Barometers, microscopes and fine-toothed combs

People have lots to say about the adoption process. When we were adopting, I had an unwritten game of Adoption Bingo ticking away in the back on my mind. ‘Ooh, you’ll probably get pregnant now!’ some people would tell me excitedly. Or ‘It’s alright for you – you’re doing it the easy way.’ This latter was usually thrown in my direction when one of my then-pregnant friends or acquaintances was complaining about stretch marks or swollen ankles, and I’d smile through gritted teeth and then go away and mutter to myself in private. People would also ask questions about the process itself, especially the home study. ‘Why do they have to put you through all that?’ they’d want to know. ‘Isn’t it all a bit intrusive?’

The home study is probably the part of the adoption process that generates the most curiosity. It’s easy to see why. During the home study, you have a series of meetings with a social worker whose job is to find out about you as a person and assess your suitability to be an adoptive parent. You will explore just about everything from your own upbringing to the present day: your family relationships, your education, your friendships and your working life. You’ll consider what makes you tick; the experiences and values that are most important to you. You’ll reflect on how you weather difficulties and cope with change. If you’re adopting as a couple, you’ll also think about what binds you together and how you handle disagreements; how you make decisions and support each other; how attuned you are to each other’s emotional needs. You’ll talk about your financial circumstances: how effectively you manage your money, whether you live within your means or run up debts, what impact adoption leave will have on your household income. And you’ll talk about things that are potentially extremely painful: bereavement, loss and previous relationships. Ultimately, your social worker wants to know whether you have what the charity CoramBAAF describes as the ‘resilience, emotional maturity and capacity to parent a troubled child’. It’s tough, and wide-ranging. It feels, at times, as if you’re turning yourself inside out.

Prospective adopters, that’s you on the slide. (Source: Creative Commons)

Why does the home study have to be so intensive? In short: because adoption involves trauma, and if you want to adopt a child, you have to recognise the trauma and loss that that child will have experienced and acknowledge your role in helping them to begin the healing process. All adoption involves trauma, because being separated from your family of origin – and the sights and sounds and smells that you’re surrounded with – is traumatic, and being placed in foster care and getting used to another set of sights and sounds and smells is traumatic, and then moving to another family – your adoptive family – is traumatic again. And that’s even before we start to think about the neglect or abuse that children might have experienced, or about the fact that many children who go on to be adopted experience more than one foster placement. We are really only starting to understand the long-term effects of this trauma. And adoptive parents need to be fully aware of the responsibility they bear for supporting their children, not just in the weeks and months after placement but years into the future.

Today, the charity Adoption UK published its Adoption Barometer, an overview of the state of adoption across the UK. It has called for ring-fenced funding for adoption support, support plans for children that take account of future as well as current needs, and the extension of support for adopted people until the age of at least 26. Adoption is often viewed – by people who know little about it – as an easy solution, as if that’s needed is a loving home for everyone to live happily ever after. In reality, the loving home is only a starting point. Adoptive families need much, much more.

So, prospective adopters do get put under the microscope, and their lives are examined with a fine-toothed comb. But that’s entirely right. We don’t get the stretch marks, and the home study’s never going to leave you with your pelvic floor in tatters (at least, not unless your social worker’s doing something they really shouldn’t be). But it is hard, and we owe it to our children to make it hard.

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