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.