Armed-forces parents: 'At last we have the son we fought for'
Military families desperate to offer a child a loving home are too often being passed over by adoption agencies. Now they're planning to fight back
When Jan Parks spoke to a social worker about adopting, she was asked whether her husband – an army officer – would be able to leave his "disciplinary side" at home. The comment was typical of the insults many military couples endure when seeking to adopt.
One was told by their local authority that they did not deal with "dogs of war" while another was informed that they did not want to place a child somewhere with "a gun at the gate".
As a result the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (Ssafa) is calling on councils to stop discriminating against military families. In a drive to counter the misconceptions, the association insists that army, navy and RAF couples make committed, caring parents.
Potential armed-forces parents often fall to the bottom of the adoption list because local authorities misunderstand their lifestyles, think they put discipline before love, disapprove of operational deployments or believe they will move out of the area before assessments are complete.
The charity's plea for military families to be treated with more understanding comes just months after David Cameron promised to end the "scandal" of youngsters waiting too long to be adopted. The Prime Minister vowed to make the process simpler and speedier, naming and shaming local authorities that fail to comply.
Ssafa, which runs its own adoption service, explained that many of the children they take on are ones who the authorities have failed to place, either because of behavioural difficulties or because they are older or come in groups of siblings.
Because of the added cost of placing children outside the authority, most councils will only choose to do so with youngsters for whom they cannot find homes among their approved adopters.
"In some of the placements we have made the children have had a very traumatic background and display extremely challenging behaviour," explains Lesley-Ann Doughty, the charity's adoption manager.
"Among military families, the commitment and resilience is outstanding. Once they have said 'yes' to a child, whatever that child throws at them they have managed. That child is their son or daughter. There is no question that they are not going to cope."
Certainly when Parks's eight-year-old son tells her she is the best mummy he has ever had he means it. Along with his twin sister, he had already been through several foster homes before Lt-Col Richard Parks, 46, and his wife adopted them aged six.
It took the couple three years of assessments and searching to find their children – partially because the whole process was put on hold for six months while Lt-Col Parks, a Royal Artillery officer, served in Afghanistan.
Equally, it has taken two years of patience to build up the trust, Mrs Parks, 44, a former banker, explains: "It's a bit like an arranged marriage. At six years old they are already fully formed people and you have got to get to know each other. And then suddenly one day you think 'you know what, this is actually really good'. My son said he always wanted a family with a dog and now he has got one."
Having moved several times, including a Germany posting, since starting the adoption process, the couple knew that no local authority would deal with them. "Without putting down social workers, local authorities seem to think that obviously everyone in the army is a disciplinarian unable to leave that side at work," she explains. "I do think the public perception of the military has improved but there is very little understanding of family life.
"Ssafa was brilliant in being able to translate that to local authorities, push the pros forward. It was really helpful having it to go back to [social services] to reiterate better than we could how good the support and welfare system is in the army. Although you are on an army patch you get a lot more support from the people around you than someone living in Clapham."
Lt-Cdr Sam Dunbar, 44, describes the whole process of dealing with local authorities as "horrendous". A Royal Navy Engineer Training Manager, married to Mark, a former RAF serviceman and company director, 49, they believed they could offer a child a loving home.
"The questions were all about my job, nothing to do with anything else, as if they thought I was going to be spending my entire life somewhere hot and sandy.
"The phrase they used was that we were an unstable family unit. I very nearly hit the roof. I don't think, to be fair, they could get their heads around the fact that Mark would be the main carer. We abandoned all hope."
Ssafa has managed to place 140 children with families, – an average of 30 a year – and Doughty explains that some local authorities are beginning to understand the benefits of working with them. "Once we have got a placement from a local authority, they will come back to us time and time again.
"They find that we have got very sound, dependable parents who meet the needs of very traumatised children."
A spokesman for the Department for Education says: "We want people from all walks of life to come forward to adopt and for them to be welcomed with open arms. We are determined to radically reform the adoption system and intend to look very closely at the recruitment, training and assessment of prospective adopters."
Nevertheless, there are still huge hurdles which, the charity says, need to be overcome.
"We have people coming to us saying they have been told by local authorities that they are 'dogs of war' and that they are going to be very rigid and they don't want children who have often witnessed domestic violence to live where there is a 'gun on the gate'," explains social worker Kathy Stubbs.
Lt-Cdr Dunbar says she found the whole system insulting, adding: "You look at senior NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and they have worked hard to get where they are. They have to be intelligent, hard-working individuals with integrity."
Having lost hope of having a family, the couple turned to Ssafa as well, she explained: "They were absolutely brilliant, absolute stars. In terms of the advice and guidance they gave I can't fault them and you just don't get the stupid questions."
So, just over a year ago, they brought home their new son, a seven-year-old scarred by his past and with severe behavioural issues.
Dunbar junior, as they call him, was a little boy who had learnt not to trust, having already had one failed placement. Ironically – bearing in mind local authority prejudices – the support and discipline the family gave him made all the difference.
His behaviour was challenging to say the least, explained Lt-Cdr Dunbar but they were determined to win through.
The day his parents told him the case was going to court for final approval, he burst into inconsolable floods of tears, eventually explaining that he was afraid that the judge would say 'no'.
"He had been pushing us away, determined to prove he was right that he would not be staying with us. He didn't dare get his hopes up because that was too painful for him," explains Lt-Cdr Dunbar.
She continues: "Ever since it went before the court, he has been a different child, confident, a lot more normal, more co-operative and more willing. It is massively better. We have now got the sort of child we hoped for."
Still waiting: Children in care
Last month, the Government announced it would publish an Adoption Plan to sweep away bureaucratic hurdles and make the process of finding permanent homes for children in care swifter, simpler and more flexible.
In England adoption figures have fallen by 17 per cent, with only 3,050 children adopted in the last decade.
The average time taken to find the right home for an adoption candidate is two-and-a-half years, with only 2 per cent of children finding homes before the age of one.
In a survey in 2011 it was calculated that 65, 520 children were in local authority care. This was a 2 per cent increase from 2010.
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