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.

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

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

The Teenager Who Felt Nothing But Scared

When I was a teenager I fell like no one was thear for me and I felt out of control and like I was going to kill some one because I would kick and punch and throw the glass at people and put windows threw and kick doors and it did tack some times for mummy bear to go to ANE with quite bad war wunds and some times I hurt my self by cutting and biting.

No one understand and I was in the big dark hole ad I could see the light at end of the hole and it felt like I was on herowin and I loved my mum very much ad I felt like I was tiring her heart out. when I felt I was doing that it broke my heart because she was the oley one how understand me and she was thear for me but when I us to get angry I hold breath ad felt like my hart was going fast and I was missing some think. I was having rally bad dreams ad I hate school ad I felt every one tort I was a freak and I was the kid how every one won’t to avoid me ad I us to cry when I went to bed because I just won’t I’d to be a person who was nomel ad I hate that word.

Now I fell more love for my mum than ever because I can see the light ad now I don’t get angry because I go and listen to London Grammer or go and see my rats ad ginny pigs and rabbits and it mack me fell worth some think and it mack me fell like I’m very lucky ad I rally like it when I can be close to people.

the closer I am the better because of the heat ad the breething cams me down and that I just cry. it’s not easy for me to cry because I don’t fell able to cry because I fell like I’m a wimp. I rally like skin to skin because I see that like I’m hear for u and don’t worry you r someone and no one thinks your a freak. if it’s was up to me I would do the safe hold skin to skin because I fell safe in it like that but I no its not aprpriat.

I have bursts of betting them up ad calling them hobble names ad when they do the safe hold I like it because I no thear thear ad I’m safe but I can get quite a gresive but I no its all going to be ok and now we don’t have to do the safe hold much. when I do get angry and do crave self harming because it gives u a burst of e adrenalin rush ad I do crave drugs ad vodka ad some times when they have been triggers I fell more sex up and macho.

but now I fell more protective over my guys and less angry and I don’t like people getting in trouble and I’m more quite and shy and more orkwoukd and pease full. Mum says I am a good guy.

WARNING (not an easy adoption topic)

imageA lot of important and good work is taking place in social care agencies and by campaigners to address issues of domestic violence and abuse. This Christmas the ad campaigns encouraging us to happily consume were broken at times by a sobering public information film for the season when domestic violence escalates, showing that abuse can be psychological as well physical. There are understandings that men as well as women can be victims and that for children living in a household where domestic violence is happening, even if not directly against them, can be hugely traumatising and cause lasting psychological damage.

Domestic violence is very often a reason children are taken into care. Sometimes parents who have been victims of their partners violence lose their children as it is safer to let them be cared for elsewhere as the support systems fail to support them to leave the situation without remaining in danger or becoming homeless.

The added issues of secrecy, shame, guilt, fear and sometimes love for the perpetrator makes victims extremely vulnerable.

Whatever the cause and effect of domestic violence and abuse, nobody would argue it is not a horrible, frightening and painful experience for the victims. It would be considered dangerous for professionals to knowingly leave a victim in an abusive situation and expect them to carry on without support intervention.

One of the main arguments put forward for certain areas of adoption reform is that children are being left in abusive situations for far too long and a zero tolerance attitude to domestic abuse must be taken by social care agencies.

I can’t and wouldn’t argue against that. I believe that all victims of violence or abuse in the home should be fully supported. I also believe it is wise to examine and address the causes that create perpetrators of abuse.

So what can and should be done to support adopters who find themselves victims of domestic abuse from their adopted children? It is often a hidden and under reported problem. This may be because when reported the professional response often seems to blame the parenting skills of the victim, or unfortunately the lack of support or understanding can lead to placement breakdown.

I have spoken to many adopters who, on a regular basis, deal with verbal and physical abuse and violence. It is surprising to some I’m sure, but it is true and the effects of constant put downs, controlling behaviour and aggression, even if it is from a young person, can be absolutely soul destroying and lead to stress and depression. More disturbingly it can lead to defensive and angry responses from worn out parents in efforts at self protection. The most difficult thing is knowing there is no way out, that the perpetrator is a frightened and traumatised child who has no effective self regulation and needs you more than anything to survive. It’s not appropriate to call the police and frighten or criminalise a young person who actually needs intensive therapeutic support. The last thing most adopters would ever want is for the child to be removed. Many adopters report living restricted half lives for the love and protection of their children. These are serious issues which are not accounted for in disruption or breakdown figures.

Imagine however, if the professional advice to any other victim of domestic abuse was to encourage a therapeutic approach to the violent perpetrator, advice that you should be selflessly putting their needs and safety before your own. A keep calm and carry on regardless piece of martyrdom advice. It would cause public outrage.

As someone who has experienced extreme and regular aggression, verbal and physical assault, as well as property damage over many years through adopting a traumatised child, it always amazed me how often the social workers would simply act as if it were an expected part of “the adopters job”. Its not a job as there are no statutory holidays, end of working days, supervision or training that other people who work in high intensity situations are guaranteed to enable them to function properly and do their job well.

This is not a poor me cry. I have no regrets. I love the very bones of my girl and as it turns out I am a very resilient person. I would do it all again now I’m all tooled up.  It’s seems hypocritical, unjust and damaging however, to expect adopters to live with abuse without specialist support and training.  More importantly not fully informing, believing and supporting adopters around issues of violence in the home is ultimately not in the best interests of traumatised children. Aggression often comes from fear and frightened children need measured and calm responses from parents who are skilled in conflict resolution and management not worn out angry or sad parents who live in fear of failing.

(Any adoptive or foster parents who are experiencing regular aggression or violence in the home please contact http://www.theopennest.co.uk for information on strategies or therapeutic respite breaks which will be available in May 2014).