Nobody thinks, when they adopt a child, that it will last just two years. But that’s exactly what happened to Claire Patterson, who brought an 18-month-old boy home to live with her on Valentine’s Day 2011 – and then made the agonising decision to hand him back in April 2013.
“I adopted on my own, purely because I hadn’t met Mr Right, and I was very clear I wouldn’t be able to cope with a disabled child,” she says. “But Tom turned out to have previously undiagnosed brain damage that required round-the-clock care from more than one adult and despite trying everything to keep the placement going, there came a point where I could no longer cope.”
Thankfully, adoption breakdowns are rare, with the most recent and comprehensive study yet showing that only 3 per cent move out of their adoptive home prematurely. But when an “adoption disruption”, as they’re known, does happen it’s devastating for all involved. “You feel you’ve failed the very child you promised everything to,” Patterson says. “You feel unbelievably guilty and desperately sad that all your future hopes and dreams have disappeared.”
To top it all, she adds, there’s a huge stigma around adoption disruption and a level of isolation that means there’s usually nobody to talk to. “It was because of this that I’ve set up Adoption Disruption UK, a website designed to support and help other parents like me,” she says. “I hope that it will provide parents with much needed support and also, by us coming together, I hope that it will start to end the taboo around adoption disruptions.”
It was when Patterson saw a short video of Tom (not his real name) at 10 months old that she first felt compelled to adopt him. “He had this lovely smile and when the report said he was a healthy, bonny baby, I couldn’t wait to take him home.” At first, she put his development delays – amoung them, the inability to roll over and to crawl – down to the fact that he’d broken his leg when he was six months old. “But he rarely cried, he slept excessively and he had huge attachment issues. Most worryingly, he didn’t speak or even babble.”
She visited speech therapists, paediatricians, physiotherapists and more. But then in October 2012, Tom had his first seizure. “It was very frightening and although the hospital did what they could, he was soon regularly having up to 36 seizures in a 24-hour period. It was incredibly distressing and I could hardly work. Yet the social workers weren’t able to provide any extra support and furthermore, the full report on Tom’s birth parents, which I was now shown for the first time, revealed things about their health that would have put me off ever adopting him.”
Eventually, when Tom was taken to Great Ormond Street, doctors told her that the brain damage was severe and, worse still, every seizure was damaging his neurological pathways further. “I can’t see any way forward,” she confided in a social worker. That’s when it was suggested that if she wanted to put him back into care, the social workers and doctors would understand. “I felt I had no choice,” she says, explaining that Tom now has four medically experienced carers rotating to cope with his needs. “People have said to me that I would never have done it if he was my birth child, but I think I would and I want to be absolutely clear that I didn’t abandon my son. I made sure he was well catered for and if I felt for one moment that he’d benefit from me remaining in his life, then I would do so in an instant.”
Rachel Cooper understands what it feels like for people to assume that you’ve given up on your child. “My teenage son moved back into care last year after the violence and threat of violence towards the rest of us in the family escalated to unbearable levels,” she says. “Some people have said I wouldn’t have done that if he were my own flesh and blood, but I think that couldn’t miss the point more. His aggression and self-loathing only exist because of his neglectful, abusive and chaotic early history, and although it seemed for many years that adoption was righting those wrongs, we hit a really sticky time.
“He calls occasionally and we met for a coffee last week. I have no doubt that he still considers us family and I hope that our relationship will continue to improve over time.”
Professor Julie Selwyn, head of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the University of Bristol, says disruptions, the majority of which happen during adolescence, often don’t signal the end of the relationship. “In many cases, parenting continues at a distance – with adoptive parents acting as financial guarantors for a flat, having them round for Sunday dinner, doing their washing or listening on the end of a phone, with the relationships improving all the time. And even when this doesn’t happen, we found that many young people came back to their families later on,” says Selwyn, who led the study that followed 37,335 adoptions over a 12-year period.
Of those children whose adoption placements had broken down, 91 per cent had witnessed domestic violence and 34 per cent had been sexually abused before they were adopted. Mental-health problems were also prevalent in the children who had left home, with 97 per cent scoring in the clinical range of mental-health problems (compared with 10 per cent in the general population).
Selwyn says that nobody really believes it will happen to them. “Put yourself in adoptive parents’ shoes, many of whom have had infertility problems. They can have all the warnings in the world, but when there’s the chance of this lovely little person coming into their lives, they don’t think about it all going wrong.”
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