A journey to adoption

We hear from a family in the south east of England who share their experiences of adopting a child with special educational needs.

The adoption process

We were already a family of three when we decided to adopt. We chose this path because we felt that adoption was a positive thing, and we knew there were many children in need of a home. We could have tried for another baby - which probably would have been quicker, and with fewer difficulties and less emotional exhaustion! But now that the process is finished and our family of four is complete, it’s impossible to imagine doing things any differently.

It’s fair to say that we did not experience a ‘typical’ adoption journey, if there even is such a thing. We started stage one of our adoption journey in December 2016 with a visit from a social worker to discuss the process. This was quickly followed by stage two - a date for adopter training with a group of other prospective parents. Then, home visits where a social worker talks to you more fully about your motivation to adopt, your family history, your finances and your parenting style.

In theory this process should be completed within nine months, but for us this just wasn’t possible. The realities of raising a child and working meant that we took longer than others to complete all our paperwork. We finally went in front of the Adoption Panel in April 2018 and we received a phone call a week later to say we had been approved. We were delighted! However, assessment is just a small step in the adoption journey.

Stage three, searching for a child, was tough. Our social worker would notify us if she knew of any children she thought would be suitable, and we looked ourselves using an online platform. It was devastating to look at all those little faces and read their stories - some of them still haunt me. The reality is that most children in the system will have been removed from their birth families; it is incredibly rare for them to have been ‘given up’. All of the profiles we read represented a child that had been neglected, abused or removed at birth from a parent who was not able to care for them. We started approaching social workers about particular children, but we discovered very quickly that we would not always be considered and in some cases, we simply didn’t get a reply at all.

I can still remember the first time we looked at our daughters’ profile. We weren’t certain straight away that she was the right child for us; she had several health issues as a result of a premature birth, and she was deaf. We didn’t make any enquiries straight away, but we just kept coming back to her profile. So, we went away to do our research, and discuss her specific needs with our social worker. There was something about her that made us feel that she would ‘fit’ with our family - maybe it was the description of her as being determined, funny and a bit of a diva - we were fairly sure she would fit right in!

After much discussion we contacted her social worker, and were delighted to hear back from her very quickly. She updated us on her progress and reassured us that she was actually doing much better than she had been when the profile was originally written. We decided to proceed with our ‘expression of interest’ and the next stage of our journey began.

Our daughter’s social worker first visited us late in the summer of 2018, and we had several visits from her after that. We talked about what we liked to do as a family, and what she liked doing at her foster carers house. We talked in detail about her family history and her health, we needed to be able to prove that we could support her and manage all of her health problems. We started Sign Language lessons to support her communication and development. We decorated a room in our house to create a bedroom for her, and started to prepare our son for the possibility that she might actually be coming to join the family. Finally, we were invited to her local authority to face their adoption panel. They overwhelmingly voted in our favour and we were over the moon! Our son was so happy and he couldn’t stop telling everyone that he would be getting a sister! We had found our little girl and everyone believed that we were the right match for her.

Everyone started to make plans for her transfer to our care, and we attended lots of meetings with her foster carers and social workers. We finally met our daughter face to face in December 2018. She was shy of us at first, but she quickly came around. At the end of that first meeting she almost fell asleep on my husbands’ shoulder and it all felt so perfect. We were due to go back and visit her between Christmas and New Year with a view to her moving in on the second week of January.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. We had a call the following week to say that her foster carers had applied to adopt her, and a judge would have to make the final decision about where she would be placed. We were devastated. Less than a week before Christmas we had to sit our (then) six year old down and tell him his sister wouldn’t be coming. It was truly awful. He had so many questions and we didn’t have any of the answers. A court battle ensued, between the foster carers and Social Services. It was a very long and difficult wait.

In June 2019 the court case finally came to an abrupt end when the foster carers conceded defeat. We were shocked and surprised, not least when we were asked if we could begin introductions the following week! After months of waiting we were suddenly rushing around to try and get everything prepared.

We packed our bags and went to stay in an apartment closer to where our daughter was living. We had just seventy-two hours to learn all of her routines and try to get her comfortable with our family. Those first few days were an emotional rollercoaster. Our son loved his sister almost instantly, and it was clear by how they interacted that she liked him too. However, our time at the foster carer’s home was very different. It was a very strained and they were understandably upset. We felt their resentment towards us, despite the fact that we had nothing to do with the court proceedings. Finally, on a Sunday afternoon in July 2019, the foster carers brought our new daughter to our house and she was home.

We officially ended our adoption journey on the 17th November 2020 when a judge granted our Adoption Order for our daughter, but the work is far from over.

Life with an adopted child

Life with two children certainly took a bit of adjustment, but looking back, those early days went incredibly smoothly all things considered. We are incredibly lucky that our children got on so well right from the start. Our friends and family welcomed our new daughter with open arms, never making her feel that she didn’t belong. She loves all of her extended family and is always happy to see them. Most outsiders would never guess that she wasn’t our birth child. She has made lots of friends since starting school and is popular with her peers despite her deafness and the resulting language delays. From the outside, everything looks pretty perfect.

Unfortunately, life for a child with a history of neglect is never going to be easy all the time. Whilst our daughter has settled well, and I genuinely believe that she loves us, she has suffered a lot of trauma in her short life. This trauma means that she is sometimes anxious or angry without any clear cause, and this can affect her behaviour. She needs to control things in her life to feel safe and most often that control centres around sleep, food and toileting. At four years old some of her behaviours probably seem more appropriate for a much younger child and they are certainly reminiscent of the ‘terrible twos’ at certain times! This is because emotionally she is still stuck in that developmental stage and the only way to improve this is to build her attachment to us and prove to her that we can be trusted.

Sadly, however much we tell her that she is with us forever, it will take her far longer to actually believe this to be true. We continue to work with a therapist to build on her attachment to us, and teach her that the people she loves will never leave her. We use therapeutic parenting methods to try to help her to understand her emotions and express them in a more positive way, and we read stories about adoption and families, to help her to understand what has happened to her is not something she needs to hide from. She will probably always struggle with her emotions, and as she grows she will continue to ask more and more questions about who she is and where she came from. In the long term all we can hope for is that when she grows up she will look back on her adoption as a positive thing, and understand that we did everything in our power to give her the best life we could.

Getting the right support

As with all parenting, not every day is sunshine and roses. You need a certain amount of resilience to become an adopter, particularly when it comes to advocating for the needs of your child. Unfortunately, many schools and childcare facilities have a very limited knowledge of child trauma and the effect it has on these children. I have often had to explain things to them and it can become very frustrating! You also need to beware of other well-meaning parents – it can be hard for outsiders to understand why you parent your child a little differently, or make exceptions for things that they do. You have to build a thick skin to their ‘advice’ and learn when just to smile politely and walk away! Building a group of other adopters around yourself is a great way to feel less ‘alone’ as they have experience of dealing with the emotional fall out that can come with adoption.

Most films and TV shows portray adoption very differently to the reality of raising someone else’s child. They show grateful children who are delighted to have been chosen by their new family. The reality is that most adopted children are old enough to know and remember that they had a life before they came to your family, and they are not always delighted to have been removed from that life. They don’t understand that the move was made in their best interest, or that in the long term they will appreciate the opportunities they have been given. They are just scared. Anyone who wants to consider adopting needs to be sure that they can cope with these feelings on a practical and emotional level. You need support around you to help you get through the tough days, and you need to be willing to ask for outside help when it is needed. Post Adoption Depression is a common result of the stress that comes with being a new parent and there is no shame in contacting your GP for help.

At the moment we don’t use any additional childcare for our daughter. This is because she needs as much family time as possible to continue building her sense of attachment and belonging. She tries really hard to regulate her behaviour in school all day and when she gets home she needs to just be able to let out all the feelings she has been holding in. It wouldn’t be fair to her or a childcare provider to send her anywhere after school. I’m hopeful that in the future, when she is fully settled, we will be able to send her to after school care so that I can return to work. However, we would need to find a suitably trained ‘trauma informed’ placement, ideally with a childminder, where she can feel at home and be able to be herself.