Friday, July 21, 2017

Extended Family

Sometimes I wonder whether it makes more sense to compare adopting a child to getting married, rather than to the usual way of becoming a parent.

Sure, we adopters don't stand up in public and make solemn vows, but there is a legal process involved. More than that, though, it's the way that adopting a child joins two previously unconnected families together in a long-term relationship of sorts.

I've never been married, so forgive me if I'm off the mark here, but it seems to me as though you don't just marry your partner - you also marry their extended family, their friendship group, their past and their future. It's the old cliche of "not so much losing a son as gaining a daughter" oft repeated by the father of the bride.

When I adopted Birdy and OB, I made a lifetime commitment to both of them. I also inextricably linked myself with two sets of, sometimes shadowy, extended families. I have never met the vast majority of them. In some ways I'm only guessing at the existence of most of them, assuming there are aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents on both sides, as well as the birth parents and siblings. And yet when birthdays, Christmases and celebration days roll around, they are in my mind, as I imagine our children are also in theirs.

Every so often, a member of these extended families will pop into reality, becoming more than a just a figure in my mind. Most recently, it has been Birdy's birth mum who, apparently, after all this time has asked the social worker to request adding photos as part of our letterbox agreement - that's a whole can of worms I'm skirting around right now. Before that it was OB's half siblings, needing an adopter, and before that Birdy's mum adding two more children to the mix. There was OB's grandma who went to great lengths to send one letterbox letter but then never sent another, and I can't forget the momentous day I saw OB's birth mum walking down the street not far away.

For most adopters there are also foster families, so recently in their children's past, and all the extended family network involved in that life too. It's a huge mesh of interconnected lives that can be challenging to explain to a young child who barely grasps the relationships involved in their immediate adoptive family.

I suppose there's an extent to which we, as adopters, choose our children, rather like a person chooses a spouse (although it's usually more of a blind date arrangement!). What we don't choose is the family they will, even indirectly, bring with them into our lives together. There's no option to walk off into the sunset. There are obligations to be met for the sake of the children involved and we adopters must navigate these murky waters to the best of our abilities, knowing that one day our children will hold us accountable for the decisions we made.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Past Lives

"In a world of shifting family relationships in which children increasingly grow up with a wide range of connections that are seen as normal we need to take stock of why our approach to children in care is different."
(from a family court judgement, 2014)

Kevin Williams, Chief Executive of The Fostering Network shared this quote at a recent conference and it has provided me with much food for thought.

It is undeniably true that many children today grow up within a range of complex family situations with step-parents, step-siblings, half-siblings and other relatives and family friends often woven into their lives. Many, many children are raised with more than one complete family involved in their care to a greater or lesser extent, and for many this means living in more than one home at a time, managing different routines, parenting styles, lifestyle choices and so on.

To glibly assume that this is effortlessly managed by these children would be over-stating it in my opinion, but nonetheless, there is an expectation in blended families that most children will maintain relationships with all family members unless there are pressing reasons against it. Everybody must find a way to manage it.

It is very tempting to make comparisons between these situations and the situations of children who have been taken into care. If children in blended families maintain all their relationships, why can't looked after children? In my experience, once a child arrives in foster care, they lose their connections with their friends and wider family members in one fell swoop. Contact services are stretched, so supervised contacts are reserved for closest family - parents and siblings; perhaps sometimes a particularly close grandparent - and a whole network of other important relationships becomes nothing more than a memory.

With each transition, the ties become even looser. If a child moves on to another foster placement, there seems to be no standard practice requiring any contact with the former carer. The child loses not only the foster family they might have lived with for months, but also all of the extended family and friends network of which they will have become a part.

At transition to adoption, more ties are cut. During intros, the adoptive family are unlikely to meet any of the people who are important to the child other than those who actually live in the home with them. The foster grandparents, aunties and uncles, the family friends and community relationships are no more than shadows to adoptive parents who have enough to contend with as they become an instant family. How can we expect them to consider the swimming teacher who took a special interest in the child, or the nursery worker who was their key worker and cried when they left, or the neighbour who often invited the child to 'help' them in their garden? In reality, they may not even know about these people, reliant as they are on what information they are given.

Instead, adoptive parents are given instructions about how they should continue contact with a child's most immediate birth relatives, and all other relationships are at risk of being left in the dust.

A child will carry memories of all of these people with each transition, even if they are unable to articulate just what it was that made each of these people so important to them. And yet in some cases, adoptive parents are warned against making any contact at all with former foster families in case it upsets or unsettles the child.

It's a heartbreaking situation, and Williams's quote holds out the tempting promise of a utopia where relationships from previous families are cherished and even maintained in perpetuity. And why not? If kids from broken relationships can manage it, why can't kids who have been brought into care?

And yet, we must be realistic. We must not pretend that children in blended families maintain these family ties effortlessly. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort from the adults and the children involved. It is not easy. And these ongoing relationships are usually happening in situations where none of the adults involved have been a proven danger to the children.

There are many ways in which the situation for children who have been taken into care is nothing at all like the situation of children in blended families. With looked after children, we may be talking about family members who harmed them, or who neglected them, or who looked on and couldn't help, or whose lives were chaotic making them unreliable in the extreme. We are talking about foster carers who may have fostered dozens of children making maintaining meaningful ongoing relationships with every one of them untenable in the long run. We are talking about adoptive parents trying to create new and lasting attachments from a standing start with children who are still aching from the dismantling of whatever attachments they may have held on to previously; children for whom the very sight of a person with a lanyard causes utter panic because they think they are about to be moved on once again.

It is not straightforward. I met many of OB's extended family network - more than most adoptive parents ever would. And yes, I feel for his paternal grandma and his aged great grandparents and his very young uncle, and his half siblings, all of whom had little or no control over the situation. Some of them will never see him again. I feel for OB who has lost every one of them. Some of them may have had the capacity to be a powerful force for good in his life, and yet to be in direct contact with any of them would catapult us into an unknowable situation. I am the one who has to make that decision and bear the weight of responsibility for it while being uncomfortably conscious that it is OB who will live with the consequences of what I decide. I weigh up the possibilities of him feeling as though he belongs in all his families, against the risk of him feeling as though he belongs in none of them.

In drawing my conclusions, I have precious little to go on except the often conflicting advice of professionals and other members of the adoption triangle, and my gut. And it's not enough. I can't rely on anecdotal evidence as each situation is virtually unique to the individuals involved, and it's hard to see how rigorous research could overcome the ethical considerations. I would like to see better lifestory work, more lifestory training for foster carers, and a more holistic approach to recognising and celebrating all the diversity of a child's relationships, but I don't know if that is really the whole answer. I do know that whatever the answer is, it needs to be based on more than ideology and wishful thinking.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Little Climber

Since before Birdy could even walk, she has been a climber. Stairs, chairs, tables, bookcases - all challenges to be surmounted in her eyes.

I've lost count of the number of times some wide-eyed person has alerted me in panicked tones to my daughter's presence atop a precarious summit. She would be laughing, fearless, while the adults around her fluttered and worried and attempted to coax her down without spooking her.

It's not that she has no sense of danger. She doesn't attempt to launch herself off high walls but waits for assistance. She approaches stairs with caution (although she did once tumble down half a flight), and shouts for help when she's stuck on the climbing wall at the park. I'm not nervous in that respect. Having said all of that, she's had her share of falls, and always has a crop of bruises on her shins.

At first I tried to stop her climbing, saying "No!" in very firm tones. "We don't climb." It was all water off a duck's back. We do, apparently, climb, and no amount of saying the opposite was going to make any difference.

So then I started trying to make the entire house a climb-free zone. It was impossible. There was simply no way to arrange the furniture such that it did not form an enormous obstacle course, and I've mainly given up on it. The only routines I've kept from that effort are to keep the safety gate to the kitchen closed (she uses the drawer handles to climb up onto the kitchen counter where the knives are), and to keep the dining chairs stored in another room (she uses them to climb onto the table, and from there to the other side of the kitchen counter where the knives are!).

In the end I decided that, since I could not stop her climbing, my best option was to teach her to get down again safely. It didn't take much education - she's a natural, and the extra padding of her nappy helps!

These days, she can often be found sitting on the very top of her Ikea kitchen, dangling her legs over the side while 'reading' her books, or balancing on top of her transporter truck ride-on trying to reach things she shouldn't reach, or standing on top of the slide shouting to the entire neighbourhood (that one still gives me the collywobbles to be honest).

I can't change Birdy. She's a climber. All I can do is help her to be a safer, more controlled climber and then be there if she falls. This is basically parenting as I see it.

Friday, June 23, 2017


I took you shoe shopping this week. Between you and all the others I've spent plenty of money in that small Clarks store over the years. In fact we visit so often that the shop assistants recognise us and always comment on how much you've grown. We are what you might call 'regulars'.

Somehow, I remember your shoes. The first pair of Crocs wellies, with handles, that we've had to replace with identical versions every winter since. The gorgeously cute red Converse that I just couldn't leave in the shop. You loved them, and so did I, but I soon got tired of tying and re-tying the laces.

The blue trainers with the planes on and the red trainers with the dinosaurs. The rubber sandals in varying sizes that you wear when we visit Mamy and Papy so you don't slip at the side of the pool. The sensible walking sandals that you insist on wearing with socks.

I remember the awful day when you first hit a size 10 and the Clarks assistant told me the array of cute shoes I was fixated by were no longer available to us. She showed us a shelf of boring school shoes. You were three years old. She rummaged around and we managed to find a pair of blue suede boots with lime green laces. They were so expensive but I wouldn't have you in black lace-ups at that age for anything.

Then there was the time when the shop assistant struggled up the stairs with a pile of boxes, only to tell me that the shoes in the first box were in the sale and were only £10. I told her to put the other boxes away figuring that even if I didn't really like the bargain pair, we'd need new ones in three months anyway.

Your first shoes were special. First shoes always are. We arranged to go for your first shoes on your first mum's birthday, making a day of it at the shopping centre. You were just turning 11 months old and had taken your first steps a couple of weeks previously. Your mum was proud, holding you on her knee while the shop assistants fussed and the support worker and I looked on. I remember those shoes - little navy blue crawlers with two velcro straps. You toddled about the shop while we all oohed and aahed. Then they took your 'first shoes' polaroid while you sat on your first mum's lap.

Just a few weeks later you went to live with your first mum again, everyone hoping for a happy ever after. When it all fell apart, you came back to me wearing red slippers. I don't know what happened to those little blue shoes.

This week we had a new first - your first football boots. And for the first time, the number stopped steadily rising, going instead from 13 to 1. You're getting a big boy now. I can see black lace-ups in our future.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Music Therapy

We have had three sessions of Music Therapy.

Our therapist, a little, sweet lady, arrives at our door each time loaded down with musical instruments of all sorts. The first week, OB pronounced the selection "baby instruments" and would barely touch them. A couple were tossed disdainfully to the floor. I had quite a few internal kittens because I know how much they cost.

The second week, undeterred, our sweet therapist arrived at the door with two djembes and a guitar. OB declared that drums are boring and he hates them. This despite the fact that he's had a drum kit since he was two and still enjoys a good thrash about on the junior kit I got him for his 5th birthday. He then proceeded to spend the first 10 minutes demanding sweets as he was starving. We managed to get on to a couple of games, mainly competitive, but some fun was had. The therapist called it a day after half an hour.

The third week, djembes again. More complaints of "Boring!" Also, lots of 'poo poo' talk. Also, a sly kick to my leg as he walked past, which the therapist saw. There was some talk of 'kind hands' and an assertion from her that it's never ok to hurt mummy. The backup is always welcome to be honest.

At some point, OB made a mean comment about me and the therapist responded by asking him to name things that I was good at. Let's just say that what followed was not a great self-esteem moment for me! I was asked to contribute some things that OB was good at (which was easy - there are loads of things) and eventually the therapist did get OB to grudgingly admit that I was good at cooking. This is patently untrue. I am a horrible cook. Not sure whether OB is deluded or was just making something up to get it over with!

Having said all of that though, we did play some games - making sounds of different animals on our djembes - the therapist sang silly songs and made us both laugh, and OB, despite insisting that he wasn't doing any of it, actually did all of it. We made it to 47 minutes.

As I helped her load the djembes into her tiny car, I felt compelled to apologise to the therapist for OB's rudeness. She didn't seem to know what I meant. "He's six!" she exclaimed. Now I wonder whether expecting my six-year-old not to say "It's boring" and "I'm not doing it" throughout the session means I'm setting unrealistic standards.

However, she also said that she is really impressed by OB, that he's doing really well and she thinks we have, and I quote, "a fantastic connection". It does make me wonder what her sessions with other children are like!

We have had three sessions of Music Therapy. We have nine more to go. When we started, I said I wanted to deepen the connection between me and OB, and bring a bit more fun and playfulness into our lives. Despite it all, I think we're doing that, and even if the effect only lasts for the length of the sessions, it's 12 hours (give or take) more than we would have had otherwise.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


I was talking to a friend this week who works on the pastoral team at a large local high school. A young girl from a neighbouring school was killed in the Manchester bombing on Monday. Some of the students at my friend's school had been in primary school with her, while others knew her socially or lived near to her. Some of the pupils and staff from his school had also been at the concert, and had thankfully escaped unharmed.

The terrible deaths of so many people at the Manchester Arena will have touched many communities around the country. Even for those of us who had no direct involvement, the shock of the events last Monday night still reverberates. Many of us have been to the Manchester Arena. Many more of us have attended some gig or other in our lifetimes. No doubt scores of schools and teachers around the country have been counselling, supporting and explaining in the wake of this horror.

My friend also told me about another boy at his school. The day before the Manchester bombing, this young lad had come home to find his dad dead on the floor. He was back in school on Monday, anxious to escape the house and get away from the trauma of it all. Again, the staff and students rallied round.

It reminded me, if I needed reminding, that trauma affects so many children in our schools in different ways. It can come as a result of a sudden event, like this young lad or those young people at the Arena, or it can build up over months and years of abuse or neglect or frightening experiences.

In the last week, the word 'trauma' has been spoken or written about many times. Broadcasters have discussed the effects of trauma with specialists, talked about how it is best managed, explained to us that what is needed in the early stages is a nurturing environment and openness, while some people will need extra support to begin one or two months later if they are still suffering the after effects once the initial shock has worn off.

I am glad to see these discussions taking place, and I am just as glad to see news articles and opinion pieces praising the teachers who have been there for hundreds of frightened, grieving kids all around the country. I'm sure none of them said anything like, "School is for education, it's not a counselling centre," or "It's my job to teach, not to be a therapist." I'm sure none of them said that.

So I have to wonder why, when so many children are entering the school gates daily with a huge dose of trauma in their backpacks, I've seen these words written in response to their trauma by teachers in blogs and on social media - "It's not my job". We are talking about children who have witnessed and experienced horrific domestic violence, or who have been left hungry many, many times, or who have been left alone, terrified for hour after hour, or who have been suddenly taken from their families, their homes and everything familiar to them at a moment's notice. We're talking about children so young that they don't have the communication skills to even engage in counselling to work through their trauma, children whose conscious memories may not even be able to recall the events that led to their bodies and minds repeatedly betraying them, children who find their hearts beating, ears ringing, sweat pouring at triggers they can't even identify.

Maybe it's harder to empathise with their experiences. As adults, we can all, perhaps, imagine ourselves in the place of someone who experiences a nasty car accident, or who is attacked on the street, or who is driven frantic over their missing child. Childhood neglect and abuse is perhaps more difficult to identify with. So maybe it's about empathy. Or maybe we just don't want to go there in our minds. We want a happy ending, where the trauma stops once the traumatic experience stops. Except we know it doesn't. The broadcasters and experts have told us that.

No adoptive parent, foster carer or guardian wants their child's teacher to be a counsellor, or a therapist. We understand that they are not trained for that - indeed, it is not their job - and amateur therapy is hardly desirable. What parents and carers of children who have experienced early loss and trauma want is simple: acknowledgement. Trauma is real, and its after effects are real, whether it happens at 2, 12 or 20, whether it comes as a sudden, traumatic event, or builds up over time through repeated actions or inactions. Let's make our schools a safe, nurturing place for all children who have experienced trauma. Who would not benefit from that?

Saturday, May 6, 2017


I took OB to see the school nurse this week. The appointment was triggered by the education team at the LA because it had come to their attention that OB was being electively home educated. To be honest, I was pleased the appointment was made, and happy to attend. I took him to have his hearing checked myself, and am planning to take him for a vision check in the near future. I don't want him to miss out on the health checks he would have received as a matter of course if he had been in school.

It's never really obvious what to expect at these sorts of appointments. The invitation letter had been characteristically terse and to the point, so it was tricky to prepare OB for an appointment that I felt sure would involve some scrutiny of him personally and therefore be well outside his comfort zone.

When we arrived at the clinic, there was nobody else there at all. The nurse bounded in, seeming very pleased to see us (it later transpired that hardly anyone turns up to these appointments!), and then stared at me for a moment before asking me if I was a foster carer. It turns out she had previously been a LAC Nurse.

It can be strange, and sometimes disconcerting, when two worlds collide but, as the appointment went on, I began to feel very glad that this person had not only met me before, but also clearly knew and understood some of the additional issues we face as an adoptive family.

The health check included the basic height and weight check that I had been expecting, but after that it mainly seemed to focus on behaviour. The nurse asked me a lot of questions about OB's behaviour, right in front of him, which I found pretty difficult to answer without getting into areas I didn't really want to bring up.

Added to that, both of the children were reacting as usual to me actually attempting to have a coherent conversation with someone other than them. At the point at which I was trying to explain how we had accessed post-adoption support (using as many acronyms as possible in the hopes that OB wouldn't cotton on!), Birdy was under the nurse's desk trying to steal things out of her bag, and OB was lying on the floor near me fake-laughing really loudly!

How grateful I was, at that point, to be speaking to somebody who already knew all the acronyms and to whom so much could just go unsaid. She didn't bat an eyelid at OB's antics, and put some video on her computer for Birdy to watch so that we could actually speak to each other. She understood my concerns at filling in the 2-page form about behavioural issues, and reassured me that my honest assessment would not trigger a deluge of inappropriate interventions.

As a home educator, whenever I attend any meeting with 'the authorities' I know that I am under scrutiny. I know that what we do is out of the norm, and that some are suspicious. I know that some children, sadly, do slip under the radar. This is why I make it my business to co-operate fully with the LA, to attend all the appointments, to be as open and honest as possible. I hope that in doing so, the difference between those who electively home educate, and those who just opt out and drift away will be reinforced in the minds of those whose job it is to keep their eyes open for signs of trouble.

However, I am also aware that this can come with a risk; that it exposes us to all sorts of 'authorities' who may have precious little understanding of the particular challenges that we sometimes face, and who have fairly extensive power to intervene in our lives. I mean, how would the average person react to the sight of a 'home educated' 6-year-old lying on the floor of the nurse's office making robot noises and emitting great guffaws of forced, fake laughter?

At that appointment, I was grateful for the 'crossover', grateful not to have to try to explain why I prioritise attachment over KS1 attainment descriptors, grateful not to be forced to go into personal details of my son's history while he was in the room with me. I was grateful to be with someone who just 'gets it'.

And, as a measure of how well she 'gets it', the nurse handed me a sheaf of leaflets as I left. These are guidance sheets produced by the local CAMHS to assist those parenting children who have experienced early trauma, abuse and neglect. They cover eating difficulties, attachment difficulties, empathy, stealing behaviours, lying behaviours and the importance of play. They are very, very good. It made me wonder why, as a LA foster carer, I had never seen them before!