An adoptive mother speaks of the problems for her child to have their voice heard by the local authority’s complaints team and LGO (Local Government Ombudsman).
In adoption, for it to really work for our children, we need honesty. Fearless honesty. We cannot leave our children feeling their past, and it’s impact, does not matter – and musn’t be spoken of – because it makes us feel uncomfortable or shows we made errors that need to be acknowledged and apologised for. This conveys the wrong message. What happened to them is important – and it should definitely not be brushed under the carpet because it happened when the child was in the care of the local authority.
As parents and guardians we need to protect our children from becoming overwhelmed because what we are asking them to process or talk about is too hard for them. This makes it extremely challenging if they wish for us to make a complaint on their behalf. We may find nothing but shut doors, instead of listening ears wishing to learn about the case, to better understand what went wrong.
This is the situation we have found ourselves in as a family after the local authority decided to play the blame game and used the Family Court to do this – removing my child because he was too anxious to go to school – his school refusal meant he was beyond parental control and I was consequently viewed as a serious risk of harm to him.
All public law orders are now discharged but what happened under these orders, which were supposed to protect my child, but actually ruined both our lives, was not regulated or scrutinised in court where the focus was on me and my parental capacity – as perceived through the local authority’s and Cafcass guardian’s prism of risk. This proved to be a distorted lens that led to injustice and misunderstanding.
No one seemed to care about the catalogue of human rights abuses in the family court. Perhaps this was because I was a litigant in person, unable to access legal aid because I had moderate savings and wanted to avoid selling the family home so we would have somewhere to live if I did win the case. I was out of my depth in court and was shocked to find the rights of the child, and even my child’s basic right to receive medical help were of such little concern to the court. Clearly I didn’t know how to present his case when pitched against the army of lawyers in court going against me – including several barristers who had never met my son and would not convey to the court how much he wished to come home. This didn’t seem to matter to them – acting under the instruction of their callous hearted clients. It mattered to him though – but as a parent, in the family court, I was not believed. Any emotional distress about not being believed or my child’s needs not being understood proved to be a convenient way to suggest I might be mentally unhinged, unable to cope as a mother, or simply too difficult to work with for any of the seven or eight social workers my son must have had during his time in care. These social workers dropped like flies with illness. If they agreed with me and not their manager that my son should come home – they were taken off the case and replaced. There were also frequent organisational re-shuffles.
The Selwyn report on adoptions said reunification should ‘never be ruled out’ if an adopted child returned to care – but in three and a half years it was not possible for my son or I to have one conversation with any professional about him coming home.
The sixth month Child in Care reviews were presided over by an IRO (Independent Reviewing Officer), who once said she ‘felt threatened’ by my aggression in a report. Since I spent much of the reviews sobbing my heart out, and my son couldn’t cope with going at all, I think she just said this as a way to control the situation. The reviews were basically a rubber stamping excercise for whatever the local authority were doing or wanted to do. A complete waste of time and money. They should have been where care planning was considered and scrutinised but this didn’t happen and it doesn’t surprise me that only a handful of cases have ever been referred to court by an IRO. I don’t agree that IROs should go however. This would be a step backwards in terms of scrutiny. I just think we were very unlucky with the two that were allocated to the case. It seemed to be a classic case of ‘fundamental attribution error’ and ‘group bias’, which led to distorted reasoning. This is explained in Eileen Munro’s book – Effective Child Protection, a book that no one involved seemed to have read or be willing to discuss with me. I faced a lot of dismissive attitudes and felt very much victimised when I tried to parent from a distance under a Care Order. I tried to organise a monthly team around the child meeting to involve professionals, with a parent from the POTATO (Parents Of Traumatised Adopted Teenagers Organisation), but all our efforts to bring a level of understanding about my child’s needs were quashed by the local authority as it suited them to have me depicted as a harridan with whom no one could work in partnership.
When people talk about austerity and it all being about a lack of money that means children are suffering I can see this is true. Even the chief LGO, Michael King, has raised concerns about the EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan), process where local authorities put obstacles in the way of parents desperately trying to get needs based support for their children. But I also want to laugh in their faces – since it must have cost about £1 million to try and remove my adopted son until he was 18 – when he was always going to be coming home anyway. Where else would he go?
Its not just about money. Reputations and professional opinions seem to matter a lot more than children’s rights.
The current legal system means courts can only persuade, a problem identified by Sir James Mumby in his Eleanor Rathbone lecture, which you can read here. It is a serious problem when a local authority does not want to be persuaded they were wrong.
Sir James Mumby also describes how the process of change is maddenly slow. This is certainly true in adoption, when the new Secretary of State made an announcement, in National Adoption Week, not about changes or improvements, but to tell us everything will remain the same -at an event hosted by Coram BAAF.
A further irony is that Coram have recently received a £4 million from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation – the largest gift in it’s history, “to support children’s rights and voice”. I am quite sure that not a penny of this £4 million will go towards enabling parents like me to support their child in a complaints process after the child suffered harm in care, due to misunderstandings about the case.
Initially we were a poster family for adoption. Before everyone in the newly formed Regional Adoption Agency closed ranks against me (when I explained the case had gone to court), I was a parent adviser to an adoption support services advisory group. But when responsibility transitioned to a new local authority, there were serious failings – and I made a formal complaint. From this moment onwards I became a foe in a battle where I continue to feel I am up against an army, numerous agencies and even national charities that would seem to prefer my voice is not heard.
I can live with the discrediting and vilification I experienced – its hard but I am strong and resilient – and somehow must keep going for my child, who has no one else in the world but me.
What I cannot live with is the detrimental impact the misunderstandings about the case had on my child, which are not acknowledged.
How can a young person’s needs be understood going forwards if the impact of the past cannot be considered and reflected on? Imagine if as an adopter I had said I was not willing to consider my child’s past and it’s impact?
As a result of the local authority taking me to court:
- The LGO will not investigate a complaint from me or my child.
- The complaints team will not talk about historical issues or the impact these have had.
It has been shut doors wherever I turned. I feel we are left in a stuck place, where no one cares about what happened to my child under a Care Order.
What an ordeal to put a child through? To be removed yet again from their home and family – after they have dared to trust again.
It is quite clear to me that modern adoption is not safe. We are not an isolated case. Parents and children are not safe in a hiddeous blame culture, which sees people like me, who give children a new family, being persecuted and vilified in courts of law when things get tough for us to care for the child. We ask for help but it isn’t there – or it comes too late. The professionals do not understand the problems and seem so ready to blame us.
Our vulnerable children pay the highest price, as no one apologises to them when the local authority’s approach was draconian and seriously misguided. Everything done to protect the professionals and local authority – rather than the child.