Supporting adopters and special guardians when children and young people are hard to care for

Sylvia Schroer
Research Centre Manager

30 November 2018

As an adoptive parent and Chair of the Special Guardians and Adopters Together group, I was keen to encourage the What Works Centre, at a recent meeting, to keep families like ours within the view of the Centre. We hope the What Works Centre will draw on the views of special guardians and adopters, and other evidence, to ensure that we receive the best support possible.

The views of adopters and special guardians are important because we are ‘experts by experience’ of UK social work and safeguarding practices. This is not only through our experience of becoming adoptive parents and special guardians. Research conducted by Julie Selwyn and colleagues in 2014 showed that, very sadly, rates of returning to care were 3.2% for adopted children and 5.7% for special guardianship children. So we also have experience of the challenges of ‘parenting from a distance’ when our children are cared for by the state.

When children go into care because they are hard to care for
Why might children and young people who are adopted or cared for under special guardianship orders need to go back to care? In modern adoption and special guardianship, our children often have complex needs and our family life can be very intense. Adopters and special guardians need support to help them to care for young people who have experienced trauma – and continue to experience its effects.

We conducted a survey in January 2018 that looked at the health and wellbeing of adopters and special guardians. This illustrated some of the challenges that adopters and special guardians faced. We found that 57 % of our 389 respondents have had to deal with child-to-parent violence and 54% of us were parenting and caring for children who refused school and had school anxieties. We also found that 20% of respondents reported having to deal with false allegations being made about themselves, a partner, or a family member by their children, which of course can be harrowing for all involved.

Having respite may be essential to us if parent/carer resilience is to be maintained. But many of our survey respondents (79%) have difficulty accessing respite unless it is through the arrangements we make ourselves with family and friends – if they are willing or able to help.

However, respite that involves our children becoming ‘looked after’ once again can be a double-edged sword for us and our children – as recognised in the recommendations of the Selwyn report. Going back in to care can trigger earlier trauma memories for our children and can result in feelings of failure and rejection.

What support is needed?
Hard choices will therefore have had to be made when it is decided that our children cannot live with us safely. From our parental and carer perspectives, care separations may be necessary and important, especially during the tumultuous years of adolescence.

We hope that research will help to understand how this can best be done given the particular needs of our children after their earlier experiences and trauma. Useful research might include understanding other ways to provide respite for families, which do not involve young people going in to care. Under current Section 20 arrangements this is often the only option.
When a care placement is the best and safest option, we would like to see more research and evidence about how to support the ‘parenting/caring from a distance’ role for adoptive parents and special guardians, and how our continued parenting role is recognised, even if our children cannot live with us for a time.

Care separations do not mean we cease to be parents or families, or we stop loving our children – because they do not live with us. We hope more than anything they will get the help they need, and that our relationship with our children will not suffer and may improve when we have space and time apart. We look forward to continuing to work with the What Works Centre to inform the Centre’s future research priorities and activities.