Sue Mahoney and her husband Dean adopted their two children, a brother and sister, from Wales, seven years ago. Their adoption story is not uncommon. Like Sue and Dean, people often only begin to turn their thoughts to adoption after a long, gruelling, emotional and ultimately unsuccessful journey through fertility treatment.
Research shows people are often put off considering adopting a child sooner because the application process is perceived as being overly complex, that there is a lack of financial and emotional support available and that agencies are looking for a certain ‘type’ of adopter.
Negative reports in the media have only heightened confusion. National newspapers last year highlighted the case of Sandeep and Reena Mander who were allegedly told by their local authority they would not be allowed to apply to adopt with them because the council only had white babies on its register. Yet this picture seemingly contradicts the statistics published by the Adoption Match register which holds profiles of more than 1,000 children in England who are currently awaiting adoption. Just under a third (29%) are children with a black or minority ethnic heritage.
So how can these accounts vary so wildly?
The situation can be true in both cases, explains Gunter Becht, Adoption Manager at Diagrama Adoption, a voluntary adoption agency based in Croydon, South London.
“People often come to us very confused by information they’ve heard from their local authorities and it’s easy to understand why. Many don’t realise the significant differences between adopting with a voluntary agency like ourselves and going through their own council.”
What is a voluntary adoption agency?
Voluntary Adoption Agencies (VAA) help tackle the nationwide shortage of adopters in order to reduce the time children spend waiting to be adopted. They focus their efforts on finding suitable parents for priority children and provide families for around 1,000 children every year. There are currently around such agencies registered with Ofsted. Some, like Diagrama Adoption, are regionally based while others are major national organisations.
According to the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies: “VAAs recruit, assess and approve the best possible parents and families to meet the needs of the vulnerable children in need of adoption, as well as providing lifelong support to adoptive families, birth families and adopted children. This includes the provision of information, counselling and intermediary services.”
They create matches for children who are in the care of a local authority and are then paid by that authority to cover their costs (no profit is permitted). All adoption agencies are subject to strict regulatory control and regular Ofsted inspections and neither local authorities nor voluntary adoption agencies charge for their services to prospective parents from within the UK.
Gunter adds: “The most significant difference, from the prospective adopter’s point of view, is that while local authorities are restricted to finding adopters for the children within their care, VAAs operate across regional and national boundaries so can match their adopters with children across the whole of the UK, thereby considerably widening people’s options.”
Diagrama Adoption, like other VAAs focus on finding adopters for harder to place children – those who are left waiting the longest. Government statistics show that almost a third (29%) have been waiting 18 months or more for their forever family.
Why do some children wait longer?
There are a variety of reasons some children wait significantly longer than others to find new parents. They will be considered ‘harder to place’ if they fall within the following categories:
- Older children – aged 4 and above
- Have additional needs – this could range from mild disabilities such as a partial hearing defect for example to more complex conditions
- Have black or minority ethnic heritage
- Siblings – almost two-thirds of children (64%) are part of a sibling group
- Foster for adoption
“Adopting siblings has not been without its challenges, “says Sue, “but if, like us, you know you would like more than one and are thinking of adopting one child now and another one later, I would say go for siblings together. You’ll only go through the process once and the challenges you’ll have with one child you’ll have with two or three. Plus, you cannot put a value on keeping siblings together.”
Can you adopt a baby through a VAA?
Many people set their hearts on adopting a baby and while adopters may have more opportunities to do so through their local authority – by nature of the fact they would be considered ‘easier to place’ – it is also possible with a VAA, when babies are part of a sibling group or by fostering for adoption.
Gunter explains: “We are currently recruiting potential adopters who are able to consider fostering the child first, with the possibility of adoption further down the line. This pathway is usually reserved for cases when social services have identified very early on, sometimes even before birth, that an adoption order is highly likely to be the long-term plan for the child.
“This approach avoids the need for the child to be disrupted when moved from their foster carer to their adopter later on. People suitable for this pathway need to be resilient and have the inner strength to care for the child, knowing that the future is uncertain until the legal processes have worked through and a placement order is made. Managing that potential loss can be extremely difficult and it’s definitely not for everyone, although we always ensure there is plenty of support in place.”
So, how do you know if adoption is right for you?
All children awaiting adoption have almost certainly experienced an element of trauma in their young lives and have often been removed from their home due to neglect or abuse. They are vulnerable and sometimes have never experienced loving care.
Agencies recognise the special needs of children awaiting adoption and the thorough vetting processes aim to identify early on someone who may not be suitable. The application is in two key stages, with stage 1 focusing on training and a variety of checks including financial, disclosure and barring service, personal references and medicals.
“It is understandable for people to be surprised by the level of information we need to collect but everything helps to build a picture of that person, where they are coming from and how able they are to support a child. The checks can be misconstrued though – often people worry that they need to be wealthy to prove they are worthy and this is certainly not the case! Likewise, if we need to get in touch with an ex-partner, it is not with the intention of questioning the intimacies of your relationship but to ask a simple question – ‘can the adopter offer the love and care needed for a vulnerable child’.
Stage 2 takes around four months and involves a series of home visits from the agency social worker who works with you to explore your family background and your motivation to adopt. Prospective adopters must also undergo further training workshops where they receive expert parenting advice and learn how to navigate any challenges they may face.
Then it’s time to face the panel – usually made up of around half a dozen people who will go through all the evidence gathered in support of your case and make a recommendation to approve you as an adopter.
Sue adds: “Once we’d been approved we started to look at some of the profiles of children awaiting adoption on a special website and would try and work out whether we could see ourselves as a family. We went along to one of the adoption fairs, where local authorities all have stands with their profiles of the children they are looking to place – all the children that need help.
But as we walked around I found it so overwhelming, all these faces of children that desperately needed a home. I was so devastated that we couldn’t possibly help them all. There were several other adopters from our prep group that did find their children at these fairs – for them it worked well, but for me, I couldn’t do it that way. Thankfully, we didn’t have to”.
Our social worker sent through a handful of profiles for us to look through instead. We spent the weekend talking through what we both felt we could and couldn’t cope with in terms of the difficulties and circumstances the children may have experienced. We needed to be absolutely clear whether we could truly meet their needs. Several weeks later, just as we started to get despondent, we found them. At last, I was going to be a mum.”
Sue’s adoption journey from her first registration of interest to placement took just over 11 months.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Am I too old?
Anyone over 21 can apply to adopt a child – most agencies have no upper age limit but your age and general state of health may be taken into account when considering the age and needs of the child you wish to adopt.
Do I need to be married to adopt?
No, adopters can be single. They can also be married couples, in civil partnerships or unmarried couples (whether heterosexual or same-sex) – the important thing is that you can demonstrate your relationship is lasting, constant and enduring.
I am from a minority ethnic background – can I adopt?
Most agencies welcome adopters from all backgrounds, regardless of race/ethnicity. In fact, there are a disproportionate number of children in need of adoption who have minority ethnic heritage and local authorities often prefer to match children with adopters from similar backgrounds.
Do you need to be religious to adopt?
No, agencies welcome people of any or no religious faith.
I live abroad – can I adopt?
Most agencies are only able to accept applications from people who are permanent residents of the UK, or habitually resident for at least one year.
My partner is a smoker, can we still adopt?
Agency criteria can differ but most like Diagrama encourage applicants to be non-smokers and, if a previous smoker, to have given up for a least 12 months. Some will have a policy not to place children under the age of five in households where there are people who smoke.
We have been through IVF, can we still adopt?
If you have undergone infertility investigations and/or treatment agencies would expect a period of at least six months to have lapsed since deciding not to proceed further before taking up an adoption application.
What about my job? Can I still work after adoption?
Adopters can be employed, have their own business or be unemployed. You do not need to be financially well off and may be on benefits.
I live in a flat – would that stand against my adoption application?
Not at all – however, your adopted child should have their own bedroom and your home should have appropriate, adequate and stable accommodation.
Diagrama Adoption is currently recruiting new adopters across London and the south east and is interested in hearing from anyone with the energy, determination, motivation and sense of fun that it takes to be a parent who is able to offer a child or children a permanent, loving home. Diagrama is a member of New Family Social, enabling LGBT adopters to access free specialist support.
For more information visit diagramaadoption.org.uk