73.The petition that triggered this inquiry was specifically requesting an extension to maternity leave, but our inquiry has been about all new parents. Adoptive parents and special guardians who have welcomed their new children into their families during this pandemic must not be forgotten. Their children are often older and from difficult backgrounds which brings a unique set of challenges for these parents. Both adoptive parents and special guardians help ensure that some of our most vulnerable children have loving homes. They deserve special consideration at this unprecedented time.
74.Adoption is a difficult and complex process which can last up to three years, and Adoption UK has described how the process can take its toll both physically and mentally on new parents even before the challenges of the placement. Sue Armstrong Brown from Adoption UK told us how the majority of adopted children are adopted out of care, unable to return home because of a history of instability, abuse, neglect and an inability for their birth families to parent them. We heard about the challenges that these parents face in “reparenting” whereby they identify the gaps that the child has experienced to try to rehabilitate and heal them as they parent their child.
75.Much like postnatal depression, the recognised condition of post-adoption depression (PAD) can affect new adoptive parents. We heard how in severe cases, PAD can lead to the breakdown of the adoption which can have traumatic impacts on both the adoptive parents and the children. The adoption support community and charity We Are Family (WAF), told us:
Adoption breakdown is not only caused by PADS but can also be the result of parents being unable to manage some of the most challenging behaviours of children, which can include aggression such as child-to-parent violence. These behaviours can be triggered by transitions, such as the move from foster care to adoptive placement, or external events, such as moving to a new house, starting a new school and other factors that lead to changes in routine—including COVID-19. […] When adoption breakdowns do happen, they have major traumatic impacts on both the adoptive parents and the children. Children may have to go back into care, where finding a new placement may be very difficult due to the impacts of having their “forever family” break down.
We believe that by extending adoption leave in response to COVID-19 families will benefit from establishing normal routines and may help prevent adoption breakdown.
We Are Family also highlighted the importance of support for adoptive parents, to avoid PAD and the breakdown of adoption, telling us: “Families experiencing these behaviours need strong external support, both from their family and friends as well as professionals, to cope and to find ways to reduce them.”
76.Adoption UK told us that, based on a survey of adoptive families’ experiences during the first month of lockdown, over half of families reported that their children were exhibiting increased anxiety and emotional distress. Over half were finding an increase in challenging behaviour from their children, and a third were experiencing an increase in violence from their children towards the parents. Sue Armstrong Brown from Adoption UK told us:
Those are all signs of an adopted child in trauma, dysregulated and unable to manage the situation, and we can easily understand how covid and the lockdown is having that impact. They have experienced a high level of disruption, the loss of all the external regulating activities they may have depended on, and a huge support gap opening up—quite understandably—as families struggle to access the professional support from schools, social services or medical services that they have been relying on.
In response to our survey, one parent told us:
The planned one to one time with our adopted daughter (age 1) has disappeared which has had a huge effect on her attachment to us, our ability to work on specific areas that she needs additional care around, supporting her social opportunities etc. A lot of my time has had to go into supporting our adopted son’s (age 6) education […] The stress and anxiety experienced due to the pandemic has not supported our ability to give her the best possible start in our family and that makes me incredibly sad and worried given the lifelong effects of insecure attachments.
Another parent told us:
The period of adoption leave following a child moving in with their forever family is a crucial time […] The reality is that adopted children already have more to battle than their peers and this initial period can really help in overcoming this. The inevitable disruption and anxiety that accompanies the pandemic has had far stretching effects on all areas and I sadly feel that it has disadvantaged my daughter in a way that I would love to have the opportunity to minimise through an extended leave period.
77.Parents had been unable to access the usual professional and informal support which is so important for parental mental health and preventing adoption breakdown. Support networks for adoptive parents are unique to those of other parents. For parents on adoption leave during the lockdown, Adoption UK found that the most common issue raised by adoptive parents was the complete loss of their support network at a time when they potentially need them most. In some instances, this has been combined with a loss of professional support, as local authorities redeploy staff away from adoption teams and into frontline roles or face increased levels of staff absence.
78.Social worker Al Coates, a member of the DfE adoption expert advisory group and himself an adoptive parent, told us that families were normally advised to have a period of isolation from others to promote the new relationships and routines. However, he said that many found this to be stressful as their normal support was reduced. Adoption UK believe that this advice needs to be re-examined. Al Coates explained how adoptive parents’ support networks are often more specific than for parents of similar aged children, as they can understand the unique circumstances of the situation. The lockdown restrictions have also impacted opportunities for adoptive parents to develop those networks. We heard how the inability for relationships to be built with those they were relying on for childcare once they returned to work, including family members, was leading to increased anxiety. As Al Coates explained:
children’s vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the lack of relationship with new childcare givers that they have limited or no relationship with. […] [Those who] need to return to work imminently due to the end of their Adoption Leave […] have had no opportunity to have a paced and measured introduction to nursery or childcare providers.
We also heard about the impact that lockdown has had on routines which are particularly important for children who have experienced trauma. We Are Family told us:
For parents currently on adoption leave […] the routine that the children would only recently have established will have been changed by lockdown. These routines are very important for children who have experienced trauma (experiences of neglect, indirect and direct domestic abuse, parental substance abuse (including during pregnancy), sexual abuse) as they build predictability and therefore help to foster a sense of security and allow for the building of attachment to the adoptive parents. In other words, shortly after a major, unsettling shift in their lives, the children have to go through a second one in a short period of time – and one that brings with it a sense of insecurity around personal wellbeing and health, which can trigger past trauma in children.
79.The average age of adoption in England is approximately three and a half, so many new adoptive parents use their leave to prepare and support their children as they start school. School closures have made this impossible. Adoption UK told us:
Transition planning is essential, and adopters will often work closely with the school to ensure the child’s transition into school is smooth and gradual. […] For those newly placed adopters whose children are due to start school in September, there has been no opportunity to engage in proper transition planning as a result of the lockdown. These parents were particularly concerned about how their child would cope in school without this specific preparation, as well as the general lack of socialisation in lockdown.
80.Adoptive parents and their children have faced uniquely challenging situations without the access to the professional and informal support that they need. These children are among the most vulnerable in society. In the most serious situations, we’ve heard that the negative impacts of Covid-19 could lead to an increase in adoption breakdown which would be devastating for parents and children. The extension of adoption leave with pay would give these new parents the opportunity to access some of the support they’ve missed out on as lockdown restrictions are eased. It will also give them valuable time to establish important routines and to bond with their children, as well as time to settle their children into new childcare or schools and introduce them to their wider adoptive families. The Government should extend adoption leave and pay for adoptive parents who have been affected by the pandemic for three months.
81.We discussed in Chapter 2 how self-employed adoptive parents are not entitled to parental leave pay. By leaving self-employed adoptive parents to entirely self-fund their adoption leave, it places another barrier to the adoption process. A prospective adopter will have a strengthened application if they can show how one parent can commit to adoption leave. We can see no good reason why self-employed adoptive parents are excluded from receiving support in line with that offered to other parents through Maternity Allowance and adoption leave. The Minister confirmed the Government was not ruling out additional support for self-employed parents and highlighted the forthcoming wider review of parental pay and leave. The Government’s response to this inquiry so far has not addressed the immediate situation faced by self-employed adoptive parents as a result of Covid-19. A future review, although welcome, may not come in time for this cohort of parents and children who desperately need additional support. Adoptive parents spend a huge amount of time planning their leave period carefully so that their children and new families can have the very best start. No-one was able to plan for Covid-19. These parents are looking after some of the most vulnerable children in our society and need help as a matter of urgency. The Government should consider equalising the benefits for self-employed adoptive parents to those of other self-employed parents. This could be a pilot scheme for those who became new parents during the pandemic, to inform the Government’s wider review on parental leave.
82.There are around 200,000 children in the UK who are looked after by kinship carers, some of whom are special guardians. They are family members or friends who take on the care of a child who cannot remain at home. This could be for a number of reasons including parental domestic abuse, mental ill-health, substance misuse, imprisonment or death. The Family Rights Group told us:
Children who move to live in kinship care have often experienced tragedy or trauma. They may have gone into unrelated care for a period or moved straight to the kinship carer. It may be a planned move but often, especially during the current crisis, the child may have moved in an emergency. The nature of kinship care does mean there is already a familial or relationship link between the carer and the child, however the transition for both the child, the carer and other members or the household, can be very demanding.
83.As we discussed in Chapter 2, special guardians are not entitled to standard parental leave or pay when they take on this role. In some cases, they can be entitled to funding from their local council, in the same way that adoptive parents can. Whether or not a family or friend carer qualifies for support from a local authority will depend on the legal nature of the arrangement. Other than in limited cases, local authorities are not obliged to provide support where care arrangements have been made without their involvement. Adoption UK, who have been campaigning for special guardians to have rights to parental leave and pay, have identified that around half of all special guardians have to give up work to care for children, since they are not entitled to paid leave to help them settle in.
84.More than half of special guardians are grandparents, many of whom will be over 70 and within the at-risk group for Covid-19. In addition, across all age groups of kinship carers, they are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, with a quarter of respondents to a 2019 survey by the Family Rights Group identifying as having a limiting long-term illness or disability. With over 50% of special guardians and kinship carers already having to give up work to look after children, it is unsurprising that the additional financial pressures resulting from Covid-19 have seriously impacted them. Research by the Family Rights Group shows that many special guardians and kinship carers are struggling to deal with the additional hardship of the crisis. The charity told us:
Carers who find themselves having to reduce their working hours, change their jobs, or in some cases leave employment entirely in order to care for a child, can be in financial hardship as a result. The Coronavirus crisis has exacerbated this financial hardship, with a quarter of kinship carers reporting they faced financial hardship that had worsened as a result of the current crisis, and a further 18% remained in a similar level of hardship than pre-crisis. This places huge pressure on kinship care placements and can be a deterring factor to families taken on the care of children.
Most worryingly, we heard that these added pressures could risk the breakdown of these important placements. The Family Rights Group told us:
Not only are kinship carers at higher risk if they contract the virus, children in kinship care may have different or additional needs as a result of their experiences. Our 2020 survey identified that 54% of the kinship children of those who responded had special educational needs or disabilities. It is essential that these families receive adequate support in order to maintain these family placements. If kinship care placements break down, this will only exacerbate the challenges that the foster care sector is already facing. If kinship carers receive the short-term support they need now, then this will hopefully avoid the need for children to enter unrelated care.
When asked about the support available for special guardians, the Minister committed to looking into the matter, but was not able to confirm any additional support would be available.
85.Special guardians need time and support to help their often highly vulnerable children to settle into their new kinship families in the same way that adoptive and other parents do. They should not be treated any differently to any other parent in this respect. A future review is welcome. As part of that review, the Government should consider whether entitlements and benefits for parental leave and pay can be extended to special guardians.
127 Adoption UK, , June 2013
129 Adoption UK, , June 2013
130 We Are Family (WAF)
131 We Are Family (WAF)
134 Annex 1
135 Annex 1
136 Al Coates
137 Adoption UK
138 Adoption UK
139 Al Coates
140 We Are Family (WAF)
141 Adoption UK
142 Adoption UK
144 The Family Rights Group
145 For a detailed explanation of the legal arrangements and financial support see House of Commons Library, 11 September 2019
146 Adoption UK
147 The Family Rights Group
148 The Family Rights Group
149 The Family Rights Group
150 The Family Rights Group
Published: 6 July 2020