Kafkaesque Doesn’t Come Close

My heads been spinning of late. Trying to make sense of the relentless assault on the psyche of hearing of the abuse of children on a mass scale. Abuse going unchallenged at best and colluded with at worst. Some of this perpetrated by people in public positions of power and professional authority. Lots of it against children in the care of local authorities.

At the same time I am unpicking the family history of my adopted daughter.
At the point of being matched with her fifteen years ago I was given scant information about her family (This only featured her mum and dad as if any extended family was irrelevant). The picture delivered was not pretty. Negligence, domestic violence, dirt and chaos. I was advised to steer clear of their home town and be vigilant in avoiding other places they may be.

Despite this I chose to find her family three years into our adoption. I needed to know the backstory myself. Hear it with my own ears. I wanted to know more of her culture and heritage and of her wider family. My intention was to build a bridge between her past and present that she could cross at some future time should she ever wish to. Also to gain any information that would help me understand and parent her better.

I found her mum. A woman who had been abused as a child by an extended family member following the loss of her father in a tragic accident. Groomed and trained to comply. Further abused by predatory men until, on showing signs of ‘challenging’ behaviour, being put into local authority care as a young ‘aggressive’ teenager. Once in a place of supposed safety she was systematically abused by a care home staff member. When she reported it no action was taken. It happened to her friends as well. She bears a scar on her hand. It came from running away from ‘the man’ after a swimming session. Trying to find safety behind a locked changing room door. She slipped and cut her hand deeply on a glazed tile.
Her learning difficulty remained undiagnosed by her corporate parents.

On leaving care, now estranged from her birth family, she lived in the dark world of street life, alcohol abuse and violence. Usually against her. Eventually in her thirties she met the children’s father. A gentle but stubborn older man. A father figure who in her words ‘never once retaliated no matter what mean things I did to him’.

Of course she knew nothing of safe care, of domestic skills, of attachment, nurturing and trust. It was almost inevitable that she would fail as a ‘good’ mother. Three children permanently removed aged 7, 5 and 4. No contact granted. Taken by the same authority that had been her failing corporate parent.

Two adopted. One in local authority care miles away from home. The one in care first experienced sexual abuse at around 10 years old. The two adopted ones struggled with anxiety and attachment within systems that failed to understand and support them properly despite their adoptive parents greatest efforts. Both at some time coming into the child protection, mental health or criminal justice system.

I personally have had my parenting techniques criticised, had untruths about me and my daughter put in social services files, have seen lies being told in multi agency meetings and attempts at cover ups around bad practice. This against the back drop of adopting a child whose parents couldn’t cope and a system that judged them incapable of change. Many foster carers and adopters will recognise this horrible transformation from the being ‘the solution’ for a child to being held up as ‘the problem’. It really is quite kafkaesque. You wouldn’t believe it if you hadn’t been there. I know many adopters and foster carers who are seriously unimpressed with the systems of family support for children in need. I know others whose family lives have been devastated. This helps us see more easily the situation birth parents may have been in. The irony of this brings me back round to the bigger picture of child protection and where we are now in the UK.

Legislation has recently been passed, right under our noses, to make the corporate parent more powerful and the rights of families and kinship relationships further diminished. To put it crudely and in laymen’s terms, it’s a ‘whip them out quick before the damage is done’ approach. There are brain scans to provide the science bit. This simplistic picture is easy to sell to the general public via a muzzled press. To argue that leaving children in potentially abusive family situations is in any way ok, leaves one open to severe criticism. Social workers are easy scapegoats when a tragedy happens, making their job almost impossible. Either dangerous ‘lefty’ incompetents or over zealous despot child snatchers. These directly opposing stereotypes feed well into the rhetoric of child protection and privatisation. G4S a massive profit driven and seemingly unwieldy corporation now have children’s homes. An adopted young person I know of currently has a G4S tag on for displaying anxiety driven risky behaviour. This is linked to his past experiences of neglect. During his time as an adopted child he has not received therapeutic support.
The tagging box within the family home is faulty and wrongly shows him breaking his conditions. He will attend court for this ‘breach’. His adoptive parents are now fraught with anxiety themselves, fearful he may end up in a young offenders unit (no doubt run by a private security company).

What’s missing for me in this hot bed of double standards is any powerful public action, outrage, or meaningful legislation on what should happen to children in this country following removal from struggling, negligent or abusive parents. I’ve seen more general public outcry about the death of dogs in Manchester this week than I have about the rights of children in care.

One child taken into care every twenty minutes in the UK. Nearly 70,000 children in the care of local authorities at any one time. Multiple foster placements, children’s homes and in a small number of cases adoption. In many removals is the severance from roots, culture and history on a grand scale. At the point of removal the voice of the child’s family is muted. The child is most often rendered voiceless. How many parents of the abused girls in Rotherham tried to highlight and report what was happening? Somehow nobody in power or authority knew?

When things do go horribly wrong there’s no great child protection rush to prosecute and remove corporate perpetrators of neglect from powerful positions. Instead we have to watch long, expensive and protracted enquiries often led and managed by establishment figures from the very systems at fault. Many big charities gain funding and wages from attending special boards and think tank exercises. Paid to talk about ‘it’.

I know good quality care where it exists can save and transform lives and that many children in care go on to succeed and thrive having been removed from their parents. But the point is very many don’t. The scale and acceptance of child neglect and inequality of service to those in care by corporate parents is almost beyond belief. I find it full of hypocrisy and injustice. It also does absolutely nothing to stop cycles of failure. Many mothers who lose their children were once removed children themselves. One has to question what went on in between.

To me it’s a worse crime that a corporate parent neglects a child than its own family. Corporate parents have resources, power and influence, unlike many families. If you remove a child from its family surely everything should be done to manage that loss. Public money should be thrown at it without question. Excellent standards of care across the board, in health, education and social care should ensure a real second chance at a safe and happy childhood. To do otherwise, to make profit out of that loss, to underfund and undermine frontline carers in social work, fostering and adoption, to see child victims of neglect and abuse as in anyway deviant or unworthy of equality is inexcusable, especially in a country that politically views thousands and thousands of families as incapable of receiving interventions to keep them together.

(Permission is given and actively encouraged by my family including wider adoptive family to tell the truth of our shared history)

Parents Not Spoken To Enough

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Having just watched BBC Oxford News to see the report on Connor Sparrowhawk’s death (manslaughter) I am overwhelmed at the thought of what it must be like to watch that as his Mum and Dad. No matter how seriously and gravely reported, it is still a news item for the day. Done and gone and finished for many viewers and so too it seems for Southern Health.

The headline that resonated particularly with me was ‘Parents not spoken to enough”.

This will not be an unfamiliar concept to many parents, whatever their story, who are united in trying to access health and social care for their children. Unfortunately it seems even more likely if your child has a learning disability and is going through the difficult transition into adulthood.

Through personal experience I know that to be treated like you are some incompetent fool is bad enough but for that attitude to lead to your family member becoming harmed is torturous.

I sat in many many meetings with gritted teeth and red hot cheeks as I was referred to as “mum” and my daughter discussed as if she were more known to the complete stranger considering her needs. The stranger who had not even seen a photograph of her let alone the many albums and films and artefacts that made up a full and rounded and joyful picture of what was her life and the family who loved her.

My daughter came to serious harm because I wasn’t listened to. In fact it was worse than that. I was observed, judged, assessed and written about in negative terms. After all what could be more difficult and outrageous for a professional manager than some pesky parent fighting for the safety of their child…..

The other blood boiling and potentially dangerous thing that happens is that your child is wrongly edited in assessments and reports. Only a parent knows the subtle nuances and messages in some children’s words and actions. It is the living with them year after year, loving them, caring for them, listening to them, knowing the non verbal cues that makes parents the experts. God only knows why we are not treated as such by professionals.

Connor would not have been put in grave danger and as a consequence die if his parents had been treated as the experts. They should have been talked to, listened to, respected, given the management responsibility over their sons care. And now that he has died Southern Health want Sara and her family to “move forward” and “move on”.

Of course now they will have to listen to the dreaded ” lessons have been learnt” get out clause statements which makes even the most unaffected member of the publics heart sink.

If they had learnt anything they wouldn’t use that phrase because they would know how jaded, hollow, crass and insulting it sounds.

They can’t learn because they can’t listen.

Adoption Stories: Fact & Fiction

Adoption in itself brings together the many stories and experiences of several people. Birth family, adoptee, adopters and adoption workers. All family stories are important and often treasured, hidden, embroidered, repeated, or celebrated, but when a continuity is broken they can also become confused, muddled and mistold.

My adopted daughter came into my life with a scrapbook put together by her brilliant foster family, showing her time with them, happy events and fellow foster children. There was no detailed life story book. It was as if she were born aged four. The social services gave me verbal stories of her inadequate parents, chaotic and abusive home life…her mother had “knocked her front teeth out” and how she may have been born out of prostitution as her skin colour suggested “another ethnic background to that of her siblings”.

I was shocked and quite scared when I was told to avoid certain geographical areas due to the threat of potential attack by her mum.

After a few months of placement I felt I really needed more background to “the story” in order to understand my daughter properly. It took me a long time to piece together the bits of information I could get hold of. It helped enormously when I was able to contact a birth aunty who was a calm and reasonable police officer. I managed to get enough history to feel comfortable enough to meet Dawn and Fred. One of the most important things was hearing that Jazz lost her baby teeth when one of her siblings accidentally let go of her toddler reins and she fell over. I heard Dawn had a learning disability and behavioural problems which made her hard to engage with. I heard Fred was a lot older and his pride got in the way of him accepting support.  Another important piece of the jigsaw was hearing she had an African descendant, maybe a great grandfather, and her mums skin colour was beautiful like hers. How this became translated into her mother being a prostitute I still don’t know.

I was still really scared to go into the social services office to meet the parents, especially as the social worker was not altogether impressed with the idea due to the “no birth family contact” order given in court. My heart was racing feeling sure they would hate me for having their child. Instead Dawn hugged me and we cried together.

From that day on we have worked together to give Jazz a fuller picture of her life. It hasn’t been easy and I have had to encourage Dawn not to blame everything on the social services and own up to her failures as well as to own her successes. Jazz has needed support and to be given control over the level of contact.It has resolved things for her and bought about forgiveness, mainly of herself. I have grown to love Dawn and Fred like I do my birth family, sometimes we bicker and annoy each other but the ties are strong.

Jazz’s family history is much like many others. It has sad bits, happy bits, bits that bring shame and bits to be proud of. Now it has melded into my family history and become a part of my story and my history.

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Post Adoption Support….I May Eat My Hat!

It’s fourteen years next month since we adopted each other. It’s been an epic journey and it certainly continues to be so. During this time I have been an avid follower of all things political, media related and policy making around adoption. I’ve watched and listened, contributed and written to MP’s. All this alongside just trying my best to have some semblance of a healthy and secure existence for my daughter.

I have never felt she was ‘owned’ by me just because she was in my longterm care, and yet when she needed support post adoption, the general response to our desperate need for help was that she was very much ‘mine’. This constant misunderstanding of her needs by our local authority, as well as her placing authority, struck me as horribly ironic. The state intervened in her birth family as her learning disabled mother sadly could not care for her and without having any support was severely and cruelly neglecting her needs. I can’t believe that nobody professional we met understood the ‘double whammy’ nature of this, and how a person full of rage due to displacement followed by further neglect of their needs was ever going to heal and thrive without great support, let alone the neglect being by those who purport to, and are paid to care.

Of course I did what most adopters do and tooled myself up, trained by Dan Hughes, read Caroline Archer and the like, applied to get help from charities such as Family Futures and Adoption UK. We even latterly attended a pitiful and run down CAMHS. We got nothing really solid, regular enough or meaningful enough and I essentially became an amateur psychologist as well as a teacher and a mum. All very well, but at what cost to my daughter? I can honestly say that the most stress caused to us was by the constant ignoring or misinterpretation of my begging for help. It felt like cruelty to us both. I’m sure we may have been the ‘complex’ case we were described as, but I knew what we needed and I know it wasn’t too much to ask. The rubbish assessment processes, mismanaged meetings, unaware social workers and budget conscious managers took up all the funding we might have had.

My original assessment as a suitable adopter was clear in its positive reporting that as a previously qualified social worker, I would be able to successfully identify a child’s needs and ask for appropriate support. That would seem laughable now if it wasn’t so sad.

So back to today. I feel as an adoptive parent I should be celebrating the Governments announcement for funding to support adoptive families. After all I am so galvanised by our experiences that I have formed a charity to try and help others with free post adoption support. (There is no catch, we will listen and we will believe and we will understand) The funding will come from myself and other volunteers fund raising, no big charity boss salaries.

My daughter is now an adult and living with support in her own home. I could go back to work to pay off the huge debts I incurred as a single parent unable to work, I could finally do my MA that I was due to start fourteen years ago, I could quite frankly laze about for at least a year to recharge my very worn out batteries, but I can’t because I feel so passionate. I feel very strongly that maybe our small contribution might mean a small amount of traumatised children might not be ignored and unsupported to the point that they are unable to remain safely in their second family. Maybe some adoptive parents might feel they got a meaningful and empathic support response that didn’t have a price tag. Maybe our creative, user led, non profit approach might be considered good practice by those who hold the power and we won’t be seen as “just mothers” playing at the big boys game. We can but try.

Sadly my experience tells me that the Governments recent announcement is not very ‘charitable’ and may amount to a political sticking plaster on a gaping wound. There are hundreds of children and parents out there now who need urgent support. They can’t wait for years to see if pilot schemes work for the lucky ones. £20 million may seem a lot, but its nothing when specialist therapeutic professionals can charge up to £1000 for a days staff training, £3000 for a detailed assessment, £100-£300 per hour for therapy, and a specialist therapeutic programme costs approx £30,000 per family per year if your child is developmentally traumatised. Some of our children have sadly become big money clients in all this.

(As an aside, a news item I saw this week whilst thinking of creative solutions to care was applauding the creative skills of the British and how we export our creativity successfully. This was in the context that the development of the new Grand Theft Auto game was done in Scotland. The cost of that creative development for a game which encourages crime and violence was £175 million).

If we like it or not, fostering and adoption make money, wether its saving money in the case of adoption over fostering, or simply in private agencies gaining fees to fund their jobs in the care ‘industry’. The National Fostering Agency was sold last year for approx £130 million. Private adoption agencies make money and the average fee gained for placing a child with an adoptive family is £27,000. Support agencies make profit.  It’s reportedly been tough for the smaller agencies to survive with prospective adopters low in numbers, hence the Governments recent financial assistance to help them make more “sales”. I know being professional and skilled deserves and needs payment, but not the expense of those one is in the business of supposedly helping.

At the moment I can see some current and existing services developing to gain potential post adoption support fund budgets. Of these, many will of course be well intended, creative, value for money, accessible to all and excellent, but some people can see money making opportunities. It makes me worried that once again, the people at the low end of the adoption food chain might be children

Apologies for my cynicism and if I am proved wrong by amazing, enshrined in law, support to all adoptees and their families (including kin) in the near future……meaningful and quick assessments of need, free therapy, quality identity and life story work, empathic fair access to education, specialist training and respite for parents and support to adoptees post eighteen……..I’ll eat my (very fashionable) hat.

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Safe Spaces Open Minds

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As a parent to someone who feels anxious and can be easily triggered to anxiety, safe spaces become really important. In our world these include my Mums kitchen, my Dads car, our living room, particularly the sofa, the woods, in a caravan, on the beach and most of all in each others arms.

Non safe spaces include, ironically, hospitals, police stations and social services offices. Pubs and anywhere involving alcohol are tricky as are family or friends gatherings which include small babies.

What can change an unknown space into a safe one for us is often the spaces in people’s minds. If they have open minds and can understand and empathise without much trouble then a scary space can quickly transform into something much less threatening .

It is often the inability of others to have space within a way of thinking that causes our young ones stress, whether adopted or not. Schools in particular can really help if they provide a calm “safe space” to be used when children are anxious, angry or upset, which most children are at some time.

When dealing specifically with trauma and extreme anxiety, a safe space is a place where not only do people believe the anxious person, but also allow for many different expressions of that anxiety without punitive judgement or fear.

Sadly in our care institutions, including many schools, this level of open mindedness is for some reason far too rare.

It was the discovering of this sad fact and through the personal experience of “dangerous” spaces that led to us start a support charity based upon the provision of safe spaces for traumatised children. We can provide a safe environmental space but most importantly we hope to provide openness in our minds, ears and responses for individuals to fit safely within.