Friday, November 25, 2016

Romania on My Mind

When I first met Alina (not her real name) she was a quiet, shy teenager. I was volunteering for two weeks at a summer camp for teenage girls living in Romania's 'orphanages'. I use the inverted commas because none of these children were orphans. And the official term in Romania is 'placement centre'.

Many of the girls were very chatty and friendly. They wanted to try out their English on us. They wanted to get close, attract our attention. These days I would call it 'attachment-seeking behaviour'. These girls appeared to form bonds with the volunteers very quickly. It was gratifying for visitors who perhaps didn't stop to consider that they were just the latest in a long line of 'here today, gone tomorrow' people in these young women's lives.

Alina was not like these. Tiny, with her dark, curly hair drawn into a low ponytail, she hung around at the back, reluctant to get in the thick of things. She would sit with us and weave friendship bracelets - the trend of the camp that year - but would rarely speak or even raise her head.

I saw Alina at a couple more camps, and then she left the orphanage and I didn't see her again until I went to live in Romania several years later. As well as running the camps, the Romanian charity I was working with mainly concentrated on providing transition support to young women when they left the city's orphanages, often with just a small bag of belongings, no money and no plan. The charity was there for them long after the state had finished with them.

By this time, Alina was married. She seemed happy enough. During my two years there, she had a baby and I remember visiting her, nervously holding this tiny infant in a room packed with Alina's husband's family, while all the grannies commented on my cradling technique and I concentrated furiously on avoiding some terrible childcare faux pas. Such a thing is easily done in a country where folklore would have it that draughts, going barefoot and sitting on walls can all be sources of terrible illness.

A few weeks ago, an American lady we both knew in Romania messaged me to tell me that Alina was coming to the UK to work and would be in Leeds, near enough to me for visiting. I messaged Alina but didn't receive a reply until she was already here. She was lonely, scared. She wanted to meet up. I put her in touch with a friend who lives in Leeds. Alina messaged and phoned my friend many, many times in one day.

It transpired that Alina would only be in Leeds for one week, training. After that, she would be moved on to a care home somewhere else in the country. She was offered Dorset. She messaged me six or seven times that day, asking whether I thought she should refuse the offer and hope for somewhere else closer to me. In the end, there was no chance of that and, with time running short, I arranged to go over to Leeds and meet her before she left.

I took a little goody bag of useful items, scrambled together at the last minute. We drove to Yorkshire, stopping for the kids' sake at Bradford's Media Museum on the way. All day, messages were flying back and forth. She would be back at her hotel by 5.40. Now the course leader said they were going to finish at 9pm. Now it would be 6.30pm. After 6pm her phone started going straight to voicemail and messages went unanswered. I think her battery was dead. We waited at the hotel until 7.30, but it was getting late and I couldn't occupy the children in the hotel foyer any longer. We left our goody bag at the hotel reception and made our way home. Alina finished her training at 8.30. We never did get to meet up, and as I write she is likely on her way to Dorset.

All week I have been thinking about it. Alina has left her husband and her young daughter in Romania to come to the UK and work in a care home for what I hope will be at least the minimum wage. I hope she will be fairly treated. I hope her husband and daughter can manage without her.

In 2009, the Romanian government released data on children living in Romania's placement centres - the 'orphanages'. Most of the children were there because they had been removed from their birth families due to abuse and neglect. The system of foster care was in its infancy then, having only begun properly as a condition of their accession to the EU two years previously. But, if I remember rightly, 20% of children in Romania's orphanages were there because one or both parents had left to work abroad. And this is before Romania was granted full access to EU freedom of movement.

Alina has already been abandoned by her family, left alone in the world. Now she is alone in the world again, having left her own family and the grinding poverty of so many of her peers to come west in search of work. And in Romania, there is a child without her mother. Many children.

And in the week in which I have been mulling over all of this, I read an article about the work being done by Romania's social workers among street children. These tiny, lone children, sniffing paint and seeking shelter beneath overpasses and bridges are the children and grandchildren of those who fled appalling conditions in orphanages, preferring a life of unimaginable hardship on the streets. These are children who were born to the streets.

Ceaucescu's shadow over Romania still stretches long.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What to Expect From Your Child's Former Foster Carer Post-Adoption

Straight out of the block I'm going to admit that I may have over-sold this a little with the title. I can't really tell you exactly what to expect from your child's former foster carer because all foster carers are different, all situations are different, and there seems to be little consistency in the guidance given to carers from different agencies in how to handle ongoing contact once a child has moved onto their permanent home.

Despite this, I feel I want to say something on the subject because it comes up so often among adopters. Some are comfortable with well-managed ongoing contact, while others have settled for various reasons on little or no contact and are making it work for them. Yet for others, there are unmet expectations - too much contact or not enough, or struggling through ongoing contact that they don't really feel is working as well as it could.

From my perspective, ongoing contact is as much of a minefield as it probably is for many adopters. Literally the only thing that has ever been said by any social worker to me on the subject is that any ongoing contact is up to the child's new family and that I need to accept that I might never see or hear from the child again. I have always taken this very literally, and even more so now that I have seen the huge range of differing perspectives from adoptive families.

What that means in practice is that if you were to adopt a child from my home, I would not be contacting you at all unless you contacted me. If you emailed or messaged me, I would reply, but if you didn't reply back, then I probably wouldn't push it. I would send birthday and Christmas cards for the child, but if those went unacknowledged for a couple of years then I would consider stopping. If you vaguely suggested meeting up sometime, then I would be happy to do that, but if you did not come back to me with some attempt to firm up arrangements then I wouldn't push it.

If you, as the child's new family, were keen to maintain contact then I can see how my approach might make it seem as though I was reticent about the idea. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Whenever I hear even a snippet of news about any child I have fostered, I am beyond excited. I was recently sent some up-to-date photos of BG who I fostered back in 2014 and I couldn't stop looking at them with a huge soppy grin on my face. Even better, I was given permission to share them with my parents - like any other family, a foster family consists of many more people than just the parental figures.

Yet I also have to think of things from the perspective of families who, for whatever reason, may not want continuing contact at this time. How intrusive would it be in that case if I were to be sending regular emails, suggesting meet-ups or posting cards and presents?

I don't want to overwhelm you!

The thing is, when adoptive parents come to my house during intros, I don't know what they're going to want from me in the future. And neither do they, beyond the hypothetical. We are likely to have different lifestyles, different ideas about parenting, about lots of things, and sometimes these differences can cause tension, or at least, a perception of tension. It is impossible to predict how a child will react to the enormity of their move from their foster home to their forever home. Ideas about continuing contact that might have seemed eminently sensible during the planning stages can quickly fall apart once the rubber of adoptive parenting hits the road.

So, based only on my own thoughts on the subject, here are a few tips for a smoother approach to continuing contact. I'd love it if other foster carers were able to add their own perspectives in the comments as I know it's not a one-size-fits-all situation!

  • Don't assume your child's foster carer has had extensive training on handling intros, transition to permanence or continuing contact. I have had none. Others might have had loads.
  • Expect that sometimes, a foster carer's emotion will creep into things. Yes, fostering is our professional role and yes, we know that we will say goodbye to these children we have loved and cared for and yes, we mentally prepare as much as we are able, but we are humans too and sometimes our emotions can rise to the surface before we even realise it's happening.
  • If you do want continuing contact, then encourage the foster carer by initiating it in a format which you are comfortable with so that the carer has your lead to follow. 
  • Be very clear and honest about what you do and don't want. Spell it out so there is no ambiguity. If the carer is suggesting something that you think isn't a good idea right now, say so, and suggest reviewing the situation in 3 or 6 or 12 months.
  • Try to avoid making lavish commitments to continuing contact during intros. It's a time of high emotion, and if things are going well between everyone then it can be tempting to make plans that might not seem such a good idea a few months down the road. An experienced carer should understand this, but see point 2 - we can be emotional too!
  • Remember that some carers may have fostered dozens and dozens of children. It might simply be logistically impossible for them to sustain high-level regular contact with each child for years to come.
  • And finally, it just might be possible that some foster carers (ahem - like me - ahem) are not terribly administratively gifted. I have pictures on the wall of every child I've fostered and I think about them pretty much every day, but if I have to remember a birthday, buy a card, write it, get a stamp, post it . . . well, there are a lot of stages there where something can disappear to the bottom of my handbag and get forgotten. Even my closest family members consider themselves lucky if I remember to post a card! Moonpig helps me a bit with that. I guess that this is just a roundabout way of saying that parenting, and especially foster parenting, takes up a lot of a person's time and energy - if you haven't heard from your child's carer in a while, it doesn't necessarily mean that they have forgotten about your child.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Branching Out (With Song and Dance!)

I love our home education journey, and I was an advocate of home education before I ever knew I would have children of my own to educate, but I also know that some things that are taken for granted at school need a little more organising for home educators.

OB goes to swimming lessons partly to learn to swim, and partly to learn to take instructions from an adult that isn't his Mum. He goes to football training to get that essential 'team sports' experience. He goes to home-ed co-op partly for that 'socialisation' that everybody is so keen on, and partly to do messy activities - I don't like clearing up! And recently, he has started at a local theatre group.

I'll admit, I was nervous about theatre group. Yes, a few of his friends go and, yes, his bestie's mum is a volunteer helper, but still, I could see the whole thing being well out of his comfort zone. Whenever OB has to join in any group activity - action songs for instance - his body goes stiff and jerky, and his eyes are everywhere, constantly seeking reassurance from watching what others do. The first time I asked him if he wanted to go, it was a definite "no". A few months later, I reframed the question (I called it something else!) and he agreed.

He's been going since the summer. He has hardly told me a single thing about what he does there except the occasional surreal snippet. I rely entirely on my friend to be my spy! She tells me he is doing brilliantly, that he has learned all the songs and the dances, that he joins in and has fitted in with the other kids. One evening as she drove him home after rehearsals, he confidently explained to all the other various kids in the car about how he is adopted and what that means.

As I write this, he is out at the first dress rehearsal. It is show weekend. On Sunday afternoon I will finally get the chance to see what my son has been working on for all of these months. I will admit that part of me is worried that, overwhelmed by the lights and the sight of the audience, he will freeze up or fall apart. It would be daunting for anybody, never mind a child so young.

Or maybe his youth will be his salvation. Lacking the life experience to realise that he should be scared, maybe he just won't be!

What I know for sure is that whatever happens on that stage, I am already proud of my boy. Even if he doesn't sing a note on Sunday, he has already exceeded my wildest expectations.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Hopes and Nightmares

This week I was contacted on the phone by a social worker asking me if I was willing to be assessed as a potential adopter for OB's two younger birth siblings.

I would say the phone call was out of the blue, coming as it did with no warning just as I was making tea. But if I'm honest, it wasn't. I knew about the existence of these little ones. In fact once, I actually saw their mum pushing them down the street in a double buggy. And I knew that if you adopt a child, there's always the possibility that you'll be asked to consider future siblings. So, no, not out of the blue.

Within about six months of adopting OB I knew that, when the time was right, I would look into adopting again. I had various ideas about how this would happen. Maybe I would adopt a child I fostered. Maybe I would contact the LA and be matched with a child I didn't know, like other adopters. I did not know how it would happen, but I knew I wanted to make it happen.

When I realised OB had one sibling, and then two, I held back. In fact, I held my breath. At each stage, I expected a call. It was all I could do to stop myself from calling social services and demanding information.

As the months, and then years went by with no call, I began to relax. And I began to feel hopeful. I had spent a lot of time around OB's birth mum. I got to know her. I wanted her to do well and hoped for her to have a better future. I moved forwards and began the process to adopt Birdy. I fervently hoped that OB's birth mum was able to move forwards too, together with her family.

That this has not happened for her has upset me more than I thought possible. I cannot take OB's siblings. It's simply an impossibility, so there has been no soul searching on my part. I am certain that to attempt it would be to bring disaster down upon us all. My sorrow is not about making that decision, but about that young woman and these two little children, and the loss and the grief and the anguish.

The whole adoption scenario would be so much more clean cut if birth parents were monsters. There probably are monsters, but I haven't met any. I have met a lot of vulnerable, abused, lost people. I can't say definitively that the right support, whatever that looks like, would have remedied their situations - the reality is much more tangled than that and won't be neatly tidied up - but I do know that, even in these nightmares, not everything that appears monstrous is a monster.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Proximity Alert

If, like a Star Trek star ship, I had a proximity alert sensor, it would probably have experienced catastrophic systems failure by now, taking out a couple of anonymous redshirts along the way.

Either that or I would have taken a phaser to it, enraged by the frequency of its klaxon. Beep! Beep! Beep!

OB is keen on being close. Very close. If he can't be in close physical proximity, then he keeps up an incessant thread of noise to tie us together.

This behaviour is a classic draw for the "all kids do that" response. But I don't think it applies. I've seen other kids playing by themselves or occasionally going into another room. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes. OB is nearly six. I definitely know that other 6-year-olds are not all like OB in this regard.

If OB is playing and I leave the room, he will follow within moments, even if I'm only on the other side of the French doors . . . and the doors are still open. If I go out of his sight, he has to know exactly where I am going. On the rare occasion when he does not, or can not, follow, he will keep up a steady stream of questions that I must answer at the top of my voice, or risk total meltdown.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

If either of us are going to the toilet, it has to be announced. He must know where everybody is at all times. If I take a moment too long in the toilet, he comes to the door and asks what I am doing. He used to come in, but I don't allow that any more. I enforce it by wedging my foot against the door.

If I spend too long putting the laundry in, or emptying the dishwasher, he invents or engineers some catastrophe that means I have to stop what I am doing and come immediately to his aid. Yesterday I came running to his screams to find that his predicament was being 'buried' under a sofa cushion and apparently totally unable to free himself.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

If I go and sit on a chair in the same room as him, he is immediately up in my face. He wants to sit on my knee, but he can't sit still, so he's crawling, climbing, jabbing me with his elbows. If I protest, he gets off, but then waves his arms right in front of my face, or raises his foot so that it's millimetres away from some part of my body. If he's resting against me, he's always pressing some part of his body into mine a little harder than is necessary.

If I bend down to pick something up, he climbs on my back, knocking me over. If I sit on the floor to play with him, he clambers onto me.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

If I talk to somebody else or pay attention to something else, he physically interposes himself between me and whatever or whoever I'm looking at. If I'm working at the kitchen counter, he suddenly has need to get something out of the drawer or cupboard I'm standing in front of.

He shoves his head up my clothes, puts his hands in my pockets, touches my hair, my face, my earrings, my glasses. When we stand in the corridor at swimming, waiting for his lesson to begin, he stands on my feet.

Beep! Beep! Beeeeeeeeep!!!!

There is no neat ending to this blog post, no solution or clever analogy about life. I sometimes long to put my shields up and go to red alert, but it's not the answer. This is how we are, and I have turned my proximity alert off for the duration.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

45 Years From Now

In 45 years time, OB will be 50 - the same age as adult adoptee Chris, whose story appeared in the papers this week as part of the National Adoption Week coverage.

Reading his story, I couldn't help looking for information between the lines, and hints at threads woven into the story that might help me to empathise with my own children's experiences. There was mention of a shaky start to life, some turbulence during the teen years, and a search for birth family that culminated in the significant moment when this adoptee finally looked into somebody else's face and saw glimmers of his own features. There was relevance there.

But this was perhaps not a 'modern adoption' story. There was no mention of problems accessing post-placement support, difficulties navigating the education system, the ongoing battle of trying to get various professionals to 'get it', the radically altered expectations of family life, the realisation that everything you thought you understood about parenting is not going to cut it here.

And then I took another look at the list of things not mentioned, and I realised that most of the things on that list are not my children's stories. They are mine. It is me who researches all things attachment, me who works so hard to keep our lives safe and predictable, me who makes the phone calls and sends the emails again and again. I am the one who mentally prepares answers to questions my children might ask about their early lives. I am the one who adjusts our environment to reduce anxieties, who de-escalates dramas before they become crises.

I am not saying that none of these things affect my children or are relevant to them. Of course not. Adoption has happened to them. Loss of birth family has happened to them. Not to me. What I am saying is that their story is not mine. I have my story as an adoptive parent. They have their stories as adoptees.

There are many experiences of being an adoptive parent, and many experiences of being an adopted person. We need to hear them all, even if they do not fit with the narrative that runs in our own heads. If I was to be asked to tell the story of my own childhood in 500 or so words, I would probably amaze my parents in what I have remembered and what I have completely forgotten.  It's a long time since I was a child. Perceptions of an event differ from person to person. Some things fade and blur, others remain in sharp relief. Hindsight affects perspective. Things that consume my world now might be barely noticed by my son. His current concerns might surprise me.

In 45 years time, if my son should happen to be interviewed for a national paper about his experience of being adopted, I do not know what he will say. But I do hope that he will tell his story, and not mine.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Not Like Any Other Parent

National Adoption Week is coming up. I'm probably not going to write about that this year, although I've blogged about it in previous years here and here and here. This week, though, I'm sticking to my fostering roots.

There have been quite a few changes in my LA recently. I can't call it cost-cutting as apparently the changes didn't actually save any money overall but, unfortunately for me, the net effect is that allowances and expenses that I receive in my particular situation will be reduced. In response to some of these changes, I wrote a letter to some of the big bosses at the LA in which I challenged some of their basic assumptions about what foster carers do and what we need. They replied to my letter, taking each of my points in turn, and reiterating their basic assumptions.

I didn't expect anything different really, but one phrase really took my breath away. The writer was at pains to ensure that I understood that any fostered children I look after should be made a full part of our family life, and that I should handle a particular situation "the way any other parent would do".

The way any other parent would do.

Leaving aside the fact that I am not the parent, that they already have parents and, depending on their legal status, the state may be partly their parent, here's a list of ways in which a short-term foster carer is not like "any other parent":

  • I'm not allowed to call myself a parent - the term is 'foster carer'
  • In order to become a foster carer I had to go through a gruelling year-long approvals process which resulted in a social worker who was a complete stranger eventually knowing more about me than my closest friends do
  • Children can arrive in my home with as little as 90 minutes notice
  • They can stay for a few days, a few months or a couple of years, but they will eventually move on
  • I have to keep a daily log of all our doings which a social worker will read and sign
  • Two different social workers will visit me every 4-6 weeks and, amongst other things, check on the quality of my 'parenting'
  • Once a year I have a 360 appraisal of my 'parenting' and every professional I meet from Health Visitors to Contact Supervisors to Nursery Teachers gets to contribute
  • I have to attend at least five training events each year in order to maintain my 'parenting' standards
  • I must adhere to a strict 'safer caring' policy which affects how we live in our own home
  • My home must meet prescribed health and safety requirements, which I am responsible for maintaining
  • I have a 'delegated authority' document which details exactly which decisions I'm allowed to make with regards to a child's care, and which I must ask permission for
  • I have to take the children to visit their actual parents 3-5 times each week
  • If a child has siblings living elsewhere, I probably have to take them to see each other too
  • If a child injures themselves or has an accident, social workers will come to my house and I'll have a load of forms to fill in
  • If a child becomes ill and has to go to the hospital, I phone the social worker immediately after I phone the ambulance
  • If somebody has an allegation about the quality of my parenting, social workers will come to my house, forms will be filled in, any children may be summarily removed and I could lose my livelihood - I might never know the reason why
  • My regular babysitters ought to have up-to-date DBS checks (none of them have actually but that's another story!)
  • I can't take a child on our family holiday without their actual parent's permission
  • I can't take a child for a new hairstyle without their actual parent's permission
  • I regularly have to attend meetings, medical appointments etc. pertaining to the child's 'looked after' status, over and above normal childhood requirements
  • If I become sick, any children could be removed and I could lose my livelihood
  • I must parent each child with love, knowing that one day I will hand that child over to somebody else and may never see or hear from them again

Apparently, foster carers are getting their own union. I have seen some comments querying the value of this, mainly based around the idea that foster carers should be doing it for love, not financial gain (mostly written by people who have never fostered a child). The truth is, we are doing it for love. If I was doing this for financial gain, I wouldn't be doing it. But any idea that foster caring (I'm talking about short-term fostering here) is basically just like having someone to stay as part of your family while everything else carries on as it did before . . . well, it's just plain old-fashioned and wrong.

And what is frustrating me most at the moment is that it is the people who run the system who are the ones holding on so tightly to this idea.