When adoption breaks down: One couple's experience

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The Detail spoke to one couple left distraught after a planned adoption broke down within months of two young children being placed in their care.

The couple, who remain anonymous to protect the identity of the children, made a complaint to Belfast Trust over the level of support provided to them and the children involved. The trust accepted errors were made and apologised for how the placement was handled.

This is Michael and Lisa’s story.

All names have been changed to protect the identity of the children involved.

The children

Born into chaotic family circumstances, marked by substance misuse and mental health issues, brothers John and David were placed in care within months of coming into this world.

Their early years were marked by a number of movements, from the care of their birth mother, a vulnerable young woman, to the care of the state and foster carers.

Both children were placed on the child protection register for a period of time because of concern for their welfare.

They had only ever lived with each other for a short time.

State agencies assessed the best interests of the children and recommended adoption as the way forward for the siblings.

John was less than 12 months old and his brother, David, was two years his senior when they were placed for adoption.

The children each had a social worker to advocate for their interests.

The couple

As a married couple in their 30s, Michael and Lisa had always wanted children. When they considered adoption, they were at a stage in their lives where they had exhausted all other options, including IVF.

It had been a long road but one the couple were fully committed to. They said the prospect of having a family was worth the almost three years of intense scrutiny and probing that preceded their approval as potential parent material.

Lisa said: "After such a long time waiting, we reached a stage where we felt we could dare to dream. We thought 'This is it. It's finally happening'. We would have little people in the house, who we could care for, be role models for, and hopefully give them a life full of opportunity and security.

"We began to imagine all of the things that we had put off dreaming about. We imagined the places we would go, the bedtime stories we would tell, bringing the children to play dates and eventually to school, and all the joy that occasions like birthdays and Christmas would bring.”

The couple met all of the requirements set down by the health and social care trust and its adoption panel and were approved as dual carers. This meant Michael and Lisa were approved as foster parents and that children could be placed in their care with a view to adoption.

In December 2016 the couple's dreams of being a family took a step closer to becoming a reality when they were approved to care for two brothers, John and David.

Lisa explained: "We were both nervous and excited by the prospect of finally becoming parents. We had watched so many other family members and friends have the opportunity to do this and we knew that, above everything else in our lives, this is what we wanted to do."

The placement

Over the course of three weeks Michael and Lisa prepared for the arrival of John and David through a series of visits to meet the boys and their foster carers, who would in turn visit their home. These introductions were arranged to lay the foundation for the children to transition to their new home.

Lisa said: "Initial contact was beyond our expectations in terms of how well it went and was developing. John and David appeared comfortable and secure with us and we were beginning to allow ourselves to think our family was about to become complete.”

In advance of the placement Michael and Lisa were advised they would be allocated a social worker, who would stay in regular contact and advocate for their needs. This never happened, however, and was a failing later acknowledged by the trust.

While both children appeared to embrace their new surroundings and engaged well with Michael and Lisa in the early weeks, a meeting with the children’s birth mother proved to be unsettling.

Lisa said: “There was no preparation in advance of this meeting. We were not given any advice or guidance on what to expect, who would be present, or how best to manage contact between the children and their birth mother.

“On the day it was very stressful and chaotic. There was only one social worker present, the children were confused, and the whole experience was difficult for everyone involved.”

This contact, the couple believe, proved traumatic for David in particular and was instrumental in the breakdown of the placement.

In the weeks that followed the couple observed a significant change in David’s behaviour and wellbeing. They said he became withdrawn and acted out by hitting himself, speaking to himself ‘in tongues’, soiling himself, had outbursts that would last for hours, and also became aggressive towards his younger brother.

Lisa explained: “We became concerned about David after the contact visit because he appeared to be regressing and internalising everything. He had completely shut down and could not be comforted. It was hard to watch this little boy who was clearly very distressed.”

The trust later acknowledged that this contact may have happened too early into the placement and was not well managed.

Breaking point

Michael and Lisa relayed their concerns to the children’s social workers as the couple did not have their own social worker to confide in.

Lisa said: “We were totally open at all times. We were crying out for help and as new parents we were always conscious of getting things right. We knew it was not right to see a young child suffering on a daily basis.

“We asked that David be assessed through whatever channels were available. We would have done anything, gone anywhere, in terms of getting the support he needed.”

Despite the couple’s repeated concerns, David was not assessed or offered any psychological support. Instead the couple were referred for assessment by a clinical psychologist.

The situation escalated, however, to a point where Michael and Lisa felt they could no longer offer David the support he required and advised the Trust of their intention to end the placement unless support was made available.

It was a decision the couple agonised over: "It was an extremely difficult and heart-breaking decision for us to make. We were at breaking point with David and it was beyond unbearable to see him so unhappy. We put everything emotionally and physically into this situation and tried everything in our power to make it work but we feel both ourselves and the children were let down badly by a system that failed.”

Within a fortnight the children were removed from Michael and Lisa's care. The couple were given one day's notice. There was no phasing out period. For the new parents and children involved, it was an abrupt end to the placement.

Lisa said: "We were devastated. We did not want to give up on the children but we knew we could not go on unless we had support for David. It all happened so quickly. There was no time to say goodbye, no discussion about the children’s routine, they were literally plucked from us. We were left feeling like complete failures and any attempts to ask about the children after that day were met with silence.”


Reeling from the experience, Michael and Lisa made a complaint to Belfast Trust, describing the placement and breakdown as "unprofessional and insensitive to the needs of all concerned".

The couple said a failure to acknowledge their concerns for David contributed to the breakdown and asked why more support was not made available for the children and to them as new parents.

Other issues of concern included allocation of social work staff, management of contact with the children's birth mother, and a lack of empathy by staff.

Michael and Lisa had even more questions when they later learned that David would require intense rehabilitation to address trauma issues.

The couple said: "We feel that our concerns for the welfare of this distressed little boy fell on deaf ears. The initial visit with David’s birth mother triggered a change in his behaviour. We called out for support to manage this but it never came.”

A subsequent investigation by the trust confirmed a series of lapses in standards but failed to address Michael and Lisa's concerns for the children and their best interests.

Trust apology

In a letter to the couple last year, Belfast Trust accepted the adoption placement was mishandled and apologised for the distress and upset caused to Michael and Lisa.

"l would like to apologise unreservedly that the quality of service you received was not of an appropriate standard and assure you that there will be comprehensive learning from your complaint," the then director of Social Work and Children's Community Services wrote.

Belfast Trust accepted that no social worker had been assigned to support the needs of the couple, as is normal practice.

"l would like to apologise for the distress and emotional upset you experienced during this time working with trust staff which added to the very difficult situation in which you found yourselves," the trust stated.

"l believe this reflects the absence of a named adoption social worker for yourselves," the letter added.

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It was also accepted that contact with the children's birth mother was "not a good experience" and may have happened too soon into the placement.

Management of the contact visit with only one social worker in attendance “was not of the quality it should have been”, the Trust said.

The Trust also accepted there was a lack of regional guidance on contact with birth parents despite the fact that such visits are “complex and very emotional requiring appropriate management”.

"l would like to apologise for the distress caused and poor management of the contact visit and assure you that learning from this experience will be developed," the trust wrote.

The trust further acknowledged the ending of the placement was not well managed: "The absence of good clear pre-planning and agreeing all the arrangements clearly contributed to an already stressful and emotional situation."

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One year on

More than a year after the trust apologised to Michael and Lisa the emotional fallout from the adoption placement breakdown is still raw. The couple are still left with many unanswered questions.

In the absence of contact from the trust they are unsure of their status as prospective adoptive parents.

Lisa said: "We were assured we would be considered for another placement but we haven't heard from the trust since last year and this has only compounded the hurt and distress that we've experienced.”

The couple also have questions about the welfare of the two little boys who were placed in their care and what might have been if support had been provided.

Lisa said: "John and David were placed in our care and we hoped they would become part of our family. Their wellbeing always came before anything else. But we don't know how they are today. We don't know if David is getting the support he needs and we're left wondering if he had been given the necessary support could we all be in a very different place now?"

The Detail put a series of questions to Belfast Trust about this adoption placement and how it was managed.

We asked what lessons had been learnt from this placement breakdown and also asked for an update on the welfare of the children involved and whether Michael and Lisa are being considered for other adoption placements.

The trust refused to comment on the case but confirmed it was open to meeting with the couple involved.

A spokesperson for the trust said: “Belfast Trust take any concerns or complaints raised around adoption very seriously and we look into each one thoroughly. Whilst we cannot comment on individual cases; we are willing to meet with the couple concerned.”

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