Special needs adoptions


Becky White talks to parents about the challenges of adopting a child with SEN and supporting them through school

Whether they knowingly adopt a child with special needs, or discover hidden needs later on, many adoptive parents will experience raising a child who faces additional challenges.

At the age of six, Callum already had a statement of SEN when Sarah adopted him. Having spent years teaching in alternative provision, she felt sure that she would be able to meet his needs as soon as she saw his profile, and wanted to put her experience to good use not only in being his adoptive parent, but also in ensuring that he had the best chance in school.

However, like many adoptive parents, Sarah faced significant challenges. “Primary was a fight as they expected him to do lots of homework, while I was more bothered about not having conflict at home,” she says. “I also felt that he was pulled up for behaviours that would be accepted in other children as he was adopted and had SEN.” At secondary school, Callum was well-supported but often found himself in bottom sets with children who, in Sarah’s words, “knew how to wind him up”. Despite this, he did manage to complete his GCSEs.

Supporting Callum through college was a challenge. He enrolled on a Level 2 course but, despite Sarah’s support, the social and emotional needs outlined on his education, health and care (EHC) plan went unmet. He dropped out just two weeks before the course finished and came away with nothing. Now aged 20, Callum is not in education or employment (NEET) and Sarah feels that “no-one seems to be concerned apart from me.”

The need for SEN adoptions

Callum and Sarah’s story is not unusual. In 2017, an Adoption UK survey found that nearly half of respondents’ adopted children had recognised SEN or disabilities, and 60 per cent of those had an EHC plan or equivalent. Three quarters of adopted children come from a background of abuse, trauma and neglect, which can lead to challenges including developmental delay, sensory processing difficulties and attachment disorders. There is also a higher incidence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders among adopted children. All of these may be present in addition to other recognised special needs and disabilities.

Reflecting on their experiences, Sarah feels that there are some advantages to having a recognised SEN “label” as it may open doors to extra support and funding, but it has still been a battle to get Callum the help he has needed. “As parents,” she says, “we are the experts on our children, but we do need to work together with schools to enable them to succeed. I’ve learned over the years who to fight and when, and that sometimes schools are doing their best under very difficult circumstances.”

Funding for support

In England, adopted and previously looked-after children are entitled to additional funding through Pupil Premium Plus, which should be used in school to help them overcome the disadvantage caused by their early experiences. This is in addition to any funding available to support their SEN or disabilities. Families who adopt a child from care are also entitled to an assessment of post-adoption support needs from their local authority. In England, this includes access to the Adoption Support Fund which provides funding to pay for specialist assessments and therapeutic interventions that are not available through statutory services.

Before the adoption order is made, adoptive parents and social workers should work together to make a robust plan for post-adoption support. Without this, there can be delays and difficulties in accessing future help. Rachel’s adopted son, Kai, came to live with her when he was just over a year old. “His post-adoption support plan was just one line,” she explains. “The social worker said that he was fine and she could see there were no problems.”

However, as Kai grew older, it was clear that there were difficulties. Rachel recalls: “I couldn’t tell at first whether it was just at the extreme end of normal toddler behaviour, or something else. That’s when I started getting educated on attachment and trauma.” When Kai finished nursery at almost five years old, he couldn’t count to ten, or recognise the letters in his own name; he exhibited signs of serious anxiety and his meltdowns and violent behaviour were becoming difficult to manage at home.

Rachel struggled on until Kai was six, not realising that support was available. “Then I heard about the Adoption Support Fund. I contacted my local authority and within a year we had a course of music therapy and a sensory integration assessment. The sensory integration therapy with a specialist occupational therapist has been a game changer for us. I only wish we had made a better post-adoption plan at the start. It would have saved Kai so many years of struggle.”

Feeling positive

Despite the challenges, Rachel and Sarah do not regret their decisions to adopt. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” admits Rachel, “but does any new parent really know? My son is funny, kind and brilliant at football. He just needs the right support to thrive.”

This is echoed by Katie, adoptive parent of Tyler. “We weren’t sure about adopting a child with SEND, but after seeing our son’s profile we fell in love with him!” Katie was told that Tyler had a learning disability but, as he grew older, it became clear that the majority of his symptoms were caused by the significant trauma and abuse he had suffered.

“The idea of having a child that is outside of mainstream can be a bit daunting at first, but our experience with his special school has been incredibly positive. Tyler is eight, and I’m still waiting for him to write his own name independently, but when it happens it won’t be any less amazing just because it has taken him longer – in fact it will probably be even more amazing knowing how hard he has worked at it!”

Thinking of adopting a child with SEN or disabilities?

Children with SEN often wait longer than others to be adopted. Here are some things to consider if you’re looking at special needs adoption:

  • find out everything you can before you make your decision; read between the lines of the child’s profile and be prepared to ask searching questions
  • be honest with yourself about what you can manage, especially if you already have other children
  • educate yourself on the impact of attachment and trauma, as well as any known special needs
  • be firm about establishing a robust post-adoption support plan
  • think outside the box when choosing schools; there is more to a truly inclusive school than a good Ofsted report
  • make sure your support network of family and friends is watertight
  • join support groups for adoptive families both online, and in your local area, as well as support groups for families of children with SEN and disabilities.

Further information

Becky White is Schools Development Officer at the charity Adoption UK, which provides support and advocacy for families with adopted children:


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