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The Adoption and Children Act 2002 has considerable implications for practice. Targets for increasing the numbers of children leaving care for adoption will mean an increased emphasis on adoption for older children, for whom disruption rates have been high. Evidence of the precariousness of placements for older children and, especially, teenagers suggests that the overall objective of creating opportunities for increased stability and permanence of placement will not be easily achieved. Yet relatively little is known about teenagers in adoption, including knowledge about which kinds of young people succeed with which kinds of parents, as well as those whose placements do not endure. Nor is much known about which kinds of service provide most appropriate and helpful support for adopted teenagers. The Adoption Act requires comprehensive post adoption support services, which will include specialist therapeutically oriented services, and these services will have a crucial role to play. In this context, this paper reviews teenage adoptions, and pays particular attention to the ways in which therapeutically oriented post adoption services might make a significant contribution. This leads to a discussion of factors which underpin processes of ‘matching’ between young people and their adoptive parents.
Age is a key risk factor for adoption (Triseliotis, 2002; Howe, 1997, 1998b), but Howe et al. (2001) remark, aptly, that age is a ‘proxy’ measure for the range of difficulties which beset late adopted children. The two groups of adopted adolescents most at risk therefore will be those who were adopted in childhood or as teenagers. Teenage adoptions are by this thinking the most precarious (Borland et al., 1991). Not only do they have to contend with the effects of difficult, disturbing, abusive and depriving birth families and the impact of repeated moves in care, but they have to undertake this whilst in the midst of the upheavals of the complex biopsycho-social changes of early adolescence. Mitigating this picture is the evidence that many teenage adoptions take place as a result of foster placements stabilizing over time (Triseliotis, 2002). Thus the meaning of adoption for these young people is to be found in the acknowledgement of this stability.
Clearly the psychological and emotional tasks would be quite different for these young people than those who move into a new adoptive placement during early adolescence. However, there is an absence of knowledge about how these different kinds of teenage adoptions work in practice (Rushton, 2003). Since breakdown rates for adolescents as a whole are somewhere between 15% and 50%, the need to know more about which adoptions work as well as those which do not is a very important consideration. As Triseliotis puts it, writing about both adoption and fostering:
The real challenge is in being able to recognize the 50% or so who can benefit from either adoption or long-term fostering without exposing children to unnecessary failures.
This challenge must be undertaken in the context of the new legislation, which can be briefly reviewed in order to contextualize the requirements for practice, with particular reference to post adoptive services.
The adoption ‘project’ and older children
With the 2002 Act, adoption gets relocated at the centre of the aim of stability and permanence for children. The Quality Protects agenda’s first objective is that of ‘ensuring that children are securely attached to carers capable of providing safe and effective care for the duration of childhood’ (Rushton & Dance, 2002, p. 50). The adoption project places adoption at the forefront of this objective. The aims of increasing the numbers of children placed for adoption and the requirement for comprehensive post adoption services acknowledges that if adoption is to play this leading role, then there also need to be service provisions which recognize the vulnerability of children in adopted homes. The SSI report on 34 local authorities, ‘Adopting Changes’ (DOH, 2000) concluded that current practice ‘was clearly not an acceptable way to support the placements of some very damaged and vulnerable children’ (p. 61). The shift which is heralded by this report is that adoption changes from being an ‘exit’ from care and the care system by which the child enters a ‘family’ functioning independently of the care system, to becoming a ‘placement’. The placement is intended to be enduring, ‘permanent’, but it is nevertheless a ‘placement’ and the child’s history of loss and separation is to this extent recognized as bringing difficulty which may, and often does, require wide ranging supportive services. The comprehensive post adoption services as envisioned should provide from October 2003 a range of financial, furnishing, building as well as therapeutic and educational supports for adoptive children and their adopting parents.
Not surprisingly, the adoption project has generated a wide reaching evaluative and research agenda. The DFES has recently commissioned research which aims to evaluate the impact of increasing the numbers of children adopted, and in legally secure permanent placements,4 whether and how delays in the process are reduced, whether new support services are more consistently applied across the country and whether these increase access. These research initiatives aim to explore and analyze changing trends in adoption, as well as evaluating innovative practice. In particular there is a desire to know how the new measures affect disruptions, the age and background of children placed for adoption, the preparation of adopters and children and the matching process. There is the need to know whether multidisciplinary working is improved and whether adoptive children and families obtain better access to psychological and therapeutic services, and how these impact on adoption for ‘harder to place’ children.
Making use of therapeutic approaches to adoption
These debates tend towards the development of two dichotomous positions, best summarized as proponents of ‘resilience’ and ‘trauma’ respectively. The idea of resilience is an important one, though it is often used to describe both a defensive denial of painful experience as well as the capacity to digest, metabolize and reflect realistically on painful experience while maintaining hopefulness and emotional engagement. Resilience means more than ‘bouncing back from adversity’ (SCIE, 2003). Both psychoanalytic and attachment theories posit a similar precondition for resilience in childhood, namely the availability of a reliable enduring relationship. Specifically, psychoanalytic and attachment based approaches have the potential to assess the child’s needs and the meaning of the child’s experiences in placement, the meaning of placement difficulties in the context of the carer/child relationship and the factors likely to pertain in matching child and carer. Both theoretical approaches, it will be argued, have complementary contributions to make.
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