Past Lives

"In a world of shifting family relationships in which children increasingly grow up with a wide range of connections that are seen as normal we need to take stock of why our approach to children in care is different."
(from a family court judgement, 2014)

Kevin Williams, Chief Executive of The Fostering Network shared this quote at a recent conference and it has provided me with much food for thought.

It is undeniably true that many children today grow up within a range of complex family situations with step-parents, step-siblings, half-siblings and other relatives and family friends often woven into their lives. Many, many children are raised with more than one complete family involved in their care to a greater or lesser extent, and for many this means living in more than one home at a time, managing different routines, parenting styles, lifestyle choices and so on.

To glibly assume that this is effortlessly managed by these children would be over-stating it in my opinion, but nonetheless, there is an expectation in blended families that most children will maintain relationships with all family members unless there are pressing reasons against it. Everybody must find a way to manage it.

It is very tempting to make comparisons between these situations and the situations of children who have been taken into care. If children in blended families maintain all their relationships, why can't looked after children? In my experience, once a child arrives in foster care, they lose their connections with their friends and wider family members in one fell swoop. Contact services are stretched, so supervised contacts are reserved for closest family - parents and siblings; perhaps sometimes a particularly close grandparent - and a whole network of other important relationships becomes nothing more than a memory.

With each transition, the ties become even looser. If a child moves on to another foster placement, there seems to be no standard practice requiring any contact with the former carer. The child loses not only the foster family they might have lived with for months, but also all of the extended family and friends network of which they will have become a part.

At transition to adoption, more ties are cut. During intros, the adoptive family are unlikely to meet any of the people who are important to the child other than those who actually live in the home with them. The foster grandparents, aunties and uncles, the family friends and community relationships are no more than shadows to adoptive parents who have enough to contend with as they become an instant family. How can we expect them to consider the swimming teacher who took a special interest in the child, or the nursery worker who was their key worker and cried when they left, or the neighbour who often invited the child to 'help' them in their garden? In reality, they may not even know about these people, reliant as they are on what information they are given.

Instead, adoptive parents are given instructions about how they should continue contact with a child's most immediate birth relatives, and all other relationships are at risk of being left in the dust.

A child will carry memories of all of these people with each transition, even if they are unable to articulate just what it was that made each of these people so important to them. And yet in some cases, adoptive parents are warned against making any contact at all with former foster families in case it upsets or unsettles the child.

It's a heartbreaking situation, and Williams's quote holds out the tempting promise of a utopia where relationships from previous families are cherished and even maintained in perpetuity. And why not? If kids from broken relationships can manage it, why can't kids who have been brought into care?

And yet, we must be realistic. We must not pretend that children in blended families maintain these family ties effortlessly. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort from the adults and the children involved. It is not easy. And these ongoing relationships are usually happening in situations where none of the adults involved have been a proven danger to the children.

There are many ways in which the situation for children who have been taken into care is nothing at all like the situation of children in blended families. With looked after children, we may be talking about family members who harmed them, or who neglected them, or who looked on and couldn't help, or whose lives were chaotic making them unreliable in the extreme. We are talking about foster carers who may have fostered dozens of children making maintaining meaningful ongoing relationships with every one of them untenable in the long run. We are talking about adoptive parents trying to create new and lasting attachments from a standing start with children who are still aching from the dismantling of whatever attachments they may have held on to previously; children for whom the very sight of a person with a lanyard causes utter panic because they think they are about to be moved on once again.

It is not straightforward. I met many of OB's extended family network - more than most adoptive parents ever would. And yes, I feel for his paternal grandma and his aged great grandparents and his very young uncle, and his half siblings, all of whom had little or no control over the situation. Some of them will never see him again. I feel for OB who has lost every one of them. Some of them may have had the capacity to be a powerful force for good in his life, and yet to be in direct contact with any of them would catapult us into an unknowable situation. I am the one who has to make that decision and bear the weight of responsibility for it while being uncomfortably conscious that it is OB who will live with the consequences of what I decide. I weigh up the possibilities of him feeling as though he belongs in all his families, against the risk of him feeling as though he belongs in none of them.

In drawing my conclusions, I have precious little to go on except the often conflicting advice of professionals and other members of the adoption triangle, and my gut. And it's not enough. I can't rely on anecdotal evidence as each situation is virtually unique to the individuals involved, and it's hard to see how rigorous research could overcome the ethical considerations. I would like to see better lifestory work, more lifestory training for foster carers, and a more holistic approach to recognising and celebrating all the diversity of a child's relationships, but I don't know if that is really the whole answer. I do know that whatever the answer is, it needs to be based on more than ideology and wishful thinking.


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