Children who are waiting - now there's a loaded phrase. I suppose from some perspectives, many looked-after children are waiting. They are waiting for others to have meetings, make decisions, take action. They wait for appointments and medicals and contacts. They are in a strange limbo-land.
But to reduce all of this activity to the one word 'waiting', or even worse, 'languishing', is to ignore the purpose of this in-between time. It implies that this time spent 'waiting' is unnecessary, pointless even; that there is no value to it; that we could just cut out the middle man, so to speak.
Let me use Baby Girl as an example. She was brought into care at 3-days-old. A classic case of a child whom 'everybody knows' is going to be adopted. But here's our first hurdle. Nobody, in fact, knows what will happen to Baby Girl. Everybody knows what they think should happen, and of course her care plan is heading towards an adoption route, but while social workers and other professionals might influence and guide the decision, the ultimate pronouncement is made in a court of law, only after due process has been followed. Could that process be clearer, faster, more efficient? Probably. But it must be followed nonetheless.
However, anticipating the probable outcome of court proceedings, our LA are twin-tracking Baby Girl, carrying out the necessary procedures with birth family while at the same time making appointments for pre-adoption medicals, and beginning initial searches for matching.
Everybody feels that it would be better to get this done sooner rather than later, and on one level I don't disagree. But I worry that, in the long run, more haste is less speed. Before she was born, Baby Girl was housed in an extremely inhospitable environment, the possible effects of which are still unknown. There are medical tests which cannot be carried out with accuracy until she is much older. So she is a child who 'might have ...'. Although there are early concerns over some aspects of her development, we won't know if she is meeting her milestones until we get to them. So again, she 'might have ...'.
When I think about prospective adopters filling in their matching sheets, making agonising decisions about whether they would be able to manage this medical condition or that life event, I wonder whether the combination of Baby Girl's 'might haves' could just complicate her right out of the picture. There must be plenty of prospective adopters who have indicated that they would like a child of her age, but once you start adding in the 'might have' medical conditions and developmental issues, that must narrow the field considerably.
There's a massive element of uncertainty when adopting a very young baby. More so, sometimes, than in adopting an older child. It isn't so simple as the assumption that the younger the child, the less complicated the situation, the less damage, the fewer memories, the fewer long-term effects. Children are not taken into care without reason. Baby Girl was not taken into care for no reason. Even though she had not been born, she still experienced abuse and neglect. The emotional and physical toll of this neglect will not be known for months and years. This is true of all traumatised children, but if you adopt a four-year-old, you can at least expect to know if they are blind or deaf, or if they suffer from cerebral palsy, or if they are HIV+ for instance.
So, for Baby Girl, a list of 'might haves' will narrow the field of prospective adopters considerably. Some of these 'might haves' are very, very serious. And yet there is still the distinct possibility that, given a little time and the proper tests, we will be able to confirm that she doesn't actually have these things at all.
On the other hand, it is entirely possible that, as the weeks pass, other concerns will come to the fore. Perhaps developmental milestones will be missed. Concerns will be raised. Notes will be made and observations called for. She is so very young right now that it is impossible to know whether some of the worrying things we are seeing are signs of serious problems, or slight delays that will sort themselves out with time.
The truth is that, at this point, any prospective adopter has absolutely no idea what they are getting if they adopt Baby Girl. Of course, no birth parent knows what they are getting either, but the chances are that a birth parent will not have spent nine months of pregnancy endangering the life of their unborn child. For Baby Girl, the chances of her escaping all of that unscathed are so remote that it seems as though we are all waiting for the medical or developmental hammer to fall.
And I can't help thinking that if we just put the brakes on, just a little, we might give ourselves time to eliminate some of these uncertainties - certainly the ones that can be established by medical testing and investigation by specialists - so that the LA would properly know what sort of match they were looking for, and any prospective adopters would have a much better picture of the child they were being asked to consider. Baby Girl could still be adopted at under a year old and make someone's dreams come true.
Speed is not always of the essence. There is sometimes value in the 'waiting'.