Tag Archives: life story

My thoughts and Experiences of Contact by Amanda Boorman

To start our second Sore Points in adoption week on CONTACT, Amanda Boorman from The Open Nest, tells us about her thoughts and experiences.

As a peer support charity we get calls from adopters asking advice and direction to services for many things. After running for two years I would say the most common issues we are asked about are access to short breaks, aggressive behaviour, problems at school and problems with professionals who ‘don’t get it’

Surprisingly issues with contact and life story very rarely come up.

At the opposite end of this, adults who were adopted report life history, identity and incorrect file information as being one of the key unresolved and painful issues for them.

It is a subject that when discussed can bring up a lot of emotion, anxiety, anger and confusion. I believe the issues of life story and contact in adoption are due a big public debate despite hardly featuring at all in the current adoption reform.

The pervading opinion remains that if a child has been removed from its parents, then by definition those parents do not have rights to seeing or hearing from that child again. To seek contact and the continuing of previous relationships is potentially disruptive and damaging for the child. It is recognised that having to maintain contact could be off putting for prospective adopters.

contact AB

But it is rarely as clear cut as that.

By the time a child or children is removed, social workers have put together the case for removal and presented it to court. It goes without saying that the records involved in this process will focus on the parents failings in relation to their child/children. It is unlikely that future carers will have much more of ‘the family story’ than these failings and scraps of file  information gathered during that process.

Perhaps the debate about contact begins with questioning the quality of, and commitment to, the recording of birth family history before the connections are severed.

This information is not just about parents, it’s about culture and place and extended family history. The programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ does not just focus on parents it goes generations back and recipients gain positively from information about family members they have never met even if some of this is sad.

In my adopted daughters case she arrived with a life story that if it were summed up would say:

A cruel and uncaring mother who despite numerous offers of help refused to change, she was selfish, obstructive and very aggressive. She may have been prostituting herself as her daughter has different skin colour to her siblings.

The children were unkempt and living in chaos. They had head lice, skin rashes and ear infections. The children have been removed into temporary foster care on many occasions in order to try and help the parents.

A stubborn disruptive father who will not engage with services and shouts out in meetings, often in front of the children.

There have been many reports to social services from neighbours which describe the mother shouting at the children and slapping them and then causing trouble with the neighbours if they tried to intervene

Based upon this I accepted the professional view that no contact was in the best interests of my daughter and her brothers.

A couple of years after placement I chose to seek out her parents myself. My dad was a history teacher and history, particularly biography, is something we all enjoy as a family. I found the scrap book of disjointed photos that arrived from the foster carers and the file reports lacking in any real and meaningful life history. I felt without detailed history, both good and bad, I couldn’t support my daughter properly.

After meeting her parents the story I had to share with my daughter was:

A mother with an undiagnosed learning disability. Her father was tragically killed at sea when he was in his twenties leaving her (6 months old) her mother and three young siblings. She was prey to a local paedophile at a young age and then abused in local authority care where she was placed due to her subsequent challenging behaviour. Previous relationship with a violent man and a pregnancy with this man that ended up in late stage miscarriage.

Having had an African American great grandfather she and her family have a dark skin colour which has been passed down to her daughter.

One sister is a detective constable who tried to help the family but as a single mum found it impossible. Another is a nurse and the third emigrated to Australia where she cares for the elderly.

The mum is unable to parent without intensive support but when given empathy is fully aware of her failings and honest about these failings. She is very loving but when under pressure becomes anxious and aggressive. She made many calls to social services pretending to be a neighbour and reporting herself. She believed the children should have been removed sooner in the absence of intensive parenting support. She feels social services didn’t ‘get it’. She is unable to read or write without support. She needs help to make it to appointments.

A stubborn but loyal father who is considerably older than the mother. He has previously bought up five children with no local authority involvement. He was extremely fearful of losing the children, he has a deep mistrust of social care systems and is over protective of the mother. When treated with respect he is gentle and generous

There is no doubt that my adopted daughters birth parents failings damaged her. So did the service she received from the state as a vulnerable child. I have no doubt her parents were not easy to deal with. There did however seem to be missed opportunities to gather correct information that could help my daughter understand her family history and identity better as she grew up.

Maintaining contact with an extended family beyond your own can be extremely challenging, especially with scant information and no support. It can also be costly and involve lots of travel.

Making a decision to begin contact or maintain it when the information is damning of parents or news letters are constantly unanswered is almost impossible, especially without a meaningful and safe connection having been established between the two families in advance of the adoption placement.

Where contact has been properly evidenced as being damaging or potentially damaging to children this also needs careful and therapeutic input towards healthy endings that put the child’s needs first. Children should be given therapeutic support to make individual decisions about contact.

This approach would require specialist and committed long term support work. In times of austerity, budget cuts and an adoption agenda focused on recruitment, as well as adoption continuing to be placed culturally as a saving mission, the resources are simply not there. Evidence gathered from adult adoptees about their experience of contact or lack of it is also missing as a means to inform good practice.

In a very small nutshell our family experience of contact has been that we are glad we made it happen.

We wish we had been given more support. It’s been emotional and messy. It’s produced amazing and happy memories and has also triggered some very tricky stuff that has needed to be dealt with therapeutically.

As an adult my daughter tells me that when she struggled after contact it was the saying goodbye again not the contact itself she found difficult. She is glad she got to know her lovely gentle father but the pain of losing him recently is hard. She wonders if it would have been easier not to have known him than deal with the grief. She has forgiven her mother but not forgotten what her failings caused to her and her brothers. She remains angry with her about this (and tells her so) but also loves her unconditionally. She loves her policewoman Aunty who is a role model and is proud of her brave grandad who risked and lost his life for others.

She no longer feels she is from a ‘bad’ family and identifies positively with her home town. Contact got to the truth warts and all.

Sometimes as an adopted person she hates her mum….both of us.

The Open Nest Charity provides a neutral, safe and calm environment for both sibling and birth family contact www.theopennest.co.uk

Picture Ourselves

Here Suddenly Mummy shares memories of her family and recognises, through her reflections, the importance of identity…..

A picture

There were three photograph albums created of my parents’ wedding back in the early 70s. I now have two of them in my possession. They are quite beautiful really in their black and white simplicity. My mum peeps out from behind the thick rims of her glasses looking rather like Nana Mouskouri. My dad is thinner than I ever knew him, extremely clean-shaven, slightly gawky in his wedding-day suit.

In one shot, the camera peeps through a keyhole at a young couple kissing. There is the church, the flowers, the guests, the promise of a future.

Of course, once a marriage dissolves, the number of people who care to keep such reminders dwindles. I don’t remember whose unwanted albums I now have, whether my parents’ or my two sets of grandparents’. Both my parents have new spouses and new albums now and it seems as though I am the only one to whom those  aging collections of images hold any meaning. I keep them in their original boxes in a little-used cupboard. Almost guilty secrets.

My parents officially separated when I was thirteen, and divorced a year after that. Fairly soon after they had both moved on to new partners. I was the only child of their marriage. My older half-sister, although legally adopted by my Dad, was quick to take sides in the divorce and soon took to calling the man we had both called Daddy by his first name only as if he was a stranger to her.

In the space of a few months, my Mum moved out, my sister emigrated, my paternal grandmother who had lived with us for seven years got her own place, our house was sold. Some of these people never saw each other again. For years after, the only link between these people who had lived as family, who had been family, was me, standing there like an unavoidable monument to a dead marriage.

A couple of years after the divorce, while looking for something or other in my Mum’s cupboards, I came across a plastic bag stuffed full of little paper and plastic wallets. Photographs.

Hungrily, I opened each wallet, spilling them all out around me on the floor. Pictures of my Mum with my sister as a baby before my Dad and I ever were. Pictures of me as a baby, of all of us, on holiday, in the garden, Christmas, birthdays, smiling, group shots awkwardly posed with background landmarks, Stonehenge, the Houses of Parliament, various seasides.

Nobody was home so I took my time, picking through them, checking the back of each one for dates, names, places. Instinctively I knew that I had to take some of them, to keep them safe, to be the person that treasured this past that nobody else seemed to want anymore. I stole them. I made a collection then that I still have today – not so many that anybody would notice, but enough so that I had my own timeline of our lives in pictures.

My stepmum knew both my parents before they were married. She hadn’t been my stepmum long before she told me that my parents’ marriage was in trouble from the start. Even when I was a babe in arms, the love between them was gone. From the moment I heard that I longed to know that my parents did indeed love each other; that my Mum married my Dad for love and not because he was safe and ordinary and boring, the opposite of her first husband, or because he was prepared to take on my fatherless sister and raise her as his own.

I longed to know that I was conceived and carried and birthed with love. I asked my sister once. She said yes, they loved each other. I don’t know whether I really believed her.

And this is just a divorce. Such a common thing these days that it hardly merits a mention. Compared to the disruption and dislocation of adoption, it’s almost nothing. I got to grow up knowing both my parents, knowing who I was and where I came from. I have had to put some work into accepting that identity and valuing it, but where I have had a winding journey, my son will have an uphill battle that will probably continue for his whole life.

Sometimes I admit I roll my eyes a little at some of the things said and done in the name of ‘identity’. I am impatient. I want to move on, get on with our lives. But one day my son will want to see the pictures, will ask whether he was conceived, carried and birthed with love. He will want to know that his origins are not a dirty secret or an embarrassment that everyone wants to brush under the carpet. Because, although it may be far from a fairy tale, the story of my son’s origins is the story of him. That school picture of his dad, those few photos of him and his birth mum, the tiny collection of toys that the social workers gathered from her abandoned home, the little trainers that I would never have chosen for him – these are all he has of a past that belongs only to him.

I am grateful that I met my son’s birth mother many times. I will be able to speak of her with warmth and compassion and understanding. It has often seemed to me that I am the only person to willingly remember the history that gave rise to my existence. I hope that my son never feels that way.

Photographic Memories

My husband and I are not yet adoptive parents, but we are parents and step-parents.

We are in the early stages of our journey to add to our family once again, this time through the slightly less conventional method which we know as adoption. We are doing this by choice, and we are excited.

Anyone who is familiar with my family life stories blog will know that I have two passions – photography and nostalgia. These two things are inextricably linked, for it is our photographic images which capture our memories, and thereby become sources of nostalgia in their own right. And there’s the rub.

swing-framed

 

We live in the age of social media. Our lives are shared online with friends and family, and the pride and love we feel for our birth children is displayed with regularity and gusto in the form of photographic images across our profile pages. The birthday parties, the sandcastles, the football matches and the first day of school. Brown eyes peeping through ruffled hair in the early morning, maternal kisses and the joy on their faces as they win the egg and spoon race.

And yet the parents of adopted children are unable to indulge in such liberal exhibitions of their joy. The need to protect the identities of their babies must trump the desire to show them off.

And so my instinctive yearning as a photographer and professional maker of life stories must be suppressed.

I wonder how it must feel for an adoptive parent to resist the temptation to share the faces which inspire them, when every other blogger on the web is brandishing their angelic offspring without a care? Will I simply learn to accept their faces must remain hidden, or will this separate them from the children whose faces are freely visible? I suspect I will struggle with this, but time will tell.

My family have many challenges ahead. We need to integrate a third incoming branch into the already-integrated family unit; we must learn to parent our adopted children in new ways, without creating inequality, and we must become accustomed to using caution in our photography and how it is shared. Let us hope that the pixelated faces will understand.

Helen Spencer is the 46 year old mother and step-mother to four children between the ages of 25 and 6 years old. She is also the Founder of family life stories website, www.SaveEveryStep.com, and blogs about her adoption journey at http://woebegonechild.wordpress.com