Beware individual solutions for common problems – time for a union?

I’ve written and spoken previously that I believe the time has come for us to start to rethink the way we approach adoption, and the model I have proposed is that of the ‘professional adopter’.

I know that the idea of the ‘professional’ adopter makes some nervous, as if it was incompatible or antithetical to the love of a parent, but there are many reasons why I bang on about this concept. Chief amongst these is my belief that the mindset change required to approach the role of parenting professional would deliver improved outcomes for parents and children, but also because there are properties of being part of a professional group that I think we could benefit from.

Let’s start by defining a professional adopter. According to the CED (the Cambridge English Dictionary – who knew!) the status of being a professional is relates “to work that needs special training or education”. In adoptive parenting (and fostering) we could define it as the individual that combines the role of parenting, through adoption or fostering, with the professional skills and knowledge required to care for children impacted by trauma.  

OK that feels about right. There’s nothing so controversial there. Let’s then look at what other benefits can accrue to a professional. There are two other that stand out for me.

  • Standardised routes to achieve credentials – a training programme based on research and collective agreement that represents the best route to achieving professional status – and the highest level of professional effectiveness.
  • A single body that speaks on behalf of the profession and represents their interests with government and employers – the Charted Institue of Management Accountants is one example.

And on that note let me take something of a relevant detour. It its clear to me that the world of adoption support is starting to change. The indisputable evidence of the neurological damage caused by neglect and trauma, the emerging recognition of the scale of CPV, research that demonstrates that disruption is a real risk – and last – and in my view very far from least – the collective voices emerging from social media that are surfacing heartbreaking, but everyday, tales of families in crisis.

20 years ago it would not have been possible to build the wave we see on social media from the tears of isolated parents. But we are building a wave and my own view is that it is starting to push obstacles out of its way. But it is still a wave of individuals – albeit with common concerns – being offered individual solutions to common problems. And that’s the way governments likes to negotiate – with fragmented audiences.

So if we are to take that momentum forward perhaps we are now ready to combine our increasingly co-ordinated activism with a single professionalised mindset to create a body that itself sets the standards for what it means to be an effective ‘professional’ adopter or a foster parent. That negotiates with government on our support needs. That demand a seat at the table in every conversation with our ’employers’ in government and local authorities. That is the de facto organisation for all adopters and foster parents, and one where the leader is elected by the members – based on the degree to which they represent our interests.

Sure we have less leverage than an unionised employee – we are highly unlikely to withdraw our labour after all – but I’m willing to bet we have more leverage than we think. I am quite sure, for example, that collectively raising our voices about the reality of adoption to drown out the saccharine PR of adoption marketing would be a powerful and threatening tool.

To be clear: I have absolutely no idea if this idea is workable. And in a sense it doesn’t matter as I am talking more about the development of a professional mindset than I am launching a ‘Union of Professional Adopters’ or a quasi-professional body (although it was thrilling to see that there is now a union for foster parents). Nor am I not accusing the existing bodies that support us of being supine – I’m not remotely qualified to make that judgement.

This isn’t even much of a call to the barricades. I just have the nagging sense that somehow the power lies in the wrong place and it’s about time we wrested it from there.

I am also saying that I think the time has come for us to define what we need to succeed and when we need it. To set our own standards for training and development – and drive that into the agencies that recruit and support. To have a body that demands standardised support packages and is prepared to be unpopular in doing so. To define the standard of knowledge, skills and tools that we expect those that support us to have and to stop muddling our way through, the grateful recipients of government largesse, begging our way to get what our children are entitled to.

 

The final insult?

I have a feeling I’m about to wade into an area that has nuances and textures that I don’t appreciate. In which case I’d prefer to position this post as an in-principle perspective. In other words, in an ideal world my position may be correct, but where ideal and real worlds meet the same position could not always be held. I should also state that our LO had only one set of foster parents from 10 months old to 3 1/2, and this will have skewed my perspective.

I had the great fortune to speak at conference for the Welsh National Adoption Service  in Cardiff this week, and the even greater fortune to follow Lynne Cudmore, co-author of ‘The children were fine’: a report on the “complex feelings in the move from foster care to adoption”.

Not only was Lynne the most wonderful speaker, whose gentle but powerful style must have come directly from her Welsh forebears, but her subject matter filled me with the kind of passion only the righteous in a Merthyr Methodist chapel could have felt.

Lynne’s insight was on how the focci of the transition during introductions shifts subtly away from the child to the ‘process’, and how following that, in the ‘quadrat’ of adoption (birth, foster, adoptive parents and child), the primary and defining relationship becomes between the birth family and the new adoptive family, with the foster carers moving from Mum and Dad to dutiful professionals. And how all these movements can deny the child the opportunity to grieve in a healthy way the pain of another severance.

I hated introductions. Everything about it felt wrong. It felt designed by a project manager with the goal to “get it all over with”. I didn’t get a sense that this process had been designed over many years with the extensive support of those who understood severance and grief. Just the well-meaning. I just couldn’t understand how you could read Dan Siegel or Nancy Verrier and then agree to move a child from their own hard-won precarious, sense of permanence to severance and then back to “permanence” within 7-10 days.

I couldn’t understand why the general consensus was that we should “leave it a few months” before seeing the foster parents again.  Just to make sure, I guess, that the child genuinely believed they were unwanted – as opposed to simply fearing it.

I couldn’t understand the language of “choice” in deciding whether to have future and on-going contact with the foster family.  As if it was our choice to make. As if the feelings that mattered in this were mine and my husband’s – and not our son’s.

I couldn’t understand how we could learn that feelings expressed were always better than feelings oppressed and then have it suggested by others that if contact with foster parents caused our LO distress we may consider stopping it. As though being able to say “Leaving the foster-parents seemed to have little effect on Jonny” was a good thing.

I still don’t understand how we can know that our children take each severance as a rejection of their very self and then accept it when we hear of a foster family who refuse contact with their previous wards because it “upsets them”. It makes me mad. Who cares how they feel.

In medical terms an insult is a physical or mental injury, and in many senses a trauma is also an insult to the brain – causing the formation of pathways that may not be beneficial to the child. Is the way we currently manage that transition simply the final insult?

I’m a nice person. I understand and empathise with the complexities of feelings this transition creates. However I’m not so liberal that I think that the feelings of the adults  affected by the movement into adoption matter that much.

I feel astonished that we have learned so much about neuroscience, trauma and attachment and yet design a process and make decisions that we must know deep down are more about adults and systems than children and feelings. I believe that as we learn more we will recognise that our good intentions in balancing the needs of all parties in the transition to ‘permanence’ we may in fact be harming again – but with our gentle hands.

Please don’t be offended if you have navigated this process with sensitivity and empathy and reached a different decision – fully in the interests of your child. Your child may have had multiple foster-carers, or those who fostered but didn’t care. They may have taken a brisk professionals who swept in and swept out. There are many reasons why contact may not be healthy, and I do not know your life. Forgive me if I make wild sweeping judgements on others – no two situations can ever be the same. But I do believe changing the way we look at adoption, and specifically this transition where we have an opportunity to be more intelligent, more informed and more child-centred, means we may need to accept that we have been part of the problem we spend our lives trying to fix – and that there is a better way.

Quietly Living Epic Lives

ep·ic (ĕp′ĭk)
1: of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an epic an epic poem
2 : extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope

Prior to approval we decided, somewhat rashly, to attend a conference organised by The Open Nest in the walled city of York. I say ‘rashly’ because it was following that conference that hubby came closest to abandoning ship, leaving any future child firmly onboard, whilst at least one of us ran for the lifeboats. Because to the uninitiated this was more counselling than conference: with stories of trauma, pain, heartbreak and anger. This seemed to us to be the places where survivors came to congregate.

I had a similar experience more recently at an AdoptionUK Adopters Voice forum. I was the only newbie there, 15 months in, whilst most were caring for teenagers – often being more than 15 years in. One had experienced an adoption breakdown and ALL were experiencing issues the scale of which made me weep with sadness and frustration. The nadir of the discussion was the response to one parent’s comment that “The police have been marvellous”. It wasn’t that the police were helpful that shocked me, it was that nearly everybody in that room agreed with his statement. Nearly everybody in that room nodded in agreement. Nearly everybody in that room had had multiple dealings with the police.

The title of this piece came from The Open Nest Conference. It was a phrase used by Sally Donovan in a speech she gave, and it struck me at the time (I wrote about the same topic here following that conference) and has struck me repeatedly since. So on the 200th anniversary of The Adoption Social’s Weekly Adoption Shout Out I stopped to  think about the role that these forums provide. They are the campfires of our lives.

Most adopters live out their epic lives so quietly, that without WASO and other online and offline forums, how would we ever know? 

These may be epic lives in miniature – there are no Minotaurs or Gorgons – and we may celebrate quiet victories and bitter defeats sitting outside bedroom doors – but they are no less epic. We do help to slay beasts, we do lay paths out of dark forests , we do fight to ignore Siren voices that tell us to give up. Some of you keep going  even when you are on first name terms with the neighbourhood policing teams. And yet you love. Yet you endure. You are indeed living epic lives.

Blogs are the ways in which many of us tell our campfire stories. Of course part of us hopes that one day we will be able to look back on these posts, surrounded by grandchildren and the children who have slain their demons. But we write them because the responses of others remind us we are doing great things, the act of writing down our fears and failures is in itself cathartic, and because when we encounter doubt the support of our fellow travellers helps us to keep going.

And so this post is by way of my thanks to The Adoption Social’s WASO and all the others who build the campfires around which we gather to tell our tales. Thank you for your hospitality,  your generosity and the warmth you provide.

I have nothing to say – how lovely (but how hard it was to get here).

alexincolour_2

We’re going through a purple patch. LO is being delightful. Enormously affectionate and good-tempered. School are keeping their promises and he’s loving learning. We are happy.

So why am I writing this post? I’m reminded of one of my favourite Alex cartoons from years ago as Alex, The Telegraph’s smug city banker, phones The Samaritans one gloomy night and proceeds to tell them that he’s a 30 year old highly successful banker, earning £45k a year* and driving a new BMW. After which, he is asked the question you’d expect to which he answers “Why am I phoning you? Well I just thought you’d like some good news for a change”.

So why are things going so well? In the same way as we never quite know the exact reasons when things go badly, we don’t really know, and I doubt there’s a ‘silver bullet’ explanation – but here’s our best guess.

  1. He is making good progress at school and he’s loving the positive feedback loop
  2. We have a routine that is working really well for him – and he feels safe
  3. He is really starting to believe he is loved – and is basking in the warmth of it

Seems simple doesn’t it. Well, no, it’s not. It’s the result of months of Theraplay to reinforce those feels of love and security, (what feels like) days of school meetings to help them understand him and his trauma, the support of the Virtual Schools team to help them ‘get it’, support from the LA, direct work with his teachers to help them work with him, speech & language therapy to overcome his delays and help him express his feelings, support from the school nurse to make progress on toiletting issues, additional teaching support at playtime to help him manage that tricky unstructured time and lashings, upon lashings, of therapeutic parenting.

Nothing about this fantastic progress is simple. Nor is it permanent. As a wise person told me at the start of our parenting journey “It’s all a phase”. But we have worked hard to enjoy these five minutes basking in the sun. 

We know “this too shall pass” and we will encounter new challenges where we need to up our game, and learn new tricks and tips, but whilst this moment lasts you can damn well pass the bubbly.
 

* This was Alex’s annual salary in the 80’s. I have reason to believe this is now Alex’s monthly (pre-bonus) salary.

 

 

 

 

A case for the Professional Adopter.

Below is a heavily reduced version of a speech I gave to a conference of 80 Social Workers (Child and Adoption) and parents in Wales yesterday. The response on the day was very good. I enjoyed the event and I came away feeling buoyed that there are genuine evangelists for change, and a real appetite amongst much of the rank and file to respond to that change – but when that passion to rise meets the relentless pressure to reduce from above then too much is in danger of being lost. I also worry that the changes in structure, which seem sensible and laudable, could be in danger of missing the reality that so much in adoption support relies on the availability, capabilities and understanding of the individual social worker. However, if one leads to the improvement of the other then we will all raise a glass to that.


 

Four years ago a student wandered into a classroom of a primary school in a Welsh town and shot the teacher dead. Following this horrible event the Headteacher was quoted as saying that traumatised students were receiving support from trained counsellors. These counsellors continued to visit that school weekly for 12 months and those ‘survivors’ who reported symptoms of PTSD remain in counselling today.

In the same town, on the same day, a four-year girl witnessed her father beat and sexually assault her Mother, and then hit her – causing life-threatening injuries.

Following the Mother’s hospitalisation the child was removed from her birth family and placed in a foster home, and a further subsequent foster home, before being placed for adoption. Two years after placement her parents reported challenging behaviour and after a long fight involving many phone calls, emails and assessments, and a wait of 6 months from request to agreement, the LA have agreed to pay for a 12 week DDP programme to help the family develop a stronger attachment.

 

100% of children who come into adoption have been affected (and damaged) by the experience they have had.

They may have been damaged in utero, they will have been damaged through the reasons they entered the care system (abuse, neglect etc), and they will also have been damaged by the multiple severances they have experienced – the initial severance from birth parents, perhaps from multiple foster parents, and ‘finally’ damaged through the move into permanence itself  (even if we sometimes like to forget that final trauma in which we have played a part).

As parents we feel this to be true, and neuroscience increasingly confirms this belief.

And so given this apparent wealth of evidence  it’s enormously unhelpful to feel that adoption support seems to be based on a spectrum which to ranges from the light (a little clingy) to the severe RAD, FAS,  and other terror-filled acronyms. And how rarely PTSD appears on that list.

From the perspective of planning for adoption support a far better model is one where that damage is mapped on two axes – invisible to visible/ significant to severe. And however a child may appear  there is no place for any adopted or fostered child for ‘none of the above’. 

It is a simple fact that no child who starts life in a scenario that requires their removal from their birth family ever ‘dodges a bullet’ – and I remain sceptical about the the Bristol study’s “going well” 30%.

Therefore the opening assumption in any conversation with the state must be that support is justified – and the burden of proof to prove otherwise must belong to the state. We need the state to accept that the threshold for trauma requiring automatic support packages has been well and truly passed. It should not require trauma to have been made manifest before support kicks in, or a ‘not waving but drowning’ hand-raise from parents already struggling to keep afloat.  

This is particularly the case in two scenarios: the first 12 months post-placement (Theraplay, PACE parenting support etc), and at that those clear points of pain in the journey through childhood – navigating the educating system, entering the teen years, identity and life story work, managing social media. Each of these transitions demands standardised and structured approaches that are offered and delivered before they are needed. 

This means we should move away from (what I have previously noted) seems to be the ‘bespoke’ model of adoption support: (multiple) hand raises, assessment undertaken, review undertaken, outline agreement, approval, source and commission practitioner (and so on).  Individualised. Intensive. Expensive.

I believe that ‘industrialisation’ of support at these points would present a business case that would pay for itself quickly and many times over. This is about prophylaxis – this is early standardisation paid for by a reduction in long-term personalisation.

However, in return for a change in expectations of the state I also believe a change in expectations of the adoptive parents must happen.

In my view that there is no room in adoptive parenting for the well-meaning amateur – although that is how we all start. In order to give our children the support they deserve we must become the parent who combines the love we hope to develop over time with the hard skills and knowledge of a professional – and adopters need to be professionalised far beyond the current model.

Because the answers we seek as adopters cannot be found in the well-meaning comments of amateurs and the ‘all children do that crowd’ (although comfort can occassionally be found in the arms of Jonny Walker and another gentleman called Gordon). They are more likely to be found in Hughes, Post, Cairns, PACE, NVR and therapeutic parenting models.

It means that adopters must be required to become in effect professionals and commit to the obligations of the professional – including continual professional development  (CPD). It also means that the threshold for becoming an approved adopter must change to include a structured knowledge of the skills required and a plan for CPD. 

We must also then accept that we must use our professional status to help those other people tasked with looking after our children, our fellow professionals, to become better at the task they are also entrusted with. These would include the well-meaning but ignorant teachers who educate our child, and our families and support network whose patience and understanding can fail as they stand helplessly by.

My passion for this issue was sparked sometime ago by a blog post which included a fantasy adopter role description from The Open Nest and I still cannot recommend it enough https://allaboardthetraumatrain.com/2016/04/04/marketing-adoption/. It’s something that is now used in adoption training in one Welsh LA, and in my view adoption panels should interview prospective adopters against it before approval. 

So what does this mean to the The Social Work Professional in an environment where state funding of public services is under extraordinary pressure? 

It means adoption marketing must change to reflect the statistical reality of raising children affected by trauma and severance, and also to be far clearer about what is required from would-be parents. I know that a picture of a red-eyed Mommy drinking gin out of a sippy cup whilst her child trashes the bedroom, or The Open Nest’s role description, wouldn’t have the same recruitment effect as a picture of a group of kitten-eyed siblings, but the traumatised parent caring for a traumatised child is the reality for most and adoption marketing needs to stop honey-trapping people .

It means that the ‘professional professional’ must up their game and keep pace with us. If our professional development outpaces that of our support network, as it often already does, then we will simply be dragging dead weight up a hill.

It means that somehow the adoption order cannot be the point where we hitch our wagons and head into the Wild West with barrels of hope and good intentions – I know we all want Social Workers out of our life, until we want them back in, but given we now know the cost our children have paid, and how long their pain echoes through their childhood I no longer think this is a viable model – especially if we intend to pre-empt the manifestation of trauma.

I can’t help feeling that there is little point in opening up a scientific, structured understanding of the effects of trauma on the brain, and the way in which those effects echo throughout the life of our children, if we simply plan to ignore our own developing understanding as we clutch the adoption order to our breast – glad of the break and the opportunity to feel like a ‘real’ family.

I love being a parent, and I particularly love being an adoptive parent, it is a privilege that I wouldn’t change for the world – but one of my passionate beliefs in life is that we can only grow if we learn from the experiences of others, and I often say at work “the only mistake is to make the same mistake twice”. When it comes to the health and welfare of the children we love, and the families who love them, we send too many people out there into the Wild West of being an adoptive parent to learn from exactly the same mistakes that have been learned too many times in the past.