When we made the decision to set up an adoption related charity three years ago it wasn’t because we had nothing to do in our spare time. We passionately wanted to support other adoptive families and try to bring out into the open what we then believed was a very rare situation…children being so frightened and anxious that this leads them to becoming extremely violent and adoptions being at real risk of disruption because of it.We aimed to help just a few families a year that we felt may be living in this situation.
As we sat at our kitchen table in 2013 planning how to start a charity as a family, we were slowly coming out of what can honestly be described as a torturous and surreal phase that lasted for over ten years. The issue in our family was my amazing, loving, intelligent and funny daughters uncontrollable anxiety and fear that led to her losing her faculties on a regular basis. Sadly for all of us, but especially her, the result of this was rage and anger that damaged us to the core.
As I sit at the same kitchen table three years later we realise we are sadly unable to manage the level of calls for support we get to the charity. Families desperate and in crisis. Clinging onto half lives for absolute fear of losing frightened children back to the system from which they came. We are often the last port of call after going through the current adoption support systems and assessments. Many have already been trained in NVR (non violent resistance) listened in conference to multiple experts and attended one too many therapeutic parenting events.
It’s very hard for people to understand what violence from a young or small child could possibly look like. Many cannot imagine and sadly as a result cannot always believe. The truth is it is powerful. In our case it resulted in many hospital visits, injured pets, ruined personal relationships, isolation, poor mental and physical health for all closely involved.
The SAS say the most dangerous and unpredictable violence stems from fear. I can see this. In the early days before I became more trigger aware it would seem that the violence came out of the blue. Before you knew it an ordinary day could turn into one which may involve broken glass, chaos, blood, spit, vomit, urine and tears.
As I grew to know my daughter I started to understand and recognise the triggers. Knowing them doesn’t stop them happening though. Nobody can live in the bubble of walking on eggshells and isolation at all times no matter how therapeutic they may want to be.
Thankfully, I knew that despite being extraordinary behaviour to me based upon my personal experience of family life, the behaviour my daughter showed was, despite its extremity, an ordinary and understandable expression of fear from her. She was a survivor. A child who witnessed chaos, mental illness, discrimination, fear and violence. A child subsequently removed from all that she loved despite its most obvious and damaging failings.
Sadly her mum was horribly abused both in care and by a string of unsuitable men. This resulted in her having severe anger problems, exacerbated by undiagnosed learning difficulties. When she should have been cared for, healed, held and supported she was imprisoned and homeless and living on the adrenalin fuelled edge. Her children’s father, a gentle man, bore the brunt of it often in front of them. She told me recently that he never once retaliated to her shouting and bullying and pushing and punching. He did a better job at self control than me.
The one thing we knew, my daughter, her mum and I, was that we had to be honest about our experiences in order to help others. It was for that reason that we launched the charity with a very personal film about our lives. During the film violence is portrayed and discussed. This includes me describing the early days when upon faced with her doing shocking self harm at aged 5, I (leftie, peace and love parent) slapped her.Crying, I rang our social worker (who knew all about the violence I was experiencing). A child protection issue was flagged up but no help came. How different our lives could have been with early intervention of the right kind.
I confess that over the years I sometimes shouted (including swear words), pushed her away as she came at me with sharp objects, physically held her to stop her punching me or another person and at times must have shown extreme revolt on my face. Thankfully I managed to balance that out with a protective love so raw and true it was emotionally stronger than anything I had ever felt. We were in it together for the long haul and she knew it. We both deserved better understanding and support in honour of our commitment.
The violence continued for years and unconfined it became more powerful and dangerous for us all. The teenage years were the most scary. She was a strong thirteen year old and I was exhausted. The trauma had fully seeped into us all. At that time a clinical psychologist in CAMHS suggested we learnt how to do safe restraint. Nobody in the local authority would touch it with a barge pole. We all knew we desperately needed it.
The strange thing is that most of the time I was seeking support (and getting none) the general attitude was that my child was my full responsibility now and there was no legal duty to support her other than assess us to the max. Generally assessments were triggers as well as putting the spotlight on me in order to find any parental failings that may be causing the violence. We had to just get on with it. But when it came to us wanting to contain her anger with safe holding, the autonomy of our families decision making was taken away. It was received as if we somehow wished to hurt her or would hurt her by doing it wrong as being adopters not teachers, care workers or nurses meant we were clearly stupid.
We realised at this point, and it’s important to understand this, that she had begun to live in fear of herself more than anything else. Her key anxiety trigger became the fear of her own violence. This meant regulation and repair after an episode became more and more short lived. An ordinary headache, general irritation, or hormonal feeling, would make her panic that it was coming. Her body was subsequently propelling itself into the very thing she feared. She described her episodes as like epileptic fits that came out of nowhere. She was genuinely scared she was going to kill me or somebody else in a rage black out. It became a cycle that was impossible for either of us to break. This eventually resulted in her running away or self harming every time she felt angry. She said this was better than hurting me or our friends or the cats. She once asked her social worker if she could be “put to sleep” like an animal. Sometimes she would literally bang her head over and over against a wall. She still has weakness in her wrist from punching a tree with full force. She has bite scars on her arms.
There began to be social worker talk of residential care and secure units. I used to regularly lie awake at night fearing that my very sensitive, kind, honest and scared daughter would be removed…the most frightening thing to her after accidentally killing me. I pictured her in a secure unit with the more street wise kids terrifying her. I pictured her puffing up and kicking off regularly. I pictured staff doing ‘pin down’ like they regularly did to her brother in care. I pictured her alone, locked in her room with her thumb in her mouth. Her parents were also at their wits end contemplating the possibility of their daughter failing to thrive in a second family and experiencing the same abusive life in care that her mother had.
Sadly without any meaningful support for us she ran too far away one day and was seriously harmed by a stranger who took advantage of her vulnerability. The result of this episode, too horrible to fully describe, was we were told by our LA that from that moment on nobody could support me or look after her without being taught safe hold techniques. This followed a safeguarding meeting where our care and ability to keep her safe was in question. It was ‘my fault’ she had come to harm. This meant when we were at our lowest and most emotionally exhausted we couldn’t access any help whatsoever whilst my two loyal and rare support friends waited to get trained up. The irony would be hilarious if it were not so sad.
If we had been given the training at the right time thousands of pounds worth of damage would not have been done, hospital and police costs would have been saved. We could have avoided expensive but meaningless assessments and multi agency meetings that went nowhere. Most importantly our families would not have been so psychologically damaged. Therapeutic parenting courses, NVR, therapy and understanding triggers, much as they are certainly needed, do not count for anything realistic when fear based violence rears its very ugly and dangerous head.
So that is why we wanted to make change. Not to hurt children or be considered as dangerous in any way. Ironically, although we were the first adoptive and birth family working together to open up our experience of violence publicly and the first adoption focused charity to talk about and offer support with violence in the family, this has not really served us that well. It has made certain professional people feel wary. It has not sat well within the recent and relentless agenda of adopter recruitment. It certainly hasn’t got us on any expert boards despite our knowledge and experience. Despite our open attempts it hasn’t created any useful collaborations with those that hold the power within adoption support circles.
We could have peddled only the softer stuff as a charity. Regurgitated Dan Hughes theory for a price. Made a happy clappy film about adoption. Denied our adoption experience. We may have been more commissionable, raised more money from training or writing or speaking or recruiting. There’s distance from those violent times for us all now but we will never forget. We very often think of those in that horrendous position today, tonight and tomorrow. They may be in a minority but that does not make them less important. Who is really speaking out for them in this new world of adoption support that creates multiple jobs, profitable opportunities and commissions?
We were eventually trained in safe restraint by the accredited company Securicare. They work nationally in hospitals, children’s homes and with families who have birth children who cannot help their violent responses. They are commissioned by local authorities. The trainer we had was full of empathy and understanding. Like a breath of fresh air. She came into the home and cared about all of those involved. She produced an individual and full care plan which was delivered in both paper and digital form for filing and easy access by professionals. She was very clear that holding is as a last resort and gave realistic, practical and effective strategies to avoid holding if at all possible. The type of hold taught is age appropriate to the child. In our case it was a hold that is standing and using core body strength not aggression. It is safe and kind and involves verbal reassurance to the child throughout. My daughter was involved in conversations about why we were learning, what would happen during a hold and the end goal of safety for all. She was so relieved. Finally somebody had taken control of her safety. Our lives were changed immeasurably from that point. It cost £600 but it was priceless.
We now see her once a year to update the care plan.
My daughter was able to live without fear of herself, to let go of the shame, begin to learn, to write about her true feelings, to thrive and most importantly to self regulate. Amongst the new safety it was also possible for her to work more effectively with professionals and despite being placed at aged five, she finally got a diagnosis of learning disability aged seventeen. Her relationships improved with her birth family and she was able to better understand her mums position within society which in turn improved her own self esteem.
It makes me feel angry if I think about it too much. The lost education, the lack of friends, the angry scenes, year after year, trauma on top of trauma. That’s the real risk to severely frightened children. Nobody being in control of their safety.
Adoptive parents are some of the most assessed and scrutinised. Rightly or wrongly they are given some of the most vulnerable children to care for. They are capable of risk assessing their own lives and they don’t want to hurt children. They know they are more likely to hurt children when defending themselves from violence without training. Being out of control causes fear. In a violent situation somebody needs to be responding from a place of calm control that is not fearful, angry or exhausted even if this requires physical intervention.
This current week began with me presenting a talk to professionals at The Centre For Child Mental Health at the invitation of psychologist Dr Margot Sunderland. It’s the third time I’ve done it in the last two years. I was invited because as a charity we talk about the reality of living with a violent child. We talk about the anger that comes from displacement and broken relationships as well as abuse and neglect. We suggest potential strategies, including safe hold and if necessary, low level medication to keep children safe from harm and a potential life in secure accommodation. Nobody is shocked by what I say. People refer families to the charity based on the presentation but all we can really do is offer empathy and sign posting to other support organisations who generally advise a course of NVR.
As a charity we have designed a unique package of support which includes safe hold training by Securicare. Families would stay at The Open Nest and have a DDP therapist (whom we have funded to train with Dan Hughes) providing childcare whilst parents are trained. As a charity we would provide free accommodation for up to two nights if needed. There would be ongoing peer support and free short breaks including access to annual summer camps. We cannot offer this package of support, even for free, because professionals will not, or feel unable, to sanction safe holding for adoptive families.
We feel as a family and as a charity we have played a major part in bringing this dark issue out into the open over the past few years, as have The POTATO group, parents of traumatised adopted teens (www.thepotatogroup.org.uk).
We would very much like to play a part in the conversations that have been growing around the complexity of violence in adopted families and what constitutes appropriate interventions. Most of all we would like to use our expertise and the experience of those who talk to us to provide effective support for families in crisis who may be at risk of having children removed.
This issue of violence within adoptive families is no longer hidden. Over the past three years a framework has been built to provide support to adoptees through the Adoption Support Fund. Talking about the issues should no longer be met with disbelief, criticism, denial or blank stares.
Please let’s start the conversation in high places and in doing so fully include and listen to the minority who have or who are experiencing extreme CPV and also those who may have solutions at hand.
If you have experienced CPV please add your voice and those of children to the ever growing information resource http://www.holesinthewall.co.uk