Telling truth to power is hard. Many of us in SG&AT are left feeling angry and despairing by dreadful experiences of services. For me, my experiences of being victimised and silenced by organisations, with our need for privacy as a family taken advantage of, were what spurred me on to start SG&AT. We are silenced witnesses. We are left with a sense of powerless rage due to systemic failure, and the anger we are left with acts as fuel in our battles for justice, restitution and the seemingly impossible struggle to be heard. At the same time we cannot speak openly about what happened to us and our children. Our need for utmost privacy is an issue that policy makers and law makers need to deal with if we are going to work together to create change.
I started SG&AT together with a friend, who is another adoptive single mother who I had met through POTATO (Parents of Traumatised Adopted Teenagers Organisation). Like too many others we were having appalling experiences of services, which had left us completely traumatised. Some of this was secondary trauma – because we had been rendered utterly powerless to help our children under Care Orders – and their lives and futures were being ruined. The assumption seemed to be that the problems our children experienced, issues such as self harm and extremely challenging behaviour coming out of trauma and attachment difficulties, were down to us as parents. Asking for help meant we were seen as being unable to cope – not having too much asked of us and not enough given. Replacing us with foster care and residential care might help keep everyone safe in the short term, but it brings a whole new set of problems in the longer term, especially when children want to come home and there is no way to work together towards this because it is not the ‘care plan’ for the child. We struggled to advocate for our children in care. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. We could see the consequences of what was being done would be terrible – but no one listened. The system seemed to work completely against us as adopters, and we had somehow, inadvertently, become enemies of the state – at war with an army of professionals who had all the power. We had fallen into a deep hole that was impossible to climb out of. A hole that few seem to know exists outside those experiencing the difficulties. When we met with the What Works for Children Centre, they were completely unaware of what was going on and did not appreciate the challenges we were having as families when our children re-entered care because the children were extremely hard to care for due to trauma and their mental health problems – as well as conditions like autism. You can read the blog here
We were determined to find a way to be heard through having a collective voice. Many members of POTATO were simply too overstretched with the demands of parenting traumatised young people to put energy into campaigning, We decided to start a new more outwardly focused campaigning group, with the same ethos of kindness support – to raise awareness of the problems and challenges we were facing – our mission was to achieve change. Our experiences of court proceedings and parenting under care orders, with us, as adopters having children re-entering care, had also given us a glimpse of the challenges faced by birth parents and birth relatives (often grandparents) who lose children to care. We joined forces with special guardians soon after we started the group (originally called Adopters Together) after learning how grandparents and a child’s relatives had too often been pressurised into caring for family members/children with threats of the child being taken away and adopted, never to be seen again – if they didn’t take on parental responsibility. More adopters seemed to be becoming special guardians to their grandchildren too.
One of our challenges at the start of our journey was the divisive approach to adoption and kinship care that is taken by government had ended up breeding resentment towards us as adopters. As patchy, inadequate and hard to get as post adoption support can be, adopters do receive better support than birth family members/Kinship Carers. We strongly feel a divisive approach to adopters and kinship carers, in terms of keeping us apart, and through charities separately representing the interests of adopters and special guardians to the DfE/ASGLB is deeply unhelpful. Myths cannot be dispelled like this. Myths such as adopters putting their children back into care in the teenage years – because the child was not right for them – and the match had been a mistake. The idea that we discard our children is nonsense, but with resentment comes hostility and negative beliefs. What is needed is shared understanding – and parity of support when raising children affected by trauma, abuse, neglect and severance from their biological family members. Contact with family is also something that affects both adopters and kinship carers, when our children so often re-enter care, and when siblings are frequently separated through children going into care. Partnership working between us as parents and guardians – and the agencies that have a duty of care for us and our children, is not happening as it should be.
We also instigated a programme of lived experience research – research where service users ask the questions, and analyse and interpret the results. The questions we ask may be rather different to those of policy makers and law makers – who tend to veer towards the experiences and views of professionals and managers. We haven’t conducted any further research since 2019 because we had hoped the research initiative we started would be supported and there would be dialogue about our research findings. This has not been the case.
To make progress and prevent social injustice, I firmly believe the power balance needs to shift towards service users using transformational co-production. Stakeholder participation and co-production are two entirely different things – as issues of equality, diversity, accessibility and reciprocity (the four principles that underpin transformational co-production) are not addressed or given appropriate consideration when stakeholders are simply invited to participate in research/surveys, take part in reviews or respond to inquiries. Stakeholder panels and reference groups can also be problematic – there are issues of representativeness and inclusivity as well as hidden problems such as professionalisation and isomorphism. The fact that someone has a social work or professional background does not make them a better parent or carer, or more deserving of a voice than another service user. As a researcher I know that attention to negative cases is where there can be so much learning – its not about what works well that needs attention paid – its where things are going wrong. In this context, there may well be a conflict of interest in regards to hearing our voices – when we have experienced deep systemic failure – given the aim of government is to promote adoption and kinship care. People who are left traumatised by systemic failure – where children have been harmed – are not going to be the easiest of stakeholders to engage with – because our stories will cause shame and embarrassment. What we bring to the table may be too unbearable to hear.
Our children’s voices are also not being heard. The way their views are sought is not considerate of them and it is not trauma informed. A few years ago my adopted child was invited to meet a member of the House of Lords to talk about his experiences of adoption. Only fifteen or so children were invited. I was really excited about this opportunity to be heard but my child was already feeling apprehensive about the trip to London – a big ask of him. The questions that would be asked were sent through. I read them to my son, who was 11 at the time. They were all about sibling separation, asked in an adult way, as if he were a mini adult who had come to terms with the traumatising sibling separation he had endured. It was not a child friendly or trauma informed approach. He became agitated and upset – and kept changing the subject. Recognising this as a sign of distress I said he he did not have to go. He was so relieved. I contacted the charity who organised the meeting explaining what had happened- and we never heard from anyone again. His views and experiences were excluded because the way they had been sought was not accessible for him.
So, I say to the DfE and to those involved with, or involved with producing/submitting evidence for the Care Review (I was one of the thousand stakeholders hoping to be on the Experts by Experience panel who was not chosen), we need to come together to find better ways to hear the voices of children and families who deal with the consequences of complex social problems such as addiction, substance abuse, domestic abuse, mental health problems, grooming, county lines and child sexual abuse – as is the case in adoption and special guardianship. And we do need co-production methods, with the shift of the balance of power to us, those who the system is supposed to serve, if we are to have any hope of creating a better system. One that works for us and our children.