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

Prep Groups

Our lovely voluntary adoption agency has now asked me several times to come along to prep groups to speak to prospective adopters. I like doing it and I went again last week. I have since been reflecting on the role of visiting adopters in prep groups and the things which are said and unsaid.

I think my appearances at such things total 5 or 6 now, over a 3 year period. Each time I’ve been I think I’ve probably told a slightly different story. I haven’t changed any facts but I’ve naturally talked about different things depending on the point we were at in our journey, things that were happening around the time of my visit or how I was feeling on the given day. I’m not quite sure how I managed to speak at them at all, the first time I did it, as it was only a couple of months into our adoption and certainly during the bit I now refer back to as ‘The Bad Bit’. I can see myself in my mind’s eye, sitting in front of those strangers, trying to be strong, for them as well as me, and I’d like to go back and give myself a hug. It was hard to do but I felt it was important.

I don’t find it hard now really. I tend to get emotional when I talk about Little Bear’s progress and how far things have come, rather than when I talk about the hard bits. Because I do talk about the hard bits. I have worried that my Agency will add me to some sort of black list after one of my visits as I’m so graphic with the truth. However, as I’ve got braver and more knowledgeable, I now feel that if a group of prospective adopters can’t handle our story in all its murky glory, they are perhaps not cut out for adoption. Our story is by no means the scariest you will hear but I have certainly seen fear in people’s eyes when I’ve been telling it. Obviously I don’t set out to instil fear; I would never purposefully scare anyone. However, I don’t see my role as treating people with kid-gloves either. Prospective adopters need to know the truth. They need to know what real adoptive families are like and that includes hearing the less palatable details of some of the challenges we face.

I try to give a balanced narrative. After all, I think our adoptive family is pretty awesome and the highs have been more than we could have asked for. In the most part we are very happy. But we have had some really hard times, we have been challenged to our core and felt a desperation you would never associate with parenthood. Prospective adopters need to know that this ain’t no fairy tale. I can’t have them going home thinking you pick the perfect child, they move in, no one looks back and you all skip away into the sunset. That would be doing a great injustice to them and their future children.

I know that listening to one adopter probably won’t make great shifts in a person’s thinking and people will hear what they want to hear to some extent anyway but I hand them my truth, because I think I have a responsibility to do so, and it is up to them how they use it.

There are a few key points that I would want to make to any prospective adopter and I suppose I may not have been consistent in doing so when I’ve popped up at the groups because of how the questioning has gone or what has been on my mind at the time. These are things that are not necessarily covered as a matter of course in the groups but I think are important for people to hear:

Firstly, you might not love your child straight away. I think it can be easy to assume you will, because the stars have brought you together in the matching process and you suspect everything happens for a reason. You may well be meant for each other but, honestly, it can take time to feel that. When you have been through a lengthy matching process and you are nervous and excited about finally meeting your child, not feeling that love can really throw you off course emotionally. Guilt, doubt, it all creeps in. I always try to remember to say to prospective adopters that it doesn’t matter if that love isn’t there at the start, or even after a few days or weeks. I think it took months for us. It is normal not to fall in love with a child you’ve just met. They are a stranger and it is ok if it feels that way for a while. Don’t beat yourselves up about it, love will come.

The second thing I try to tell people is difficult to discuss in a different way. It’s about money. Our experience was that adoption is costly. We were extremely fortunate that it wasn’t a precluding factor but at the time, we kept thinking about people on low-incomes and certainly felt it would have been unaffordable for some. I’m aware that people’s experiences are very different depending on where they adopt or where their children are in foster care and some areas seem more able/ willing to reimburse costs than others. Our experience was of clocking up hundreds of miles in the car driving back and to meetings, panels etc. including crossing a toll bridge. We did get those costs reimbursed in the end but we were out of pocket for a good 6 months. We also paid for our own accommodation as introductions were several hours from home. Whilst away, we obviously had to eat and go on days out etc. to keep two small children busy (all a little more difficult when you don’t have your own home to use) which added up cost-wise. We weren’t offered any sort of living allowance (I know some places do offer it) and we didn’t get a settling-in grant for car seats/ bed/any essential equipment we needed for Little Bear. The total costs were greater than you might anticipate and the LA wouldn’t cover anything more than petrol. There isn’t much that can be done about this (despite the rights or wrongs) but I think prospective adopters should be aware so they can ask the relevant questions and consider the practicalities.

I guess the third thing I try to get across is that in adoption, nothing is solved quickly. I am a great believer that children can and do recover from trauma but that recovery doesn’t happen the moment a child steps over the threshold. It doesn’t happen if you deny the trauma exists or if you attempt to forget the past. Helping a child to recover from trauma is a lengthy, challenging process, which requires a high level of perseverance. It takes years, not days or weeks. Adoption is a long game and you need to go into it prepared to work really, really hard.

If I haven’t made people run screaming from the room with all that, plus tales of violence and developmental delay, I feel they deserve the reward of hearing some positivity. That’s the point at which I get a bit choked up and oogey-gooey. I know that one of these times, the dam will break and I will weep in a room full of increasingly terrified people but none of us wants that.

My final point is around questions. When I’ve finished talking in a slightly uncomfortable monologue, people really need to ask some questions. Not just because it’s pretty awkward for me if I bare my soul and the entire group reacts with silence but because if you are going through adoption assessment, you should have at least one question. In my opinion, you should have a gazillion and one questions. Adoption is a huge, life-altering decision. I have no idea how you could be faced with all that reality and not be able to form one question. When I go along to the groups, it is with the intention of answering any question as honestly as I can. I don’t mind at all if people ask me so many questions I have to stay longer than planned. Questions are good. Some people may never have met another adopter before; they should bleed me dry of information. They should ask any obscure or difficult or mundane questions they might have. I honestly think that any adopter who has agreed to go along to prep groups would be ok with being asked all the questions.

Last week was a brilliant group. They were really engaged and asked many, many questions and it felt like it boded well for their future. Once, a while ago, I finished my awkward monologue and nobody spoke. Not one person. I invited questions, made a joke of the silence but not. One. Person. Spoke. The Social Workers did, obviously, but none of the prospective adopters. I thought it was me and my story and to be honest, I didn’t agree to do prep groups again for a while after that. There was no satisfaction in it at all and I went home feeling worse than when I’d gone, which is not something you hope for in a voluntary role. So, please, if you are a prospective adopter and an experienced adopter comes to speak to you at prep groups, please speak with them. Drum up at least one question. Do it out of courtesy for them but do it for yourself too. Prep groups are part of the assessment process and the Social Workers will be observing. Plus, surely there is just loads of stuff you want to know?

The funny thing is, is that despite all my honesty and re-living all our dramas for the prospective adopters, I still get really excited for them too. All the hopes and dreams of their future lives with their future children are infectious. I remember it so well and despite everything, I’d do it all again to get my Little Bear.

 

Prep Groups

Light and Dark

Things are fairly dark at Adoption: The Bear Facts at the moment. Today our beloved Supergran has come home from hospital for “end of life care”. When someone you love is dying it is hard to think about anything else. When other people you love are sad and stressed about it too, it is hard not to spend a lot of time worrying about them. It is hard, in the circumstances, to get on with normal functioning. However, with small children, jobs and building work there is no option but to try. I’m finding that although there is an omnipresent darkness, there are still bits of light to be found and it is important, for everybody’s sanity, to hunt them out.

Sometimes it is just an instant – a beautiful moment captured by your brain to be kept as a memory. It is things like seeing your big business man husband tenderly rubbing his fragile gran’s back after a day in the office. It is instants such as finding yourself with Gary and Supergran in a hospital ward and all giggling like teenagers about an inappropriate joke or at the male visitor further down the ward who is unknowingly sitting on a commode. It is instants when Supergran comments on my outfit or laughs at a funny snippet and I’m relieved because although her body is failing her, she is still Supergran.

Sometimes, in trying to keep to normal plans, you can inadvertently find longer periods of light. This morning I had a work meeting. It was pretty difficult to get my head in the game but I was glad that I did because I came out feeling excited. I met with my Voluntary Adoption Agency ‘boss’ and a Manager from a local RAA (Regional Adoption Agency) about rolling out my Communication Workshops to a wider audience. It is really heartening that people are seeing the role that Speech and Language Therapy can play in adoption and are buying into the benefits of offering communication training to adopters.

During the meeting we also discussed how our VAA are aiming to provide support packages at the point of a child being placed with adopters, instead of waiting until families reach crisis point. I love this proactive approach, especially given the experiences of Twitter friends in trying to access Post Adoption Support at all. Going forwards, I should be able to provide Speech and Language Therapy (SaLT) for children as part of these packages, as and where it is required. I feel very proud and lucky to be associated with this type of quality, person-centred provision. It is in stark contrast to the reactive and limited service we have received from our local SaLT team (something which I could do without trying to tackle with everything else going on).

Something else that happens at dark times is that you find out how good your support network really is. We are lucky that a significant part of our network is my parents. They are consistently there apparently always poised to sweep in when they are needed. It is almost as though they are privy to some sort of invisible Bat Signal. So far this week they have helped me decorate (yes, still trying to get that done), tried to tackle my neglected washing pile and provided a lot of babysitting for either or both Bears. They have also taken up the mantle of worrying about Gary and are feeding her a proper meal this evening, in place of me being able to because if she comes here, she will probably catch something. It is not that I have abandoned cleanliness but that we are being plagued by a very annoying virus that just will not go away…

I could certainly do without The Virus as it is not helping with the doomful feeling one jot. Big Bear was poorly last week and had a few days off school. He made it back in on Tuesday, seeming to be on the mend but was then sent home again on Wednesday. I have kept him off the rest of the week in a bid to finally rid him of the germs. This morning, on the way back from my meeting, I got a phone call from school saying that Little Bear was not himself at all and could I come and get him too.

I feel bad saying this but I really needed them to be at school this week and I’m keeping every crossable part of my body crossed that they are in next week. Usually the boys are my main focus and everything revolves around them. It feels very odd that a situation is happening in which they have been slightly knocked off the top spot. It is undoubtedly hard for them as they are not used to me leaving them often but at the moment I’m disappearing to take a phone call or to visit Supergran fairly frequently. I know that they are fine because they are only ever with my parents or Gary and I mostly feel as though they need to get on with it as this is what real life is like sometimes. However I have also had moments of motherly guilt where I feel I’m abandoning them.

I think what I’m trying to say is that them being off school has both added to the darkness and provided some unexpected light. It has added to the darkness because as I am rather distracted by sadness and worry, I am not finding it very easy to parent therapeutically. I also find alone time very restorative and I have not had that valuable space this week. And well, the decorating!

All that said I have had a lovely time with them this afternoon. I have had loads of cuddles from Little Bear who just wanted to sit on my lap and told me he loved me way more than usual. Both Bears have been quite calm and we spent one lovely evening doing jigsaws (completely unheard of). Little Bear really struggled with his resilience but I did manage to be therapeutic at that point and helped him to complete the jigsaw in spite of him losing his temper every time a piece didn’t fit on the first attempt and him launching it across the room. It was worth it to see the pride on his little face and to see him wanting to do them all again straight away. Jigsaws seem to have become a bit of a trend now and Big Bear sat at the table for ages today completing a big one.

I also love it when the Bears want to get paper and pens out and sit like angels (!) at the kitchen table drawing things. They have done that this afternoon.

When I was in junior school there was a trend for marbling. You filled a school tray with water then poured coloured inks into it. If you swirled it about a bit then carefully placed a piece of paper onto it, the paper came out all mottled and swirled and usually pretty (in my 9 year old opinion). I feel as though we are in one of those trays at the moment and somebody has been a bit heavy-handed with the black ink before giving us a haphazard swirling. We are currently wading through the dark bits. Sometimes it seems that that is all there is but we keep wading because you have to and because I know that if we keep looking, we will find chinks, swirls and even big open spaces of light.

Nothing is all darkness, there is light to be found.

 

PS I know I keep moaning about the decorating but even that has some plus sides: the house is edging slowly closer to actually being finished (which will one day make me very happy) and there is nothing like a physical task to help relieve stress. Oh and the inside of my cupboard is fuchsia pink. I should have mentioned that first because it’s AMAZING.

 

Light and Dark