightened anxiety themselves.
- Other adopters are coping with the unexpected challenge of home educating an older child due to the school closures, whilst on adoption leave with a younger child. Unsurprisingly, many parents feel unable to fully meet the needs of their newly-adopted child.
- Those newly-placed adoptive parents who responded to our call for evidence unanimously support the proposal for a three-month extension to adoption leave, with pay, in light of covid-19 and the lockdown.
Challenges and support
- The ground-breaking 2014 study Beyond the Adoption Order (Selwyn et al.) found that adoptive families could be broadly categorised into three roughly equal groups: those for whom everything was ‘going well’ (36%); those for whom there were ‘highs and lows’ (30%); and those facing ‘major difficulties’ (31%). The remainder were families where young people were living independently from their parents. More recent research from Adoption UK (2019) largely reinforces Selwyn’s conclusion.
- Similarly, a joint investigation by Adoption UK and the BBC (2017) found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of adoptive parents said their adopted children had displayed aggressive behaviour towards them. Further research from 2017 revealed that nearly a third (30%) of adoptive parents experience regular CPV (Thorley & Coates, 2017). It is important to consider that this was the reality of modern-day adoption prior to the covid-19 crisis, lockdown and school closures.
- Adoption UK began hearing from its members about the increased challenges they were facing from the early days of the lockdown period. We subsequently conducted a survey of adoptive parents to better understand how their families were coping. The survey was open from 14 –21 April, receiving 674 responses in total.
- More than half of those who responded to our survey (52%) said their child was suffering from increased emotional distress and anxiety during the lockdown, with 42% telling us their child’s sleep pattern has been disrupted. In some cases, fear relating to the spread of the virus and the health and safety of parents and family members is triggering feelings of loss and instability in adopted children and adolescents.
- These issues, combined with the fundamentally restrictive nature of the lockdown, are leading to an escalation in frequency and intensity of Child-on-Parent Violence and challenging behaviour within adoptive families. More than half (52%) of those responding to our survey reported an increase in challenging behaviour from their child(ren) and nearly a third (31%) are experiencing more violent and aggressive behaviour than usual.
- There is serious concern that the additional pressure families are under could lead to many more joining the hundreds each year who experience a family breakdown or disruption, with children leaving the family home prematurely and returning to the care system. And even where this outcome can be avoided, families will have longer-term support needs once the lockdown is over as they seek to rebuild and restore strain relationships and address the negative impact on their mental health.
- Access to support from social work teams has been affected as staff in adoption services are either off work for health reasons, to care for their children or redeployed to frontline child protection services. Similarly, families have had difficulties accessing the therapeutic interventions, depending on the nature of the therapy and the availability of practitioners, with 22% of children represented in our survey were unable to access ongoing therapeutic support because of restrictions. Meanwhile other sources of help at school and via the NHS have been paused or reduced.
- Adoption UK has taken steps to adapt its services in order to fill the support gap and help families through this crisis. We have moved our community support groups online, are producing home-based learning resources and expert webinars, delivering more content and engagement through digital channels (online forums and social media), and have produced a covid-19 specific area of our website. We have also maintained our normal helpline opening hours through the lockdown and provided Department for Education officials with regular updates on the challenges facing families to better inform its work.
- The Department for Education should also be commended for the flexibility and decisiveness it has displayed in re-allocating adoption support resources. This has been an important innovation in enabling families to access practical and timely supporting through the lockdown and beyond.
- It is also important to recognise the benefits of the lockdown for some adoptive families. Many are finding positive benefits of the time they are spending together at home, including enjoying opportunities to spend time together, talk more and do more activities together. These benefits are more pronounced for parents of younger children. Some respondents reported that they were having more conversations with their child about their past experiences and adoption.
Home learning and transitions
- Adopted children face particular challenges in education, with previous Adoption UK research showing, on average, they achieve significantly less well in exams than their peers, are more likely to have a range of high-level learning needs and are permanently excluded twenty times more than their peers.
- 98% of those parents surveyed had their children at home part-time or full-time. More than half of the respondents reported finding it difficult to persuade their child(ren) to do any learning activities. They also reported that a lack of communication or feedback from school made it more difficult for parents to motivate their child(ren).
- Most children, both at school and at home, have not been offered any additional support in respect of their previously looked after status. Those that have been offered support were largely happy with what was offered and considered it beneficial. Parents of children with special educational needs feel particularly marginalised and concerned. In addition to set work often being undifferentiated, many felt out of their depth supporting children with complex needs who would ordinarily have had specialist support in school.
- Of those parents who trying to home educate and work from home (61%), two-thirds said they were struggling to juggle the two, with one-third saying they have experienced emotional distress and anxiety as a result. Adoptive parents will not be alone in finding this an extremely difficult time, but the additional challenges of caring for traumatised children during a national crisis will undoubtedly take their toll in terms of mental health.
- Many care-experienced and adopted children have experienced abrupt and devastating transitions in the past and continue to find transitions and change difficult. The closures of schools due to lockdown did not constitute a ‘good ending’ for children. There were none of the preparations and signs that herald the coming summer break, for instance, such as the changing season, school trips, end of term discos and parties, and there was little time to say goodbye.
- For those due to change setting next year, there was no proper closure on their time at their previous setting – no prom, no special assembly, no yearbook or other rite of passage. All of this took place in an atmosphere of heightened anxiety nationally, and amid fears around health and wellbeing of family members.
- The return to school is likely to be particularly challenging for children with special educational needs who may already have been finding it difficult to access education in line with their peers. Now, after a long period away from education, often with unsuitable work being set and none of the supports or interventions normally provided for them in school, these children face returning to education with a mountain to climb.
- When launching the SEND Review in September 2019, the Department for Education in England said that they were committed to breaking down the barriers to a good education for children with SEND. Now, more than ever, children will need government to make a commitment to providing funding and support for all with special educational needs.
- Education settings will need to be prepared for children returning to school reluctantly and returning to coping strategies that may have been left behind some time ago. Parents felt that 63% of the children represented would need additional transition support to return to their current setting, and 47% may not want to return and refuse to attend. The situation is perhaps even more pressing for children who are due to transfer to a new setting in the next academic year, having missed the usual transition programmes.
Supporting adoptive families out of lockdown – a three-step approach
- Adoptive families will require ongoing support as they transition out of lockdown and back to something resembling normality in the coming months. Mental health and relationships will need to be rebuilt in some instances and government has a remedial responsibility to these families. It can go a long way to discharging this responsibility by delivering on the following three recommendations:
- Extend adoption leave, with pay, in light of covid-19 as a matter of urgency
- Covid-19 and the lockdown have had hugely negative implications for newly-placed families who are, or have been, on adoption leave through this period as mentioned above. Adoption UK has provided the House of Commons Petitions Committee with a range of policy recommendations aimed at improving support for newly-placed adoptive families both during the immediate covid-19 crisis and when we return to ‘normal’. The central recommendation is to extend adoption leave by three months, with pay, in light of covid-19 as a matter of urgency. We can share the additional recommendations made to the Petitions Committee on request.
- Support adopted children to transition back into school
- Transitioning back to school will be a major challenge for adopted children and those with additional social, emotional and mental health needs. Transition arrangements should take this into account as well as the physical safety of all students and staff.
- It is vital that government provides additional funding and resources so schools are able to properly support these children back into school life. The proposal by members of the committee to introduce a £700 catch-up grant for those children in receipt of Pupil Premium funding has been well-documented. Adoption UK recommends that the committee extend this proposal to include those children in receipt of Pupil Premium Plus funding too.
- Government must also publish guidance for schools on supporting children as they transition back into school. This should include specific guidance on the need for schools to exercise greater flexibility, understanding and reluctance in their use of exclusions. This is essential given that many children are likely to struggle with the transition and therefore display more challenging behaviour than usual.
- Bolster therapeutic support provision with an in-year funding injection for Adoption Support Fund
- While Adoption UK and the rest of adoption community welcomed the emergency support measures introduced via the ASF, it should be recognised that this is not new money. Rather, it is a re-allocation of part of the overall £45m budget for 2020/21.
- The result is a reduced budget for delivering specialist, therapeutic interventions when demand is likely to soar as families transition out of lockdown. Adoption UK therefore recommends an in-year funding boost to replace funds used for the emergency arrangements and provide additional resource to meet the anticipated rise in demand for therapeutic services.
- Adoption Barometer (2019), Adoption UK.
- Home learning during the Covid-19 lockdown: the impact of school closures on care experienced children (2020), Adoption UK.
- Realistic Positivity: understanding the additional needs of young children placed for adoption, and supporting families when needs are unexpected (2018), Council for Disabled Children.
- Schools and Exclusions Report (2017), Adoption UK
- Selwyn, J. et al. (2014) Beyond the Adoption Order: challenges, interventions and adoption disruption, Department for Education.
- Teachers Who Care (2018), Become.
- Thorley, W. and Coates, A. (2017) Child-Parent Violence (CPV): an exploratory exercise, Academia.edu