National Adoption Week: Sunderland leading the way on finding children new homes

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A partnership that is leading the way to a better future for children in care in Sunderland has been praised by a leading national voice on adoption.

Sunderland City Council is working with the University of Sunderland on a wide ranging Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), to ensure young people in the care system, who are waiting to find their permanent home, are given the best possible support to deal with their social and emotional needs.

National adoption advisor Al Coates has described Sunderland's efforts as ‘very positive and proactive’, during National Adoption Week, which takes place between October 17 and 23.

Al, who is part of the Department for Education Adoption Support Advisory Panel, said: “Sunderland as an authority are very keen to engage, and have been particularly proactive in their use of the Adoption Support Fund, which is set up to provide support to families that are going through the adoption process.

“It really is fantastic to see the huge effort that they are putting in to the adoption support they offer, and that can only be a positive thing for the young people and parents they work with.

“They really do want to take advantage of all of the tools available to them, and that is borne out by their work with the University of Sunderland, which is great to see. Both appear to be committed to growing their knowledge base and delivering the best outcomes for young people in the care system, and I would like to applaud them for their hard work – it really is very positive.”

The partnership between the council and the university has seen the adoption department’s ten members of social work staff take part in a rigorous training programme, designed to equip them with the skills they need to support children through what can be hugely daunting phases of their life, as they move through the care system.

The university is also working with the council to capture memories of young people in care, taking audio recordings that can help them to understand their own personal story when they are old enough to know they have been adopted. Evaluation is also being carried out by an expert from the university, Stephanie Hunter, to give valuable feedback on what the city council is doing well in terms of its care for young children waiting to be adopted, as well as reviewing the after-care support that is given to families who do adopt.

Ms Hunter, who was supported by strong leadership from her manager Margaret Parsons, to deliver the work, said: “The work we are doing with Sunderland City Council is making a huge difference to the lives of young children who have already had to deal with the often traumatic experience of being parted from their birth family.

“Sunderland City Council’s willingness to take on board feedback, put changes in place quickly, and a general openness and eagerness to learn has been absolutely fantastic to see. I truly believe the work we are doing in partnership is unlike anything happening in other areas of the country, and as a result, I believe young children and adoptive families in Sunderland are receiving some of the best after-care that is available anywhere in England.”

Councillor Louise Farthing, portfolio holder for Children’s Services at Sunderland City Council, said: “Across the board at the council, our team is one that challenges itself to achieve more, and I want to credit our hard working adoption team who do their best to provide excellent, innovative and responsive services to adopted children and their families in Sunderland. The partnership with the university is about us both working together to learn from each other and to be the best that we can be to provide the best futures for the children in care in our city. It’s fantastic to see that recognised by somebody of such renown in his field.”

To find out more about adopting with Sunderland City Council, visit www.sunderland.gov.uk/adoption.

“The hardest part of the whole process was walking through the door that first time.”

For one North East couple, the mere thought of ever becoming parents seemed a distant dream.

However, a chance conversation with friends was to put them on a road to parenthood and become fathers to “the two most gorgeous children in the world.”

Liam and David (names changed to protect the identity of their children) had no idea that as a gay couple they could adopt, let alone where to go to start the process.

“We were talking to our friends who told us they were in the process of adopting a child,” said Liam. “It was a real surprise to us because we didn’t think, as gay men, we could adopt.

“We started to look into it and coincidentally I’d heard or seen an advert for the Sunderland City Council Adoption Service, so we decided to attend an open evening and find out more about it.

“The hardest part of the whole process was walking through the door that first time. We were terrified.”

The open evening was at Sunderland City Council’s Sandhill Centre in Grindon, where the Fostering and Adoption team provide an introduction to the service and prospective adoptive parents and foster carers can hear from people who have themselves been through the process.

“I have to say, it was fine – the strangest part of the whole thing was that we were the only people looking to adopt in the room. Out of 20 people, 18 were looking to become foster carers.

“After that open evening, the rest of the process was seamless. Many of our concerns and fears were put to rest – for instance, we originally wanted a girl as we thought that a boy may get bullied for having gay parents, but our social worker put our mind at rest and introduced us to other gay parents in our area who talked about how it had never been an issue.”

The couple, who live in Tyneside, made a conscious decision to come to Sunderland to adopt, rather than approach their own local authority.

Liam said: “I think we made a really smart choice as the service is fantastic and we have ended up with our dream family.”

The process took 18-months in total, with Liam, 40, and David, 34, adopting two siblings, a brother and sister aged two and one.

“There have been some issues, but nothing out of the ordinary, just your general parental challenges, which is exactly what we expected and wanted,” said Liam. “The process is not easy, but well worth going through and at the end we have two gorgeous kids – we couldn’t be happier.”

Liam’s view of the process, and joyous outcome, are echoed by Wearside adoptive parents, Leanne and Tom (names also changed), who became parents to sisters aged five and 20 months in 2013.

“We entered into the process for quite selfish reasons,” said Leanne. “We could not have children ourselves and we wanted a child. However, after that first open evening that changed completely and, while we still wanted to complete our family, our motivation very much became providing a loving home for children who currently don’t have one.”

The couple attended an open evening at the Stadium of Light and immediately began the process, which starts with personal statements and chats on the phone to the adoption team. It continues with face to face catch ups, homes visits to get to know you and your home environment, a final panel interview before you’re given the green light and a measured introductory period with the child or, in this case, children. The support given by the council continues thereafter, ensuring that both parent and child have the emotional and practical support needed to help them settle into their new life.

Leanne added: “It is an incredibly emotional process. Based on our assessments, we were found to provide a good match to our little girls, and as you can imagine, we were elated. It was a tough process, but to know we were soon going to have the girls was wonderful.”

Leanne waded through paperwork associated with the application and, with her husband, attended every interview. In total the adoption process took 10 months, but the joy at the end made it more than worth the effort.

“There is nothing like that feeling when you are waiting in that room following the final interview, where your application is assessed,” she said. “It is the longest 10 minutes of your life, but when that door opens and you’re told that you’re a parent…nothing can describe the feeling.”

Once approved, the integration process begins with the adoptive children. “We received notes from the girls – one of them talked about what the eldest wanted in her room and what she thought her new mammy would look like.

“We prepared a file for them called “mammy, daddy and Penny the dog”, where we toured our house and introduced family members and friends; we basically tried to show them every aspect of our lives, so it felt familiar to them when they eventually came.”

Over the course of ten days, the sisters were introduced to Leanne and Tom for increasingly longer periods. Short visits by the couple to the childrens’ foster home became longer visits from the girls to the couple’s home, all leading up to the day when Leanne and Tom’s home became the girls’ real home.

“We had this amazing period of frenzied activity where we were getting rooms ready, sorting maternity leave and basically preparing for the arrival of our children,” said Leanne. “It was exciting and nerve-wracking, but ultimately brilliant.”

Three years later, the girls are thriving. After initially being behind at school, the older daughter has caught up with her peer group and flourished. The younger of the two, who took a little while longer to integrate, has developed into a happy, healthy child too.

“I would say to anyone interested in adopting a child, do not be daunted. Go to an open evening and listen, ask questions and make your mind up afterward. What I will say is that I felt, through the whole process, the Sunderland Adoption Service was on my side. Everyone was helpful, patient, supportive and made me feel that they were rooting for us the whole way.”

Councillor Louise Farthing, portfolio holder for Sunderland City Council Children’s Services, said: “There can be no greater gift for a child than a loving home and there are so many children in need of this one thing we all take for granted.

“Likewise, there are hundreds of parents out there missing the one element that will make their lives complete – children. If Adoption Week helps set the wheels in motion that eventually results in just one happy family then it will have been a success.

“I would urge anyone who has considered adopting or fostering, to explore the possibilities. It may be that during the research they find it is not for them, but don’t discount it immediately. Come and talk to the experts and meet some of the parents who have discovered the joys of welcoming a child into their home.”

The council is holding an information evening on Wednesday, October 19 at 6.30pm at Sunderland Aquatic Centre. Sessions are held every month and dates and time are available at www.sunderland.gov.uk/adoption.