Media stories this week of an adoption breakdown, from the perspective of an adoptive mother who felt she had no option but to ask for her older child (15) to return to care, have provoked lots of comment, some of it scathing.

We’ve gathered the reports and broadcasts we’ve seen, together with some of the responses.

We don’t know if there are any court proceedings ongoing, nor do we normally write about Scottish law, but the issues about post-adoption support resonate in England and Wales.

The reports and broadcasts

22 November 2021, Eleanor Bradford, writing in her own regular column in the Scottish regional Press and Journal (subscription only):  My Adoptive Child is Better of In Care Because of Scotland’s Secretly Broken System The story originated here. Bradford writes of thinking long and hard about speaking out, before concluding that:

Unless someone blows the lid on the system that failed us, we will be yet another statistic – well known to the social workers but hidden from view when bubbly little toddlers are placed with excited adoptive parents….Children who are placed for adoption are no longer the healthy babies born to unmarried mums; the kind you see reunited on Long Lost Family. These children have come from the worst of circumstances.

23 November 2021, Times News, from a Times journalist: Mother who gave boy back to care criticises adoption system (A former BBC journalist has condemned social services for a lack of support after she was forced to give up an unruly boy she adopted seven years ago) The Times (like the Mail below) ran with the story as the ex BBC Journalist who gave the boy back.

Sunday 28 November 2021, Eleanor Bradford herself again, at length in the Sunday Times: We adopted two brothers. Eight years later we gave one back We don’t know if Bradford asked to write at length with some of the detail and nuance missing from the earlier news. She would have had no control over the headline. Adoption UK features more at this point, for example:

According to a survey by Adoption UK, of which I am a trustee, about a third of families with older adopted children are facing severe challenges. Half of adoptive families say their child’s teachers do not have a good understanding of their needs, and 71 per cent cannot get the support they need. Returning a child to care is a last resort, and only done to prevent the whole family falling apart.

28 November 2021, freelance journalist for The Daily Mail: Former BBC presenter who adopted two brothers reveals the decision to RETURN one to the care system after seven years left her heartbroken – as she blasts the ‘lack of support’ for adoptive parents

29 November 2021, BBC News (author unnamed): Mum criticises adoption system after giving up son

29 November 2021, BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour: Adoption Breakdown: (22.42 – 36.00): Bradford and the CEO of Adoption UK talk to Emma Barnett, broadcaster.  Bradford says of her eldest son that for ‘various reasons’ she was ‘able to protect his identity’ though we don’t know what that means and probably never will. We don’t know for example whether the boys actually even share her surname or not.  And there’s no reference to protection of the identity of the child still living in her care. Bradford is also careful not to talk about some aspects for ‘legal reasons’ which we can’t speculate on here. What’s also made clear on Woman’s Hour and then at Radio Scotland (below) is the ongoing nature of the family’s relationships, countering the implied wholesale rejection in the series of ‘returned’ headlines. It’s clear the family are seeing their older son every weekend and Bradford is working on repairing her relationship with her son.

30 November 2021 – BBC Radio Scotland News, Mornings with Kaye Adams: (1.12-1.42) Again Bradford and the CEO of Adoption UK are interviewed.

The Responses

We’re sure we’ve not caught them all. We can’t look at any comments section at the Press and Journal because we don’t have a subscription. Published comments in response to both pieces in the Times including from adoptees and other adopters are largely supportive of Bradford speaking out eg:

Very similar story. Our son came to us at 6 months. He put himself back into care at 14 we had to make him homeless to get him into foster care under section 20. The most heartbreaking day. We had therapy and support after a long fight it was useless. As parents we are grieving maybe as he matures he will resolve his issues. I am in a network of adoption breakdowns parents who have given 15 or more years to raising there much loved children now broken. It’s traumatic for all. You have to collide with social services at the highest level before they will listen and even then the support is shockingly poor and all too late for the child. The biggest losers are these very vulnerable children who can’t seem to except love from those desperate to give it. Whole system needs reforming.

Speaking as a social worker and as someone who was adopted, there is no magic wand that a therapist can wave that will fix the damage. I mean, what could someone say to make things better if your whole family was suddenly taken away from you? The trauma of losing your parents never goes away, combined with the abuse suffered, and often the only control that you have in your life is to speed up the placement breakdown. The best adopters and foster carers are the unconditional ones in which it is not about the child (or children) fitting in with their new family and being grateful, it’s about no matter what you do I will always be there for you. I couldn’t do it.

The fostering and adoption sector, some adult adoptees, and some care-experienced adults have responded very differently, with some bitterly condemning the decision to publish and the manner of doing so, including because of:

  • The risk that that this vulnerable 15 year old boy may now have been identified within his local community by the decision to publish the full name of his adoptive parent, and the potential impact on him of reading any media reports himself (There is no indication he was asked to consent or offered an opportunity to reply).
  • The narrow adopter centric perspective of reports (neither brother’s voices nor those of adult adoptee’s more generally speaking to this kind of experience of adoption and breakdown are represented – for some obvious practical reasons – but nevertheless)
  • The insensitive language and tone of some of the headlines in particular, of putting back; giving back; handing back; handing over adopted children back to the state care system. But also of some of the writing eg. with reference to class and birth parents etc
  • The perceived decision of Adoption UK and Bradford to prioritise the public interest in exposing systemic problems with properly supporting a wider group of adopted children and their families; how adoption is presented to potential adopters and their families; and other problems with adoption – over the privacy rights of the individual children concerned and the feelings of adopted and care experienced young people and adults reading.
  • Failure to contextualise calls for better support for adoptive families within the wider need for vulnerable children to be properly supported, whatever the legal status of their family, including so as to maximise the number of those that can safely remain in their birth families in the first place so adoption is really the last resort it’s meant to be.

We first saw twitter commentary on Martin Barrow’s time-line here in response to Woman’s Hour. (Barrow is a foster carer and journalist and has also written for the Transparency Project). Some of many other threads are here, here, here, here and here (on the complexity of adoption, class, privilege, stigma, and use of language). Also here and here from (mainly) adult adoptees:

What next?

Eleanor Bradford has stepped down as a trustee of Adoption U.K. who have issued this statement (some twitter responses to that here).

Will BBC Women’s Hour move to broadcast more from a child’s perspective / voices of adoptees in the near future as some have asked? Quite possibly.

What will be the outcome of calls for the Scottish Children and Young People’s Commissioner to take action? We don’t know but will update if we see anything.

Will we see complaints to regulators? We’ve not seen any suggestion that broadcasts and publications offend the Ofcom or IPSO Codes that prohibit imbalance to the point of inaccuracy. We suspect no-one is suggesting that, so much as asking for better reporting of adoption and adoption breakdown from individuals, campaigners, charities, and publishers / broadcasters. With greater sensitivity, better use of language, and a grasp of the need to hold the adopted child (and to some extent the needs of care experienced and adopted adults) at the centre, even when legitimately reporting the experience of adoptive parents in the public interest.

Does this have resonance for the President’s Transparency Review plans? It doesn’t have direct relevance to the transparency review because Eleanor Bradford is able to legally say what she has as things stand now, but it does raise important issues about children’s rights to privacy and risks of jigsaw identification. And neatly illustrates the need for vigilance and debate in the ongoing endeavour of finding the right balance between freedom to discuss vital public interest issues concerning a wider group of children and adults that are otherwise in the dark, with individual children’s privacy rights. And to seek effective ways to ask for the bar to be raised on sensitivity, use of language and depth of understanding in some reporting.

In terms of ideas for constructive ways forward we flag this approach that seems to be working in slowly achieving better reporting of domestic abuse (albeit there are real differences too):

And this thread from the Chair of the Adoption [now also Special Guardianship] Leadership Board:

We have a small favour to ask! 
The Transparency Project is a registered charity in England & Wales run largely by volunteers who also have full-time jobs. We’re working hard to secure extra funding so that we can keep making family justice clearer for all who use the court and work within it. 

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