When I decided to adopt I was someone who had qualified as a social worker and had consequently worked within “the system”.
My political interests informed my practice and my specialism was outsider groups. I had worked with travellers to support the writing of letters to Government, learning disabled adults to form a clients committee, people with HIV and Aids to gain holistic health treatment, and a project to achieve an anti racist education model.
Very soon I realised social work wasn’t the job for me as I felt one could not afford to care properly, emotionally or financially. I made the decision to commit to actually caring for a lifetime. Better to try and make a difference to one person properly than manage budgets for an industry, that by its very nature, was too unwieldy to have true empathy.I believed empathy to be a key requirement in caring. The cliched but true “walk a mile in my shoes” thing.
When I was first handed a file with several children’s faces looking out I wanted to vomit. The potential match paperwork didn’t allow me to see, hear or smell them. Their fate was in my hands and it sent a shiver. They had no choice.
The “chosen” one arrived with little physical baggage but a whole lorry load of the emotional kind. Like a million tiny piece jigsaw (still haven’t completed it).
There was a life story book that began with life at the foster homes. The bit before her reaching four years old came in a damning file of demonisation and I hated her mum. Chaos, neglect, violence. What a bitch. Stupid cow. Thank god for good old me.
This judgement was short lived as more information filtered through via my daughter and also my political brain that always loved the possibility and truth of the sub text.
I started to do my own assessment based on a social work model and in an anti oppressive way as I had been dutifully taught by BASW.
I called the adoption team and asked to be put in touch with the birth parents. There was a shock horror tut tut reaction all round. I had never been given any advice on birth parent contact nor knew of any arrangements other than with her siblings.
The arrangement for her siblings was for me to preside, along with a social worker, over a final “goodbye forever” contact in a fun pub. The children ran amok, ate salt, spat a lot and kicked each other. My daughter gave her two brothers gingerbread men with smiley faces. There was more expression in the biscuits faces than theirs. I went through the motions but knew it was all wrong and horrendously managed.
I fought a long time to reverse the decision and one brother was adopted by a great open couple who allow contact and the other, after a lengthy court battle, came to live with us on a long term therapeutic foster placement.
The horrendous court delay cost him a lot emotionally as he was in a children’s home from six to twelve whilst we fought, but he still calls us home at twenty years old.
Back to the parents. I eventually insisted enough to get a meeting in a social work room with mum and dad. I was warned that I was going to face an angry violent woman who vehemently opposed the adoption and was a general public nuisance.
She had served a prison sentence for punching the social worker who took her children away. There would be two social workers present and security if necessary.
As the day approached I was pooping myself and prepared for the worst. As I made my way down the corridor and into the room my heart was beating out of my chest.
We came face to face. Birth mum and Adoptive mum. She came towards me, laid her head on my chest and wept like a child. It was one of the most powerful emotional experiences I have ever had. Birth dad, an elderly ex soldier was shaking in the background his veiny hand outstretched to mine.
From that day on I went with my gut moderated with a healthy dose of reality. I met with them many times before our daughter knew anything of it. I talked to them, filmed messages from them and challenged their denials or edits in a non judgemental way. I heard their stories that filled in the gaps in my ability to know our child. I made myself into a safe and sturdy bridge between them and her.
I started to slowly filter information to her about her parents and explored how she felt….. it varied between longing to see them and longing to shoot them. After watching the film where her mum said “its wasn’t your fault it was mine I’m not very well” she was ready to meet them.
The day remains etched in our minds and it still stings. I filmed it but we don’t know if we can share that yet. It is almost too powerful. A displaced and fragmented eight year old runs down a hotel corridor, arms open wide towards her mother shouting and sobbing “mummy!!!!!!”. Their embrace is heartbreaking and yet cathartic for all.
What follows is not a bed of roses or a skip into the sunset. It’s been bloody hard work to manage safely and therapeutically. My daughter faced triggers and showed challenging behaviour after some contacts. At certain times of development she has wisely, through therapy, chosen not to have contact for anything up to a year. However what we have is a history that involves the elephant in the room sitting visible on our settee, drinking tea, celebrating Christmas and birthdays, sharing information and most importantly, slowly if at times clumsily, extracting shame, guilt and feelings of rejection from our daughters soul.
I have had to live with my decisions as any parent does. All parents have to make potentially life changing decisions for their children even when they are not psychologically damaged. I do not judge those who decide against contact. Each child is individual and some birth parents too selfish or damaged to play a part in any healing role. If mismanaged, contact can be retraumatising and cruel. The childs healing must be central to all and personal judgement must be put aside.
If contact is out of the question I would ask:
“has your experience of local authority assessments and support been good for you in order to support your child? Has it ever felt like you and your child are seemingly abandoned by the system that put you together? Have you had to argue for help or get a bit stroppy to be understood on behalf of your child? Would more money help hugely to care for your child’s needs at home or school? Do you ever worry you can’t cope with your child? Do you ever feel like screaming or running away? Do you ever have to count to ten so as not to smack your child?”
If you have felt any of this as a secure, literate adult adopter spare a thought for the dispossessed, and if nothing else maybe try and teach your children the politics of deprivation and poverty. Educate them to the realities of social care, and the power some agencies hold in their position as a third parent. That third parent may be cruel in its ignoring your families cries for help. It may neglect or abandon you. I found it has helped to do that as my daughter has grown up. It promotes a healthy understanding, fighting spirit and self reliance that can aid the transformation from victim to survivor.