Adopting an Older Child.......

I was watching the second part of 15,000 Kids and Counting the other day.......well sobbing through it is probably a better description.  The stories within the documentary were incredibly emotive and the reactions from the Social Workers hard not to empathise with.

I found the programme to be very emotional viewing.  Watching adoption introductions is the equivalent to watching a birth story for me.  Seeing the "Two Mummies" meeting little Tommy for the first time reduced me to a sobbing wreck as memories of our first meetings with Katie and Pip flooded back into my memory.   I remembered how excited and hopeful and emotionally exhausted we felt.  The stress of Katie's challenging behaviour over the past few weeks melted away as I remembered the little girl with the easy smile and our early ventures out together.  I thought about the close relationship with have with our Foster Carers and how much they both did for our children.

The programme really got me thinking about a few things though.  I was interested in Tommy's Foster Carers being allowed to be called "Mummy" and "Daddy" and my feelings of how confusing this might be for a child who is then moved on to adoption.  The Foster Carer in the programme noted however that she had moved many children onto adoption and this was never a problem yet I know of someone for whom this issue has caused a massive problem with the attachment of their adopted child.  This particular child has already called two people "Mummy" before being adopted and refused to call her adoptive Mummy by that name for quite some time and why should she?  What was the importance in that name for her at that point?  I would be tempted to challenge the Foster Carer on this very issue.  I noted that the Social Worker in the documentary pointed out that a change of name from "mum" was required but that seemed to be met with an unchallenged and somewhat belligerent response. It was probably a little confusing and late in the day to change the name of the Foster Carer at that point.  Surely these sorts of issues should be raised at the start of a placement with a Foster Carer.  It's a big issue.  What will the child call the Foster Carer?  In Katie's case she copied the word used by the other children in the house "Grandma".  Most of the children she knew in her Foster Carer placement were her Foster Carer's grandchildren so she used the same word.  My feeling is that "Grandma" is a word less loaded with connotation.  In the case of little Tommy though he would have grown up hearing his Foster Carers called "Mum" and "Dad" by the couple's other adopted daughter so would have naturally copied her.  I am left with feeling that this is an issue that needs to be discussed and highlighted more with Foster Carers.  I'd also be interested to see any research on the subject or psychological reports on whether it is damaging to the long term attachment of the child.

Several programmes on adoption recently have highlighted the plight of older children in the care system who do not get chosen for adoption because of their age. There is often an accusatory edge to be heard in the voice of a Social Worker who comments on adopters only wanting to adopt younger children.  I cannot stand in judgement here because we were adopters who wanted to adopt a younger child.  But why was that?  Well of course there is the obvious emotional desire to want to experience a child from as early in their life as possible and just fit in with your friends who have had birth children.  We went into adoption on the back of years of infertility so there was obviously a longing for a young child as part of that.  People who knew we were going to adopt commented that we should have a younger child (amongst a lot of other statements that I would now challenge).  I know I wasn't overly bothered about having a baby but I wanted time at home with my child before they started school to bond and get to know one another and do all the things that parents and younger children do.

But there is another reason why we didn't consider an older child and that reason is due to the training we experienced on the prep course we attended when going through the approval process.  On our prep course we were given lots of case studies to discuss.  Many of these stories were of older children or sibling I groups with multiple needs and emotional difficulties that would need specialist parenting.  They were scary stories and I know of people who pulled out of the adoption process because of the anxiety caused by those stories.  I know that the thought within the case studies was to get trainees thinking about how they might parent challenging behaviour but the over-riding feeling left over was that of fear.  When we attended our second prep course during the approval process for Pip I made considerable effort to highlight to the first time adopters that very few children ever present with all the issues highlighted in each made up case.

In 15,000 Kids and Counting I felt incredibly emotional watching the story of Lauren and Liam and the long search to find them adoptive parents.  Their Social Worker quoted that all Lauren wanted was a Mummy who didn't smoke or take drugs and would be nice to them.  That sounds simple right?  Is it that simple though?  The feeling I was left with from our prep course was that it wouldn't be that simple due to the child being emotionally damaged and unable to attach well and having painful memories from their early experiences that might bring about really undesirable behaviour.  Our prep course's favourite example of difficult behaviour was smearing excrement over the walls.  I'm pretty sure that put everyone off.  I am someone who is really well trained in supporting teenagers with significant problems but even I felt nervous about living in such a situation full-time.  But is that a fair representation of an older child needing to be adopted?  If you go by the story of Lauren and Liam it would seem not.  Lauren pulled at my heart strings and I realised that, had I known of a situation like Lauren and Liam during our adoption process, I would have been willing to discuss adopting an older child as part of a sibling group but our desire to adopt a child under the age of 5 was never challenged.  I have also since met a lady who was adopted at the age of 11 years and she is happy and well adjusted and speaks lovingly of her adoptive parents.  She is incredibly appreciative of the gift of her adoptive parents and the love she was shown by them.  She admits that she was a challenge at times and I've not had the chance to go into more details with her than that currently. Might she be the norm rather than the exception?  The thing is, as an adopter, I have no idea.  I was never given that information, probably because the adoption of older children is so uncommon these days there isn't data to provide.  I will say though that I was delighted to see that adopters were found for Lauren and Liam and I really hope that their lives will be happy and full of love.

I have discussed the issue of the information given at prep course with our Social Worker more recently and feel happier to hear that they are now changing their presentation of the prep course including those case studies.  I am also going to attend some future prep courses as the adopter and am excited to have the opportunity to do that with our Social Worker and be able to present our story to people.  I am already helping by chatting to prospective adopters which has been organised by our Social Worker.  Our story isn't straight forward and our lives aren't picture perfect.  We have some challenging behaviour to manage and emotional issues to support but our story is very far from the stories we read about in our first prep course. There are of course lots of adoptive families I know who have incredible challenges on a daily basis but these aren't necessarily children who were adopted as older children so I do feel that older children should not be dismissed in favour of younger children.

My message to any Social Workers reading this is to ask you to look at the training you offer adopters and the one-to-one conversations you have during the home study and think about the messages you are giving adopters about adopting older children.  Present real case studies of older children needing adoptive homes and explain what sort of help and support the children might need.  Help adopters see how their skills are transferable for an older child and present an honest reality of adopting an older child instead of constantly focusing on all the negatives.  Don't just blame adopters for not wanting to adopt older children when the messages we are given are often very negative. Most of all there needs to be money in the pot for post-adoption support if it is needed. Oh and that support needs to be ongoing for as long as it's needed. Not just for a short period of time!


  1. I, too, was surprised at the foster carers being called Mama and Daddy (or whatever it was - something very similar to that anyway). I strongly disagree with this practice. Our LA specifically states that foster children are to call us by first names only, not even 'Aunty' or any other name that could be a family name, as fostered children already have mummies, daddies, aunties, etc. Not all fostered children are eventually adopted. In those cases, their birth families will always be their families, so those family names must be reserved for them, not taken over by foster carers. Of course, in our house there is already a little boy that calls me Mummy. I have had a fostered child copy and call me Mummy, but also I have had my own son call me by my first name, copying the fostered child! I do correct, but mostly by modelling, e.g. "Mummy, I'm thirsty." "Do you want [first name] to get you a drink?" I find that correcting while the child is speaking frustrates them and draws attention to it. I have also encouraged fostered children to use the Makaton sign for Mummy when referring to BM and have found that even when they accidentally call me Mummy, they don't use the sign.
    However, rules vary from place to place, and also can be bent even within the LA. I know of one foster family where the children use Aunty and Uncle. These foster parents were originally with a private agency and insisted on keeping these names when they came to the LA. The LA obviously allowed it.
    In our family I make an exception for members of my wider family. They all live in France, and we use French pet names for aunty, grandma, granddad, etc. which aren't the same as the English versions, so we use those and my LA have gone along with it.

    1. I like how you respond when the name copying happens. That's such a good technique for all sorts of things really. I like using the Makaton sign as well - what a good idea. It's good that your LA is on top of this issue. I have heard of several cases where that's not the situation and it really does raise concerns - you're also right about not all children going on to be adopted and how confusing might that be to go back to their birth family calling someone else "Mum". I love using words from other languages and cultures. I have always called myself "Mama" here at home because it makes me different than BM and, if they have a relationship with BM in the future I wanted to try and have a different word that wouldn't get confusing in the future so I'll always be "Mama". xx

  2. I've been looking forward to your post on this episode!

    I completely get the desire to adopt a younger child... having given birth to my own son I know I would feel odd missing out on those early years with another child. And I know that even without this, had we not been able to conceive, I'd have had that same yearning for a younger child, just for different reasons.

    I find it interesting that the case studies are so alarming! I know they have to warn you about what could happen but if it isn't balanced out then I can well imagine it being very worrying to prospective adopters. It's great that you have given feedback on this and are getting involved in any way you can!

  3. I think even older kids can be adopted. But they need to be trained more and the adoptive parents must spend more time with him/her.

  4. After reading your post I went and caught up with this episode of 4od. My other half and I have always discussed older child adoption (we are very early in the process)- I think we are in a minority that we find the idea of a very small one much more intimidating!

    With a younger child there is a lot more developmental uncertainty (for example Tommy's potential foetal alcohol syndrome might be a huge problem for him... or no problem) and I think it might be harder to determine whether you are a good "personality" match or not with a toddler versus a 5-6-7 year old. Plus with an older child you can discuss more how they are feeling and explain why they have suddenly turned up in a house full of strangers.

    However I wonder how we will feel after being "educated" on an adoption course as to the terrors of older children...


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