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Case studies

Published: Friday, October 30, 2015

Alison Woodhead is a single adoptive parent from Oxford. Alison, works as a climate change campaigner for Oxfam. 'Mary' is not her daughter's real name. 

Alison said: "I'm a single mum and I adopted my daughter Mary four years ago when she was aged five so she's now nine.

She was one of five siblings who have all been adopted by different families. She was removed from her birth family aged three and was then in three different foster care placements before she came to live with me - so I'm her fifth home.

Mary's quite a complicated little girl because of her background. She had three traumatic years with her birth family and then two in foster care where she was separated from her siblings. But we're a wonderful match and Mary's an extraordinary child. I'm so happy and I love her to bits, she's heaven on legs.

I had always wanted to be a mum since I was about four years old but life didn't turn out that way. I found myself single at 40 and I'd always considered adoption and the time was right for me.

When I went into the process I knew it would be challenging. I learnt a huge amount about the kinds of children looking for homes, about the circumstances that have led them to being up for adoption and about myself.

The process took about four years, from the moment I applied to an adoption agency, to the moment my daughter came home. Four years is a lot longer than average, and that took its toll on me, and on my daughter who was moved 4 times during those years. There were various changes of social workers, and as a single adopter you're definitely under special scrutiny. They're right to thoroughly test your resilience and how you'll manage the day to day practicalities, but single parent families can also be really good for children with a complex history.

Once I'd been approved to adopt I must have looked at 150 different profiles of children. It becomes a bit of an obsession. My social worker was happy for me to be proactive so I was looking through many different profiles to see which children I'd be able to parent. I found Mary through an exchange day but I was also using Children Who Wait (Adoption UK's family finding service) and I was getting sent profiles by my social worker.

I remember that during the pre-adoption training process, they asked us to draw the child we could imagine parenting and I drew a five year-old girl - and I've still got that drawing - wearing a waterproof coat and hat walking in park, splashing in puddles and walking a dog. I've got a photo of my daughter aged 5 walking a friend's dog in the rain with a big smile on her face –it's so like the picture I drew that it sends shivers down my spine every time I see it.
When I first submitted my application, like most people I wanted a baby, but fairly early on I realised the chances of this were very slim. That wasn't a problem for me as I could imagine adopting an older child – but I also knew that the older the child, the more trauma they may have suffered. I questioned whether I could cope with their emotional needs.

Were my fears realised? The first year was incredibly tough. I definitely had times when I thought I couldn't cope. My daughter's emotional needs were overwhelming. She had sudden mood swings and anger that could last for hours. This was when she was five or six. She would be extremely distressed during those rages. She'd hit herself and hit out at others. I definitely didn't get the support I needed. Her behaviour was extreme but no one seemed to know what to do about it. At one point I was advised by a social worker to call the police. My daughter was 5 at the time. ...

The heartbreaking thing was that she couldn't tell me what was going on. She couldn't understand why she was behaving like that so it was difficult to help her. Her birth family was chaotic and aggressive and the children's basic needs were neglected, and then she had multiple moves in foster care which made things even worse.

Her rages now are very rare. She's made extraordinary progress over the four years. After a while I got help from the child psychology team in Oxford, which helped me understand what was going on for my daughter and pretty much saved our relationship. I learnt how to protect myself from what she was going through. You feel you get drawn into their emotional torment and that's not helpful for you or them so you have to distance yourself from it in order to help the child. People who know her say she's a completely transformed child. She still has a lot of challenges but on a day-to-day basis she's a very resilient, happy, optimistic and cheerful person. She wakes up most mornings with a big smile on her face.

She loves school but she's 2-3 years behind her peers. We can't get to the bottom of why she's struggling so much but it's most likely due to the emotional trauma that has destroyed her self-confidence and self-belief. That seems to be at the root of all of the problems she's experiencing today.

This is a success story though. It's an extraordinary match. We are just so very similar. We have the same sense of humour, we like the same things and we get on really well - that's helped us through a lot of hard times. It's a wonderful relationship.

We also have an extremely supportive family and fantastic friends who are a great help.
I work almost full-time as a climate change campaigner for Oxfam. I've been there 18 years. It's tough juggling work and single parenthood but work have been very understanding.

There are two things that I feel strongly about and I know Adoption UK is campaigning on both of these issues. The first is the need for more post adoption support. I really felt left high-and-dry with my daughter once she was placed with me. It was only because I have such a supportive family and friends around me that I came through that - otherwise this would have been a disrupted placement. Pretty much every other adoptive parent I speak to say the same thing – there really is very little support available.

The other thing is more support for adopted children at school. My daughter goes to a good school but the teachers have limited knowledge of adoption issues and attachment. I can't imagine what it's like for parents who don't have a good school and don't have my experience of advocacy... because it's generally been a tremendous struggle for me to get my daughter the understanding and support she needs, inside and outside school. We're now beginning to get there with the right sort of plan but it has taken four years.

I really would encourage people to consider adopting older children, as long as you go into it with your eyes wide-open. These children are hard to place but you can help give them a new start in life, which is massively rewarding. Parenting an adopted child of any age requires you to keep your heart open and gird your loins – it's incredibly tough but you experience more intensity and joy than you can possibly imagine

What are my proudest moments? The usual milestones like Mary learning to ride a bike. Her tying her own shoelaces - just ordinary things like that. So much of it is just like parenting any other child. Just seeing her happily playing with friends, that's magic.

In terms of support from AUK, I went to an AGM the year before my daughter came - it gave me a boost during a low period when nothing seemed to be happening - and I went to a couple of AUK training courses before placement. Just being with people who were in the same situation as me was enormously helpful, and the training helped me get ready for the massive change that was about to happen to me. I used the online forums a lot while I was searching for a child, and got lots of good advice and encouragement.

In the weeks before my daughter came I was an obsessive user of the forums - chatting to people who'd survived introductions and the early months of placement kept me sane. It's an indescribably intense time, and only people who've experienced that precise set of circumstances can really hold your hand in the way you need."