How has adoption changed professionally in the past 30 years?

30 years adoptionBestselling author of Creating Loving Attachments and clinical psychologist Kim Golding reflects upon the major changes in the world of adoption over the past 30 years and looks towards the future. Her article is taken from 30 Years of Social Change which gathers together over 30 leading thinkers from diverse disciplines to reflect upon how their fields of expertise have evolved during those years.

The year 1987 was life-changing for me. I was a relatively newly qualified clinical psychologist and was embarking on motherhood. The birth of my son was a long way removed from the world of adoption and fostering but, unbeknown to me at the time, this latter world was on the threshold of great change.

It would be another decade before I took on the responsibility alongside colleagues to develop a support service for carers of children living in and adopted from care, but this service would be shaped by changes that were already starting. The 30 years during which my son has grown into an  adult,  and Jessica  Kingsley Publishers  has become a leading publisher in literature focused on adoption and  fostering,  have  coincided  with  a  period  of intense scrutiny, research and change within the world of fostering and adoption.

The year 1987 was a point in time when views and attitudes were changing. In the previous decade the impact of high-profile cases of child abuse and familial child homicide, such as the death of Maria  Colwell  in  1973 (see Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in Relation to Maria Colwell 1974), combined with seminal research  as  featured  in  Children Who Wait: A Study of Children Needing Substitute Families (Rowe and Lambert 1973), confronted social service commissioners and service developers with the reality of child abuse and the poor outcome for these children who entered the care system. The need for a flexible care system that could meet the need for a stable family life was highlighted.

Alongside this, the use of adoption was undergoing a radical shift from primarily infant adoptions shrouded in shame and secrecy towards adoption as a solution to provide a legal and permanent family life for older children in care where successful transition back to birth family was not possible or successful. There was increasing debate about the rights and needs of parents versus children, and recognition that we needed a care and adoption system that was flexible and could provide a range of options for children not able to live with birth parents. This eventually led to the 1989 Children’s Act in England and Wales, followed by acts in 1995 for Northern Ireland and for Scotland.

The year 1987, and the subsequent shift in legislation in the following years, also signalled a change in our understanding of child development and the impact of adversity. Three decades of development and research into attachment theory by John Bowlby and his followers were finally leading to the acceptance that children need an attachment to a parent.

Child abuse and neglect was now seen as having long-lasting impacts on health and development.  Child and family welfare became a focus of social care practice, with an emphasis on finding least-intrusive options and establishing partnership working with parents. Residential care was declining and foster care increasing, while contact arrangements were formalised.

By the time I was involved in the development of support services for carers and parents of children in or adopted from care at the beginning of this century, the term ‘looked after children’ was the established descriptor and the 1989 Act had become embedded in practice. Whether this  made parental or children’s needs paramount is open to debate, but there was increasing recognition of the mental health needs of children in and adopted from care. There was, however, little inter-agency working between health, social care and education to meet these needs. Fragmentary services and a lack of investment in support services were leading to instability and a lack of permanence for the children. As we entered a new century, the ‘naughties’, there was a raft of concern, advice, guidance and legislation which would lead to change in the way we recognised looked after children’s needs and how we set up services to meet these. This was the backdrop to the development of our service in Worcestershire, which was to become the Integrated Service for Looked After and Adopted Children (ISL).

A document entitled Every Child Matters (ECM; Department for Education and Skills 2003) alongside two pieces of legislation, the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and the Children Act of 2004, were instrumental in shaping services for children, including those looked after and adopted from care. ECM focused all services working with children and young people on five outcomes seen as most important for them to lead happy and healthy lives. These were to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve, to make a positive contribution and to achieve economic wellbeing.

There was growing recognition that children growing up in or adopted from care were not getting close to achieving any of these outcomes. We needed interventions that took into account their past traumatic experience and the impact it was having on their current experience. In addition, the Children Act of 2004 was emphasising the importance of inter-agency working to achieve good outcomes. This paved the way for many services, like ours, being set up to promote multi-agency planning and partnership working. The third guidance, in the form of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, helped to focus  attention  onto  the  support  needs of families who were caring for these vulnerable children. Support for the parents and carers so that they could provide a safe and healing parenting environment for the children was viewed as integral for services focused on achieving different outcomes for looked after and adopted children.

Against this background of advice and guidance we developed a consultation service for those parenting the children, which included the network around the children and family. This had the explicit aims to promote inter- agency and partnership working, alongside providing support for the parents and carers (see Dent and Golding 2006; Golding 2004, 2010, 2014). We also developed group work programmes to provide additional support and help for those parenting the children (see Golding 2006, 2007; Golding and Picken 2004). We provided the parents and carers with a model informed by the principles of dyadic developmental psychotherapy (DDP), which would help them provide therapeutic parenting. The group format provided an additional level of support as group members discovered they were not alone in the challenges that they were facing.

The Every Child Matters policy initiative was one of providing stability of family life for the children, provided through a range of options including foster, residential and kinship care, alongside adoption. One size was not seen to fit all, and the assessment and analysis of children’s needs was increasingly informed by multi-agency perspectives. It is easy to paint a rosy picture of these years, supported as   I was to be innovative and creative, but there were some salutary lessons along the way. Victoria Climbié (Laming 2003), for example, was an important wake-up call for those of us concerned to promote good multi-agency working. However, this was a period of time when I believe innovation was allowed to flourish and social care, health and education were thinking together about how to embed this into services.

In parallel to changes in policy, I have been privileged to work with children and families involved in adoption and the care system over a period of time that has seen our knowledge and understanding of the impact of relational trauma on mental health and emotional wellbeing increase. This growth of knowledge has built upon what we knew about attachment theory 30 years ago to embrace new research relating to neurodevelopment. This growth in knowledge  has  coincided  with  an  injection  of  money  to develop support services dedicated to growing and developing support interventions, and a renewed focus on successful parenting of the children living in care or adopted from care. For example, the Adoption Support Fund has been established in increasing recognition that adoption   is not a ‘happy ever after’ option for children, but a family journey that presents a range of challenges and requires support and intervention at key points along this journey.

And so we come to the last decade and sadly, as is  often the case, a child’s death. In 2009 the death of Peter Connolly (Baby P) prompted outrage at perceived failures of social services, health and the police to protect Peter, and in its aftermath blame and recrimination raged between the government, the range of services and agencies involved, and the public. Lord Laming was commissioned to write another report in an effort to address these concerns (Laming 2009). Laming acknowledged work that had been done towards safeguarding children, but also highlighted much that was still needed. Following Peter’s death, and the recognition of what was still not working to protect children, looked after children numbers have risen. For example, in Worcestershire, where I established our service, numbers of looked after children which hovered around 500 at the time of our service development have risen to current levels of approaching 700. The fallout from the death of Baby P still resonates today (see Shoesmith 2016). I believe this coincided with a time when social work was becoming increasingly threatened, and perhaps served as a handy scapegoat – financial constraints on public services have been a big driver. I have lived through unprecedented cuts in public services, and seen the hard decisions about reduction in services that this has led to. ISL has so far survived this austerity, but it has been reduced, the education element being hardest hit.

Our awareness of child safety has rightfully increased, but not always helpfully, as it has been accompanied by the rise of an increasingly risk-averse culture. In my opinion the combination of this culture with limited resources has focused services too narrowly on the immediate management of children in crisis and has placed less focus on good- quality prevention and early intervention. Social work has increasingly become a profession focused on targets and procedures rather than relationships with the families they are working with. A reduction in multi-disciplinary working and an increasing practice of lone working and personal responsibility appear to be contributing to a climate where rates of burnout and exhaustion are high. Children in care have been hit hard, and their numbers still increase.

However, there are also some positive developments. There is renewed interest in children’s mental health, coupled with recognition of the impact of life experiences on children. Children’s needs are being identified, although services continue to struggle to meet these needs. There  has also been a drive to achieve more adoptions, in quicker timescales, for children. More haste can mean less speed, and it is important that assessment of adoptive families takes into account the complexity of the children who are adopted. However, the recognition that these families need specialist support is welcomed. This has been highlighted by the Adoption Support Services Act of 2005 and the subsequent use of the Adoption Support Fund,  which  aims to improve assessment and access to appropriate interventions for adopted children and their families.

We are currently on the verge of major developments in social care services. For example, the development of regionalisation of adoption agencies is being considered to change the way adoption services are offered. Serious case review procedures are being overhauled as these are seen to raise the same concerns over and over again, but the recommendations are not leading to the needed change. We need to learn the lessons from child deaths in a way that is embedded in practice. It is too early to determine the threats or successes that these developments will bring, but I trust and hope that Jessica Kingsley Publishers will be around for another 30 years as we continue to learn, develop our knowledge, influence national policy and promote service development in a way that can truly meet the needs of   this courageous and vulnerable population of children and young people looked after or adopted from care.

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Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in Relation to Maria Colwell (1974) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided by Local Authorities and Other Agencies in Relation

to Maria Colwell and the Co-Ordination Between Them (Chairman: T. G. Field-Fisher). London: HMSO.

Dent, H. R. and Golding, K. S. (2006) ‘Engaging the Network: Consultation for Looked After and Adopted Children.’ In K. S. Golding, H. R. Dent,

  1. Nissim and E. Stott (eds) Thinking Psychologically About Children Who Are Looked After and Adopted: Space for Reflection. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Department for Education and Skills (2003) Every Child Matters. London: Department for Education and Skills.

Golding, K. S. (2004) ‘Providing specialist psychological support to foster carers: A consultation model.’ Child and Adolescent Mental Health 9, 2, 71–76.

Golding, K. S. (2006) ‘Finding the Light at the End of the Tunnel: Parenting Interventions for Adoptive and Foster Carers.’ In K. S. Golding, H. R. Dent, R. Nissim and E. Stott (eds) Thinking Psychologically About Children Who Are Looked After and Adopted: Space for Reflection. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Golding, K. S. (2007) ‘Developing group-based parent training for foster and adoptive parents.’ Adoption and Fostering 31, 3, 39–48.

Golding, K. S. (2010) ‘Multi-agency and specialist working to meet the mental health needs of children in care or adopted.’ Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 15, 4, 1–15.

Golding, K. S. (2014) ‘Multi-Agency and Specialist Working to Meet the Mental Health Needs of Children in Care and Adopted.’ In M. Tarren- Sweeney and A. Vetere (eds) Mental Health Services for Vulnerable Children and Young People: Support for Children Who Are, or Have Been, in Foster Care. Oxford: Routledge.

Golding, K. S. and Picken, W. (2004) ‘Group work for foster carers caring for children with complex problems.’ Adoption and Fostering 28, 1, 25–37.

Laming, W. (2003) The Victoria Climbié Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry. London: The Stationery Office.

Laming, W. (2009) The Protection of Children in England: A Progress Report.

London: The Stationery Office.

Rowe, J. and Lambert, L. (1973) Children Who Wait: A Study of Children Needing Substitute Families. London: British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

Shoesmith, S. (2016) Learning from Baby P: The Politics of Blame, Fear and Denial. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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