Alan Burnell Wins Lifetime Achievement Award

Alan Burnell: Q&A

What does it mean to you to win such an award?

It means a great deal as I’ve spent all my working life working with children and families, and the last 30 years in the field of adoption. I’ve been motivated by personal experience to develop appropriate services for families, children, people and birth parents affected by adoption. It means even more that this award comes from the wider adoption community, not academics or government bodies. I’d like to thank everyone I’ve met who’s contributed to my career and supported me along the way, including colleagues, professionals and the families themselves.

Why do you think National Adoption Week is so important?

Up until recently it was a struggle to recruit sufficient numbers of adopted parents and National Adoption Week has been successful in raising the profile of adoption and contributing to the recruitment of adoptive parents. Also it raises awareness about what adoption is to the community at large, by being clear about what adoption is and banishing archaic ideas, which are still prevalent. This ‘myth busting’ is important.

Tell us a little about Family Futures and its values/ethos.

I was very involved at PAC (Post Adoption Centre) in adult counselling, particularly with the generation seeking birth parents, parents seeking adults and a new generation of adoptive parents who needed help with adopted children and sibling groups. The focus for this generation of adoptive parents was how to adapt adoption to meet the needs of families in the 21st Century.  Family Futures was a continuation of the work done at PAC to deliver comprehensive support to meet the needs of adoptive families.

Having on board a parent mentor who was also and adoptive parent and a therapist and myself as an adopted person, was a positive model for the agency in effectively helping the contemporary adoptive family. We understood the importance of not being judgmental, understanding their predicament and offering constructive help. This was a collaborative attempt to help traumatised children. Adoptive parents are not part of the problem, they only become part of the problem if they are depleted, isolated, misunderstood and criticised.

Who has been your biggest inspiration professionally?

Many people stand out. I would say initially Caroline Archer, an adoptive parent who studied the field of attachment and, because of her own experiences, uncovered new ways of working with children with attachment difficulties. Dan Hughes and Philip Booth have also been an inspiration.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your role?

The first thing is the ability and capacity to change children’s and families’ lives, not always by a hundred percent, or as quickly as we would like, but we know we have a model that works and that has been rigorously evaluated. The second is seeing a new generation of younger professionals come on board who are engaging with the neuro-scientific approach to helping traumatised children and are excited by new developments.

What do you feel has been the biggest achievement of your career?

Setting up Family Futures. We have a secure base and platform for future development.

Since starting out in your career you must have witnessed a lot of change, what have been the key highlights?

The biggest shift has been the growing understanding of trauma in infancy and its affect on child development. There has been a huge advance in understanding what can go wrong and, therefore, what can be put right.

Also shifting government policy had had an impact. We are now at the point where post adoption support is funded, making adoption more credible and sustainable for children who have a difficult start in life.

What is the future for Family Futures and other adoption agencies?

There is a great deal of uncertainty - adoption is in crisis for a number reasons. The Chinese have two characters to represent crisis. One means fear and one means opportunity. It’s both a scary and exciting time. There is the opportunity to map the future of adoption services that we have not had since 1926. On the downside the number of children up for adoption may continue to fall and there’s also the possibility that funding may not continue. All adoption agencies will share the same sense of fear and excitement.

However, there is the exciting opportunity that regional services could be developed to deliver the comprehensive adoption service that families need, alongside funding for post adoption support and the fact that we are embracing a more therapeutic approach to family placement. 

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