Why are children over the age of four often overlooked for adoption?

Peter McParlin and Sonia Jackson discuss their research on the reasons behind the UK’s low adoption rates for children over the age of four.

Very few children over the age of four are adopted from care in the UK. To find out why, we carried out a small pilot study by interviewing adoption leads in different parts of the country. According to our research, the primary reason for low adoption rates involving children over the age of four is a lack of suitable adopters willing to consider older children, with couples with fertility problems typically looking to adopt babies or toddlers. Additionally, there exists an apparent fear that older children will have intractable behavioural and emotional problems due to potential earlier experiences of abuse and neglect, or an inability to bond with their new parents because of feelings of loyalty to their birth family. In addition, social workers are reluctant to place older children because they feel that the risk of breakdown is higher, and they could be blamed for making an unsuitable placement. The resultant tragedy is that many children are very young when first removed from their families, and it is due to delays and hesitation within the care system that they get to an age at which their chances of being adopted ostensibly diminish rapidly.

Security and stability
We believe there is little doubt that adoption is by far the best outcome for children who cannot live with their birth families. Some social workers seemingly have an ambivalent attitude towards adoption and are reluctant to accept its superiority to long-term foster care, even arguing that there is little difference. However, the statistics suggest otherwise. A study for the Department for Education by the University of Bristol in 2014 found that out of 37,335 adoptions over a 12-year period only 3.2% ended in a “disruption”. This compares with a breakdown rate of 25-30% for foster placements intended to be long-term, rising to 50% for adolescents. As such, long-term outcomes for adopted children appear consistently better than for those who remain in foster care situations. Foster care is a provisional status, which can be ended at any time with minimal bureaucracy. Unplanned endings are rarely due to the child’s behaviour. However, sometimes a series of minor irritations, of which the foster child may be quite unaware, build up to a point that the foster carers might eventually find intolerable. Lemn Sissay’s best-selling memoir, My Name is Why, provides a telling illustration of this process. At the age of 12, Lemn was brutally rejected by foster parents who had cared for him almost since birth. Early adolescence seems to be a danger point, especially for boys. As in Lemn’s case, that first rejection often sets off a series of consequential placement moves. The official target is for children to have no more than three moves in a year, yet in 2018, 11% of looked-after children were moved ten times or more, with much larger numbers of placement changes common.
To understand why adoption is so much more stable, we need to look at the wider context of adoption. It is an enormous commitment for the adoptive parents as well as for the child. The adopters want to believe they have made the right decision, and everything that happens afterwards is subject to what the Nobel prize-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, calls “confirmatory bias”. This means that the adoptive parents will appreciate their loved child’s good qualities rather than focusing on problems. Most adopters go to great lengths to protect their child’s well-being, however difficult the circumstances, and would rather do anything than give up. For foster carers things can be quite different, particularly if they see a conflict between the welfare of a foster child and the needs of their own birth children.

The policy context
The number of children in care that move into adoption depends on Government policy as well as the individual decisions of social workers and their managers. Under the Coalition Government (2010-2015) there was a strong push to increase the rate of adoption. It is no accident that without the continuation of that political impetus since 2015, adoption from care has declined from the high point of 5,360 in 2015 to 3,820 in 2018. Carol Homden, Chief Executive of the charity, Coram, noted that last year only 277 of 1,000 children waiting for adoption were matched with an adoptive family. In England, 2,230 children were placed for adoption during 2018 compared with 2,710 the previous year - an 18% reduction. The risk is that the rest may be ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Additionally, Coram suggest that we are experiencing the biggest shortage of adopters in living memory. This means that thousands of children who could be growing up in settled homes will potentially spend the rest of their childhood in limbo, feeling that they don’t belong in either their birth or foster families.

Widening the pool
However, some progress has already been made. We have moved away from the notion that only heteronormative couples should be considered as adoptive parents. In 2018, 11% of successful adopters were single parents and 12% were same-sex couples. Ethnicity, which used to be a great barrier to the adoption of BAME children, is no longer considered relevant. The last substantial obstacle is age. Practice is only just catching up with the fact that people are living much longer in good health. Grandparents have always been important carers for children, but unrelated older people are a resource we have hardly begun to explore.
Possible groups to target for recruitment are: couples whose children have grown up; people in second marriages or partnerships; those beyond the age of biological parenthood; and people who had other priorities earlier in life or could not have children for any other reason. Above all, long-term foster carers should be given every possible encouragement to give the children they look after the legal security of adoption.

The best conditions
In many American states, you can apply to be adopted up to the age of 17. We believe that a similar scheme would work in this country too, and that all children who cannot return to their birth families should be offered the opportunity for adoption, regardless of age. Adoptions have the best chance of success when:
- The agency responds promptly to initial enquiries and sends all relevant information.
- Prospective adopters are given full information about the child’s background, strengths, and difficulties. Honesty is essential
- The children know as much as possible about the adoptive family before placement and are able to discuss their feelings in ways suited to their stage of development.
- The adoption agency continues to provide a high level of support to both the child and the adults, including services such as therapy, counselling, and financial help to meet the particular needs and interests of that child.
- The agency acts as an advocate for the child and adoptive parents as necessary, especially in relation to health and education services.

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