#TheReport 

Lemn Sissay is a famous person. He is also an amazing person. I suspect he is an amazing person irrespective of fame. To see an amazing famous person have a deeply personal psychological report read to them live on a London stage would always be a draw for many people, especially if it is the first time that person and the audience will hear what is contained within it.It sold out rapidly in 24 hours and I’m guessing it could have been sold out many times over.

What led me to travel far across country to see #The Report read to Lemn Sissay by Julie Hesmondhalgh, other than my interest politically and the wish to bear supportive witness to somebody I respect, was love for my foster son. The beautiful, intelligent and funny boy who was severely damaged by the systems he found himself in as a young child and the lack of care he has received and continues to receive within those systems. Now a young man he continues to struggle with fear, anxiety, anger, trusting people, managing close relationships and substance abuse. As I sat listening to ‘The Report’ he was always in my mind.

Lemn has had to spend over four hours speaking to a psychologist as part of his ongoing efforts to sue the social services for having stolen his childhood. The report told of cruelty, lies, misinformation, constant racist abuse, systemic failure to care and the most harrowing stealing of his history and identity. The stealing of him from his mother. Stealing his mother from him.

I found it personally excruciating to hear the details and found myself both angry and very sad. I wanted to shout out. I think I wanted Lemn to shout out. The fact that Lemn was at times described as ‘aggressive’ within his files made me feel aggressive. When will assessments of children take into account that anger is actually a valid and healthy response to being traumatised and abused?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt they wanted to reach out to Lemn and attempt to reassure and offer love as he bravely sat there on an uncomfortable chair hearing shit truths he already knew. What the report conclusion described is the resultant damage done to Lemn. Leaving him with a deep mistrust of people. It also described the abuse against Lemn as having left him with high levels of trauma. No surprise there then.

Trauma cannot miraculously be healed, but with the right support the strategies can be found to cope with triggers and reverberations as they come. Lemn has had the personal strength to fight back and to channel his thoughts, feelings and his truth into creativity and to find safe ways of connection. A true survivor. A hero and connector to thousands.

Two things shone out of ‘The Report’ like diamonds in the dirt. One was hearing only positive descriptions of Lemn from a professional who recognised his strength, intelligence and honesty. A massive lesson right there for professional carers and social workers. The other was hearing from Lemn himself about Ethiopia’s pride for him.

As with all psychological reports Lemn was subjected to examination and interview within set criteria and scales. Scales of damage done that most certainly, as if there should ever have been any question, show he must surely receive healthy compensation and a real apology.

I can’t go into my sons life story here but there are similarities and threads that run through. There will be thousands of adults who have experienced local authority care and children now in care who also have those same threads running through their history. Untruths, misinformation, cruelty and neglect. Injustices of such magnitude a million sorries will not suffice.

Other things struck me about the report. One was the idea that the systemic abuse of Lemn began in long term foster care. It was presumed that removal from his mother as a baby at a few months old was not psychologically damaging to him. I’m not sure I agree with that. I feel that the severance may have been the first wound and as a consequence it then left him vulnerable to the cruelty of others over many years. The trauma of it and it’s consequences must surely reverberate throughout his family?

Another thing described throughout the report was the extent of racist abuse toward Lemn during his childhood. It was highly disturbing and included abuse from his foster family, other children and care home staff. I wondered how racist the care responses to his pregnant mother in a UK mother and baby home may have been.

There was talk of how this type of abuse was acceptable within British culture when Lemn was young. It was inexcusable then and it’s inexcusable now. Sadly from my own cultural and personal experience it remains. It’s just covered up more effectively. Like Lemn’s childhood identity and redacted files it’s been whitewashed. To hear how that abuse impacted on Lemn, shamed and traumatised him is horrific.

In a time of recent adoption reform and the current government investigation into improving foster care, the issue of cultural and institutional racism within adoption and fostering should remain at the forefront. I can’t see it there at the moment. My companion for the night has direct experience of trying to gain support for his transracial adoptive family and that experience has not shown that the support systems view inherent cultural racism as a current or important issue for children in transracial family placements. Permanence, safety and long term security is very important for children. Being well meaning but not critically questioning around methods to achieving permanence is not good enough. I’m sure lots of people felt Lemn’s white foster family were doing a wonderful Christian thing ‘saving’ a black child in the 1960’s. How they went about that intention at saving and subsequent failure was seemingly not questioned and criticised enough on behalf of Lemn by the professionals paid to keep him safe.

 

We must truly thank Lemn Sissay for having the strength and determination to pursue and expose the truth of his life story. Having the drive as a public figure to share the truth through his creative work and through his court case hopefully gives unknown others the strength to speak out and seek justice and apology for abuses against them in the name of care. Those supporting children and young people must take full responsibility for speaking out and tackle with full force the issues of institutional racism and other oppressive and abusive social care practices.

So that’s what I took from this extraordinary event. Energy and fresh motivation to keep fighting for children’s rights.

 

Support For Violent Children: What Next? (Part Two)

We have seen our previous blogs about violent children and how to support them reach thousands of people. Of all the blogs we share on adoption related topics, the ones that talk about violence in adoptive homes are always shared by our readers the most. We are aware that the situations we describe are only happening in a minority of homes but also that this minority feel helpless, scared and unsupported. There is much confusion in the professional field, even around the language that is or should be used to describe supporting violent adopted children. Parents describe being given ‘blank looks’ when urgently asking for help with this issue. There is no agreed strategy other than to call the police. The police are often helpful in their attending but state themselves that the issue is one for social care and mental health. Parents feel calling the police helps temporarily but escalates fear in their children, and if they have older children it risks traumatised teenagers becoming criminalised. 
As a charity founded in 2013, primarily to support this minority, we have highlighted the issues from the start. We have regularly been contacted by families distraught by their domestic situations and very fearful for the future of their adopted children.

Our aim is first and foremost to protect violent adopted children from misunderstandings around the root causes of their anxiety and anger and secondly to make sure they are not punished for it by the systems they are expected to engage in.
As a charity we have added to many debates about the need for support in this area. We have spoken at conferences and given training to professionals. Many parents have also shared their experiences and in part due to brave conversations within the community, adoption support agencies are now providing training to parents such as the Non Violent Resistance approach. This is funded by the Adoption Support Fund.

NVR doesn’t involve a safe physical intervention in crisis, nor does it recommend it, but it works really well for many families and we advocate its approach. We funded a social worker from a progressive adoption team we had trained to attend an NVR course two years ago so that she could advocate the approach in her practice.

 

Our previous blog bought about yet more conversations with many people both parents and professionals about how to keep extremely violent children safe. We continually advocate for the teaching of safe non violent physical restraint to use when under attack, to avoid injury to children and to avoid adoption breakdown.

During this debate it was very helpfully pointed out to us by a therapist that the term ‘safe holding’ has very negative connotations in the adoption field as it can be associated with a certain type of holding done as an attachment therapy. There was sadly a therapy based on trauma and attachment in the USA that resulted in a child suffocating while being held by professionals in front of her adoptive mother.  
We need to be really clear on this. We are not advocating therapeutic holding but safe physical intervention in a safeguarding crisis. We are talking about training to react calmly, sensitively and confidently in the presence of extreme violence so that parents can effectively manage safeguarding within their homes to avoid the risk of the following:

Anyone being stabbed by scissors or a knife
Anyone receiving a head injury through heavy items being thrown towards them
A child safe harming
A child risking serious injury or death to itself or another
Anyone crashing a car
A pet being badly injured or killed
Serious bite injuries
Another child being seriously injured or traumatised
Property being damaged and costs incurred
Adoption breakdown 
A child being placed in secure care having then lost two families

We have done extensive research on this subject and we find that children can lawfully be subject to physical intervention at school, in foster care and in children’s homes. Local authorities have policies on the use of physical intervention as a form of safeguarding in many care settings including children’s domestic situations. These policies require the use of risk assessments, recording of incidents and training within a safeguarding framework.

Akin to all professionals we do not advocate the use of physical intervention unless as a last resort. We do not believe such training is needed for adoptive parents who are dealing with lower level aggression such as swearing, spitting, shouting, throwing stuff at walls etc. Any debate we have on violence is certainly not meant to be a needs competition or aimed to bring people’s spirits down. It seems to be an issue for the minority of adoptive parents when speaking about violence in public conversations and via adoption forums they are in some way playing ‘trauma bingo’ over who has it worst, or that it is negative or unhelpful to the overall adoption debate.
We all agree that it is crucial to see the positives, the love and the humour in all our families but this is genuinely hard to do if you are living in real fear for your family on a daily basis, dealing with injury and upset alongside serious concern for the future. This is completely the other end of the spectrum to the happy clappy adoption experience that for obvious reasons most people prefer to engage with. 
We are aware that the numbers of adoptive parents facing serious risks daily are in a small minority compared to the numbers who need support for less extreme behaviour. However we feel it is urgent that the Adoption Support Fund can firstly listen and not exclude or silence those who are in danger and secondly engage with real and effective solutions for this minority. Adoption is lauded and promoted extensively by our government as it is viewed to be the best chance at permanency for some of the most vulnerable children. The real risk of not supporting frightened, angry and violent children to remain safe is the complete opposite of security and permanency. If children are removed from adoptive homes due to their extreme violence the future for them can look extremely bleak.

Guest Blog On Adoption Reform From an Adult Adopted From Care

The lack of involvement of adoptees in adoption reform is astounding, and I am glad people are speaking about this. Most people would take a dim view if a government organisation intended to help LGBT teenagers did not contain any LGBT people on its board. It’s true that there aren’t really any organisations which solely represent people adopted from care. However, there are adoptee organisations which contain an increasing proportion of care-adoptees, and I don’t think there’s been any real attempt to engage with them. The only adoptees who are ever engaged with are under 25 (I have theories about this).

I would argue that it is the responsibility of those in positions of power to seek out those who are disenfranchised, rather than take the easiest route of listening to those who are already shouting loudly (and often in chorus). Certainly, it takes more effort to locate minority individuals when they have not yet established a group consciousness with like-experienced others. However, I do wonder how far people actually want adult adoptees to develop such a consciousness – let alone organise themselves into a lobbying power! The adopted adult is, one presumes, the intended product of all adoption reform. (Although I do sometimes doubt this). Why not check up on them? And if the government will persist in focussing on adoption, which lasts the whole life course, they ought to be seeing how adoption works out, across the whole life course.

Engagement with adoptees can start simply. I have on occasion found myself having to tick the box that says ‘Other’ when responding to questionnaires about fostering and adoption. This is bizarre when more or less everyone, including adopters, charities, and social workers, has a box to tick. Clearly adoptees are not stakeholders in adoption, and neither do they have any knowledge that can be shared. Creating a situation where an adoptee is forced to ‘Other’ themselves in a conversation about adoption is really quite an achievement. It is also – may I say – a psychologically weird thing to have done to you. I could write a book on being forced to author my own othering with a pen. But I digress. A very simple thing that ALL organisations can do: unless it is a very specific study, have a box for adult adoptees. Not just ‘young people’: there is a danger that these opinions are immediately disregarded as ‘aaw, that’s so sad, but…’, and you also disenfranchise an awful lot of people. Something like ‘Adult adoptee’ or ‘Adult adopted from care’ or ‘formerly-fostered adult’ will do. A survey just for adopters? Fine. But for the love of everything that is sane: do not have a box for everyone BUT adoptees. Simple, but effective.

Furthermore, as an adoptee, I find the focus on timescales extremely odd. Time is not even on the list of things I would discuss. Certainly, how long it takes to place children with adopters can be a useful proxy for measuring success, but it is not without its problems, and it is only one of many measurements.

The truth of it? How successful different LAs are in their current adoption practices will not be known until 20-30 years from now.

I’m glad it’s been mentioned how relationships and grief are glossed over. I do not see how inhumane practises can ever be seen as successful. Focussing on timescales and not on relationships reeks of being a little too efficient with people’s lives. Why is the government not doing anything about the findings of The Care Inquiry, which identified relationships – and broken relationships – as the dominant (and self-identified) narrative and thread in children’s lives? Why is the government focussing instead on timescales and lopping off a month here and there?

I was “waiting” for so long that the length of time I was “waiting” isn’t even found on the current adoption timetable spreadsheets (I kid you not). Yet after a frankly horrific year of the worst the care system can perpetrate upon a child (far worse than anything I was supposedly ‘rescued’ from), I finally made my way to a loving, secure, foster home where I thrived. I was there perhaps too long, but when Mr Timpson says “Every single day a child spends waiting in care for their new family is a further delay to a life full of love and stability. This just isn’t good enough”, I am mightily worried by the short-sightedness, and the lack of realisation that even in care children should be living a life of love and stability. Does he really mean to suggest that his foster carer parents did not give their foster children a life full of love? Children should be allowed to live fulfilling lives at EVERY stage. Never once did I feel I was “waiting”: I was busy in the present, going to school, doing my homework, etc. One worries that sometimes the rhetoric about waiting, being chosen, and adoption being superior may be absorbed unknowingly by some children and damage the self-esteem of those not ‘chosen’ quickly. Instead, ensure that these children – including pre-adoptees – are secure (not moving), and that they feel valued.

If there was investment in the foster care system, there would be much less need to speed things up on account of supposed ‘languishing’ or poor outcomes. No one (and certainly not me) is saying that children should sit around for years on end with no decision. But why are the poor experiences of children in local authority care seen as a reason to speed up adoption, and not seen a reason to invest in the care system? Does the government maybe think that improvement there is impossible, and has simply abdicated its responsibility to provide for all children in care?

Will there be similar attempts to improve foster care matching, and central government involvement in this too? Will the central government have a drive for foster parents, as with adoptive parents? Will questions be asked of the foster care landscape, with its mix of LA and independent providers, competitive bidding, and different ways of commissioning placements? And will proper attention be given to how far these processes and this hodgepodge of for-profit, not-for-profit and LA providers truly help or hinder the welfare of foster children (or bring down costs to the state)?

Why not look at the reasons for moves? Some of my moves were ‘structural’, such as my (heavily traumatic) move from my foster parents to adoptive parents. Others were due to the unavailability of suitable foster placements and therefore having to move between emergency carers because of a ‘shortage of beds’. If care is so poor, why not have a central government recruitment drive for foster parents, and government investment in foster care matching and support?

If you invest in the care system, adopters may find that their children are that little less damaged, as, where this is an issue, any pre-natal and birth family damage has not been compounded by the care system. And if you invest in the care system, a little extra time can be bought for proper decision-making to occur – because, whilst all avenues of support and care are properly explored, the children thrive. Adopters can therefore also rest safe in the knowledge that everything possible was done. (This is, of course, assuming that adopters are happy for their children to have thrived with previous foster parents….). And, taking a long-term view – longer than a 5-year Parliament term – investing in the care system can do a lot for your adult homeless, prisoner, and unemployed populations. But maybe the government just sees all this as too intractable – or perhaps the most vulnerable in society are not worth public investment in our apparently cash-strapped times.

In the UK only around 9-16% of children are adopted by their foster carers (it varies year to year – when people bother measuring it). In the US (speaking of foster care adoption, which they do have a lot of), the situation is reversed: it is rare to adopt from foster care as a ‘straight adoption’ adopter, and in some states it is simply impossible to adopt from foster care without being registered as a foster parent first. Whether or not this is the right approach (to cut structural moves and to prevent broken relationships), this does show how wedded the UK is to certain models. Even recent forays into foster-adoption still emphasise that they are adopters first and foremost – they just have to do this pesky thing first. And then of course there are emergency foster placements, short-term, long-term, etc. The system is built around the convenience of the adults involved. And this does not even bring into the discussion foster placements that break down due to a lack of support, training, or proper matching.

I could go on and on. I could talk about place, and ask how far the need of some adoptees to be near certain places will be properly considered in this Brave New World, or how far the need for slow introductions is accounted for by league tables. One day I may write about being sped through the introductions process (six weeks), or the effect of my parents’ re-approval for an older age range (due to a lack of younger children). Speeding up the adopter approval process, and perhaps overlooking the want for a particular kind of child, or altering a child’s contact arrangements to make them more attractive – these have long-term effects that really need to be looked at in more depth.

Adoption needs to be done properly, not just quickly. When asked in The Care Inquiry, children in care, adoptees, and care leavers did not speak of efficiency, they spoke of relationships. Let’s not let companies become too efficient with people’s lives.

Solutions

I know we at ‘The Trauma Train’ are not always known as blogging about the happier sides of adoption, but we always try to let the love and truth of our family life shine through. The truth is not always easy or pretty but it’s our truth and we feel it has beauty in its imperfections.
I suppose adopting and fostering has made us very passionate about the rights of adoptees and adoption support, as it has other adoption bloggers who share their stories warts and all.

I want this post to be one that shows the solutions we have found during our own personal experiences over the past fifteen years. This is in the hope of offering positive and creative support to other who are dealing with issues of anxiety, attachment, trauma and developmental delay. 2014 is the year we begin to deliver our support services through the charity http://www.theopennest.co.uk
We are working with adoptees, adopters, foster carers, psychologists and social workers to develop the services we offer so please share your thoughts and ideas with us.

PROBLEM: I know my child cannot help their current struggles but I am exhausted and just need a break. Standard respite services would not suit my family as my child would be very anxious if sent away from me at this stage.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We will be offering short breaks in beautiful Whitby, North Yorkshire. There will be a choice of a comfortable rural camping barn with room for four or a three bedroomed apartment in a town centre hotel. Parent/parents will come with children but get whole days or evenings off whilst children are cared for and entertained by expert carers who understand the specific issues.

PROBLEM: I have been assessed as needing support but there is nothing suitable forthcoming and I feel it is down to funding and availability.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: Short breaks and other services will be free and funded by our charity. Those who feel able to contribute to the costs of their respite or support can support us with a donation ( We will trust people to assess this themselves).

PROBLEM: My child has contact with birth family members but I wish it could be in a more neutral, private and safe space.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We can offer 20 acres of beautiful National Park as well as beautiful indoor spaces to families who wish to have contact with siblings or birth parents.

PROBLEM: My child finds a lot of situations difficult but professionals do not always believe me or fully understand and this triggers my child. I feel am not listened to as I’m “just the parent” and I don’t have the time or energy to battle the system.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We offer a free advocacy service for families. We will contact agencies, schools etc for you with positive information and literature that will help your individual child. We can also send you literature to give to teachers, social workers, family members etc. We can also advise on potential benefits and legislation. We can be assertive on your behalf and can contact local MP’s.

PROBLEM: Sometimes I just need someone to talk to who has “been there”

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We will have a confidential telephone helpline for those who need to chat through an issue, moan, cry, laugh or be directed to other appropriate support agencies or individuals.

PROBLEM: I would love to meet with other adoptive families in a safe space.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We will organise small short break social gatherings (up to 22 people) for adoptive families. These will be free of charge including accommodation and food. There will be activities for children facilitated by expert sessional workers. There will be options to do “grown up” activities for parents/carers.

PROBLEM: I would like to attend a conference specifically for information, support and learning around adoption but cannot afford the cost of a ticket.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We will be hosting an annual conference for adoptees and adopters. The conference delivery will be dynamic and original and will be strictly delivered by adoptees and adopters. Attendance will be free (as in all our service provision a donation can be given if appropriate). There will be child care if it is needed for accessibility.

PROBLEM: My child’s violence has reached a level that makes me scared that I may not be able to cope anymore and our adoption may break down.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We can fund and facilitate specific in house training for individual families in crisis. This training will address issues of behaviour management for your individual child and safety strategies. The training will be delivered by a recognised National provider who is expert at conflict management.

PROBLEM: It upsets me that me and/or my family is not reflected or represented truthfully in cultural arenas.

OPEN NEST SOLUTION: We will be facilitating and hosting cultural events, with National coverage, where the “voice” of the adoptee and adopter are represented over and above the agenda of any other group. We also aim to support other projects and individuals with this aim.

The Open Nest currently raises the largest part of its funds by selling holidays to the general public at http://www.larosa.co.uk @LaRosaHotel
Our family set up this vintage hotel and campsite business ten years ago to address the issue that due to our difficulties in dealing with trauma it was hard for any of us to fit into mainstream employment or educational settings. We are now able to use this business which has a loyal customer base to support others.

A proportion of our sales go directly to fund post adoption services. This independent fund raising allows us to be creative and means service users are not at the mercy of assessments or funding shortages before accessing support.

We also organise smaller fundraising events and very much appreciate others who do the same for us. We are a registered charity and this year will become a registered adoption support agency.

Anybody who wishes to fund raise for us, share advice or ideas, or would like to be on our mailing list please contact us at info@theopennest.co.uk

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