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.
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