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A Personal Reflection on the Care Crisis Review by SG&AT Chair Dr Sylvia Schroer

As an adoptive mother and the Chair of SG&AT (Special Guardians and Adopters Together), I offer my thoughts and questions below as a personal reflection on the Care Crisis Review (conducted by the Family Rights Group in the UK with funding from the Nuffield Foundation). As a group we wholeheartedly welcome this important review and are grateful for all the hard work that has gone into it. Much has been achieved within the time frame and resource constraints and we are all hopeful that progress can be made.

To give a bit of background about SG&AT, we try to provide a platform for people who wish to see positive social change for children who are brought up in second permanent families. We seek to enable all involved to be supported to create beneficial change, through engaging in research and dialogue in order to achieve shared understanding of the problems. Understanding the causes of problems has to be the starting point for developing solutions, and we are 100% a solution focused group. Special Guardians, and Adopters are more than welcome to join our group and we welcome any opportunity to work with those who work to try to support us, to develop services or to develop policies and legislation to help these services to be more beneficial and effective. We also welcome opportunities to work with journalists who can bring our stories and voices to a far wider audience than we can.

It is rare to find adoptive parents and SGs (special guardians) receiving the consideration that is needed as a ‘different type of case’ by social workers, research teams and reviews – and the Care Crisis review was no exception. Birth parents of children with learning disabilities, which may include Autism, share the same predicament. The system, with the way it works, and the legal infrastructure, can leave us, those with ‘lived experience’ of the consequences of its processes and outcomes, feeling disempowered, unheard, blamed and marginalised. Take the well-known case of Connor Sparrowhawk. Connor was a young autistic man suffering with epilepsy who died in a bath in a short term assessment and treatment team unit due to serious failings in 2013. His mother’s moving account of the inquest process in her recently published book ‘Justice for Laughing Boy’, describes how she was put under severe duress at a time of bereavement: “The portrayal of me and so many other women as unbalanced troublemakers (at best) throughout this process demands critical reflection by those directly involved in the mother blame game, and who stand by and witness it happening without comment. Mother-blaming is a form of suppression and silencing in the UK. A colleague of mine said that, in Greece, parents would be vilified for not complaining about poor services and support for their children. She could not understand what we were being subjected to”.  In all honesty neither can we. Never could we imagine that we might find ourselves made into the adversaries of our beloved children in courts of law, by those with a duty of care, through seeking help and assistance to care for them – as we are in the current UK ‘care crisis’.

As adopters and special guardians we know only too well that adoption is a drastic measure indeed, especially if it is non-consensual. The child and all the family will all be affected when a child is removed. As a ‘punishment’, it is considered second only to the death penalty and many parents would prefer a custodial sentence. Adoption must be the last resort. Children, who are already socially and economically disadvantaged, and who need families and communities – because it takes 20 years to raise a child – must not be deprived of this fundamental human requirement for connection and belonging, which is the birth right of every child.

Adoption is an ethical issue and it was an immense relief to see this stance taken in the recent BASW Enquiry, which also talked of the challenges we face as adoptive parents – when we are perceived through a ‘prism of risk’ upon help seeking for our children after we have reached the limits of what we can cope with.

The reality is that much more is asked of us than many birth parents who do not have to undergo a rigorous assessment process, or have to spend their life savings to hang onto a child/family member as many of our SG members tell us they have had to do, when the Local Authority contests the Special Guardian Order. Despite the efforts made by legal professionals and the judiciary, the legal inequities that exist in our Family Courts have an immeasurably greater impact on us, when we have so much more to lose than our job, professional reputation or the reputation of the organisation we work for. We stand to lose our children. Yet the outcomes for children, when they enter or re-enter care, are very poor indeed and should give us all cause for concern. This is something we cannot afford to be complacent about – or lose focus about with other issues that are allowed to continually take precedence – such as Brexit. What could be more important for our country than our children, who are our future? We must care for them well and much better than we are doing now.

As SGs and adopters, the problems we must deal with, in the teenage years especially, are considerable. Our surveys, and those of others, have suggested very high levels of difficulty with our children, which make family life very intense. The problems are not the fault of our children, nor are they our ‘fault’, and we strive to do the best we can – but so many parents and special guardians report feeling ‘blamed’ when they seek help. Many are even frightened to talk to their GP about their stress related mental health problems for fear their capacity to parent or care for their children will be judged. 147/323 respondents in our Stress and Wellbeing Survey informed us this was the case. Below we show the statistics from this Survey for the problems we experience as families. ‘Problematic relationships with birth families’ is highlighted in bold as this is the only issue that SGs reported having greater experience of than adopters. Reasons for discrepancies need careful consideration. Adopters in our population sample were parenting older children, placed at an older age.

Problems experienced by Adopters and SGs with their children
All N=321 Adopt N=263 SGs N=60
Emotional Dysregulation 88% 94% 63%
Anger and Rage Meltdowns 89% 95% 70%
Child to Parent Violence 69% 75% 43%
School Refusal/School Anxieties 65% 71% 43%
Stealing 45% 51% 21%
Social Anxieties, Agoraphobia 44% 46% 38%
Sibling Trauma Bonds/Aggression and Violence Towards Siblings 43% 45% 37%
Being Bullied at School or On Social Media 33% 37% 2%
False Allegations Made About You, Your Partner or Other Family Members 24% 25% 18%
Suicidal Ideation or Suicide Attempts 24% 27% 10%
Going Missing or Running Away Whilst in Your Care 24% 28% 6%
Problematic Relationships with Birth Family 20% 12% 56%
Sexually Problematic or Harmful Behaviour – Acting Out Their Own Trauma 18% 21% 6%
Drug and Alcohol Problems 14% 17% 5%
Child Being Arrested 12% 14% 1%
Targeted by Drug Dealers 10% 12% 1%
Being Groomed for Sex 11% 13% 5%
Going Missing from Care 8% 10% 3%
Child Being Arrested After Re-Entering Care 6% 8% 0

Our two Surveys have indicated our children suffer with very high levels of mental health problems and life-long conditions that have no cure such as FASD. Our recent Enquiry for the House of Commons Education Committee, which involved 500+ adopters and SG parenting and caring for 700+ children and young adults, has shown how we ‘battle and fight’ for EHC Plans and suggested that conditions such as FASD are being contested by local authorities after a hard won diagnosis was finally achieved.

What is the point of this? Take the child into care and pretend the problems don’t exist, or result from the parenting or care we gave them to ‘save money’? It seems inevitable that more money will be spent in the long run – never mind the emotional devastation that will be inflicted.

Social change has been exponential since the 1989 Children’s Act, especially with the Internet that has enabled us to connect with each other in so many different ways. Smart phones and social media have had a tremendous impact on us, our children and our families, both positive and negative. Were these complex issues given sufficient consideration in the Care Crisis Review? This review inevitably had limitations in what could be achieved within its timeframe with the resources available.

Yet from an ethical standpoint, taking a child into care to be put up for adoption surely means considering all the possibilities of what may happen as a result – the consequences of the removal, going right through to when the child transitions to adult life – should the child remain in care, should the child be adopted, or should the child be brought up by family/kinship carers, or under an SGO, and/or finally, if the child must re-enter care a second time when the support to care for the child in the second family is not provided in a timely manner or is not sufficient.

How is a social worker to make such decisions in an ethical manner, or a Judge or Cafcass Guardian, when the information and research to inform decision making is simply not available? It needs to be available.

For us there are grey areas of legislative mismatch that leave us with an uncertainty that is unhelpful. For example, the Adoption Allowance ends at 18 (or continues longer if a child is in full time further education) – but the SGO ends at 18. The Adoption Support Fund is available till the child reaches 21, or 25 if there is an Educational Health and Care Plan for the young adult.

The SGO only came into being 14 years ago, long after the 1989 Children’s Act, which has had some revisions – but the reasons for removing children remain the same – potential harm that is due to the care given or likely to be given, or the child being ‘Beyond Parental Control’. This latter threshold seems to us to be so problematic for our children with poor emotional regulation and mental health problems, in today’s modern world – with all the pressures and stresses that are put on our children and young people. We do think it needs review and have created a Petition to Parliament, which you can sign by clicking this link here.  We are also concerned about Section 20, which seems, from our perspective, to be failing our children badly in some cases. Those who need families the most it seems, are far too vulnerable to losing them.

Surely when the making of an Adoption Order (which is permanent in the UK), or Special Guardian Order (which expires when the child reaches 18), is the only way a child can leave the care system it seems of paramount importance from an ethical standpoint to understand what exactly what happens when the children we parent and care for cannot achieve the support that we feel is needed, and re-enter care?

  • What does all this mean for our children as they transition to adult life?
  • Who will provide the match funding with the Adoption Support Fund if children’s services are no longer involved?
  • What will happen if our children must re-enter care and they are no longer able to access the fund if there is ‘no intention to reunify’?
  • What is the reality behind their re-entering of care if there is no willingness to commit to partnership working with us and if our children feel rejected and alone when we cannot support them?
  • Is the £21 million Adoption Support Fund sufficient?
  • Are adopted and SG children falling through gaps?
  • Why are there no models of reunification for our families?
  • Does the fact there are no models of reunification make help seeking a ‘risky business’?
  • Could we better be used as a resource in this scenario of our children going back into care than is happening on the ground?
  • What is happening on the ground under the current legal frameworks? Are they working?
  • Does the 1989 Children’s Act need revision?
  • Is Section 20 working?

There are many questions that need to be answered and we feel our work is just beginning. Where can it lead? Well technology is advancing at such a rate, and has advanced hugely since 1989! It is not hard to imagine computer modelling programs and decision making algorithms that could be potentially developed to make decisions that are beyond human capacity to make, because of all the variables involved – and the unknowns that need to be considered. Filling in the gaps about the unknowns, with information about the pathways for these children in future life, with whatever future potentially is decided, could assist with ethical decision making, and free up social workers to get on with helping families – and assisting people like us who may be in crisis, and who are parenting or caring for children on the edge of care. The system would be less ‘one sided’, more balanced and more holistic and look away from individuals as a ‘source of potential harm’, and towards what more could be done for children when families have more to cope with than can be managed.

When it is 12 times more likely for a UK child to be put up for adoption if they live in one city or part of the country compared with another, and the high rate is potentially linked with four child deaths in the city[1], we have to find better ways to keep personal and organisational motivations and agendas under scrutiny and control, in a way that does not ‘blame’ or ‘condemn’ those struggling in adversity, but allows for informed decisions that really are in the ‘best interests’ of our nation’s children. These decisions could be taken from a much wider perspective than currently happens and be more future focused.

Something needs to happen because the social work profession is an honorable one, but its practitioners are becoming loathed and feared by those who are supposed to benefit from the hard work that is done. The space for trust and for good relationships to develop does not seem to be there at the moment with austerity measures education, health and social care, and with the current legal frameworks and infrastructure that supports children and families. With decision making science and algorithms supported by robust evidence, perhaps decisions about wider policy and funding can also be guided by science. This would free us all from the battles we have to achieve support, from conflict that takes up so much energy and money, which could only benefit our children.

In truth, we really wished, as a group, to contribute to the Care Crisis Review, far more than we were able to do. I am sure many others felt the same.

The Care Crisis Review is done now and time will tell whether it’s ‘Options for Change’ will bring about the changes that are so much needed. Ultimately we feel that all perspectives must be considered, and we are not sure that this was done with this review in a way that the sort of change that is needed can be facilitated.  Which is not to say it was not a worthwhile process. A lot has been achieved and the review has drawn attention to disparities and injustices – and it is a beginning.

[1] Professor Andy Bilson, University of Central Lancashire https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44431585

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