BBC News: The woman who fought to get her baby back

As a result of the Victoria Derbyshire Show interview which aired on the 18th April 2016 (a link can be found in the “Media” menu), the BBC News picked up my story and ran the following, comprehensive and beautifully written article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36055050

Thanks to everyone at BBC News, especially Monica Soriano and Adam Eley for their time, compassion and professionalism.

Victoria Derbyshire: Taken At Birth – televised interview

I was approached by the Victoria Derbyshire show in late November 2015 and agreed to be interviewed by Victoria herself. The interview was pre-recorded for legal reasons, and I’m very glad it was as I was spectacularly nervous!

I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone on the Victoria Derbyshire Show for their kindness, patience, and their hospitality. I was very well looked after and cannot fault their professionalism.

The interview was aired on the 18th of April 2016 and made my local news, the national news and the BBC News App. I have yet to watch it, I can’t. I know it’s me at my rawest and I need to keep myself safe. I have linked below for anyone who would like to, but please bear in mind it is a very emotional piece and may be triggering for some of you.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03rd8h5

A note on power…

I write this emotional and angry but compelled to open up a discussion.

It pains me to accept that all of my life, I have been subservient, submissive and a victim of the most overwhelming abuses of power. From the emotional, physical and sexual abuse I suffered as a child, the treatment I received at the hands of ex-partners, and finally in the paralysing dynamic of power imbalance wielded as a tool by my local authority; these experiences have deeply affected me.

It pains me to accept that I have been a victim because I don’t want to be that person. I know I am survivor, a strong and confident woman and mother, able to give of herself, able to be vulnerable and able to make a difference to another person’s life. I feel empowered and at peace. But as there is light, there must be dark, and I am reminded at times that I am still vulnerable.

I have very recently experienced, yet again, the mismatch of power between a local authority – specifically my own – and its service users – specifically me. I will not use this platform to detail this incident, suffice to say it was very distressing and I will be taking appropriate action. However, when I reflect back on the events of that day, I realise that the people involved relied upon this power imbalance to achieve their aims.
I also realise just how conditioned I am to immediately slipping back into the role of being frightened and subservient; the people involved had no right whatsoever to behave in the way that they did, yet I allowed it because I did not feel safe enough to challenge them as they were in positions of authority.

I often say that the relationship I have with the local authority is the most emotionally abusive one I have ever experienced. In recent months, I was lead to believe it would improve. It would now appear not which makes me feel very disheartened indeed.
I cannot control the local authority. But I can control my responses, and my actions, and I can work again upon myself.

 

Most – if not all – parents and families who go through the child protection process have experienced this same imbalance. Power and control are key features in toxic relationships and they have catastrophic effects on all of those involved, including children. If you are a parent going through proceedings reading this, it is likely you will be familiar with some of the things I am talking about.

The all-encompassing influence of power and control is not something I can fix for those who are crippled by it today. Whether that control is within your relationship, your family or the power of social workers during the child protection process, I understand its dominance and the effect it has.
All I can do is offer you words of wisdom on how to survive it within the realms of social work involvement with your family.

I hope the advice below is of some use.

 

Some advice:

Parents and Family Members

  • It is within your control to stop the cycle. Sometimes we are only powerless because we have been conditioned to be that way. You can take control of your life, you can do it.
  • Recognise that social workers do have power over you, but that the vast majority do not exploit it. It doesn’t feel like that, I know, but in the main social workers want to help you.
  • Think about what the social worker can do to make you feel like the working relationship is more balanced. What would help to make you feel more in control?
  • Are there any courses in your area around assertiveness and/or confidence building? I did both during my newborn’s proceedings and they gave me a number of tools I still use to this day.
  • Sometimes, social workers do have to use the power entrusted to them to make difficult decisions about your family. When that happens, try to sit down with them and have a conversation about why.
  • The feeling of injustice is incredibly potent. If this is how you are feeling because of decisions taken by social workers, you will feel angry, frustrated and utterly powerless. I know, I have been there. The energy required by these emotions is substantial and you will be drained. Be kind to yourself, please. Allow yourself “time off” from feeling this way, without guilt. Even if it’s only a warm bath, a nice walk or practising a bit of mindfulness, take care of yourself.

 

Social Workers

  • Wield the tool of power carefully and don’t deny its existence. Acknowledgement is key.
  • Have a conversation with your service user about how to work in partnership to lessen the impact of the power imbalance. What works for one, will not necessarily work for another.
  • Build up a relationship with your service user based on mutual respect, consideration and kindness. Lift your service user up, empower them to take control of their lives.
  • Conversely, consider at all times the service user’s history, and how damaging repeated disempowerment or lack of control over one’s life can be. Be the one person in their life who doesn’t perpetuate that cycle.
  • When and if you need to exercise the power entrusted to you, do so with kindness and compassion. You may not realise it, but that might be enough to keep that person going through the blackest of days.
  • All of this is draining for you as well as your service user. Allow yourself some “time off”, without guilt to build your emotional resilience. Use supervision and reflective practice, and lean on your colleagues when it gets tough.

“Dirty rooms with filthy carpets” – My experiences of contact for Community Care

I wrote the following piece for Community Care about my experiences of contact after many years of engaging in sessions with my children. Increasingly, I felt dismay, despair and sometimes disgust at the conditions in which we were expected to repair, rebuild and strengthen our family relationships. Contact felt like a low priority to everyone but us; and it felt geared around what suited the local authority, rather than what was best for my children.

After approaching my local authority with my concerns last year, they invited me to help them to undertake a review into contact venues within the borough. I accepted and have been working with a member of staff from the local authority who has really impressed me with her desire to create a better system for contact for children, and for birth families. A “Parent’s Forum” has been created, and questionnaires gone out to looked after children, their families, social workers and contact supervisors all within the borough.  We are hopeful to present our findings and recommendations to senior management quite soon.

This, to me, is an example of my local authority putting their hands up, admitting their mistakes, and then looking to service users to help improve the system. A fine example of co-production and I applaud them for it.

Click on the link below to see the impetus for change:

 

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2016/04/07/already-vulnerable-time-felt-like-assault-mothers-experience-contact-sessions/

My story – written by Louise Tickle and published by The Guardian 20.02.16

This story has been the culmination of nine months of tenacious, diligent work by Louise Tickle, a freelance journalist commissioned by the Guardian to write about my fight to have my son, taken as a newborn by the local authority, returned to my care.

Louise has investigated each and every aspect of this case, spoken to everyone involved (except the social worker who disappointingly refused), spent hours and hours in my home, with my children, my friends, my support network and taken tearful calls from me when I felt frightened about speaking out. We’ve been through High Court together to fight to get this story published (see my post here), Louise has sat in Court with me in proceedings I have made against the local authority and has heard sound recordings of my newborn’s case being thrashed out in Court. Every word written in the piece Louise checked with me first to ensure she had it right. I cannot applaud Louise’s professionalism and integrity enough.

But more than just that, Louise has become a source of immense personal support, and has encouraged in me a sense of self-confidence and self-belief I just haven’t had before.
Louise has given me wings; the courage and intrepidity to follow my dreams and the cementing of my own self-worth.

Louise, thank you, for everything.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/feb/20/children-taken-into-care-mother-fighting-to-get-baby-back-louise-tickle

Guest Post – by practising frontline child protection social worker

 

As a parent involved with children’s services; we are generally suspicious of “The Social Worker”. This comes from the fear that they have the power to take our children away and it’s only natural to feel that way when our families are threatened. Social Workers are seen as ‘the enemy’, depersonalised, mistrusted, vilified and viewed with a cautious eye.

But Social Workers are human beings too. And, broadly speaking, entered the world of social work to try and help people. Some social workers find the current “risk-averse” climate and the focus on “timescales” and “permanence” very difficult to work in, because it doesn’t always allow them to help people in the way they want to.

I wanted a post by a frontline, practicing, child protection social worker, because I wanted the families who read my site to get some advice from a social worker not directly involved with their own family. I know how hard it is to listen to someone who has been responsible for taking your child away. But I also know the value of the advice that most social workers can give, and that that advice is given out of a real, genuine desire to keep families together where it is safe enough to do so.   

James – not his real name – is a qualified social worker currently supervising social workers and practising with children and families who are the subject of child protection plans and care proceedings. He has previously worked as a court appointed expert undertaking parenting assessments. These views are his own and based on his own experience. I am extremely grateful to James for taking the time to write this post and I hope it helps you.

 

I first came across Annie when I read this blog and like many readers, I was blown away by her account and the insights it gave me. We have since met when I invited her to talk to some of my colleagues in what was one of the most moving and humbling presentations I have ever seen.

When I was asked by Annie to write this post I accepted without hesitation. I write in recognition of the inspiration and hope that her brave work has given me and many of my colleagues in her journey so far. She writes honestly, speaks from the heart, and provides sound advice; I will try to do the same.

I also agreed to write this because on a personal level, I often find myself struggling to deal with the demands of my work with families. Sometimes it feels like all we social workers are doing is causing further pain and trauma to those families who have experienced and survived so much already. I hope that by writing this post I can help to redress this and enable parents to better understand and negotiate the child protection system and social work interventions with their families. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than when I or my colleagues have helped a family to make changes to improve their lives and those of their children.

In my career I have worked with parents who have been picking up the pieces of their own difficult childhood experiences, most of whom are still traumatised by what has happened to them.
I have worked with parents who have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, FGM, slavery and exploitation, war and conflict, neglect, and emotional abuse.
I have worked with parents whose own parents have had difficulties with addictions, violent relationships, mental illness and more, and have been unable to look after their children as a result of that.
Sadly, some of the parents I have worked with have experienced abuse from within the care system, the very alternative which was supposed to keep them safe.

My point is this; In my work I don’t think I can recall having come across a parent who has not faced and survived horrendous adversity already in their life. In my experience it is often because of the impact of this adversity that many find themselves faced with child protection interventions and court proceedings. What is frustrating is that these interventions in themselves can be brutal for parents and this is something that Annie’s experience so clearly shows. Some parents can make it through, work with professionals to make the changes asked of them and show professionals and the courts that their children will be safe; some cannot. I have only compassion for those parents who don’t manage it and admiration for those who do.

In thinking about what advice I can give to those parents who find themselves facing child protection processes or care proceedings, I am not aiming to help you ‘beat’ the system, but simply to stand the best chance of navigating through it successfully.

 

My Advice

Be honest

Many of you might have heard social workers talk about ‘openness and honesty’ in meetings or seen it used in reports. It’s concept which is very important, and although on the surface it might seem fairly simple, in reality it is complicated. Sometimes for parents it can involve talking with social workers about some of the most difficult things that have happened in their lives such as abusive childhood experiences, difficult relationships, or things which they have done in the past which they might really regret or feel ashamed of. It can even mean talking about some-thing very exposing or difficult, for example, feeling that you might not like your child.
I understand that:
a) not many people would willingly want to talk about these things
and
b) parents might be suspicious of why these things are being asked of them.
It must be terrifying to be in that situation and easy to think that social workers are looking for problems or reasons for you not to look after your children. It also must be tempting to hold back on talking about these things in order to present a better picture of yourself and your family. However the reality is that social workers are usually asking about these things to try and better understand your life and to think about how they might be able to help you as a family.

Openness and honesty are important for another reason too. When we have concerns about a child, one of the things that is most difficult for social workers is dealing with uncertainty. Often when we are thinking about whether children are at risk from their parents, we are thinking about what might be happening in a child’s life when we are not there. If we don’t think a parent is being honest with us, it can have the effect of increasing our anxiety about what we don’t know. However, if what we get is an accurate picture of what is happening, it can make a huge difference to how we think about whether a child is safe in a family.

 

Tell us if you don’t understand

If you don’t understand something that is being asked of you, make sure you tell the social worker. Scary thought maybe? Well the reality is that social work is bogged down with phrases and terminology. Often I think that social workers hide behind this because they themselves do not fully understand what they are saying. I was once at some training where Andrew Turnell (a big name in the profession) said “if you can’t explain something to a six year old it’s because you don’t understand it yourself”. I think this is a very important point. Everything a social worker says to you should be explained in a way which is VERY easy to understand. If they are not doing so then it is really important you tell them. If it still does not make sense, ask them to explain it until it does. The stakes can be very high and it is important that you understand what you are agreeing to or being asked to do. It won’t reflect badly on you if you say you don’t understand something, but it might do if you are seen not to stick to an agreement, but in reality have not told anybody you did not understand what you agreed to.

Some people have real difficulties in understanding what is happening when social workers are involved with their family and need some extra help to do this. If you think you might need some extra help then think about asking to be referred for an advocate. An advocate is somebody who can help you to understand what is happening and help you to make informed choices and decisions. They will attend big meetings with you and talk to you about them before and after. If social worker suggests you would benefit from an advocate then I would recommend you consider this. The social worker should be able to arrange this for you too.

 

Listen

Listen to what the social worker is saying and try and understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, (and say if you don’t), but it is really important that you listen to, and think carefully about what they are worried about. You might agree with them and be worried about some of the same things too. Whatever the case may be, it is important that you are able to listen and think about what people are saying to you, no matter how painful it might be to hear. Often in my experience when parents are able to really listen and reflect on what people are worried about, it can be the turning point in our work with their families.

 

Prepare

Emotions can run high in meetings with social workers, and often in these situations I would guess that parents can forget what they wanted to say or the points they want to get across. The same happens for me when I am placed under strain. The best way to deal with this is to prepare some notes beforehand and take some notes at the time. It also comes back to my earlier point about understanding what is being asked of you. There is no reason why you should not take notes but if you do choose to during meetings or visits from social workers, then you might want to explain why you are doing so. It’s better to be clear about this than to leave any room for misunderstanding.

 

Ask for help

This relates back to being honest. It must be really scary to admit to a social worker that there is a problem, but if you can, try to have the confidence to ask for help with any difficulties that you might be having. This can often be the starting point for getting help and making changes. A social worker will always want to help your family and will be able to work with you to think about what you might find helpful.

 

Build a relationship

Every social worker should treat you and your family with respect, compassion and openness. This does not mean they have to agree with you on everything, but if they don’t agree or if they are worried about something, they should tell you, and do it in a sensitive and respectful way. If you don’t feel this is happening then ask to speak to their manager about it. If you do this, then as I mentioned before, prepare yourself carefully so that you stand the best chance of getting your point across.

There can be many reasons why you might find it difficult to build a relationship with a social worker. This might, for example, be to do with their gender, religion or background. It might also be because of your own experiences (maybe they remind you of somebody or something unpleasant). If there are difficulties, then have a conversation with them about it. If it doesn’t change, then consider asking for a change of social worker. Your relationship with the social worker is so important and it is vital that you feel as comfortable as possible with them.

 

Talk to us if you are anxious

If you are anxious about a social worker visiting, tell them. The prospect of having a social worker visit can, at times, I imagine, be terrifying for families. It must be so tempting at times for parents to cancel appointments. My advice is that if you are feeling overwhelmed by what is happening then rather than avoiding or cancelling appointments or meetings, ring the social worker and try to tell them about it. Not always easy I know, but they should be understanding and be able to help alleviate some of your worries about this. It will also help them to understand what is going on for you.

 

Get sensible advice

I know that Annie is a strong believer in the work of the Family Rights Group and I would thoroughly recommend you have a look at their website www.frg.org.uk.

If you are looking for information online, choose your online resources carefully as there is a lot of misinformation out there. I would recommend reading what Annie and Sarah Phillimore have said about this already on this website.

 

 

I hope this is useful and makes some sense to you. Although I am blogging this anonymously, you can contact me via the contact form on this website here. You can also tweet me: @jamesgosingSW

Family Group Conferences – Guest Post by Tim Fisher

In January I was very honoured to co-chair a “Knowledge Exchange Seminar” as part of Family Potential, the centre for policy and practice research, having spoken at their previous seminar.

I was lucky enough during both to meet Tim Fisher, who has taught me an inordinate amount about Family Group Conferences (FGCs). As such, I asked him to write a Guest Post and I am very glad to present this below and grateful to Tim for taking the time to do it.

 

 

Family group conferences – family led decision-making    

 My name is Tim Fisher and I am the manager of the family group conference service in Camden. I have worked doing family group conferencing (FGC) in a number of places in England and Wales as well working for NSPCC and Advocacy for young people.

I met “Annie” from Surviving Safeguarding during a series of Family Potential events and she really blew me away with the power of what she had to say. Getting her message across about what she’d gone through, its emotional impact and the things local authorities should do better. So I was very pleased when she contacted to me to say that a guide to family group conference would be useful for her blog and this is it!

I have set out a simple (I hope!) introduction to FGC with some quotes from family members who have been there and done it.

 

What is a Family Group Conference?  

An FGC should be an independent meeting organised for you with the family you want to have there.  It is not supposed to be ‘just another meeting’; you may have lots of meetings to go to! So, a good FGC should feel different and aim to make a difference where possible.

It can be a chance to get clear information, have your say, offer your own ideas and make a plan that brings in family (including supportive friends).

FGCs are a chance for families to make:
Plan A; we support the children’s parent to continue looking after them and set out what support the family can provide.

While also in that same meeting making a back-up:
Plan B; if something happens and they can’t stay with the parent the children should be cared for by this family member we choose.

“It got to the heart of the matter” (Family Member that took part in an FGC)

“Everyone spoke and listened to each other” (Female aged between 15-16 years who had an FGC)

 

What actually happens at a family group conference?

There are three parts to an FGC:

Part 1. Information giving
This is the part of the meeting where you get the information you need to make a plan. A professional most closely involved with your family (usually social worker) should explain why they are worried about your child and tell you the sort of help that they can offer. There should be lots of chances to ask them questions and to be clear about what they are saying. They will then leave the meeting.

Part 2. Private family time 
You, your family and friends will be left on your own, without the people who work with you, so that you can talk about the information that you heard in the first part and make plans together for you. The co-ordinator and other information givers stay in another room.

Part 3. Explaining your plan 
Your family will share the plan with others at the meeting, including any information givers who were there at the beginning of the meeting. The plan should be agreed as long as it is a safe plan. The plan remains yours whatever happens and you can use the document in court.

 

 Who can have one?  

Nearly 90 per cent of local authorities have a family group conference service according to a survey from the Family Rights Group. Most of those are working with families with children on child protection plan, on the whole when care proceedings have started or are likely.  There is government guidance that says it’s best that these families have one before they arrive in court.

A plan made in an FGC should always be your plan (the families plan). FGCs work hard for agreement between everyone with the child’s interest at heart, however if you’re going to court and you disagree with the social work viewpoint, your plan remains your plan.

Most people find out about FGCs from their social worker but in some areas a family can request one themselves and some local authorities (like Camden) offer FGC to families earlier on, to help sooner – even sometimes before social workers get involved. It should always be your choice whether you take part or not.

 

 Who organises a family group conference?

 The meeting is organised by an independent co-ordinator. ‘Independent’ means someone who should not be involved in the safeguarding decision making. The co-ordinator will meet you and your family to plan and prepare for the meeting and will always be available to help sort out any problems.

It’s important that during an FGC the family group make the decisions!

“The Coordinator was really supportive and helpful” (Family Member that took part in an FGC)

“The coordinator was sensitive and was skilful at chairing” (Professional who  participated in an FGC)

 

 Who should come to a family group conference? 

You should be in control of the guest list. The best people will be those who know you and care about you; your family, plus friends and neighbours who feel like your family.

If safeguarding is going to be discussed then your social worker is very likely to want to be at the meeting, this might benefit you (and your family) if have questions you want to ask and important things to say.  It is possible that other professionals attend to help with information and advice if you want them to – but the family should be in the majority.

“With everyone in the room, no one could go away saying they did not know what was going on” (Quote from a family member who has been part of a Family Group Conference)

 

What if I agree to take part in a family group conference? 

Your co-ordinator should talk with you about who is in your family network. Whenever possible, everyone important to the child will be invited. The co-ordinator will make sure that the child or children’s views are heard in the meeting. Where appropriate they may arrange for someone to support the child in the meeting, or to speak for them.

You should feel in control of the FGC. After talking with you, the co-ordinator will arrange a time and a place for the meeting, refreshments and crèche for any younger children. The meeting will, whenever possible, be in the language you use at home. There are many trained FGC Coordinators working all over the UK that speak different community languages. A good FGC should be organised appropriately to your culture.

It reminds me of other cultural family meetings back in my country of origin. It was very important for all of us to have a co-ordinator from our own background. It made everything easy, and there was no barrier of language and culture” (Family Member)

An advocate is available for young people which means that there is a voice for the child.” (Teacher)

it gives a chance to think about what is happening and plan to make things better. Its gives a space to talk, helping with confidence and being able to look at the future. It promotes togetherness and helps young people (Camden Young People)

 

Are FGCs confidential? 

 An FGC service shouldn’t talk about your problems to anyone unless you ask them, It should be confidential unless there is a risk to a child, You only tell us what you need to and nothing more.

 

 What will happen to your plan after the meeting? 

Whenever possible, the social work department should respond to your plan at the end of the meeting. If this is not possible, the social worker will make sure a decision is reached about your plan quickly. Once the plan is agreed, the social work department should work with you to put the plan into action. Later on, another FGC can be held to review the plan and see what still needs to be decided.

I feel at least some form of dialogue has now begun and hopefully we can begin to work together as a family for our child’s sake.” (Family member)

 

 Why I believe in FGCs 

 So – I hope that brief guide to FGC is helpful. It is very much the positive side and honestly that is because I believe FGC sets out with good intentions, building on families’ ability to keep their own children safe.

It’s got to be said that the research shows (check out Family Rights Group if you want to see the research) overwhelmingly that people who have had FGC think it helped them – however if you are reading this and you have experience of where FGC could have been better it would be very helpful to hear that too.

If you want yet more info on FGCs click through to the excellent Family Rights Group website.

I am happy to answer anybody’s questions about Family Group Conferences in the comments below or feel free to tweet me!

 

Tim Fisher
Family Group Conference Manager at Camden
Twitter: @familygroupmeet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Article About An Article – Louise Tickle’s Fight To Tell My Story

After first being approached by Louise Tickle on the 1st of June 2015 to write a piece for the Guardian newspaper, it has taken nearly nine months for my story to be published. A significant part of this delay has been due to the battle we had with the LA for the right to tell aspects of my story.

I have linked below a PDF of an article that Louise wrote for Family Law detailing her frustrating and tenacious journey into the realms of the family court. This article is published by Family Law at [2015] Fam Law 1304 and I am very grateful to Jordan Publishing for allowing me permission to use this piece. Readers might also be interested in another article by Louise Tickle and Lucy Reed, ‘Press reporting of care proceedings’ available here.

 

Sleepless nights – An article about an article…

 

Link to Reporting Restriction Order

I was approached by freelance journalist Louise Tickle at The Transparency Project’s CPConf2015 on the 1st of June 2015 who asked to write my story for the Guardian newspaper. After a bit of research of my part, and a bit of discussion with my family and friends, I agreed.

Being a responsible journalist, Louise wanted to apply to Court to ask for permission to report certain aspects of my case. Louise was represented on a pro bono basis by Lucy Reed of PinkTape and The Transparency Project and Sarah Phillimore, also of the Transparency Project, and Child Protection Resource and I was kindly advised by my former lawyer and barrister, but ultimately represented myself.

The shutters in my LA came down; they were desperate not to be named in the article. Evidence was filed late and their legal team would not engage with the other parties, including at one point, the Judge himself. The LA went on to be very unfairly critical of my website, which was upsetting for me. Louise and her legal team made many concessions as to the content of the article but it was not until the eleventh hour that the LA finally agreed to a draft order. I know personally how trying this process was for Louise and how much work went into this case. I am forever indebted to Lucy Reed, Sarah Phillimore, my former lawyer and barrister and – of course – Louise herself for fighting for the right to allow me to tell my story.

On the 19th of October, a Reporting Restriction Order was agreed by parties, drawn up and then approved by Bodey J in Newcastle County Court. I have linked to the Bailii judgement below (please note this does not include all of the Schedules as they themselves contain identifying information):

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/2991.html

The Transparency Project have written a post about this:

http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/tickle-v-northtyneside/

As has Family Law Week:

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed149864

And finally, Marilyn Stowe has also written about this:

Journalist wins right to report care mother

Facing Festivities

How To Survive The Christmas Period Without Your Children

Christmas five years ago was a very difficult time for my family. My youngest, “BabyB”, had been removed from my arms at only six days old. He was then placed into foster care against my will and the Final Hearing was due to begin on the very first week in January where the Local Authorities plans were forced adoption. He was under an Interim Care Order, and my contact with him was supervised. This then meant that I was not permitted to see him on Christmas Day because the Local Authority did not have any staff to supervise a contact. This situation was replicated for my other two children in Local Authority care so I was not permitted to see them either, despite having my other children in my care.

Nationwide, many families will be facing what I was in the Christmas of 2013; the agony of being separated from your children on one of the days of the year when family is everything.

This post is written for you all.

Christmas these days seems to start around September, (earlier if you’re on Facebook and you have “those” friends who countdown the days from January) with garish decorations adorning shop windows and Christmas jingles and croons far and wide.

The television adverts then begin, promising happiness for all if you buy X, Y and/or Z, or making you feel substandard if you don’t have X, Y and/or Z. There are adverts boasting about turkeys and assuring the potential customer that these are the best turkeys in the world because they’ve been allowed to roam free, or had massages everyday and dined on steak or somesuch. The television programmes start telling you how to have “The Perfect Christmas” whilst you sit in your jarmies eating a ready-meal and wondering how on earth you caramelise carrots. And, of course, Christmas is not complete without a new sofa, lounge carpet, big screen smart television (with 3D) and dining suite, because everyone has money to buy these things at this time of the year and if you don’t purchase a new solid oak dining table with wingback chairs you will, frankly, ruin Grandma’s life.

The Christmas trees go up, it appears, in November nowadays and god help you if you live opposite someone who comes back from B&Q with 400,000 bright blue “chaser” lights for the outside of their home; from experience you’ll have a migraine until mid-January.
The shops are hot, loud and full of stressed shoppers and confused people picking things up off shelves, shaking their heads, and replacing them, with monotonous regularity, or other shoppers fighting over the latest toy because Little Jimmy’s life will be over unless he has a killer zombie hamster with a kung-fu grip.

The supermarkets are even worse, with people bulk-buying soup and beans because the shops are shut for all of one day, the queues are hilarious, even at 3am when you stand in Asda perplexed at the lack of broccoli and wondering if you can dye cauliflower green. You can’t turn into an aisle without a battery-operated jolly Santa singing you some vile Christmassy song, or a giant inflatable Snowman warbling that he wishes “it could be Christmas everyday” (he can sod right off).

Then there are the “bargain days”, like Black Friday where folk find themselves sitting up at 3am waiting for a “lightning deal” to begin on a pizza cutter in the shape of a motorbike and wondering where their life has gone.

Everything is big and loud and over the top for this one special, magical day of the year and everyone is under huge pressure for everything to be perfect.

 

When you’re a parent separated from your children, particularly a parent either going through Proceedings, or having gone through them, you don’t see any of the above.
I know, because I have been there.
What you see – everywhere – is loss, pain and grief.

You see happy shoppers buying for their children, and you feel pangs of jealousy, imagining their family all together on Christmas morning. You see television adverts full of happy families, together around a dinner table spending that special day talking, and laughing unitedly. It is a savage pain to know that you won’t wake up with your children on Christmas morning…and your children won’t wake up with you. I remember it, my eyes are filling up and I feel it in my chest as I type.

Everywhere you look is evidence that you don’t fit and all you can think of is that it wasn’t supposed to be like this and how on earth are you supposed to survive that one day, Christmas Day.

How to survive

The very first thing to remember is that you have every right to feel the way you do, no matter what has gone before, or what you, or anybody else, have done wrong. Acceptance is key to being able to move forward and brings about its own peace.
So, no – it isn’t meant to be like this. As a parent, it is normal to want to be with your children on every day of the year, but especially at Christmas. As a child, it is normal to want to be with your parents on every day of the year, but especially at Christmas. There is nothing abnormal in dreading Christmas, considering your circumstances. Know that you are not alone, that many of us feel the way you do, and many wish the day away as the pain of separation is too much to bear.

 

Contact

If you are able to see your children unsupervised, and depending on your circumstances, there should be nothing stopping you seeing them on Christmas Day. If your children are with relatives (under a Special Guardianship Order, or no Order at all), remember that you will have to fit in around their plans, as they have care of the children. It is very difficult, but very important to be respectful of this, and offer as much give-and-take as you can and not expect too much or come across as “entitled”.

The same applies if your children are in foster care under a Section 20. If this is the case, and you are not in Proceedings, you may very well be able to see your children unsupervised. Speak to your children’s Social Worker as soon as you can; if they say you are unable to see your children unsupervised, ask why. It may be worth taking legal advice at this point as sometimes Local Authorities aren’t quite up-to-date on what powers they do and don’t have under a Section 20. I would absolutely advise though that you do nothing impulsive, or without having first checked out your legal footing.
If you are able to see your children on Christmas Day, try to accept that it may not be the way you want it to be. You might not be able to wake up with them, but that’s not the end of the world, and you are luckier than many who are not able to see their children at all.
Finally, make sure you are well-prepared; for example if you don’t drive and are beyond walking distance, save up enough money for taxis and book them well in advance. Most taxi operators open a booking system for Christmas Day around three weeks beforehand, so get in quick. Money can be tight, so don’t go mad on presents for the children, your presence is worth far far more to them than the killer zombie hamster with a kung-fu grip.

 

If you are unable to see your children without supervision, there may, however, be a number of things to try during the build-up to Christmas. Some of them will be relevant to you, some won’t, but “shy bairns get nowt” as we say up here, so try anything.

As early as possible, try to find out what the arrangements are for Christmas contact between you and your children. If they are in Local Authority care, you should be given a contact schedule in good time (at least a fortnight beforehand). You will almost certainly be given time with your children in the days around Christmas Day and it is likely to be in a contact centre, supervised. However, you can be creative with this, and I’ve listed some ideas below to help:

 

Supervision
If the Local Authority are quite adamant that contact needs to be supervised, whether that be because it is court ordered, written into the children’s care plans, or that they have evidence or concerns, you may have to accept that this is the framework in which you will see your children. However, it is always worth asking – in as much time beforehand as possible – the Social Worker who else may be suitable to supervise the contact session. It may be that someone else could be assessed to supervise the contact, such as a relative or close family friend. The consequence to this is that the contact would be an awful lot more natural, and it may give you a bit of flexibility as a family to think about venue and dates. There’s no promises or guarantees here, but if you never ask, you never get.

Try to be respectful when asking, this may be a new possibility for your Local Authority, which is why it’s so important to ask in good time. Remember, that your children’s cases should be reviewed by an Independent Reviewing Officer every 6 months, just before then may be a good time to have the discussion so that the Team Around The Child (or Care Team, or Core Group as it is also known) can have full involvement. Try to be humble about this too, acting like you are entitled in any way gets people’s backs up and will end up with people feeling cautious and the answer probably being no. Be smart about this; now is not the time to start an argument.

Venue
If you are scheduled to have your Christmas contact with your children in a contact centre, you can always ask the Social Worker – as early as possible – if there are any other options available to your family. Remember that the Local Authority are the Council; they run a number of buildings within your borough and therefore there may be some flexibility around where you can see your children. A contact centre is not the most inviting place to exchange gifts, but equally, you might be a bit uncomfortable doing it in your local library. However, there may well be other options. For example, the local library may have a little room you can use, or your local school may have a community room, or training room. You could ask if there were any rooms to use at the council run swimming pool, or leisure centre and combine the time you have with an activity such as swimming, soft play, or five-a-side. Christmas is a special time of year, and so it’s not too much to ask for your family to have some special time together, no matter who did what to whom.

 

 

However, if you are to have your Christmas contact in a contact centre, supervised by the Local Authority it doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds. I have had to deal with this with only two of my children for several years now, so I can completely relate to how soul-destroying it is for this to be the only time and context in which you see your children at Christmas. However, I’ve always made sure I’ve prepared well in advance and we’ve made the best of it. I’ve detailed some ideas below that may help:

  • Decorations – ask the staff at the contact centre if you can have access to the room half an hour or so earlier than when your contact session begins. Bring tinsel, beads, garlands, whatever can be wrapped around things in the room quickly. In our old room there used to be tables, chairs, as well as equipment used for training staff, broken items and stuff that didn’t have a home anywhere else. I used to cover it all entirely in gold tinsel, stick lights up and even found festive party games to make (stick the nose on Rudolph always provoked a laugh). If the room looks a little more cheery, it will help to lift your spirits.
  • Food/drink – keep a few quid aside and go to your local supermarket. This time of year there are always party foods which are ready made and your can just stick on a plate which is helpful if you don’t have the room for long beforehand. Bring some fruit juice or fizzy pop and go to a discount shop for Christmas-themed paper plates, cups, tablecloth etc. The children will be glad of a snack, and it can provide a focus once all the present opening is over.
  • Music – it can been deathly quiet around Christmas in contact centres which can affect everyone’s mood, so ask the staff if they have a CD player and any Chrismassy tunes you could borrow. If they don’t the main radio stations will invariably be saturated with Cliff and Wizard.
  • Presents – when you lose your children, you lose your child benefits, child tax credits and anything else relating to them and it can be extremely difficult financially to manage. So it’s really important to only buy what you can afford, and not to worry if some of the presents come from charity shops, or discount stores, or eBay. Most of my children have received gifts like that for most of the Christmases they have been alive! In fact, the presents my children have liked the very best have been homemade ones. I made jewellery for them, decorated boxes, I made photo albums and scrapbooks of our memories together, and they loved them all far more than any other presents.
    So please don’t put pressure on yourself to provide everything under the sun for them – far far more important will be the time you spend with them. It sounds silly, but take time wrapping the presents and writing out cards for your children and then arranging them all nicely in the contact room. Believe me, having been there, it makes all the difference. The children will see the effort you’ve gone to, and what’s inside the packages doesn’t quite matter as much as that.
  • Keep smiling – you may feel extremely emotional and you may feel very angry that you won’t be together on Christmas Day, for whatever reason.
    This is normal.
    Everyone I know who has been through this feels exactly the same. Angry, frustrated, helpless. Couple that with the pressure of Christmas itself and the resentment and jealousy towards others you may also be feeling, it’s really no wonder that emotions run high.
    However. All of that being said. This is not the time to display these emotions. This is the time – without meaning to sound patronising here – to be a grown up. I’m not asking you to be a robot, and it’s overwhelmingly difficult to keep it together when and if your children are crying to come home – I know, I have been in that exact situation. But you absolutely have to keep it together, for their sakes. They need you to be strong, to show them that it’s ok, that Mum and Dad will be ok on Christmas Day (because they will worry about you), and that it’s ok for them to have fun on Christmas day wherever they are and whoever they are with. Of course tell them you will miss them and you wish you could be together, but it’s not possible. Don’t attach blame to this, and don’t tell the children it’s the Social Worker’s or Local Authority’s fault. You can think it – hell, when the children have left you can scream it from the rooftops. But whilst the children are there, make it fun for them, make it special for them, and make it ok for them. I know how hard that is, I have walked far more than a mile in those shoes, but this was something I had to do, for my children. And as hard as it was, I’m glad that I did.

Surviving when you don’t see them

Five years ago, I saw my youngest child, BabyB, on Christmas Eve, and then not again until the 27th December, then the 30th December and the 2nd of January. He was less than six months old. He spent Christmas Day with the Foster Carers and there is a picture in my hall of him dressed up as an Elf on that day, grinning away without a care in the world. He didn’t, doesn’t, and may not ever know (unless he ever reads this!) just how painful that day was. To have some of my children with me – and some not – was nothing short of torturous punishment. As separated families, we perceive that our children must feel the same pain that we do. And I think, if they are older, there’s some truth in that. But I look at that picture everyday, and it makes me smile. Because I’m glad he was happy, I’m glad he didn’t feel the pain I felt that day, I’m glad he didn’t and doesn’t know.

So, how did I get through that festive period? Where all about me seemed full of joy and where everyone around me were with their families, happy and together?

Honestly? I just survived. Some days, barely. Somedays I just wanted to cry all day and didn’t want to go out because I couldn’t take any more happy families. I was seethingly jealous of my friends who all had their children around them. I hated being alone and felt abandoned. I felt it was all my fault, I felt I was being punished, I felt I must deserve this, I felt dirty and horrible and like the worst mother in the world. Then, within the same breath, I felt angry, I felt this was wrong, I knew my baby would come home and I felt like this was just digging the knife in.
In short? I felt everything you feel being separated from your children, magnified by about 5000.

I realise this doesn’t help.

But the way I got through it? I just survived. I took every day 5 minutes at a time. Get through that 5 minutes and you’re on to the next one. I never looked ahead more than 5 minutes.
I read, I read and read and read case after case on Bailii and Family Law Week, and SuesspiciousMinds and PinkTape Blogs, learning about the law. Then, when I had to stop reading, I distracted myself, watched crappy DVDs and documentaries (ask me anything about the First World War!), I did puzzles on my phone, I read lighthearted books I hadn’t read for years. I took long showers and washed my hair and did my nails.I tried my best not to isolate myself, as it doesn’t help. I didn’t drink and had just quit smoking, so I tried and managed to stay teetotal. I tried to eat regularly, I tried to sleep regularly, I tried my best to look after myself because I was important too.

So that is the best advice I can give to you. Just survive, just get through it. There are no magic formulas, nothing I can say will take your pain away. If I could, believe you me, I would – in a heartbeat. But I can’t. So just know that you are not alone but that you can, you will and you must, just survive.

 

Since this post was originally written in 2015, my eldest son, Jonny, took his own life in May the 27th 2017. This is my second Christmas without him. 

Jonny, this post is dedicated to you.

Sending you all my warmest Christmas wishes

xxx