Sunday, December 28, 2014

I Don't Hate Social Workers. Honest!

My recent blog about a disappointing experience at the start of a new placement garnered a lot of comments, the vast majority of which were supportive. Of course, I am most struck by the one comment that was not.

It was a former foster carer, adoptive parent and, now, social worker, who felt offended by what I wrote. She felt that this 'sarcastic' and 'derogatory' piece should not have been published without 'context' in such a public way. She was upset by the piece and, for that, I am sorry.

You see, I don't hate social workers. I don't think they are rubbish or useless or undeserving of respect. My purpose in writing that post was not to belittle social workers or other professionals, or the work that they do. In fact, my purpose in writing that post was simply to get my thoughts down on 'paper' after a difficult and disappointing day. I do little more here than to tell something of my story. On that particular day, that was my story. It's been a similar story on lots of other days too. I'm not sorry I shared it. I wouldn't change a word of it.

But perhaps there is a serious point here. Social workers and other professionals have unwieldy case loads and lots of children and families to work with. Foster carers have tiny case loads in comparison. I am approved for two children, but usually have one. This means that I don't have to divide my attention. I am totally focused on the child in my care. I don't actually expect the social worker to know details such as a child's birth weight off the top of their head. That's just one of many hundreds of bits of information they will encounter each week. But, as the child's foster carer, I make it my business to know.

What baffles me is why so many of the professionals I encounter don't acknowledge that. Why don't they don't automatically turn to me for this information instead of scrabbling through their immense paperwork? Why does the LAC doctor ask the social worker for details of a child's immunisations at the pre-adoption medical when I am sitting right there? After all, I was the one who took the child to those appointments.

This is not about my bruised feelings. I have heard so much from adopters who feel as though their child's social worker did not give them all the information they needed to know prior to placement. This does not surprise me. I recently moved BG on to adoption. Her social worker visited us every 6 weeks for approximately 45 minutes. She took the case on in April and BG moved on in early November. So she probably visited us, say, five or six times (being generous). The social worker who was responsible for family finding for BG met her twice prior to the first day of introductions. I lived with her continuously for 10 months. The social workers have the official paperwork, containing information gathered from a range of professionals over the months, yes, but it is the foster carer who has the full-colour image of the child, created moment by moment over the duration of the placement. These two perspectives on the child are both vital and must come together if the potential adopters are going to have the clearest picture.

When it came to BG's intros, the family finding social worker came on day one and observed from the sofa. We had a short review meeting on day 5. On day 7, handover day, BG's social worker came to hand over paperwork. The rest of the time it was me managing expectations, dealing with emotions, ensuring transfer of attachment, walking a tightrope. I'm not complaining. It's my job. But I have received no specific training for it - I'm just totally winging it every time.

None of this is intended to be a criticism of the social workers involved. They are doing their jobs within the parameters that are handed down to them. Some are excellent, some poor, and others fill every position in between. What rankles is the clear sense I often get from the professional team that they are the ones that have achieved this when actually, so much of what must be done falls within the role of the foster carer, not the 'professionals'. The smoothness and success of such a major transition as intros must surely rely in large part on the professionalism and sensitivity of the foster carer involved. Sadly, I have heard of some real horror stories where foster carers made intros a nightmare for the child and the adopters.

In fact, my offended commenter pointed out that she could tell many tales of terrible foster carers (I have no doubt that she could) and although some will "work with [social workers]", others are very poor. In saying this, she pointed out my concern exactly. So many professionals expect foster carers to work with them. There is little expectation that we will work together. The professionals call the shots and the foster carers 'work with' (or perhaps 'for'!).

This is perhaps understandable when the role of the foster carer is held in such low regard, when training is patchy and fairly low level, when even tutors on Social Work degree courses express the opinion that paying foster carers is a bad idea because they should be doing it 'for the love of the children'. Perhaps if foster caring was more professionalised, if the complexity of the role was recognised through better, more in-depth training, and foster carers were truly and universally seen as part of the professional Team Around the Child, then we could actually help to lighten the load of social workers, manage transitions more effectively and handle placement difficulties more creatively to reduce breakdowns.

Perhaps then, in the discharge planning meeting, the social workers could relax about knowing details such as birth weight because they could feel confident that the foster carer would be on top of it and, more importantly, that the others in the room would recognise the foster carer's knowledge and expertise and go straight to them for the information, rather than putting the social worker under the pressure of rooting through their notes for the right answer. Then the social worker could concentrate on doing the things that only they can do. We can help you better if you recognise how we can help you!

Just a final note. My offended commenter was of the opinion that what I described in my account was all part of the foster carer's job, just as paperwork, meetings and long hours are part of a social worker's job. During training I was told that when a new placement started, children would be brought to my home by a social worker who would give me all the information I needed to know. In reality, I have been asked to be present at the removal of three out of the five children I have fostered. In every single case, I have been the person to actually physically remove the child from the mother. I was specifically told that this would not be part of my job. What does and does not constitute 'part of the job' is clearly open to debate.

But this I know for sure. When a social worker gets to the end of their long hours, they go home and leave their place of work. My home is my place of work. Don't talk to me about long hours. It's insulting.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Our new fostering placement - how it begins

I can't find a parking space at the hospital and end up parking far away from the grounds in a superstore car park. It's a long, uphill walk back and I arrive flushed and dishevelled. Flustered, I confuse my 'ante' and 'post' but eventually manage to stumble across a gaggle of obvious professionals standing in a corridor. I stand with them, making smiling eye contact with the one social worker I recognise.

"Are you the foster carer?" someone asks. I introduce myself. Everyone looks at me and then goes back to staring at the floor, the walls or the files they are clutching,

Eventually a nurse arrives. She is irritated. This mother and baby were ready for discharge three days ago and they are unnecessarily taking up a bed in post-natal due to delayed paperwork. We are ushered into a room with instructions to "just get it done".

There are seven of us. Everyone apart from me is wearing a local authority or NHS lanyard. Two health visitors, a hospital midwife, baby's social worker, mum's social worker, mum's support worker and me.

Someone asks when the baby was born. Baby's social worker gives a date. It's the wrong date. There is some confusion and shuffling through paperwork. I supply the correct date. Nobody pays attention. Eventually baby's social worker confirms the correct date. Then somebody asks baby's birth weight. Again there is paper shuffling. Again, I supply the correct information. Again everybody continues as if I have not spoken. I think for a moment how nice it would be to have one of those lanyards . . . and a voice.

When mum arrives with her tiny baby and a supportive friend, she is crying. We all shuffle around to make space for everybody. Social worker suggests that mum sits next to me. Mum looks uncomfortable with the idea but complies.

This is a 'Discharge Planning Meeting', but everybody knows that once the talking is over, this mum is going to be separated from her baby. Tension arcs across the room. Professionals start saying things that are almost certainly sailing right over this distraught mum's head. I think what a waste of time it all is, getting all these people here to pass on information that will only be forgotten, confused and misunderstood.

After a while, mum finds her voice. She wants daily updates on her baby. Baby's social worker asks if I will send daily texts. I explain that I don't use my personal phone for that. Social worker expresses surprise that I don't have a works phone with a blocked number. I inwardly express surprise that social worker doesn't realise that I don't 'work' for anybody and therefore don't receive such perks as a mobile phone, a lanyard, national insurance payments or a pension.

Mum's social worker wonders whether I could show mum the daily log that I keep. No I can't. It's strictly confidential. But I will keep a communications book to be passed between us at contacts. And I would be prepared to send regular informative emails to one of mum's workers so that they could pass information on by text. Nobody volunteers an email address.

Then mum asks what she needs to do next. What does she need to do to get her baby back? Baby's social worker says vague things about keeping her solicitor's appointments. I think this is incomplete advice. If they asked me I'd say turn up to contact every time without fail. Be on time, early even. Be clean, tidy and presentable. Be sober. Nobody asks me. Nobody else has anything to say.

Inevitably, the time is drawing close when somebody will have to take that tiny baby out of its mother's arms. The empty car seat sits there in the middle of the room, increasingly drawing everybody's eyes towards it. One by one, the professionals start to excuse themselves - "I'll just wait outside." - until there is only me, mum, mum's friend, baby's social worker and baby.

Mum stands up, clutching baby, sobbing. Social worker starts filling her arms with baby's things, mostly soft toys and cuddly blankies. I don't see much in the way of clothes, essentials. There is no coat, but I have one waiting in the car. Mum's friend doesn't speak or move. She is frozen in her chair. Mum moves forward, lowers baby into the car seat and fumbles with the straps. I hesitate before going to help. There's a delicate balance between letting mum feel humiliated because she can't do it, and letting her feel humiliated because I jumped in as though I thought she were incompetent.

We are ready. I look at the social worker. She is backed against the wall. She shrugs her shoulders at me, indicating that her hands are full with baby's belongings. Mum's friend doesn't move. Mum looks at me. I take the car seat off her gently but firmly and say a quick goodbye. I wait, holding the seat awkwardly as mum leans in for one more kiss on baby's head. Then we leave her.

Outside, there is a line of professionals against the opposite wall like some kind of sombre parade. They don't look at me. I can hear mum's sobs behind me as the door closes, and I still hear them following me as I move quickly down the corridor. Baby's social worker trots alongside me, chattering in a high-pitched voice about how she shouldn't be doing this, she's a looked after children's worker, she hasn't done a removal in over 20 years. I think, well, you haven't done one now have you? You let me do it.

The following days are a flurry of arrangements, meetings and appointments. I may have a brand new baby in the house today, but that doesn't stop anybody arranging a placement planning meeting for tomorrow. Then the social worker calls to cancel the placement planning meeting, but three professionals turn up at my house anyway as they weren't informed. The midwife comes. There is a contact arranged. The placement planning meeting is re-scheduled and again the house fills with professionals. Another contact. At every one of these occasions I have to be clean, professional and on the ball with all of the information. Baby has to be dressed, clean, fed and in perfect order. Chronic lack of sleep is to be no excuse for any dip in standards.

Today I took baby for her third contact with mum. It was to be held at mum's placement. Mum wasn't there.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dear Prospective Foster Carer...

At some point during the coming year I will be speaking to you around lunchtime of one of the long, gruelling days of your Skills to Foster training. You will be there, expectant, maybe unsure, head reeling from what you have just heard about safeguarding or attachment or health and safety or whatever. I will be attempting to encapsulate what I have learned from four years of fostering into a short talk that enthuses you without exaggerating, and is honest without being off-putting.

The truth is that what you are likely to hear from me will probably be heavily influenced by the week I will have just had. Fostering is quite the roller coaster. If you were to hear from me tomorrow, you would likely hear:

  • that while your supervising social worker may 'get' what you do, other social workers could well be oblivious, viewing you as little more than a babysitter, or a 'house with a spare bed'
  • that this will result in a staggering lack of appreciation of the impact that their last-minute arrangements and hurried changes of plan can have on you and your family
  • that, since you really are quite low in the food chain when it comes to care proceedings, the one-word apology, however carelessly spoken, that would have made you feel at least appreciated, will probably not come
  • that you will be public property with everyone having an opinion about what you do, from professionals to people you have never even met, including opinions on how you care for the children, the shoes and clothes they wear, your behaviour management, how you spend your own money, the cleanliness of your bathroom, and pretty much anything else you can think of
  • that you will be constantly frustrated that all the hard work you do, all the planning, meetings, goal-setting, carefully-researched parenting, form-filling, contacts, training, nurturing and caring, will go mostly unseen by the hordes of people who apparently abhor the idea that fostering should in any way be seen as a 'job' and believe we should only do it out of 'altruism' (i.e. for nothing, as if we don't have to put food on the table like other people)
  • that there will be periods of your life where you live in total limbo, unable to make plans, running to the phone every time it rings in case your life is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of a traumatised child
  • that sometimes, after you have spent hours making arrangements and preparations, you will get another phone call telling you that it's all off, and you go back to the waiting
  • that, when you do get the call, your heart will ache for all the people whose lives are about to be torn apart and you will face once again the conflict that your livelihood is their tragedy.

If I saw you tomorrow I might tell you all of that. On another day I might wax lyrical about the joy of seeing a scared little one come out of their shell, or the immense pride you feel when you see a child overcome huge barriers to make progress in their development, or the bittersweet thrill of being there at the creation of a new forever family.

You should know that fostering is not for the faint-hearted. Some days you will feel annoyed at the world, unappreciated, forgotten and misunderstood. Other days will bring elation, laughter, fun and total fulfilment. Some will say that you are part of the problem. Others will call you a hero. Neither will really be true.

But despite all of that, and regardless of my mood on the day, I think I would want to say this:

Fostering can be hard. Do it anyway.

Friday, December 5, 2014

No Compensation for Those Abused in the Womb

So, the little girl with foetal alcohol syndrome did not win her case and will not be awarded compensation. And women will not be criminalised if they knowingly and against medical advice continue to drink through pregnancy.

This story had me in a quandary when I first heard about it back in early March. I blogged then about my mixed feelings over the complex issues involved. I worried about how this would be enforced and whether it would have any real effect on those who persist in drinking when surely the medical advice is well-known already.

It was a comment on the recent court decision that made me realise that in that last blog, I was making a mistake replicated by so many - I was thinking about it almost entirely from the point of view of the adults involved, and not the child.

"The UK's highest courts have recognised that women must be able to make their own decisions about their pregnancies," said representatives from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.


There's my problem right there. As long as we view unborn children merely as 'pregnancies', then we are unlikely to accord them such rights in law as a child might be expected to receive after their birth. Calling an unborn child a 'pregnancy' allows us to accord it the same status as, say, a parasite, or a cyst. Calling it a 'baby' evokes a different response. Lord Justice Treacy explicitly stated that compensation only applies when grievous bodily harm is done to 'a person'. A foetus is not a person in the eyes of the law.

If, during the birth of a baby, negligence or deliberate actions lead to permanent, lifelong brain damage to the child, then compensation is sought and often received. There is a recognition that this child's life has been irrevocably altered by the actions of another, and compensation is necessary, at the very least, to ensure that the child will have the support and therapies and equipment they will need. Sometimes there is also a punitive element to the compensation.

But, according to the new ruling, a woman, making 'her own decisions' about her pregnancy, can knowingly take action that will permanently harm the child, and no compensation is to be forthcoming. She can continue to knowingly harm that child right up to the point of birth and not be held culpable.

I am pro-life, and I'm aware that this standpoint will colour my views on the matter. But I think we can all agree that un-terminated 'pregnancies' will eventually become 'children'. The damage may be done during pregnancy, but the effects will be with the child, with the adolescent, with the adult, for the rest of their life.

Do I think we should criminalise women who drink or take drugs or smoke during pregnancy? I'm not entirely sure that I do. While I believe that unborn children should be accorded far more rights than they currently are, I also believe that, in this unique relationship between mother and unborn child, competing rights should be weighed in the balance - I do not believe that the rights of the unborn should, of necessity, trump the rights of the mother. The case detailed here was an extreme (although not uncommon) one where the mother reportedly drank several cans of strong lager and half a bottle of vodka per day, but there are many other, greyer areas where the daily decisions of a mother carry a risk for an unborn child. Where do we draw the line? Drinking? Smoking? Eating unpasteurised cheese? Driving a car? There are many activities that could potentially harm an unborn child. What about women who know that they carry a genetic abnormality who take the risk of passing this on to their unborn child? Or women who are HIV+? Once opened, this can of worms could easily become totally unmanageable, and, as I said in my previous blog, the monster that is addiction will not be dealt with through punishing the addicted.

But, sadly, we live in a time and a society where even getting recognition for the struggles and difficulties faced by children with FASD and other conditions caused by mistreatment in the womb is extremely difficult. These are children who will face the lifelong impact of what has been done to them. Support, therapy and, yes, money is needed for those children and those who care for them. Where is this money to come from? How many times have I heard of adoptive parents desperate on behalf of their children who have struggled to get even the most basic therapeutic input? The cost on the health service and education alone must be astronomical, not to mention the personal cost for the young people and their parents and carers.

So, if the mother is not to be held responsible, then who will bear the responsibility for this great harm?

Friday, November 28, 2014

You Made My Day...

... when you told me a long tale about 'fire in cups' and it turned out you meant candles

... when you helped me sort out some of your old toys for the two-year-old that never came

... when you said, "Don't worry Mummy, I'll help you keep the baby safe."

... when you got undressed and ready for your pyjamas without any help

... when I said it was bathtime and you said "Yay!" instead of "Noooo!!!"

... when you got your third swimming badge, you amazing boy

... when you confidently told me your memory verse from weeks ago, completely unprompted

... when you ate all the casserole and said you liked it

... when you came for a lovely cuddle to keep me warm

... when you told me, with great excitement, that you were being 'Jofuss' in the 'Batibity'

... when you slept in until 7.30!

Sometimes our days are hard and our emotions are big. Sometimes we are tired and far from our best. But time after time, sometimes in surprising ways, you make my whole day. Soon we will celebrate another birthday together and I will remember to give thanks for all the days we have.

Happy Birthday OB. I love you xx

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Tomorrow we might be welcoming a new child into our home. Or the next day perhaps. Or maybe this one won't happen at all and we'll have to wait and see what comes next.

This time between placements is always awkward. It's nice for me and OB to have each other all to ourselves, and I certainly appreciate the reduction in laundry and the disappearance of nappies, bottles and disturbed nights. But it's hard to plan anything and there's always a sense of being in limbo, of waiting for the hammer to fall.

When you don't know what your family will consist of next week, it can be hard to make firm plans. Somebody asked me the other day if I could commit to something in February. I laughed. Who knows what we'll be doing in February?! In the short term, a possible placement tomorrow means I'm struggling to plan this week's shopping. What will the child come with? What do they eat and drink? Will they need nappies, shoes, clothes, a coat? It means hurriedly acclimatising the new child to our regular babysitter as I have a commitment I can't avoid on Wednesday evening and it wouldn't do for this little one to wake and be confronted by a total stranger's face. It means organising OB's upcoming birthday party with a traumatised little one in the house.

Planning for a new arrival means getting my head around how the house needs to be organised for a child of that age. So, over the weekend I've sourced a safety gate extension to restrict access to the kitchen, done a little necessary DIY, sorted out a small pile of age-appropriate toys, caught up on the laundry and cleaning and made sure the nursery is ready.

And of course I've started to prepare OB, inasmuch as it's possible to prepare a 3-year-old for the possible but not certain arrival of a new person in the household. He understands that more babies will come. Since BG left, he's told a few people that we're getting a new baby and it's going to be called "Bill the Dog"! There's a world of difference between understanding the words I'm saying, and understanding what it all really means.

So, tonight I have butterflies in my stomach that will no doubt only intensify each time I check my phone tomorrow. We're waiting with intent.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rhetoric and Reality

I have just spent four days away with some good friends who, sadly, I rarely get to see much of these days. Between them, in their collective close family histories, they have experienced just about every adoption-related scenario I can think of. I won't tell their private stories in all their complexity but between them they have lived:

  • being an adoptee
  • being a mixed-race adoptee
  • being an adopted child with an adopted non-bio sibling
  • being a bio-child with an adopted sibling
  • being a trans-cultural adoptee
  • having a sibling of a different racial background
  • adoption disruption
  • single-parent adoption
  • infant adoption
  • older child adoption
  • being in reunion
  • being adopters
  • being trans-cultural adopters
  • being 'international' adopters, though living in the birth country of their adopted child
  • raising adopted and birth children together
  • raising children of different racial backgrounds
  • raising a (bio) child in a culture completely different from that of their heritage

There's a lot more, but it's personal to them and not my story to share. Suffice it to say, they have at least a book's worth of real, lived experience of adoption in all its complicated glory. And boy, do I pick their brains, compare notes, and just generally enjoy being part of their crazy world from time to time!

And what's very noticeable to me, especially after weeks of rhetoric from both sides of the Atlantic associated with national adoption week/month and so on, is that my friends, like most people, do not fit anybody's mould. The temptation to assume that all adoptees feel a certain way, or that all adopters are seeking the same things, can sometimes be strong. I have lost count of the number of times I have read sweeping comments, sadly, uttered by all sides of the adoption triangle, about all other sides.

There is no, one single experience of being a birth parent, an adoptee or an adopter. There is no reason to expect that two people who have similar experiences will react in the same way to those experiences. There is no one, magic way to act, think or feel about adoption. It's complex. My friend's lives are complex. To reduce them to slogans, soundbites, protocols, catchy hashtags, statistics and tick sheets would be to do them a great disservice, and totally miss the point.

Let the whole world shout out their opinions about adoption. The rhetoric is a poor shadow of the reality.

Friday, November 7, 2014

D is for . . . Daisy Nook!

And so we continue to make slow progress on our A-Z tour of days out. At least we are finally past our ABCs!

D is a country park we took a drive out to at the end of September on a day that couldn't make its mind up weather-wise. We had a little drizzle, but mainly the sunshine was kind to us, and we enjoyed a lovely afternoon doing what I imagine 'outdoorsy' mums do with their children! 

I don't know anything about the park or its history but, after visiting, I'd love to find out more about the large stone wall structures dotted around like dams, holding back grass rather than water. We played in a lovely sand-filled play area near the cafe, took a walk along the waterway, climbed these stone structures which somehow reminded me of the lost parts of the Kingdom of Gondor on Frodo's journey towards Mordor, and best of all, from OB's point of view anyway, played on the slide in the adventure playground.

Oh, and we collected a fair few sticks!

Lovely afternoon!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Worst Day

It feels as though the last couple of weeks has been a series of momentous days. Hard days, emotional days, tiring days. And yet, there has also been a sense of pleasure in the completion of our part of the journey, and the apparent success of the final stages.

Before I started fostering, I probably would have thought, as many do, that the day of final handover would be the worst day of the process for me. That's the dramatic moment isn't it - handing over the precious child you have loved and cared for into the arms of another? But, after saying goodbye to four different little ones, under various circumstances, I now know that the last day is never the worst day.

Why not? Because I know it is coming months in advance. I know what it will look like and how it will happen and I have so much time to mentally prepare. In all of the uncertainties of the process of moving a child onto adoption, that final morning seems the least uncertain. The adopters came at the pre-arranged time. We had been ready for a while. All BG's clothes and belongings had been transferred some days before. The social worker came and did the formalities. Nobody cried. It was all over in half an hour, and then we filled the rest of our day up with pre-arranged activities.

Other days, other moments were much harder. There was the time BG's new parents took her out alone for the first time and when she came back she clung to me and cried when I tried to put her down. Then there was the time, a few days later, when she came back from a day with her parents and didn't seem all that bothered to see me! There's a constant conflict between loving and letting go.

Right now, I'd have to say that the worst day so far was actually the day before handover. I was desperately tired after a week of managing BG, managing OB, managing constant visitors and then travel up and down the motorway and, of course, managing my own shifting emotions. I felt drained and a bit tearful and, to be honest, I just wanted it all to be over. I think, perhaps, this is a hidden benefit of the intense stress of introductions - there comes a point when it's all just getting too much and the end almost comes as a relief.

From experience though, I know that the worst day is probably still to come. Of course, after she's gone, I have odd moments. Although I'm quick to strip the cot and remove the car seat and put away the bottles and other paraphernalia, there are still little things that catch me unaware. Twice now I have reached out at bedtime to switch on the monitor before remembering that I don't have to - I really need to pack that away! Now that her window no longer has blackout blinds and her bedroom door is open, the house feels different each morning as the early sun streams in and onto the landing, bringing an unfamiliar light into my bedroom through its half-glass door. I'd forgotten about that over the last ten months.

But none of these moments make for a worst day. No. I'm fairly certain that the worst day will come when I get that phone call from social services asking me to take in another child. Unlike endings, beginnings in this game are rarely predictable. It is hard to mentally prepare for the completely unknown. I do not know when the phone call will come, or how much time I will have to prepare. In the past I have had as little as 90 minutes. I do not know the circumstances or the people involved. In a few weeks, amid a flurry of activity and professionals all over the house, I will have to welcome a complete stranger into my home, place them into her cot, give them her toys to play with. She will be completely replaced. I know that it will get better, that we will learn each other, that I will become comfortable with the new routine, the new social workers, the new family members, but I also know that on that first, worst day, I will yearn for the comfort and familiarity and easy smile of Baby Girl.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

This is why...

... to watch her lift her hands to the people who were strangers only six days ago ... to see her shine her smile on those who have committed themselves to her future ... to witness the transferral of that hard-won attachment to its permanent home ... to hear an adopter say that they are thankful for what you have done ...

... as she sleeps for the last time in her first cot I know that, despite the wobbles and the emotions and the bumps in the road, this is why.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Not quite as advertised!

I am sitting within easy reach of all my internet-enabled devices today because I am anxiously waiting for an email to tell me that the Agency Decision Maker has signed off on the adoption panel's recommendation in favour of BG's adoptive placement.

I have no reason to believe the answer will be anything other than 'yes', but we are now at the end of the third week after the panel made their recommendation, and this is the last possible day for the ADM notification. We are due to start intros on Monday.

"Why leave it so last minute?" I hear you ask. I really don't know. I'm aware that other LAs get it done much quicker than this but, as with so many things, time scales vary enormously from area to area.

So, I have a bag of intro materials waiting - photos, scent items, DVD - and I'm chomping at the bit, waiting to get them out and, at last, begin the process of introducing BG to the people who she will be living with in just over a week. I hope the scent items still have scent after over a fortnight sealed in a plastic bag!

Meanwhile, BG has gone totally off plan. It's only a few short weeks since I met her prospective adopters and lauded her as practically the most perfect, easy-going baby that has ever lived. In the meantime, things have started happening in her gums. Anybody who has been through teething with their little one will know that this horrible experience can turn the most placid child into a touchy, grumpy, wailing mess.

So now, the cuddly bedtime bottle has turned into a nightly battle - a major struggle to get a couple of ounces down. If she was staying longer I'd probably switch to a cup as part of the problem is that BG is fighting sleep so doesn't want to lie down quietly and suck. These are two activities guaranteed to bring on a pleasant slumber and so must be avoided at all costs if the fun and playing are to continue!

Thankfully, once in her cot, she still obediently snuggles up and goes off to sleep but her previous 10-11 hours of unbroken sleep are now a thing of the past. She's waking up regularly during the night, uncomfortable and a bit tetchy. The milk feed that used to happen at 5-6am can now be demanded anywhere from 2am onwards in part because of the lack of a filling bedtime feed. Teething is making her fill her nappy more often with toxic contents that must be dealt with immediately. Any sneaky night-time poo results in an appalling sore bottom. More discomfort, more waking.

In the daytime, her usually sunny, smiling nature is occasionally now replaced by inconsolable wailing, fist sucking, dribbling and proper full-on tanting. She is in pain and discomfort and, like anyone else, she responds by going to the edge of her emotional scale and teetering on it.

None of this is really a problem for me. I feel sad for her because teething is horrible, but I know it will soon be over (until the next lot at least!) and, despite everything, she really is mostly easy-going and a delight to have around. But we have an intense week ahead of us, and I can't help feeling that BG's new parents won't have the pleasure of experiencing BG at her best for a while at least.

Silly teeth. We've waited ages for you and now you're arriving with the worst possible timing!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taking Care

Our stories are important. And they are unique. I heard much, felt much and learned much at yesterday's 'Taking Care' conference, hopefully the first of many to be organised by The Open Nest, but the thought that sits strongly with me today is how vital it is to take care of our stories.

Taking care of our stories, and those of others, means listening properly to them - the sort of listening that seeks to understand and not simply to reply.

It means accepting another's story without seeking to judge it, fix it, alter it or sanitise it.

It means resisting the pressure to make our stories or anybody else's fit into the narrow frame of some training we went to, or what it said in the books we have read. Just because it is true for many does not mean it has to be true for all.

It means being so comfortable and confident with our stories that we do not take other people's different stories as implied criticism of our own.

Our stories are important. They are unique, vibrant, living and growing. When we share them, we contribute to something much bigger than ourselves, and make connections across time and place.

Thank you everybody for being open enough to share your stories yesterday in York, whether from the front of the room, or from the tables, whether in brief or in detail, whether eloquently expressed or incoherently breathed out with a little help from the wine! My story is better now because of all of yours.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Making Carers and Adopters Welcome

At the recent Home for Good Summit, we were all given a little pack of leaflets and information which, I admit, has been lying around on my kitchen counter ever since. This morning, while waiting for the kettle to boil and the toaster to pop, I idly leafed through the little colour leaflets inside, and came across one entitled "Supporting those who adopt or foster: A Care for the Family guide for churches".

I read it. I nearly cried into my coffee.

I'm not sure why really. For those foster carers, kinship carers and adopters who go, church ought to form a vital part of their support network. While I have heard sad stories, I must say that my church is excellent in this regard. I am not the only foster carer there, and recently we have started a little support group - we have only had one meeting but it was really lovely to talk and share and pray together and I feel very positive about it.

Not only that, but I have found that people who have no prior experience of fostering or adoption have gone out of their way to help me, support me and understand what is going on in my house. Of course, there can never be complete understanding, but does anybody really fully understand another's situation? The best we can do is listen, support, offer help. And that does happen for me. Only yesterday my friend's husband looked after my son all afternoon while we both went on a girly shopping trip with the babies. Today another friend took both the children for a couple of hours so I could get some much-needed tidying and cleaning done in the house.

The booklet contained a lot of quotes from actual carers and adoptive parents and I think I was moved in equal measure by both the positive and negative experiences they had had.

For instance:

"When we hit a really bad patch, the church pulled out all the stops to support us practically"
"The church has loved the children we have fostered and welcomed them"
"One lovely, childless, elderly lady was particularly supportive of me and our daughter. She told me I could ring any time, day or night."

But also:

"Our three foster children have been with us for two years now. They regularly come to church with us but no-one has ever invited any of them round to play with their children"
"Church is a difficult place to bring my boys as they don't fit the norm (having attachment issues)"
"Please don't say that just because they've been with us a few years 'Surely they should be all right now'"

The leaflet gives a decent, if necessarily brief, overview of the situations that lead to children being cared for or adopted, an introduction to some of the issues arising from poor attachment, abuse, neglect and trauma, and some expectation of what to expect from children who have been through such things. It is all expressed in a way that anybody could understand and, although it is obviously aimed at churches and those who attend or are involved in children's work, it would be a good, basic read for any community that is welcoming cared for or adopted children into its midst.

It explains why adoptive and foster parenting can sometimes be considered 'extreme' parenting, and why parents in these situations might need extra support. Quotes from foster carers and adopters highlight some of the main issues that regularly come up, such as people commenting on unusual parenting styles, or saying 'All children do that', or concerns around Mothers' and Father's day celebrations, or supporting families while they introduce their new children to the possibly unfamiliar experience of going to church.

Helpful suggestions are made: respect boundaries or confidentiality; train youth and children's workers; befriend the children; see beyond the behaviour; offer to make meals, help with housework or babysit; make your toddler group adoption and fostering friendly; take the lead off the parents/carers when deciding how to respond to surprising or unexpected behaviours; offer to act as an emergency back up if a crisis with a fostered child stops the foster parent from picking their other child up from football practice, for instance; consider offering financial support, especially where adoptive parents have had to give up work because of their child's needs; offer DIY help, and so on and so on. All excellent suggestions!

I was particularly pleased to note that three of the four recommended books are ones I have actually read - surprising considering how few I have read overall! I can highly recommend them too: 'Why Can't My Child Behave?' by Dr Amber Elliot, 'No Matter What' by Sally Donovan, and 'Home For Good' by Krish Kandiah.

I wish that everybody in every church could have the opportunity to read this little leaflet. In fact, forget churches, it's just a good leaflet full stop. I haven't yet managed to find out where I can get hold of more copies but when I do, I'll be getting a bag full!

Edit: The marvellous @ponkbag has found a link - you can get copies of the leaflet here.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What the Neighbours Hear

I don't see all that much of my neighbours where I live now (apart from my friends that live around the corner of course!). Where I used to live, everybody was pretty much right out there. If there was a noise on the street, or somebody parked in the wrong place, people just came right out of their doors to stare and comment. The people on my street thought nothing of just asking pretty searching questions right to my face. Once, overhearing me explaining some aspect of NB's adoption schedule to the Health Visitor at the clinic, a total stranger asked if she could give him a packet of crisps she had in her bag because she felt so bad for him.

My new neighbourhood is much more the 'curtain twitching' sort of street. I know the names of a couple of people but mainly, apart from the curtain twitching, everybody just keeps themselves to themselves.

This means that all they really see of me and the kids is what happens on the drive as we attempt to get into the car. It's not a pretty sight. It usually involves a lot of running around and hiding (OB, not me!) and a painful negotiation increasing in pitch and intensity and ending with me urgently repeating "Just get in the car!" in a barely suppressed yell!

In photo portrait terms, the 'get in the car' ritual is just not my best side. I've considered making some sort of sign to carry with me that says "We also read stories, play and make cakes together! It's not all yelling!" I dread to think what would happen if one of my social workers took it into their head to survey my neighbours about my parenting style.

So today's seminar with Louise Bomber at the Home for Good Summit came as a timely reminder. Facilitate safety. Low-stress environment. Low-stress interactions. Pull back. Pause. Breathe before you speak.

In other words, try getting more organised in the mornings so that we're not in a mad rush getting out of the door! Or if that doesn't go to plan, just take a deep breath and decide that being on time isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Naked Cake - Lazy Baker?!

It's off the Mary Berry beaten track, but here's a little cake I made this week for a good friend's birthday.

Yes! It's naked!

Naked cakes are all the rage right now, although I can't help thinking that it's just giving an edgy name to a cake that nobody got around to decorating properly!

Nevertheless, the decision to abandon fondant and buttercream for this one was not due to laziness, I promise.

Rather than using a Victoria Sponge recipe, I decided to go with a French recipe called Quatre Quarts - Four Quarters. They sell this cake in long bars over there, and it's obligatory purchasing for my parents every time I visit as I can't resist a slice or three in the mornings with a cup of coffee. Although I enjoy a good Victoria Sponge, I really do prefer my cakes to be heavier, moister and altogether more squidgy, and this recipe promised all of those things.

Basically, it's similar to a basic sponge except with more eggs. The aim is to have equal quantities of eggs, sugar, butter and flour - hence Quatre Quarts. So I used 4 eggs to 200g of the other ingredients. The sugar is added to melted butter and the yolks mixed in, while the egg whites are whisked until stiff and then folded in after the flour and a little baking powder. (The picture shows one and a half cakes this size - the 4th layer would really have been a step too far!)

The result is a dense, moist cake which is heavier than a traditional sponge, despite the whisked egg whites. I love it!

As it's so rich, fondant icing was out of the question. With a traditional sponge I'd sometimes do whipped cream with fresh strawberries, but I thought even that would be too sweet, so I settled for mascarpone and sliced fresh strawberries, and topped it off with whole strawberries, little nuggets of fruity fudge and popping candy.

Sadly, as I had to decorate it several hours in advance, the fudge melted into the mascarpone and the popping candy rather lost its pop by the time we actually came to eat it, but it was absolutely lush nonetheless. Small pieces only though!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Life Story Book

Finally, over 18 months since our adoption order was granted, the Life Story Book has arrived!

Ta Daaaa!!

It's quite the epic - a multi-page album with stickers, pictures, lots and lots of text, and an impressive display of clipart.

And on the second page it says:

It will explain why your birth mother and father were not able to look after you and why you are living with your forever mummy and daddy.


Your forever mummy and daddy.

Except OB doesn't live with his forever mummy and daddy. Just his forever mummy. I have a hard enough time with the "Why don't I have a daddy?" questions already, so the last thing I need is to have it wrong in this book.

And there are several more examples of references to 'forever parents' and 'forever mummy and daddy' throughout. A simple exercise in use of the delete button would have fixed it but, despite this tome being 18 months in the making, that was apparently a step too far.

That's not the only issue I have with the book. There are several problems with it, but I suppose it's only to be expected since all the social workers that actually dealt with our case have left, and the lady who eventually did this book met me for the first time when she gave it to me last week. She has never met OB and everything that's in there is based only on the paperwork, or reproduced from countless other books that have been done for other adopted children over time.

I know that there was a picture of birth dad, given to OB's original social worker by his birth grandma especially for inclusion in the book. It was the only picture I have ever seen of him - an old school photo - and I caught a fleeting glimpse of it before it was whisked away to be glued in. That was before we got our adoption order. I don't know what happened to it. Clearly it never made its way to the creator of the book as she described an exhaustive search for a photo, resulting in a poorly scanned, grainy reproduction of a photo from an old newspaper report. Birth dad looks about ten in it. I can hardly make out his features.

There's also a full page about OB's star sign. Any of the social workers that actually met me would have known not to bother putting that in there, but there it is in full colour.

It's not all bad. There is useful information about his birth and early months - stuff I didn't know like the time he was born, his birth weight - things a mother should know about her son. And the biographical information about birth mum and dad will be useful. And there are lots of good photos of birth mum and birth grandma. All that will be put to good use.

But I'm disappointed. Not so much by the quality of the book, but by the trouble it's taken to actually get hold of it, and the obfuscation surrounding it. Why did it take 18 months? Apparently, the person that was making it was 'really busy' and then 'off sick for ages'. It never ceases to amaze me how, in such a vital service as children's social care, there never seems to be any contingency for a person being off sick. Work just simply sits on their desk or in their cupboard where they left it and there never seems to be anybody who knows the first thing about it. I try to imagine what would happen if a teacher went off sick and all the pupils were just left to sit in an empty classroom until she returned!

As I was given it, I was told that it had been ready 'for ages' but there was a delay getting a manager to sign off on it. So easy to push the blame up the line. It was my manager's fault for not getting round to signing off on it. It was the government's fault for not giving us enough money. But there is information in that book that only came to light in the last couple of weeks when OB's birth grandma came into social services to do her letterbox letter. So it can't have been ready for that long can it?! In fact I'm pretty sure that the rather no-holds-barred email sent by my adoption social worker just before she left was the motivating factor for getting it done in the end. And still the Later Life Letter isn't ready. I have virtually no hope of ever seeing it.

Getting things like the Life Story Book done accurately and in a timely fashion might not seem so important in the grand scheme of things, but it is part of the promise to adopters made during our training and approval process. It is the first rung on the ladder of our post-adoption support. Failure to complete it properly and speedily calls into doubt all the other promises that were made to us. It gives the impression that once the adoption order is signed, the adoptive parents and their newly-made families fall way, way down the list of priorities.

OB's Life Story Book exhibits the sort of lack of care and attention to detail that I find replicated throughout this whole system at every level. I hear about massive case loads and busy, over-worked staff and I don't disbelieve it, but I would be more sympathetic if, for instance, any professional could complete a meeting only in the time strictly necessary to do so. The frantic pace of work theory stops holding water when social workers regularly make what could be a 20 minute meeting take upwards of an hour. At a recent LAC review, the three professionals who attended hung around in my living room for 15 minutes after their folders closed on the review, discussing office re-shuffles and the state of the local CAMHS service.

This was a review for which I received no paperwork in advance, and which was missing two people because nobody thought to invite them. The social worker that represented Baby Girl (hers was off sick!) knew absolutely nothing about her and didn't even have the file with her. The Health Visitor only managed to come because I had told her myself that it was happening - she didn't receive the invitation she should have had.

I don't know what I think about outsourcing elements of children's social care - of course, some of it is outsourced anyway to private adoption and fostering services - but I'm concerned that what we have now is neither efficient nor effective and I seriously doubt that there is anybody currently working within the system that has the vision and courage to make the changes necessary. Individual social workers will obviously rank on a scale from awesome to awful, as in any job, but it's the institutional problems that beset the system that should give most cause for concern. You can throw all the money in the world at an ineffective service and all you'll get is an ineffective service with swankier equipment and lovely new stationery.

In the meantime, we foster carers and adopters must get on the best we can with what we've got. I don't know what I'll do with this Life Story Book. Maybe I'll cannibalise it and make something better out of the constituent parts, or maybe I'll just leave it as it is and let it be an object lesson for OB about what happens when we don't pay attention to detail in our work! That's a home educator talking!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Spiced Cakes - A Belated Baking Update

I can't believe how long it is since I posted about my bake-by-bake journey through Mary Berry's Baking Bible. It was back in June when we arrived triumphantly (and with no little relief!) at the end of the fruit cake section and, since then, I've worked through the entire Spice Cake section. Plenty of baking - just not so much blogging!

We started back in June with a treacle trio - Parkin Cake, Classic Sticky Gingerbread and Iced Gingerbread with Stem Ginger. The best of these was the Classic Sticky Gingerbread which was very, very similar to the Jamaican Ginger Cake I've bought many times before. It was so moist and sticky and delicious, and such a hit with my guests and OB that I only just managed to get a snap of this last piece before OB chomped it up!

Then came a cake I was particularly looking forward to - Almond Spice Cake. I love all things almond and was thrilled to see that the recipe called for a yummy layer of marzipan or almond paste right through the middle of the cake. Sadly, even though the cake looked almost exactly the same as the photo in the book, it was pretty disappointing. This was entirely due to user error! I just couldn't get the topping to go right. Impatient as always I didn't wait until the sugar dissolved properly in the sugar/butter/cream mixture and the result was grainy and unpleasantly crunchy. A real shame. The cake itself was a little dry. I definitely want to give it another try, and next time I'll probably be a lot more generous than the recipe suggests with the almond paste!

Then came a ginger duo - Sticky Ginger and Orange Cake and Wholemeal Ginger Cake. Both were lovely and I baked one of them for the dedication party of my friends' daughter. It seemed to go down pretty well!

Next, Apple and Cinnamon Cake. Now, I'm not a massive fan of cinnamon. It's not that I don't like it, but to me it's such a strong taste that it can easily overpower everything else. I don't ever put it in my apple pie because I actually like the taste of apple, so I wasn't expecting to love this cake. I was pleasantly surprised. I served it, as suggested, warm from the oven and added dollops of mascapone with each slice. It was a triumph! And not too cinnamony either. When I tried it again the next day, the cinnamon taste was much stronger so I suppose it must have matured overnight. This would make a really special dessert - now if only I could cook a decent main course to go before it!

Today I have made the Cut and Come Again cake, which is basically a light fruit cake. I think it's the two teaspoons of ground mixed spice that earn it a place in the Spiced Cakes section. OB and I had a piece, still warm and crumbly from the oven, after tea. OB is definitely a fan of the fruit cake. Most of what I bake gets a cursory lick before being passed back to me, but I don't stand a chance if there's a fruit cake around!

Speaking of OB, I've been making a concerted effort to get him more involved in the baking recently. Not being a fan of mess and chaos, I've usually restricted him to some light stirring and one hand on the mixer, but today I let him measure out the flour and sugar, hold the mixer by himself and help with turning out into the tin. He was happy to do all that, but the highlight of the day was when I let him break the eggs all by himself - normally I don't even let him touch them! The mess wasn't so bad, and his enjoyment of the whole thing and proud ownership of the finished product was so lovely to see that it was definitely worth the risk.

There is one more bake in the Spiced Cake section but, since the Ginger Cream Roll is not really a cake so much as a load of ginger biscuits soaked in brandy and welded together with cream, I've decided to skip it.

Next . . . Chocolate Cakes! Bring it on!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Apparently my son will not be a world-beating gymnast

When I was about nine, I started learning the recorder. It was a school thing. We all bought our own instruments and then were herded into a basement room inexplicably called "The Parish Room" and taught the recorder for half an hour each week in a mass group of 30 by some long-suffering teacher. I don't know how everyone else got on, but it worked for me.

Two years later, on starting secondary school, we were invited to take up 'grown up' instruments. I was offered clarinet or flute lessons. I chose clarinet because everybody else wanted flute. My parents found a local rent-to-buy scheme for my instrument and off we went. 18 months later, I took grade 3. Grades 4 and 5 came in the next couple of years after that and then, realising that I wanted to do music at university and needed grade 8, I skipped 6 and 7 and got my 8 in time to apply.

At some point I discovered that in order to study clarinet at university, I also needed to be at least grade 6 on the piano. I was going on 15 when I started piano lessons, but managed to get through grades 4, 5 and 6 in time to make the application.

I'm not a musical genius. I promise I'm not. Arriving at university and being surrounded by some serious talent quickly disabused me of any such idea. I had some aptitude, yes, and was keen to play and learn and did a lot in my own time just for pleasure, but I'm no Vanessa Mae, I can assure you.

My point is that I didn't really start until I was half-way through the juniors. And I started on recorder, a cheap and easily accessible instrument. Painful though it might have been to my parents' ears, it really was a great introduction. And I went on to make a career out of teaching music.

I didn't start swimming lessons until I was in the juniors either, and yet I can swim pretty well. My sister didn't start gymnastics until she was eleven - practically geriatric in gymnastics terms - and yet she went on to compete for her country and win national and international gold medals.

All this had changed by the time I started teaching. At some point the idea became fashionable that the earlier we start everything, the better. So they started giving seven-year-olds massive clarinets to play. I'd see them struggling to hold the, for them, heavy instruments, and trying to manage their embouchure through gappy teeth. And yet, when these children arrived at the secondary school where I taught, they'd often still be working towards grade 1 or 2. Three to four years of 'A Tune A Day Clarinet'. I wondered how they'd managed to have the fortitude to keep going! The truth is that many had dropped out from sheer boredom years earlier.

When I became a parent, I promised myself that I wouldn't jump on that bandwagon. The decision to pursue music, coming as it did when I was a tween, was entirely my own, supported by my parents, not imposed on me by them when I was too young to have my own opinion. I assured myself that I'd let my son's interests guide me.

Oh, but it's not that easy! Two years ago, I was looking for some activity that would support my then foster child, NB, to develop his strength, balance and co-ordination. Gymnastics seemed ideal. I looked around for a local gymnastics club that had classes for three-year-olds. Lots of them did, but it seemed that once they turned five, many clubs only offered training for girls. Eventually we found one, half an hour away, that offered classes for boys of all ages, and I enrolled NB and OB who was just turning two at the time.

The class was a parent-supported basic skills class - really a sort of enhanced soft play - designed for toddlers from two years. NB went for seven months before he moved on to adoption and it really helped him. OB completed the academic year and I decided to go back with him after the summer in the hopes that he would eventually graduate to the next class - a more serious pre-school class with no parental involvement.

The graduation never came. Although OB had been there a year, he was still considered too young. By this time he was getting bored with the repetitive nature of the weekly group and he started playing up, refusing to join in. This behaviour was a black mark against him - I was told that only children who follow instructions and listen to the teacher were able to move up to the next class which is in the proper gym with real equipment. I explained that he was happy to listen to the teacher - it was my presence that was messing things up. He listens to the teacher fine at swimming when I am far away on the sidelines. No dice.

Eventually, after several sessions where I simply gave up with OB's total refusal to participate and brought him home early, we stopped going. Some things I will make him do even if he doesn't want to - swimming for instance - but gymnastics is not one of those things.

After all, I reasoned, if he changes his mind later and wants to try again, we can always enrol on one of the classes for older children at a later date, right? Wrong. I was told that the only way to be guaranteed a place on one of the proper classes is to 'graduate' from one of the pre-school classes. Otherwise it's a minimum two years on the waiting list.

So, that's it then. OB is three years old and, unless I'm prepared to drag him unwillingly along to gymnastics every week and somehow magically overcome his total frustration with the baby activities, his gymnastics career is basically over.

It's not that I'm desperate for him to be the next Louis Smith. Gymnastics is neither here nor there. What bothers me is that, at the age of three, his options are already closing down. I would like to think that, as he gets older and his interests develop, he could join activities that he chooses, but is that realistic? Or will we find that, at seven, eight, nine years old, the door is closed to him because he didn't 'graduate from the pre-school class'?

I read an article recently that expressed concern that childhood is being eroded because parents are so worried that their four-year-olds are falling behind. I sympathise with those parents. I really don't want to be a pushy, helicopter parent, but the odds are stacked against me!

Monday, September 15, 2014

About Foster Carers

Statistically, foster carers are:

  • About as likely to be married (or in civil partnership) as the general population, but less likely to be co-habiting and more likely to be single
  • Likely to be over 40 (in one study, 65% were over 50) and part of an ageing population
  • Overwhelmingly likely to be White British (well over 90% in several studies)
  • Likely to claim a religious affiliation (over 70% in some studies)
  • Likely to be female
  • More likely to have no qualifications or be qualified to Level 2 (GCSE) (as many as 64% in one study, compared to 40% in general population)
  • Less likely to be educated to level 4 (Degree+) (approx 12-15%, compared to 38% in general population
  • Earning lower than the national average (total household earnings) and sometimes significantly lower
  • More likely than the general population to be in receipt of benefits such as income support
  • Likely to have previous work experience involving children

(All statistics and information taken from the report "The demographic characteristics of foster carers in the UK: Motivations, barriers and messages for recruitment and retention". See the full report here.)

The statistics build a picture of the average foster carer as being a middle-aged white woman, probably married, probably with older children who may well have left home (in at least 25% of cases). It's likely that their own parenting experiences were a few years ago, and we know how quickly the advice is changed and updated.

My own experience of training for foster carers is that only the most basic attachment theory is covered prior to approval. I have learned most of what I know from books. Further training is offered, but it's worth asking how accessible books/training are for people whose own education experience might have been quite limited in scope and took place over 30 years ago. I'm not saying that people whose formal education ended early are incapable of learning, or lack intelligence necessarily, but training needs to be accessible for people who are not used to academic settings for learning.

While foster carers are remunerated, research suggests that the household incomes of foster carers are likely to be at the lower end. In some studies, significant numbers reported household incomes of less that £15,000pa. Might this lead carers to take on more children than is perhaps advisable? I know of carers approved for four 0-5 year-olds (can be more with sibling groups). They run their homes with military precision - they have to.

I have heard and read many, many observations from adoptive parents who were surprised at some aspects of their child's foster carer, or the care they received from that carer. These were, on the whole, not unkind comments, but merely observations. I wonder if there is sometimes a mis-match between the expectations of adoptive parents, and the realities of the world of the foster carer?

Maybe there is, and maybe some if that is down to differences between the average adoptive parent and the average foster carer. I can't be sure because I can't find a similar, reliable document detailing the demographics of adoptive parents, but it would be interesting to compare. Has anybody come across one?

I think the way that foster carers are told to parent also plays a part. The document cited above points out that many, many foster carers carry on the role for a number of years. Just as in regular parenting, the advice in foster parenting changes, but, as far as I know, there are no refresher courses for foster carers. I have heard from long-serving foster carers and social workers that the old advice to foster carers was not to get too attached to the children as it would make it harder for them to move on. Current advice says the opposite, but are foster carers being kept up to date on the advice? And even if they are, how easy is it to change their ways, habits and parenting styles? This is before we even start on the updates in general parenting advice, which seem regular and sometimes contradictory.

We also have rules to follow that sometimes make a normal family life (my aim for all my children) hard to achieve. For instance, there is no cosy bedtime routine in the child's bedroom. This is not allowed. There are rules around bathtimes (I'm not supposed to towel-dry my children but instead put them in dressing gowns straight from the bath! Not so appropriate with a tiny baby!), appropriate dress, health and safety, babysitters and on and on. Not to mention the incessant intervention of social workers, and the requests from birth family which need to be adhered to (as far as is reasonable and safe) until the child is released for adoption. Baby Girl's formula was chosen for her by birth mum. It would not have been my choice.

Then there is the cost of recruiting, training, monitoring and equipping a foster carer, which must be significant. Social services do not like to lose their carers. They get upset when we adopt in case we stop fostering and they have to spend all that money again finding more new carers. I wonder if that is why some carers who might be considered less than impressive continue to care?

Finally, remember that foster carers often receive children direct from the situation of neglect and abuse. Two of mine have come direct from the hospital. All the longer term children have come with only the clothes they were wearing. If a child goes to adoption who only eats chicken nuggets, chips and beans, it might just be possible that it has taken the foster carer months to coax them to add the beans.

It makes me very, very sad to hear, as I have today, of foster carers whose approach to the children in their care does not seem to be all that it could be. The report I linked to above also found that remuneration is not a significant motivator for people to become foster carers. But maybe it is for some. I don't know. What I do know is that our most vulnerable children, at their most vulnerable moment, need the very best care that can be provided, and that adopters need foster carers to support them in making the transition as successful as possible. I hope the majority of foster carers live this out in their homes and their work.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Can of Worms

So, we have received our first reply to letterbox. It wasn't a surprise as my social worker had already given me the heads up that OB's paternal grandma had requested help with writing a letter, and I had written ours early so that she had something to work with as she wrote.

My social worker had also promised to sit down with grandma and get as much information as possible about OB's birth dad. Until now, all I have known about him was his name and that he has big feet. Oh, and a few choice morsels from his criminal record, but we'll gloss over that. Only one photo of him was offered up for OB's life story book - a classic school photo where he looks about 12. I caught a brief glance of it over 18 months ago before it was whisked away to be included in the book which I still haven't received. Apparently it is, at last, ready, so now I've got that to look forward to as well.

I saw the two emails from my social worker, one with pdf attachment of the letter, and the other with pdf attachment of her own handwritten notes from the meeting. Foolishly, I just opened them and read them.

Yeah. Should definitely have armed myself with a large glass of wine, or a giant bar of chocolate ... or maybe both.

Once I'd got my breath back, I read them again, more slowly, capturing details and nuances and lines between lines. I already knew enough about OB's birth mum to understand that hers is a complex story, layered with tragedy, loss and trauma of her own. Now I saw that birth dad's story is really more of the same.

Sometimes it is hard to manage the intense compassion I feel for OB's birth family. I genuinely believe that, although their care of OB was very negligent, the hand that they themselves had been dealt was so bad, so loaded against them, that at the time that OB came on the scene, there was simply no way that they could possibly have been able to parent him. So they have lost him. And he has lost them. More loss to add to an already bulky catalogue of loss.

It's not that I think that OB shouldn't have been removed. Birth dad only ever saw OB once as far as I know, so he certainly wasn't in a position to ensure his care and safety. Birth mum's behaviour put OB in serious danger on more than one occasion and, despite massive support from many professionals and myself, the attempt to return OB to her only resulted in more neglect, to his very great cost. With time could they have sorted themselves out? Maybe. But at what cost to OB?

No, it's not that I feel guilty that OB was removed and is now with me. I believe it was the right decision for him. But in some ways I feel that things would be so much easier for me if I could simply demonise his birth parents - imagine them as monsters with no redeeming feature and then sweep their memory aside. I can't do that. Not only is it not true, but it would not be right. So instead, I live with my complex emotions about birth mum and dad, people who, in my past life, I would have drawn close to, supported and fought for. Maybe the day will come when I will do that for them, and for OB. Who knows what the future holds.

But all of that is as nothing compared to my feelings about birth grandma. Reading the notes, and her letter, I was struck again and again by the helplessness of her situation. She didn't neglect OB - in fact she did everything she could to ensure the rehabilitation to birth mum would be a success, all for nothing. She did raise his birth dad, who is hardly a great advert I admit, but the same thing that broke him also broke her. Another life that barely holds on.

She keeps a photo I gave her, framed, on her living room wall. When her other grandchild, OB's half-sister, comes to visit at the weekends, she shows her the photo and explains to her about her half-brother. She laminated OB's drawing that I sent her last year and keeps it on the fridge with her grand-daughter's art work. She begged for another drawing. She is sorry. She has bad health or else she would have taken him herself. She hopes he has a good life.

When I finished reading, my gut reaction was to phone her, tell her to come over for a coffee and spend a little time with the son of her son. I didn't do that, and I won't. And all week I have been wondering why.

I think the answer is that it's a massive can of worms. It's the unknown. I can't see where it would lead and I don't like some of the possibilities. I'm not ready to share OB. That day will probably come but I'm not ready yet. OB doesn't even know about his birth grandma. I've talked to him about his adoption and his first parents, but I've held off from talking about extended family for fear it would just muddy the waters.

Birth grandma is on my mind this week, but I'm keeping the worms in their can.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

White Noise

"It's good that she's so young. At least she won't remember."

Baby Girl is very young. She was in danger and she was potentially harmed but she was removed before she was a week old. She has been in one, stable foster placement since that day. She will be moved on to a loving adoptive placement well before her first birthday. I sincerely hope that the fact that she's so young and she won't remember will help her to achieve the most positive outcomes possible from what has been a terrible start.

But I know that adoption does not erase the past. Baby Girl will carry her past with her into her future. In fact her past will become part of her whole adoptive family's future. However young the child, and however little they remember, there is no route into adoption that involves walking off happily into the sunset, leaving the past behind.

Although OB's background is not quite as straightforward (if you can use that word) as BG's, we deal with relatively few adoption and trauma-related issues in our daily life. Sometimes I will wonder about things he does or things he says, or certain behaviours or fears, but in almost every case I find myself reassured by watching his little friends that either he is pretty much normal, or all the children I know have issues!

We have conversations, of course; conversations about adoption, about his family set up, about whose tummy he was in. These are not quite the same conversations that birth children have with their parents, but investigating origins seems to be pretty normal for most kids. Most of what I encounter is what I expected.

It's the white noise that sometimes catches me unaware. The fact of OB's adoption and all that this entails seems to buzz along in the back of my head, mostly only subliminally noticed until something attracts my attention to it. Recently I've been noticing it a lot.

When I get a new foster child, I do a sweep on Facebook, looking for mutual friends of mutual friends and the like. It's not a very big town. Sometimes I think six degrees of separation is a massive exaggeration. I wish it was as many as six! For various reasons I've had to go back and re-do my sweep of BG's family in more detail. I discovered that OB's birth mum is Facebook friends with one of BG's relatives. Small world.

So while I was on there, I had a quick glance at birth mum's profile. Once I'd got over the uncomfortable feeling of seeing my son's face as her profile picture, I quickly saw that she has had another baby. So my son has another half-sibling that we know nothing about. I can't help wondering about this new little one and whether I'll get a phone call from social services some time in the future.

Only a couple of days after this, I had a phone call from the lovely social worker who handled OB's adoption. Paternal birth grandma has requested SS help in writing a letterbox letter. She would be visiting the social worker next week to work something out but, from what she said during the phone call, it doesn't seem as though she knows that I was OB's adopter. Do I want the social worker to tell her?

I was a bit surprised at this as I always assumed she knew. OB's birth mum knows that I adopted him and I supposed that somewhere along the line, paternal grandma, who I have met several times, would also have been told by somebody or other. Apparently not. I told the social worker to go ahead and tell her. I supervised several contacts with paternal grandma and, when it became clear that OB would be adopted, I remember her saying, through tears, that she wished he could just stay with me. I couldn't say anything at the time, but I hope that learning that this is exactly what happened will bring her some comfort.

The social worker felt that grandma would find it easier to write her letter if she had something to reply to, so asked me to do my letterbox early so that they could read it together. I had three days to write it and send it. Deadlines are good for me though, and at least it saved me another month of procrastinating and mithering about it.

The email I was later cc'd into that confirmed this arrangement also informed me that birth dad's latest girlfriend is expecting a baby, bringing the half-sib total up to at least three. If he decides to trace all of his birth family when he is older, it's going to be quite the journey!

Anyway, I processed the information, wrote the letter, filed knowledge away for the future, and tried to distract myself from the white noise again, hoping it would fade into the background once more. But it's not that easy. The white noise is loud and it is insistent. The sound of it makes me want to check Facebook over and over again, even though I know there's nothing new to see. It makes me want to phone social services and ask insistent questions about this new baby. It makes me look over my shoulder when we go to the swimming baths because our swimming lessons have been moved to a place near where OB's birth mum once lived. It makes me scan the crowd for faces I might recognise, in town, in the supermarket, at the park.

One day, if he chooses, OB will probably meet his birth mum. I think I'm about as fine with that as a person can be who is only talking theoretically. What I'm not fine with is this meeting taking place in the near future at the local soft play centre where she has come with her child and I have come with mine.

I met BG's prospective adopters recently. They are terribly excited, and thrilled to have been linked with such a wonderful child, who seems so uncomplicated, relative to many other children. They described themselves as "incredibly lucky". They are on cloud nine, waiting for their little one to come home. She's young, yes. She doesn't remember, yes. But she doesn't need to remember for it still to be real. I didn't need to mention the white noise. Anybody who has been through adoption prep already knows that, from the moment you open your door to your first set of social workers, it'll be buzzing along in the back of your mind for the rest of your days.

Friday, September 5, 2014

C is for ... Chester Zoo!

Oh, this has been a long time coming! First there was the A that wasn't really an A, and then there were the three Bs and now, finally, we reach C in our A-Z tour.

I've had this C in mind for a long time now, partly because I wanted to combine it with a visit to a dear friend. In the end, due to a rather pathetic technology fail, we only managed to spend half an hour with the friend, but it was a very nice cup of coffee and speed-catch-up nonetheless.

The zoo trip was great. We have been to Chester Zoo before, around 18 months ago and, amazingly, OB seemed to have some recollection of watching the penguins swim underwater through the glass wall. Sadly, the penguins wouldn't swim for us today, but he was happy enough with the elephants and the giraffes, so we got over our disappointment.

Everything is quite spaced out at Chester Zoo, so we had gone prepared with the double buggy for BG and my friend's daughter, as well as the buggy board to help OB as the day wore on and legs got tired. There was plenty of walking between areas - perhaps more than there needed to be due to my unusually questionable map-reading skills today! In the end though, OB's legs didn't need that much help and he really only went on the board for the novelty factor.

It wasn't a cheap day - £20 for my ticket and £16 for OB's - but we saved a bit by taking a picnic (all my friend's work!), avoiding the gift shop and only spending money on essential coffees. I was a bit disappointed to find that the monorail was extra. It wasn't much but still it helped to take our total spend for the day to well over £40, not including travel costs.

It was worth it though. This was the last hurrah of our summer holidays and OB was really excited about it beforehand, and thoroughly enjoyed his day. Even better, he was wonderfully well-behaved, kind to the babies, no running off, shouting, arguing or saying "No!" - just pleasant and great company. And he was still talking about the elephants when he went to bed.

And now for D - no ideas yet - suggestions welcome!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A long not-so-hot summer

Summer stretches on, if we can call it 'summer' considering the weather we're having. OB doesn't go back to Playgroup until 9th September, a whole seven weeks after he finished for the holidays. At some point during the summer break, we've dropped our afternoon naps. This means that sometimes, many days go by where OB and I don't get a minute's break from each other. It's starting to fray our nerves.

Even when Playgroup is open, he only goes for three mornings - that's just 9 hours each week - but it's amazing how much of a difference it makes when those precious hours of respite from each other are taken away.

Don't get me wrong. It's not as though I don't enjoy OB's company - I really do. But sometimes, we can all benefit from time apart even from those we love to be with. Without those times, or even the benefit of another person in the house to break the mood, annoyances quickly become major irritations that consume whole days, irritations build up over days and weeks to become habitual behaviour and speech patterns, and eventually you start to wonder how you got to be this person you seem to have become.

Thankfully a kind friend, noticing my plight, has taken OB out for a couple of hours for the past two Fridays. Bliss. I haven't done anything particularly spectacular. On the first Friday I cleared out and reorganised a massive storage cupboard in the nursery. On the second I did the grocery shopping. It actually felt like a little holiday to be able to wander round Tesco, taking my time over the shopping without the constant vigilance required to prevent threenage armageddon in the dairy aisle.

Today, though, has been a doozy. BG was sick in the night, and OB's nappy leaked, so both lots of bedding needed washing. After breakfast (a mighty task involving a surprising amount of complex negotiation) I put the first washing load on and then went to empty the dishwasher. The stuff didn't look particularly clean. With my preferred 'head-in-sand' approach I loaded it up again and put it on anyway. Twenty minutes into the cycle the fuse for the kitchen sockets tripped. I was in the middle of negotiating my newly-purchased food processor at the time, having decided that this would be a major cooking/freezing day so it took me a while to locate the source of the problem - the dishwasher. It's completely died.

Of course this meant that the washer had stopped too. Had to start the cycle again from the beginning. No matter. Got on with cooking stage one, seriously regretting the ambitiousness of the project as the washing up mountain grew in the sink and no dishwasher to save me. Lunchtime approaching and OB still adamantly refusing to get dressed, I decided to pick my battles and did lunch in pyjamas. Half way through her lunch, BG vomited so copiously that I had to give her a bath and disinfect half the kitchen.

Mourning the apparent total loss of the dishwasher, a faithful friend for 15 years, and mindful that this will probably mean yet another postponement of our new car plans, I decided that we needed to get out of the house. Thankfully a summer festival was going on in town today, so I prised OB out of his pyjamas and into clothes and off we went. As I set off, the car made an unwelcome bleeping noise and informed me that the indicator was broken. I checked. It was, indeed, broken.

At the festival, I couldn't stop scanning the crowd for the faces of OB and BG's birth families. You never know. I queued for quite a while to get OB a balloon shaped like a snake, let him go wild at the pick 'n' mix and paid £2 for a turn on a merry-go-round ride that lasted all of one minute. His response? A total, screaming meltdown because I wouldn't pay a further £2 and queue for what looked like about half an hour to let him go on another less-than-impressive ride. We came home, via the bargain shop where I had been reliably informed that Pampers were on special offer. They were. It was a highlight of the day.

Back home, I reduced the washing up pile a little and completed the cooking extravaganza to a persistent soundtrack of OB wailing because he was "soooo tired Mummy". As I emptied the tumble dryer and folded the newly-cleaned bedding I experienced a moment of gratitude that it was the dishwasher that broke and not the washing machine or tumble dryer! It could definitely be so much worse.

I was pretty pleased with the results of the cooking efforts (despite the incredible mound of pots stacking up in the sink) and proudly served up a made-from-scratch-with-my-own-fair-hands pie for tea. OB said "I'm not going to like that Mummy," as I got it out of the oven. He slashed it with his knife for about 20 minutes and then said he'd had enough. I said that if he didn't eat any of it then he wouldn't get one of the jam tarts we had made. He ate most of it. I burnt my finger testing whether the jam tarts were cool enough to eat. They weren't.

We skyped Mamy and Papy after tea because it's Papy's birthday today. OB was on top note, trampolining a la 'Tumble' on the sofa next to me, using his 'dog on a stick' like a lethal weapon and eventually dragging his toy drum kit through the house with the intention of putting it right next to the computer and playing on it. I drew a line at this. On the plus side, BG's tea remained in her stomach.

At bedtime I issued dire warnings to OB about what might happen if he faffed about until after 9pm like he did last night. Then I came downstairs and, instead of loading the dishwasher (10 minutes), I did the mountain of washing up (40 minutes). It's not much, that half an hour, but I definitely feel robbed!

And why am I telling you all of this? Because there's nobody else here to tell. This is single adoptive parenting. It really is all you, all of the time.