Friday, October 23, 2015

Finding Grace's Parents: THAT Advert

It's National Adoption Week and t'interweb is buzzing with back and forth opinions about its remit, efficacy and relevance to adopters and adoptees. I understand that the celebratory nature of the event and its obvious emphasis on recruitment above all else can raise people's hackles, especially those who are experiencing real daily hardship in their adoptive families, or living with the lifelong effects of having been adopted.

For myself I've made a conscious decision to let it go. I have questions about the amount of money spent on recruitment of prospective adopters generally compared to the amount spent on supporting those adopters after the adoption order. I have questions about the need to keep on and on recruiting when currently the numbers of children with placement orders are tanking and prospective adopters are waiting with apparently no end in sight and fierce competition for matches.

On the other hand, there are children waiting, and many of these are harder to place - older children, sibling groups, children from ethnic minorities, children with additional needs - so the focus this year on older children ("Too Old At Four?") does not seem misplaced. Many raise their eyebrows at the lack of any mention of the challenges involved in adopting an older child, but then there are also adopters and adoptees speaking positively of their own experiences.

So, yeah, I let it go. Certainly much more could be done and said regarding post adoption support, and regarding the actual lived experiences of adoptees, but I'm not sure a special 'week' should or ever could effectively achieve this. I'm happy to see non-governmental organisations taking advantage of the heightened awareness of adoption issues generated by the week to push their less popular and arguably more realistic agendas, but it's definitely a conversation that needs to be ongoing and targeted to those who can actually make a difference.

And then yesterday, an article appeared in the Daily Mirror that was quickly circulated all over the internet. First 4 Adoption, the organisers of this year's National Adoption Week, wanted to introduce us to Grace, a 3-year-old with quite complex health needs who had been waiting all her life for somebody to adopt her. Her foster carers are nearing retirement. Could we find her a new adoptive family before Christmas?

Personally I found it extremely conflicting, and not a little stomach churning. I do not like to see individual children 'advertised' like that. It does not sit well with me. It wasn't so much the lack of detail in the article about Grace's actual needs (although I thought it did make clear that she had significant additional medical needs and would need a full-time parent to accommodate them), or the lack of any hint as to the difficulties that might face any family adopting her. If I thought that they were prepared to send her home with any random family that called in then, yes, that would have been a serious issue, but in reality they will be looking for adopters who are already approved, who have already been through preparation and given some thought to what life with an adopted, special needs child might look like. If their preparation was inadequate to prepare them, then that's a serious but separate issue. This was an advert and, like all adverts, it was hardly likely to focus on the negatives.

The question raised for me is whether such adverts are ever appropriate. I sincerely hope that the motivation was to find a family for that specific child, and not to make her some sort of poster girl for adoption in general, but its timing at the end of National Adoption Week makes me doubt the purity of the motive. On the foster carer side of the adoption fence, I can understand the desire to 'flesh out' what can often be a bleak pile of paperwork on some children. I have fostered children who, if I had seen their paperwork only, I would never have dreamed of adopting. And yet they were living with me and it was going fine. An abstract list of symptoms, disorders and concerns can be very off-putting. I felt that the foster carers of Grace were trying to show that the reality of parenting her was much more rewarding than the paperwork alone might have suggested.

Adoption Activity Days raise similar concerns. Is it right to parade children in front of prospective adopters like some sort of meat market? Part of me cringes at the thought. And yet Baby Girl, whose paperwork was absolutely dire and who was 'hard to place', found her family at such a day. Her personality and adorable countenance just shone through. In a few days I will go to their home to join with their celebrations at getting the Adoption Order, almost exactly a year after she was placed with them. Will they face difficulties? Probably. But they will face them as her parents, with a fierce love and passion. In the abstract, it's hard to imagine how it will be. But in reality, as parents, we would walk over hot coals for our children in a heartbeat, whatever it takes. Baby Girl's parents admitted to me during introductions that there were two health issues on her CPR that they had initially said no to when considering matching. But then they fell in love with her at first sight, went away, thoroughly researched the issues, and decided they would go ahead after all. Were they naive? Maybe. But somebody has to raise that beautiful child. Might as well be these people who love her. No parents are experts when they start out.

And yet, nagging at me is the thought that, one day in the future, an older Grace (I really hope that's not her real name) might find that picture of her younger self on the internet somewhere, along with the description of her as the child that "nobody wants". I can't get past it. I hope they find a family for her. I'm sure there are people out there who have what it takes. But she could not have given informed consent to have that photo and that information about her spread all over the internet. And she will never be able to undo it or take it back. Only she will ever be able to say whether the ends justified the means.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Connor Sparrowhawk's Mum

Some of you might have seen in the news tonight that the inquest into the tragic death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk while in NHS care, ruled that his death was contributed to by neglect and was not, as originally claimed, due to natural causes. For those unfamiliar with the story, Connor had autism and epilepsy and died in an NHS short term treatment unit after having an epileptic fit while in the bath, unsupervised. Please read more on the #justiceforLB website.

I am totally unconnected with this tragic story. I did not know Connor, who was called Laughing Boy by those who did know him, and do not know any of his family or friends. I have no expertise on autism, learning disabilities, the NHS, or epilepsy. I have not been involved in the widespread #justiceforLB campaign on social media and elsewhere. In fact I saw Connor's mum's face for the first time only tonight in her dignified interview on the news.

However, like many others I have followed events from a distance for months, through Twitter and through the blog maintained through the darkest of times by Connor's mum, Sara Ryan. I don't claim any special insight or knowledge, or any right to speak, or to connect myself in any way to the story that has unfolded. All I can say is that I have watched and read and wondered and cried and raged as each episode of this convoluted tale has been revealed.

And through it all I have been struck time and time again by how different things could have been if, at any point, Connor's mum had been acknowledged and listened to and given respect by the professionals involved in his life. Of course, Dr Sara Ryan is a professional in her own right but, in her role as 'Connor's mum' it seems to me that her voice, her knowledge and expertise regarding her own son, her concerns about his wellbeing and treatment, have all been ignored.

Both before and after Connor's death, she has been subject to criticism, abuse and deceit. She has been sidelined, ignored and belittled. Two months after Connor's death, the unit he was being treated in was closed down as it failed to meet any of the key quality and safety standards at a snap inspection. Today, the inquest verdict has vindicated her and all those who stood with her in this battle. But at what cost?

When I look back on my 12 years as a teacher - a 'professional' - I sometimes cringe at things I said and did, not having the understanding I have now in my role as a foster carer. It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that 'professionals' have all the answers. Time and time again I hear of parents frustrated because they are simply not believed by 'professionals'. Or if they are believed, then they are blamed.

Professionals have training, yes. Expertise, yes. Wide knowledge of a lot of relevant cases and situations, yes. But parents know their children. They know the nuances of their personalities, their needs and their behaviours. Of course parents are sometimes 'too close', but maybe professionals are sometimes 'too far away'. We need professionals. We need their skills and knowledge. But we need parents too. After 18 years of caring for her son every single day, Connor's mum should have had a seat at the professionals' table.

I was glad to read the verdict today, although it must be a bittersweet moment for Connor's family. I am grateful to Connor's mum and the rest of his family and their supporters who fought and fought and would not give up the fight, because their fight is that of mums and dads and grandparents and foster carers and guardians and kinship carers of children everywhere who, try as they might, can't get a seat at the professionals' table, can't get their voices heard, can't get their expertise acknowledged. Thank you, Connor's mum.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Car Crash

I was nearly involved in a car crash the other day. Constant reorganisation of our town centre has left quite a few tricky junctions around the place and it was at one of these where another driver pulled out directly in front of my car. Realising her mistake, she slammed on the brakes and stopped right in the middle of the junction. If I had not been able to stop in time, I would have gone straight into her driver's side door. Straight into where she was sitting.

Thankfully I could stop and the incident ended with nothing more than a bit of apologetic hand waving. But I couldn't help thinking how unhelpful our instincts can be at times of stress. The other driver's split second decision in that moment of crisis was probably the opposite of what it should have been. If she had put her foot down and completed her turn, she would probably have been well out of my way. As it was, screeching to a halt right in front of me placed her right in harm's way. I'm not criticising her. I would probably have done the same. Sometimes our instincts betray us!

It is easy, and probably a bit cheesy, to draw comparisons between our near miss and our lives here as parent and children. But I'm going to do it anyway.

My children are young, and in their heads and their emotions, they're probably even younger. In times of stress - which is a lot of the time! - their instincts often drive them towards making decisions and displaying behaviours that are likely to get them into more hot water rather than less. As their parent, albeit temporarily in some cases, I have to train myself to remember this; to recognise stress-causing situations and minimise them so that opportunities to fail aren't so frequent; to show them what self-control feels and looks like; to lead the way through some alternative routes.

It's a long haul, and I'm not sure how far we'll get. I know full well that when skidding on ice, one should avoid the brakes and instead turn the wheels in the direction of the skid. I know that. And yet when it happens, I can barely keep my foot way from the brake! I hope I can be more forgiving of my children when they succumb to their instincts than the icy road is.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Power of a Phone Call

Twinkle goes to nursery three and a half days each week. It's the same nursery she's always been in and we all agree that it provides much-needed stability while everything else is shifting around her.

Three afternoons each week, her day is finished by a contact session at the nursery with her mum, and her two sisters who are brought over from their school at hometime. On the afternoon when she doesn't see them, we go to McDonalds. It's a well-established routine. We like a good routine.

When I dropped her off at lunchtime today, she was expecting the day to end with time with her family. She asked about it several times on the way. But when I arrived at 5pm to pick her up, I knew straight away that something had gone wrong. Normally they are all waiting outside in the car park, the girls running riot. Today the car park was empty. I waited a few minutes to see if anyone turned up, but eventually I unloaded the other two from the car and went inside in search of her.

There had been no contact. I managed to speak to one of the teachers before I found Twinkle, and she confirmed that there had been no contact, and they didn't know why. Nobody had called them. When Twinkle was finally reunited with all her possessions (somehow her socks are always missing!) and brought to me, her face absolutely crumpled.

"I didn't see my Mummy!" she wailed, tears rising in her eyes.

Twinkle is definitely one for a dramatic display, and often her wails are merely noise with little substance behind them, but not today. She was very upset, and clung first to her teacher and then to me, sobbing. I felt bad for her, but also mad for her. This cancelled contact must have been planned and known about or else the two sisters would have turned up at the nursery with the contact supervisor and the staff would have known about it. The sisters had never been there.

It didn't take me long to find out what had happened. They have been in court. Something they would have known about for weeks. Clearly they managed to tell the contact supervisor that contact was cancelled, and the other sisters' foster carers. But they didn't tell me.

I can imagine why. Some time ago there was concern that a forthcoming contact might be missed. This posed a problem for me as I had a commitment which made it impossible for me to pick Twinkle up from nursery at 3.30 instead of 5pm on that particular day. It was agreed that she could just stay in nursery until 5pm when I could get her. I imagine that this has set a precedent. Perhaps they felt they didn't need to call me as Twinkle would be fine in nursery and I wouldn't have to alter any plans.

Unfortunately that has meant that instead of preparing Twinkle gently for her mum's absence today, I actually reassured her on the way to nursery that yes, she would be seeing her mummy later. We managed the aftermath of it all very well in the end, but proper preparation would have avoided all of that crushing disappointment. And as yet I don't know how much the incident has damaged Twinkle's fragile trust in me.

Recently we were asked as foster carers to contribute ideas towards a new training session being devised to help social workers understand the role of the foster carer. My response was that any social worker could find the role of a foster carer in two minutes with a Google search. My own LA's website has a pretty good summary as a starting point. Knowing our role is a start, but it's not enough. I would like social workers to be given better guidance on how their decisions and actions can help or hinder us in our roles. And vice versa for that matter. We should understand that we are a team and each member's actions impact on another member's ability to fulfil their role.

I don't really blame the social worker for not calling me. She probably found a logical reason for not doing so and I expect she had a million calls to make that day. Or maybe she had to deal with an emergency. Or maybe she just forgot. We all forget things. But in the aftermath of a seemingly small error or decision like that, I have difficulty explaining to people how big an impact it has had on the child and our home. This is where I think things could improve - helping each person in the team around the child to understand the full extent of all of our actions or inactions on the child, so that better decisions can be made next time.

I picked Twinkle up from nursery after a contact one day last week and found her fizzy, defiant, almost manically flipping from one mood to another. Only the next day when I dropped her off did I learn that the Guardian ad Litem had attended contact that day and spoken to the children and their mum. Coincidence? I don't think so. I knew the Guardian was planning a visit but I didn't know when so I was unable to prepare Twinkle for it. Again, we managed it quite well, but I would so much rather prevent fires than fight them.

I am acutely aware of the pressure on everyone who works in children's social care. I know that there is a lot to remember, many appointments to be made, and crises to be attended to. Twinkle's social worker is a child protection social worker so she often has to cancel things at the last minute to deal with an emergency. I don't want to make more work for people. But I wonder if it would be possible to bcc a child's foster carer in on every email that is sent about the child? There should be no issue of confidentiality as we foster carers are supposed to be in the loop anyway, Much of what is written might be of no interest to us, but it's just possible that we might be able to flag up events and decisions that will have an impact on the child that nobody else might have foreseen. Proper information is the foundation of proper preparation. Preparation is better than cure. If there even is a cure.