Shame is protective. It develops in the second year of life and it helps a child to survive. It puts the breaks on. It acts like a ‘wet blanket’ stopping impulses to act, and it is related to the ‘freeze’ response, in terms of fight, flight and freeze. The feelings of shame are that we want to want to curl up into a ball, to disappear, to vanish, to hide and not be seen – and then one hopefully will not be attacked any more. The attacker loses interest. We are not in their radar. We submit. Please don’t hurt us again we know we have done wrong. It must be wrong because there is so much anger towards us. It must be us. We are small and we don’t know better. It must be us. We are bad. Inherently bad. Neglect is another form of shame, carrying the message we do not deserve attention and love. We feel shame. We are paralysed with it. We cannot move. But shame keeps us safe – and the key to moving out of shame is to learn that we are not inherently shameful and we do not need to be ruled by shame. Easier said than done when this is all we have learned. Shame so easily becomes a vicious cycle. It becomes self perpetuating. Shame begets more shame – or it turns into anger and avoidant strategies of addiction, which are then controlled with shame. We are inherently worthless, we are bad, we are shamed, and so it goes on until we can find a way to change our internal state, and to feel something else inside that tells us to feel dignity, self worth and self respect. To move forwards we may need to go backwards to understand why our body has become frozen and trapped in the grip of shame. We can be helped move forwards therapeutically when we understand the protective role that the shame played for us. Make friends with our shame. It saved our life. A lot of repair work needs to be done when a person has been caught in the grip of shame in childhood as a survival mechanism. Adopters and special guardians are the social policy interventions that are supposed to help. We are the only non professionals who do this repair work – making a lifelong commitment to our shame damaged children. We provide them with love, permanence, and belonging – an environment that we hope can help them heal.
On a wider societal perspective shame is really the most important mechanism for social control. Those who transgress the law are shamed and punished. Punishment should fit the crime. Fined, tagged, custodial sentences – whatever is thought to be needed. I have little understanding of the law as a parent and therapist – it isn’t my area of expertise. But I am concerned when the Head of the Family Court has suggested that removing a child is second only to the death penalty. Concerned for the parent & child, who are inextricably linked. This is an extreme punishment to say the least and one that will have lasting consequences for all involved – and it is desperately shaming. It is incredibly shaming and stressful just to be involved in care proceedings for ANY parent or special guardian. A Care Order or Interim Care Order means one loses one’s job or career if this involves working with children. So is this ‘punishment’ really what we, as a society, should be giving to loving parents, special guardians – and their children – the child concerned and their brothers and sisters? They are all striving to cope, as families, under austerity measures Britian when a family member is a child with disabilities, special educational needs, and or mental health problems such as autism. Problems occur with birth families where there are children with disabilities and mental health issues, as well as ours. Does removing children permanently from families, from loving parents and special guardians being able to look out for them, really help the child to have a better future? Or does it just move problems and heap shame onto all involved? We think there is a serious risk of the latter.
The threshold that is most problematic for these children and families is one that is hard to contest because it may well be true – and this is for no fault of the child or parent, who may nevertheless feel ‘at fault’: ‘Beyond Parental Control’. Think about this threshold for a minute. Beyond Parental Control – what does this actually mean? It can seemingly be interpreted in so many different ways when one reads through legal cases. Once case goes this way, another has a different outcome, with little consistency about the application of this threshold – suggesting it is not straightforward to apply. Children with mental illness, sensory processing issues and emotional disregulation can all be ‘Beyond Parental Control’ – should they lose the right to family life, their home, friends, all that is familiar, when a parent or guardian has asked those with a duty of care for help? Surely asking for help should not be a double edged sword where one fears harmful outcomes may result for one’s child & family?
Most of our teenagers are at some point ‘Beyond Parental Control’ because impulsivity and pushing away from parents are part and parcel of the second stage of autonomy – these are a normal aspect of development – should we take these teenagers into care and put parents and families through harrowing court ordeals? Of course not. But this is exactly what is happening to families, where children who live on the edges of care tip into crisis, if and when services are not quickly available. To make matters worse there are no models for rehabilitation and reunification for these families. These models don’t exist – they haven’t been developed. We are not able to be reformed by giving up addictions or behaviours that put our children at risk. They were not at risk because of us – but because of what happened before they came into our lives or took on the mantle of responsibility for them. Successful reunifications before the age of 18 seem to be as rare as hen’s teeth. Its a one way street when a Care Order is made for an adopted or special guardianship child when we cannot prove changed circumstances.
What can we, as parents and special guardians, actually do to change things and improve them for our children when they re-enter care? In reality our influence is limited when LAC reviews are every six months, we are viewed as a potential risk of harm to our child, and contact with them, and what they hear about us, is down to carers and those working for the Local Authority – who in all likelihood were not forthcoming with the help we asked for earlier on. Services are paired to the bone and money is not being spent unless there is a legal obligation – and this is not the case for our families. Guidance does not mean wise, future proof decisions are taken that are in a child’s ‘best interests’. Far from it!
It can feel like watching a car crash in slow motion when you see your child suffering in the care system, sometimes, despite the best efforts of carers, being groomed, targeted by drug dealers, suicidally depressed, self harming, and even ending their life (as in a recent case in Powys), and little a parent/special guardian, or family member, can do to help. Trying to get help means we are perceived as ‘challenging’ and ‘difficult’ to work with. You see vast amounts of money being spent – £3-5k per week in residential care – and you imagine what might have been achieved if there had been a willingness to spend just a fraction of this when your child lived at home. Would your child have ended up in prison or homeless if more had been done earlier on when you asked, perhaps even begged, for therapeutic help? Or for respite, (which the Adoption Support Fund does not cover), without having to make the drastic decision of your child re-entering care under a Section 20 Care Order? Without a break you feel you may go under, but re-entering care carries such a risk of destabilising the child, eroding their sense of belonging and permanence, making them feel they have ‘failed’, and triggering the re-traumatising removals of their younger life. Without support for a safe reunification, that may not be forthcoming, then there is a risk the same thing will happen again but with the child destabilised by the care separation. It is not an easy decision.
All that a local authority is required to do when we ask for help is ‘assess’. Assessment is not support. It can delay support and if our problems are poorly understood by assessors who just see a snapshot of our lives, and view us through a ‘prism of risk’ (see BASW enquiry), then support may not be what an assessment will lead to at all – for we are too often viewed with fault seeking eyes that blame and shame. The very involvement of social care professionals may trigger trauma memories in our children, with this scarcely being considered it seems. We are the ones who deal with the fall out of their visits, which they do not see.
How many times do policymakers and legislators have to hear that parents, coping in the hardest of circumstances, say they felt ‘blamed’ – before their voices are heard and action is taken?
When those who practice the law are so appalled they feel compelled to speak out it is surely time to listen? Last week Nigel Priestly, a specialist adoption solicitor, tweeted that a mother who had been suspended from her job in education, was having a nervous breakdown and was a suicide risk was reminded in court by a judge of the damage to the child of a ‘breakdown’, when her child had made false allegations. This is not an isolated case and there are others in our group who have been traumatised by court proceedings and driven to suicidal despair. This statement may be factually accurate, and may be the letter of the law, but it is also unhelpful shame – heaped on those who don’t deserve it. Allegations against parents, special guardians and foster carers need to be investigated with utmost care and sensitivity – as trauma impacts on the brain so as to impair memory. Conveniently our children do not remember the abuse clearly – but they go through life with powerful feeling states able to be triggered in myriad ways – which makes looking after them a great challenge and ‘risk’. This is why we need to be supported by professionals who properly appreciate that the impact of any error made will be catastrophic, and who understand trauma. Collective decisions can be such bad decisions when no one feels able to disagree. Court is too adversarial and there are entrenched positions taken, and legal inequities, all of which leaves parents and special guardians far too vulnerable.
Removing our children, focusing solely on them, and shaming us, as a ‘risk of harm’, with no whole family support and the ‘parenting from a distance role’ not considered or recognised, this does not resolve their problems. We end up having to battle again for them to receive the therapy they so clearly need (and could not achieve for them), when they return to care – only no one hears us anymore. There is no one to ‘look out’ for our children in care. The whole system can just create more trauma. And once back in care, our children are unable to access the specialist support that was supposed to help them, for the Adoption Support Fund is not available once there is ‘no intention to re-unify’ on the part of a Local Authority. It is that is that easy to write us off as a ‘failed care option’.
Is this what modern adoption and special guardianship should be about? No, it is shameful to treat us like this, and it shames us all that we are. Adopters joined forces with special guardians because it became quickly apparent when speaking with them that they are treated even more badly than us. According to the Local Government Ombudsman’ 70% of complaints by special guardians are being upheld.
We believe that the time has come to look again at the Children’s Act of 1989, which was developed before neuroscience moved forward our understanding and knowledge about trauma and its impact on the developing brain. We ask you to consider signing and sharing our petition. All we seek is for this harmful threshold to be reviewed with an open mind, and to be part of the dialogue about what would better help our children. It is not always easy to raise a child who has been damaged by loss, neglect and abuse and being able to access respite without our children having to re-enter care under a Section 20 voluntary Care Order would also be a big help. This legislation was never designed with our families in mind and we have struggled with it for more than 30 years now. Its time to do things differently. It’s time to involve us in developing policies and legislation that can be more beneficial for all and less harmful for us.
Please sign and share widely.