Sarah Axon, Adoption Social Worker, One Adoption North & Humber
Sarah works for One Adoption North & Humber, an adoption agency which serves five of the local authorities in our region: Hull, East Riding, North East Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire and York. Her original qualification was in sports science, but working with and supporting children and young people in the physical activity sphere sparked an interest in working to get the best outcomes for vulnerable young people.
“People always wonder how I got to social work from sports science, but it really does tie in sometimes, depending on the journey you follow with employment! I used to work a lot with children with behavioural difficulties or disabilities around sport and how therapeutic that can be. I worked in gyms, I worked for the NHS in programs to get young people more motivated and involved with fitness.”
This led Sarah to move into a teaching assistant role, where being involved in the planning and safeguarding work carried out by social work teams sparked a further interest:
“I could see the planning that went on with social workers and I wanted to know more about that, and the psychology of why children behave the way they do. So I followed that all the way back to university.”
Studying a postgraduate course at Sheffield Hallam university, Sarah was able to get two placements back home in Hull. The first of these was with a local charity, Humber All Nations Alliance, which specialises in immigration support and providing welfare and advice to new arrivals in the city.
“It really opened my mind up to cultural differences and the different communities we have in Hull. We’ve got something like forty different cultural groups in Hull, which is something I don’t think I’d have realised without doing that placement.”
Sarah’s first role as a qualified social worker came through her second placement, with a safeguarding team. While working in safeguarding, she became more aware of the role played by fostering and adoption teams – an area of social work which isn’t always as well known.
“Through your working career, safeguarding is so much at the forefront and so important to what everyone does, so I think everyone has a good idea of what that role is, and how demanding that role is. They’ll understand a good bit about fostering as well because you work very closely with fostering social workers when you support looked after children. But so much of the adoption role happens after other social work teams end their involvement, so you don’t see as much of what they do.”
The idea of working to help children achieve a positive outcome with their adoptive parents was something that really interested Sarah, so she took an opportunity to move to One Adoption. The new role required her to adapt to a different style of social work practice:
“The volume of work and expectations on you surprised me a bit at first. The turnaround is really quick and you need to be on your game with that. Your writing style changes too, in safeguarding you’re used to writing very formal reports, like for court for example. Then in adoption, you’re writing about people in a warmer, more personal way, which we always want to do for parents!”
Day-to-day work at One Adoption is highly variable. Sarah’s role includes supporting and assessing parents who are interested in adoption as well as working with adoptive parents and children who have already been placed together. As well as carrying out assessments, her work with parents includes offering support, advice and signposting to specialised courses to help them to navigate the adoption process and the challenges of being a parent. A big part of Sarah’s work with parents is guiding them through the stages of the adoption process while working to assess their suitability and getting to know them as people. In order to make sure each placement has the best chance of success, Sarah has to really understand each adoptive parent’s background and personality as well as their potential adopted children. Writing skills are essential part of an adoption social worker’s toolkit, because the reports and profiles that practitioners create play a major role in adopters’ decisions. The sense of reward when children respond positively to their new parents is what makes all of this preparation worthwhile:
“You’re planning for their future, you’re providing someone with new parents so you need to make the right match for these children. When that works it’s amazing, it’s just lovely to watch. It’s great to see from the child’s perspective, but also from the adopters point of view. You have people who have started their adoption journey and they meet a child that they’ve felt a connection with through reading their profile, the adopters have been chosen based on the report that you’ve written. Seeing that relationship then flourish is wonderful!”
Adoption support work with children often includes ‘life story’ work, which is an essential part of helping children and young people understand and learn about their early lives. As looked after children have often been through difficult or traumatic situations at a young age, it’s vital to present this information in an age-appropriate way. For younger children, Sarah and her colleagues will typically use a life story book which was created by their safeguarding social worker. This allows the adoption social worker and adoptive parents to explore key life events in a fun and accessible way, with the children adding pictures to illustrate and build understanding.
“I’m currently doing some life story work with twin girls and loving it, it’s so engaging and rewarding. We’ve done a timeline together to help them understand what they remember and how it all fits together. We’ve done some words and pictures, which is part of the signs of safety model. This all helps to introduce what my role is as well.”
As adopted children get older and more emotionally mature, they often have more detailed questions about their story, which can be answered through a ‘letter for later life’. This letter will be written by their social worker for an older age group to build on the earlier work. On top of this, adoption social workers will sometimes have to do some detective work to help a young person to fill in the blanks:
“At the other end of the age spectrum, we’ve been working with a young person who was placed out of area. She’s now 18, and wants a chronology to help her understand the whole journey from birth parents’ care, to foster care, and then adoption. She could understand from when she was adopted onwards, but needed that earlier part of her life filled in further. So I did a chronology, reading through all of her paper documents and piecing it together to help her better understand her life.”
Adoption social work has some unique challenges within the profession. Adopters tend to prefer to adopt younger children, which can make finding older children a suitable placement difficult. Groups of two or more siblings can also be challenging to place – adopting multiple children at once can be very demanding for parents, so adoptive parents often need extra support. Another challenge can be trying to find adoptive parents who share a common culture with children from minority ethnic backgrounds, but this is an area where Hull’s diversity can prove very useful:
“We’ve got a wide array of people who come to us interested in adopting children, from all sorts of cultures and nationalities. We very much try our hardest to try and match children culturally with adopters to help them to understand and explore their identity. With Hull it’s a very diverse area, so we are able to do that on a lot of occasions.”
For Sarah and her team, the best thing about working in adoption is getting the chance to help shape positive outcomes for families, and seeing the results of their work. The challenges of social work practice are always worthwhile if it means helping each child they work with to find a loving and supportive new family.
“It can be a demanding job but it’s not about the money, it’s not about the hours, it’s all about the children. It’s all about seeing children and families that you’ve supported flourishing and doing well. Sometimes the children will do something like draw you a beautiful picture – I keep everything children make for me or write for me. It’s wonderful, there’s nothing more fulfilling than when a child makes you a picture.”