Saturday, April 23, 2016

Keep Calm and Ignore Inspirational Quotes

I have to hold my hand up: I'm not a sentimental person. I'm just not. So, inspirational quotes don't really do it for me. You know the sort of thing - motivational sayings in fancy fonts overlaid on soft-focus images of nature, clouds, or smiling children. I'm afraid I find most of them a teeny bit annoying, and some downright demoralising. Especially the parenting ones. Nothing like a 'quote' telling you that every word you speak has a profound and life-changing impact on your child to send you into a deep pit of despair.

Or maybe that's just me.

Anyway, here are a few inspirational parenting quotes that uninspire me on a regular basis!

"A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie."

(Tenneva Jordan)

I get it. A mother should be self-sacrificing, putting others' needs above her own, perhaps even a touch of the martyr. But, and here's the thing, I really like pie. I really, really like it. I don't care if there isn't enough. I want pie and I'm not going to lie about it! This should say, "A mother is a person who jolly well makes sure there's enough pie! And cake!"

"Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don't listen earnestly to the little stuff when they are little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them, all of it has always been big stuff."

(Catherine M Wallace)

This, I agree with, I really do. It makes sense. But . . . did the originator of this quote ever actually spend any time really listening to any children? I have made an effort and, believe me, it's a sure fire way to say goodbye to a few thousand brain cells. Only today, I have arranged my best 'earnest face' as I've listened to about two thousand requests for food and drink, a similar number of requests for TV time accompanied by double the number of complaints about perceived lack of TV time, a LOT of Lego talk, and one complex tale about something unfathomable that may or may not have happened in the distant past, with my best efforts to untangle it all resulting only in anguished cries of, "You don't understand what I'm saying!" No I don't! And, honestly, if at the age of 14, my son doesn't come bounding into the room each day desperate to tell me all about the 'big stuff', I'm going to feel seriously short-changed!

"The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice."

(Peggy O'Mara)

Again, it's not that I disagree, but, oh, the guilt! I dread to think how much my son's inner voice goes on about hanging up his coat, using his fork and keeping his hands and feet to himself. Mind you, on the plus side, if that's what his inner voice is saying he clearly isn't listening to it all that much!

"Please excuse the mess - my children are making memories."

(Unknown, but on cutesy signs everywhere)

Because it's not enough that my children are fed, clothed, and, you know, alive, they have to be "making memories" every minute of every day. Let's try a few alternatives to this: please excuse the mess - my children are incapable of tidying away a single toy; please excuse the mess - my children don't understand the purpose of the coat hooks; please excuse the mess - my toddler enjoys emptying the DVD drawers and then sitting there laughing like she's in some DVD ball pool; please excuse the mess - the mum in this house would rather sit on the sofa with her feet up after the kids are in bed than spend hours cleaning and tidying and isn't that bothered what you think about it. And let's face it, when I plan things with the intention of "making memories" they usually end up a total disaster! So, yeah, excuse the mess if you like - I'm pretty much ok with it either way.

"Be the change you want to see in the world."

(Supposedly said by Gandhi, although the NY Times says not!)

I know this isn't really a parenting quote, but I see it all the time, everywhere, and it always makes me roll my eyes. Earlier today, I grovelled about on my knees on the floor trying to retrieve food items my toddler had thrown down, while she threw more food which landed in my hair. Seriously folks, I had bits of chewed up fruit in my hair. I can't even manage to "be the change I want to see" at the dining table, never mind in the world. It's the grandiosity of scope that gets me down. I honestly can't aspire to be the change I want to see in the world. Much of the time my greatest aspiration is to be in bed with a massive box of chocolates and some box set playing endlessly on the TV.

I could say so much more, but I'll leave you with this.

Friday, April 15, 2016

My Son's Hair

Unable to get an appointment with our usual hairdresser recently, I decided to walk OB down to the local barber for the first ever time . . . for both of us. It's not as though I have had any call to visit a barber before now!

The Haircut has been one of the things in our shared life together that has probably been more of a saga than I'd like. He has never been comfortable in the hairdresser's chair. He doesn't like the attention on him, or the sound of the scissors snipping away, or the clippers buzzing around his ears, and we have had many tears and beseeching cries over the years. It is the patience and gentle approach of our hairdresser, recommended to me by a friend, that has brought us to a stage where he will now sit quietly (silently) and still until the deed is done and he gets his little bag of sweets.

OB's first haircut was not long after his first birthday. We were managing a lengthy transition back to his birth mum and in the very last week of the process, when I was only taking him for three 2-hour respite sessions, she asked me to take him for a haircut.

There was no time for an appointment so I had to take him to a drop-in place I didn't know very well. Birth mum had been vague as to style - "not too short" was the only instruction she gave me. At the time, his hair was really quite long, with baby curls, and I had little idea what to say to the hairdresser when she asked me what I wanted, so I just asked her to tidy it up a bit.

OB wasn't keen on the whole thing. He cried a lot and squirmed. The hairdresser asked me to hold his head still, which I was very unhappy about. The end result was . . . well . . . not good! I bagged up a lock of his first haircut to give to his birth mum and, a few days later I said goodbye to him, as I thought, for good.

It was a few weeks later when I got the phone call asking me if I would accept him back. Two social workers brought him to my house later that afternoon and I remember looking out of the window as they parked the car. I had been on tenterhooks since the call.

As they lifted OB out of the car, I got quite a shock. His baby hair was completely gone. It had been cut - no, shaved - short. I couldn't believe how different he looked. He was suddenly a proper toddler, and no longer a wispy-haired baby.

I didn't take him for another cut for a very long time, and I have never had his hair that short again. In fact, if anything, OB's hair has a tendency to be just a little bit too long, especially when I get a bit lax in making our next appointment in a timely fashion. I love his full, thick hair, and the way it bobs about when he runs. So I was pretty devastated when the barber took out his clippers the other week, and did large portions of it with a number 4!

Lots of people have commented on how smart and grown up he looks, and I have agreed heartily with them in OB's hearing, but the truth is, although I'm getting used to it now, I didn't like it at all. It reminded me way too much of how he looked when he came back to me all those years ago.

And it's not because I didn't like the cut his birth mum got for him, and it's not because I have any bad feeling towards her for doing it differently to how I wouldn't have done it. It's because he was such a traumatised poor wee mite when I got him back that when I look back at photos of him around that time and I see his little pale, thin face and his shorn hair, and the look in his eyes, all I can think is that I never want my son to look that way again.

The Weekly Adoption Shout Out (#WASO) theme over on the The Adoption Social this week has been 'Finding Inspiration'. The inspiration for this post came from a discussion about hair cut stories with some Twitter buddies! :-)

If you enjoyed this, and are looking for more blogs about adoption from all perspectives, you'll find plenty at The Adoption Social.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Foster 'mum' or guardian: does it really matter when a child has died?

On the same day that a verdict was handed down in the tragic case of toddler Ayeeshia Smith, another horrific case came to trial.

This case has not (yet) hit the national headlines in the same way. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it's because the child in question was in care. More realistically I think it's probably because there is no verdict as yet. I await with interest the media coverage when we do have a verdict.

This case, of murdered toddler Keegan Downer is horrific and shocking. It's so appalling that I'm not going to go into details here - a quick internet search will reveal all. Suffice it to say that this child experienced months of horrendous abuse before her death at just 18 months old, including serious, untreated fractures.

Now, before I go on, I must say that I am getting my information from various news sources, and that the defendant in the trial, one Kandyce Downer, has pleaded 'not guilty' and has not been convicted.

Baby Keegan was removed from her birth mother shortly after her birth in March 2014, and placed with a foster carer. In January 2015, she was placed with Kandyce Downer on a Special Guardianship Order (SGO). Kandyce Downer seems to have been the ex-wife of a cousin of the child's birth father, hence the same surname. By September 2015, the toddler was dead.

In the context of what is a truly tragic and horrific event, it might seem strange to some that I am taking issue with the description in many media outlets of Kandyce Downer as a 'foster mum' on trial for murdering her 'foster daughter'. Please bear with me as I try to explain why this concerns me.

This woman was not the child's foster carer. At all. She was the child's guardian. It might seem like a fine distinction, but it matters because there's a huge difference between foster care and guardianship, especially when it comes to the quality and depth of the approvals procedure, and the monitoring that takes place after the child has been placed.

A Special Guardianship Order gives children a permanence plan other than long term foster care or adoption. In fact many long term foster carers who have made a commitment to a child until adulthood will switch to an SGO as it gives them more freedom, and removes some of the parental role of social services which can be cumbersome and restrict family life. Other candidates for SGOs include family members who are willing to raise nieces, nephews, grandchildren, etc. Importantly, an SGO gives the guardians parental responsibility for the child, which a foster carer does not have.

No assessment process for gauging the suitability of an individual to parent another person's child can ever be infallible but, for a foster carer, the process of approvals takes months, involves hours and hours of meetings where the applicant reveals every detail of their personal life to a social worker in order that a huge document (mine was over 60 pages long) can be prepared, and is accompanied by mandatory training (which continues after approval), and numerous references and interviews with the prospective carer's friends and family.

In contrast, a person can be considered for a Special Guardianship Order after very few actual meetings with a social worker - as few as two meetings in cases I have known of. It's a much less rigorous assessment, which on one level I understand, as some family members might be put off coming forward if they were then to be rigorously assessed and trained for 6 months before the child was even placed with them.

As a short term foster carer, I am visited by my own social worker every 4-6 weeks, and by the child's social worker every 4-6 weeks. Children in long term foster carer usually have fewer visits than that. Children on an SGO could have no visits at all as the guardian has parental responsibility for the child.

So, yes, it does matter that this woman was the child's guardian and not her foster carer. It matters because in recent months the number of adoption placement orders has been plummeting and the number of SGO applications has been soaring. The reasons for that are not fully researched, and there isn't space here to run through the many opinions. Let's just assume that some children who might previously have gone for adoption are now getting SGOs.

I am not against SGOs at all. I am not against children living with family members when they can't live with their birth parents. This can be an excellent answer to a difficult and complex situation. If this option has been overlooked in the past, then I'm glad if that is being rectified now.

But, there will no doubt be debate following this tragedy about why it happened and how it could have been prevented. And the relative shallowness of the procedure for identifying and assessing guardians (as opposed to foster carers or adopters) must form part of that debate. The possibility that children are being placed with unsuitable guardians due to expediency, cost-cutting, and knee-jerk reactions to recent court rulings must form part of that debate.

Does abuse happen in the homes of foster carers? Well, demonstrably it unfortunately does. And if a tiny number of foster carers can get away with it, considering all the assessments, training and supervision we get, surely there is also that risk in an SGO placement, without all those safeguards in place?

Nobody wants to see a child go for adoption when they could have reasonably been raised by family members. Nobody wants that. But neither does anybody want to see the definition of adoption as a 'last resort', 'when nothing else will do' interpreted so vaguely as to mean that children risk being placed with those who are totally unsuitable to care for them long-term merely on the strength of some family tie, however distant.

The Serious Case Review into Keegan's death will hopefully shed light on what went wrong here. Personally, I hope that the inevitable soul-searching as to how and why this could have happened leads to assessments for special guardianship being made considerably more rigorous (not easy with the 26-week timescale in place, I know), intensive input from relevant professionals in the early days and ongoing professional support guaranteed. Well, I have always been a dreamer.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Adoption: A Vision for Change

Over the Easter weekend, the Department for Education published 'Adoption: A Vision for Change', setting out a vision for adoption over the next four years. This latest document follows hard on the heels of 'Children's Social Care Reform: A Vision for Change' which was published in January.

If you'd like to read the whole thing, you can find it here, but I've summarised a few of the highlights below just in case you don't fancy devoting a whole evening to reading a 40+ page DfE document!

The paper proposes to:

  • Change legislation to require courts and adoption agencies to consider, at the Adoption Order stage, the relationship a child has with the prospective adopters that they have been placed with - previously birth relatives and "any such person the court considers relevant" had to be considered; the changes will ensure that prospective adopters are considered "relevant".
  • Strengthen SGO assessments to include, for example, capacity to care for the child until he/she is 18, understanding of child's current and future needs, ability to meet those needs, understanding of risk posed by birth parents, assessment of strength of previous and current relationship between the child and prospective guardian.
  • Delegate all LA's adoption functions to Regional Adoption Agencies by 2020, with voluntary agencies playing a central role - RAAs will carry out all recruitment, matching and support as a minimum, and may also carry out additional functions.
  • Increase 'foster to adopt'-style placements.
  • Increase funding to the Adoption Support Fund year on year and extend support to adopted people up to age 21, children adopted from other countries via intercountry adoptions, and chldren living under SGOs who were previously looked after.
  • Develop a guide for early years professionals working with adopted children.
  • Extend the role of virtual school heads to cover adopted children.
  • Develop new adopter/adoptee voice initiatives and extend the scope of existing ones, e.g. extending the work of Coram's 'The Adoptables', establishment of an Adoption Support User Group by Adoption UK - these and other groups will help inform the development of government policy.

There's more, of course, and these are just some of the aspects that attracted my attention, but judging from this there are lots of changes ahead in the adoption landscape.