The Great National Adoption Week Debate

When I was a fairly new adoptive parent, I remember being aware that Adoption Week was taking place, bringing with it a certain discord within the community when it did so. I wasn’t, at the time, too sure why this was.

Year on year since then, my understanding of the complexities of the week have continued to grow until I now find myself hugely conflicted about the rights and wrongs of it all.

So, what is National Adoption Week all about? Is it about adoptees sharing stories and celebrating their adopted status? Err, not really. And the fact of whether they would want to do that at all is a debate within itself. No, Adoption Week is essentially a mass recruitment drive – a way of raising the profile of adoption so as to encourage more prospective parents to come forward. On face value that seems like a sensible enough plan – especially as there are currently over 4100 children waiting for permanence in the UK.

And yet…

Of course adoptees should be central to adoption week. I think those 4100 potential adoptees are, but not the thousands who have been adopted in the past and are now adults. They are conspicuous by their absence. Currently, adoption week is not about them or for them and I can fully understand their feelings of being cast aside.

Cynically, the real reason behind this is that many adult adoptees are not exponents of adoption. Sure, there are many who are happily adopted; some who have even gone on to adopt children themselves. But there are many who, if given a platform during adoption week, would use it to warn about the dangers of adoption; as an opportunity to press for change; who, if asked, would say, ‘do not adopt’. Clearly, speaking the truth of their lived experience would absolutely be their prerogative. And perhaps some would argue that those voices should be heard loud and clear in order to make necessary change happen in the sector.

Yet I can also see that were the majority of voices saying don’t adopt, this would surely have a significant knock-on to the number of people who would then consider becoming parents via adoption. Some would argue this would be for the better – after all if a person’s experience of adoption has been negative, why would they want it to keep happening to others? They wouldn’t.

Conversely, I can see why adoption agencies try to control this. While some would suggest this makes agencies corrupt, for me, it comes back to the 4100 children waiting. If numbers of prospective adopters dwindle, what happens to those children?

I suppose the majority (if not all) would spend their entire childhood within The Care System. Some might argue that this would be alright – they would be cared for, have stability and still maintain links with their birth families. However, unfortunately, not all foster placements are created equal. And behind the scenes there is the sometimes unfathomable workings of stretched social services teams, which end up moving children multiple times from placement to placement, deeming some children ‘unfoster-able’ and moving them into residential care homes. Like foster carers, some homes are brilliant but others are certainly not. And then there are the issues of permanence post 18 or 21 (depending on the placement type). There are many foster carers who informally offer young people support and family throughout their adult lives but this is not a requirement and by no means a given. A read of Lemn Sissay’s best-selling memoir, My Name is Why, tells you everything you need to know about how the ‘care system’ all too frequently does the opposite of care.

Is this what we want for those 4100 children? An unpredictable childhood? Which may see them thrive, but equally, for others, barely survive?

I have heard arguments for Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) as a more stable alternative to ‘care’ but a less permanent severing of biological ties than adoption. But is it really a viable alternative when there is no SGO version of adoption/maternity leave and no such thing as post-SGO support? Those who currently care for children under SGOs (often grandparents or aunties/uncles) do so in the most challenging of circumstances with little to no support or understanding of the challenges they face. Until the inequalities in support provided for SGOs and adoption are more fairly balanced, I don’t see how SGOs can be a truly viable alternative to use on a wide scale.

So we are left with adoption. It is not a panacea, it is a last resort.

Or is it? Within this great big debate, one also has to consider how children get to be waiting for adoption in the first place. Adoption should be the last resort, to be used in circumstances when every other possible route to permanence has been explored and ruled out, but is it always used that way? We have to think about why children are removed from birth families in the first place. Has it been for a reason that could have been resolved had the birth family been offered more or better support? If so, that family has been dealt a great disservice. It is hard to justify a permanent legal severance in a situation where a struggling mum really just needed more help.

Or what about situations where there has been domestic violence or coercive control? Once the perpetrator is removed from the situation, is the remaining parent (usually the mother) really an unfit parent? Or a victim who should not have to pay twice for her wounds with the subsequent loss of her children?

There are so many huge questions which have to be considered at all stages of the child protection process which ultimately leads to adoption. None of this is easy or clear. For every parent who was given chance after chance and adequate support to parent but didn’t take it, there will be another who was a victim of their circumstances. There will be those children who find themselves waiting for adoption who were removed from their mothers on the ‘risk of future harm’ premise and those who were systematically and horrifically abused. There will be those children who go on to be adopted whose birth parents would not harm them were they to see them every week and there are those children who should never, ever see their parents again after the irreparable harm they caused them. Individual circumstances are so different and so nuanced that it’s impossible to take one story and extrapolate it into a solution for all.

I suppose this is why adoption, as a concept, is so divisive. Where it has been the right solution for one, it has been extremely traumatic for another.

So, if I’m not sure about ‘care’ or SGO’s for the 4100, do I think adoption is the right solution? Well, it’s pretty obvious that I think it can be, because I am an adoptive parent and I wouldn’t have chosen to do something I didn’t believe could be right. I say ‘could be’ because it isn’t a given. It does depend on things such as recruiting the right kind of people to be adopters – those who are resilient and able to appropriately support a traumatised child; who can be there for them through life story work and contact and reuniting with their birth family if/when the young person wants that and, importantly, are motivated to adopt for all the right reasons. It depends on appropriate training of prospective adopters – being truthful with them about the challenges they’ll likely face and not perpetuating the happy ever after myth. It depends on robust post-adoption support.

If all that is in place, can adoption be the right thing for a child? I believe so. I believe it can give them a stability and permanence that cannot currently be achieved any other way. And if we need adoption, we do need to find adopters.

We have to be honest though, and we have to say that adoption does not work out as you would hope in all situations, usually because one of the criteria I described above hasn’t been met.

I think there is a general consensus now, within many corners of the adoption community, that adoption as it stands needs to change. From the few adoptee voices that are being heard, we know that having all ties to biological roots or heritage or culture legally severed is incredibly detrimental and has life-long impacts. Being removed from the parents who conceived and carried and birthed you is not something one ‘just gets over’ as many were told in the past. So it seems increasingly important that where links can safely be maintained with members of children’s birth families, they should be. If we think of the mother who was a victim of domestic abuse or the one who needed more support, we can see that an adopted child still being able to spend time with them could be of great benefit to all.

Again, I don’t think we can start saying that all adoptions should be open because what of the paedophiles and abusers? I am certain there are situations where it is in the child’s best interests to never see their parents again. But should they have as much information as possible about them at their fingertips? Of course. They will still need to know where they got their eyebrows from even if it is too damaging to have those relatives in their lives.

I think what I’m saying is that behind the billboards and newspaper adverts of bonny-looking children, there is a huge swampy, divisive, polarising debate going on. It’s a debate that needs to be had to move adoption forwards and to ensure that we do it better. It’s a debate that involves difficult questions and unpalatable facts and no easy answers. It’s a debate with no single solution.

The pity of it is that it’s a debate which currently divides. It is a shame because the posters and the agencies and the adult adoptees and the more experienced adopters and the grandparents with SGOs and the birth parents who desperately fought to keep their children really all want the same thing: the best for their children and for future children like them. We all want the best for the 4100. It’s just that we all have a different viewpoint of what that best is.

At the moment The Great Adoption Week debate mainly goes on in muttered huddles behind billboards, with many pretending the campaign isn’t happening, yet feeling irked it is. The recruitment aspect still tends to dominate. Wouldn’t it be great if, somehow, the debate in all its meaty complexity could step forward? Punch through the posters? Wouldn’t it be even better if all the groups with vested interests could pull together, with adoptees at their centre, and sort this shit out?

If everyone worked together, perhaps better support for SGO’s could be secured? Perhaps policy around risk-assessing maintaining maximum links with birth relatives could be written and put into practise, instead of every child with a permanency plan just having annual Letterbox automatically added to it? Perhaps more creative solutions could be found. Perhaps plans would be more personalised to individual circumstances and also flexible enough to reflect changes to circumstances. Perhaps every adoption panel and advisory do-dah would have adoptees on it.

I suspect there would still be adoption but it might work differently to how it does now. I suspect it will become more open and get used more carefully as we move forwards. I just hope that together, we can push the debate onward.

In the meantime, 4100 children wait. And aside from the rights or wrongs of the methods employed, National Adoption Week at least endeavours to find them a solution.

 

 

 

The Great National Adoption Week Debate

Parental Mental Health

Thursday 10th October is World Mental Health Day – a chance for everyone to focus on mental wellness, ways to support mental health difficulties and suicide prevention. I wanted to contribute by writing about a niche, slightly neglected corner of mental health: how do you keep yourself well when you are caring for someone else with mental health struggles? Specifically, how do you keep yourself well when your child has social, emotional or mental health needs?

As a parent myself, of a child with SEMH needs, I am all too aware of the toll it can take. No doubt people will accuse me of selfishly focussing on myself and my own needs when it is my child who is in real turmoil, but to them, I say this: when you are parenting a child with such needs, there is barely a waking minute that passes without you puzzling over how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling like that, what you can do to make things easier for them. You can tie yourself in knots wondering how certain situations might affect them and what measures you can put in place to reduce their anxiety or make things easier. You rake over previous situations wondering what you could have done differently, what else they might have needed, what underlying worries or upsets might have been driving certain behaviours. You write social stories, make visual supports, meet with teachers, buy sensory equipment. You read books, blogs, articles to inform yourself; to check you haven’t missed anything. You consider them and their needs in every plan you make.

I’m not saying any praise or accolade is required for that – it isn’t, it’s just you doing your parenting best like everybody else – but it is all consuming and somewhat exhausting.

The very nature of SEMH difficulties means that children who experience them will now and again (or often) present with behaviour that is difficult for people around them. Again, that might sound selfish, but I just mean it factually. It’s the nature of the SEMH beast. And no matter how good you are at looking beyond it, analysing it, understanding it, trying to support it, the fact of the matter is that some of the behaviour you live with is difficult.

In trying to support my child in the best way for him, I sometimes have to dig so deep into my emotional reserve that I know I’ve gone beyond what is actually there. Sometimes the effort required not to rise to provocation, not to shout, not to fully (or even partially) lose my shit, not to enter my own fight/flight state and to instead respond therapeutically and calmly, feels like a superhuman request. I am not superhuman. But sometimes I feel I’ve plumbed superhuman depths and that can’t be good for you. I often feel depleted after particularly tricky situations and that is probably because I am. I’ve used everything I’ve got and more.

This is where concerning ourselves with parental mental health is absolutely not selfish and should be a priority for all. If I am depleted, how can I provide all the things my child needs? How can I analyse and look beyond and generate solutions? I can barely get off the sofa.

This is why caring for carers is absolutely something that should be talked about.

For me, there are three main safeguards: self-care, self-kindness and external support. I have written about self-care before ( Self-Care ) and I generally consider it to be all the boring stuff that you should do to look after yourself and stay well. That is just my personal interpretation – some people include all the self-kindness stuff in there too but in my mind there is a distinction. For me, self-care is things like eating properly (which isn’t fun because I don’t eat sugar or bad carbs like bread but I know that I stay healthier this way), getting enough sleep (despite being a natural night-owl), getting enough fresh air and exercise. I don’t necessarily enjoy self-care but it is all about things I’ve learned from experience that I need to do or not do in order to function the best I can.

Self-kindness  is much more fun. I view it as little treats to yourself that give you a boost and help to fill up your emotional reserves. It can be anything – sometimes the thought of getting into fresh pyjamas and watching Location, Location, Location is enough to help me through a day; at other times it’s some uninterrupted writing time, or being alone for a bit, or chatting to a friend, or now and again, I do need an actual treat.

Though self-kindness is more enjoyable and has the potential to vastly improve your mood quickly, I continue to struggle with allowing myself to have it. I can’t be the only one. We do seem to live in particularly trying times – with the threat of Brexit, political instability and, even more horrifyingly, climate change hanging over us. There is a general atmosphere of unrest and unpleasantness (just dip your toe into social media to see what I mean) and no doubt all these things are contributing to a country-wide dip in mental wellness. I can’t be the only one who thinks about using some retail therapy for self-kindness reasons then gets the guilt that I might be unwittingly ruining the planet. One purchase can lead to a spiralling concern about use of water to farm cotton, tonnes of clothes entering landfill and a general worry about human over-consumption. Whilst I clearly should be concerned about my carbon footprint (and I am), I am finding that my ways of practising self-kindness are dwindling in parallel.

I don’t drink, I don’t eat sugar, now I can’t really shop. But I’m still plumbing those emotional reserves and that need for a boost continues to gape. I suspect it is about turning away from having to have things and finding more wholesome ways of filling reserves. Writing is a salve, as is cutting myself enough slack to actually relax without constantly clambering around my to-do list. I’ve realised that buying books is pretty wholesome – even a hardback is a fraction of the price of a new top and unless we buy them, authors can’t make a living – so it’s a multi-faceted win (assuming it’s made from sustainably sourced paper. See? I have self-kindness with a side-scoop of guilt problems). Enid, our puppy, arrives soon and I’m hoping that her furry little face will be a salve in itself.

There are no clear answers, and what each individual needs will be different, but my point is that self-kindness is essential. We must let ourselves have it and find the things that work.

Lastly, parents of children with SEMH needs will require outside support in one form or another. It is too big and too hard to deal with single-handedly. Whenever Grizzly and I have one of our frank chats about how we’re feeling, it is never long before one of us wonders aloud how on earth single parents do it. If I couldn’t air my deepest darkest thoughts without needing to censor them or without fear of judgement, I suspect I would implode. Everybody needs that outlet.

We are lucky that outside of our family of four, we have a wider family of grandparents and aunties/uncles and close friends who get it. They are an informed bunch who listen and are willing to help with the analysing of behaviour and application of strategies as needed. They are happy to give us a break. I’m not sure we take that option enough, because life is a little manic and it requires forward-thinking, but it helps to know the option is there. We are also fortunate enough to have the support of school. I had a meeting with them recently and realised that despite the myriad ups and downs we’ve had with them (and the odd specific person I find it hard to engage with) they are genuinely caring and they do want us all to be ok. I feel comfortable speaking honestly with them too and just that ability to voice your worries and challenges outside of your four walls is invaluable.

Unfortunately, not all parents of children with SEMH needs have this emotional scaffold around them and I can only imagine how lonely a place that is. It must be particularly hard for those who don’t know others in similar positions – there is a very real risk they would consider themselves the only ones in their particular predicament, further compounding worries and stresses over whether they or their parenting may be to blame.

I hope that by being open about the challenges of SEMH parenting it will reassure other parents they are certainly not alone as well as raising awareness for any wider family members or professionals working with such families. For me, the key thing is to ask parents if they’re ok and to give them the time to talk if they are not. Be prepared for tears. Most of the time, it is just an outlet that’s needed, not necessarily a raft of solutions, because those parents are likely to have already tried most things you can think of.

Families of children with SEMH difficulties will have found themselves in all manner of weird and not-so-wonderful situations – please don’t judge them. It is safe arenas in which they can be honest that they so desperately need.

Parents can be made to feel guilty for talking openly about their worries and challenges – as though they are in some way disloyal to their child in doing so – however the real risk of encouraging them to put up and shut-up is that it might well push them to breaking point; a point at which they are no longer able to adequately meet their child’s needs.

As a parent, it is scary to admit that things are hard and that scenarios are arising where you don’t know what to do. Parents already fear they are failing, they do not need their suspicions to be compounded by bad listeners, naysayers and judgmental attitudes. Unless you have over-plumbed your emotional depths caring for someone, you cannot begin to imagine what it’s like.

Actually, I think there is a fourth thing that is needed, as well as self-care, self-kindness and support: niceness. It seems like an outmoded concept these days – it’s faded into obscurity along with other seemingly bland concepts such as beige clothing and magnolia paint. But I really miss it. I think we’re all unknowingly really missing it. Politicians could do with re-inventing it for sure. Since when did it become normal to shout and yell and name-call and judge and troll and alienate and oppose and incite? Just be nice. That would improve everyone’s mental health. Some kind words, a smile, a hug or an “I hear you” can go a long way to improving a day.

Let’s look after one another; we’re all just trying our best.

 

Parental Mental Health