Adopters' experiences of preparation to parent children with serious difficulties.

Author:Rushton, Alan


As more has been learned about the short-term problems of children late placed from care, and the persistence of some difficulties long after placement (Rushton and Dance, 2006), it is clearly sensible, not to say essential, that all adopters receive appropriate preparation. Guidance about preparation, as set out in the Adoption Agencies Regulations (2005), is mostly concerned with information-providing about the nature of the adoption process and the legal procedures, and only brief mention is made of the skills necessary to be an adoptive parent (para 24, 2(d)). The details are left to the discretion of the agencies and, not surprisingly, they deliver a different balance of advice, information, training and psychological exploration.

Comprehensive preparation for adoptive parenting can cover numerous interlinked aims and activities. It may include, for example, giving information about the adoption process, legal responsibilities, financial help about support services; advising on developmental issues and the common problems of children who have been in care; presenting the characteristics and unique histories of individual children; and exploring adopters' expectations. We concentrate here on preparation for the task of parenting those children adopted late from care who present challenging behavioural, emotional and social problems.

A number of practice manuals are being developed with the aim of creating a common curriculum to assist applicants in considering the implications of adoption. For example, BAAF has published an eight-session group-based manual (Beesley et al, 2006). However, it will take time before we know how widely these manuals are being used and whether they are achieving the aim of adequately preparing adopters.

In terms of systematic research, only a handful of studies exist that specifically concern preparation for adopters of children placed from care in middle childhood. Little is known about the typical content, methods and quality of the preparation and training on offer in the UK. Most of the research is descriptive rather than evaluative and many questions remain unanswered. For example, what is the relevance of the preparation and training to the needs of the adopters in relation to the specific child arriving in their home from care? Is the timing of the preparation well judged? Are the time and cost devoted to preparation justified in terms of outcomes, both short and long term?

In the study of middle childhood, UK adoptions from care placed a decade ago (Quinton et al, 1998), investigation of the adopters' experience of preparation showed that, although they expressed general satisfaction with the preparation, by no means all were positive and most expressed criticisms with some aspect. Many adopters found the training too global and with too little input on the specific skills that they would eventually need to parent their child. Lowe et al (1999) examined support for the adoption of older children and found that agencies varied considerably in the way they prepared adopters. Some adopters in their study found the social workers extremely helpful, but others thought the agencies failed to recognise their previous parenting experiences. Some complained of selective imparting of information about the child to be placed. In this study the researchers found a lack of information about practical parenting strategies. They recommended greater tailoring of the preparation to individual needs and less use of fixed practices. As adopters have a range of characteristics (single or a couple, ethnicity, sexuality, class, education) and have different understandings and expectations of adoption, the preparation process should acknowledge this.

One study on preparation for being the parent of a child in care is of interest in its use of a comparative design. Puddy and Jackson (2003) measured the effects of a parenting training programme for potential foster carers aimed at teaching them to manage undesirable behaviour and build the children's life skills compared with a 'no training' control group. The results were disappointing in that the experimental group improved on only a small minority of the goals of the intervention. The researchers concluded that the programme improved knowledge of the behavioural approach, but improved parenting techniques very little.

Two US-based studies have investigated the consequences of 'preparation'. Sar (2000), in a survey of preparation for adopting special needs children from care, mailed questionnaires to adoptive mothers on average six years after the adoptive placement, inviting their recall of preparation, and attempted to relate this to features of the subsequent placement. The mothers found training to be an adoptive parent the most useful preparation task, but learning about adoption and adoption procedures proved not to be related to outcome. However, the low response rate (30%) suggests a highly selected group of parents whose experiences may not reflect adoptions where preparation had led to better outcomes or where preparation more usefully matched the parents' needs.

In a study by Wind et al (2006) of adoption preparation in relation to special needs children, parents were asked about 18 different kinds of information that might have been provided before the placement. The greater the amount of either general adoption information or biological/medical information about the child the parents received, the better prepared they felt. Where children had a history of preplacement adversities, the adoptive families were more likely to receive preparation services focusing on the child's past experiences and caretaking history. We do not learn, however, how effective these services were.

In summary, many of these studies have concluded that the preparation activities offered can be very variable but adopters have found that information could have been better tailored to the unique circumstances of the placed child and the characteristics of the adoptive family. The studies cited show the difficulties in tracing clear causal links between variations in the type and content of 'adoption preparation services' and subsequent developments in the placement. They were mostly based on placements made in the 1990s and it is important to know whether shortcomings identified then have persisted.

Sample and method

This investigation of current practice in 'preparation' formed one element of a larger study evaluating the effects of parenting advice programmes post placement. The results of this study, showing the effects on the adopters' parenting and on their children's behaviour, will not be reported here but are...

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