We would like to raise some issues for further reflection and consideration arising from Lord Justice McFarlane’s NAGALRO speech
Social change of significant magnitude may require new legislation to protect families and children that are affected by the developments it brings – to keep pace with it. If legislation to protect children does not adapt to change then it will bring great pressure on the most vulnerable families where children are on the edge of care because they are challenging to care for, rather than parental capacity being intrinsically lacking, or less than one might reasonably expect.
There is a difference between being unable to cope or manage with the safe parenting of a child because of pre-existing mental health issues, or substance abuse – and being asked to cope with so much through the care of a child taken out of the care system, that poor physical and mental health ensue as a result. We are finding that there seems to be inadequate accountability if we have been led to a point where we say we can no longer cope, and ask for help. When threshold for a Section 31 Care Order is proven/accepted, after the harrowing ordeal of adversarial court proceedings, the reality is that sharing parental responsibility often means constrained contact, deprivation of family life for the child, autocratic decsion making by LA’s with us often the last to know, if, for example, plans were made to move our adopted child 100 miles from home, family and community, or our special guardian child has tried to take their own life, or our birth child with autism is gone missing from care. If this was a mother not disclosing such information to an estranged father in a timely manner, and responsible for presenting a negative and fearful image of the father to the child, we might imagine a court might take a dim view and show concern – but an IRO or Cafcass Guardian would never bring a case back to court for the reason that the LA is marginalising or victimising the parents or carers. We are finding that if these professionals with so much influence on our child’s life, consider the decisions made by the LA’s management team (care planning decisions are made collectively with no individual responsibility or accountability), are in a child’s ‘best interests’, which is the most abused of all the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by member states, they will most likely agree with the decision and do their utmost to keep the child in care. This may be regardless of the child’s wishes and feelings, which we are finding can be rather selectively interpreted and acted on, depending on the prevailing opinion that has been formed by the professional/organisation/court – where a parent may not have access to legal assistance or aid, if they are applying to discharge a Section 31 Care Order, and little time to brief legal counsel if the LA use surprise tactics and/or submit late statements, or incomplete court bundles, and close ranks with Cafcass Guardians, with whom they are used to working with on child protection cases – going off into court anterooms to plot their strategy together, to win their case – with us made into adversaries, and adversaries of our beloved children. The consequences of the sort of undermining subterfuge and discrediting/marginalising of us that goes on in courts, both inside and outside the courtroom, may be extremely difficult to live with, for those the system is supposed to serve – especially when our children are potentially retraumatised by court and returns to foster care – may even be driven to suicidal despair, and we are powerless to help them – as we are considered their potential adversaries by courts and those with a duty of care during the many months of court proceedings. More importantly, it has eroded our confidence and trust. This is especially true of special guardians who will not be assessed and matched in the same way as an adopter – and will inevitably have been involved in court proceedings in order for the Special Guardian Order to be made – to a greater degree than most adopters – where the court Adoption Order ‘celebration’ ceremonies are a formality and a conclusion to just one early stage of the adoption journey. Threats made to the prospective special guardian that a child will be adopted, never to be seen again, if not cared for, are not unheard of – sometimes over the heads of drug addicted newborns. This is not ethical practice. This is coercive control of a very extreme nature.
Lord Chief Justice McFarlane suggests: “The existence of alienation of itself can only be damaging to a child. It must be grim to grow up having a profoundly negative view of one of your parents. In some cases such a negative view may be justified by the actions of that parent, but often life is not so black and white and a more nuanced, ordinary and tolerable view of both parents will have been justified had an imbalanced status quo as to contact not become established”
We urge members of the judiciary to reflect on these words when making a Section 31 Care Order in an adoption or Special Guardianship case – and to learn from our disheartening and demoralising experiences in court proceedings and once the Order is made. This order can leave a legacy of misery and despair for us in the vital but ill considered and totally unsupported ‘parenting from a distance role’ – although it might, especially on a short term basis, be necessary to separate parent and child and create some space for us as family life is so intense and respite is not part of the deal for us in many cases. It is often the case that we are not safe from our children. But children need parents, and families, especially vulnerable children with a high level of disability. It is so hard for these children, our children, to make their way in the world as they transition to adult life, and it is as young adults that they may come back to us – with years of estrangement and being made to feel we were ‘unfit’ and not ‘safe’ to care for them; years of undoing all the work we put in to build their trust and develop a loving bond. This is what the Section 31 Care Order really means for an adopted or special guardian child. Sometimes it is necessary because no other legal framework exists that works either. Section 20 may result in negligence and failings – but it is not the draconian order that the Section 31 Care Order can be, which we appreciate is less severe than the Adoption Order. What a great responsibility it is to get it right for our judiciary. This is why we really do need legislation that serves and protects our children through the years that follow, and those that make a lifelong responsibility to love and care for them, when the state decides they cannot be raised by their birth parents.
Our peer led survey, see Special Guardians and Adopters Together Interim Report 6th March 2018, which looked at the stress and well-being of adopters and special guardians, with just over 400 respondents, has revealed an alarming level of dis-stress as well as physical and mental health problems experienced as resulting from the parenting or caring role, as well as relationship difficulties, having to give up work, cut hours, or change to a less stressful job.
What really needs to be thought about, as a matter of utmost priority, is the fact that a considerable number of adopters and special guardians (38% of our sample – see page 47 of our report), declared that they had been frightened to seek help for fear their parenting would be judged. As a society, we surely have to take this on board as a message that something is clearly and very seriously amiss.
We can’t go on being treated, as if we might be mentally abusing our children when we ask for help, especially when it is us who are ‘at risk’ because we parent and care for children who are survivors of rather extreme sexual abuse (with resultant sexual confusion arising from this), or suffer with nervous system dysregulation and poor mental health that results in ‘violent challenging behaviour’ or ‘child to parent violence’ – terms that some of us do not much like because they locate the problem in the child but do not convey the distress on the part of the child that leads to the behaviour.
We are getting rather fed up with being stigmatised, blamed and victimised with impunity by LA’s in our courts of law to prove threshhold or maintain we are ‘unsafe’ to care for our children who can so easily become trapped in care, because the willingness to work with us to get them home, and the funding for support to make it safe for them to come home, and the understanding of what is needed to bring about better relationships between us and our children enduring a care separation – is totally lacking.
It is hard to struggle on year after year – knowing that if we were to give up, our child might have far more money spent on their welfare from a different LAC budget, not subject to discriminatory £5k caps for our support, suddenly brought in without warning – when the DofE knows full well that match funding is not happening – and services are not needs driven but resource driven for our most vulnerable children – the ones whom the state have decided can never go home to their biological mums and dads. When we fill those vital roles after an Adoption Order or Special Guardian Order is made, it is us that bear the brunt of the rage and powerless despair our children feel inside – and we would like to be treated with more respect, listened to, be part of the dialogue for change – and not face shut doors and closed ranks, where there should be ears ready to listen and hear. Service user representation is abysmal on the Adoption Leadership Board and various Regionalisation Boards, and on the Family Rights Group Care Crisis Review various advisory and stakeholder groups – totally non existent for special guardians, who take just as many children out of the care system as adopters but receive rather less attention and consideration – and it will not do! The fact that partnership working will be intensely problematic for us also does not seem to be properly thought about – when one party in the partnership (us), is so much weaker, less well represented, and has been subjected to numerous human rights violations of their own vulnerable children by the other(s), on the basis that this is in the child’s ‘best interests’. Co-production can potentially be better than partnership working, provided there is good transparency about who is involved in terms of their experiences.
The system seems to work against us rather than for us at the moment. Fine if all is well, but the more difficult our problems are, the more barriers we face, under austerity measures social care and mental health care. And it is proving so hard to get our politicians and government to take positive decisive action. Our children will become a lost generation. It is us that end up with the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as our children, as much from being confronted with a lack of empathy and a shut door, as from caring for our troubled children. 41/389 of our survey respondents reported suffering with/having a PTSD diagnosis and another 145/389 reported secondary trauma, either in the present or past – Special Guardians and Adopters Together Interim Report 6th March 2018 – page 46,
We also draw attention to the fact that contact with the child’s birth family was one of the highest of all stress triggers for special guardians in our survey – rated equally as stressful as coping with their child’s challenging behaviour by more than 75% of the survey’s respondents. 53/83 of the Special Guardians taking part in our survey had Contact Orders in place for meeting with birth family.
In terms of having more open adoption and meetings with birth family we believe that there is much to be learned from our tacit knowledge particularly the experiences of special guardians and we ask the DofE if we, as parents and carers, might feed in and be part of dialogue and thinking about any changes in terms of more open adoption, with more contact with birth families – as it will be us that must support our child if and when this contact takes place.
To highlight the fact that professional knowledge may be rather poor in this area we ask policy makers and legislators to consider this case where an adopted child had reached 18 and a family member he had not seen for many years wanted to meet him. The adopter called agencies to ask for advice – only to discover that this situation had seemingly never been considered by them – the very agencies that were supposed to help and have this knowledge.
We are concerned that relying on LA’s to develop kind and humane contact arrangements with our child’s biological parents, will not turn out well unless we can be more involved and inform these LAs about our needs, which they seem out of touch with. The experience is not there simply because this is not something that is done by child protection and safeguarding professionals – who view us through the ‘prism of risk’, if we ask for help, when we thought were going to be part of the solution.
The state does not currently take a family centred view, which will be needed if contact is to be a positive experience informfor all involved – including the child. This seems to be a situation where the Independent Guardian we have proposed, which would be attached to every adopted or special guardian child, could really come into its own.
Before adoption becomes more open we need legislation and policy change that protects those it is intended to serve. Please please start talking and listening to us – preferably using co-production rather than partnership working, and with us, as service users, having better representation at board and advisory levels in general, and in any ongoing or future reviews.