Below is the full 3 page response I have submitted to the Department of Education ... sorry if its a bit long for a blog, but I wanted you to be able to read it as soon as I'd submitted it. See 21st July blog (The secret of good comedy) for links and details.
A CALL FOR VIEWS ON CONTACT ARRANGEMENTS FOR CHILDREN
BY DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION
RESPONSE FROM HELEN OAKWATER 20 August 2012
Whilst I welcome any serious intention to resolve some of the most challenging issues in the adoption and fostering world, I am saddened that the call for views on contact falls short in many areas.
a. The call for views on two papers (Contact and Sibling Placement) was issued on 25th July 2012, responses are expected by 31 August 2012.
b. This period covers school holidays, the Olympics and the 6 week period when many people are away from offices on holiday. This consultation period is far too short.
c. Because of this narrow time frame, consultation within organisations is difficult and some are unable to respond.
d. This ‘urgent’ approach will make the accuracy of responses and feedback justifiably open to criticism.
ii. Your frame that “this paper does not cover the development and impact of social media” excludes one of the most prominent and ever increasing issues within adoption and fostering today. Facebook is transforming the concept of contact. To push it to a sideline and simply say “we are interested in gathering views on this issue” does not reflect the current problems for parents, children and professionals. Its impact must be acknowledged and be central to planning future practice and/or legislation. (Page 5)
iii. The request for responses that involve Yes/No box ticking has the potential to produce statistics which do not reflect the complexity of the issues; but might be used as validation for a particular approach or as part of a press release.
iv. Recently there have been several documents and proposals released by the government. It’s rather sad that this, bit by bit, parts approach is happening rather than looking at the whole system. Just as adopted children need a “join the dots” strategy to digest their life story, so the adoption world needs a more measured systemic approach to transformation.
As the author of the 60,000 word book, Bubble Wrapped Children: How Social Networking is Transforming the face of 21st Century adoption, published in January 2012, I have given much thought to contact and how it fits into the complex world of adoption and fostering.
Sadly my response is written with more haste than I would like and is brief. This response does not cover all my concerns; I have simply highlighted specific areas. (The bracketed numbers refer to your paragraphs).
1. ADOPTION IS BASED ON LOSS, MATREATMENT AND NEGLECT
· We must always remember that for the last 20/30 years the vast majority of children adopted were removed from birth families who failed their children on many levels. The courts removing their parenting responsibilities because of the maltreatment their children experienced.
· The legacy of trauma is carried throughout childhood and into adulthood.
· Helping children understand the reasons behind their maltreatment and neglect and is the task of good therapeutic reparenting, appropriate therapy and professional input throughout childhood and adolescence.
· Contact has to fit into this model, not be a disconnected adjunct.
2. LEGISLATION OR UNDERSTANDING?
· The idea that legislation, which by definition is rigid and fixed, can fulfil the complex and changing patterns of appropriate contact for an adopted child over many years is too simplistic and inflexible.
· Such legislation would be almost impossible to enforce.
· It must be remembered that many birth parents have shown little empathy for their children, hostility to professionals and sometimes disrespect the law. Do we really expect these people to adhere to a “no contact” agreement? What happens when they don’t?
· The suggestion that a “Permission Filter” (38) be sought by birth parents from the court is potentially a massive time waster and again impossible to enforce. It could add to delay.
· The suggestion (paragragh 40) that “any further contact between their child and their childs birth parent is now a matter exclusively for the adoptive family” is naïve and almost denies the significance of birth parents. We know that birth parents always matter to the child. It almost smells like the old fashioned mindset of “forget them now you are adopted”. We have massive evidence demonstrating that strategy is flawed.
· What precise “recourse” (49) for adopters is envisaged “where informal contact arrangements were causing difficulties”? How are birth parents to be prevented from sending texts, emails or similar? I can just imagine the headline “I was imprisoned for sending a text to my daughter”. This is unworkable and unenforceable. Additionally; it has the potential for children to use it as ammunition against their adoptive or foster parents. “You stopped me seeing my Mum”.
· The best method to manage contact is by giving children 100% truth about their past in an age appropriate way, creating a coherent, honest life story which they can digest and process as they mature. Contact should be incorporated into the process. This requires a massive improvement in post adoption support, therapeutic work to make sense of their history and much therapeutic reparenting. It’s not a quick fix.
3. CRITERIA FOR “BEST INTEREST”
The “prism of the child’s best interest” (31) is a lovely phrase and I hope:
a) the criteria and spectrum for “best interest” will be detailed and defined
b) this prism will consider how “best interest” is served and perceived in the short, medium and particularly, in the long term.
· For example a well facilitated contact session for a younger child may be upsetting, but without it, their adolescence may be blighted through ignorance and unanswered questions. Unresolved trauma increases with time, which has consequences.
4. SOCIAL MEDIA
Contact via Facebook between adopted and foster children and the birth family from whom they have been removed is occurring, will continue to happen and is unstoppable. We must accept it, recognise the underlying motivation for all parties and adapt our current and future practices accordingly. It must be central to planning any government contact strategy.
5. CONTACT: QUANTITY, QUALITY OR PURPOSEFUL
· Good contact has purpose and meaning for all participants. This requires planning and facilitation.
· Quality contact is so much more than a few people being in a room together. We need therapists and social workers trained to provide high quality facilitated contact which works for all three corners of the adoption triangle.
· Contact is just one aspect of ongoing adoption support which should be provided for all adopted children and their families pre-placement and into early adulthood.
6. OTHER ISSUES
· “Concurrent planning is suitable for looked after children under 2” (33) is a massive generalisation and not evidenced based. Although Coram and others have had success with concurrent planning, to make this massive leap is a flawed conclusion.
· Martin Narey’s claim that there is “extensive research” is inaccurate. There is some research and some studies, which show varying results and conflicting conclusions. Another aspect that must be recognised is the size of studies. The Neil research (41) was a sample of around 50 children. Also the 39 members of the birth family involved were willing to work with professionals. This is not the usual story; most birth families are not so cooperative. We must be wary of drawing far reaching conclusions from small samples.
· Birth families have a concern and interest in the children that were removed. Just because they could not care for them does not mean they didn’t care about them.
· Birth families consist of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others. Many of them have an interest/concern about their relatives who were accommodated within the care system. These needs must be acknowledged. Exclusion may force them down the “unauthorised” route.
Facilitated purposeful contact is one aspect of ongoing adoption support which should be provided for all adopted children and their families pre-placement and into early adulthood.
Children who experienced maltreated and neglect need a variety of adoption support tools, methods and practices to piece together their earlier shattering experiences.
These traumatised children and their parents need long term robust strategies and ongoing support from government and society. Please can we take a systemic and balanced approach and focus on the long term outcomes in adoption, not just pre-placement or single issues.