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As parents and guardians we want our children, many of whom will have had the most difficult starts in life, to feel cherished, accepted, truly loved and free. The raising of vulnerable children who have suffered enormous losses and separation is one of the hardest of tasks and it has been very interesting to learn about ‘Restorative Practice’, which is being promoted in Leeds and is used in some other local authorities. We heard about this approach only because some of our members who work in Leeds are being asked to use it in their work in schools and colleges and are offered training.

Two adoptive mothers, who wish to remain anonymous, make the case here for the use of restorative practice in adoption and special guardianship. Both mothers are members of POTATO (parents of traumatised adopted teenagers organisation), as well as SG&AT.

What exactly is Restorative Practice?

Restorative practice originated over 30 years ago. It is a social science that draws on research from various social science fields, including education, psychology, social work, sociology and organisational development. Its purpose is to build relationships and shared understanding between people and communities – and to repair harm. It has an excellent national and international evidence base. Restorative justice is a subset of restorative practice. A key difference is that restorative justice may be used only after an event or injustice, whereas restorative practice can be used at any time. Restorative practice can thus be used proactively to prevent and manage crises and relationship breakdown. Family Group Conferences and other strength based approached are all part of restorative practice.

Isabel Vanderheen, tranformational lead for Walsall’s children’s services, (Walsall is one local authority that employs restorative practice), talks about moving from a culture focused on the problematic (ie assessing need). Instead we are investing to create a stable confident workforce who are able to effectively manage uncertainty and risk and identify people’s strengths and build on them to secure change and build resilience

Essentially and practically, restorative practice means working with children and families in a very different way to normal safeguarding procedures – and it may require a cultural shift on the part of agencies. As Andy Lloyd, Leeds Head of Children’s Workforce Developemt explains in this powerpoint presentation (slide 10) – it is not doing to, or for; nor is it doing nothing – it is working with and alongside.

Why is Restorative Practice needed for our children and families?

What interested the two mothers about restorative practice is that it can be used to repair harm and manage conflict in relationships.

Restorative practice is usually only employed with ‘troubled families’ in the context of children’s services, according to Dudley Borough Council, which perhaps explains why, as adopters and special guardians we have not really come across it. Austerity cuts have impacted most on vulnerable children and families where children have special needs and rely on support. We are troubled families but not because of social problems such as alcohol and substance abuse. We are under great stress with enormous responsibilities and may struggle to get the support and understanding that is needed.

Restorative practice can potentially help with shared decision making around contact or family connection whenever there is a separation of the child from their families – birth parents/families and special guardianship and adoptive families (after a disruption). This is especially important in special guardianship when special guardianship orders are increasingly granted to a child’s former foster carers.

Some specific situations where restorative practice could be beneficial are described below:

  1. When the child presents a risk of harm to parents, caregivers or siblings because of violence or the acting out of sexual trauma. This is a situation when agencies must give support and worth with us. Our research is showing over and over again that safeguarding and child protection procedures increase the stress for the family. Being ‘social worked’ as if you are the risk of harm when you ask for help because you or another child is at risk leads to a total breakdown of relational trust.
  2. When a family is at crisis point or on the verge of crisis. Often there will be police involvement by this stage. The usual response to us reporting that we are in crisis is to tell us we need to be assessed. Assessments delay support – whether the assessment is for the Adoption Support Fund or access to respite when it is not safe for family members because the child presents a risk of harm to us (see above).
  3. After a disruption. The family does not end after a disruption although there is usually little or no consideration about whole family support when a child cannot safely live within the family home. From our lived experience perspective we find that parental responsibility and decision making about our children isn’t being properly shared with us – but there is little we can do about it when the child poses a risk of harm to us or family members. Our children are getting trapped in care without the therapeutic support that is needed whilst we are held over a barrel and at the same time we need privacy and the protection of our identities. Relationships with agencies can sour, becoming fractious and difficult when there is disagreement about our children’s support needs. Our lived experience research – see Chart 24 in our Connections Survey – suggests partnership working is the exception rather than the norm after a child has re-entered care. 
  4. After a Special Guardianship Order is granted and there has been conflict between the special guardian and the local authority. Research fom the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has identified that there are higher rates of disruption at five years when a Supervision Order and Special Guardianship Order are made at the same time. When a greater level of involvement on the part of agencies leads to worse outcomes for children and families this is a signal that something is not right with the approach. Restorative practice could better support the child and family, building trusting relationships and shared understanding between the authority and the guardian in the new family placement. An authoritarian approach when parent and caregiver lack of trust is the issue for us is not likely to work. It should be of great concern that lack of trust is identified as a barrier to special guardians asking for support and making use of the Adoption Support Fund in our Health and Wellbeing Survey and and the recent SG&AT report on Accessing and Receiving Support. Special guardians are avoiding agencies out of fear. This does not help children. Research shows that parental/caregiver stress has a massive impact on a child’s wellbeing and development. See the work of Gabor Mate for example.
  5. When there is conflict between parents/guardians in respect of the child’s medical needs and health difficulties. The apparent dramatic rise in cases of Fabricated Induced Illness. is an alarming problem. This is a rare form of child abuse where a parent/carer exaggerates the child’s problems – or deliberately causes symptoms. Law firms and parents believe that local authorities may be deliberately bringing allegations of FII against parents to avoid allocation of services and support, when a child has special needs. Even if this is not happening this is indicative of a total breakdown of relational trust. The parent group Fightback 4 Justice – with over 50k followers on Facebook are working hard to offer advice and support to parents striving to get support for children with disabilities. 

In our Health and Wellbeing Survey, 147/389 respondents said they would avoid talking to their GP about mental health difficulties lest judgements would be made about their capacity to parent – see Table 34  42 Respondents commented on this question. This finding should be ringing alarm bells. Trust is of fundamental importance in any helping relationship and if we are finding it hard to trust then something is going wrong. The same survey identified that a similar number of respondents (146/389) had made a formal complaint. As we discuss below, our experience is that formal complaints can worsen the relationship between us and those with a duty of care – with further breakdown of our relational trust. 

Who do we turn to as parents and guardians when there is a breakdown of trust and relationship?

The mothers making the case for restorative practice have both together parented children under a variety of legal frameworks. These include: Section 20; Section 31 Care Order; and a Supervision Order. However, none of these frameworks were protective  or supportive of the children or mothers. This is perhaps not surprising as none of the legislation was designed with us, or with our families in mind.

Harm was done but there is no learning from the cases because the children and families require privacy and anonymity. These mothers found there was nowhere to turn. The entire system seemed to work against them.

In one family’s case, therapy was not available when it was needed for the child at home or under section 20, and it was totally inaccessible under a section 31 Care Order. Six years on and the child has still not received therapy. Foster carers cannot cope, and hand in their notice so the child must move again and again. The Local Government Ombudsman has found that the local authority caused irreparable harm to the relationship between mother and child when the case was allowed to drift under section 20 and contact was constrained and restricted. The section 31 Care Order, which the mother was advised to apply for, has arguably made it even harder for her to have any voice in care planning for her daughter who is at high risk of sexual exploitation now.

In the other family, broken communication hindered the effectiveness of therapy, as it was provided on the basis of erroneous assumptions (and at great cost), by an agency partnering with the privately owned children’s home where the child lived – who refused to communicate with the child’s mother – because there was a section 31 Care Order in place. It was not the agency’s policy to talk to parents if this order was in place and the therapist said therapy would be stopped if the order was discharged (in a letter to the social worker that was read to the court), which meant the mother’s application for discharge of the Care Order (made because the child wished to go home), was unsuccessful. A second application was successful. However, the local authority wanted and got a Supervision Order. The mother agreed, in order to avoid a costly contested hearing, which would have delayed her child’s much longed for reunification. Reunification was inevitable – it was simply a case of whether it could be achieved before the child reached the age of 18 and in a supported way. Pathway planning was not done as it should have been under the Supervision Order and there was no support from children’s services for the family. The uncontested discharge of public law orders meant there can be no learning from the case as there are no Judgments to publish. The child and mother would like to make a complaint -but the local authority and the Local Government Ombudsman will not accept a complaint or investigate – and say the matter is dealt with. From the mother’s perspective, the Supervision Order appeared to be a convenient way for the agency to avoid admitting to any failings and avoid scrutiny. 

These are not two isolated cases. They may have unusual features, which makes it hard to speak about them for the mothers, but ultimately both women took on parental responsibility for a child who had been removed from their birth family by the state.

Even with the introduction of the Adoption Support Fund, which can only be accessed via an assessment conducted by the local authority – adopters and special guardians can find themselves in exhausting protracted conflict. We must battle and fight to get much needed help and services for our children for years – going on into the child’s adulthood. Not many of our children are ready for independence at 18 and many are developmentally delayed. Pathway planning teams in particular seem very reluctant to work with adoptive parents – even when the child has been reunified and lives at home.

The stakes are so high with our children. Yet if a case has been to court, as has happened with the two mothers, the Local Goverment Ombudsman may not investigate or will only look at a new complaint. But the court proceedings have too narrow a remit for our complex cases. Making a formal complaint does not necessarily enable progress, and for many of us our experience is that making a complaint can lead to defensiveness and entrenched positions on the part of the agency – we may also discover negative views being expressed about our character, mental health or ability to work with agencies that we had no idea about. The reports that are written about us can come as a great shock. Such inaccuracies in reports may be manifold but it’s almost impossible for us to correct them. The opinions of professionals are given more weight than ours and in any case these opinions are beyond the remit of the complaints process. Formal complaints may take far too long to investigate to be of value to a child/family in crisis, or coping with its aftermath.

Court proceedings and formal complaints do not necessarily lead to conflict resolution for a number of reasons. All this can leave children and families having to absorb a high level of injustice and many missed opportunities to help. Importantly, in this context, restorative practice can give children and families a chance to talk about how the past has impacted on them. This is critically important for our childen and families – to have harmful consequences of decisions that are not made by us, and injustices that result from these decisions, acknowledged and recognised – if trust is to be rebuilt after conflict and misunderstanding. It is also important for such extreme difficulties and problems to be given proper consideration – or there can be no learning.

An intrinsic feature of restorative practice, which makes it very attractive, is that it offers a high level of accountability. Jon Fayle, co-chair of NAIRO explains there have only been 20 formal referrals from Independent Reviewing Officers to Cafcass between 2004 and March 2017 – and none of these cases went to court. This is extremely troubling and it is even more alarming that the IRO role is under threat. We very much hope that SG&AT can contribute to the debate about IROs in Parliament. 

As it is now, when we speak of what has led us and our children to lose hope and feel despairing, mistrustful and frightened of services we are told the issues that we raise are historical and have already been dealt with through court or a formal complaints process. We are told the social worker or manager was “not involved with the case previously”. We are told we must be assessed again before help can be considered – and with no thought about the past.

Imagine if parents and guardians were to say we are not willing to talk about the past  -because we were not involved. The past is part of our child’s story and their identity – and it may be very important for them – but incredibly hard for them to think about and talk about.  We carry our children’s pain as well as our own and it is unacceptable that professionals who are supposed to help children refuse to see that harm was done to them and gloss over it as if it doesn’t matter. Both the mothers making the case for restorative practice have been appalled to find their children’s vulnerabilities and their difficulties to advocate for themselves are exploited by professionals and local authorities.

Arguably a more holistic family oriented approach in children’s care is much needed with all families if we are to break the cycle of abuse and neglect, but it is especially important after changes in care, conflict or when relational trust with agencies is compromised. When parents and guardians experience an unwillingness on the part of agencies and the state to recognise harm is being done, it is inevitable that our trust and confidence will be eroded.

Restorative practices could be so beneficial and could help us move forwards and look to the future with hope as families – enabling trust to be rebuilt after too much conflict and misunderstanding. 

What else is important?

We can never hope to break the cycle of abuse and neglect if we blame parents and guardians, giving people who are already under enormous stress a hard time because children are ‘acting out’ their traumas of early life. Our children bring imported pathologies and hugely problematic relational dynamics into the permanence family (which is not to say we should blame their birth parents). These children have trauma bonds with siblings and they are ruled by fear, anxiety and have a desperate need to be in control. They feel a burning anger inside and incredible sadness and pain. As parents and guardians we know from experience that behavioural approaches don’t work for these children. Reward and punishment are not effective and can make things worse. Who is listening to the child when we take things away from them to control them? They may sometimes work for a young child but please believe us when we say they are useless in the teenage years. Our children are beyond control, not beyond parental control.

To solve these complex problems and support permanence we need a biopsychosocial approach, which brings together biology, psychology and an understanding of cultural and social factors. We cannot ignore the evidence of the ACEs research – Adverse Childhood Experiences – when many of our adopted and special guardianship children have scores of 9 or 10. The need to support relationships with nurturing adults becomes crucially important in permanence -where children have suffered losses of such significant magnitude. If services and agencies really want to help our children then they will need to get behind us and support us. Attachment and nurturing relationship are the only way to make children feel safe, cherished, loved and free. Sometimes whatever we do is not enough. Please don’t turn against us when this happens. Our trust is important.

Please join with us to better understand our perspectives

We very much hope that our Lived Experience Research  can be of help to decision makers in local authorties and agencies and to policy makers and influencers. Our experience has been that it is extremely hard to be heard and listened to. Much harder than we ever imagined it would be. There is a dearth of comparative research about permanence – but ours is seemingly overlooked with few opportunities to discuss or present our findings – other than via social media platforms. We see a lot of work being done to create change – but it is not usually done with us.

We would like to invite influencers, policy makers, local authorities, legal, education and health professionals and charitable organisations – particularly those already using restorative practices or working with restorative justice, to come and work with us. We could also do with a bit of support. So far everything has been self funded by us – and many of us are reliant on statutory benefits and allowances because of our caring role.

Please use this contact form to get in touch. We would love to hear from you!