The SafeBase Parenting Programme

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Families, Parents and Carers
  • General resources
  • Early Help
  • Adoption and Fostering
  • Vulnerable (Looked After) Children
  • Safeguarding

Priorities this local practice example relates to:

  • Protecting children living in families where they are at high risk of abuse, harm or neglect

Basic details


Organisation submitting example

After Adoption

Local authority/local area:

Charity in partnership with various local authorities

The context and rationale

After Adoption is one of the largest providers of adoption support services in the UK. Drawing on over twenty years experience, the organisation developed The SafeBase Parenting Programme in response to the overwhelming demand for support from adoptive parents. Since 2004, SafeBase has been delivered in partnership with various local authorities throughout the UK with programmes running in Edinburgh, Kirklees, Lancashire, Leeds, London, Manchester and Sefton, and further scheduled in Wakefield and Wales.

Findings from the Department of Education (2010) suggested that every year one in five adoptions breakdown as families struggle to cope. Over 60% of children enter the care system with a history of abuse or neglect (DfE, 2010) and as a result, witness significant instability and disruption in the crucial early stages of their development. This difficult start in life means that these children need committed, well informed, well trained and well supported parents. 

An adoption may falter as a result of the child’s early experiences creating a barrier to the formation of a strong attachment to their adoptive parents. SafeBase is based on attachment theory. Schofield and Beek (2005) comment, ‘attachment theory continues to offer a scientifically rigorous and yet practical framework for making sense of children’s troubled and challenging behaviours and for supporting caregivers in providing them with a secure base’.

The SafeBase Parenting Programme aims to increase availability and longevity of adoptive placements by educating and empowering parents to make a positive and sustained change to their family relationships. The programme achieves this by:

• Informing the adoptive parent(s) about attachment theory and child development.
• Outlining research on brain development and explaining how early trauma impacts a child’s development and behaviour.
• Teaching the adoptive parent(s) practical techniques to build positive attachments with their children and modify negative behaviour.
• Enabling parents to exchange ideas and obtain mutual support.
• Providing a resource pack for adoptive parents.
• Strengthening overall family well-being.

The practice

SafeBase is a four-day parenting programme which is delivered to between 4-10 families at a time and involves an initial Family Observation (with feedback) which acts as a learning platform from which parents can put the exercises and information they gain on the programme into perspective, and gain the knowledge needed to understand their family. In essence, SafeBase makes adoptions work by helping local authorities to successfully place children and ensure their parents are trained to support them. 

The starting point for the service is based on the information gained from the referral source which highlights the nature of difficulties faced by the adoptive family. A SafeBase support worker will follow up this information by discussing further the family dynamic with the adoptive parents. Once this knowledge is gained, families can then go on to complete the initial Family Observation, an integral part designed to help both the adoptive parents and support workers to understand the strengths and weaknesses in the family interactions and how they can make the most out of the programme.

Within the observation the support worker looks at 4 key areas in which the programme’s learning is designed around. These are:

• Structure: setting limits and providing an appropriately ordered environment;
• Engagement: engaging the child in interaction while being responsive to the child’s state and reactions;
• Nurture: meeting the child’s needs for attention, soothing and care;
• Challenge: supporting and encouraging the child’s efforts to achieve a developmentally appropriate level.

The elements of the SafeBase Programme are:

1. Observation of family dynamics between each parent and each child by two workers (first meeting with family).
2. Observation report compiled.
3. Observation feedback provided to family with report and opportunity to discuss their needs before attending training programme (second meeting with family).
4. A four-day training programme for prospective adopters and adoptive parents.
5. Follow up parent support groups (currently quarterly).
6. Access to private online forum for ongoing support and advice.
7. Parents’ handbook for each family.

Referrals and commissioning: referrals to SafeBase depend largely on how the service has been commissioned. However, overall, most referrals come to the service from children’s services within local authorities (50.4%) followed by After Adoption workers (28.7%) with 9.3% coming specifically from Adoption UK’s own family placement service. The remainder are self-referrals.

After Adoption is working in partnership with local authorities to make SafeBase available nationwide by 2016. It also works in partnership with parents who have attended the programme to further develop the service with users in mind. One adoptive parent who attended SafeBase went on to become a member of After Adoption’s Trustee Board whilst another went on to become a SafeBase trainer.

Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families

UK Adoption Breakdown Rates:

National Disruption Rates for (data provided by CVAA (Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, 2010)
All adoptions in UK - breakdown rate 20%
Voluntary adoption agencies - breakdown rate 6%
Families attending SafeBase (After Adoption, 2012) - breakdown rate 2.5%

So far the programme has benefited the lives of 384 children, with 247 families attending the course since 2005. The disruption rate (breakdown) for families who have attended the programme is 2.5%, and these families were noted to already be in severe crisis prior to the course. SafeBase increases the longevity of adoptive placements where problems exist, with 31.7% of families referred ‘at a stage of crisis’ and 30.9% already having previous CAMHS involvement.

As the majority of SafeBase attendees had adopted children through local authorities, it could be expected that without the programme, 20% of these placements (77 children) would be likely to breakdown. 

External Evaluation: a three-year External Evaluation Assessment was undertaken from 2004 to 2007. During this time, parents completed evaluation forms and took part in telephone and face-to-face interviews. Some direct quotes from the first cohort are shown below:

- “I can now see why she behaves as she does, what the causes are, and how we can help overcome them”.

- “Thank you for making a “safe space” for me as a parent to review my own skills and not feel guilty when I’ve been inappropriate to the girls in the past. I have great future hopes for the three of us”.

- “I was aware of the issues before, but now feel more confident of strategies to use – glad my husband is now more aware of the issues”.

- “I found the course very useful in reinforcing information about attachment. However the most valuable part of the course was access to professionals’ advice which I have followed at home with great success”.

Analysis of interviews with Adoption Team Managers and service commissioners indicates that the SafeBase Parenting Programme exhibits characteristics which have been found to be key to providing effective support to adoptive families. These include: focusing primarily on parenting by promoting resilience in their abilities to parent effectively; providing real, hands on strategies for parents to adapt and use; providing parents with a far greater understanding of attachment theory and its day-to-day implications; and making the training unique to each family by conducting a Family Observation with feedback which provides a platform from which the parents can learn. 

A further evaluation was undertaken to look at the long term impact of the programme (between 2005 and 2010) in July/August 2011. A survey of 113 families was undertaken; 35 completed survey forms were received representing a 29% return rate. The survey asked parents to respond to the statement, “The course, and its explanation of the underlying causes of challenging behaviour, still informs my parenting”. 32 parents responded to the question about ongoing usage of techniques they learnt on the SafeBase programme. 21 (65%) indicated that they either ‘frequently’ or ‘constantly’ used parenting approaches they had learnt from SafeBase training. In total 31 parents identified that, at least several years later, the course still influences and informs their parenting. 

Findings showed this sustained change to be attributed to:

• Parents taking control. 
• Creating structure.
• Using play. 
• Changed responses from parents as a result of understanding attachment difficulties.
• Coping strategies to support children through times of change.
• Showing empathy.
• Reinforcing positive behaviour.

A permanent change was reported in the parenting skills of participants with parents selecting, adapting and using the techniques to fit their family situation.
Parents commented on the following:

• Children developed the ability to control their behaviour.
• A calmer child can talk about their feelings. 
• Children started to feel safe.
• The ability to concentrate grew.

“My adopted daughter is now more able to calm herself quickly. I can honestly say she is able to deal with her feelings much quicker & also to try to make sense of them. I think being able to talk about her birth family has been so beneficial for her - she doesn't think it’s a taboo subject & we understand she has the need to grieve for them”

Sustaining and replicating your practice

Costs: The programme costs £1,995 (£2,195 in London) for one family to attend. The saving stands at approximately £30,000 - £50,000 for every year that the child is in care, plus the incalculable costs of a disrupted adoption (such as crime, mental health issues, academic performance and the risk of repeating the cycle). For the average local authority placing 20 children, there could be an average reduction in costs of £1.5 million per year. 

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