The Big Conversation

It is weeks since I last blogged, there’s a half chopped down tree in the garden, the fridge stinks, the kitchen floor is ankle deep in biscuit crumbs and dried up peas and someone has written their name in the dust by the tele.  I’m not on strike, or recovering from an operation, I’ve been rushing to finish a book, my second one.  It’s about all the strategies and tactics and coping mechanisms I’ve learned during the past eleven years of being an adoptive and increasingly therapeutic parent.   It is about the every day stuff like mealtimes and school as well as the hard, scary stuff like violence and the complexities of raising traumatised siblings.  It has been a long but satisfying process.  As I prepare to hand the manuscript over I realise just how much I’ve learned and how far we’ve come since our two little cuties arrived with their beautiful hair and their deep wounds.

As well as writing I’ve been talking and meeting: the sort of thing which requires smart clothes and a bit of bottle.  I spoke at the Wiltshire Adoption Conference, with Dr Vivien Norris about transitions; why they are challenging for adopted children and what we can do to support them through change.  It was a privilege to be invited and a pleasure to meet so many adopters and professionals working in the field.  I’m also taking part in a Department for Education Expert Advisory Group on adoption support.  It feels like a once in my lifetime chance to make real improvements to the support that adopters and their children receive.  I’m representing all adopters, particularly those who like me have wobbled under great strain through lack of understanding of and support for attachment and trauma issues.  For much of my time as an adopter I’ve felt like a lone voice and sometimes like a crazy lone voice. It doesn’t seem quite so hopeless now.  Increasingly I talk to teachers and civil servants and social workers and others who really do ‘get it’.  Much of the credit for that has to be given to adopters who have had the nerve to speak out when all the pressures upon them indicate they should keep quiet.  Social media has and will continue to play a huge part in that I think.

We know it takes years for scientific discoveries and research to drip down and inform public services, but even so this has been a deeply frustrating issue to try and shift, especially at the same time as being locked into a traumatic landscape within the family.  But, I am cautiously optimistic that change is happening, slowly.  That change is still being held back by a widespread misunderstanding of early trauma though.  Children do not, contrary to popular myth, just get over traumatic experiences, no matter how inconvenient that truth may be.  (Popular myth however accepts that animals, like dogs suffer trauma, for which they require long and careful rehabilitation.)  There are wider issues as well around listening to and believing parents, around who the experts really are and around priorities and arse-covering and labelling.  It’s a kind of Sod’s Law too, that as well as adopting children from the state, having to cope with often undiagnosed and unsupported trauma and attachment issues, adoptive parents often end up having to play advocate, campaigner and general rabble-rouser as well.  They don’t tell you that bit in the preparation groups.

Finding my voice has been as much about connecting up with other adopters, adoptees and professionals as it has been summoning up my own (battered) courage.  When I first ventured on to twitter there were just a handful of adopters sharing experiences, now there are lots and what a wonderful space has been created to collect and share ideas.  I’ve never felt part of such a vibrant, creative, committed and honest group of people before.  Last night I asked for some help with a presentation I’ll be delivering to the Department for Education on why adoption support is a crucial part of the adoption reforms.   I was bowled over by the response.  Thank you.  Once it’s been delivered I’ll share my/our presentation and my ongoing work with you.  I would love to keep the conversation going.

But for now, please excuse me, it’s Friday afternoon, the children are due home any moment,  the kitchen floor needs sweeping  and there’s the small matter of Mother’s Day to stage manage organise.  A happy weekend to you all.

A Rainy Afternoon

I really should know better, than to tweet about how swimmingly things are going.  But that’s what I did last Wednesday morning.  By Wednesday afternoon I was stood in our garden in the rain being called the worst thing I can imagine being called.  There was more, but I won’t go into that here.

Getting into full therapeutic mode is easier these days.  I look at the ground and recall how to respond, the right words and phrases to use so the situation isn’t inflamed and unsettling threats are not followed through.  I become what I need to become in a moment.

In these situations neither of us is our real selves.  He is controlled, blank, strangely calculating and his words and body language are chillingly cruel.  I double-think everything I say and do like a chess player, burying the panic and the hurt.  If I dared to really connect with what’s happening, in the garden, in the rain I would disintegrate.  So I don’t.

The situation was eventually resolved and repaired by a lengthy email exchange, which is how we do things these days.  We worked out the trigger together.  I’d underestimated the impact that something which had happened outside the home had had on him.

Once Mr D got home and everyone was settled into their evening activities I sat on my own at the kitchen table and could no longer escape the words and threats I’d heard out in the garden.  They come back and haunt me in the end no matter how hard I tell myself he didn’t mean them and they were spoken from a place of past abuse and fear.  These episodes are the nearest I get to experiencing emotional abuse.  They leave me cold and sad and without words.

He will need support to process the shame and fright which showered down on us both.  But I can’t do it immediately.  I need to pick myself up and sleep and remember to never, ever declare that things are going swimmingly.  All I will say is that we have been continuing to making progress and hopefully that rainy afternoon in the garden was no more than a setback.

Panorama, I Want My Baby Back

Child protection is a fine tightrope and the consequences of getting it wrong are horrific.  Panorama shown on Monday night looked at whether faulty medical evidence associated with bone fractures in infants had resulted in parents being wrongly accused of abuse. It was clear that some had, with devastating results.  It was utterly heart-breaking to watch.

It is a story that should be told, especially in the context of the secrecy of the family courts.  Parents expressed their experience of feeling bull-dozed by the system, kept in the dark over crucial evidence and silenced.  There has been a campaign to open up the family court to more scrutiny so that justice where families and children are concerned is done in public.  With the right safeguards in place, this is the right way to go.

The problem with secrecy and silencing is it creates a vacuum which gets filled with conspiracy theories (fools rush in) and sloppy and sensationalist reporting.  Miscarriages of justice, without proper public scrutiny and opportunity to learn lessons are translated into frightening fantasies about baby-snatching social workers.  An environment of mistrust and hate develops and before you know it we are all in a state of panic: good (parent) is pitched against evil (social worker).  Parents are given terrible advice (‘leave the country’).  The bests interests of children are not served.

Opening up the family courts to more scrutiny will take bravery and care.  In return we must come to a more thoughtful and less simplistic understanding of a complex subject.  Social Services may have to find more courage to defend their decisions, the media will have to give them the right to reply, medical experts may have to exercise a little more humility and the public and the media will definitely have to ready themselves to face some uncomfortable truths.

My own experience is this.  I am an adopter.  Our children were abused and neglected in a way which is not pleasant to read about in a newspaper.  Their birth family were given many, many opportunities to improve and did not.  The children stayed in their care for too long.  The court process took too long.  The consequences for the children have been devastating and will be life-long.  There were no doubts over the medical evidence and social workers acted professionally and as quickly as they were able to.  Birth family members professed their innocence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Justice in the true sense of the word was not done but our children were found a place of safety, by the state.  Child protection is by it’s very nature imperfect, messy and complicated.

This is not an experience which fits the moment or suits the conspiracy theorists but it’s one which will have to be faced, just like the miscarriages of justice, when the family courts are opened up.

Panorama was right to highlight the issues it did but it was annoyingly sloppy and sensational in parts.  It blamed social workers for what was faulty medical evidence and it suggested that miscarriages of justice were associated with panic surrounding the deaths of children such as Daniel Pelka and Peter Connelly.  It also failed to robustly question advice given by a Member of Parliament that families who believe themselves to be wrongly accused take their child overseas, out of the reach of social services.  Some people abuse their children and lie about it .  And that’s an uncomfortable truth too.

A Look Back at 2013

It’s been lucky 13 for me as this year has been stuffed with highlights like no other.  Personally it has been a relief to see some particularly testing trauma behaviours fading into the background proving that all that therapeutic parenting really was worth it.  Professionally, it’s been the year of my life. These were the some of the best bits:

1.  Celebrating my rather surreal winning of the British Society of Magazine Editors Columnist of the Year Award with Camilla Pemberton.  Gin never tasted so good.

2.  Signing a publishing contract with Jessica Kingsley Publishers and finally seeing my book No Matter What published.  The feedback has been incredible and has demonstrated there is still more work to do to get the support for traumatised adopted children and their families right.

3.  Meeting many wonderful tweeps in real life.  Twitter really can change your life.

4.  Giving trauma a good kick in the ass.  It needs a few more but to strike a blow has been satisfying.

5.  Spending a lovely few days at the home of The Open Nest charity in Whitby with J and R.

6.  The second and third series of ‘Parks and Recreation’.  Ron Swanson, the Godfrey Bloom of local government, is still my comic hero.

7.  The Swedish three-parter ‘Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves‘.  Best television I watched this year.

8. Hearing ‘a year or two ago we couldn’t have called it, but now he’s turned a corner and is doing really well’. Saying that was a relief doesn’t really cover it.

9.  Finishing a cross-channel swim in aid of CLIC.  We did it in the swimming pool.  It took us three months.  It’s a long old way.

10.  Seeing one of my best friends happy and wed.

11.  Standing in the pouring rain watching seals swimming in the shallows at St Ives.  We got so close we could see the smiles on their faces.  As is the way in our family a child was mid-strop at the time, but it didn’t matter.

12.  Seeing Dan Hughes speak (again) at the Adoption UK conference in Birmingham. I’m honestly not stalking him, much.

As this year closes and makes way for another, I must say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone I’ve worked with and made contact with this year.  There is a lot of kindness and warm-heartedness out there and plenty of generosity too.  I know that 2013 hasn’t been easy for some but I wish you all the very best for 2014.

One Christmas, Two Views

I put my hand in Santa’s big bag of Christmas blogs and was lucky to draw out a this gem from Vicki, mum of two, who blogs at The Boy’s Behaviour www.theboysbehaviour.co.uk. She is also co-founder of adoption support site www.theadoptionsocial.com.

I love Christmas. It’s a happy time of year for me and I want to make it happy and special for my children, but it’s not always that easy…

What I see:

The big pile of presents in the corner, tokens of love and special treats, chosen especially and wrapped with care for those who are loved.

The big tree chosen with care for it’s symmetry and height, smelling fresh and green, perfect for showing off my treasured baubles and decorations collected over the years. Illuminated by my favourite twinkly lights.

The big market, with a range of stalls, selling homemade sweets and treats, beautiful gifts to choose from. Wandering around with my family around me soaking up the atmosphere. With the smells of hot food and garlands of dried orange and cinnamon.

The big tin of sweets, traditional at Christmas time, loved by everyone who sees the bright twists of cellophane all nestled together. Which one shall I choose.

The big display of cards received, from people who know us well, from acquaintances and school friends. Pretty pictures, carefully chosen words, meaningful messages, reminders of people we don’t see so often.

What he sees:

That big pile of presents in the corner, showing off with their shiny paper, and big gold ribbons waiting to be opened. But they’re only for the good ones – am I worthy? Will I get as many as her? Which ones are mine?

The big tree with the sparkly lights and the shiny baubles aiming it’s pointy needles at any arms that dare to brush past. Are they pointy? Do they hurt? I’d better check. OUCH! Those brightly coloured baubles look too good to leave hanging there…don’t they? I’ll just have a look at that decoration there, I can make it look better, hang it somewhere else. SMASH! Heck, now I’m in trouble, I’ll go and hide.

The big market, with people everywhere, at every turn, getting in the way, blocking the stalls. The delicious smells of hot, fresh, sweet donuts, mingled with frying onions for the supersized hot dogs. I want one. I WANT ONE. I don’t want to be here, I want to go home.

The big tin of sweets, it’s there every year but they don’t let me help myself. I have to wait, I hate waiting. The sweets peek at me, I might just sneak a few…they won’t notice. But wait, so many to pick from, which ones do I like? I can’t make a decision. What if I make the wrong decision?

The big display of cards received, from people I don’t know but who know me, from my friends – but not all of them like me enough to send a card, she’s got more than me and likes showing them off. I wonder if my birth mum is going to send me a card?

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How to deal with anger, by Jamie

This for the Stig:-

I have experienced the anger you have, I know its horrible. We named the anger “red brain.” Yeah its a horrible thing to grow up with but it gets better honestly  it wont come out as much as you get older. It is NOT your fault so don’t blame it on yourself!!!!

When you feel red brain coming you should just tell your mum or dad and then remove yourself from the situation your getting angry in. When you do have the “red brain” , you say all these words to your mum or dad but they will know its not your fault they might feel a bit hurt or sad (they will recover in a few days) All i do to make up is really this (This might or might not help)

  1. Make them a cup of tea (optional)
  2. Give them a big hug (bears are best) or a big sloppy  kiss (I choose the hug though) (optional)
  3. Say you didn’t mean it (best to do)
  4. DO NOT BLAME YOURSELF (This you have to do)
  5. Snuggle up with your mum and dad and watch T.V (cute….)
  6. Write down your feelings about things

 

For the mum:-

What the social worker said wouldn’t of helped the situation at all! I don’t know what she meant by call the police but it was a stupid idea and hopefully you wouldn’t do it, it won’t make the situation better it would just make it worse, he won’t feel secure or safe that he is going into someone else’s hands and into the back of a strangers car. When it happens again just sit down and just say I know its not your fault and we still love and care for you no matter what (Might sound a bit strange to say it to the “older group” but it would be fine for the younger group) And maybe get him to say his feelings out loud (it worked for me).

When you get the chance and he is nice and calm just sit him down gradually tell him about his past or why he was removed from is “birth family” Because that has helped me, he will be shocked at first and it will take time to sink in but it will work 99.9%

Hope this works 

P.S Nice name Mr Stig!

 

Adoption UK Conference: Still Learning from Dr Dan Hughes

I have seen Dan Hughes Ph.D speak on many occasions. I have read his books, watched his DVDs, listened to his CDs and been coached by his disciples.  My book contains an acknowledgement to him because without his work I don’t know where my family would be (actually I think I do, but let’s not go there).

Each time I hear Dr Dan speak I am reminded of something important which had slipped to the back of my mind and I always learn something fresh.  The challenges of raising children with developmental trauma change over time and it has been important for my learning to keep pace with our children’s development.

At the 2013 Adoption UK annual conference I heard Dr Dan speak again.  This is what I took away:

  • There is a part of the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for performing the tasks we just don’t want to do.  The light bulb marked ‘school work’ lit up and flashed.  Evidently when this part of the brain isn’t fully integrated, it is inefficient and energy sapping, except when the child works in the presence of an attachment figure which greases the wheels and injects motivation.  The attachment figure need not say or do anything, just be there.  This exactly mirrors our experience.  ‘GCSEs’ I thought.
  • New skills, particularly for our children, whose brains are rewiring, are not acquired in a linear fashion.  Skills learned one day may not be visible the next, but will show themselves again later.  Progress is inconsistent.  My experience reflects this.  And yet one of my children’s schools has dictated that progress along the Goveian alpha-numeric scale of marvellousness shall now be linear, no excuses.  This is what happens when the bureaucrats hijack education.
  • Healthy toddlers have learned that their primary relationships are trustworthy and for better or worse.  Children with experience of neglect, abuse and broken attachments have not learned this.  They believe in their bones that when there is conflict relationships will fail and they will be discarded or hurt.  It takes a lot of repetition of conflict and repair to help them learn to trust a for better or worse relationship.  It certainly feels that way from where I’m sitting.
  • The neurons which build the bridge in the brain between seeking comfort and relieving distress don’t go away and remain active into older age.  Fantastic.  Bring on the brain plasticity.
  • Using the ‘if’ word.  ‘I can see that if you thought I had said ‘no’ because you thought I hated you that would feel terrible.’  Pertinent in our family at the moment.
  • Our children have to be convinced of their goodness in order for them to want to show they are good.
  • Commitment is a big influencer of success.  Our children need to be sure of our long-term, for better or worse commitment.  One of our children has tested this one to the max, the other is just embarking on it.  It feels like an all or nothing battle and it was good to hear Dr Dan confirm what is going on.  I thought it was just a Donovan thing (not that I would wish the experience on anyone else).
  • The adolescent brain is very receptive and undergoing a process of streamlining.  It is a good time to work on the changes we want to brain to make.  I am touching wood as I write this, but so far for us the adolescent years have been a much more fertile ground for therapeutic work than the younger years were.  We have made more progress in the past two years than we ever did.  Real, measurable, pleasurable progress.

I have tried and failed to track down the quotation Dr Dan cited that struck me.  Perhaps it came from the Inuits or Albert Camus or ‘anonymous’, but whoever it was it goes something like this ‘we must hear the song in our children’s hearts and sing it back to them when they’ve forgotten it’.  This is what being a therapeutic parent feels like: sometimes singing until you are hoarse, until there is no music left inside you.  I have at times forgotten my own song, but hearing Dan Hughes reminds me of it again and puts the music back.

And the winner of the BSME Business Columnist of the Year is …

Two years ago I left a comment under an article about adoption on the website of the online Social Work magazine Community Care.  I can’t remember what angle the article took but it must have bugged me because I rarely leave comments under articles.

In response to my comment came an email from the Children’s Editor of Community Care, Camilla Pemberton, asking if I might be interested in writing a guest blog piece for her. At the time I was trying, unsuccessfully to find a publisher for a book I was writing.  Flattered and with nothing to lose, I wrote a short piece and Camilla published it.

Many blog pieces and a publishing contract later I found myself stood in front of 500 people in the ballroom at The London Hilton on Monday evening, collecting an award for Business Columnist of the Year from the British Society of Magazine Editors.  It was an out of body experience to a Katy Perry soundtrack.  I vaguely remember racing to the stage in a blur of bright lights, music and shock and being handed something by Diane Kenwood, the editor of Woman’s Weekly and the comedian Andy Parsons.  Just to get the evening further into perspective, the award presented after mine was won by Caitlin Moran.

I returned to my seat and Camilla and I drank champagne and cocktails into the night and revelled in our unlikely success.

Twenty four hours later, after a queasy and long train journey home I was suddenly back in my real life, dealing with the fallout from two children who don’t manage a night of my absence well.  It is understandable but not pretty, and devilishly difficult to respond correctly to when burdened with one of the best/worst hangovers I’ve ever had.  (The gin hangover is in my experience something quite different from the others.)

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I want to say a massive ‘thank you’ to Camilla and Ruth and the rest of the Community Care team for publishing my articles and to the British Society of Magazine Editors for reading and liking my sometimes difficult and raw pieces, which don’t always conform to what we think we know about children, adoption and trauma.  Although it isn’t possible for me to write under my own name the roar is all mine.  And on Monday night, under the glitter of the crystal chandeliers, I realised that my roar has been heard.  It was the night of my life.

What it feels like to be an adopted child

Because i wasn’t cared for as a baby i find school difficult,lessons a lot harder and friendships harder to form.  The first day back at school is always the hardest because I’m used to relaxing and talking non-stop, I find R.S the hardest because we have to learn about the things I don’t believe in. I don’t believe god looks after children otherwise i wouldn’t be writing this and had to experience what i did, It could have been worse but I’m still affected by it. I was abused for 2 years but not as bad as the other children who were there longer i feel really sorry for what they are experiencing it must be really hard.   

I find friendships difficult because i don’t know what to talk about.  Other boys talk about violent games which i am not allowed because it makes me more aggressive towards other people.  I have played them before in front of my mum and she saw the slitting of throats and we got rid of it and my aggression improved.  I try to keep up with the latest football scores but i find it boring to watch.  Because i missed playing when i was younger Im just catching up and play instead of watching football like everyone else. It makes me calm when i play and i play in my room where no one can disturb me.

It makes me feel different and get special treatment at school which i don’t like having but i do like being different in a way because I’m not like everyone else.

It feels strange being with a adoptive family as they’re not your blood mum and dad.

Im glad I’m one on the lucky ones to have survived!
I get angry with Radio channels and posters (in my RS room) saying that ‘Neglected and abused children are more likely to commit crimes’  Which is in a way discriminatory. It isn’t our fault we were abused and neglected we had no choice as we were babies and couldn’t fight back. I will NEVER  meet my birth mum or dad because i would lash out and get in trouble.
When i was abused i got a scar on my face and my teeth bent when a metal pole was forced into my mouth all i can remember was there was a lot of blood. I now get teased for all sorts the names are wild like ‘rabbit’ ‘beaver’ loads more!
Having a bad past has made my life hell as I’m teased.
I feel stronger everyday of speaking out about me being adopted, in my second primary school i bring in my birth story book and told everyone i was adopted then the teasing stopped but we were about to leave for secondary school. I have a favourite T.A which i cannot name for privacy which understands everything and i can go to her with my problems most of the time.
In the future i dream of becoming a police man to help other people with problems. The life at home is amazing because comparing it against my birth home it is amazing, my mum is a special breed as she is funny and odd some times as i write she is sat next to me making and elastic band ball and my dad is funny as well but but can we grumpy when he has had a bad day at work so we give him love :)

This week is about finding homes for children who are ‘hard to place’, which i don’t like because   children who have been abused and neglected deserve to have safe and amazing families like mine.

35 Things I’ve Done Because of Adopting

As an adopter of two ‘harder to place’ children I would love to write, during National Adoption Week, about love hearts and happy endings but the truth is less marketable than that.  Parenting our children, loving them, has been the hardest, most brilliant, scariest, most wonderful thing I have ever done in my life.  If you think you may be up to the challenge of adopting children from local authority care then please make the first step and contact the adoption information gateway First4Adoption, or your local adoption charity or authority for information.

Parenting children who have suffered neglect and abuse is utterly life-changing. Here are 35 things that I’ve done as a result of adopting our brilliant children:

  1. Become a mother
  2. Met lots of very nice social workers
  3. Learnt about brain development
  4. Really understood what empathy is
  5. Loved a cat called Ron
  6. Been a school governor
  7. Lost my temper over a broken biro
  8. Been brave, taken risks
  9. Met some really groovy people
  10. Stumbled upon a writing career
  11. Written a book, ‘No Matter What’
  12. Been shortlisted for an award
  13. Hugged a hoodie
  14. Watched a Barbie film
  15. Got really scared
  16. Got nits
  17. Got things into perspective
  18. Changed my views; on parenting, on education, on lots of things
  19. Made a website
  20. Become a tweeter
  21. Become a campaigner
  22. Got nits
  23. Apologised, a lot
  24. Changed my measures of success
  25. Made a bug hotel (not in my hair)
  26. Made a salt dough tutankhamen
  27. Got to know an awful lot about snails
  28. Experienced anger I didn’t think possible
  29. Experienced love I didn’t think possible
  30. Found fortitude I never knew I had
  31. Got nits
  32. Become self-employed
  33. Experienced the best and worst of myself
  34. Taken some big leaps of faith
  35. Really really got unconditional love.

 

A cat called Ron

A cat called Ron

Actually it is brain science

Actually it is brain science