Date: 18 October 2021

John Simmonds

National Adoption Week was established many years ago and has provided an important opportunity to communicate the need to make sure every child who has adoption as their life-long plan is placed with adopter/s who are prepared and ready to welcome them into their family.

There is one significant difference for National Adoption Week this year. There has been a focus on, and investment in, creating a wide range of materials that provide direct insight into the experiences of adopters, adopted people and birth parents. The materials are both diverse in the detail of those experiences, and diverse in the wide range of people who speak, whether that results from their ethnicity, culture, religion, life experience, motivation or circumstances.

This reminds us of one fundamental issue about adoption – it is never expected or planned for in the ordinary circumstances of life. Children are brought into the world with the overwhelming expectation that the family they are born into will be their family for life. Different cultures will interpret aspects of this in their own way. For some, this will be explicitly focused on the parents who conceived the baby and the child/ren who resulted. In other cultures, there will be a strong emphasis on the presence of different generations in the family alongside the parents – particularly grandparents or other family members. In yet other cultures, the wider community will play a significant part. These sources of wider family support and engagement cannot be underestimated for the contribution they make in supporting the parents and the child/ren in the immediate and longer term.

In the last 75 years, there have been fundamental changes in the way we have come to understand child and family development, in particular the psycho-social factors involved. Prior to this, development was seen to be a matter of moral, religious and social beliefs and status. Bowlby and Ainsworth were hugely influential in establishing the concept of attachment in the 1950s and 1960s. The sensitivity, responsiveness and active engagement of parents in creating a meaningful connection between the young baby and themselves results in a powerful relational framework that facilitates the child’s future development.

The impact that this concept has had on child welfare policy and practice cannot be underestimated, especially where there were significant concerns about abuse and neglect within the family. While the first step must always be to provide support to the parents to address these risks, the urgency of the need to protect the child can result in the child being removed. The local authority then identifies a plan to enable the child to be cared for in the long term throughout their childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

The concept also influenced the solutions that were seen to be necessary when children could not be cared for by their parents – a move away from the common use of residential care to the child’s placement with family members, or an unrelated family, as happens in foster care.

Adoption is one long term option and falls within the concept of every child’s need for a permanent family life. The making of an adoption order legally terminates the child’s legal relationship with their birth family and establishes it with the adoptive family. As such, it is regarded as one of the most profound actions the State can take, through the courts, but actioned on the basis that this is fundamentally what the child needs and has a right to for the rest of their life. But it also returns us to an area of social policy and professional practice that is contested, and must steer a very fine path between the rights of the child, the birth parents and the adoptive parents.

There are three important issues that need to be held in the minds of those individuals, families and professionals involved in adoption.

The first is the huge significance of the child being placed with adopter/s who have the insight, sensitivity, openness and determination to establish a new family life for the child where their safety, welfare, needs and development are expected to become similar to that of most other children. The joy, excitement, opportunities and learning that are some of the realities of “ordinary childhood” become the possibilities and realities of “adoptive childhood”.

Secondly, the significant challenges that adoption may create cannot be ignored, as has been reinforced through the growth of adoption support services, and particularly the availability of the Adoption Support Fund in England.

Thirdly, there are challenges for both the child, the adoptive parents, birth parents and wider family, in recognising what every child will experience because of being adopted – their separation from and the loss of their birth parents and other members of their birth family, including any brothers or sisters. This may also include the loss of any foster carers or other significant adults or children that preceded the adoptive placement.

The complexity of holding this in mind will include recognising the specific challenge of the long shadow cast by early life experiences, some of which can be very difficult to think about. Past separation, loss and grief can play a powerful part in adoption, and the meaningful resolution of these powerful emotions will be lifelong.

National Adoption Week 2021 focuses on the basic message that there is a continuous need to make sure that for every child with adoption as their plan, there are approved adopters who can meet the needs of those children. But, importantly, this year also acknowledges the many individuals whose lives are deeply affected by adoption, particularly birth parents and birth family members, alongside that of adopted children and adults and the adopters themselves.

Adoption creates a world of relationships both in and beyond the adoptive family. But it is a complex world of significant benefits and advantage as well as separation and loss. Holding these complexities in mind over time is absolutely essential. These messages are now a part of National Adoption Week 2021, and they need to continue in every year that follows.


John Simmonds, Director of Policy, Research and Development