Rotherham: The Real Child

When a colossal national scandal is dragged into the light of day a void of interest is suddenly filled with the anger, opinion and comment of many.  It’s an issue of misogyny, race, culture, class, power, politics, resources, training, depending on one’s view and experience of the world and sometimes on the particular axe one is grinding (or paid to grind).

If the abuse of an estimated 1,400 children in Rotherham in recent times was down to any one or even two of these issues then how neat it would be.  We could pin the blame on a particular group whether they are Asian men, powerful white men, governments for under-resourcing children’s services, clothing retailers for selling sexualised clothing for children, or bad parents and give them hell.  But it’s never as simple as that.  There is no such thing as the single cause of a complex tragedy.

Many who have stood across the desk from Children’s Social Care, the Police, Education and the NHS on matters of child protection and wellbeing will know how bloody hard it is to get heard and believed (and not blamed) and to get access to necessary practical help and support.  It is important to point out that there are many examples of good practice, where children and families get the help they need, but it is equally important to say that there are big slices of crap practice in every service.  The great and the good will probably never have to experience this crap service, but if you do, you soon become aware of how thin the veneer is between being in and out of favour.  And to fall out and down between the cracks is terrifying, particularly if you’ve grown up believing that if you found yourself in a horrible situation, the state would be there to help you and not look upon you as some kind of unhinged liar.

For me the issues around this tragedy are nuanced and difficult.  It is about many of the headline issues and much more.  When the bottom line is that children and their families aren’t believed or are blamed for abuse inflicted upon them, by those whose job it is to protect them, that’s a sure sign there’s a lot of work to do.  That’s pretty much as bad as it gets.

If the reports are correct, the groups of predatory men who have abused 1,400 children in Rotherham are well-organised, well-led and focussed.  These are not words I would use to describe support for children in crisis across Social Care, the Police, Education and the NHS.  The criminals are not only exploiting vulnerable children, but a vulnerable and fragmented system too.

The response to this crisis has to be nationally led, cohesive, courageous, funded and long term.  (And at the risk of jumping to a simplistic conclusion myself, I’m not at all sure that local councils are best placed to lead the way.)

‘Elizabeth’ is the mother of ‘Lara’, one of the victims of the Oxfordshire grooming ring.  During a recent interview on Woman’s Hour they both gave a clear description of how the grooming took place and how many opportunities to stop it were missed by the services.  I’ll leave you with a quote from ‘Elizabeth’ (who would be an asset to any national enquiry),

‘There were extraordinary moments when in a particular situation Lara would rise to the occasion, help nurse my dying father, look after my frail mother, run around helping friends in need which also helped me to see the real child, the real girl and all this other stuff is the result of abuse, mistreatment and poor service response, but underneath it all there is a wonderful child there and that’s the child that’s got to be rescued from all this’.

A Bizarre and Brilliant Night at the PPA Awards 2014

As far as out-of-body experiences go, finding oneself in a therapy session with one’s son examining the forceful use of the words ‘c**t’ and ‘w****r’ is right up there with the trippiest. Almost exactly two incredibly testing years later I find myself in the ballroom of the Grosvenor Hotel in London air-kissing Claudia Winkleman and accepting a publishing award. IMG_1207

The Grosvenor was the venue for the annual Professional Publishing Association Awards and the great and the good of magazine publishing were represented; Grazia, Elle, Radio Times, Slimming World, Top Gear, Country Life and GQ amongst many others.

I’m told my writing is sometimes challenging and emotive, sometimes ‘searingly honest’ and sometimes quite funny.  To me it’s none of those things – it’s the best approximation I can come to of my life as a parent of two adopted and traumatised children (which is a long way from Country Life).

My pieces are published by Community Care, the online trade magazine of the social work and social care sector, who don’t baulk at my ‘searing honesty’ and who encourage those who work in, or who otherwise engage with social care to have a voice.  Community Care has been nothing but supportive of my writing and my involvement in the campaign to get better support for children who have suffered the worst start in life.   They gave me my first paid work as an occasional blogger, before the first and second book contracts came along. On Thursday night we gathered and filled half a table and had the best time together.

The award is sitting on the windowsill which overlooks my desk, as a reminder that the starry night at the PPA awards was not a bizarre daydream, anymore than the trippy therapy session was.  It is also evidence that online publishing and social media have made it possible for me and others to write about real, hard, shitty, glorious experiences (and injustices) without being filtered or pressured to ice the shit brownie.  (I could write at length about the democratisation of news, but that’s for another day.)

For now all that’s left to say is thank you.  Thank you Rob for being at home with two children who can’t bear their mother being away.  Thank you to my sister for looking after J on Thursday when he couldn’t handle going to school.  And thank you to Community Care particularly Camilla, Ruth, Andy and Claire for being super-supportive.

Pulling Weeds

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At this time of year the garden runs away from me a bit, and so does life.

Last night I dreamt of bindweed, miles of it, coming up everywhere, winding its windy way through everything; creeping, dragging, strangling.  I woke up feeling stifled.  There was a hint of Freud about it all.

When my head feels like a pressure cooker I go into the garden and pull up weeds and pick flowers.  There aren’t too many pickable flowers in our garden at this time of year, so it’s all about nasturtiums mainly.  This evening I picked the crisp early leaves of curly kale too, which I like as a bit of mad greenery in a vase of orange.

This morning a man road-raged at me.  He had to wait a few seconds to let me get by.  I mouthed ‘sorry’.  He flashed his headlights, threw his hands in the air, looked like he was considering ploughing his car into mine, to make a point. Our daughter was in the car with me.  She was off school, glassy-eyed and full of a cold.

I got home and pulled weeds and cursed at stupid old men.

Before this dog end of the school year fizzles out I’ve got a few things to finish and the seeds of a new project to sow. Then I’ll be cleaning the dirt from my nails, shedding the mental bindweed for a day or two and heading to London for a grand publishing party courtesy of Community Care magazine.  Once the ‘party head’ has passed (I intend to make a night of it) I reckon I’ll be ready for a summer of relaxation and fun with my loved ones.  I know that’s what they’re ready for too.

More than a single story

‘The consequence of the single story is it robs people of dignity.’
Chimamanda Adichie

When the state or the media commentates or becomes otherwise involved in family life it can sometimes be hard work to convince it of the complexities of the whole story.  The whole story takes a bit of effort to listen to; it takes time and emotional engagement and sometimes a willingness to challenge initial reactions and long-held beliefs. Getting mine and my children’s voices heard has not been easy.  At times we’ve been all but drowned out by the booming voices of the dominant stereotypes, misconceptions and myths (adoption is littered with them).  We’ve become skilled at spotting the wagging fingers of entrenched positions, the moral and political high ground, the boiling down of the story for reasons of easy digestion and more confident at navigating our own way and speaking for ourselves.

When it comes to experiences of family, loss, mistreatment, blood, heritage and belonging there is no such thing as the single story.  Everybody’s truth is different and some people’s truths are not it seems as politically or socially acceptable or as entertaining as others.  As an adoptive parent it can leave you blowing about in the wind, questioning your own and your child’s judgement and experience as if they are somehow not authentic.  The trick I’ve found is to keep listening and learning and to have confidence that experience counts for something.

This week Amanda Boorman and I took part in a conference organised by Dr Wendy Thorley of Sunderland University called ‘The Voices of Children: Listening to Looked After and Adopted Children’.  We talked about our charity The Open Nest, founded by Amanda, which as the name suggests seeks to accommodate and support all experiences.  We presented the first showings of two films the charity has commissioned; a short animation (which we are going to share on social media) and a longer documentary film about the experiences of Amanda, her daughter Jazz and their wider families.  Through the films and other media we aim to represent many diverse voices and to challenge at least some of the misconceptions and simplistic views around adoption, family and belonging (which despite their clear complexities seems to attract more than their fair share of good/bad, right/wrong, happy/sad type representations).

The conference was opened and closed by a group of young people from Northumberland who are no strangers to the same types of simplistic thinking and stereotyping.  They spoke movingly about what it feels like to be taken from the family home suddenly and without warning, what it feels like to be taken to a stranger’s home and to be kept in the dark about what the future holds, to be labelled as a ‘bad kid in care’ with few prospects.  The single story was affirmatively kicked into the long grass, such is the power of the voice of the ‘user’.

Children who are cared for by the state, children who have been adopted from the care system, carers, birth families and adopters each have their own unique experiences and stories to tell and for that reason we need broad enough shoulders to listen and to respect and value what they tell us.  When we don’t, we have to take care how we justify that.  There will of course be common themes and experience can teach us to recognise these, but once we try to cut these down too far, to simplify them beyond meaning, we cut away the truth.

‘I have always felt that it it impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place or that person,’ Chimananda Adichie

My Holiday, by Jamie

Part 1)- My s*** week

Part 2) My holiday :)

Dear fellow bloggers,

Part 1) The last week of term was S***, it was when red brain and his friends came out to play with my head… And it was the worst time for it to come out too- My school planner (diary) Is filled with comments on my behavier (Some good, most bad) whenever I opened my planner to write homework I would see the messages and they made me feel like crap, I think the last week I gave up, I was rude to teachers, was involved in people having fights, and the detentions kept piling up to the point where I had enough, I missed detentions which got me 2 more, I had a long argument with a TA who thought it was funny to snatch my bottle of me, and then do things behind my back, so yeah I lost it at her which resulted in me going to the worse place in school- Student Support- I came home on Wednesday and said to mum “I’ve had enough of school, its doing my head in” And everything up on the other lines ^^ And so I took the day off (Thursday) to calm myself, I had a haircut, tidied my room, got a new phone- Oh yeah I don’t have a very good phone record;

1)    Samsung tocco lite: Went in washing machine

2)    Samsung tocco lite: Went in washing machine again

3)    Samsung tocco lite: Kept alive

4)    (saved up) Samsung galaxy ace: Confiscated for playing “My milkshake”-Kelis, in tutor time (Completly my fault really)

5)    Nokia Lumia 520: Confiscated by the worst teacher in history :(

6)    (saved up) Nokia Lumia 520: Dropped smashed (screen unresponsive) I was really depressed about that.

7)    (Used my old phone) Samsung galaxy ace: Took into school and it got confiscated again

8)    (saved up with mum) Got a really cool Samsung galaxy fame-Which believe it or not is still in working order ;)

Anyway Friday came, the best day of every week, but today was really awesome-School trip to an adventure park! Me, N and C (My main friends) Hanged around together in the park, it was the most best day of my school life ever! We went on go-karts, and I overcome my fear of half the rides there ;)

Part 2) I have recently been on a holiday with my mum, dad and sis. It was raining most days though :( which was annoying.

Saturday: Left for Derbyshire, when we arrived we unpacked and me and dad went to Morrisons to get our supplies

Sunday: RAIN, I think we stayed in for that day but i’m not sure

Monday: I think it was this day that we went for a long walk, I was fine up until like 50minutes then I was a moody sod for the rest of it, but hey thats what wallking does to you ;)

Tuesday: Amazing day! We went to the Stig’s house and had a mess around for a bit then we went for a quick drive up to the forest where we had milkshakes and homemade biscuits homemade :) they were lush

Wednesday: We met with the Stig and his family :D in the pub! Then they came back to our holiday house for more acohol and for the kiddies milkshakes… :/ aha

Thursday: In the day we went for a bike ride in the soaking wet, we went on the Tissington trail a.k.a Pissington trail ;)

Friday: We packed to leave, though Friday was a bit of a bad day :/ Not gonna talk about that… :(

I really really really enjoyed meeting Stig and his family, they’re really nice people :) I’m really sorry that we couldn’t say goodbye to you on Friday (Don’t think i was in the right head) Anyway, thanks for inviting us around your house and to the pub.

Oh yeah by the way I was joking about the walking bit…. It only does it to me because I play too much computer….. Its good for you I think :)

Cheers :):):):)

Ps- Can the Stig email my mum with your email because I have them muddled up cheers :)

Our Good Enough Garden

Gardening professionally by day and returning home to a stormy home did not do much for my enthusiasm for our garden.  Throw in a frozen shoulder, and then another and it became overgrown, not romantically but embarrassingly overgrown.  People started to say ‘cobbler’s children’ (how rude).  I felt like I’d lost an important part of me.

Fast forward to now.  Wow, life is so SO MUCH BETTER.  Home life is calmer and less emotionally demanding and we have actual FUN together.  My shoulders work again and I’ve found a different professional path which has brought so many new opportunities and friendships.

The garden is slowly coming back to life and so am I.  I thought I’d share a few pictures.  It’s not perfect but it’s good enough and improving.

For me spring really kicks in once the aquilegias flower.  I love them.

For me spring really kicks in once the aquilegias flower. I love them.

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Acid yellow Euphobia with whites and purples

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My ‘greenhouse’ was decapitated during the storms and used to be twice the height. It’s housing peas, beans, kale, cosmos and salad leaves.

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The first year our plum tree has had plums on it.

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Raised vegetable beds around a well which I built up using stone dug out of the garden.

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Massive heap of garden rubbish. I like to call it ‘slow composting’ #cantbebotheredtotakeittothedump

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Geraneum phaem is good in the shade. It’s the goth of geraniums and one of my favourites.

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Still life of Zinnia seedlings on windowledge with peeling wall.

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Gooseberries, blackcurrants and red currants are planted in weedy and stony Fruit Corner.

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Rose’s bean plant. Keep meaning to stake it.

Justice for LB Day 37 – When Care Goes Missing

This post has been written as part of the Justice for LB campaign.

Last summer I shared a table on a train with a man I’d never met before.   It was a quiet carriage and he wanted to engage in conversation. I’m ashamed to admit that at first I was a bit reticent. I was travelling with my two children and between us we are used to attracting a bit of attention. I didn’t want to risk attracting any more.

He was a confident man, an academic who was interested in people. He immediately engaged with my children and was not phased by them. He was someone I’d have liked to have had a proper, loud conversation with, but we were in the quiet carriage and people were tutting.

I can’t remember how we got on to the subject, but he shared with me his experiences of visiting his mother in Stafford Hospital. As he described it, her care had been both severely lacking and delivered with conscious cruelty. He had been left unable to explain the lack of humanity in those supposedly caring for her and other patients and in those whose job it was to safeguard patient safety and communicate with the relatives of those who had suffered. What he described was not only an absence of care, it was planned cruelty and those who dared to argue otherwise were represented as being misinformed, unhinged and working against the common good.

Misrepresenting and discrediting those who act as advocates for vulnerable people is a theme that plays out with depressing frequency in the health and social care systems in this country.   We the parents, the carers are misinformed, we are wrong, we are hysterical, we have got things out of perspective, we are awkward, we are standing in the way of normal service, we are disloyal, we kind of deserve the life we have.

Sara, the mother of LB (Laughing Boy) has found herself in this situation. I started following her blog just as LB entered the assessment unit where he would die either from ‘natural causes’ or from lack of care, depending on (in my non-expert opinion) who pays your wages. I was attracted to Sara’s blog because she writes with clarity, humour and compassion and because her photographs are lovely. Families of vulnerable children and young people get used to things being a bit crap, a bit worn out, a bit out-of-date and so it was refreshing to see something presented with style and grit. Little did I know that what I was following was a human tragedy about to unfold.

One of the ironies of health and social care is that when a tragedy takes place, a son dies, a mother is left unfed, the horror is then often made so much worse. Firstly, it seems that those with a professional role to play find it difficult to appear to care. They may care, but what matters is acting like you care, demonstrating it. Where ‘care’ is demonstrated it is around spurious things like reputation, PR and ‘patient confidence’ and I guess probably careers and budgets and funding. Underneath the guff, no matter how much of it there is, is the waste of a life and a family left in grief and loss. When the family try to get answers, the ‘bureaucracy’ effectively then tortures them by locking up communication and acting defensively in bizarre and cruel ways. It has systems which don’t lead anywhere, tests which cannot be passed, the simple and obvious is made complex and cumbersome until everyone apart from those grieving have all but forgotten what the original tragedy was.  It leaves one wondering when personal morality became so negotiable.

Strong men and women, who lead a whole other life outside being parents and carers, who are perhaps professionals, experts in their field, well-practised, well-respected in what they do are stripped of all that as though it is of no import at all.   Take off your robes of experience, your education, your talents, your knowledge and leave them in the bin at reception. From hereon in you are a nobody, you know nothing, you stand for nothing.

I was brought up to do the right thing, to tell the truth, to respect authority and to generally think the best of other people. I thought that ‘society’ generally acted in the best interest of its citizens and if you found yourself outside its protective walls then it was probably your fault.

Some years ago I went to the NHS for help. Our adopted child was displaying some extreme behaviours and to me (a non-expert) and to our Social Worker, was clearly traumatised and in need of some kind of therapeutic intervention. I sat in a crappy reception area, not yet realising that I had left the best of me in the bin at the door. We were seen by a consultant who either discredited or ignored almost everything I said and who steamrollered over issues I had expressly asked him to take care over. In my opinion (as a non-expert), he was an egotistical, stupid, know-it-all, know-nothing rude little shit of a man and his conclusions were sloppy and entirely wrong. I walked out of that crap hole crushed but nevertheless resolving to never ever seek the help of the NHS on matters of child trauma and adoption ever again. I should have complained, but those who have a caring or an extra parenting role will perhaps understand why I didn’t have the energy to do so. An earlier visit to our GP had resulted in the word ‘depression’ being used. Not only was I ill informed, I was mad too. I had fallen through the protective walls of society. It had been incredibly easy.

Since I’ve come out of the fog of exhaustion and secondary trauma that can come with caring for children who are deeply traumatised by their pasts I have connected on social media and in real life with many parents and carers of children and young people with additional needs, including Sara and have discovered that many of us find ourselves living outside the city walls.

How does this happen? How do job-holding, tax paying, law-abiding citizens, advocating on behalf of their vulnerable loved ones find themselves cast out and their loved ones on the receiving end of poor quality care?

Here’s my (non-expert) take on it.

  • Experts and I guess I mean health and medical experts in the broadest sense here are designed to give information and not to receive it. Some of them are egotists. Egotists are not that great at valuing the talents and knowledge of others. It’s a classic power game – I have the power over you, you are the recipient of my wisdom.
  •  The NHS is apparently sacrosanct and staffed not by fallible humans but by angels. Criticise its angels at your peril. They can do no wrong.   Wrong is in the eye of the beholder. This lack of critical thinking around any service is dangerous.
  • Without strong and challenging leadership, tribes flourish in enclaves in health and social care, just like they do in other organisations. Tribes look after their own and don’t like to be encroached upon by ‘outsiders’ (the vulnerable people they are meant to be caring for and their parents). ‘You are not one of us. This is not how we do things around here. You are not welcome.’ Some of the members of the tribes are poorly paid and poorly educated, but I’m not convinced that’s an excuse for cruelty. Tribes operate under their own rules and codes of morality where it kind of becomes acceptable not to care and not to do things properly. If you’ve ever worked in a big organization, with lots of departments, you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes groups ‘go tribal’ because the organisation they are part of doesn’t value them. Sometimes it’s because its members enjoy being awkward and lazy and moaning about everyone else and they all egg each other on. They need to be encouraged to find alternative employment. When a tribe is in charge of booking out conference rooms it is annoying. When it is given responsibility for caring for a vulnerable person it is dangerous.
  • There is no ultimate case to answer. When a young person, or an older person dies unnecessarily in the care of the state no one is in fear of being sat in a dock and they should be. When the state fails to point the finger it is tacitly saying it doesn’t take cruelty or lack of care that seriously. Threat of legal action focuses the mind when morality and care have gone missing. Those who disagree with me claim that the threat of legal action would only encourage cover ups and discourage whistleblowers, like the current state of affairs doesn’t.
  • When vulnerable people are excluded from society to such an extent that ‘normal’ people never have to come into contact with them, they become something ‘other’; annoying to care for, or dangerous. It becomes acceptable to treat someone who is seen as somewhat less than human with a lack of humanity.

I asked the man on the train what if any conclusions he had come to about what causes some people to act in such a careless and cruel way towards those in their care.   He shook his head. Everything he had thought he’d understood about people and compassion and care and morality had been over-turned.

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.