Placing Disabled Children for Adoption By Dr Sarah Bunt
Programme 9.45 – 10.30 Impression-Managing a Disabled Child’s Identity in Adoption 10.30 - 11.15 Matching the Needs of Disabled Children with Adoptive Families 11.15 - 11.30 Break and refreshments 11.30 - 12.15 Outcomes and Best Practice in Family Finding for Disabled Children. 12.15 - 12.45 Unearthing Motive in Adopting a Disabled Child 12.45 – 1.00 Plenary and Close
The Policy Context The Adoption and Children Act (2002) • Widening the pool of people who could adopt; • Support packages which are tailored to meet the specific needs of the placement; and • A national database which links disabled children available for adoption with approved adopters. Action Plan for Adoption (2011) specifically focuses on measures which prevent delay and improving the chances of looked after children becoming adopted. • Adoption score cards which monitor the performance of local authority’s timeliness
The Study Main Research Aim • To identify the social processes and principle factors that motivate the decision to adopt a disabled child. Objectives • To examine the extent to which socially constructed notions of impairment, disability, childhood and the family interplay in the process of adoption. • To grasp the established rules and character of adoption departments, and the routine social practices and procedures tied with it. • To explore the motivation and decision making of adopters.
The Study This research focuses on adoption cases entailing: • interviews with the adoptive parent(s) of a disabled child and; • an interview with the key social worker Cases were found through the Adoption Register for England and Wales Adoptive parents and social workers of 18 children (36 in total) were interviewed.
Defining Disability • The Social Service Inspectorate (2004): definitions of disability might include broad range of conditions, including; children with physical and sensory impairments, children with a learning disability, and children with emotional and behavioural problems. • The Adoption Register identifies a child as disabled if they have two or more impairment conditions as outlined on their database. • Disablism, is due to societal factors such as prejudice, discrimination, inaccessibility in the built environment, and insufficient support (Crowe 1996).
Session 1 Impression Managing a Disabled Child’s Identity in Adoption.
Family Finding These are the range of mediums used to promote disabled children: • Regional consortiums, • Exchange days, • The Adoption Register, • Adoption publications (such as Be My Parent and Children Who Wait) and occasionally • National Newspapers • Television. • Approaching disability organisations
Getting the Balance Right The language terms that were used and the image they selected gave out particularly intended meanings. Jason’s Social Worker (SW): ‘Yeah I mean I think the way you profile the child is really, really important. I think you’ve got to have the right information and you’ve got to present that to people in a way that I guess is very clear and balanced because that’s how you get your initial response from people’. Nicola’s SW: ‘So when we were doing the profile we… look at the positives that she’s doing and then balance that with, we don’t know, the reality is that we don’t know’.
Impression Managing • Goffman (1959) “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. • Impression management requires the individual to calculate a given situation which will then guide their conduct. • Individuals act with the purpose of leaving their desired impression.
Signifier and Signified Sassure (1974) Semiotics • Signifier: the form a sign takes • Signified: the concept it represents The signifier: stimulates instant reactions to its audience since word and image evoke certain meanings to us. Signified: Social workers play on those shared associations to arouse particular iconic representations. This may involve: • avoiding words with negative connotations attached; and • over emphasising those aspects that may induce an adopter’s yearning to nurture the child, Impairment was either down or overplayed.
Sritharanet al. (2010) ‘I think I like you: Spontaneous and deliberate evaluations of potential romantic partners in an online dating context’. Comparisons can be made between how adopters select children with the use of online adoption forums and adoption magazines, to dating websites. When people make romantic decisions there is an interplay between: Deliberative Evaluative Judgement; Spontaneous Affective Response. In adoption: • Deliberative Evaluative Judgement: based on rational thinking about the life adopters might envisage with a specific child. • Spontaneous Affective Response: denotes an emotional connection which draws on a pre-existing drive to nurture.
Activity Discuss in your groups – what aspects of their profile did you find compelling or off -putting? Identify words and sentences which convey more than one meaning? Highlight words and sentences in the text which contain implicit messages? What about their expectations in a partner?
Impairment Descriptors “Jess has a learning difficulty” “Joanna has Down’s syndrome and related complex health needs “ “Melissa has Down’s syndrome and related health needs” “Ross is developmentally delayed but this is not significant” “David has a rare condition … syndrome. It is not known how this will affect his future”
Spontaneous Affective Response Adopter’s often found it difficult to articulate why they felt more of a connection to some profiles over others; Esme’s Adoptive Mother (AM): ‘And at that point I think you have to start funnelling [focusing] yourself. But you had to sit there and … consider, would [I]? I don’t know why but I wouldn’t’.
Expression Facial qualities give out information which will evokes particular responses as though you can read an individual character from visual features and expression; Carl’s AM: ‘I don’t know what it was that attracted me to this cheeky wee chap but, it his little grin in the photograph’. Sean’s AM: ‘But it was definitely the photograph, it wasn’t the profile. I was definitely drawn to him. There was another boy with disabilities there and he was lovely as well but it was the sadness of this little boy’s face. And at the time I thought it was sadness but he’s a little bleeder. He probably wasn’t sad, it was just the way they took the photograph, which to me identifying with his sadness, “oh I could change that”, do you know what I mean, “he could be happy here”. Not realising that he was a happy little boy anyway’.
Video Footage Short film excerpts can encapsulate endearing childlike qualities through: • movement, • speech and tone, • play interactions and; • behaviours. Dynamic movement cues have the potential to give a more accurate or positive representation. Adam’s SW: ‘DVD showed that much better than any report would. Cause you know when potential adopters can actually see walking around and crawling around and him interacting in such a sweet way, that’s going to say that there’s more than just his health needs’. Louis’s SW: ‘He just was quite a poorly baby so it didn’t read well either. And then like, so we did a DVD of him as well cos he’s such a like bubbly smiley, he’s the cutest kid. And then it looked better with the DVD cos you could see him interacting. Cos when you read it on paper it doesn’t read well, all his medical history, but when you see him you think well, he’s lovely’.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder Attractiveness of the child is not necessarily based on shared values with regards to perceived notions of beauty. Nicola’s AM: ‘But the photograph of the child she looked so sad, so erm I don’t know so lost, so in need of being parented’. The connection attached to the visual photograph cannot be explained by isolating archetypal characteristics associated with idealistic notions of childhood. Victoria’s AM: ‘Because I think it’s a bit like when I met my husband. There has to be something that’s ‘I actually like the look of this person. I like this person’. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stunningly handsome or beautiful or whatever, but I think there has to be something there’.
Evaluative Judgement If certain criteria are inconsistent with adopter’s preferences the potential match may be discarded. Adopters need only to give a cursory glance at a child's profile to make a spontaneous evaluation (Sritharanet al. 2010). Carl’s AM: ‘The way I would have gone through the magazine every month, I would have got it first and then I read through…So all of that was ruled out so it was now down to, and we looked at the ages of the children, and the descriptions, disabilities and all that, and usually every month of this thick magazine it boiled down to a few possibilities. And then you learn to read between the lines, … you learn to cross match’.
Being Clear on Impairment Classifications Adopters can often stereotype conditions they have little knowledge of whilst expressing nuanced and positive views what they are familiar with. Esme’sAM: ‘If you go back to my PAR it says “would you consider a child with a serious illness” and my form says no. And this is questioned when I adopted Esme….. Because I said what do you mean as serious illness and she said “oh well” because also you are a little bit guided by your social worker. Because they have been doing it for years. She said “you know you could end up with a child in a wheelchair”….. If my social worker had said to me “would you consider a child with cystic fibrosis?” Yes because I don’t see cystic fibrosis as a serious illness. It is all perception, it’s what you know’
Writing Adoption Profiles Key phrases convey the rewarding aspects of the child which feed into the nurturing drives of adopters Esme’s(AM): ‘And Esme’s profile was different, because they normally start off with saying about medical history or different issues. And Esme’s profile started off bright friendly little girl with blues eyes etc, it actually told me about the little girl rather than her issues and I think that stood out. Because you sort of talked about her as a person as a little girl. By the way she has got this, but this is the person she is and that was really quite different from anything I read’.
Health Uncertainty Social workers had to try and grapple to understand not just the impairment label but how the real child was uniquely affected by impairment. Social workers attempted to grapple how a child really experiences their impairment through: • engaging with health professionals; • talking to foster carers about the child’s routines; and • directly observing the child. The understanding of the child’s prognosis was often limited which meant that social workers were often dependent on socially constructed knowledge about impairment.
Two central concerns affected the approaches social workers took in relation to impression managing information. Securing Permanence : was a concern linked with preventing delay which is seen to jeopardize a child’s welfare. Ensuring Placement Stability: Some social workers were particularly concerned about the spontaneous affective responses aroused by sensational imagery and text
Ensuring Placement Stability Concerns that the image presented distorted the reality of the child created unease in social workers: • Nicola’s SW: ‘One of the down sides of putting up [online publication] is that they look at a photograph erm and the emotional heartstrings are pulled, you know, so and they sometimes forget, or not forget, it’s not forget, but sometimes they overlook the needs of a child because they can see the physical child. Erm and so they will overlook or downplay some of the issues’. Social workers feared that if the level of care required would be more than originally envisaged by the adopter this could potentially factor in the breakdown of the placement. • Louis’s SW: ‘we were sort of this view that we can’t, even though it sounds bad, we can’t not tell people, we can’t sugar coat his medical needs because then all that would happen would be that we place him with someone and they would say I can’t handle it, it’s too much and then it break down. So it was a dilemma cos we were thinking this doesn’t read well’.
Securing Permanence Social workers sought to demystify disability by describing how impairment plays out in their day-to-day activities as can be seen in the following statements: Henry’s SW: ‘So I was pulling together that profile, erm…cos the profile is largely around their personality and what they’re like and…so I was able to do all of that and I was just putting together this bit about his disability and about, you know…I don’t like it to be about a list that they can’t do. You know I’ve never liked that – to sort of be putting down he’s not walking like that he’s not sitting up, he’s not this he’s not that. It all sounded really, really, negative when actually he was beginning to roll over and he had this amazing backwards movement across the floor where he arched his back and went up on his head and moved like a caterpillar going backwards, caterpillar movement. So I was putting all that in about how positive he is and how cheerful and how he really relates well to other children and something like that’.
Recommendations for Practice: The child’s profile should start with positive attributes and personality of the child before any discussion of the child’s health status. Impairment may be disclosed in short profiles in creative ways by outlining how it impacts day-to-day life. Be clear about the scope of available support Consider the implications of medical labelling Avoid vague descriptors such as “visual impairment” which only serve to confuse the adopter. DVD Footage should be showcased more regularly as this may provide a more accurate impression of a child. Activity days, where the adopter can physically see and interact with the child are likely to significantly improve a disabled child’s chances of being placed.
Session 2 Matching the needs of disabled children with adoptive families
Recruiting adopters that meet the needs of children. • Disabled children have basic universal needs as children as well as additional impairment needs that must be addressed. • The Child’s Permanency Report asks social workers to comment on: ‘the development of the child’s identity, and those factors that should be given priority in identifying prospective adopters’ (BAAF 2005). • the prioritisation of needs is likely to be vulnerable to the subjective judgements of individual practitioners
Activity What types of characteristics would you look for in an adopter(s) to meet the needs of this child.
Placing a Disabled Child Some social workers perceived identifying the specific needs of disabled children, as a process no different from any other child they were planning for. Carl’s SW: ‘The system I described to you or the process as I described would be the same for this little boy as a child without identified additional needs…I still think we treat children as individuals, they all have individual needs’. Others felt that the additional needs of disabled children required specific attention. Ian’s SW: ‘People say that an able bodied child that gets adopted has the same needs as a child with disabilities. No they don’t, and to say that is overlooking the needs of that child. They have the same needs for love and nurture, legal security and placement, family status, identity, background information, but they have additional needs and to ignore them even at this stage is totally inappropriate it doesn’t make for a sound placement’.
The identity of the child A looked after identity A disabled identity Impairment identity • The least important need • The most important need A hierarchy of needs The needs of children can be grouped into four competing identities which impact on matching processes. This hierarchy has been constructed to reflect the amount of emphasis placed by social workers on matching the needs children to adopters.
Recruiting adopters that meet the needs of children. The Identity of the Child Social workers were not dismissive of the universal needs of children or the characteristics that made the specific child unique. However, these characteristics were often the least important consideration in the matching process for disabled children. Social worker’s comments: Oliver’s SW: ‘I really wanted him to have siblings because he had responded so well in foster care to the other children that were in and out of foster care and in fact he responded more to the children in the family than he did the adults’. Carl SW: ‘So picking up on the things that he found safe. A dog for example, the foster carer had a dog, and he loved this dog, you could see him really relax around the dog, he would stroke it and be very kind to it. So animals as we know for a lot of children can be very secure can be very comforting. So things like that, …. can be very important’.
Recruiting adopters that meet the needs of children. The Looked After Child Adopters that would be able to have an understanding about a child’s background and offer therapeutic parenting to a child was regarded as highly important, but was certainly not the most important factor in family placement. Social worker’s comments: Jack’s SW: “And in Jack’s case as he gets older it may well be that he still does have attachment disorder from prior to coming into care. Because sometimes they can tend to be masked or lost in the search to try to meet his day to day disability needs.” Carl’s SW: “But I was looking at ideally two carers, experienced, because this little boy had been very traumatised, confident, able to work with other professionals in terms of understanding his needs and the help that he would need.”
Recruiting adopters that meet the needs of children. The Disabled Child Social workers were often looking for families that would be able to manage discrimination and fight for resources. Social worker’s Comments: Henry’s SW: “she’s bloody good she doesn’t give in and that’s the other thing about families where they’ve got disabled children. They are fighters because they know they don’t get given nothing.” Jack’s SW: “if they were facing any sort of discrimination from people, she would be in there straight away as a very strong advocate. But I think it could be for some people very mortifying in dealing with the looks of people in the street.” Ian’s SW: “obviously you’ve got the discrimination that is going to come into it because he is absolutely gorgeous as far as I’m concerned, but not as far as other people are concerned.”
Recruiting adopters that meet the needs of children A medical identity This was the most fundamental aspect of family finding. Social workers were very tentative about placing children with adopters that had no experience with impairment or disability issues. Social worker’s comments: • Jack’s SW: “our clear criteria would be judging against a child’s needs. So in Jack’s case we’d want to see clear evidence in the PAR that the couple, or a single applicant, would have a clear understanding about disability, and where they would have got this from, either through work or through family caring”. • Sean’s SW: “It’s always preferable if people have – there were some people that came forward that had a medical background – there was one lady that was a speech therapist. So you latch on and think that could be really good because they could have an understanding of his medical needs, or that particular need with his speech or hearing or whatever”
Assessing Adopters: A Risk Adverse Approach When asked about the characteristics they were looking for in adopters, the experience of impairment and disability was high on the criteria, • Henry’s SW: ‘And that’s why I think, you know for these children it is often, if you can find people with that experience you know they already know what they’re taking on board and what the battle’s going to be’. • Carl’s SW: ‘You’d also be looking for experience if possible. You know have they had children themselves have they got disabled children. Have they got someone in the family? You know had they been working in a special needs school. And what is their knowledge because you want sort of erm a reality check’.
Assessing Adopters: A Risk Aversive Approach Social workers often engaged in a complex process of ‘speculative hypothesising’(Sheppard 2003). Speculative hypothesising, involves envisaging all potential possibilities and the consequences of those possibilities. Adopters are often asked to project into future despite the fact that very often the prognosis for the child remains unknown. Nicola’s AM: ‘and they said that they thought we were both naïve because we hadn’t taken on board the fact that her condition was life limiting. And …… when they asked us specifically how did we feel about the fact that her condition was life limiting, my answer as a Marie Curie nurse and having worked around you know young people and old people, people die at any age, you know it doesn’t choose, It just happens. And my question to them was well does anybody in this room know how long they’ve got? So you know anyone of us could be sitting here with a life limiting condition, …. that is life that’s you know life is fragile and precious’.
A Risk Adverse Approach Difficulties in family placement cannot be regarded as only the result of a limited number of families that come forward. Carl’s SW: “It was a very emotional response that she gave, I just feel drawn to this little boy, I just can’t take my eyes from the page, I just think I connect with him, and whilst that maybe right for a lot of people, you need to then move beyond that initial attraction to talk about his needs and how he is, and what he will need from his carers, and I didn’t feel from talking to that person, that she would be able to it”. Henry’s SW: ‘if you look in magazines there’s countless babies with special needs or health issues or difficulties or whatever. And people look and say ah bless I’ll have one of those, and I say look I’m not placing a child with you unless you have some experience that you can prove to me you understand the needs of this child. Otherwise forget it. And I think people are sometimes quite surprised at that. ….. And I say no. Go and see, go and work for a year with 16 year olds with Down’s syndrome and then come back and tell me if this is what you want to do. Because it’s very easy to get carried away thinking I can do that’.
A Risk Aversive Approach A sense of realism in adopter’s about the task of parenting a disabled child was a recurring theme: Henry’s SW: ‘I say to people when we have the information meetings where prospective adopters come for the first time to hear a talk about adoption and to see if they want to take it further… if you come to me and say you want to adopt a disabled child or a child with Down’s syndrome or a child who’s hearing impaired. Whatever you come and say to me I want to know that you know what you’re talking about’. Nicola SW: ‘we owe it to any child not to just place them in a family just because they are willing to take a child on, because I think you set people up if they don’t fully understand what they are taking on…. to fail in some cases, and it’s not fair to anybody. It’s not fair to the child and it’s certainly not fair to the adopters’.
The Existing Pool of Adopters At times local authorities face a dilemma where only one potential family come forward. Social worker’s comments: Nicola’s SW: “But in no way shape or form do we take the first family that comes along if they are not the right family. Just because a child has got a disability does not mean to say that they don’t warrant the same level of commitment then any other child when we are family finding. As I say we would of, she would have remained in foster care if they couldn’t have found somebody that could meet those needs” Adam’s SW: “And you want people to have an understanding of that, you also are limited with the amount of the response you get. I think sometimes as social workers and family finders, you have that dilemma do we take this, because actually there might not be anything else. And we wanted permanency for this child, but there are elements in it that you feel might not quite meet the child’s needs and that’s so you know a bit of a juggling act really.”
Recommendations for Practice: • Social workers should ensure that the child’s holistic needs are not being overlooked due to concerns about the child’s impairment identity. • Social Workers should avoid stipulating blanket rules such as: adopters must have substantial experience of impairment and disability. This significantly reduces a disabled child’s chances of being placed • Experienced adopters of a disabled child could act as mentors to adopters contemplating the prospect of adopting a disabled child. Social workers could then assess the rigour with which adopters have introspectively considered what it might be like to parent a disabled child.
Recruiting adopters for disabled children Andy Stott, Manager, Adoption Register for England & Wales
Who is the Register for? • older children • children in sibling groups • those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and • those who are disabled or with uncertain development futures
Survey process • Identification of group of children - 72 • Interview with family finding social worker • Progress of family finding for each child
Comparison Disabled children cohort General referrals to the register 52 % were aged under four 31 % were from BME backgrounds 51 % needed to be placed with a sibling • 71 % were aged under four • 17 % were from BME backgrounds • 17% needed to be placed with a sibling
Categories of disability • Cerebral Palsy • Down’s Syndrome • Cystic Fibrosis • Foetal Alcohol Syndrome • Severe learning difficulties • Severe medical condition • Mobility/hearing/visual/physical impairment • Lasting and significant disability
Outcome for children in cohort - 72 • 32 matched with permanent family - • 16 with adopters • 16 with foster carers, of which • 5 placed for adoption • 40 not matched with permanent family
Summary of findings • Age • Ethnicity • Sibling groups • Disability
What works • Multi agency working is key • Joint working with disability team • Simultaneous rather than sequential practice • Clear tracking mechanisms for children’s plans • The older a child becomes, the less likely it is that he/she will be adopted. • Importance of profiles and information
Creative use of media • Exchange days, dvd, activity days • Is previous experience necessary/desirable? • Identify and use the adopters/people who have done it • Clear and agreed support packages • Much of this is the same for able bodied children