If adoption is a selfless act, what does that say about the kids?

handsWHAT are we talking about when we talk about adoption? Building families, or rescuing children? Giving love, or taking on a challenge? In a debate on adoption and permanence at Holyrood this week, to coincide with Adoption Week Scotland, I was struck by the language used by MSP Jenny Gilruth. She described adoption as “one of the most selfless acts that any human being can commit to do” – and I assume she was talking about adoptive parents, rather than adoptive children.

Gilruth has both friends who were adopted and friends who have adopted, and I don’t doubt her sincere commitment to improving outcomes for Scotland’s most vulnerable young people. A former teacher, she used her contribution to the debate to highlight both the gulf in educational attainment between looked-after children and their peers, and the social stigma that arises when a child comes to school unkempt and unprepared. But by describing adoption as a selfless act, she risks casting adoptive parents as saints and the children seeking new families as burdens rather than blessings.

Describing adoption as a selfless act risks casting adoptive parents as saints and the children seeking new families as burdens rather than blessings

There’s a difficult balance to be struck between praising and celebrating adoptive and foster parents and portraying them as so exceptional, so uniquely big of heart and endowed with patience, that your average Joe and Joanne feel inadequate by comparison, and don’t consider opening their homes to a child in need. And we really do need more people to consider it. At the start of this year it was reported that an additional 800 foster homes were needed in Scotland to avert a crisis, and many more potential adopters are needed too, particularly those willing to adopt older children and those with complex needs.

The modern-day adoption landscape is very different to that of just a few decades ago and yes, those seeking to become parents this way do need to be realistic about the challenges they may face, from initial screening through to matching and the adoption itself (or, in some sad cases, the lack thereof).

It can seem unfair that prospective parents are required to submit to lengthy and intrusive assessments before they can be approved to adopt – after all, no-one starting a family the traditional way has to meet with a social worker before getting the all-clear for a pregnancy. But this is of course necessary both to ensure those applying know what is involved, and that they are seeking to adopt for the right reasons. A pause on proceedings may be necessary if any red flags appear or if, for example, the application comes too soon after a miscarriage, stillbirth or failed attempt at IVF.

These days newborns are seldom ‘given up’ for adoption by frightened or pressured young mothers

Once a couple or individual is approved, there is no guarantee of a match. While babies continue to be taken into care, sometimes directly from the maternity ward, these days newborns are seldom “given up” for adoption by frightened or pressured young mothers as in times gone by. Instead they are removed for their own protection, and often fostered for years before being matched with a forever family. Older children coming into the system will generally have experienced high levels of trauma, neglect, or both. That certainly does not mean they are unlovable, but it may mean there are additional factors to consider, such as residual loyalty to a birth family who might not seem to deserve it.

Great strides have been made in recent years towards matching adoptive parents with children looking for homes. In addition to the 2011 creation of Scotland’s Adoption Register – which allows local authorities to share profiles across the country – there are now “exchange days” at which prospective adopters can find out more about the children, and activity days at which they can meet them in a supported environment. Meanwhile, the Permanence and Care Excellence (PACE) programme run by CELCIS and the Scottish Government, which seeks to reduce drift and delay, was introduced nearly three years ago and is now being rolled out to every local authority in the country. There’s clear evidence it’s been working: in one area the permanence process for each child was swiftly reduced by an average of three months; in another a change to the council’s legal advice process reduced delay by five weeks.

It may be easy to say with hindsight that a child should have been removed from home sooner, but no two cases are the same

There are many reasons why a child may languish in foster care for years before being adopted, and while it may be easy to say with hindsight that a child should have been removed from home sooner, or adopted more quickly after being accommodated, no two cases are the same. Efforts will always be made to support parents – whether with improving their parenting, addressing their addictions, seeking treatment for mental health problems or escaping domestic abuse – and sometimes these will be successful. Where a child cannot return home the possibility of a kinship placement will be explored, and again there must be no cutting of corners when it comes to assessment.

The path to permanence will rarely be a straightforward one, but some delays are avoidable: the work of PACE has exposed clunky processes that have everything to do with bureaucracy and little to do with the best interests of children. Unsurprisingly, our MSPs are united in agreement about the need to build on the excellent progress made so far, and to promote adoption as a positive choice both this week and beyond. They perhaps just need to be a wee bit more careful with their language when they do so.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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