Friday, May 22, 2015

Just a Little Slap

Today, during a short conversation on the importance of using 'please' and 'thank you', Twinkle reached up and, quick as a flash - and only an old-fashioned term will do here - she boxed my ears. Quite hard. With all the strength her little body could muster actually.

I was pretty shocked by it. It wasn't that I never expect lashing out or hitting, but because in the few days that she's been with us, she's shown no signs at all of hitting or any other physical response. She hasn't even got especially frustrated about anything, or seemed angry, despite some pretty severe provocation from OB at times. She has cried when things have gone wrong, exactly as I'd expect from an older toddler.

She didn't seem particularly angry or frustrated today either. The way she did it was almost matter of fact. She was sitting there, listening to me, admittedly with a grumpy look on her face, and then she was hitting me.

The Adoption Social has been running a special theme this week as part of a new series on difficult subjects that are hard to talk about and rarely aired. This first week was focused on CPV - child on parent violence.

I know from talking to people that this is something that affects not only adoptive and foster families, but can happen in 'normal' families too. It's not about toddler tantrums with lashing out ("Don't all children do that?!"), but about violence that is intractable, unstoppable, carried out with intent, and, certainly as a child gets older and stronger, violence that can do real harm to the parent on the receiving end. I hear of black eyes and bruises, of knives and other kitchen objects being wielded, of kicking and strangling.

I don't wish to air OB's dirty laundry in public, but there are times when I worry about the possibility of CPV in our future. What comforts me about the incidents we have experienced is that each time I have known that his actions have stemmed from either an internal or external provocation, rather than a cold-hearted desire to inflict hurt. He is small, and his emotions are big. My hope and prayer is that as we work together to unwrap, examine, name and validate his big emotions, we will move past a stage where lashing out is his most effective expression of them.

Certainly, I am no expert on CPV, but if this is a reality in your life, then I urge you to seek help and support for you and your child. It is hard to talk about, yes. It is hard to admit. Others may not understand. They might judge you or blame you. But there are organisations out there that do understand and that are committed to working with families without judgement or blame. The Adoption Social has compiled a list of resources on the subject here. If this is happening in your home, then both you and your child are suffering. Please, do, make that call.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Skills to Foster

Last week I had the privilege of standing in front of a group of prospective foster carers on the second day of their Skills to Foster training and telling them a little of what it means to be a foster carer day to day.

There were around 20 people, mostly couples, some singles, so perhaps 12 new foster families in the offing. If they continue past the training. If they are approved. If they last beyond their first placement.

Some of them were already caring for someone else's children - I could tell that from their knowing looks and wry smiles. Others were completely new to it, and baffled by some of what I said.

"Why would they return a child to a birth parent if it wasn't going to work out?"
"Why would they place a child with you in the first place if they couldn't speak your language? Why not just place them with an appropriate family straight away?"
"Why didn't they give you more notice? Don't they plan these things?"

I spoke a little about my experiences, the children I've cared for, the timescales, interventions and outcomes for them. I majored on talking about transitions, both at the beginning and end of placements, and especially on transitioning to adoption. I know the lady who was running the course fairly well, and she knows quite a bit about us, so she encouraged me to talk about OB and some of the issues he faces as an adopted child. Towards the end, I urged those of them who would be fostering younger children to make contact with adopters, either in real life or online, and to learn from them as I have been able to do thanks to communities such as The Adoption Social. Learning the issues faced by adopters way down the line over such practical things as unlabelled memory box items has definitely changed my fostering for the better.

Remembering back to my own training, I also admitted to them that there had been things that I had mentally resisted when they were discussed in training. I heard the speaker talk about them, but I put up a mental hand of denial towards them. I think many people have a tendency to do this. For me, it was the amount of contact I might have with birth families. I was nervous about it, so I clung to some imaginary hope that I could limit it to a few words exchanged at contact drop off. What was I thinking? I have spent hours and hours and hours with birth family members, sometimes at the worst moments in their lives. I have been there when their children were removed, when they got the bad news that they weren't coming back. I have seen tears and heard rage and denials and pleading. I have maintained diplomatic cool when, after missing 5 consecutive contacts without a word, a birth parent gets shirty about re-arranging one contact at my request. I still get nervous about it. It's still unavoidable.

I was sure that in that room were people who had mentally stiffened at some of the things they had heard. I am sure that happens at every training session, both for fostering and adopting. It's so tempting to hold up the hand of denial against the things we don't want to hear. But they can happen whether we want them to or not, and recognising that we are resistant, and understanding the reasons why will be the key to working out how to deal with it if it does come to pass.

Anyway, I was just one of many faces, speaking just a few of the many words that these prospective foster carers will be bombarded with over the next weeks and months. We had a few laughs and I answered a few questions, and hopefully threw a little light on it all, at least for somebody.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why "That'll Do" Isn't Good Enough

I recently saw a report on another Family Court hearing where the Judge had taken the LA to task and, in this case, had overturned a placement order on appeal. The Judge ruled that the LA had not made a sufficient case for adoption for the child, and said that adoption should be a "last resort" and only considered "when nothing else will do". Those who follow these things will recognise these phrases from other, earlier judgements.

I'm not going to comment on the circumstances of that case because I don't fully know about them - for all I know, the Judge made absolutely the right decision.

But I really hate the phrase "when nothing else will do." I hate it because there's nearly always something that will "do". If we search hard enough, wait long enough, we're bound to find a vaguely suitable relative, however distant, however non-existent their relationship has been with the child previously. Or there's long term foster care. Or there are residential homes. There are any number of places we could put a child and say "That'll do" if we're really treating adoption as a "last resort".

I hate it because "that'll do" isn't good enough for children who have already been terribly let down. I hate it because I think the phrase should be "when it's in the best interests of the child". For some children, kinship care, SGOs, long-term fostering, residential homes or other non-adoption permanence plans really are the best option for their circumstances. For others, adoption is their best option, sometimes even when these other options are available.

Yes, I really did just say that for some children, adoption might still be in their best interests even if a kinship care option is available. I realise that this is controversial and many will strongly disagree. I am not against kinship care at all, and have seen many successful outcomes for children cared for by family members, but kinship care is not a panacea.

Too often I have seen and heard of cases where children are left on a Residence Order, or similar, with relatives who have been barely vetted and whose main qualification is willingness. Willingness is important, but re-parenting a neglected or abused child will test many an adoptive parent or foster carer to the limit, and at least they are coming to the situation after a serious vetting and preparation process and, hopefully, some decent training.

Bearing this in mind, what support will be offered to the kinship carers? What training? What financial help? If the children need therapeutic input or specialist services, who will be responsible for arranging and paying for that? Again, I have seen some examples of very bad practice with families left with nobody to turn to.

What contact will the child have with birth parents? Who will manage this? Will the child be plagued throughout their childhood by inappropriate and unhelpful interference from birth parents who, while not being in a position to parent their children, can still undermine their carers and unsettle them from a distance? What if there has been physical or sexual abuse that has yet to be disclosed? Will managing all of this tear wider families apart through divided loyalties? When carers are presented with a relative's child or children and told that if they don't take them they will be adopted and they'll never see the children again, and then given a week to think it over, is anyone really helping them think through the ramifications for themselves and their wider families?

What if the carer's circumstances change? My own son's birth mum's kinship care placement broke down after her relative got married. She had been there for eight years, and suddenly she was thrown back into the foster care system. It was disastrous for her.

And what about long-term foster care? I spoke to a foster carer the other day who'd had a long-term placement break down recently. He was devastated. He had been begging his LA for support for months and nothing had been forthcoming. Eventually, after the child had lit over 60 fires in the family home, the LA 'solved' the problem by removing the child to another placement.

There are kinship carers out there doing an absolutely fantastic job of raising their relative's children under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I take my hat off to them because they are often doing this without even the support that an adoptive parent would get, and we know that post-adoption support is often woefully inadequate. I know long-term foster carers, too, who are totally committed to the children they care for, making them fully part of the family and pouring themselves out on their children's behalf. I can't emphasise enough that I am not dismissing kinship care, or any other form or long-term permanency plan.

But, the decision on a long-term plan for a child must, must, must be based on the best estimate of what will be in that individual child's best interests, in their individual circumstances, both now and in the future. It must not be based on a tick sheet, on speed, or on finances because, yes, it is quicker and cheaper to drop children off at a relative's house and drive off into the sunset without a backward glance or any promise of material support, but that's hardly the point is it?

Adoption: not a last resort, when nobody can find anything else that "will do", but a valid option where it is in the best interests of the child.