BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:29 GMT, Tuesday, 18 May 2010 11:29 UK

When adoption breaks down

Child and adult

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

A row between Russia and the United States over a boy sent back by his adopted US family has highlighted the issue. Adoptions that break down are rarely talked about but are devastating for all involved.

When seven-year-old Justin Hansen landed at Moscow airport officials found a letter in his pocket. It was from his adoptive family in the US, saying they didn't want him anymore because he was violent. They'd put him on a one-way flight and sent him back - alone.

The incident has made headlines around the world. Russia said it was "a monstrous deed" and immediately halted all adoptions by US citizens. The two countries have now started talks aimed at resuming them. But the incident didn't come as any surprise to some people - other adoptive parents.

You think you are doing well but problems can lay dormant for years, which was the case with our daughter, says Chloe
Everything that had worked before, all the usual parenting techniques, didn't any more
Through Theraplay you give your children the love and attention they might have missed out on at a younger age
Instead of a telling off or a few minutes on the naughty chair, you play games that develop closeness and patience

"When I first heard the story my heart sank," says Heather Forbes, who has adopted two children and runs a website for adoptive parents.

"But not in disbelief, in the sense that it had finally happened. Unbearable states of helplessness can push the mind to think the unthinkable - like just send him back."

While Justin Hansen is an extreme case, adoptions do break down but it is rarely talked about.

In the UK an estimated 20% fail, according to those working in the field. This figure is thought to rise to a third with older children. No official figures are available because local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies are not obliged to keep such data.

According to government figures 3,200 children were adopted in 2008. This figure includes overseas adoption and those by step parents. If the estimates are right, 640 of these will breakdown. So why do so many children end up back in care?

"Parenting an adopted child is completely different from a birth child, everything is turned on its head," says Sarah.

She and her husband adopted their daughter when she was eight. After three years of struggling with her behaviour she was placed back in foster care, where she has now been for two years. The couple are still her parents and see her once a month, but accept she will probably never live back at home.


"There wasn't many screaming fits, she would just sabotage everything we did for her because she couldn't deal with having parents who loved her," says Sarah. "If I changed her sheets she would wipe wee-soaked knickers over them and if I ironed her clothes she would screw them all up again."

Crucially, they say they were not given help to deal with their daughter's problems. They believe she would still be living with them now if they had.

"We knew our daughter's problems and fully accepted them and did everything we could for her," says Sarah. "But she simply couldn't cope with having a mum and dad. She just didn't know how to let us love her and we didn't know how to teach her to.

"It's been devastating and it will always be a source of sadness for us. When you are living with a child who has been damaged you take on that trauma because you love them so much."

In 2008 3,200 children were adopted in the UK

Getting continued support after adoption is crucial, say parents and charities. Too often people are left alone to deal with very complicated situations and children.

"Adoptive parents aren't mental health workers or psychologists and they are left to muddle through and deal with some very challenging issues," says Jonathan Pearce, director of Adoption UK - a charity run by and for adopters.

Those who do get the right support say it is "life changing". Chloe and her husband adopted their two daughters when they were just nine months old and one year. For years they were a happy family, muddling through the usual problems like any other. But one of their daughters started having behavioural issues and things started to fall apart very suddenly and very quickly.

"Our daughter's problems took years to surface but when they did it was awful," she says. "Everything we'd done before didn't work and the situation kept getting worse. We went from being a strong family and being in control to feeling helpless and out of control."

The couple were referred to the charity After Adoption by social services. It runs a programme called SafeBase, which aims to prevent adoptions from breaking down. It uses Theraplay, a US approach which teaches parents to tackle negative behaviour through structured play.

'Failure and guilt'

"It taught us how to deal with our daughter's particular issues," says Chloe. "It gave us back our family. I don't know of any social service department that provide this type of help, but they all should."

The problem is many children who have been in care have been neglected or abused and are hard-wired neurologically to behave differently, says David Howe, a professor of social work at the University of East Anglia.

Scientists have found the brain of a child who is neglected during its early months develops differently. Its has a poorly developed prefrontal cortex - the area which enables us to recognise thoughts and feelings in other people. As a result they can struggle to empathise with others.

Lack of support for carers
Incomplete or unshared information
Inaccurate assessments of children's attachment patterns
Changes in the family (death, divorce, redundancy)
Post-adoption depression
Failure of health, therapy and education services to meet needs
Poor communication between agencies and departments
Source: Adoption UK

This often translates into behaviour and attachment problems, say professionals. It also means the usual ways of dealing with a child and disciplining it do not work. Problems can arise at any age, sometimes after many happy years.

"Some people have been brilliant parents to their own kids but struggle to cope with children they have adopted because of these differences," says Prof Howe.

"What adoptive parents do is incredible, but they often don't get the help they deserve - or the acknowledgment."

Another major factor in adoptions failing is parents not getting the full information about a child. Often vital details are incomplete or unshared.

"Local authorities and adoption agencies still give a sanitised version of children's histories so parents won't get put off," says Mr Pearce.

"Also information is often filtered down and simplified as reports are written or legal documents drawn up. Important details get lost when people are trying to condense words."

Both of these crucial issues need to be tackled because when an adoption fails it is devastating for everyone involved.

"For the child it is yet another loss and for the parents there is a huge sense of failure and guilt," says Mr Pearce. "But when it works it is a great outcome for everyone involved."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Too often the adoption agencies just want the child placed and the case closed. You get virtually no emotional support and, considering how much money you save the State by adopting children into your family, pretty much no financial support either. We had behavioural problems with one of our two adopted boys, and although it never got to the point of returning him to care, it was a real struggle to deal with behaviour neither of us had ever come across, or had been prepared for. We have heard some real horror stories from other adopters and foster parents. Nobody tells you just how much your life will change - I guess they don't want to put people off. There is no harder job than caring for a troubled child (or adult) in your own home. There are no breaks, the hours are endless, the responsibility is crippling and there is no clocking off. Makes you sick when you hear about bankers and WAGs whingeing about their lots!
Iain , Kent, UK

I am 61 years old and an adopted child (adult). I always disliked my 'adopted name' and at the first opportunity I reverted back to my birth name. There are certainly problems and mine surfaced as a teenager but there were signs prior to this. I knew my parents were not my birth parents and in later life i became quite distant from them. Unfortunately adoption and all the emotional trauma is for life, it is just trying to find a way to cope with problems and coming to terms with constant separations. Even though there have been problems, I have been very lucky in my upbringing. I do think if there had been some form of support, we as a family unit could have coped better. Since the law regarding adoption and finding birth parents has been changed, life has become more difficult as one is trying to be true to self in the biological sense but having to conform to the legal and social placing in a family. I feel as if there is considerably more to say, but this is not the time or place.
Patricia Kerr, Wigan, England

We adopted a little boy at 7 1/2 months and have had attachment issues. We are now going through serious problems. He doesn't seem to understand other peoples feelings. He is now 8 years and we have already been asked to remove him from school for one day. We have not contacted our social services, we have been trying to battle along.
Mrs McManus, Batley, West Yorkshire

I am absolutely astounded by this article! Would you hand back your birth child (or pack them off into care) if they decided at 3 they would put poo all around their bedroom, at 7 they broke things in a fit of temper, at 14 they started smoking, at 17 they got involved in the wrong crowd and were getting in trouble with the police? Of course you wouldn't. How is that different from experiencing problems with an adoptive child? The answer: because you perceive it to be easier to give up on an adoptive child and can 'hand them back'. Is it a pride thing also because you can't imagine your blood child behaving in such a manner and it must be because they are 'adopted'. Unbelievable. When you adopt a child you take on a responsibility just like when you give birth. On occasions an adoptive child may bring additional problems with them but who is to say that if you gave birth to a child they wouldn't have 'issues' of a certain type. If you can 'give up' on an adoptive child you shouldn't have been in the adoptive process in the first place and hopefully do not have a 'birth' child that you can 'give up' on also.
Liz Boughton, Northants

I think relatively few appreciate the difficulties involved in adoption. Adoption agencies are keen to find homes for children, so may make light of potential difficult issues. Potential parents' enthusiasm may overcome their common sense and thought about the practical issues. Not the ideal recipe. I was adopted and, although my adoptive parents were decent, hard working and well meaning people, they really did find it difficult to relate to me and I to them. We just had nothing in common, not even genes. Add the fact that once I got into my teens, my father, understandably enough, felt threatened by the presence in his home of a larger, unfamiliar male and it was a laugh a minute...
Ian Whitlock, London

My wife and I have a 12 year old girl who we adopted when she was 6. I agree with all of the points made here. We have had to ask over and over again for help and we have been close to breaking point on occasions. Largely social workers do not understand the needs of adopters and when they do there are no funds to provide help. If you foster you get loads of support but if you adopt you get nothing which might explain why so many adoptions fail. It is just so different to having a birth child - adoption is 'off road' parenting!
John Earl, Seaford, UK

I struggle to understand why anyone could hand back a child. After all if it is your birth child, then who would you hand the child back to if they were having difficulties. I myself have two adopted children who are now adults. I admit it was not easy at times, but nevertheless they were my children and I always supported them to the best of my abilities, and I am happy to say that we have a very strong family bond.
Florence McGowan, Aberdeen

We also adopted our daughter and have some disagreement with your discussion, she is such a perfect child that everyone would dream of. All those hard work and sacrificed from both of us have soon been rewarding. I would encourage any childless couples who long to entering parental world to follow your heart and go for it, you will not regret and will cherish any minutes of it just like us. Of course, nothing comes easy in life, you got to work very hard to make it happen. Do note let these so called 'experts' to put you off!
Mrs Allen, Hertfordshire

I adopted two children at different times. With my son we knew there were behaviour issues, when I was at the end of my tether I rang the adoption team, it took them 6 weeks to come round. I told them I could have committed murder in that time and had got help though my GP instead. Through many behaviour issues we stood by him, you cannot reject a child once you have them, they have already been rejected before. My son had art therapy and saw child guidance , he turned to crime and drugs in his teenage years, it was hell but we were still there for him. He has now reformed and is married and settled into family life. He always recognises the fact that we were there for him no matter what but that he was the only one who could sort his behaviour out. The only thing we never stopped doing was loving him and that was the stable thing in his life while he sorted things out.
Tina, London

Print Sponsor


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific