Adoption and permanence modernisers have a challenging task ahead. We know things must change in this digital age, where technology advances at a rate of knots; where social problems are complex, deep and intergenerational; where science has brought new understanding of the body and the way that trauma lives on in the child/person: it is not just an event or series of dreadful happenings; where services: health, education and social care, are cut to the bone, and where the courts are so overwhelmed with cases that they struggle to cope.
With trauma comes powerful uncontrollable emotions – anger and rage, fear and shame, despair and despondency, helplessness and loss of hope. A triggering of the trauma will overwhelm once again – and this goes for the child’s loved ones and relatives as well, although the system is child focused: the trauma for a child’s wider family and loved ones may be minimised and little spoken of. Judges can be moved to tears – and rightly so if they are not disconnected from their own humanity, but many more tears will be shed in years to come by those living with the consequence of decisions made – brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and of course mothers and fathers.
Many assume that children who are removed by the state must have suffered abuse and neglect, especially the general public, but this is not the reality. Government statistics show only 63% of children coming into care for reasons of abuse and neglect. Our Connections Survey showed that 13/179 cases were removals solely due to ‘risk of future emotional harm’ – which means that no actual harm may have come to a child at all. When these removals are often non-consensual one can easily see the possibility of future problems later on down the line.
Until recent times, having closed adoptions with letter box contact only, was entirely feasible, although perhaps ethically questionable if parents were trying their best to protect their children from harm, and quite possibly did not receive the understanding and support needed. This may well be what the birth family may be left feeling if they consider court proceedings to be ‘fait accompli’ as the BASW enquiry on the ethics of the role of social worker in adoption seems to indicate is the case. Now however, with digital technology advances, connections can and are being made within a few hours if wished for. Previously, the child and adopters could be kept separated, and they were sheltered from grief stricken and sometimes very angry first families – for rageful anger is very much a part of grief. Sometimes these parents were just very sad, left with a burden of immense loss, on top of mental health problems – not dangerous to the child at all, but being reunited with a person who has clearly suffered a great deal, may not be easy for a child or young person to have to cope with -at what might be a difficult stage of life anyway. Sometimes, especially if birth parents were young, they have gone on to have other children who remained with the birth family, which can be challenging for a child or young person growing up separately. A story that is less often told, is of reunifications supported by local authorities with adopted children and birth families, especially after adopted children re-enter care – that do not work out – where the child is unsafe and harmed, or just decides they do not want to have anything to do with birth family again.
Putting the responsibility on adopters and some of our most vulnerable children – to manage all the complex emotional turmoil alone – and take responsibility for the impact of rapidly changing technology – well this is a lot to ask. It is also a lot to ask of an overstretched work force where there is limited opportunity for relationships between social care professionals and children. It may be years after an Adoption Order was made that birth family connection is instigated by the child or birth family members.
I believe we have much to learn from special guardianship about birth family contact – and we do know there is room for substantial improvement. Our Health and Well Being Survey showed that birth family contact is one of the most stressful things for special guardianship carers to cope with. Our Connections Survey showed there is conflict in many cases, which leaves children distressed and creates enormous challenges for special guardianship carers. Lets learn from this and try to achieve something that really works for children – and for all parties in the permanence triad. I would like to see an infrastructure that enables adoptive parents, permanent and temporary caregivers, and the professionals that support us, to come together, work together, and learn from each other.
Lines must be drawn to be able to liaise with different communities but I am not happy about the way they are drawn now by government and all the divisions that are being deepened instead of being united with common goals and shared understanding. From my adopter’s perspective, the current infrastructure seems to draw lines between blood relatives of the child and adopters. I would rather see a Permanence Board bringing all family primary caregivers together regardless of blood connections, and not more division and separation of blood and non-biological families.
Of course a child should be cared for by their kin and wider biological family and adoption should be the last resort. As an adopter I am horrified to learn this isn’t always the case and it makes me feel sullied in a way I do not want to be made to feel that I have been part of a system where this hasn’t happened. I find it desperately saddening and quite wrong that adoption is promoted and supported in a way that biological family care is not. Being part of SG&AT I have come to learn there are just too many grandparents out there who will never see their grandchildren again. It is just embarrassing to me as an adopter that there are special Regional Adoption Authorities only looking after adopters, and funding that is only available to adopters and some special guardians. It is not clear whether special guardians whose children are ‘Lack of LAC’, and whose guardians prevented from going into care, actually fall under the Adoption and Special Guardianship Board’s remit at all – if they do then they do not qualify for the Adoption Support Fund, Pupil Premium Plus or access to the Virtual Head. This is all so wrong from my perspective. Surely we should be trying to heal divisions in the modernisation of adoption?
I worry that these divisions will simply foster even more resentment towards adopters who are seen as more ‘privileged’ and valued – in a system where there seems to be so many myths to dispel. There are myths that adopters, with not being biologically bound to a child, can more easily make choices – and simply walk away when the child is in trouble – handing the child back to the corporate parent. This makes us feel that we are not ‘real’ families at all. Why can there be no state recognition of the ‘parenting/caring from a distance’ role? It is so important that when our children re-enter care they do not feel rejected or left with a sense of failure. It is so important that they do not lose both of their families and have someone by their side as they transition to adult life. This transition can be so much harder for a child who has suffered early life trauma and losses, and may be developmentally delayed. Why should this person be a stranger? A social worker who changes every few months? None of this makes any sense to me – and it didn’t make any sense to my child either when he went back into care and got trapped there for three years.
I am not sure where long term foster carers sit within this – I don’t know enough about it but I feel there is a difference in commitment when there is payment for care and a child can easily be returned to the care system with no stigma for carers as the local authority will want them to care for others when so many children are coming into care. Calling foster carers parents doesn’t quite work for me, and it may not be very helpful for a child if they end up being returned to care again and again. And families don’t usually go on holiday without their children and put them in respite – as foster carers do. There are differences – but similarities too. I am not sure really.
What unifies us all as providers of family permanence is that we want the best for our children and young people. We want them to be safe from harm, have childhoods that bring happiness and joyful memories, to feel loved and truly cherished, and where they are able to learn and realise their potential. I would like to see an overarching Permanence Board that includes all permanent primary caregivers, regardless of blood ties with the child. I feel this would give proper recognition to the child’s needs for family and connection and not delineate between children who have biological family members who can care for them and those whose birth families and relatives have been relegated to the child’s past in favour of adoption as a separate form of care that is privileged in terms of funding and infrastructure.