Framing contemporary adoption


There is a gulf between perceptions of adoption within wider society and the experience and understanding of adopters and adoptees. This is obviously no great revelation to anyone involved with adoption.

What is interesting to me is the dynamic that exists between societal expectations and understandings of adoption, the way adoption is marketed to prospective adopters and the realities of the challenges faced by adoptive families.

Like many, I experienced gushing wide-eyed responses to telling people that we are considering adoption. Adoption can sometime be presented as an end point, a destination or perhaps a walk off into the sunset. The reality is quite different.

The start of a journey

A child being placed is the beginning of a process. It can be easy for onlookers to think ‘they’re alright now’ or ‘they’re in the best place they’ve been’ – but the reality is that when a child’s early experience has been shaped by loss and uncertainty, expecting more of the same is deeply ingrained.

The initial period after our little one’s placement was about creating routine and sense of normality. It was about giving her a sense of place and an expectation that we’d be reliable and dependable. A basic foundation that can often be taken for granted, if people haven’t encountered children who have lacked it.

From the off, we were desperate to see signs that she was attaching to us. Every little development was analysed and picked apart in terms of how she was bonding with us. Now I look back on this period with hindsight, it’s clear to me that although things were going in the direction, our bond was pretty fragile. A seedling version of what would develop.

In truth, a couple of years on that bond is still developing and changing. We’re a close family and to any onlooker we would (most of the time) appear like any other family of three. But just under the surface is past experience that she came to our family with, that shapes the way she develops and understands the world.

One of the most fundamental things that I’ve learned is that it’s impossible to fix the issues of early trauma that a child comes to you with. That might sound like a negative or defeatist thing to say, but actually I find it quite liberating. Our role is to guide her as best we can and equip her to understand her life story and what has gone before and give her the security, support, and nurture she needs in the present.

A realistic understanding

I passionately believe that contemporary adoption should be understood as parenting children with early trauma, who can’t live with their birth families.

As I’ve stated in other articles, I struggle with the impression of adoption given by the #YouCanAdopt recruitment drive, as it gives a fluffy and rose tinted view, meaning that as people are assessed and eventually adopt they’ll come down to earth with a bump.

I recently spoke to a prospective adopter, who initially seemed surprised and a little taken aback that I wasn’t more gung-ho about adoption. I think I’ve developed a nuanced view. Of course as an adoptive parent, I believe it has a place, but it should in my view be the last resort. Where it’s possible to keep families together or find the permanence for a child through other means such as kinship care, this should be done.

Another thing I find difficult about the sugar-coated impression of adoption given by #YouCanAdopt is that it feeds a sort of saviour mentality. It also focuses heavily on the needs of adopters and what they can get. Now, there is also a need for nuance here, as no adopter is totally altruistic. Everyone is starting or expanding a family and that’s fine but thinking about what an individual brings to adoption should be front and centre, rather than the opposite.

At a time when the Government focus is firmly on recruitment, there is a need for those involved in adoption to consider how it is framed, understood and communicated to wider society. The voices of adoptees are also part of the conversation that is often also neglected.

I would ultimately like to see the conversations about adoption focusing on what people can bring to adoption rather than primarily what they can get from it. I think an important step in this direction would be achieving a wider recognition of adoption being by its very nature the parenting of traumatised children.

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