ONE freezing December afternoon in 2012, after the school run, mum-of-one Kirsty* was violently attacked by her seven-year-old son Adam*. As kicks and punches rained down, she tried in vain to hold him off.
“I begged him to stop, but he was strong and the blows kept coming,” says Kirsty. “It took half an hour for him to calm down, by which time I was black and blue. He was like a wild animal.”
Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Since Kirsty and her husband Mike* had adopted Adam seven months earlier, he had frequently attacked her – and her shocking case is far from unique.
Later this month, the charity Adoption UK releases its 2022 Adoption Barometer, a key annual report that highlights the major issues affecting adoptive families.
Fabulous can today exclusively reveal that 65 per cent of the parents surveyed said they have experienced violent or aggressive behaviour directed towards them by an adopted child – the highest number on record.
With almost two-thirds of adoptive parents now experiencing what’s officially known as child-to-parent violence (CPV), Alison Woodhead, Adoption UK’s director of public affairs and communications, tells us: “It’s an incredibly hard thing to talk about.
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“Family relationships are sacred, and when there’s violence within them, it’s shocking and upsetting. But we must remove the stigma, because it’s horribly isolating for everyone.”
In addition to the alarming new findings by Adoption UK, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs used her first report in November 2021 to call for more help for parents suffering CPV.
Meanwhile, a survey by the charity Parental Education Growth Support (PEGS) revealed in November last year that four in 10 adoptive parents are physically attacked every week, with seven in 10 verbally abused daily.
It also found that more than half of adoptive parents had called the police about their child’s behaviour.
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With around 3% of all adoptions breaking down, according to Adoption UK stats, explosive actions like Adam’s can be a tipping point for emotionally spent parents.
Kirsty, 48, could never have imagined the behaviour she and Mike, 54, were taking on.
“We adopted in 2012 after being unable to conceive naturally. We desperately wanted a child and to be loving parents,” she says.
“After an incredibly stressful two-year process, seven-year-old Adam arrived from a foster family in June 2012.”
Despite not having met Adam before this, the couple knew he had experienced a troubled past and figured this made him especially in need of a loving family.
“His birth mum drank heavily in pregnancy, and as a baby he was hospitalised with different injuries. He was taken into care aged three and had moved between several foster homes before coming to us,” says Kirsty.
“We were so excited, but Adam was terrified, and the violence started two days in with him pinching my arms. Within two weeks, he was squeezing me tightly around the neck and punching me, often for no reason,” she recalls.
“I was shocked, because we’d had no warning of him acting violently, and I assumed I was doing something wrong. As his primary carer, at home with him each day, it was all aimed at me.
“I hoped it would pass, and we tried to teach him it was wrong by using calm reasoning, but it was like he had no control over it,” Kirsty continues. “We knew his past was to blame, but it didn’t make it any easier.”
Dr Amber Elliott from The Child Psychology Service explains how a child’s future behaviour is often determined by their earliest years.
We adopted in 2012 after being unable to conceive naturally. We desperately wanted a child and to be loving parents.
“Our templates for relationships are built by the brain in early childhood or in utero,” she says. “The pain, humiliation and cruelty experienced by some abused children becomes part of their everyday world.”
For Kirsty and Mike, the journey was only just beginning.
“The first nine months were a living hell. We had a stranger in our home committing domestic violence, and at times I wondered if we could continue and whether our marriage would survive,” says Kirsty. “Mike and I argued a lot – he felt I was too soft.
“I went to our social worker and was told it would settle in time. We were offered some basic play therapy, but I felt that wasn’t enough. I then tried the head of adoption and pleaded for more help, but it felt like no one was listening.”
Adam was enrolled at the local primary school, where his behaviour was equally disruptive.
“He’d hurt children in the playground and I was forever apologising to their parents. I was often called in to see his teachers, the other mums tutting as I did the walk of shame.
“I tried to explain it was related to his past trauma, but I felt so judged – especially when he was the only child not invited to kids’ parties.”
Adoption UK says three-quarters of adoptive parents struggle to access support, such as psychological therapy and medical assessments, due to oversubscription. As a result, around 40% of the children suffer severe mental health issues.
Adopted children are also twice as likely not to be in education and, later, employment, due to their difficulties.
Although a new £48m National Adoption Strategy launched in July 2021 to bolster England’s 31 regional adoption agencies (RAAs), the government concedes this is not enough.
When Kirsty’s urgent requests for support from the local authority stalled due to lengthy waiting lists, she hit rock bottom that bleak day in mid-December 2012.
“Adam was angry because PE at school had been cancelled, and he kicked me all the way home.” Back at the house, he launched his worst ever attack on her.
The first nine months were a living hell. We had a stranger in our home committing domestic violence, and at times I wondered if we could continue and whether our marriage would survive
“He was wild – punching and scratching me until I bled.” Kirsty managed to escape and locked herself in the toilet. “He kicked at the door for 15 minutes, but eventually wore himself out.
“It was the worst feeling I’d ever known – here was the boy I loved beating me up. Afterwards, he never remembered hurting me – which is common in CPV. He was always asking how I’d got my bruises.”
In January 2013, Kirsty was prescribed medication for post-adoption depression by her GP.
“I’d gone from being a confident, happy woman to someone who barely left the house,” she says.
Still desperate for support, that month she staged a sit-in at the local council. “I refused to move until they agreed to help.”
The tactic worked, and within weeks Adam received sensory therapy, which helps children regulate their emotions.
“He didn’t know his own strength, so this taught him to be more gentle. We saw improvements in weeks, and he began expressing his anger by kicking or throwing things instead of hurting me. We had broken TVs, phones and vile language, but far less physical violence.”
Though the next two years remained challenging, another breakthrough came in 2016, when £3,500 of NHS funding paid for health assessments.
By then 11, Adam was diagnosed with ADHD, reactive attachment disorder, sensory processing disorder, social and communication disorder, as well as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), caused by his birth mum’s drinking during pregnancy.
“It was a relief to get names for these things, and it meant we learned how to help him. Knowing his brain is wired differently also helped Adam own it,” says Kirsty.
His progress continued, and Kirsty says her son, now 18, is a different person today.
“He’s a funny, caring young man, with so much potential. We only get episodes a few times a year now, when he’ll punch a wall or throw things,” says Kirsty.
It was the worst feeling I’d ever known – here was the boy I loved beating me up. Afterwards, he never remembered hurting me – which is common in CPV. He was always asking how I’d got my bruises.
“He’s studying carpentry at college and it fills my heart when he tells me he loves me – something he never did when he was younger.”
Another mother who’s endured CPV is Ellie*, mum to two adopted children, Isabel*, 12, and Kyle*, nine.
“Both of them were exposed to drugs, alcohol and violence in the womb and as babies,” says Ellie.
She and husband Craig* adopted Isabel, then two, in September 2011, after four unsuccessful rounds of IVF.
“Isabel settled well initially, but was wildly energetic. She also became violent at bedtimes, hitting and kicking us,” she says. When they adopted Kyle, then two, in September 2014, Isabel’s erratic tendencies grew.
“She couldn’t cope with change, and regularly kicked off, which then triggered Kyle. He spent his first year with us screaming. There were times I’d think: ‘What have we done?’’’
Over the next few years, Ellie, 48, and Craig, 46, barely coped. “We were constantly separating them and dealing with their violent tantrums. It really affected our relationship. Getting any kind of support and securing specialist appointments always took months.”
Thankfully, things slowly improved for Kyle with theraplay – a structured form of play therapy – and attachment-building therapy, provided by their local authority when he was three. “He began to talk about his feelings and really calmed down,” says Ellie.
But similar treatments were less successful for Isabel, and after she was diagnosed with FASD, ADHD and autism in 2017, her aggression soared.
“I’d be hit or punched while dressing her for school, and she swore continually,” says Ellie. “But telling her off was pointless. I’d just try to leave the room instead.”
Isabel began showing huge regret as she grew older. “She’d be left feeling devastated after hitting me, and her self-esteem was in tatters,” says Ellie.
“She knew it was wrong, but couldn’t control herself. At school, she would bite or scratch her arms with scissors, and when I asked why, she’d say: ‘Mummy, if I didn’t, I’d hit someone.’
Isabel settled well initially, but was wildly energetic. She also became violent at bedtimes, hitting and kicking us.
“It was heartbreaking.”
The toll on Ellie was extreme. “I had to give up my job in leisure management, which I loved, and I’ve suffered severe anxiety and stress. But even in my darkest times, I’ve always thought: ‘Come on, we signed up for this. We’re a family.’”
Then came lockdown in March 2020.
“All hell broke loose. Isabel couldn’t cope with being stuck inside. During homeschooling, she’d hit and bite me,” recalls Ellie.
But when lockdown ended, school reopened and Isabel began receiving face-to-face Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) support again, and her violence decreased.
Ellie feels the family is finally making headway: “Isabel is calmer now, but we’re still trying to move her to a specialist school, as her current teachers can’t meet her needs. Underneath, she’s a lovely girl and she deserves the best chance in life.”
Alison says educational provision for traumatised children must improve. “The legacy of 10 years of austerity cuts has been heart-rending across children’s services.
“As well as more help for parents, we need all educational professionals to be trained in attachment and trauma.
“Adoption is tremendously rewarding for the majority of families, but we need to get that support right for everyone.”
Despite her ordeal, Ellie agrees that her experience has still been worth the pain. “Adopting can be tough, but we have no regrets and our children have brought us huge love and joy,” she says.
“I only wish there was more awareness of CPV – and support in place for parents who are struggling.”
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Visit Adoptionuk.org and Thechildpsychologyservice.co.uk.
- *Names have been changed
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