Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Martin Narey is controversial . . . for a change!

When Martin Narey, the Government's Adoption Advisor, wrote in the Guardian recently that there should no longer be a presumption that siblings be adopted together, there was a predictable furore of negative comments.

The article, which also questioned the amount of contact that children who are to be adopted have with their birth families, ignited debate amongst those who work with looked-after children, including foster carers, those who have adopted, those who have been through the system, and of course, those who have no personal experience or knowledge but plenty of strong, mostly unfounded opinions.

"Martin Narey should never be in a position he can effect [sic] the outcomes of children in care due to his lack of humanity and non existent empathy towards those in care," said one commenter.

I blogged recently on David Cameron's announcement about babies being placed with potential adopters rather than foster carers which I am sure was prompted by Narey.  I was underwhelmed with that suggestion, but I have more sympathy with this one.

Narey is not saying that children should not be adopted as sibling groups.  He is saying that the policy of presuming that this should always be the case needs to be changed and, instead, each case taken on its own merit.  I would have thought that taking each child's case on its own merit would have been the least that these children deserve from us in all circumstances. 

In some circumstances it really is in the children's best interests to separate siblings when they come into care.  The BBC report on Narey's comments lists a few of the reasons. But, and this is what people don't want to hear, the nasty truth is that there just aren't that many people out there who are willing to adopt sibling groups - separating them would almost certainly get quicker adoptions.  

And before you rush to judgement like so many of the Guardian's commenters who were prepared to villify these apparently selfish adopters, just try to imagine taking three or four strange children into your previously childless life - children who may come with a plethora of emotional, behavioural and learning needs.  In some cases, there are sibling groups of five, six or more children.  Is it really reasonable to expect anybody to adopt all of these together? Is it really better for these children to grow up in care, probably separated anyway, than to find a place in a forever family?

Objectors usually cite cases from the bad old days when people were adopted in secret and often didn't even know that they had siblings until they traced their families as adults.  And yes, the trauma these adoptees experienced musn't be ignored.  But adoption today is open, with regular letterbox contact with birth families and, usually, direct face-to-face contact with siblings.  Sibling groups adopted separately may not grow up together, but they will at least know and spend time with each other, while at the same time, enjoying the security of a permanent adoptive family.

If everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon of speedier adoptions, then we are going to have to swallow the bitter pill that there are sometimes good reasons why children are waiting to be adopted, and the struggle to find adopters prepared to take on sibling groups is one of these reasons.

To be honest, the idea that we split children from their siblings in order to make them easier to adopt doesn't sit well with me at all, unless there are specific problems that mean it is in the children's best interests, but we can't clamour for increased speed without being prepared to sacrifice some of our long-held principles.

Back in May, I blogged about my concerns over the new adoption targets, worried that we would be sacrificing quality of process for speed:

"Maybe at this point it's too simplistic to say that in the frantic push for speed and action, little thought is being given to maintaining and improving the quality of placements.  Virtually nothing is being said about a programme or plan to increase the number of adopters who are prepared to take on older children, disabled children or sibling groups, and these are the ones who are languishing in the system for years."

As I said, I don't like the idea of splitting siblings to make them easier to adopt, but if we're going to push for speed without dealing with any of the underlying reasons for the lack of it, then I think we're going to hear more and more of this sort of thing.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

It's harder to dress boys!

Today the boys were making a guest appearance at a fancy dress party.  No problem, I naively thought.  I'll just nip into town the day before and buy a couple of little firemen or police outfits.

Yeah, not so much!

Believe me, I scoured the town centre looking for something affordable and sensibly-sized before heading out to one of the out-of-town places where I was sure I'd get fixed up at the massive toy shop.  Nothing doing. I tried bargain stores, charity shops, pound shops, Mothercare, Boots, the toy shop, Argos, Asda Living - you name it, I tried it.

The problem was that the cheap little 'top and hat' outfits that I was looking for no longer seem to exist.  If I wanted a full body-suit Spiderman costume (in a size that was sure to be enormously too big) or some other ugly-looking, muscle-bound creature, I would have been fine.  But I didn't want the boys to go dressed as some creature from the black lagoon - they are cute and I want them to stay that way!

Can't see either of the boys looking cute in this!

I could have had a fireman helmet, but it had to be a Fireman Sam Helmet with a massively inflated price tag.  I could have had a builder's hat, but it had to be a Bob The Builder builder's hat, again, hugely over-priced.

I couldn't help feeling wistful as I scanned the plethora of princesses, fairies and nurses lined up on the girls' racks.  It just reinforced my idea that it's far easier (and more fun!) to dress girls!

For a start, in pretty much every shop, the girls' clothing racks outnumber the boys' by a significant amount.  In our local Asda there are rows and rows of girls' clothes, and then two little racks for little boys, tucked away at the back - they're not even next to each other, but arranged at a 90 degree angle with an aisle in between.

Then there's the choice in boys' clothing.  Once I've found the elusive rack, I'm nearly always disappointed by what's on offer.  In affordable (by which I mean cheap!) shops, the t-shirts are nearly always incredibly gaudy colours.  I don't always want to dress the boys in bright primary colours.  Sometimes I want them to be able to go into a room together without everyone reaching for their sunglasses!  But if you want something more classic and restrained you're probably going to have to spend some real money at Next, Gap, or even Vertbaudet or Jo Jo Maman Bebe.  I resent forking out double figures for a sweater that's going to last 6 months at the most.

And then there are the logos and motifs on the clothes.  Fair enough, there are a lot of diggers and other vehicles, but then there are also a lot of monsters, skulls, aliens and scary-looking creatures, even for very little kids.  And the words! Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but I don't want to dress the boys in clothes which advertise character traits that I don't particularly like - cheeky, naughty, etc.  Dress a kid in a t-shirt that says 'I'm a Little Monster' and you pretty much deserve it if he starts doing exactly what it says on the tin!

Mind you, I did recently buy NB a t-shirt that said 'I do all my own stunts'!  Rather appropriate I thought!

Now, I know that all is not peaches and cream in the world of little girls' clothes either.  There is definitely an overload of pink, and also the thorny problem of modesty.  I cringe every time I see a little girl walking around with 'Princess' or 'Gorgeous' embroidered across her bum!  But it seems to me that there is so much more choice in the shops that it should be relatively easy to avoid these issues.

And girls' clothes also have the advantage of being more flexible.  Take a little summer dress, add a long-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of tights and hey presto, you have an outfit that is perfectly suitable for winter.  On the other hand, boys' summer outfits involve shorts and you can't put a pair of tights under them to make a snazzy winter ensemble.  This means that you go out enthusiastically (and with misplaced optimism) to buy shorts at the beginning of the 'summer', and by July, you are so desperate to get some wear out of them before the 'summer' ends that you force the boys outdoors to freeze their legs off in the shorts every time the sun so much as peeps out from behind a cloud.

Ah well, such is the world.  We did manage to solve our fancy dress dilemma though - I dressed them in swimsuits, poncho towels, sandals and sunglasses and told everyone they were the Beach Boys!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thinking About Loss

The idea of 'loss' and what it means has been insinuating itself into my consciousness more and more recently as so many stories of great loss have been in the news, not to mention in the real-life experiences of some of my friends and acquaintances.

When facing impending parenthood, people will often be told how having a child will change your life and blow your priorities out of the water.  This has certainly been true in my experience, although I need to stress that most of the changes have been welcome ones!  Recently, after a long catching-up conversation which mainly consisted of stories about the boys, a friend of mine said, "But what about you?  How are you doing?"  I didn't really have an answer.  The fact is that with the boys around there often isn't much 'me' - their needs always seem so pressing that there doesn't seem to be time to think about anything else.  This is something I'm going to be working on from now on!

So, yes, on a practical level my life and my priorities have completely changed.  This was always expected.  What I didn't expect was the sudden shift in my thinking that has taken place since I decided to adopt OB.

Of course it has radically changed any plans I might have had for the future.  It has also made me take a look at my present and re-evaluate some of the choices I made when there was only me to think about.  Suddenly I am very aware of the way I live from day to day - it's one thing living as you please when nobody's looking, but quite another thing when you're supposed to be setting a good example 24/7!

None of this has taken me by surprise, however.  What has come as a shock is the sudden realisation that I now have something very, very precious, the loss of which would cause irreparable damage and grief.  Now, when I see a news story or even a fictional TV drama about a child who dies, or is sick, I find myself in absolute floods of tears, heartbroken about the loss, my almost subconscious fear brought out into the open, magnified and reflected back to me by the TV screen.

Is this normal parent thinking?  I've never really had anything to lose before and I'm not sure it's entirely healthy to be afraid of losing him before I've even properly got him - that's another thing I'll be working on from now on!  But I do hope that the experience of learning to cherish something so precious will make me a better friend to those I know for whom the experience of loss is a daily reality.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Foster-to-Adopt: Cameron's bright idea doesn't light up my world!

"New-born babies being taken into care should be fostered by people who want to adopt them, the prime minister has said."

Seems to me that David Cameron wakes up pretty much every morning with some new bright idea or other.  I have to wonder how many of these pronouncements are based on anything, or likely to come to anything, or whether they are just soundbites designed to distract us from all the things that are not being done or said!

Let's take this new 'foster to adopt' idea for instance.  At first reading, it sounds like a wonderful idea.  Why should tiny babies spend months in foster care when they could just be moved straight into the home of a prospective adoptive family?  It's hard to see the bad side of such a suggestion isn't it?

Unsurprisingly, however, I have reservations.  Although supporters could, rightly, argue that this option would potentially provide the most stable pathway for the child, I think it's important to remember that although the child should be at the heart of the process, they are not the only ones who are important to the process.

It's also important to remember that stability is not the only necessary factor in ensuring that a looked-after child gets a start in life that is as good as possible.  The issues surrounding looked-after children are complex and require the collaboration of a number of professional services.  Caring for a looked-after child is manifestly not the same as bringing up your own child.

I suppose my main points of concern are as follows:

*  According to the news article, 50% of one-month-old babies who come into care are eventually adopted.  This means that adoptive parents face a 50/50 chance that the child they have been caring for will eventually be returned to the birth family - not particularly good odds for a couple desperate for a child.

*  Fostering a baby is a full-time job.  It is not acceptable for fostered babies to spend their days with childminders or in nurseries, so at least one of the potential adopters may be required to give up work to care for a child that they might never get to adopt.  This is a big ask.  Will adopters who are not able or willing to do this be told that they stand next to no chance of being approved?

* When working parents adopt, they can receive adoption leave and pay.  They will not receive this if they are classed as fostering.

*  Fostered babies can have as many as five contacts with their birth families each week.  These can take place in a neutral location or at the foster carer's home or the birth family's home.  How many potential adopters will be comfortable with facilitating these contacts?

*  There are a lot of meetings between professionals that foster carers are expected to attend, including 6-weekly visits from social workers (both the child's and your own), regular formal reviews, and a whole host of medical appointments.  Again, these would require a carer to be available during office hours.

*  Foster carers receive training that adopters do not get.  The initial Skills to Foster training is different from the Preparing to Adopt sessions, and foster carers also receive training in safeguarding, record keeping, food hygiene and first aid, and are expected to have evidenced their achievement of the CWDC standards by the end of their first year of fostering.  Are potential adopters going to be expected to receive the same level of training, or will a lower level somehow be acceptable for adopters who are fostering than is required for professional foster carers?

*   Babies often come into care in emergency circumstances with little or no notice - both my boys arrived in my home less than two hours after the initial phone call.  As a foster carer, I am on call for this sort of emergency, but would potential adopters be ready to receive a child into their home at such short notice?

*  Children are carefully matched to potential adopters.  This matching process takes account of the needs of the child and the skills and experience that the potential adopters are able to bring to the mix, and can take some time to finalise.  If a child is coming into care with just a few hours notice, how will social services be able to complete the matching process as rigorously as needed?  This is particularly important if the child is likely to have special needs, which may not yet be known if a child is as young as one month.

*  Foster carers have absolutely no parental rights over the children they care for.  This means that I can't so much as change a child's hairstyle without permission of the parents!  The parents can deny permission to take the child on holiday, for instance, and even if they agree, getting a passport is a total nightmare (literally takes months and months) and you need a special letter of permission to travel with the child - not exactly a new parent's dream!

*  Most local authorities prefer to place children for adoption some distance from their birth families.  This would make it incredibly inconvenient for adopters acting as foster carers to facilitate contacts, meetings, etc.

*  There is no indication that the foster-to-adopt scheme would actually reduce the amount of time that it takes for a child to be formally adopted after coming into care.  Children in care are not just sitting in cupboards waiting to be adopted - there is a necessary process to be followed to ensure that children are not being wrongly removed from their families.  If this process is truncated then we run the risk of rushing babies into adoption who could actually have successfully been raised by their birth parents or other birth relatives, opening the floodgates for complaints of abuse of power by social services.

*  Since the likelihood is that foster-to-adopt will not shorten the process, adopters are running the risk of being asked to give up their jobs to care for babies who need lots of extra help, who may have complex medical and emotional needs and who will need ferrying to endless contacts, only to find after 12-18 months that the child is to be returned to their birth families and they are now that much older and no nearer to having a family of their own.  It's hard to imagine how heartbreaking that would be.

Cameron's announcement, and so many of the ill-informed comments that followed it have demonstrated to me once again that many among the general public (not to mention the government!) have very little idea about what it is that foster carers actually do.  As a foster carer for babies, I take my role of preparing a child for its forever family very seriously.  I hope that, with the skills, experience and training that I have, I can use the time the child is with me to overcome some of the sometimes overwhelming disadvantages that the child has previously experienced so that by the time the child is adopted, they are no longer carrying the crippling emotional baggage of their early experiences.

One in five adoptions fail.  I believe that foster carers play an incredibly important role in dealing with some of the issues that are common in looked-after children (e.g. attachment disorders, food anxiety, etc. etc.) so that adoptive parents don't have to.  We have the training and experience to do this, and most adoptive parents do not.  So let's stop treating foster carers as some sort of unnecessary expense and start treating them like the professionals they are.

Friday, July 6, 2012

David's Journey

Hearing the raw emotion in David's voice as he told us about his reunion with his birth family over 45 years after his adoption has probably been the single most worthwhile moment of the three days of adoption prep I have now completed.

David's story was probably very similar to that of many others who were adopted back in the 50s when the whole subject carried much more of a stigma than it does today.  Told that he had been taken in from a rescue centre as a baby, he had never had much curiosity about his birth family until his adoptive mother admitted out of the blue that she had always lied about his origins, that he had never been in a rescue centre and in fact he had been three years old when adopted.

By this time, he was married with three children of his own.  His relationships with his adoptive family (parents and two siblings who were also adopted) had become gradually more strained over the years, especially after the death of his adoptive father, and now a family which had always 'functioned like five individuals' had virtually broken down completely.  This remark of his adoptive mother's was enough to send him off on an epic and sometimes madly-conincidental journey towards finding and eventually meeting his birth family.

I have to admit that I really do have a not-so-secret dread of the day that OB tells me he wants to meet his birth mother.  I am very close to completely resenting the letterbox contact that I will be required to do because there's a big part of me that just wants to take him away from his past and never mention it again.  After all, he will be my son and I will be his Mummy and I don't want anything in the way of that!

Intellectually I know that it's important for people to understand where they have come from.  It helps them to know who they are, to establish their identity.  But this was brought home to me in a much more meaningful way by David's honest re-telling of his story.

By the time he managed to trace his family, his parents were already dead, but he did discover that he had been the second youngest of seven children of whom five, including himself, were still living.  He had been the only one that had been adopted, although several of the children had been in care at some point as their mother had tried and failed for years to improve her circumstances to the point that she could actually have all of her children with her in a decent home with enough money to feed them.  By the time this actually happened, it was too late for David who, purely because of poverty, had been taken into care and then adopted.

His story was by turns surprising, shocking, amusing and heart-breaking.  Even though he had had no recollection of any family other than his adoptive family, he was amazed to discover that his eldest sisters were called Helen and Mary - his own daughter had been named Helen Marie.  As he said, it's impossible to know what's buried in a young child's subconscious mind.

What struck me most, though was the effect that his adoption had had on his siblings.  One of his sisters spoke of her vivid memory of the day when she was told that David was never coming back - she was only 4 years old at the time.  Another had carried a burden of guilt and grief for years as the last time she had seen David she had been angry with him, not knowing that next time she went to visit him at his foster carers' home, he would be gone forever.

Even though David never considered finding his birth family until he was well into his 40s, it is clear that doing so has radically transformed his life for the better.  He has found himself welcomed into a large, loving family where he feels as though he really belongs, despite having grown up in very different circumstances.  Somehow, he is so much more complete as a person because of the journey that he took.

I know that not every effort to trace a birth family will have such a fairy-tale ending, but I hope that if that day comes when OB decides to make the same journey I will be strong enough to walk with him.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Adoption Prep

I have been on Adoption Preparation training this week.  I was supposed to have spent two full days there, but due to OB throwing up in spectacular fashion five minutes after I left him with the minder on Thursday, I only made it to Friday's session.

It was rather a strange day.  The 15 participants are an odd mix of foster carers (two couples and me), one couple with a child, and four childless couples.  This makes for a very wide range of preparation needs when it comes to adoption when some of the attendees already have their child living with them, and others have never even changed a child's nappy.

Early on there was a challenge on child development - we were given a list of milestones and asked (in groups of course!) to write down when we thought these should take place for the average child.  Massive advantage to those with children!  Lots of arguing between those who consider themselves experienced and lots of silence from those without children.

And so it went on in the same vein.  Every time one of the two social workers who were, nominally at least, leading the course mentioned something about what adopted children might have experienced before their adoptions, the foster carers couldn't help chiming in with their lengthy stories.  I am delighted to say that, despite my natural inclination to tell tales at length, I managed to keep quiet on this subject!

The couple who already had a child treated us to a long description of pretty much every aspect of their child's life, as well as regular installments of an incredibly complex tale of their friends' adoption of a little girl to go with their adopted son.  I think I must have missed the introductory chapters of this the previous day as I couldn't make head or tale of the story!

All this made me feel very uncomfortable on behalf of the childless couples.  After having spent my adult life as a childless woman I know only two well how difficult, upsetting and downright annoying it can sometimes be listening to people's endless stories about their children.  Now I have children in my life, I also understand how much pleasure, frustration and joy they bring and how sometimes you just have to share it (and sometimes you literally have nothing else to talk about!).  Nonetheless, monopolising an adoption prep course with stories about your kids, whether your own or fostered, seems just a tad insensitive considering the company we were keeping.

There were a few scheduled activities which were predictably touchy-feely, but at other times the sessions seemed to veer from one subject to another based mostly on which participant was talking the most.  The course leaders weren't brilliant at managing the discussion, allowing some to dominate and others to spend the whole day in total silence.  This wouldn't matter so much except that notes on the level and quality of our participation will form part of our portfolios, so it is really important that everybody gets the chance to join in.

I've got to be honest, I'm a bit of a killjoy about these things anyway.  I'm not interested in 'bonding' through 'shared experiences' with people I'll never meet again.  I don't enjoy ice breaker activities and can become quite attached to my ice when forced to participate.  I particularly dislike groupwork when the task is vague and there are no designated roles.  I won't fight my corner, even if I know I'm right, when the outcome is irrelevant or purposeless, because I simply don't need to be right that much.  (Some people who know me well might raise their eyebrows at that one, but context is everything!)

Actually, I should re-word that.  I do need to be right quite a lot, but I don't always need everybody to see that I'm right - sometimes it's enough just for me to know it!

Anyway, I have two more days of this next week. I might take something good to read next time!