Friday, 19 February 2021

Don't Scare the Horses: Lifelong Links and Difficult Questions

I was listening to a conversation while on a Teams meeting between a few well informed individuals and the 'we don't want to scare the horses' phrase was used in relation to some professional's view that we need to shelter adopters from the realities of contemporary adoption.  

It's a phrase that's rattled round my head for a few days and increasingly it encapsulates the crux of some of the bigger questions that contemporary adoption faces right now. It's a well worn trope but adoption is not like the movies and within the adoption community we're all too aware that the struggles of supporting children that have experienced adversity and trauma are real and enduring. It's also a well discussed notion that we need to be honest in relation to the challenges that adopters may face in relation to education, access to services and behaviour. Ask any group of experienced adopters and they'll offer full and frank ideas as to what they wish they'd known and what they'd like to tell prospective adopters. 

I'm not going to re hash that discussion but to my mind a perhaps more tricky issue is what is to be expected of adopters in relation to contact and lifelong links to family. That's perhaps where the 'horses can be really scared' and it's where I'd like to see practice change. 

Proactive life long links, with the bleeding obvious caveat of when safe, to biological family are not and should not be a desirable add on to a shopping list of what we'd like to see in adoptive parents. They have so frequently been framed in terms of safe and not threatening letterbox arrangement that can, and dare I say, conveniently dry up or remain as meaningless hollow gestures. Adopters can slip the arrangements with convenience when in fact they need to be proactive facilitators of their children's best interests. 

New adopters understandably feel anxious opening their, and their new child's, lives to these unknown parents who are painted as the cause of many ills. Insecurity in their relationship to their new and often unknown child is threatened by links to birth family, after all blood is thicker than water right? 

So here's the question: Does expecting or demanding lifelong links move a child into the 'hard to place' category? Afer all we don't want to 'scare them horses'. 

I believe that unless we address the issue lifelong links in contemporary adoption we will witness a slow and painful decline, with ministers and celebrity adopters pushing and coaxing adopters to a model of adoption that is withering on the vine. Lifelong links need to be front and centre, a prerequisite of adoption rather than a potential hazard to be negotiated. The evidence is clear, when done well, it works for everyone. 

Perhaps we need to scare the horses and see who bolts and who stands, damn the adoption statistics. We need children with secure adopters committed to their children's lifelong links, not fragile parents with their heads in the sand. 

Postcript: It's interesting to hear the voices of adopters who have walked a few years into their new lives, they are secure in their relationships with their children, see with new clarity the needs of their children and have met the immediate needs for love, nurture, belonging etc. It's then they see the need and benefit for those lifelong links but often the trail has gone cold, water has passed under the bridge and links are impossible or difficult. Added to that a system that frequently speaks of contact but has no system or resources for facilitating anything outside of the standardised letterbox. 

My conclusion is that we need to scare the horses, let those that are going to bolt, bolt. 


  1. We adopted 6 years ago, going through prep 7-8 years ago. During prep and even before we were told to expect that the child would want to explore their identity and to help them do so. That's been the case for at least 8 years. So I don't really think it can come as a surprise to most current adopters. Maybe that's why there are fewer adopters on the waiting list now, who knows?

    I do get annoyed when this is portrayed as adopters being selfish and stubborn. You are doing what you've been told to (and are still told to) by professionals whose opinions you have to trust. You get about 10 years after placement to try and help the recovery from trauma, build up resiliance again, and then help the child meet birth parents if they choose to do so. It has been determined by a whole myriad of people that it is not safe for them to see their birth parents while still a child - we get Life Experience Days where literally *everyone* involved with the family, sometimes from years before your child is born, sits in room and tells you about the family circumstances. Doctors, social workers, teachers, police, foster carers, nursery staff... the whole lot.

    There are kids in foster care and special guardianship in similar circumstances - the only difference being that adopted children now have different legal parents, and a long term commitment, and some people have a problem with that. It feels that adopters are singled out for criticism though - as if they and they alone are the sole cause of birth parents not being able to see their birth children. In reality we are just the end of the process, and are not usually qualified to make unilateral decisions that contradict those entrusted us with the task.

    Why are these discussions always caveated with 'if it is safe'? What's the point? Surely the fact that they've been adopted in the first place shows they aren't safe, at least not for the duration of their childhood. Why would they be adopted otherwise? No adopter would want to take on a child whose birth parents were not a danger to them. It is immoral. That's what the care system is for, and that's why (thankfully) there are so few adoptions compared to the number of kids in care.

  2. Maybe 'don't want to scare the horses' because they will then ask critical questions, what are the supports, why are the structures, services and means of support not present. Better keep them in a state of 'magical consciousness' or let them live in 'naive consciousness' unaware that things can be different or without the means to change things, rather than have then inhabit 'critical consciousness' (Freire) were they take action for change?