Sunday, November 25, 2012

On Politics and Parenting

A media storm was created recently when three children were removed from their foster care placement because the foster carers are members of UKIP.

Since then, someone has asked me, "Where do you draw the line?  What if non-white children are placed with foster carers who are members of the BNP?"  I can see where this question comes from, but to me, it somewhat misses the point.

Prior to being approved as foster carers, applicants go through an extensive screening programme, including training sessions and a multitude of interviews in the home.  References are taken from employers where the applicants have worked with children, nominated referees are interviewed and written references are completed, the applicants are assessed on their interaction with children.  And a big part of this assessment is probing into the views of the applicants on those of different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds to themselves.

Personally, I had to come up with examples of times that I had worked with people from different backgrounds to my own, and demonstrate my willingness and ability to cater for the needs of children whose cultural needs might be completely different from my own, including cooking for special diets, providing for particular religious observances and so on.

Once carers begin fostering, social workers visit regularly and complete a checklist including evidence that the children's cultural and ethnic needs are being met.

I guess my point is this: it's not being a member of a certain political party that makes you racist, it's being racist that makes you racist!  And the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  The carers in this case were described by Rotherham social services as providing a good standard of care.  As far as I can tell from what I have read and heard, there was no actual evidence that these children's cultural needs were not being met in this placement.  If that turns out to have been the case, then what does it matter what their political affiliation is?

Of course, we know that there had been problems before.  Rotherham social services had previously been criticised in court for not taking the children's ethnic background into account during previous proceedings.  Maybe the kneejerk reaction to the "tip-off" about UKIP is more understandable in the light of that information.

And by the way, what level of busybody do you have to be to "tip" social services off about such a thing?!

But I digress . . .

At face value, this decision seems to me to be a ridiculous one.  Of course, I don't know all of the facts, and we never will, because details of individual children's cases are not discussed in public, quite rightly.  But the truth is that as long as maintaining children's links with their cultural and ethnic identities is part of policy surrounding children's social care, and as long as individual branches of social services are expected to interpret that policy in the way they see fit, then we will continue to see decisions like this.

No doubt there will be changes now - Michael Gove is already trumpeting new guidelines that will alter the way ethnic and cultural identity is weighted in fostering and adoption.  I hope he doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Cultural and ethnic identity is important to children and young people.  While I agree that children shouldn't be left languishing in inappropriate care settings while waiting for foster carers and adopters that fit the right profile, some attention should be paid to maintaining children's cultural identity wherever possible.

In the meantime, I hope that those who have authority to speak in this area can press home the need to assess the ability of foster carers to provide for children by the quality of that provision, rather than by checking out their political affiliations and making assumptions.  It is dangerous to assume that you know what someone believes based on who they associate with.  It is even more dangerous to assume that you know exactly how those beliefs will influence their behaviour.  I believe it's called prejudice.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

To boldly go . . .

I've written 60-odd blog posts on Suddenly Mummy and I'm pretty sure the title of this one is my first Star Trek reference!  Not bad for me!

But I digress . . .

I wrote recently about some of the difficulties we have had getting a decision on NB's future, but at long last, we know . . . we have a placement order, which means he'll be going up for adoption.

And so we set off together into uncharted territory.  As OB was originally rehabilitated back to his birth mother, and then matched with me for adoption, I haven't had the experience of fostering a child up to external adoption before.  I've been trying to prepare NB for this possibility for a while, notably by persevering with the potty training (which is going on well by the way!), and pushing to get all his medical screening done, but now we need to step it all up another notch.

The process as I understand it, is quite a complex one.  NB is not a straightforward child and is likely to have some additional needs, although exactly what and to what degree can't be established yet.  Add to that the fact that he is rapidly approaching his third birthday, and we have a child who is not necessarily all that easy to place.

He has already been assigned a social worker to oversee his adoption, and she profiled him and began initial searches for matching families before the placement order was granted.  The next stage is for a working group to narrow down possible matches to a shortlist based on all the matching criteria.  At this point, the family at the top of the shortlist will be approached, and if they are interested, they will be given all the information that exists about NB.

If they decide to proceed, a lengthy matching report needs to be compiled, demonstrating the suitability of the match.  This used to be presented to a matching panel for approval, but I understand that this has recently been changed to speed the process up, so now the reports are approved by the service head alone.

After that, I suppose transition begins.  I have heard various accounts of introduction and transition, but the common theme seems to be speed - some that I have heard about have happened in as little as one week!  But I think it usually takes around two weeks.  And then NB will be gone, off to be a wonderful son to his new Mummy and Daddy.

I may have missed some stages out of all of this.  It's quite hard to come to terms with the processes and protocols that thread together to make the bag of tangled wool that is social services! 

NB's contacts with his birth mother have already been halved, and will soon be halved again before a final contact not long after Christmas.  NB's mother has responded by cancelling the next contact.  I can't blame her.  It must be absolute agony.

And so we move on into uncharted territory.  As far as we're concerned at this house, that means getting a big boy bed, persuading NB to take his iron medicine, and enrolling him in gymnastics to encourage his physical development!  I'll keep you posted on how that goes, but there's no big rush.  Apparently, with Christmas in the way and NB's particular profile, the social worker reckons it'll be a good result if we move to transition by Easter 2013!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Birth Parent Dimension

Tomorrow a judge will make a decision about what will happen next for NB.  I don't know what that decision will be, but his particular circumstances have got me thinking that in all the writing, talking and comment (informed and otherwise) about adoption and child protection procedures, there is one role that seems to be ignored far too often: that of the birth parent.

The types of neglect and abuse that can lead to a child being taken into care are manifold.  It is easy to demonise the birth parents whose children end up in care, but in reality their circumstances are often complex and threaded through with tragedy.  Media concentration on extreme cases like that of Baby P certainly focuses the public's attention, but tends to allow us to forget that many parents who find their children being taken into care are not actually dreadful monsters, but perhaps people whose own lives have been blighted by a terrible upbringing, or who are trapped by long-standing addictions, or who struggle to care for their children competently because they have learning disabilities and no family to support them.

A recent report called for social services to act more quickly to remove children, and to offer birth families fewer chances to get their children back.  It seems that too many children are waiting for neglectful parents to make improvements that never seem to actually happen.  It is hard to disagree with their assessment that children's needs must be put before the needs of the parents.  But at the same time, if a parent could make the necessary changes with the proper support, is it not right to allow them time to attempt it?  And if so, how long do we wait?  How long do the children wait?

It's a hard balance.

Once children are in care, the role of the birth parent is still a significant one.  Birth parents share parental responsibility with social services as long as the child is being looked after on a court order.  This means that foster carers must seek permission from the parents for all sorts of things, including taking a holiday and getting a new hairstyle.

When a child becomes 'looked-after', and whole series of events are triggered.  Assessments are carried out on birth parents to determine their potential ability to provide adequate parenting for the child.  If these assessments look likely to be negative, further assessments are carried out on other family members.  Only if all of these assessments are negative is the child considered for adoption.

And throughout this process, birth parents are given legal representation to enable them to put their case at the many court appearances.  So, all along the way, birth families have the power to significantly delay the process.  In all the talk about cutting red tape and getting social services to be more efficient, nothing is ever said about the power of birth families to cause delays time and time again.

In NB's case, after his first set of assessments were negative, his birth mother's solicitor successfully challenged the assessment process itself, causing the judge to determine that it should be carried out again.  These assessments take place over a number of weeks, after which a care plan is drawn up and presented at court.  Re-doing the assessment has added months to NB's time in care.

During the second round of the assessment, social services decided to 'double-track' NB in an attempt to expedite matters.  While re-doing the assessment on his birth mother, they also carried out family assessments in case his mother's assessment was negative again.  They also carried out pre-adoption preparation (e.g. medicals, paperwork and searching the databases for potential matches) in case all assessments were negative.  Just the sort of efficiency we should be looking for you might think!

And yet, the decision we are waiting for tomorrow is still a delayed one.  Everybody prepared for court last week, expecting a decision to be made that day, but just a few days before they were due in court, NB's birth father, who had previously refused to be assessed and hasn't seen NB for months, suddenly contacted social services and requested an assessment.

I don't go to court and I'm not privy to the details of what passes there, but when I heard that the judge had decided to delay a week before approving or rejecting social service's new care plan for NB (which is for adoption) I couldn't help thinking that his father's request was at the bottom of it.

I won't go into details, but NB's father claims that he's started a new life and is now in a position to care for NB. Is it true?  I don't know.  Nobody knows.  And that's the point.  The choice is between dismissing the father's request out-of-hand and destroying any chance for NB to grow up with his own blood family, or allowing the assessment, delaying NB's progress again, and risk it all being for nothing in the end.

I've written many times about the complexities involved in settling the futures of individual children, and I may be getting boring, but the longer I spend in this job the more I realise that there are no quick fixes or easy ways out, despite what some might lead you to believe.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Good morning!

It's around 9am and the boys have been up for 90 minutes (yes, they're pretty civilised in the morning!).  Here is a summary of our morning activities so far:

  • playing with the cold water in the bathroom sink and complaining that it's cold!
  • pulling out all the play food and creating a hearty fake breakfast including lemons, pizza, slices of cheese and the ever popular toast
  • a car race in the hallway
  • breakfast (1.5 Weetabix, 1/2 banana, yoghurt)
  • OB insisting that I draw several 'nanos' (pianos), 'tars' (guitars) and men on his magnetic drawing board
  • OB handing out the toy guitars to everybody and insisting that we all play them while he dances
  • an impromptu concert in the hallway by NB, using the hoover's plug as a microphone
  • reading our Mr Tumble magazine (OB's favourite page is the advert for the Rastamouse magazine with a big red guitar on it!)
  • giving the blue guitar a kiss and a cuddle after OB bashed its 'head' on the table!
  • group readings of 'Pum' (Each Peach Pear Plum) and 'Ni-saw' (Usborne Touchy-Feely Dinosaurs) - we read each one twice and on every page of the Dinosaur one, the boys pretended that the dinosaurs were biting their fingers and I had to tell them off!  
  • a group reading of 'Maisy Tidies Up' - much yelling of "Cakes! Cakes!"
  • playing in the tent
As I write this, NB is playing with the annoying train ('Come on board the animal train la la la laaaaaaaa' etc etc) and OB is drumming.


And to think not so long ago I used to think I'd been hard done to if I had to get up before 9am!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Pinterest Inadequacy

I have recently discovered Pinterest.  This is both a Good Thing and a Bad Thing.

It is a Good Thing because the whole place is absolutely chock full of truly brilliant ideas for kids.  Blog after blog of lists of things to do with your kids on rainy days, snowy days, sunny days . . . any type of day you can think of!  And some of them are actually good ideas that look as though they might be worth doing.

It is a Bad Thing because it has given me a severe case of Pinterest inadequacy.  Oh yes, at first you go on there, enthusiastically re-pinning those wonderful craft ideas and awesome educational materials, but after a while, you realise that the chances of ever actually doing any of them youself are minimal and instead, they just sit there on your boards . . . mocking you!

And it gets worse.

After a while comes the realisation that people that posted these things not only thought of them (a feat in itself in my opinion) but actually went ahead and DID them.  I know they did them because, as if it's not enough that these women (and they usually are women) are complete domestic superwomen, it turns out they also have the time to photograph their children doing the activities and then spend their evenings posting all the instructions and photographs in blog form.

So let's get this right.  These women, many of whom have several children, plan activities in advance, collect all the materials in preparation, complete the activities with their children (pausing several times to take photos along the way), clear up after it all and then sit down at their computers to write an informative blog.

I'm exhausted just thinking about it!

Seriously, we are not at all in that kind of league.  I feel like I should get a pat on the back if I get the paints out once in a while, and even then I usually end up deciding that the effort expended in clearing up the mess didn't really justify the benefits of the activity!

And I feel as though we don't have the time.  And by 'we', I mean the children, not me.  If I'm honest, I do have time some evenings to plan exciting activities, but the children are not so fortunate.

NB, for instance, spends 3 mornings each week at Playgroup.  Twice a week he has contact with his family.  Every afternoon he has a decent-length nap and he goes off to bed at 7.30pm.  Add to this the time spent eating and the seemingly endless trips to the toilet, and the poor kid doesn't have much time to pursue his own interests.  I tend to think that in his few precious minutes of free time he probably ought to be allowed to have some self-directed play, rather than being chased around the house by an over-eager woman with a glue stick and some autumn leaves!  I already ruin most of his playtime anyway by constantly 'narrating' it as instructed by the speech therapist!

Ah well, I shall no doubt continue to collect pins, and they will no doubt continue to mock me mercilessly until I actually do something about them.  So, I have decided to just pick one, do it, and hopefully put an end to their scornful voices for a while.  Watch this space for pictures (oh yes!) of a forthcoming Christmas tree activity!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Horse-Swan

A while ago, blogging about our trip to London, I said that there had been a swan as big as a horse in Hyde Park.  I kid you not.  Here it is!


Sharing makes the heart grow fonder

We've had my parents staying with me for the last week and it's been fabulous!  I'm not just talking about the extra help with the boys, which has included me having a lie-in every single morning, and the fact that I haven't had to make a meal or even brew my own coffee for the whole visit, but also, and more importantly, the fact that sharing the boys with others makes me appreciate them on a whole new level.

Of course I find them cute and often marvel at their little ways, but when we're mired down in the mundanities of everyday living, it gets easy for all the days to blend together so that I miss little milestones or fleeting moments of loveliness.  When I'm actively sharing the boys with someone else, though, all these things are noticed and marvelled over with appropriate delight.

I know I've blogged about this before, and I don't want to seem boring, but it really is a lovely thing to see your children through the eyes of others.  As my parents only get to see them every couple of months or so, they are in a great position to notice all the little (and sometimes monumental!) changes that have taken place since their last visit.

Both of the boys are learning new words daily and growing up in so many ways.  It all happens far too fast, but each time we visit my parents, or they visit us, it's like we take an extended snapshot of where we are all up to.  My parents notice and comment on all of their cute little ways, and in that act of noticing, they record them orally for posterity.

When my nephews were little, we only got to see them infrequently as they lived abroad.  I can vividly remember each of those visits, especially for my oldest nephew.  I can even remember which clothes were associated with each visit when he was a baby.  He had the green striped body suit when he was 5 months old and we took a beautiful picture of him lying on his tummy on the sofa.  By the time he was 9 months there was a grey suit and he could pull himself up against the furniture in our living room.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have remembered these things in such detail if I was seeing him all of the time.

Now we all have digital cameras and video cameras so we can easily create permanent records of our children's early years but, in my mind, nothing beats memories, and nothing creates memories so well as special times that have been set aside for noticing and appreciating one another.  My hope is that these visits with my parents will act as milestones in our lives as time passes, and that by remembering each visit, we will remember more clearly those beautiful details that seem so unforgettable at the time, but are nevertheless in danger of being dulled by the passing of years.