In Plain Sight

Not sure if it’s just us…. but we continue to be befuddled by adoption support progress and its reporting not only as adopters and adopted people but also as charity workers. When we launched our peer support charity four years ago it was certainly considered ‘letting the side down’ to talk about adoption difficulties without a happy ending. Adopted people or adopters who did not reflect the agenda of adoption as only being a ‘good thing’ were certainly marginalised and not really given any powerful public or professional platforms.

Today things are different and suddenly the media are covering adoption difficulties and breakdown more regularly.
Going back 20 years Tony Blair was attempting to improve the adoption experience as it was generally agreed adoption was a good thing to do. This included highlighting the need for more support to support the good thing and also address the bad things that had happened in order for adoptive parents to be doing the good thing successfully in the first place.
The trauma and damage done to children that causes the need for adoption is constantly present in the dialogue over 20 years. Organisations at the top of adoption support services have consistently sold training, conferences and support based upon the bad things that happen to children to cause the good thing that is adoption. Often this is marketed directly as support to adoptive parents in order that they may succeed in carrying out the good thing that the social workers and courts who are led by the state have decided must happen for the child.
We have a large collection of adoption related publications, books, training materials, blogs, research etc from organisations, individuals and the government in our charity library. It’s interesting to track the modern history, culture, thinking and policy around adoption. What seems to be working well for the majority, what’s consistent and what changes occur based upon differing research, funding or changes in cultural, political and power structures.
Although there are some backwards and forwards ‘trends’ around issues for example, of contact, life story, timings of preparation and placement, transracial adoption, the consistencies are there in the history. One consistency is recorded knowledge around the need for good, and very importantly, individual psychological support to adopted children and adults whenever needed and for whatever reason is now considered a given. Dan Hughes and other ‘guru’ psychologists, speakers and academics in adoption have been an integral part of the conversations around adoption support for years. There is much unanimous agreement in the organisations forming the policy alongside the DfE around the need for professional understanding of the issues adoptive families face. This is based upon research and professional opinion and an agreement that the understanding must be converted into appropriate support.

Winding forward to more recent years and recent reforms, in 2012 there was the House Of Lords Select Committee enquiry into adoption legislation which reiterated and gathered new evidence from the professional organisations that offered adoption support as well as social workers and parents. (Our written statement to this enquiry is on page 186)

http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/adoption-legislation/ALWrittenEvWeb.pdf

It was highlighted yet again in the findings that although LAs had a duty to assess for support they didn’t have a statutory duty to provide the support assessed as being needed. Chair of the committee, Baroness Butler-Sloss stated that she felt adoption support should be a statutory right. Families as a result of having no legal right to post adoption support would be thrown into a system where health and social care shunted the responsibility for funding back and forwards in the face of budget limitations on them from above. This was a big problem for adoptive families just as it is for ANY families seeking social care and mental health support. It was the luck of the draw. Families in more well off areas (often London based) had amazing and very expensive packages from expert support organisations. The type of therapeutic packages the DfE are now planning to restrict due to the overwhelming demand on the budget.
The very recent reforms which have bought about the Adoption Support fund continue to show the consistency in opinions around the need for more support. Some of the discussions appear to be presented as new understandings or based upon new knowledge, research or a latest conference speaker that reflects adoptive families lives. As if the new penny has just dropped.

Never before have we seen such open and active invitation to adoptive parent service users to take part in both informing and supporting reforms. Invitations to be heard, to speak in conference, to write, to train, to inform, to share and even to be employed within adoption support initiatives.

Many seasoned and new adopters have become involved in the new initiatives encouraged and heartened by the promise of better support and understanding not just for themselves but for the ‘community’ which has been bought together to have their voices heard via many different mediums.
As individuals and as a charity we were concerned and highlighted our concern from the beginning of the reforms that the ASF was not sustainable as it had no secure long term funding despite being launched alongside proactive state funded adopter recruitment drives. We were aware the amounts being talked about didn’t add up based upon our experience of support costs and numbers contacting us to report severe difficulties. We were concerned new adopters would feel more ready to take on the role even though information about severe difficulties was being highlighted, often by vocal adopters. The positive highlighting of the ASF could give the impression that understanding and support would be a done deal. Things were going to be different. Those questioning this were a minority of unfortunate bemoaners.

We were concerned the training and resources needed for teachers and social workers to become adoption experts was never going to be able to match the expectation and impression of the ‘new’ understandings.

In reality austerity and budget slashing has seen new adopters arrive in a landscape of education, health and social care professionals being under pressure, less individual approaches, hugely inconsistent understanding of trauma based behaviours and in some areas lengthy waiting lists for CAMHS. The economics didn’t seem to stack up to us but despite attempts to engage in a debate it was hard to get concrete answers amongst the celebration of the ASF.
The current situation sees that adoptive families often have had enough funded support through the ASF to gain a comprehensive expert assessment of their adopted child’s needs.

Adoptive families want good quality assessments of their child’s needs and support that reflects the speakers they hear, the books they read and the training they go on encouraged by adoption expert organisations, charities and social workers.

A comprehensive and expert assessment done as a package for an adopted child or children doesn’t come easy or cheaply and requires any or all of the following:
Life history work as an ongoing and continuous process.
Assessment which helps the child’s voice be heard by an independent and expert advocate
Assessment for contact arrangements and maintaining important connections to non related people.
Assessment for education support
Assessment of siblings
Assessment for health support
Assessment for mental health support
Assessment for parents support needs
Assessment for any family or professional training needs
Assessment for short breaks
Assessment for siblings needs

Our experience is that independent organisations involved in adoption support have been able to assess more families since using the ASF and are able to give expert views that are more likely to match families experiences and knowledge and the consistent support knowledge in the field.

They have been able to share with many more parents the products they have for sale and these products informs parents even further on the adoption specific needs of their adopted children.

The difficulty is then that parents can’t access these experts any further as there remains no right to the services a private organisation, charity or individual has to offer or has assessed as them needing.
As a charity it has been painfully slow for us to play a part in giving the very cost effective support we offer. Part of this has been the landscape and confusion around what constitutes relevant support, what support should be funded and most of all who should be allowed to provide it and at what cost. An example of this is that a very qualified therapist we funded to do DDP training with Dan Hughes was informed by an adoption support organisation she could not work with a family who contacted us in crisis because she was not Ofsted registered. The words ‘illegal practice’ were used. She was at the time under the supervision of a leading DDP psychologist and well known national trainer. It seemed like madness, especially as we were offering the therapy to the family for free.
It seems we are all now very much more aware of what support works and what doesn’t. The general public is also more aware of adoption as the press have played a large part in championing the latest adoption reforms.

We have all heard uncomfortable truths from all sides in the adoption process and we have gained insight from individuals, professionals and families in their very honest attempts to take part in invitations to share personal experiences, speak in conference, write blogs, sit on groups, become trustees, form peer support initiatives, attend meetings, do surveys etc etc
But adoptive families still have no more right to support services from LAs based on expert assessment than they did before.
Sometimes it’s worse to know exactly what you need, to be told continuously by adoption support professionals that you are now clued up via their training literature and conference products but still can’t access the right support.

It really is akin to being told by a well respected medical professional funded by the government that your child needs a certain medical treatment to become well but nobody you meet in the local surgery or hospital has heard of it and if they have there is no money available for them to supply it.
The very latest announcement from the DfE suggests that a budget of £2500 for an expert assessment of needs will be given to those families in the most difficulty. We are not sure how that difficulty will be graded for access. This will be an extra budget on top of the ASF £5000 limit per child. It is hoped LAs will match any further funding needed to therapeutically support children with the most severe difficulties. They have no duty to provide and more importantly are very unlikely to have the budget to do so. Therapeutic packages can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds if over a few years.
And so we come back around full circle. Adoptive families remain in a system which has been consistently aware over 20 years that adopted children need specialist therapeutic support to thrive within the ‘good thing’ that has been done to them. Adoptive parents have been encouraged to voice and share their experiences which also remain consistent about the need for specialist therapeutic support. Some of them have gained professional status within the general and increased opportunities reforms have bought about to profit from producing adoption support products.

Organisations have received funding to the tune of millions to be prepared to meet the needs of new adopter recruits and their adopted children. Organisations have grown in size and profile. Professionals within the field have been championed and received state honours for their part in reforms.
Although there is clear resistance within both social work and other professionals about the validity of holding adopted children’s needs as higher in status than other children’s, the general consensus backed up by the press and government is that adoption remains a good thing that must be supported and those that support it, wether professionals or parents will be rewarded and understood.

As a peer led charity we have felt that the millions spent on recruitment and reforms might have been better spent on supporting and training teachers, social workers and health professionals and their organisations to understand the needs of children with conditions caused by neglect and trauma whatever their legal status.
We understand that further changes are afoot under the regionalisation of adoption support. It’s been on the cards and part of the plan for years.

During these ongoing reforms we hope that the ‘in plain sight’ yet missing piece of the jigsaw will be the focus of activism and campaigns by organisations and individuals that both support and professionally benefit from the discourse that adoption is a good thing. The fact that LAs still have NO STATUTORY DUTY to provide extra or specialist support to adoptive families should be addressed nationally and successfully by those with powerful positions otherwise we are all shouting into the wind and despite the hype those on the ground seeking urgent support are not much further forward than we were 20 years ago.

For peer support:

thepotatogroup.org.uk @ThePOTATOgroup

theopennest.co.uk  @TheOpenNest

Marketing Adoption

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Marketing is a familiar concept to me. My Dad, once a teacher, has been self employed most of my life and remains so into his eighties. I have been self employed for the past 16 years. I have to market a small business in order to make sales to pay the wages, the HMRC and our families rent and bills in that order. I couldn’t work for anyone else because as an adopter I suddenly had to be at home for my children who couldn’t cope at school. I’ve had to be creative and watch every penny as a business person who believes in fair trade and sustainability. We avoid spending money on marketing. We communicate openly and honestly on social media and provide good customer service. We rely extensively on feedback, direct customer involvement and word of mouth.

I am also extremely interested, in a broader sense, in the representation of consumer groups via advertising and marketing. Many of us are familiar with that sinking feeling when marketing tries to address us as a particular generic group based on age or gender or feel depressed seeing marketing based upon our supposed aspirations as human beings. Often we can’t relate to a marketing companies view of us as a generic consumer group and it can seem comical or at worst offensive.

At certain times of the year, as a multi faith country, we see the resurrection of Jesus as an opportunity for profit in the marketing of chocolate eggs and fluffy bunnies, and then his birth is marketed via the consumption of food, drink and luxury goods. We see the irony in adverts for slimming, fitness, ‘bikini bodies’ and beach holidays after the mass consumerism of Christmas. But it works. Adverts are designed to sell products or ideas. There is a psychological science to it all. Marketing is a very lucrative business.

Citizens are increasingly valued by their ability to consume. Spend without getting into debt and eat as much as you can but don’t show the curves and you will be a perfect consumer.

Marketing to and around children is a tricky and uncomfortable part of being a consumer society. It gives rise to branded snacks and drinks being placed in educational settings where the playing fields have been sold off for profit and children feeling they are lacking as human beings if they don’t have the right junk food, technology or trainers.

I became an adopter over 16 years ago after answering a small advert in our local paper. Seeing the advert was not the first time I had considered adoption. It had been in my mind for years. The advert nudged me at the right time. The result of answering the advert was that I met my daughter. I’m guessing I’m a statistic for that particular adoption agency that says marketing works to attract adopters. It also worked financially for the agency as they received a substantial fee as the private adoption agent and therefore salaries were paid. Of course there was no meaningful after care service and my daughter and I just muddled on into the future together as best we could. We certainly didn’t see the agency for dust when the going got tough.

When we sought urgent support with education and supporting contact those on the end of numerous agency telephones acted much like crap call centres for some major consumer products do. Stock answers, defensive responses, lack of actual care. Passed around from one department to another. It’s bad enough when it’s about your broadband but when it’s about a child’s life and security it’s torturous and scary. People get hurt. We got hurt.

When the current government decided to reform adoption the central focus of reform was the recruitment of adopters. In line with this approach, the initial budgets were firmly rooted in attracting more people to give a secure home to children unable to stay with their birth family and apparently waiting to be loved and made happy. Phrases like ‘languishing in care’ were (and remain) key campaign strap lines.

The ‘unable to stay with their birth family’ bit of the campaign does not question any inequality in support to children dependent on class, race or legal status. Diminishing funds for early intervention programmes, children’s social, housing, financial, educational and health issues, alongside government commitment to austerity policies are whitewashed out in most adoption recruitment campaigns.

The first round of money for adoption recruitment came from The Early Intervention Fund. One hundred and fifty million pounds was shifted from the early intervention budgets to adoption recruitment. This was overseen by Michael Gove and attracted criticism from some children’s services professionals. To put it in a very simplistic nutshell, if you remove early intervention at the same time as removing funding from all support services to families you are likely to have more children needing state care and support . Add into that a speeding up of the adoption process, adoption target cultures and cuts in legal aid and you’re on a clear mission.

Next rounds of funding included the providing of adoption recruitment budgets to local authorities, a £2 million pound contract was tendered to become the ‘adoption gateway’ a one stop advice and information service for prospective adopters, specific funding for marketing adoption (including roadshows, light projections, leaflets, balloons, cake and children’s profiles on Twitter) funding to specific government approved support agencies and £1.5 million pounds worth of government funded new adoption agencies, each with specific number targets to reach.

Watching it all unfold as an experienced adopter and long term foster carer made me feel like I do when I watch candidates ignore the market research or make cheesy sales adverts on The Apprentice. But much worse.

If you’re going to market children at all, then ethics has to be at the top of the agenda. Personally I wouldn’t go with marketing adoption to people heading into Tescos for some washing powder or cat food. I wouldn’t put pictures of children in care on social media. I wouldn’t hold adoption parties or make National Adoption Week all about recruitment. But that’s just me. I especially can’t help but imagine I was the child on Facebook or Twitter and how I might feel seeing the previous marketing of myself as an adopted (or not) adult. Imagining being the relative of the child makes me shudder.

I’m absolutely sure my daughter was a child who couldn’t stay with her birth parents without her mum being given empathic support long term support. That sadly was not going to happen. Nobody cared for her after she left care. I also think without the public resources to provide long term skilled therapeutic foster care, adoption was right for her. I think the adoption system was wrong for us all. I could have done with some much bigger truths in the transaction. I could certainly have done without learning on the job at my daughters expense.

If I was given the job of finding families for children and not children for families I would market permanence, safety and security differently. The millions of pounds spent on marketing adoption would have been spent on education around children’s mental health, the effects of poverty and inequality on families and the marketing of permanence in all its forms. The largest proportion of the budget would have been spent on improving children’s mental health assessments and improving the provision and delivery of children’s mental health services, including within schools. Adoption would of course be included but as a very specialist intervention suitable not only for few children but also for few families. An intervention with complex needs.

Each child placed for adoption would have a skilled needs assessment and a support budget designed to meet their ongoing and individual needs and this budget would be attached to the child prior to the adoption order.

Prospective Adopter Application

Are you a family who would be able to voluntarily care for and love somebody else’s child or children up until the age of 18 and beyond. Can you commit to caring for one or more of the very few children in the UK for whom being legally severed from their historical and geographical roots is without any doubt necessary for safety reasons.

Are you willing and able to maintain all meaningful and safe connections for that child throughout its childhood. This may be with birth family members, siblings and previous carers who are not a danger to the child.

You will need to demonstrate that you have the knowledge to access the support services that your individual child has been assessed as needing in advance of placement. These may focus on loss, grief, dual identity, displacement and in most cases the life changing effects of neglectful or abusive relationships. You will be required to demonstrate empathy towards and full understanding of the social and political circumstances and inequalities faced by most families who lose their children.

You will need to manage a support budget which will be paid directly to your family. You must show evidence of being able to account for money spent through the support budget and present accounts annually.

You will be expected to manage anger and potentially aggressive responses from your child if they are anxious and angry following being removed from their family and adopted. You must be able to demonstrate understanding of valid anger, power relations, triggers to trauma and trauma related responses. You must be able to remain calm and focused under extreme pressure and in all confrontations. You must provide evidence of at least two other people who can voluntarily provide specialist care to your child when you take the breaks required to provide empathic parenting.

You will need to demonstrate the ability to deal with the unexpected in terms of your child’s development and be prepared for sudden changes in plans due to the needs of your child. You may need to consider a change in career or your working hours if your child cannot manage at school.

You must be able to professionally advocate for your child and be able to show evidence and understanding around mental health issues, developmental uncertainties, benefits entitlement, special educational needs, attachment difficulties and be able to manage skilled family history work,life story work and complex family relationships.

You will be required to pass on your specialist knowledge to all those supporting your child professionally. A knowledge of the social care system and the differing approaches and language used in health, education and social care is essential.

In today’s consumer society there exists thousands of mailing lists based upon professions, spending and lifestyle habits. Distasteful as these are, it would be possible to directly target specific groups with truthful and realistic marketing.

I don’t think I would be put off by truth but would feel security in the fact that the ‘advertiser’ was taking the requirements of ‘the job’ of child protection seriously.
I would feel confident that with the right assessment and support in place from the beginning, I would be more likely to be able to provide the right care to a child or children displaced from their family. I would believe the system would support the child, its birth family and my family in dealing with the complexity and sadness of modern adoption and I would hopefully understand that good adoption practice and parenting was not necessarily about transferring ownership from one family to another.

Sadly, but still relevantly, western cultures have a long history of ‘consuming’, assimilating or destroying cultures perceived as being other to the patriarchal and white based model of what is considered to be desirable, successful or good.

Current reform marketing often presents, probably in good faith, a concept of adoption that is culturally close to adoptions western cultural roots. It is presented to the general public as a charitable intervention that without question, saves and subsequently heals children. Appealing only to the charitable, saviour or ‘consumer’ side of those that adoption adverts are aimed at whitewashes the adoptee experience from the outset.

As many people are now marketing and media savvy consumers, I feel a more honest approach to the reality of broken families and the resilience, empathy and awareness needed to succeed in supporting them would be more likely to ensure the right parents are found for children experiencing trauma, grief and loss.

Adopted Voices Conference: Outcomes

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Whenever we decide to use our charity funds to put on an event or to create an awareness raising tool we have to consider the outcomes. Those who donate to us want to see changes and improvements in support to all those involved in adoption as do we. It’s important the things we do have a decent impact and that scarce resources are used creatively to good effect.

This year we gave lots of free short breaks to adoptive families and ran a Summer camp which are both easy to manage as cost effective interventions with maximum impact. Putting on an event needs more consideration and planning.

We were asked by a fellow adoption support professional this National Adoption Week how we can afford, as a small charity, to put on a conference like the one we presented this week called ‘Adopted Voices’. The economics are fairly simple. Room hire, refreshments and speakers fees equates to around £3,500. Volunteers and the very supportive online adoption community help the charity to keep the costs down.

On top of the much appreciated public donations we receive, we also raise funds in house by selling space in some vintage caravans and a camping barn that we run more generally as a small family business. All the money (not just the profits) from these sales goes into the charity.
The ‘Adopted Voices’ conference represents a couple of the six key Summer months where all of us at The Open Nest headquarters volunteer to clean the caravans and barn, collect and chop the wood and see guests in and out. Hard physical graft. Simple but effective.

In a week where we saw lots of government funded marketing, including many projections featuring the ‘Too old at four?’ campaign beamed onto iconic UK buildings, we wonder how those outcomes are measured. We did enquire ourselves a couple of years ago about a projection onto the Houses of Parliament to launch our charity. One projection alone was very expensive. We guess National Adoption Week marketing is measured in the number of new recruits enquiring or taken on for assessment?

We decided as trustees that this year our charity conference should not be about recruitment, but be dedicated to giving a platform to adopted adults who had reported to us that they felt they were largely excluded from public and political debate around adoption reform and policy.

It wasn’t an easy conference to sell, which raises questions in itself, but as a small charity we always expect and hope for quality not necessarily quantity in an audience.
Those who came to listen were rich in experience and included adopted adults, adopters and adoption professionals. One forward thinking local authority sent five members of their adoption team. We had hoped for more policy movers and shakers to attend but Peter Sandiford who sits on The Adoption Leadership Board was a speaker and is determined to take the messages of the conference to the top.

The outcomes of the day were;

1. Speakers were given a platform to share diverse experiences of being adopted and what those experiences have meant to them personally and in relation to current adoption policy.

2. The themes of the conference travelled far and wide through the hashtags #AdoptedVoices and #AdoptedVoices2015 #NationalAdoptionWeek and through the charities supporters on Twitter and Facebook.

3. Audience members reported gaining knowledge that would change their opinions and practice both as professionals and parents.

4. Adopted adults reported feeling empowered by the day. One commented that never before had they been in the company of so many other adopted people, another that they had been inspired to begin looking further into their life story.

5. Collaborative working was planned between The Open Nest and another professional agency, especially to highlight the need for improved training opportunities around keeping connections for adopted children.

6. A future event was planned for Spring 2016 as well as a suggestion for an adopted adults camp at The Open Nest. We will be working towards these during the winter months.

7. Several blogs were written to share information about the themes of the conference and to highlight the need to include adopted people in reforms. One from the brilliant Transparency Project and another from the brilliant Jack Ash
Community Care published an article about the conference Community Care

8. An important research project supported by The Open Nest was launched. The project intends to gather the many and varied experiences of adopted people. Audience members with the right connections have offered to support the research, ensuring it gains the ethical approval required and to share the research address which is growingupadopted@gmail.com
See more here The Adoption Social

We would like to thank all those who supported the event in person and from afar. We will be expanding on the outcomes in the months to come.