Real Stories Behind The Adoption Process – Ababy girl, just two days old, is glimpsed in profile, strapped into her car seat. She’s so tiny it nearly engulfs her. She’s leaving hospital, but not with her birth parents. A court has just granted social workers an emergency protection order because of fears she is at immediate risk of harm: this child is one of the few each year who are considered to be in such danger that they are removed from their mother soon after birth.
The little girl’s older brothers are already in care. Lorena and Ray, their birth parents, are devastated. Their plight is barely imaginable: parents will shudder to watch. But a new Channel 4 series, 15,000 Kids And Counting – referring to the number of children needing to be adopted in the UK every year – gained unparalleled access to the highly sensitive child protection and adoption process, showing the rigorous procedures social workers must follow.
The number of children being adopted from care is going up: 3,980 were placed with adoptive families last year, compared to 3,470 the year before. But the number in need of adoption has doubled in the past five years. The longer children are left with parents who are unable to care for them, the more vulnerable they become: multiple foster placements don’t help either. So as children get older, it becomes harder to find adoptive parents willing to take them on. People fear that parenting an older child who has suffered trauma is a challenge they may not be up to. And to put it bluntly, older children, particularly in sibling groups, are not as instantly appealing as a baby.
Deborah Woodcock, head of children’s social care at Stockport council, was instrumental in allowing the documentary makers to film some of the most painful interactions between social workers and families. She is keen to emphasise that adoption is not the default assumption when parents are struggling.
“We’re not starting with the idea of adoption: we start with the idea of permanence, because children do best who have lifelong meaningful relationships,” she says. Social workers’ primary role “is to work with the family to achieve that permanence for a child. For the vast majority, that’s with the birth parents.”
But the support services available to parents who find themselves being set targets for progress in a range of practical and emotional areas can vary depending on where they live. And these are frightened, vulnerable people, who are often struggling to parent while coping with domestic abuse, mental health problems and drug and alcohol misuse. Ray and Lorena have been told that they have to undertake very specific psychological therapy for 12 and 24 months respectively before they can be assessed again for their fitness to care for children. That therapy hasn’t been made available on the NHS, so they are bitter and confused about what they could feasibly have done to keep their daughter.
“I did this film because I want people to see what social workers are all about,” Lorena says. “You’ve got no control. My boys were in care for ages before I got told I needed to do that two years of therapy. By then I was pregnant again so there was no time for me to finish it in time to keep my baby. Plus, there’s no way could we afford it ourselves, and the NHS wouldn’t pay for it, so what chance did we have?”
Are tailored, intensive services always on offer, I ask Woodcock, to help parents have a decent shot at addressing their difficulties well enough to be allowed their children back?
There’s a long silence. “We are mindful of the fact that services are meeting increasing demand in a climate of diminishing resources,” she says finally, before pointing out that no judge would agree for a child to be adopted if the only reason for parents’ inability to provide a good home was a lack of support to help them do so.
The child’s interests must be at the centre of every decision made, Woodcock stresses, and in some cases time constraints mean it’s hard for parents to make the enormous changes that are urgently required. “We have to focus on the child’s needs as well as the parents’ capacity to change,” she explains. “We have to keep in mind that those first two years of life are crucial for a child’s development.”
For the little girl in the film, there’s a positive future. She has been reunited with her brothers, who had already been placed with Emma and Rob (not their real names): the couple are hopeful that the adoptions will be finalised soon. Though they chose not to be filmed, Emma speaks to me on the phone, the soft gurgle of her now one-year-old daughter just audible. Emma’s happiness at having a brand new family shines through.
Having already had the chance to see the programme, she and Rob have had an unusual insight into the lives of their children’s birth parents. “It was very difficult, watching,” she says quietly. “Lorena and Ray are people, they’re not unknowns. But at the same time, it was reassuring to see that they loved the children.” She and her husband will show all their children the film, she says, “which will be very important to them in understanding what happened before their adoptions”.
It’s still early days but they are starting to settle well, says Emma, though they still need lots of reassurance about what happened in the past. “They’re a lot calmer than when they arrived,” she says. “More relaxed, and they’re talking to us now about their lives in the present. They say ‘our house’ now, not ‘your house’.”