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

Boys Don’t Cry

This morning, I have spent a bit of time reviewing the various bits of writing I have created over the last six months or so. A couple of pieces have found a home but I was sorting through the homeless ones, deciding what was going to be entered in upcoming competitions etc. There is one piece which I really want to have a home because the content of the story is extremely important and, I suspect, would be enlightening to many. I have been pondering where it should go and think I have concluded that I will really struggle to sell it to most (all?) mainstream short story publishers. Why? Well, it’s pretty gritty, northern, and I suppose, angry. It is also extremely sweary.

Anyhoo, to cut a long monologue short, I think I’m going to publish it here. It’s risky because it isn’t my usually content and there is a risk of offending you, my lovely readers. However, it is essentially a fictional account which passes comment on the state of our Care and Education systems and raises important issues which I feel should be heard and should be thought about by a wider audience.

TRIGGER WARNING: If reference to self-harm/ being in Care/ frequent moves/ domestic violence/obscenities might upset you, please don’t read on.

If you’re cool with all that, feel free to share with those who might like it/ be enlightened by it.

For all the Vinnie’s out there:

Boys Don’t Cry

Vinnie slouched along Penn Lane, his rucksack hanging languidly over his shoulder. Every now and again he saw a piece of litter or a stone in his path and booted them. Last night’s ‘chat’ with Barbara ran on a loop in his head. She was his Social Worker, his fourth to be exact.

“Vincent, I’m sorry love, but Marianne just isn’t coping with you. It’s the swearing, Hun. The coming in after curfew and she says what finally did it, was you stealing from the kitchen again. She’s tried her best, she has, but she can’t cope any more. So, I’m really sorry, but we’ve had to find you a new place…. I’m, err, I’m sure you’ll like this one Vinnie…. It’s a couple, Les and Maureen. They’re going to come and get your stuff tomorrow while you’re at school and they’ll meet you in the car park afterwards. Ok, love? Now, Vincent, try your best this time eh?”

Home. That’s what they call it. They’re not your parents like, but they’re gonna look after you as if they were. That’s what they say. ‘Make yourself at home Vinnie’; ‘This is your home now Vinnie’. But they don’t mean it. Cos if you eat food from your own fridge, in your own home, they say you’ve been fucking stealing.

Six weeks he’d been there now, at Marianne’s. It was just starting to feel normal, like maybe it could be home but turns out she’s just like all the others. Two-faced bitch. Vinnie felt tears prick at his eyes and that familiar ache in his stomach. All he wanted was a home. A place. His place. With people who gave a shit. He was so jealous of his mates with parents. Why couldn’t they have just let him stay with his Mum? She was a total smack ‘ed, he got that, but any shitty excuse for a human would be better than this – getting wafted about like a piece of dirt. The tears were filling his lower lids, threatening to overspill. “Man up,” Vinnie told himself, scrubbing at his eyes with his blazer sleeve, “Boys don’t cry, you pansy.”

He turned the corner onto the high street. So he was moving then? This would be the twelfth time in five years. Twelve ‘homes’. He should start one of those tallies prisoners etch on the wall in their cells to count down the days. He didn’t know where he’d put it though, seeing as he didn’t even have a wall. He had less than a prisoner which was fucking sad. Maybe he should etch the tally on his body instead cos that was the only thing that went everywhere with him. Yeah, he might do that later, with his pen knife.

Vinnie stopped outside of the newsagent, waiting for someone who looked likely. Kath from the bungalows shuffled up so he asked her. “Get us some fags will ya?” he said, pressing a note into her hand.

“Ooh love, haven’t you given that up yet? Filthy habit it is.”

“Kath, you smoke forty a day!”

“Well, yes love, but I’m old, my lungs are screwed aren’t they? But you’re young. You’ve got your whole life ahead of ya. Well, go on then, but make this the last time eh?”

The vapours calmed him a bit. He concentrated on the in, the choke-inducing hold then the out. Long, slow, deliberate.

He had Maths first thing with Mr ‘knob-ed’ Charles. He hated it. Maths made him feel proper thick. The numbers moved about sometimes, twisting and bending and making his brain throb. He could do it, if he had enough time but Mr. Charles seemed to go too fast on purpose, like getting kids brains tangled up was a sport for him. Sick, he was.

Vinnie pushed open the door and lumbered over to his desk, vaguely aware the lesson had started already.

“Vincent Capoletti!” boomed Mr Charles, “How dare you disrespect me and my Maths class by wandering in late! What time do you call this? It is Monday morning and this is your first lesson. What excuse could you possibly have for this level of tardiness? Hmm?”

“You don’t wanna know Sir”

“Well, actually young man, I do want to know, that is why I have interrupted my teaching to ask you. So?”

“So, what?”

“So, Capoletti, why are you late?”

“I’m just late Sir. Sorry. Can we drop it?”

“No, Capoletti, we cannot drop it. Not only are you late but you are rude. Stay behind at the end. And tuck your shirt in!”

Vinnie wasn’t in the mood for this. He rarely was but today school was making him feel more claustrophobic than ever. Trapped. I’m really sorry, but we’ve had to find you a new place… I’m sure you’ll like this one Vinnie…. It’s a couple, Les and Maureen.

Les and Maureen. Vinnie wondered what they were like. Maybe they collected those shit pottery dogs that all old people have. Maybe they were into really kinky stuff like swinging and that. Oh God, he hoped they didn’t have other Care kids there. He couldn’t bear it. Another life ruined by social-fucking-services. Another screwed-up brat who he wouldn’t be able to get on with cos he was scared of ever becoming them. Even though he was them already. One of those kids that literally nobody wants.

“…Capoletti! The square root of 25? It isn’t even hard and I’ve asked you twice already!” “Erm, I dunno Sir, 3?” Vinnie could hear the cool group who sat nearer the front sniggering at his ineptitude. It was alright for them and their detached houses and parents with professional jobs. They had time to care about this shit.

Vinnie was feeling edgier by the minute. He tried jiggling his leg to release some energy. It was like Krakatoa inside of him. He’d learned about it in Geography, one of the only lessons he’d ever enjoyed. It was like Krakatoa, the volcano, was inside of him, simmering and hissing and getting close to a catastrophic eruption. He tried to dampen it down, distract himself with his thoughts. All thoughts led back to that chat with Barbara though or to his sad excuse of a mother or to Marianne. He didn’t want to think about her. He could really do with a fag.

Mr Charles made him stay behind at the end for one his righteous teacher monologues. Apparently Vinnie didn’t actually need to answer any of the questions. They were ‘rhetorical’. Mr Charles took great pleasure in telling him so. He was on Report now which was just effing-fabulous.

He’d missed five minutes of break already but was so desperate for a smoke that he took himself to the far edge of the field, where the big tree was, and smoked three fags one after the other even though there wasn’t enough time. He gave himself a liberal spray of Lynx before rushing, of a manner, to French.

“Miss, can you sign my report card?” he said, wafting it in front of Madame Trudeau.

“You want me to sign your card? To say you are on time for my lesson?” she enquired in her fake-sounding French accent.

“Yes miss”

“But you are not on time for my lesson Vincent. Sit down.”

Seriously! Why would no-one just give him a break? Why did teachers have to be so up their own arses? Two tiny minutes late, that was all. Vinnie threw his bag onto the floor and scraped the chair noisily back. He put his elbows on the desk, jabbing his fists into his eye sockets. Krakatoa grumbled and threatened.

“Vincent, I will not ‘av this lack of respect in my classroom. Sit up and take your arms off the desk!”

With great effort, Vinnie did as she bid.

“Where is your homework Vincent? You owe me two pieces now.”

“I, err….”

“Well, do you ‘av it or not?”

“No, I fucking-well haven’t!”

Oh shit. He didn’t mean to say that. The words had just come out of their own accord. His tongue had run away with him as his Nan used to say. It’s the swearing, Hun. Vinnie’s heart pounded and adrenaline coursed through his veins. His body pushed him up to standing. His arms thrust forward and he shoved the table. Hard. He upended his chair, grabbed his bag and slammed the door with such force a glass panel fell out. The noise on impact with the polished floor was ear shattering; the moments afterwards foreboding in their silence. Dagger shaped shards scattered like sinister marbles and crunched under his shoes.

For a second, Vinnie felt compelled to reach for a sliver to slice his flesh with. To bleed the pain away. He’d have done it too but Mr McDermott appeared ghost-like from nowhere and dragged him off to Isolation.

“I don’t know what’s got into you Capoletti! It’s only 10:30am on Monday and somehow, somehow, you’ve already got yourself on Report, annoyed Mr Charles, annoyed Madame Trudeau and destroyed school property! That’s good going even for the likes of you. Now, you’re in here for the rest of the day. Miss. Rivers is supervising. No talking. If I were you lad, I’d get my head together.”

Why do teachers always stink of stale fucking coffee, Vinnie wondered. It was disgusting. Someone should have a word with Mr McDermott about his oral hygiene.

Vinnie chose the booth in the corner and sat himself down. He allowed his head to fall onto his folded arms and closed his eyes. They’re going to come and get your stuff tomorrow while you’re at school and they’ll meet you in the car park afterwards. He wondered what they’d put his stuff in this time. A black bin bag again? Not that he had anything much. Just a couple of trackies and his memory box. He’d have packed himself but Marianne disappeared last night so he couldn’t ask her for a bag. Locked in her room she was. She hadn’t come out this morning either so he hadn’t even got to say goodbye. She must really hate him. Maybe she was scared of what he’d do now she was turfing him out? Did she think he was a fucking thug? That he’d knock her about or summat? Treat her like his Dad treated women?

A yoghurt. That was all he’d had. He was starving and he hadn’t wanted to disturb her.

Anyway, what did it matter? He’d never see her again. He’d add her to the list later, with the other eleven, then he’d forget about her, like the others.

The tears threatened again. Vinnie squeezed his fists hard, so his ragged nails jabbed his skin. What he wouldn’t give for a hug. He couldn’t remember the last time anybody had touched him. A squeeze on the shoulder or a friendly pat, even. Nothing. They don’t touch you in case you accuse of them of rape and that. He wouldn’t do that though, he wasn’t a knob, he just wanted someone to hold him. Just for a few minutes. A memory floated into Vinnie’s mind of him as a little lad, lying with his head on his Nan’s lap, her gently stroking his hair over and over. The old feelings of safety and love pricked at him, cruel reminders of what he no longer had.

Vinnie started to panic again, a heady cocktail of cortisol and adrenaline thrumming through him. He lifted his head to look for a distraction. The booth had three walls, hemming him in. Everything was white. It was like a fucking padded cell. Vinnie was struggling to stay still. His muscles were twitching and flexing. He jiggled one leg then the other. He jiggled faster but the feelings wouldn’t stop. Krakatoa was really threatening now. Vinnie was terrified of the eruption. Catastrophic they said. No coming back from that. Part of him wanted it though. The obliteration.

His thoughts raced. His mum. In a dirty dressing gown, half her teeth missing. One of the houses. Another. Marianne. Barbara. The glass smashing. His blood.

Vinnie drove his head into the surface of the table to make it stop.

“Oi! Mr. Capoletti! How dare you disrupt Isolation! SILENCE!”

Shouting. His Dad. His mum’s black eye. A police car. That noise, of the siren. Terror. Piss soaking into his back in the bed.

Images kept coming. Ones he’d shut away ages ago. He didn’t want to see them. He was hearing the siren like it was there and he just needed it to fucking stop. He was on his feet. His leg kicked the chair over; his hand drove itself into the wall. It was happening. The magma was hurtling upwards.

He was vaguely aware of Miss Rivers radioing for the senior leadership team. Fuck ‘em. Fuck the lot of them. No one gave a shit about him anyway. No one, in the whole fucking world. The desk was upturned now. The paper contents of his bag shredded, creating an eerie juxtaposition of snow against bloodshed.

Mr McDermott was there and some of the others, handling him.

“Don’t fucking touch me!” Vinnie screamed, flailing. “Get the fuck away from me.”

“Vincent, you need to calm down son. You can’t behave like this in school. Do what you like on the streets but its zero tolerance in here. Calm it or we’ll have to involve the Police.”

The Pigs. No, he couldn’t see them. He had to get out. Away. He couldn’t breathe. He needed air. “I’m fucking going you cunts. Chill out,” he spat, grabbing his bag and pushing to the door.

“Vincent, you can’t just leave school. You have to be here. We’ll be calling your fost…” But he was gone, sprinting, his legs driving him forward. Pumped. Lava spewing out, excoriating his thoughts.

*

Later, Vinnie couldn’t remember it too well. He didn’t know how long he ran for or where he’d even gone. He had no fucking idea where he was now. He sat on a wall and looked at his phone. Ten missed calls and several messages from Barbara. He didn’t bother reading them. He was suddenly very tired. Exhausted. It was like there was nothing left of him, a gaping caldera where he should have been. Vinnie tried to think but his brain didn’t work. He couldn’t make a plan. His thoughts wouldn’t do it. There was nothing. Just emptiness. It should have been better, not having the pictures in his head and the words on loop. But it wasn’t. He was so hollow it was terrifying. If nobody was missing him and he couldn’t even feel himself, was he even real? Would he just float into the air like a spec of dirt? Would be dissipate? Dissolve? Just go?

Vinnie needed to feel something. Anything. The knife was still in his pocket, reassuringly cold and solid. It felt good in his palm; weighty. Then, the satisfying click of the blade.

 

 

 

 

Boys Don’t Cry