The list of children waiting to be adopted in Lancashire varies in length and range from one month to the next.
But at the beginning of October, all of the young people in the county council area who were looking for a new family also had one other thing in common – a variety of additional needs which mean they will wait far longer than average to find the homes which they desperately need.
Denise Murphy brought that wait to an end for the two adopted children now in her care, having initially wanted no more than to find a brother or sister for her birth child after she divorced. If her original intention was fleetingly to fulfil the perception of the picture-perfect family, that all changed when she was told about Nathan – then aged eight and facing a host of challenges.
Later to be diagnosed autistic and having witnessed domestic violence from a young age, Nathan was never going to slip seamlessly into family life.
“He was quite aggressive when he first arrived and there was a lot of screaming and displays of violence, especially directed towards me,” Denise recalls.
“He was emotionally underdeveloped, defiant and had attachment issues – and he really couldn’t tolerate women or girls, because of what he had seen in his early life.”
While Denise does not downplay the difficulties of committing to a child with such complex demands, she wants to ensure that other prospective adopters are not deterred from doing the same – by demonstrating how obstacles can be overcome when a child finds the right family to help them.
“He is now an amazing young man in the way he functions. It took me three years to settle him in to family life and, even now, he does often prefer to be alone.
“But at the age of 20, he’s well-mannered, well-behaved and no bother. He struggles with people telling him what to do, but he can now assert his independence appropriately. He plays football and even runs a summer school for youth players.”
So convinced is Denise that she made the right decision – and a difference – by welcoming Nathan into her home, that two years ago, she did it again for another child, 18-month-old Peter. He was and remains unable to walk, talk or stand because of an undiagnosed condition.
But Denise characterises such challenges not as a battle, but a blessing.
“It’s like I’ve been able to enjoy every aspect of parenting, so I’ve been very lucky in that way. And things can seem a lot worse on paper than they are when you experience them in reality.
“People might think they want a child of a particular sex or hair colour – but in the grand scheme of things, it’s about what you can do to help a youngster and so should be selfless,” Denise reflects.
Fellow adopter Catherine McGowan describes it as “looking beyond the profile”. As a so-called “concurrent fosterer” – a scheme under which children are automatically offered to their foster carers for adoption if they cannot be returned to their birth family – Catherine had looked after her now adopted son Daniel for the first year of his life.
But as the time neared to make the arrangement permanent, she and her husband discovered that Daniel was not developing properly – and doctors were not going to be able to diagnose the problem until he had an MRI scan when he was 18 months’ old.
In the meantime, the family had to make a decision in the dark about whether or not to adopt.
“We were already in love with him and he was part of our family,” Catherine recalls.
“We knew that we could help him get through whatever it might be, but we were fully prepared [that we might be taking on] a child with severe difficulties. When you adopt a child when they’re very young, you understand that there are health uncertainties – so you hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
Daniel was later found to have severe cerebral palsy – and medics warned that he may never speak or walk.
Yet it was not that potentially devastating diagnosis which kept Catherine awake at night, but a nagging doubt about the decision which she and her husband would have taken if the timing had been reversed – and they had never met Daniel himself, but were fully informed of his prognosis.
“As an adopter, you grow through the process from when you are first asked to consider the types of children you will accept as part of your family.
“For me, it’s painful to look back at that and I beat myself up about whether we would have agreed to a child with cerebral palsy at that stage in the [adoption] journey. We could have looked at that profile and been unsure,” Catherine admits.
As National Adoption Week begins, both she and Denise want to help lift that burden of uncertainty from others considering whether they could cope with a child with additional needs.
For Catherine, Daniel’s diagnosis was the start of a “whirlwind” of medical appointments – ranging from intense physiotherapy to speech therapy. At home, his development became the focus of everything she and her husband did to give their boy the best start in life.
“We just got on with it and focused on the positive that we were giving this child a forever home no matter what.
“As it turns out, he was meant to be with us – his soul and my soul were meant to be together and I firmly believe that everything that happened in my life beforehand was leading me to the point where I met him.”
Beyond the loving family that the couple have created for Daniel, their commitment has had benefits which they could never have imagined in the days after his diagnosis.
“He now presents as a typical child – he walks and talks and was even the first child in his class at a mainstream school to ride a bike.
“I went to that bike lesson fully expecting to be the mum that came away crying because my child couldn’t do it – and he was actually the only one that could. His left side is weaker than his right, but you would have to look very closely at him to know that he had any kind of disability.”
For all the daily demands which adoption has visited upon Catherine and Denise, it is obvious that the only question they now ponder is how different their children’s futures might have been if they had not come into their care.
“I cry when I think about what Daniel’s life could have been like had we not found each other,” says Catherine.
“My fear is that if he had stayed in foster care, he might not have got the level of support and one-to-one help that he needed.
“My message to anybody else considering adoption in circumstances like ours would be to take the opportunity – that chance could change a child’s life.”
All of the names above have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals concerned.
Lancashire County Council aims to match children on its adoption waiting list to their new family within six months.
But youngsters with complex health and emotional needs, siblings being rehoused together and children over the age of five are amongst those who take the longest to place. They can sometimes be left waiting over a year; one of the longest waits was three and a half years for a child with additional needs.
“Some children know that their plan is for adoption and so to hear them ask when they will be getting their mummy and daddy is quite difficult,” Nikki Sullivan, the authority’s adoption manager, said.
“It’s important for our prospective adopters to think outside the box. If they were to have a birth child there would be a level of uncertainty [about their health needs].
“So it’s for them to open their hearts and consider children with different needs or from different backgrounds – and not be put off by information they read. Bringing [up a child] is different from reading about their specific needs – it’s about adopters being open-minded.”
According to Nikki, prospective adopters usually go on “a journey”.
“They often have a very specific idea about the kind of child they would like, but they can take on board advice, guidance and training [during the process].
“We have a high number of success stories where they have taken that chance with very successful outcomes – the child has just needed the right support and nurture.
”COULD YOU ADOPT?
In the twelve months to September 2019, Lancashire County Council found adopters for 71 children in their care - but was searching for a further 74 families on behalf of children whom the courts had agreed should be adopted.
As part of National Adoption Week,the authority is hosting an information evening at County Hall in Preston on Tuesday October 15 between 6pm and 7.30pm.
Alternatively, anybody interested in adoption can call 0800 123 6723 or visit lancashire.gov.uk/adoption to find out more.