An adoptive mum talks about life with her two children with SEN
All adopters, however well prepared, take a huge leap of faith when they welcome a child with a complex history into their home. Had you considered the fact that your children may come with additional needs?
“Yes, I think that this is a natural process that adopters go through, to learn about and to understand that children from the care system will have additional needs and those will vary from child to child.”
What do you know about your own son and daughter’s history before they came to you?
“We were given as much information as was available. But all adopters need to accept that there may be unanswered questions which you learn to live with. There is also the question of what is genetic and what is environmental, and the impact of each factor on a child’s development.”
How and when did you begin to become aware that your children may need extra support?
“At first we didn’t appreciate the impact of trauma, for example separation from a birth parent, or the impact of multiple foster placements, but we learnt along the way.
“My children were in survival mode which meant that they operated in non-stop flight-flight-freeze mode. This stemmed from an overwhelming mistrust of adults, which made activities as basic as holding hands to cross a road a showdown.”
Were you able to develop strategies to help build trust with your children?
“What we learnt to appreciate was that it’s not a case of ‘won’t’ but ‘can’t. Children with complex trauma are wired neurologically in a way that makes daily life very challenging and once we appreciated that, we looked at parenting differently.”
It must have sometimes been hard to separate the child from the behaviour?
“It can be overwhelming to hear about the impact of trauma, the devastating impact, and it’s an incredibly emotional journey for adopters. The most important thing that we came to learn was about neuroplasticity, about literally rewiring a child’s brain through restorative parenting. That was incredibly empowering.”
How was the experience of introducing your children to formal education?
“Moving to school was a lengthy and well-planned transition, taking over six months with a well-thought out and coordinated plan. I wrote a personal education plan style document for the school and that helped immensely. My daughter has diagnosed sensory integration difficulties which have meant that she needs to be managed differently, from holding a pen, to being allowed down-time with sand, water and music on headphones.
“She struggles when her teacher leaves the class without telling her, and when that teacher does not reconnect with her when she returns, or simply sharing the teacher with 25 others – no mean feat for a child with complex trauma.
“The biggest challenge which gets to the heart of the matter is that my daughter who is bright, avoids putting herself in a position where she can make a mistake (which is part of learning as we know). It means that she refuses to write, even though she can, refuses to take part in group activities for phonics and she simply walks away to the edge of the class. The thought of getting it wrong for a child with a negative internal working model, which is the foundation of their self-belief and which is rooted within them, is unbearable, so it’s a clear decision to not set themselves up for failure, which would actually in their mind confirm what they think about themselves, which is that they are ‘bad’.”
How have things been for your son?
“The plan is similar for my son, with educational psychologist involvement as we speak, and the move to an education, health and care (EHC) plan when he moves to school. I have spent years advocating for my children as they spend too long in nursery or school to be anxiety-driven, and my efforts have been worth it.”
Have you received the professional support you need?
“It’s been a struggle, and at times a battle, and it proves to me that adopters need to be resilient, strong and pro-active. You are your child’s voice, their advocate, and it takes energy. I’ve always approached every agency I work with in an honest, open and respectful way. We should all be on the same page which is to help the children.
“We have had excellent early intervention with SEN input, starting with an educational psychologist who specialises in children from the care system. We have since moved to the EHC plan stage and I am so relieved to say that my daughter’s EHC plan has been approved so that she will gain one-to-one help from next term and those around her feel that she will probably need to move to an attachment focused school next year.
“We all want her to wake up on a school day without fear and to be in an environment that is fully able and set-up to unlock her potential. Sometimes it’s just about knowing who to speak to, who to turn to, and from there help can be found. The adoption landscape is changing so rapidly and it’s welcome. I really do foresee great things on the horizon for adoptive families to access the help they need. The Adoption Support Fund and the revision of statementing to the EHC plans shows an holistic approach.”
You clearly did a great deal of studying and research to help understand your children’s needs and to source the right support. You then took this one step further and formed your own support organisation. Can you tell me how this came about?
“I met Helen (who later became my business partner) at an adoption toddler group, just four weeks into my placement. I walked in as a new mum in a state of shock . As a more experienced adopter Helen took me under her wing and our friendship grew from there.
“Nobody else I knew understood what it felt like to be an adopter, to feel disconnected from some friends and family who tried to ‘get it’ but who found it difficult. Adopters don’t have the NCT network that birth parents do, and at times it can feel quite isolating, so the adopter community became a lifeline.
“We grew our support network of parents who would go on play dates, talk about common challenges and so on, and from there the topic of building a community of support and services to fill the current service gaps and inconsistencies was born. We were both adoptive parents who had given up our careers to be with our children, but we knew that we could make a difference with our passion, energy and our experience in the changing adoption landscape. We knew that adopters helping other adopters was so key, building a community of support, and from these ideas we formed Cornerstone. We also wanted to show that we could work with agencies in partnership, in an open and honest way, to create families and to support those families.
“We currently have funding from the DfE for a 16 month pilot which is part of the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme. We feel really privileged to be given the opportunity to be part of the adoption reform that is taking place in the UK.”
What has been the most challenging aspect of parenting so far?
“Moving our children from a situation of mistrust to trust; it has taken a long time to prove ourselves and actions speak louder than words. Continually striving to see my children’s needs recognised, to spread the word that trauma does not disappear the day a child is adopted into a loving home. Adoption does not erase trauma overnight. Adoptive children need to be recognised with challenges just as all children from the care system are and they need a supportive environment to rewire their brains. I am big fan of being informed on neuroplasticity and I’m always learning.”
And what has been the most rewarding thing for you?
“Seeing my children develop before my eyes and to discover the childhood they truly deserve. For my daughter to move from sensory integration challenges to now horse ride with such grace and ease and to swim as strongly as a dolphin. For my son, who was so shut down as a baby, to now express his emotions better than some adults and to give back to us the mindfulness that we model for him. I have always said that the most important job I have as a parent is not to teach my children colours, the alphabet or how to count, it is one thing alone and that is how to have a loving relationship with a parent. When my children look at me and I can see for myself that they know they are loved by me, then I know I am doing a great job.”
Would you consider adopting again?
“Well, our business partnership is like the collective fifth child between Helen and myself… so I think that we have enough to cope with right now. What we do hope is that whilst we have completed our families, we can help others build and nurture their own families.”
National Adoption Week
19 to 25 October 2015
Despite the recent sad news that the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) has closed, this year’s National Adoption Week will continue as planned and will be managed by First4Adoption. The theme of this year’s National Adoption Week, which will run from 19 to 25 October, is “too old at four?”
Older children waiting to be adopted are often likely to be in sibling groups or to have additional needs and there is currently a shortage of adoptive parents coming forward for these children. Sadly, sibling groups, those with complex needs and children from black and minority ethnic families are amongst the children who wait the longest to be adopted. During National Adoption Week 2015, local authorities, adoption agencies and all those who work in adoption will be working together to highlight the plight of these vulnerable children and to help them find forever families.
If you are interested in adopting or would like to know more, visit:
Chris Burton is Communications and PR Manager at First4Adoption, the national information service for those interested in adopting a child in England, and the organisers of National Adoption Week:
Claire Brasier is the co-founder of the Cornerstone Partnership, an adoption support programme working in partnership with adoption agencies:
Please note that the people pictured are not those mentioned in the article.