Review of 2015

It’s become a tradition of mine, at this dark end of the year, to look back over the previous twelve months and try to make some sense of it all. This year, my overwhelming feeling is ‘so that’s why I’m so tired’.

The last twelve months have been tough. Tough like wading through a stinky swamp. Tough like being trapped in a stormy sea, unable to make it to shore, waves breaking over your head one after another. At times my optimism has been tested. Very tested. There were moments when I wondered if I might be on some weird unreality show (The Hunger Games?). Moments when I wanted to croak ‘I’m just an ordinary person, I give up, now get me the f**k out of here’.

It’s enough I think to say that I am still here. We’re still here. I’m still learning as I go along and we are still going along. Which is good.

There have been many career highlights from which I take comfort that I must be doing something right.

Many thanks to the South and North London Adoption Consortia as well as We Are Family, to the University of Sunderland who is doing great work with it’s Children Effected by Loss and Trauma project, to Jenny Molloy and the University of Huddersfield whose students and lecturers it was so encouraging to meet, to the East Midlands Adoption Consortium and Professor Julie Selwyn for a great day (and a memorable pre-conference night out), to The Royal College of Child Psychiatrists and in particular to the real Professor Green and to John Simmonds, to Michael Roach of John Ball Primary School and finally to Dr Vivien Norris of The Family Place who hosted me for a great day in Hay-on Wye.

The Adoption Support Fund launched in England in May and was an important milestone in my year. Having witnessed and played a small part in it’s design and testing and seen the thought and care that went into what looks like a deceptively straightforward scheme I stand back and see something valuable, with more potential. This year Al Coates and Jenny Jones joined the Department for Education group which addresses Adoption Support. It has been a real pleasure to work with them both (and much less onerous than being ‘the adopter’).


Much of the ‘sat in front of a desk’ parts of 2015 have been taken up with the completion of the manuscript for my third book: a novel for children called Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off. Billy is eleven years old. Others may see him as a bit of an odd bod with a temper, who is naughty and disruptive at school but he has a unique voice and an interesting story to tell. It’s been a joy to write and to see being brought to life by the illustrator Kara McHale. It will be published in March 2016.


In other 2015 highlights, I appeared on BBC Breakfast, which was terrifying and a good lesson in boiling down a complex message for mass media, we got Superfast Broadband and I ventured into podcasting.

Cultural high points were strangely few this year (for reasons of being chest deep in swamp perhaps) but included the televised version of Wolf Hall (deliciously good), a live War Horse and getting the Star Wars experience in a small, art deco cinema. The best book I read by a country mile was Heretics by Will Storr. It inadvertently taught me a lot about trauma and brains and all that and explained why twitter (and real life) can be an uncomfortably extreme place. Don’t read it if you prefer not to be challenged about what you think and believe to be true. I also enjoyed binge reading the Clive James memoirs and Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

As I’ve said often, and it’s well worth saying again, the support and encouragement from friends and readers on social media has been second to none. Thank you for your company, comfort and general big-heartedness. I like that it’s delivered with such sharp wit – laughing through the dark moments is an important way to preserve one’s psychological health.

And so for now, in these closing moments of 2015 I wish you all, families of whichever design, professionals and readers, the very best for 2016. May it be peaceful and fruitful.

Podcast: The Unofficial Guide to Christmas

What more do you need at this time of year than a ten minute, poor quality, unplanned podcast from me about trying to achieve a ‘good enough’ Christmas for children who struggle with high expectations and fuss and food mountains? Includes tips you will never read about in books.

I wish you and yours a happy, peaceful and enjoyable Christmas. Failing that, let’s just try and get through it unscathed x

Podcast: Hugh Thornbery, Adoption UK

I was in London last week for an Adoption Support meeting at the Department for Education. The Adoption Support Fund launched in England in May and has reached 2,600 families so far. There is, of course, still much to do and many imperfections to grapple with, not least lack of resource within Local Authorities to undertake assessments and a shortage of providers. Nevertheless the fund is paying for therapeutic help for children and families who would not otherwise have received it.

Our own application has been approved. We start new and direct work soon. I’ve done as much research as I can, but it still feels like a leap of faith. There is no neat evidence base for interventions effective for children and young people with complex trauma. I hope that one day there will be. I hope for lots and I think that the Adoption Support Fund is, for many reasons, a step in the right direction.

While I was in London I took the opportunity to chat with Hugh Thornbery, Chief Executive of Adoption UK about the Adoption Support Fund and engaging with government to bring about broader and deeper change. This is the fourth podcast in my experimental mini-series: another ten minute slot.

Podcast: stormy seas and hope for the future, with Jenny Molloy

In this episode of the No Matter What Podcast I chat with Jenny Molloy, author of best selling book Hackney Child, about how her experiences in care helped her to become a successful parent and grandparent. And I ramble on about weathering the repeated crises that can come with parenting a young person who has experienced a fractured childhood.  Let’s just say the waves are big and I’m working hard at surfing, rather than drowning. Hearing Jenny speak gave me hope.


Podcast: in conversation with Hackney Child author Jenny Molloy

NMW Podart1


Jenny Molloy and I worked together at Huddersfield University this week and she kindly offered to speak to me about her life, her books and her work. It was a fascinating conversation.

I’m not fussed about the F-bomb, but for those who are, or who might be listening in the vicinity of little ears, the F-bomb count is 1.

Appropriate Adult

We have a massive bramley apple tree in our garden. This year it is loaded with hundreds and hundreds of apples. We’ve eaten about twenty. The rest fall to the ground where I pick them up, throw them into a wheelbarrow and shovel them into the compost binsTile.

The compost bins are full now. This afternoon I started filling a metric tonne dumpy bag.  It’s tedious, stinky work. I was at it for an hour at least. As I picked up, more apples were falling from the tree. One fell on my head. Another fell on my back.

Today did not turn out quite as I had planned, and at the risk of sounding maudlin, being hit by bramley apples was almost the highpoint. The low point was an unexpected journey to our local centre of law enforcement, uncertain what I was about to walk into.

My personal dumpy bag is full right now and still the relentless shovelling continues. Working outdoors and breathing the thick autumn air is the best way I know of coping, especially as the season changes and I find myself less parent and more appropriate adult.

CAMHS Roundtable – The Dog Shit in the Room

I sometimes get scared before meetings, especially BIG MEETINGS, with LOTS OF PEOPLE, lots of PROFESSIONAL PEOPLE.  And so it was before the CAMHS ’round table’ meeting hosted by DfE yesterday.

There was an anxiety dream.  I was late for the meeting.  I couldn’t find the room it was being held in.  I searched and searched. I found it. I walked in. The only available chair was across an enormous room, packed with people. PROFESSIONAL PEOPLE.

As I made my way across the room, all eyes on me, I smelt a terrible smell. A stink.  I looked down at my shoe.  I had trodden in an enormous dog shit. It was clinging to my shoe in all it’s marvellous turdyness.  There was outrage. Who is this woman dragging in this dog shit?

As Al writes in his blog, we both asked families about how CAMHS could better suit the needs of adopted young people (it was recognised that some vulnerable groups of children and young people, and CAMHS, are not a ‘good fit’).  We were both deluged with responses. And I mean DELUGED.  We spent hours engaging, collecting and collating the response.

We rather nervously presented our work – your work – to thirty people from the fields of mental health, commissioning, research, social care, the voluntary sector and policy making.

We delivered some difficult messages.  We were treated with nothing but respect and what we presented was widely recognised and accepted.   We listened and engaged, because this is a complex area and all of us have a lot to learn from each other.

What Al and I presented would have been nothing without all the help and input we received. Thank you to every single person who took the time to provide experiences, thoughts and ideas.

There are some huge mountains to climb in order to achieve a CAMHS which better meets the needs of all children who have adverse early life experiences, whatever their legal status. This was the first step.  And I’m pleased to report that there was absolutely no sign of dog shit.

The document below is the one I read from at the meeting. A copy has been given to DfE.

CAMHS Round Table – Feedback from Adopters


This is a summary of information gathered informally through engagement with adopters, and some social workers and therapists on social media, private forums and in face-to-face meetings.


  • A presumption of need, rather than the burden of proof falling on families
  • Less restrictive referral criteria
  • Lower and more consistent thresholds to allow for early intervention
  • More willingness to address the needs of a child/YP who is ‘refusing to engage’


  • Better-educated and experienced workforce in the broad range of issues around the impact of adverse early life experiences, and in the differences between adoptive and foster families.
  • Less rigid diagnosis – a strong feeling that children are being forced into narrow definitions. Concern about over-diagnosis of conditions such as ASD and ADHD.
  • A more ‘multi-faceted’, broad approach that does not ‘silo’ too early on. Families reported having to pass through each silo in serial and some had ‘timed out’ of services by the time this had concluded.
  • Important that assessments include genetic and other health considerations such as FASD – ‘it’s not always attachment’.
  • Better appreciation that some parents may present poorly as a result of having lived in crisis for some time.
  • More serious MH diagnoses for under 18s are not given therefore no treatment offered to young people.


  • Appropriate therapeutic parenting courses from an early stage and an end to ‘one size fits all’ behaviourally-based courses.
  • Access to therapeutic parenting coaching.
  • Behavioural interventions were reported to be problematic and unhelpful.
  • Parents keen to be seen as ‘co-therapists’ and given the tools, support and respect to enable them to do this.
  • Welcoming, safe and well thought out settings.
  • Open-ended referrals. A limited set of sessions was seen as detrimental and left families coping with fall out.
  • More cognizance of the impact on families of well-documented behaviours such as violence and anti-social behaviour.
  • ‘Don’t presume my child is telling the truth and I am not’.


  • Trauma and attachment aware.
  • Family and relationship based, focused on understanding the roots of behaviours and building attachments.
  • Non-blaming and empathic.
  • Most favoured therapies – DDP, therapeutic parenting, arts, play and narrative based therapies and equine therapy (particularly for self-regulation and relationship building).
  • Many popular providers, most notably Family Futures, Catchpoint, Integrate Families, Chrysalis and many ex-CAMHS independent providers.


  • Families broadly in favour – as a focus for the development of expertise.
  • Team approach including social care, education, health, police.
  • It could take responsibility for transition in and out of tier 4 services, which is seen as missing.
  • Include parents and carers in governance.
  • Existing CAMHS models are popular, some are no longer in existence (two Clinical Psychologists each reported they had run award-winning services for looked after and adopted children and both had had funding withdrawn, both services had subsequently closed).

Prepared by Sally Donovan, 20 October 2015, with thanks to everyone who provided feedback.

‘She hath done what she could’

I started blogging in 2011.  Behind the protection of a pseudonym I wrote out the mess and glory of our stitched together family.  A lot has changed over four years, mostly as a result of shifts in my thinking around what success means in the context of family, and although I cringe when I read some of the earlier posts, I’m glad I have a record.

These days, writing with such personal honesty is more problematic. It’s not right to expose our family now that Sally Donovan is more than an online identity and so I stick to newsy stuff and my own clumsy efforts at self-care and tea leaf reading.

In the spirit of newsiness it’s been (another) emotionally epic week.  Adolescence is always tough going as neuro-biological changes layer over exam pressures which layer over multiple transitions.  On top of the adolescent mille-feuille is the central question, ‘who am I?’.  When early beginnings are shattered and a young person is raised by people with whom they share no birth bond, the answer to that question is born out of intense and sometimes over-whelming growing pains.

Supporting one’s nearest and dearest through all this has become about demonstrating solidity and dependability during crunch times, and maintaining connection when it’s possible and beneficial (which at times neither are). As always, I make bags of mistakes and try not to be too hard on myself, or those around me.


In the spirit of rather glorious self-care I spent a recent weekend in Cornwall with friends.  We talked and ate and drank and walked in the sunshine and found ourselves in an old coastal churchyard.  I love a churchyard, and I particularly like grave stones.  One, a simple affair for a ‘spinster’ simply gave her name and dates and the epitaph ‘she hath done what she could’.  I thought about how that is the most that any of us can ever do and how much more encouraging that message is  than those which demand we can achieve our wildest dreams, if only we try hard enough.

Royal College of Psychiatrists annual meeting in Brighton

The Royal College of Psychiatrists, faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, get together every year at their conference. This year it was in Brighton. And I was invited.


Professor Jonathan Green (University of Manchester), John Simmonds OBE (CoramBAAF) and I presented a session entitled ‘What are the needs of Children and Families during and after adoption – and is CAMHS failing to meet them?’. We formed a kind of medical/charity sector/user triangle.

I’ve learnt, when amongst medical people, not to use words such as ‘trauma’ (particularly ‘developmental trauma’), ‘attachment’, ‘dysregulation’, ‘dissociation’, ‘cortisol’, ‘trigger’ and so on. I’ve been told many times either overtly, or by eye-rolling that there are no such things and that my children (and I) should be well over it by now. As a result of one memorable CAMHS consultation I can no longer drive past the building without my stress-levels rocketing.

I ventured into the venue for the conference dinner the night before, with some trepidation. (I was terrified). The first psychiatrist I spoke to, tentatively, talked about ongoing research into pre-natal stress and cortisol levels, someone else talked about how boys and girls might react differently to trauma, then I heard about psychological models for carrying out life story work, ways of working with dysregulated children, studies into identifying the psychological needs of adopted children pre-placement, how trauma can look like other conditions and the importance of broad, all-encompassing assessments.

In short, I heard my experience (and the experiences of countless other families) and the language that fits those experiences taken as read. Some areas of contention perhaps, but that’s to be expected and not to be avoided.

Our session the following day was well received and some themes emerged; the profound impacts upon children of multiple traumas and the education of practitioners around this, a reappraisal of thresholds, a reappraisal of the system which tends to ‘silo’ children into existing pathways, the need for families to be held throughout their journey rather than ‘six sessions and you’re out’.

The nub of it all of course is the gross mismatch between resources and demand. Many families no longer express demand, by either suffering in silence, or finding their own alternative therapeutic support.  Some end up back in higher level psychiatric services and one must ask whether better, earlier intervention could go some way towards prevention.

For me, the biggest and potentially most effective untapped resource is families. As we know, the majority of all the good therapeutic work and healing takes place within families and yet many battle on unsupported and not respected. Not only that, parents educate themselves, they share information and feedback, they support each other and they fight systems some of which even to this day refuse to accept, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the profound impact upon children of trauma. And all this takes place whilst delivering high-octane parenting, day after day, 24/7.

As someone who is interested in not only parenting post trauma, but also economics, social systems and new models of delivering services I offer this:

  • Giving families(users) the resources and information they need to do the best job they can has got be cost effective, we are key members of the ‘team around the child’. Please also give us access to the evidence. It isn’t easy to find and some if it is expensive (lots of us don’t have jobs).
  • We would love to engage with you more, in a professional manner, not in a ranty, negative manner (although sometimes we may become emotional because this stuff is personal and cuts deep).
  • We would like you to engage with our groups too. We can fill a conference room with 350 people if there is a chance we can come away with hope, information and strategies that work. We like the great American speakers, which some of you don’t like so much but we’d be just as happy to listen to you. Where are you?
  • We come under criticism for lunging at non-evidenced-based interventions, and for being a bit loud and pushy. I think that’s partly because we stare into a giant CAMHS void – voids suck things into them, anything.
  • Every practitioner I’ve met (quite a few) who is offering therapeutic support to adoptive families has at one time worked for CAMHS. It suits me, because I’ve found what I need, but is sole-trader, private sector provision really a long-term, structural solution?

I know that at least one delegate who came to our session was expecting me to deliver a dirge of negative criticism of mental health professionals and CAMHS. I didn’t, because it’s pointless and disrespectful. It also leads us nowhere. I remain profoundly optimistic about the healing and progress that can take place with the commitment of families and wider teams who travel alongside a child. It’s long, hard and sometimes painful work and there are hard battles to fight along the way, but it can be transformative. Re-imagining a better future is part of that.