Division, disrespect and disengagement

I’m going to keep this post short.

I launched my website in May 2015, having spent the previous month putting my heart and soul into writing my socks off every evening whilst my son slept. At first, I wrote because I was angry. Angry at myself and my own failures and mistakes. Angry at the way my son had been unnecessarily removed at birth and then clumsily handed back 258 days later in a car park. Angry at the way I was made to lie to my older children, still in the care system, about their younger sibling spending time at home when they were not permitted. Angry that the local authority would not engage with me, would not trust me and would not give me a chance to demonstrate I could, and had changed. Angry at the predominant voice in social media being one to encourage fear of social workers and fleeing of families.

I hoped that by writing, I might show some parents that there was another way, that they could be empowered with knowledge and support, that they could engage with social workers, that they could survive the child protection process, too.
I hoped that by writing, I might remind some social workers that service users are real people too, that there are real and enduring effects of our interactions for our families – long after our cases are closed and social workers have moved on, and how important it was to listen and be aware of the experiences of the families they work with. I wanted to remind social workers of the power of their role and the need for humanity and kindness, always.
In a Utopian way, I wanted to help both social worker and service user work together, respectfully and mutually contributing to the relationship for the benefit of the whole family – and the social worker themselves.
I never thought anyone would actually read my website, I just hoped some may stumble across it. I still, to this day, never think about anyone actually sitting and reading my website, and when I’m told people do, I get quite emotional and feel very humbled.

Almost two years on, and my motivations have not changed. In fact, if anything, I am even more motivated to fortify the relationship between social worker and service user and that is at the heart of every single one of my training sessions. Because of my profile, I feel a great responsibility to ensure the voice of parents involved in the child protection process is heard. Without wishing to sound arrogant in any way, I try to speak for those who cannot, for whatever reason. I take this responsibility extremely seriously and carry it with me always. I would never do anything to disrespect the trust of those within the profession, and the families I work with. I’ve never been any good at anything before, but I’m good at what I do, and I feel I make a difference.

 

I have been aware of various “social work blogs” since I launched my own and have read many with great interest. When I started on this journey, I found them an education, a different perspective – I guess the way some people feel reading mine!! Some of them made for difficult reading; it was painful to read of another human being emotionally worn-out in a job they entered to try to help people like me. Some of the light-hearted posts made me smile and laugh; it was a joy to know that these same authors could find levity as a tool to keep them going, even in distressing times. However, the general theme of these blogs were a positive reinforcement that most social workers truly wanted the best for their service users (for want of a better term) and wanted to work with us. One of them I really rate is Ermintrude’s blog and I would encourage everyone involved in social work to read this website.

However, more recently, I have become increasingly concerned about a blog by a practising social worker who calls himself “Social Work Tutor”. Initially, I was interested in what he had to say and quite buoyed by the addition of another dynamic, powerful voice. In fact, we even exchanged email addresses when he asked me to write a chapter in his book. This was not progressed, because the rehabilitation of my 12 year old son broke down and, after explaining this to the Social Work Tutor, I was ignored.
Around the Autumn of last year, I began to notice more and more posts from the Social Work Tutor about the emotional impact of being a social worker. I read many of them, and in the first instance, found myself agreeing vehemently and calling for more support for those particularly at the “frontline” of practice. But they continued, more and more were produced, now becoming “memes”, many of which were followed by lengthy justifications using very emotive language. There is a time and a place for this and my opinion is that publicly, where service users have free access to read it, is not always the right one.

There was a limit to my sympathy; this person chose to be a social worker, I didn’t choose to be sexually abused by my father and my children didn’t choose to be failed by me, their mother. This person could choose to leave their job and do something different with their lives.

I contacted the Social Work Tutor and asked him to tone these posts down as I felt they were creating an even bigger divide between “us” and “them”. It was everything I was working against. It was divisive. It was disrespectful. It did not encourage engagement. How on earth can you engage with a social worker after reading this sort of thing?
There followed an exchange I can only describe as “shocking” whereby this person used the fact that he worked in a neighbouring authority and knew social workers in my authority, the fact that a very distant relative of his wife was married to a friend’s daughter and that any criticism of him might upset their children (aged 3 and 1), and the fact that he would find any criticism extremely upsetting. This person also then twisted my words to suit him in a move which I have to say left me chilled, considering his position as a child protection social worker.

I understand others have criticised this person’s work too, and have been met with emotionally provocative language, threats of legal action and “blocking”. If you have a public profile as I myself do, you have to learn to take criticism. I get called a child abuser on a weekly basis. It doesn’t upset me any more.

The Social Work Tutor did not tone the posts down. In fact, they have escalated into something I find deeply distasteful, an example of which I have attached below:

SWT

As a service user involved in child protection, I cannot begin to describe how horrifying this is. This will sound ridiculous, but my instant response upon reading this is to feel protective towards the families I work with and represent. I know they would feel disempowered and feel frightened and intimidated by the power of a social worker. I know this, because I feel it, too.

Another upsetting “meme” created by this person seems to poke fun at large families, talking about the “awkward moment” the social worker is trying to remember everyone’s name. I have a large family. On court documents, my name is not spelled correctly, and social workers regularly mixed up the names of my children. A local authority trying to remove my children who can’t even call each of us by the correct name?

I could go on, but around 1300 words ago I promised to keep this short.

If you are a social worker considering writing a blog, by all means, please do. Other social workers, senior management, service users, and the general public need to hear your voices. Please do talk about the difficulties of the role, please do articulate the lack of support, please do write down how these things affect you as a human being. We need to understand how best we can all work together to build relationships, and a big part of that begins with being honest and being vulnerable with each other.

However. Please don’t poke fun at, nor shame service users for their choices. Please don’t construct veiled memes to highlight the mismatch of the power dynamic. Please don’t be downright discourteous to your fellow human being.

It is divisive. It is disrespectful. It does not encourage engagement.

 

Thank you for reading,

 

Annie

 

Rehabilitation: Pointers for Parents and Practitioners

Following on from my post “Rehabilitation: The End”, I have put together some advice from my point of view on the rehabilitation process for both parents and practitioners. I use the word practitioner to mean any professional involved in the construction and support of a rehabilitation plan. I hope it can be helpful for any of you when thinking about a child’s return home.

 

Parents

Please note: every circumstance will be different. Some advice here will not apply to your own family. The idea is to take what you can from this post in order to help you to feel less alone. Essentially, I just want to help give you all the best chance at this working.

Preparation
It is almost certain that your child’s return home from foster care will require you to make some sort of preparations. This can range very widely and is dependent on each circumstance, so I’m not going to cover every eventuality here.I did not stop for the preceding 4 weeks and 6 days to my child’s return home. I went way over the top, repainting gloss-work, wood-staining furniture and doors, upcycling old furniture, cleaning walls, painting ceilings, gardening and even grouting. I desperately wanted everything to be perfect for my son, because I was frightened he would change his mind and choose not to come home, because my home wasn’t good enough. Granted, I was given the almost impossible task of rearranging my tiny 2-bedroom home to fit four children and me…but with the introduction of such constraints as bedroom tax it may be that some of you have had to downsize your home when your children became looked after by the local authority. It may be then that you are faced with a similar Tetris-like dilemma!
If that is the case, I would advise a ruthless clearing out spree before you even consider embarking upon the rehab plan. One man’s junk is another’s treasure so use sites like eBay, Gumtree, Preloved, as well as the many selling and free sites on Facebook. You will be amazed what people will buy, or what people will come and take away for free, and it all helps. To be honest, I always feel a good clear-out helps my head, too.

DO:
Give yourself a break
Do what needs to be done, and no more. The important thing is that your child has somewhere to lay their heads, that it’s clean, comfortable and their own space. If they’re coming back to their old room, spruce it up with a clean, and ask them if they’d like some new posters, or bedding, or maybe a lick of paint. Choosing these things together can be a very therapeutic experience and can make the whole process seem an awful lot more “real”. If your child is coming to live in a home they have not lived in before, as in our case, the same applies. Let your child guide you as to what they want. My son chose his “colours” for his room, for example. If your child is very young, maybe pick out a favourite character or toy that they like and base the room around that? Think, too, about their favourite food and stock up? Keeping it personal and involving your child is the key, in my opinion.

DON’T:
Do what I did, and set yourself (almost) impossibly high standards. Don’t exhaust yourself night after night trying to make everything perfect. I did, and it didn’t make any difference to the outcome. Of course you need to prepare, but do it sensibly, methodically and always keep in mind what’s important to your child.

 

Communication
This is vital, for any rehab plan to be a success. However, effective communication relies on trust. You, as Mum or Dad, need to feel that you can trust the professionals working around you and your family. If you don’t feel like that, now is the time to say. Because – like it or not – you will need these people to help to make the rehabilitation of your child to your care a success.
When you are working towards rehabilitation, or if you are in court proceedings and it is looking like the likely outcome, I would advise asking your child’s social worker (or whoever you think) for a meeting so that you can both have an open and honest conversation about how best you can work together to support your child. It may be that this is the very social worker who has previously advised that your child should be removed, or even adopted – so this will be a complex relationship if this is the case.
In our case, earlier last year the local authority were not in agreement with unsupervised contact. This did cause me a great deal of frustration and upset – but I had a meeting with our social worker and her manager and we managed to work together to a solution.
I am not saying it will be easy to learn to trust a local authority who has previously interfered in your family life – for whatever reason. I am saying give it a chance. Extend the olive branch. Make the effort – no matter how self-righteously indignant you may feel about it. This is your family we’re talking about. And when you do, honesty is key. If you don’t agree with their plans, say. If you think you might know a better way – because you are the expert in your family’s life – say.

The final – and most important – point to make is that your child should be involved in the process wherever possible, and in an age-appropriate way. This plan has to suit both of you, as well as any other members of your family, and should be constructed around what is best for your family as a whole, not what suits the local authority or the foster carers.
My child was not involved in the construction of his rehab plan in any way. I now feel that this was a huge error and I did feel at the time that the rehab plan was geared towards what suited other people rather than us.

DO:
Make sure you are involved in any meetings and conversations around the rehabilitation plan. Try to rebuild your relationship with the social worker and be honest about how difficult that is for you, particularly if their plans have in the past been that you and your child be separated. Be honest about your fears and your worries, and even about the consequences of you voicing your fears and worries! When you have been scrutinised and judged for so long, you get into a mindset that everything you say can and will be used against you. I know that, you know that. But the social worker may not understand that, or may not know how frightening, debilitating and draining that can be as a way to have to live your lives. So talk, honestly.

DON’T:
Be swept along with the rehabilitation plan. In our case, I knew it was too fast. I said so in the rehab planning meeting. Nobody listened to me and instead said “this is what a rehab plan looks like”. I felt stupid, inexperienced. I didn’t feel confident enough to challenge because I was told (and have been since) that the two people who put the plan together; the team manager and foster carer were “very experienced” at this sort of thing. I didn’t feel I could communicate effectively my worries and fears because I was frightened someone would stop the process. My child had been with his foster carer over four years; that in itself massively affected my confidence as his mum and made me feel as though the foster carer would know him better than me.
What was missing was a conversation about all of this.
You are the expert in your family’s lives. Not the social worker, not the foster carer – you. So if you know that the rehab plan is too fast, or you are fearful of particular aspects – such as overnight stays – you need to say. Similarly, your child should be encouraged, in an age-appropriate way, to contribute to the rehabilitation plan, and should be asked how they feel at all times. Sometimes having a visual communication plan – a calendar of the rehab programme – can be helpful for you both to see what’s coming next. Your child might want to make their own version where they can tick the days off, or something similar.
Keep talking, keep communicating and keep being as honest as you can.

 

Knowledge
How ever long your child has been away from you, nothing can disguise the fact that you have missed out on parts of their life. Now is not the time to get into blame, or feel anger or resentment. These are all emotions which you and your child will learn to work through together in the coming days, weeks and months. Neither of you will ever “get over it”, and anyone who tells you that – or to “move on” deserves a slap with a wet fish and a very stern glare, with or without furrowed brow.
Right now, what you need to focus on as a parent is educating, or re-educating yourself on your child’s daily routine, their likes and dislikes and preferences. Knowledge is power, and all that jazz.
Something which was mentioned by our IRO – and sadly never progressed, despite me asking for it – was a visual “daily diary”. Basically, what your child does on a typical weekday, and weekend. What they eat for breakfast, lunch and tea. If they have responsibilities or chores. When they get dressed, or clean their room, or walk the dog. I can’t tell you how much it would have helped me to have something like that written up so I could print it out and stick it on the wall in my kitchen. I’m quite a visual person these days, I need to see things to understand them. It would have made me feel more secure, I think.
This again is something you and your child could do together…or – even better – you, your child and the foster carer could do together. This way you cannot be hoodwinked that your child gets up at noon, eats Smarties for breakfast, does zilch in the way of chores and dines on pizza from Dominoes (other pizza takeaway shops are available) (but Dominoes are the best) every evening. Because let’s face it, you’re just so bloody happy your child is coming home it’s likely they’ll get away with just about anything at the moment. And (I hate to be sensible…) but now is the time for consistency and boundaries, more so than ever before.

DO:
Know what you’re “competing” with. I’m sorry to use that word, but I always vowed to be honest on my site. Whether it’s PC or not, you will feel pressure to replicate your child’s former way of living.
In our case, I have never ever seen where my child lives. Not in over four years. I’ve never seen their room and was only given their address in the middle of last year after four years. I don’t know if the house is full to the brim of books, or interesting antiquities and objects, or if it’s zen-like and clutter-free. I don’t know if it’s spotlessly clean, or lived in. I don’t know if it’s posh, or…well, not posh. I have absolutely no idea. And that is so incredibly sad and makes me feel very powerless indeed. Because it feels like I, as Mum, am kept at arm’s length, it feels like I am not trusted (which in itself in ludicrous if it is the case), it feels like I am not permitted to be involved, and I just don’t know anything about where my child has been living. I’ve brought it up in meetings to blank faces, no one, bar one senior manager, seems to “get” the significance.
But it is significant, and you do need to know. And, quite frankly, things should be put in place to make you feel welcome so that your child sees you’re welcome and doesn’t feel like the two are entirely separate, because that in itself creates problems.
So – do ask, do probe, do find out. And if you need to modify things here and there in your daily routines to make the transition easier – do it. This is too important to get it wrong. And one thing my son said when everything broke down was that it was “just too different”. I feel strongly that is because more could have been done to ease that transition.

DON’T:
Expect the transition to be flawless. It might be, I hope it is! But be realistic about it, about how long your child has been away from you, about how different their life might have been during that time. Keep in mind that you – and the professionals working with your family – might need to bend. They (and you) might have to compromise a few things, might have to change a few more. Don’t let life be “too different” for your child. Engage them, ask them what they value in their lives with the foster carers, and don’t be disheartened if you can’t “compete”. Just do your best. My son goes on foreign holidays with his carers. I can’t provide that, I don’t have the money. My son has a carer with a car. I can’t provide that, I don’t have the money. These things don’t matter, not really, but the knowledge of the differences – and the acknowledgement of the differences, can help the transition process.

 

Practitioners

Please note: this post mainly applies to you if you are a social worker, a team manager, a foster carer, a fostering social worker, but can also apply to a health visitor, a school nurse, a teacher, a pastoral mentor….anyone who is involved in the planning and process of returning a child to live with their parent(s).

Preparation
If you have children, or if you’re an aunt, or uncle, or even just know someone who has children, you will know the preparation that goes into having a baby. The medical checks, the awkward classes where everyone is terrified of everything, the scans, the trips to Mothercare on a Sunday where you watch a smug, knowledgeable assistant demonstrate how to open and close the latest pram (which costs more than your first motor) whilst you watch and nod like you understand and vow to check YouTube out when you get home.
And then there’s baby showers and lots of well-intentioned people knitting for you and buying oversized bears and ridiculous devices that will be on eBay by the time you register baby’s birth (wipes warmer, anyone…?).
My point is this. You know you’re going to have a baby and you have nine months of preparation. Plenty of time to leisurely read Dr Miriam Stoppard et al, plenty of time to frantically consult Dr Google and wonder what on earth you’ve let yourself in for.
Imagine then, for a second, what it must be like, as a parent to prepare for your child coming home from care. You don’t have nine months. There aren’t any books on the subject. Google is useless and powerless here. No one knits for you. No one buys presents. You don’t get a welcome-home-from-care-shower. There aren’t any medical checks. There aren’t any fun shopping trips. There’s an air of feeling you should be grateful. And the whole thing is tinged with a thousand different emotions, the main ones being guilt and fear.

DO:
Show kindness, always.
Try to put yourself in the parent’s shoes and think what you might need at this moment. This will differ dramatically, from family to family; some parents will need practical support with housing, or signposting to other agencies who will be in a position to advise on benefits or any financial support parents may need. Lack of adequate housing should not be a barrier to a child returning home if that is the best thing for the child and family and god knows I can attest to “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
Little preparations help; gathering hangers for clothes for example. No one ever thinks of those! Extra cutlery, mugs, plates too. Helping out with transport for a big food shop if needed, or asking for a bit of funding from senior managers if the family needs any extra furniture. Practical help means a lot, and parent’s will appreciate it.
However, other parents need emotional support and this is a great opportunity for relationship building during such an important and emotive time. Listen, really honestly listen to what parents say they need. You might be met with surprise; we’re not often asked what we need, or what we want. But by listening to us, we are far more likely to let our guard down a little and allow ourselves to trust you as much as we’re able. All of these preparations, both practical and emotional can help to form the solid foundation we badly need for the road ahead.

DON’T:
Abandon us. This is a precarious time and we are likely to be feeling very vulnerable. I know I was. We might feel overwhelmed with the amount of preparation “work” we feel we need to do before our child can come home – be that practical or emotional. And whilst we understand that you have other cases, right now, we need you to be there as much as you’re able. Think carefully about when rehab starts – does it fall on a week where you’re going to be involved in a final hearing? Or where you’ll be on holiday? If so, is it better to think about delaying by a week to make sure you’re around? Our social worker was away for the first three days of our rehab plan and so no one was checking in with us to see how we were. I think this was a mistake and showed poor preparation. Real, genuine partnership working is needed here to give the rehab plan the best chance of success.
Communication
This is vital, for any rehab plan to be a success – and it starts with you. If the relationship you have with parents has previously broken down, it is extremely important that this is addressed and repaired as much as possible prior to any rehabilitation beginning. It often feels as though the onus is on the parents to “move towards” the local authority – being as we are often accused of “not engaging” if we do not. However, think for a moment how it feels to try to communicate with a social worker, to leave messages, texts, emails, voicemails, and to not have what we would term a “quick response”. You may have 20 other cases, all needing attention. We only have one. Ours. It can feel as though the local authority are not engaging with us. It then feels like there are double-standards at play, and the whole “us and them” narrative is enforced.

DO:
Do please try to keep in touch with parents at every stage. I realise you have extraordinarily busy working days, and I think most parents appreciate that. We do understand you can’t always be there and you’re not always able to answer the phone. But it takes under a minute to send a text to us to say that you will contact us later in the day or the next. That means a lot to us and reinforces the feeling that we are working in partnership. It also lessens the feeling that it’s one rule for you and another for us. This is important right throughout social work practice, but particularly at such a vulnerable time as rehabilitation.
Do also involve the whole family in the planning and preparation process. It’s important to be transparent, particularly if there have previously been concerns raised about the parent’s care of the children. Sometimes it’s helpful to have these concerns really clearly set out, in writing, so that there’s no ambiguity. There’s more on that in the next section.
Make sure that parents and children have all of the contact details of everyone relevant before the rehabilitation process begins. Most importantly, keep in touch with the whole family when it starts. There was no one checking in with me, I think this was a missed opportunity. It may not have changed the outcome but I suspect we would all have felt a great deal more supported.

DON’T:
Ignore the concerns parents or children raise about the rehab plan. It is vitally important to really listen to us, otherwise you could be inadvertently setting us up to fail. I’m not suggesting that’s what happened in our case, but I don’t think it helped when no one listened to me saying it was too fast.
The single most important thing in all of this is the family. Not timescales, funding or moaning from management. The family. We need to know you are going to be there, and you’re going to listen to us. We need to know we can trust you.

 

Knowledge
There are two families who are about to be affected by a significant change; the birth family and the foster family.  Having the knowledge of how both live is imperative to putting together a successful rehabilitation plan. It is not enough to say that “this is how it is done”; this is not a ‘one-size fits all’ process. We are all individual and therefore each rehabilitation plan should be reflective of this. Gathering knowledge about the foster family’s daily routine, can help to shape a plan which will help to make the transition smoother. You have an important role in brokering all of this.
Being transparent about what could go wrong is also important. I suppose it’s almost like contingency planning. Sharing your concerns with us is crucial. I think what I’m saying is that we all need to know where we stand with each other. 
As a parent, regardless of the circumstances, if your child has been in the care system it feels like the local authority has all of the power. When it is agreed – or ordered – that your child is to come home, that power shifts back to the parents. This can be a difficult dynamic to navigate for everyone. Don’t allow it to become the elephant in the room.

DO:
Get the foster carer/s and parent/s together if possible to share knowledge about the child or children before the process begins. Drawing up a daily routine, making notes on favourite foods/activities/books/outings/etc will prove incredibly useful. Be aware that parents may not have the financial freedom that the foster carers may have, there will be differences and it’s the knowledge of those differences that will help the transition. If the children are involved in activities or clubs that cost, perhaps the local authority could help out with that during the transition period. Remember that it takes up to 12 weeks for child benefit to be paid and up to 8 weeks for child tax credit to be paid. The family cannot live on fresh air, so if you can help, please do.
Think about, and plan for what might go wrong. A “Contract of Expectations” might work well in this situation or a Family Group Conference might be useful so that there can be a clear plan of action if any concerns are raised again. Now is not the time to either pussy-foot around, nor be fatalistic about our chances of success.
It’s also useful to empower yourself and the family with the knowledge of local services that may be able to offer some help and support, particularly around the practical side of rehabilitation. Most service users, myself included, don’t want to be reliant or dependent on social workers any longer than absolutely necessary, so signposting us to non-statutory organisations can help an awful lot.

DON’T:
Expect the family to be wondrously happy because they are back together, and don’t expect parents should feel anything but grateful. Don’t expect that there won’t be hiccups along the way and that it may not go as planed. My post Rainbows and Reality may be useful reading. Don’t ‘leave us to it’ (unless we ask/tell you to!!). Know that we will all be experiencing a whole range of emotions and this is part of the process and part of our story. Know that you still have a role to play.
Give your families the best chance of success by empowering them with knowledge, communicating effectively and preparing meticulously.

 

Thank you for reading.

Rehabilitation: The End

I’ve tried, and failed, to write this many times; the emotion of the circumstance has overwhelmed me each time.
This is how the post originally began when I started it in August last year:

“I write this on what should be Day 12 of the rehabilitation programme for my 12 year old son’s return home after four years in local authority care.

It’s a home in which the smell of fresh gloss paint still lingers, hanging in the air when you open the front door, a reminder of night after night spent painting (and trying to avoid dripping it all over the carpets). A home in which my son’s books stand tall and to attention in his room, toy boxes half full, cupboards half empty. It’s a home whose walls should be reverberating with the sounds of joy, and relief and family and togetherness; the results of months of hard work…and of four years of waiting for these moments.

Instead, my home is very quiet, its inhabitants in shock; confused, thoughtful, and somewhat in despair trying to work out what has just happened to our family.”

Following Day One and Days Two and Three, the rehabilitation plan for my son broke down and he made the decision to return to his foster carers.

I love my son very very much, and support him and each one of his siblings in making their own choices in life, no matter how it may affect me. I failed my son, and his siblings years ago. Yes, I was mentally unwell, yes, many things were done to me by various people throughout the years, yes the “system” failed me as a child, and was not always helpful as a mum – but I also made some very poor choices without any real insight into the consequences for my family, and I accept full responsibility for them. These choices have hurt my children, caused them real trauma, disrupted their lives and deeply damaged their relationship with me and their siblings.
I can’t go back, I can’t change what I did; I wish more than anything that I could. It makes me sick to my stomach when I now think about my children’s experiences. I would give anything to make it better for them.
This is not a pity-party; I can’t bear self-pity. This is real, raw pain, guilt, remorse and shame.

 

The impact of my son’s decision has been deeply painful for him, for me, for his siblings. Shock was felt by the social worker and the foster carers; no one was expecting this to happen. In the days that followed, my son’s social worker was an incredible support to us all. She remains the only social worker in my local authority I will ever trust, primarily because she treats me with dignity, speaks to me like a human being (not a “case” or an “other”), and totally respects my expertise as my children’s mum. She repeatedly told me “you could not have done anything more” and made me feel safe enough to cry in front of her.

Initially, we didn’t talk about “it”. We carried on having contact, in limbo, neither sure what the future looked like now and both bottling up how we were feeling. We talked about everything but what had happened.
One day, I just broke down, and he did too. He said he was sorry; I told him he had nothing to apologise for, that he had to do what was right for him. He told me it was “too fast”, “too different”, that “the foster carers had a car each and lived in a posh house” where he “didn’t have to share a room”. He wasn’t used to walking everywhere and he was used to his own space. These things matter when you’re 12, I understand. I suspect it runs a lot deeper than that, but that’s to be explored at his pace, when he is ready and without any feelings of guilt on his part.

I think we both thought that the desire to be back together would be enough.
It wasn’t.

Since he went back, he’s been ok. Slipped back into the life he has known for nearly five years. He has amazing foster carers who I am grateful every day for. He has got on with his life, and I’m proud of him for it.
We’re now not having contact, I feel because he needs to assert his position where he is. Perhaps he feels shame or regret. Perhaps, despite reassurances, he’s worried he’s upset me, or worried I’m cross with him. He shouldn’t feel any of those things, he’s a child, he’s my child and I love him as much as I always have.

I’m working through the feelings that this has left me with. I still feel like a failure. I think it will be a process and I’m being patient and kind with myself. I’m trying very hard to stay away from words like “karma” and “deserved” because I find it all very self-indulgent and not at all helpful. Instead I’m acknowledging that this has been a trauma, another twist in the road, another loose thread in life’s rich tapestry. But we all survived. Where there’s life, there’s hope.

—————————————————————————————————————-

As painful as this has been to write, I have put together some advice from my point of view on the rehabilitation process for both parents and practitioners. I use the word practitioner to mean any professional involved in the construction and support of a rehabilitation plan. I hope it can be helpful for any of you when thinking about a child’s return home. The link to this is below:

Rehabilitation: Pointers for Parents and Practitioners

 

Days Two and Three: Watching him sleep…but it’s not all roses

Day Two

Today is the second day of my 12 year old son’s rehabilitation home after four years in local authority care. And it was a big one – our first overnight stay.

I remember being in the Core Group meeting to plan the rehabilitation programme; Day One seemed “easy” enough – he would be dropped off in the morning and picked up at tea time. It felt doable, and I wasn’t fazed. We moved on to day two and everyone talked about this being the first overnight stay – like it was no big thing. I distinctly recall internally panicking and wanting to shout “I’m not ready!!”. I felt overwhelmed and terrified of moving too quickly, of getting it wrong, of it not working.
I kept quiet and let everyone else speak whilst I soothed and reassured myself that it would be ok. I’ve been a Mum almost 20 years, I know what I’m doing.
I spoke up and told the group I was frightened. They all reassured me, told me it would be ok. The social worker’s team manager said: “we want this to work, we’re not against you”. I listened to my gut and I knew it would be ok. I’ve got this. I’m ready.

My son’s foster carer dropped him off in the early afternoon of Day Two. We chatted by the car, demonstrating our working relationship to my son so he felt safe. The foster carer handed me a box of my son’s possessions; a simple act, but a one that felt deeply symbolic. We waved the carer goodbye and took ourselves inside where the rest of the family were waiting, faces pressed up against the window.

The afternoon passed quietly, everyone feeling comfortable enough to do their own thing. It was difficult not to cluck and fuss and smother everyone; another indication of my lack of confidence as a Mum. My son played his video games in his new room, complaining about “the size of the TV”. I laughed, it was “all I could afford” I told him. We all gathered for tea, my children around the table together, and I realised it was the first Tuesday in four years this had happened.

I have felt completely drained today and it’s been a real struggle to find the energy to keep going. I spoke to my daughter’s father in the afternoon who, after having our daughter overnight, had come to drop her off for me; he said I looked exhausted. Thanks very bloody much, thought I…

I think the amount of preparation work I had done whilst juggling my work and as a single mum of three other children in my care had finally caught up with me and the emotional energy of this hugely significant life event for our family had also finally hit.

The Bedtime Routine began with BabyB’s bath and cuddles, his elder sister’s shower and cuddles and my 12 year old son’s shower. The latter was a slight disaster, partially because I had bought new towels in an effort to impress my son with my goddess-like domesticity, which then – upon attempting to dry himself – moulted black fuzzies all over him resulting in him abandoning said towel and getting back in the shower. “Mam! The towels don’t work!” I heard from the bathroom. I couldn’t get up for laughing.

One thing has stood out so far in this journey of ours; the number of cuddles my son has showered me with. I feel like we are getting to know each other again, and this is something he never really demonstrated much in the supervised contact sessions we used to have. Maybe he felt uncomfortable, maybe the sheer artificiality of the situation meant neither of us felt able to be tactile with each other. Since we have commenced rehab, I’ve noticed he waits until we’re on our own, says “hug” and throws himself into my arms. If I’m sitting on the sofa, he will come and sit with me and put his head on my shoulder. It makes eating a stir-fry a challenge, but it’s worth it. Just being able to touch each other, with no one watching and judging and at any time either of us wish, it’s incredibly precious. I brushed his hair after his shower tonight, I haven’t been able to do that for four years. I realise I’m gushing, but these things matter so much to us both.

His agreed bed time came…and went. He was curled up next to me on the sofa whilst I caught up on a bit of work and he went exploring with Zelda on one of his many beloved electronic devices. Reluctantly, I had to let him go to bed, and followed him up to tuck him in, ruffle his hair, and kiss his forehead. Another first-in-four-years…

I crept up soon after and watched him sleep. I sat on the edge of his bed in the warmth and dark of his room, just listening to him breathe. I could hear BabyB’s breath too – my boys. I felt overwhelmed again. Not this time with fear, but with utter blissful joy. I will never ever forget that moment. I can safely reflect on the truly grim fight I had to get to this point, I can allow myself to feel, in every sinew of my being, the pain I have felt at being separated from both of my boys because every second of fight and pain was worth it to be able to listen to them breathe in restful sleep.

Day Two of rehab…done.

 

Day Three

I was up with the larks again this morning, my children filtering downstairs one by one. My 12 year old son was last up; this bodes well, I thought. Seeing him in his jarmies with bleary eyes and messy hair filled my heart and once again I felt incredibly lucky.

The morning passed in a flurry of activity; by 10am I had made four different breakfasts, done two lots of dishes, one load of washing was hanging out in the bright sunshine, I had ironed my eldest son’s Posh Shirt as he had a job interview later that morning, played catch with my 7 year old daughter, and trains with BabyB (who was plodging in the garden after upturning his water table for the gazillionth time) and chatted about something-and-nothing with my 12 year old son. I still felt utterly exhausted and emotionally a bit wobbly as a result.

So – out we went to the local shops and the park. My 12 year old son’s face fell as he realised he had to walk the mile into the town…he’s not used to this much walking he tells me as the foster carer’s have a car. Well, your Mother is too skint for a car, and she can’t reverse park anyway, was my reply.

My confidence started to waver. What if he doesn’t want to come home because life isn’t as easy here as life with the foster carers? I became mindful of asking him if he was ok too many times; his face said he wasn’t in any event. I felt vulnerable, frightened of the answer.

We made our way home after the park, stopping for chippy chips on the way as a treat. I let my son eat in his new room, away from the rest of us, because he wanted “some gaming time” before being picked up within the hour. None of the other children would have got away with that, and we all knew it.

I then received a message from a Facebook friend who, whether it was intended or not, expressed their own judgement on my decision to post pictures of us as a family on my private Facebook page. I was already feeling vulnerable; this I didn’t need. My son’s foster carer then text to say he had arrived and my children said their goodbyes. As I was walking him out to the car, my son said he was “glad to be going home (to the foster carers) because the bed is horrible here” and “the sheets are scratchy”.

I held it together as we walked to the car, and the foster carer and I chatted once again. But my eyes were stinging as I walked away.

The bed is horrible. The sheets are scratchy. The TV is too small. He has to walk everywhere because we can’t afford a car. And someone is judging me for joyously and proudly sharing my family photographs.

Its been a rough afternoon. BabyB went down for a nap, his 7 year old sister was picked up by her Dad and my eldest son disappeared into his room. Alone downstairs, I have cried.

I should have expected this. It’s a major life change. Everyone has had to compromise in some way and people’s noses are out of joint. And I’m not confident yet to challenge; I’m still desperately trying to make everything ok for everyone. My son doesn’t know the work that has gone into his return home, he doesn’t know that his criticisms cut like a knife and leave me terrified he won’t want to come back. And he doesn’t need that pressure, he needs to be free at the moment, without judgement, to just ‘be’.

What if I’m updating this in a week to say I’ve failed and it hasn’t worked? I can only do my best, but what if my best isn’t good enough? I don’t have all of the answers, I don’t know how it will work out and I’m only going to drive myself mad going over it all in my head. I badly need a hug from someone who cares, I badly need someone to tell me it will be ok. I know myself, and tomorrow, after some rest and recuperation, I’ll be stronger. But tonight I’m raw, drained, apprehensive and glad it’s nearly bedtime.

 

Day Three of Rehab…done.

 

Day One: It’s really real!

Day One

It’s now 9.15pm on Monday the 25th of July; I’ve just sat down after the first day of my son’s rehabilitation programme for his return home from four years in local authority foster care.

I had very little sleep last night, waking up constantly to check the time (in case I missed 10am which – thanks to BabyB – is hilariously unlikely). I was up in the end at 6am, a swirl of emotions ranging from excitement, to fear, to relief. I spent time doing jigsaws with BabyB which calmed us both, before going on a wild and unnecessary vacuuming spree around 8am for which I am confident my neighbours were grateful.

At exactly 10am, I saw a car pull up about 30 metres away, my 12 year old son clearly visible inside. We all went to the window ,waving madly, and watched him carrying the first of his possessions towards his new home back with his family.

It was then that I was hit with a tsunami of emotion; this was real, it was really happening.

No one was standing between us, no one had rang at the last minute to cancel it all, no one was telling me if I wanted my son back I would have to go to Court and fight, again.
The last four years of being desperate to hold my child close to me, desperate to talk to him whenever either of us had anything to say, desperate to ruffle his hair and tell him everything would be ok because his Mam was here.
Four years of not knowing where he was or what he was doing or how he was feeling, four years of obscene amounts of guilt that I had let him down and didn’t have the opportunity – in one supervised contact session a week where our every move was recorded, judged and discussed in meetings – to tell him how sorry I was and to try and make it right.
Four years where I tortured myself that he would feel rejected, abandoned, that his Mam didn’t fight for him – when I knew the truth was diametrically opposed to that.

It was over, it was really over.

I watched as my son approached, a smile playing around his lips as he knew his family were standing at the window waiting to greet him and it struck me…he was walking toward us, towards me. He knew I had let him down, he knew I had made mistakes, yet he still wanted to be with me. At that moment, I felt truly blessed and humbled. I felt exceedingly proud of the young man coming towards me, and I felt extraordinarily lucky that he had given me another chance. I know in my soul I will never, despite all of my fears to the contrary, I will never ever let him down in the ways I have before. I might not always be Mary Poppins, I might get tired, and short-tempered, and pissed off but I know I will always try as hard as I can and honour the gift I have been given of another chance.

 

The day passed, sunny and relaxed. I took BabyB to the park so the older boys could have some Man Time in their Cave shooting baddies on some godforsaken game machine. We ate doughnuts whilst BabyB had an early lunch, tired from the park and whilst he napped, I took my son to explore his new surroundings. I showed him the delights of the local shops (he was non-plussed) and he helped me solve the age old problem of what to do when you have 27 bags of crisps and nowhere to put them (we bought a bloody big box). I took him for lunch (read: Subway £3 lunch deal because times are hard and Mam’s not made of money) and we people-watched and chatted. When we went home, I hung washing out, and did the dishes whilst I ear-wigged on the boys conversations.

It was normality.

He left at 5pm, tired and happy – full of what he was going to bring “home” tomorrow. We all waved him off, but no one felt the need to linger at the door and window until he was out of sight. We all felt safe enough to let him go, because we know he’s coming back tomorrow – for his first overnight stay.

My cheeks hurt because I haven’t stopped smiling all day. The little things people take for granted (and which I no doubt will again in time to come), holding your child, being able to talk to them, seeing your children interact and watching them smile – these things have etched my soul with utter joy today.

Day One of Rehab…done.

 

 

‘Twas the night before rehab

It’s 12.22 in the am, I haven’t had my tea yet, I have a nasty headache, I feel sick with hunger and I’m shaking with tiredness as I’ve just sat down after working solidly since my youngest son (known as BabyB) went to sleep.

This isn’t a new occurrence, every night but three has been like this since I was given the news five weeks and two days ago that the local authority were in agreement that my 12 year old son could return home to his family after four years in foster care.

There had previously been a concern that I would need to move to a larger property before this could happen as there is currently already me, my eldest son, my youngest daughter, BabyB and a hamster crammed into a two bedroom local authority maisonette. There was a real worry about how long that would take as I wasn’t initially deemed a priority by my local authority housing department and my son was starting to struggle with the concept of being able to come home, without being able to come home.

However, after a conversation with my son’s social worker and team manager, and after a weekend of furrowing my brow, worrying, pacing, and furiously sketching out plans…I found a way to make it work.

And…after two solid weeks of clearing, car-booting, Gumtree-ing, eBay-ing, putting-stuff-in-loft-ing, de-cluttering, countless trips to charity shops laden with bags of items for them and rearranging anything that would stand still long enough to be rearranged…

…after a further two weeks of putting up shelves, buying things like “over-door hooks” and key hooks in an effort to save space, building furniture I had bought with the proceeds of the car-booting, obsessing over storage and taking to going out with a clip-on tape measure attached to my jeans, buying screws/grouting tools/hooks/masonry nails whilst wearing a dress and trying to at least appear feminine, gardening (read: hacking at the undergrowth I had let build up for four years whilst swearing under my breath and achieving astonishingly impressive scratches, bruises and rashes), reviving old furniture, getting someone else to come and put the shelves back up that I had put up as they’d fallen down (ditto coat hooks) (ditto DVD storage), a Major Organisation Spree (which included much decanting of items into pots and bags with sticky labels advising the reader of the contents) and the mother of all cleaning sessions (still ongoing…I have a bottle of Flash-All Purpose Cleaner wedged into my waistband at all times)…

…after two tins of gloss paint because I felt compelled to re-do all the gloss work in the entire house lest my son judge me and decide he didn’t want to come home because Mam’s DIY skills left a lot to be desired, a tin of black paint to make old furniture Teenworthy, two tins of woodstain, several tester pots of paint to “touch up” my previously piss-poor efforts at decorating when I moved in four years ago, two rolls of wallpaper “so the fireplace looks pretty” (NB: we don’t have a fireplace), a tin of varnish, five tubs of grout, two tubes of bathroom sealant, the purchase of a “squeegee” so I could wash windows like a pro…

…after taking delivery of a second-hand sofa bed, a second hand corner sofa, a triple bunk bed, a second hand desk (£4 on Gumtree!!) and four IKEA Kallax units complete with 24 boxes, all of which I have painstakingly organised so everyone has room to put their bits in (thank you to North Tyneside Council)…

…after finally being able to do the fun bits like buy cushions, fairy lights, girly pictures and her name in wooden letters with fairies on (note: her nickname, not her full name as the buggers charge per letter) to make my youngest daughter’s part of the room special, put up various Thomas the tank pictures/stickerarounds/cushions/bedding/rug to make BabyB’s part of the room special, reorganise and help make my eldest son’s room (which he is now sharing) still feel like his own space, and buy posters, pictures, lamps, bedding, cushions, a mini fridge (!) and his name in binary code (don’t ask) for above his bed for my 12 year old son to come home to…

It’s finished.

I’ve worked extremely hard, lost half a stone in weight, barely slept and barely ate. I’ve put ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself and set my targets almost impossibly high. But it’s finished.

Some of these things needed doing – that much is true. There’s no way you can cram four children, their mum (and hamster) in to a two bedroom maisonette without dong a bit of preparation work. And, naturally, it’s important that each child has their own space and that it’s nice for them. It was also really important that things were done before my son came home so that when he did come home, I could focus solely on adapting to this major change in our lives.
But I could have left a lot of things and instead chosen to rest more and build up my resilience for my son coming back. Part of me is angry at myself for not doing just that, but I understand why I’ve done it.

I’m scared. I’m terrified. Of messing it up again. Of letting my son down again. Of letting any of my children down again. When you have had your children taken from you and a whole local authority tells you, through the guise of care proceedings, that you are not “good enough”; it absolutely annihilates your confidence as a parent. On the surface, I will say “I’m a good mum”, but in my gut, I’m not so sure. If you’re told you’re not good enough that many times, you can’t help but think “they” must be right.
I have an ongoing issue that remains unresolved with senior management within this local authority at present, related to my post “A note on power…” and it is sapping my strength because it is unresolved.
And I’m frightened that my son will change his mind. I’m frightened that he’ll reject me and want to go back to the foster carers. I’m frightened he sees them as his parents, and not me. I’m frightened I’m not good enough for him.

I’m lucky that my son’s social worker is on hand, and she’s excellent – a real credit to her profession. I have talked to her and been honest with her about my fears. Both her and her team manager have been supportive and I know they are rooting for us. After the past experiences, and the current situation with senior management; that means a lot.

I’m also lucky to have brilliant friends around me who I know I can lean on. I’ve met the most incredible people through my journey in the past year as “Surviving Safeguarding” and I feel my circle of support is like a fortress.

I’m lucky that I’ve undertaken a lot  of therapy and counselling; I know myself and I’m brutally self-aware. So I know I’ve done a bit much, I know I’ve put a bit too much pressure on myself, I know I’ve not taken as good a care of myself as I should have done and I know that I now need to be kind to myself, look after myself, forgive myself and take it easy. I’m going to bed tonight feeling trepidatious, but also relieved that the work is done and I can just enjoy my children now.

Most of all though, I’m lucky that I have the most amazing children. They are my motivation to stay strong, and work hard to be a “good enough” mum during this new chapter of our lives.

We start our rehabilitation programme tomorrow morning at 10am. I’ve decided to write a diary of my son’s return home, partially so that we have a record of such a special event, partially for me so I have an outlet, partially to help other parents in my position feel less alone, and partially to educate social workers on the reality of rehab. I may not write an entry every night, but I will certainly be updating regularly.

For tonight, I’m signing off with a (very very weary) smile.

X

 

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/