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Adopted children facing mental health emergency, charity warns

 

Adoption UK in Scotland has said children are being failed by the system

Adoption UK in Scotland is warning of a mental health emergency amongst some of the country’s most vulnerable children, caused by failings in a system that is not set up to meet their needs.  

This year’s Adoption Barometer report reveals that two-thirds (64%) of adopted people in the UK aged 16+ have sought help with their mental health, and the numbers are rising. In Scotland, more than half (51%) of adopted people aged 16-25 were involved with mental health services in 2020. Yet most say they have been unable to access the support they need.   

Most adopted young people suffered abuse, neglect or violence in their early years, with lasting impacts on relationships, learning and health, leaving their adoptive families to pick up the pieces when professional support is not provided.  

Fiona Aitken, Adoption UK director of Scotland, said: “For the third year running, over two-thirds of Scottish Barometer respondents said they face an ongoing struggle for support. Scottish children and families are being failed by a system that does not provide the ongoing help and support children need to overcome early experiences, and the lifelong impact that adoption has then fades into the background. We owe it to these children and their families to provide ongoing support throughout their lives, to help them to achieve the best possible outcomes that they deserve.”

The survey results highlight the consequences of failure to provide early and consistent support for adopted young people. More than a third (38%) of adopted 16-25-year-olds in Scotland were not in positive destinations (education, employment or training) at the end of 2020. Involvement in high-risk and criminal activities has steadily increased since the first Adoption Barometer in 2019. Problems are often compounded by children falling through the cracks between child and adult services. Almost three-quarters of parents in the UK said their child’s support reduced or ceased when they aged out of services for adolescents. 

Julian Thomson, aged 29, said: “When I was 13 I was diagnosed with mild depression, but my GP was unwilling to prescribe antidepressants due to my age. There were a very narrow range of options available at that time, and it didn’t help that my medical records weren’t passed on after I was adopted. Because of that, a whole host of things were missed – it was like I didn’t have a life before adoption.

“Neither I nor my adoptive family were offered any real mental health support after that. I did have some sessions with an NHS counsellor, but that didn’t get to the root of the problem and I feel the sessions were not focused on trauma. It was only when I was 27 that I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from historical abuse.

“I am currently going through the process of being diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Had this been picked up when I was in care it may not have impacted upon my life the way it did. I believe there is a real need for psychological assessment for all adopted children.”

The Barometer survey also shows that contact with birth family often looms large during adolescence and early adulthood. In Scotland, 28% of 13-18-year-olds had direct contact with a birth family member outside of any formal agreement. For some, this has devastating consequences for mental health and family stability.  

When families do get support, their assessments of its quality and the impact on their family have increased on all indicators since last year - a considerable achievement considering the pandemic. In Scotland, parents who had accessed Adoption UK services said the support they received had been crucial to their wellbeing. Adopter experiences in Wales have improved at both approvals and matching stage, and among families with older children, due to investment in adoption services in 2019. The emergency Covid adoption support fund in England has been widely praised by families.

Fiona Aitken added: “This year presents real opportunities to re-set support for adoptive families. The Promise to Scotland’s Care Experienced children as a result of the Independent Care Review and the debate about Covid recovery are real opportunities to improve our systems and services for families to ensure our more vulnerable children receive an equal chance in life.” 

Adoption UK is setting out a six-point plan to improve the life chances of adopted young people. It includes multi-disciplinary assessments and support plans for every child placed for adoption and the extension of adoption services to at least age 26.   


Case Study - Julian

Julian was adopted when he was aged seven, along with his younger brother, then aged three. Now aged 29, Julian has recently started a law degree at the University of Dundee.

Our adoptive parents were loving but were not adequately equipped with the tools and knowledge to successfully navigate the difficulties that adoption can bring. There still needs to be more support for adoptive families today.  

From the age of eleven I started to act ‘out of character’. I was bullied at school, included physical assaults. When I was 12 or 13 I was diagnosed with mild depression, but my GP was unwilling to prescribe antidepressants due to my age. There were a very narrow range of options available at that time, and it didn’t help that my medical records weren’t passed on after I was adopted. Because of that, a whole host of things were missed – it was like I didn’t have a life before adoption.

Neither I nor my adoptive family were offered any real mental health support after that. I did have some sessions with an NHS counsellor, but that didn’t get to the root of the problem and I feel the sessions were not focused on trauma. It was only when I was 27 that I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from historical abuse.

I am currently going through the process of being diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Had this been picked up when I was in care it may not have impacted upon my life the way it did. I believe there is a real need for psychological assessment for all adopted children.  

I also believe there should be ring-fenced funding to ensure adopted people can access a lifetime of psychological support, and I’d like to see the creation of a national lead for adopted young people. There also needs to be a realisation that ‘positive destinations’ for adopted young people are not necessarily the same as they are for others. More nuanced language is needed within the education sector for those with different life experiences.

Adoption sees children leaving deprived, poverty-stricken families for affluent, middle-class parents. These children’s outcomes are improved but expectations need to be managed.

Children, like my brother and I, undergo a huge transition involving class structure, heritage and identity. I grew up on a council estate in Dundee for the first five years of my life before being expected to adapt into a middle-class family - a different game with new rules and expectations. It may be down to the fact I have Asperger’s Syndrome, but I went through the whole transition with no issue until I was able to process what I’d lost.  

There were always subtle tones that I was expected to be grateful. Society expects that once you have been adopted, you should be grateful for the new opportunities you have been given. This does not adequately recognise the profound sense of loss that adoption can have on both children and birth families.

 

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