Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Last Thursday, The Centre for Adoption Support ran their first conference, all about post-adoption support, which I was excited to attend for both professional development and in my parenting role. I thought I’d tell you a bit about what happened there, the key messages that were shared and why it was an important event.

The day began with a keynote speech from Sir John Timpson, of Timpson’s shoe repairs fame. I knew a little about him in advance – that he was a keen supporter of helping to rehabilitate prisoners by offering them employment opportunities (they make up 10% of his workforce) and that he did other altruistic things such as offering free dry-cleaning of suits to the unemployed. I also knew he and his wife had fostered many children. I was looking forward to hearing him speak but hadn’t anticipated he’d be quite so inspirational and amusing to listen to. Without meaning to sound disrespectful, what I think Sir Timpson is particularly adept at is cutting the crap. He isn’t concerned with policy and red-tape and oh that couldn’t possibly be done attitudes. He is concerned with people and creating environments which allow people to thrive. By his own admission, he doesn’t bother with psychometric testing or CVs or previous experience – if somebody is smart, keen and willing to work, they can have a job. His attitude is that a boss’ roll is ‘to help people do the best they can’ and he does that by taking away wider life stresses such as debt (he has a hardship fund for such occasions), by incentivising people to work hard (with free holiday cottages to use, birthdays off and a Dream Come True scheme where one employee per month gets to choose a life-changing event such as a holiday) and by crediting employees with common sense (they can give sums of compensation to customers without manager approval, be flexible with the pricing structure if there’s a sound reason and are not given lessons in customer service, being encouraged to simply treat people as they’d hope to be treated).

This combination of cutting to the chase and being highly proactive has evidently served Sir Timpson well at home too. With his wife, they have fostered 90 children and adopted at least one and it was clear from the anecdotes he shared that as a family they have been around the block. He seemed refreshingly un-shockable. When he has seen opportunities to make things better for fostered or adopted children and for their parents, he has: creating guides to attachment which are available for free in all his stores, offering free holidays for foster carers and getting involved with his children’s school when it was threatened with closure. He stepped in with both financial help and by applying his bottom-up, cut the crap management style to the school. The school was soon full and rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

Sir Timpson continues to be involved with education and trying to make schools attachment and trauma friendly. He believes schools need to be maverick – to be willing to break out from the rules and regulations and limitations imposed on them by LA’s and other bodies – and to give teachers freedom to do what is best for individual children. He believes in inspirational head teachers, whole school approaches and safe spaces. He believes in children with developmental trauma having a consistent mentor within school – crucially he advocates that person being chosen by the child (not inflicted on them) and them being any member of staff, be that a dinner lady or caretaker if the child so chooses. I can’t help feeling that Sir Timpson would be an asset to any organisation, such is his clarity of thought and determination to do what is right, despite any barriers placed in his way. I came away certain in the knowledge that he’s my new favourite maverick and there is hope for our children’s education yet.

The second speaker was Sir Mark Headley, a retired High Court Judge. Having been a judge in the child and family division, a foster carer and adopter, he too had much to contribute. His talk was mainly about the current legal context of adoption, both in the UK and globally. It was fascinating to hear that adoption has only existed within the law since 1926 in this country, and in the four adoption acts passed since then, its purpose has changed from being about ‘the homeless child for the childless home’ to having a welfare role. Apparently our adoption laws are considered ‘draconian’ and ‘excessively hard line’ by other countries and Australian judges consider our system ‘barbaric’. This is because our laws differ in two main ways. Firstly, in the UK, when a child is adopted, the law treats that child as ‘having been born to the adopters in all respects’, in essence extinguishing any link to their birth family (in the eyes of the law) and stripping birth parents of any right to their child. I didn’t get to ask how things are done differently abroad but I’m assuming there is more contact allowed or some ongoing sharing of parental responsibility.

Secondly, in the UK, it is within the law to ‘impose adoption on unwilling parents if the welfare of the child requires it’ but other countries consider this improper or even immoral.

I haven’t ever stopped to think too much about the legalities of adoption but it was certainly enlightening to realise our laws are viewed this way.

Sir Headley went on to talk about the Judge Munby rulings which he feels have been misinterpreted by many as suggesting there should be fewer adoptions. He clarified that Judge Munby’s point was not to reduce adoptions necessarily, but to be clearer about justifying decisions to make placement orders. He talked about it being imperative to consider whether adoption is the best solution for a child and the only solution for them. If the answer to both questions is yes, he believes our laws are justified. If the answer is no, every other possible solution should be considered and ruled in or out first. He advocates ‘not having inflexible mind-sets’ and ‘keeping the welfare of the child central.’ And when he puts it like that, I can’t help thinking he’s right.

After the first two speakers, we all filtered off into parallel workshops that we’d picked in advance. The first one I attended was entitled, ‘Adoption Support: Problems, RAAs and implications for the 3rd Sector.’ I have to admit that all the talk of policy and neoliberalism tied my brain in a few knots. Like Sir Timpson, I am not a fan of policy and policy changes and have already had my fill of it in the NHS so it was tricky to get my brain in gear. The basic point that I gleaned was that the whole shift to Regional Adoption Agencies (RAA’s) isn’t working very well. It seems there is a lot of trying to stick square pegs in round holes going on and the needs of children and families have got a little lost. This is just my interpretation of what I heard – maybe don’t quote me on it.

One major problem for Voluntary Adoption Agencies, such as ours, is that, as I understand it, any assessment of need to inform an application to the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) has to be carried out by an RAA. This means VAA’s hands are a little tied and they need to wait for RAA’s to do the assessing bit. It also seems that instead of parents approaching a post adoption support service (PAS) for help and the PAS assessing and deciding what therapy a young person needs, the assessing teams aren’t knowledgeable enough about the range of therapies available, how they should be applied or how proven/unproven their efficacy is. So, the reality is that parents ask for help and the RAA say, ‘what help do you want?’ and the parent doesn’t know what choices there are and neither do the RAA. It means that applications for funding are not well informed and may not be in the best interests of children. I am speaking in blanket terms but I’m sure some RAA’s are much more informed than others.

I find it difficult knowing some people’s experience of PAS is so horrendous when we are extremely lucky to have the services of The Centre for Adoption Support (CfAS) available to us, where all the members of staff are knowledgeable, highly trained and specialise in PAS. I can’t help feeling that all this tendering and competition in the market is a huge mistake and causes more problems than it solves, as I believe it has in the NHS.

Anyhow, I didn’t like to dwell on such issues and went for some lunch where I had a very interesting conversation about high schools, high-fiving (not a friendly thing but clapping someone on the back hard enough to leave a print – apparently it’s a thing) and Hate Books (also a thing where kids write all the things they hate about each other to bully people with. It sounds lovely) and concluded I’d prefer for my children to just skip high school.

My next mini-lecture was ‘Navigating a Child’s Journey in School’. This was really enlightening for teachers or other professionals and essential listening. For me, I have spent many an hour plumbing the depths of the topic for Little Bear and though I agreed wholeheartedly with the content, there wasn’t anything novel in terms of Being an Expert Parent. However, I suspect the people I had been discussing internal exclusions with would have gone away with significant food for thought.

The talk did introduce me to the term ‘emotional differentiation’ which sums up well what we really want teachers to do for our children. I have never thought about it in those terms yet we talk about ‘educational differentiation’ or ‘differentiation of the curriculum’ but what many of our children need is emotional differentiation. This is also a good rebuttal for the times when someone inevitably argues that you can’t have one rule for one child and another for the rest of your class. You can and this is why.

The final workshop I attended was, ‘Good Practice in Working with Families Affected by Violence and Aggression’ and I have to admit that by the end I was like a woodland creature blinded by headlights – wide eyed and frozen to my chair. I am totally down with the need to be open about Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB) , to reduce shame and bring it out from behind closed doors. I just think it is a bit scary to be living with a child who is unpredictable and at times, does tend towards the aggressive. I find that I start workshops like this feeling keen and interested and leave them a bit freaked out for our future. That wasn’t anyone’s intention and the content of the workshop wasn’t designed to shock in any way. I was aware even as I was sat there, that I was bringing my own fears to the table and that was colouring what I was hearing. I think talk of calling the Police and having a Family Safety Plan, avoiding victim-blaming and CPVAA being the main cause of children leaving home prematurely is essential but, simultaneously, I can’t help fearing those things could be in our future and desperately hoping they aren’t. It is certainly different to listen to the facts as a social worker versus as an adopter who can envisage such things in their reality.

I know knowledge is power, but sometimes fear makes you want to bury your head in the sand instead.

The day was finished in record time – I attended the plenary and before I knew it I was wandering back to my car in surprising sunshine. I thought it was a brilliant day. I had found all the lectures engaging and my earlier fears that I might struggle to sit still and concentrate were entirely unfounded. It was great to have social workers, adopters, adoptees, teachers, psychologists and legal representation all under one roof, with one common aim – of making things better for adopted children and adoptive families. The concept of post adoption support is a relatively new one but now there is a recognised need for it, we cannot become complacent. We need to continue to innovate and hone services to make them the best and most responsive they can be. Events like the conference trigger debate which will hopefully disseminate outwards to improve knowledge and set the wheels of change in motion.

This was the first conference run by CfAS but I certainly hope it wasn’t the last.

 

Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Adoption Celebrations

Last week we had our court celebration. We got our Adoption Order back in June but I guess this was the first date court could accommodate us for our celebration.

We had chosen the city we wanted it to take place in and had been told to meet outside of the court at 9:45am and for our party to go in together. It was a bit of a mad dash but somehow we managed to get there and all dressed up to make an occasion of it.

I drew the line at getting matching outfits for the boys as I’ve always been really against putting children in the same outfits (“they’re not the same person” I would moan) however since we’ve had Little Bear I’ve been having strange urges to do it. I think it’s because it shows a link between them for the whole world to see. Plus, they’d look super cute. Anyway, as a compromise between reneging on my old principles and my new desire to make them match, I had bought them the same tailored navy shorts and both blue and white shirts but with different patterns. And very handsome they looked too (as long as you didn’t notice the sun gleaming off Little Bear’s bald patch!).

We met our parents there and Ann our Social Worker. We all had to go through the scanning machine which the boys found entertaining. Stupidly I had thought we would go straight into the court room but unfortunately there was quite a long wait. I was starting to fear that if we didn’t go in soon, Little Bear would systematically destroy the waiting room.

Over the few days before the court event I had tried to explain to Little Bear that we were going to see the Judge. I had explained that he (or she?) was a very important person who would be telling us that Little Bear could stay with us forever and he would have our name (although in reality he only knows our surname). It was very hard to tell how much Little Bear had taken on board.

I had also been fearful for some time that if the Judge said something about Little Bear staying with us forever, he might pipe up “no I not. I go Karen and Bob’s house” (my made up name for Little Bear’s foster carers) as he used to be pretty fond of saying this.

On the morning of the event, Little Bear was actually very keen to get his smart clothes on and kept asking to go to see the Judge (even if it did sound like he was asking for George). His excitement was proving hard to contain so the wait was less than ideal. We were all very relieved when the time eventually came for us to be called in.

It turned out not to be a Judge (damn! I was excited about seeing the wig) but 3 magistrates. They were lovely though. The main guy said a few words about it being a happy occasion and congratulated us all. Little Bear pointed to each Magistrate and said “that’s my girlfriend, that’s my boyfriend, that’s my girlfriend” which made us giggle. Thankfully he said it quietly and strangers still find him hard to understand so I don’t think the Magistrates picked up on it. I hope not as a second later he muttered “that guy is such a weirdo”!

The Magistrate spoke a little more then Grizzly asked Little Bear if he wanted to say anything. “I want to live with them forever” he said and leaned his head against Grizzly. It was such a lovely tear-inducing moment and such a relief that he did seem to understand why we there and that he hadn’t chosen to say he’d rather be somewhere else.

The Magistrate gave Little Bear a teddy and a certificate to mark the day. They then invited the boys to sit in the big chair and for us to take photos. We didn’t feel rushed at all and the Head Magistrate even turned photographer for us. It was short but sweet and we came away feeling happy to be official.

We had puzzled over what to do afterwards, especially with it being too early for lunch but thankfully the sun was shining and we were just beside a lovely park. It was definitely the right choice as after being on their best behaviour in court the boys were ready to let off some steam. Ann came with us for a while. We wandered through the park and admired the squirrels before finding the café to get some hot drinks. The boys played in the play area and the grownups managed some grownup conversation (!). It was lovely to catch up with Ann but soon she had to head back to work.

There was a miniature railway in the park, complete with tiny station and platform so Grizzly and I and the boys had a few rides and my Dad couldn’t help joining in either.

When it was time for lunch, Little Bear had a meltdown leaving the park. There was a bit of biting and scratching but thankfully he calmed quickly and then wanted to be carried to the restaurant. We chose to go to Pizza Express for lunch as it’s family-friendly and easy. It was tempting to go somewhere posher to mark the occasion but it would probably have been a disaster and as long as the children were happy we knew we would be too.

Meal times with Little Bear can be really stressful but he did well this time. He was keen to go on the open-topped bus afterwards which helped with his motivation.

The bus was a good choice. We were enjoying the nice weather, getting some fresh air, seeing sights we hadn’t seen before in a city we thought we knew well and having a rest while we were at it. I’m always a bit sceptical about there being a guide in these situations but she was very interesting and not boring at all.

We stayed on the bus until Little Bear started standing up more than he was sitting down and I was becoming a bit anxious about what he might do next. I always feel it’s better to end these things whilst they are still going well.

I had seen that there was a Lego exhibition on in the Cathedral and as we got off the bus near there it seemed worth a try. The exhibition itself was brilliant – Master Builders (they really are called that) had created all sorts of vehicles from Lego, including a 7 metre long replica of the Titanic which was amazing. Big Bear loved it and filled my whole phone with photos. The grownups loved it too but I think Little Bear was getting tired by then and although he showed some interest in the models, he was around the whole thing in about a minute. His behaviour was beginning to escalate and we ended up having another ‘time in’. I had to pretend he wasn’t really being abusive in a Cathedral!

As usual, these things are often solved with food. We headed to the café where there was a large Lego pit and a Lego wall that the children could build on to. Both Bears absolutely loved it and played together for ages while the grownups somehow managed another drink and chat.

IMG_4864

By now it was late afternoon and we had been out all day so we headed homeward. It had been a really lovely family day out and I’m so pleased that we found something inclusive to do. You never know how these things will go, best laid plans and all, so I was relieved that we had all enjoyed it and had managed to successfully create a great memory of Little Bear’s special day.

Unusually for us, this was not the end of it. Earlier in the year we had had a realisation that we are rubbish at celebrating big events and just keep on trucking with our busy lives. We had resolved that this time would be different and we had planned a big party. We also wanted to thank our support network for everything they had done for us over the past 12 to 18 months, whilst we were going through the adoption process. So on Thursday we had our court celebration, Friday was the anniversary of Little Bear moving in and Saturday was our party. Talk about a manic few days!

We were expecting almost 50 people to our party, which we were having at home and the plan was definitely for it to be outside. By Thursday my obsessive checking of the weather forecast indicated that there wasn’t going to be a last minute miracle, the forecast was for rain and I needed to accept this. That evening we began filling the garden with gazebos. On Friday we woke to this headline: “UK to be battered by 1500 mile wide storm”. Excellent. Perfect. Just exactly what we needed!

IMG_4926

It was still raining on Saturday morning, the decking was treacherously slippy and the gazebos were leaking in several places. Undeterred and with no other real options, we proceeded with the preparations as best we could. The bouncy castle arrived and another gazebo was quickly erected so children could get on and off it without getting soaked.

The 15 children busied themselves on the bouncy castle and I can honestly say that they weren’t one bit of trouble all day. At lunch time most of them spontaneously trooped into the little front room (soon to be office), instigated a carpet picnic and watched a DVD in near silence! No one could quite believe it. I think all the bouncing must have worn them out.

Although we were very keen on the party idea, the thing that usually puts me off is catering for everybody. As is the way with everything since adopting, our mantra is “keep things easy” and we applied this to the party too. At 12o’clock pizzas were delivered. My Mum had made some lovely salads and I had done some bits and voila lunch was served. At 1:30 pudding arrived in the form of an ice cream van. A swarm of children ran zombie like straight through the house chanting “ice cream ice cream”. It was ace.

My friend had also made us a cake. I wanted the cake to be symbolic so she made it with 4 layers – one layer to represent each of us. The layers were made of our favourite cake and the outside of each was decorated with our favourite things. She also added 4 bears dotted around it to include how I refer to everyone here in my blog. We did gather everyone around at one point and made a cheesy speech as we genuinely did want to thank everybody for their unwavering support. Big Bear lead 3 cheers and Little Bear cut the cake.

 

Somehow, a weather miracle did seem to take place and the rain held off until later on. It was very windy though and at one point a gazebo did take flight. Thankfully nobody was in it at the time! Our guests were very helpful and as they stood around chatting, they kept a hand or two on the gazebos to stop it from happening again!

We had a brilliant time. I felt very relaxed which can be hard to achieve in these situations and I also felt I had had proper conversations with people. The last guests didn’t leave until 2 hours after the party was supposed to finish so I take that as a sign that people enjoyed themselves.

I feel that we have well and truly celebrated adopting Little Bear now. And so we should.

Adoption Celebrations