Wifi-free Wednesdays

The Wifi-free Wednesday is a brand new thing in our house. It has come into being as a consequence of online teen shenanigans and after an enforced period of zero internet reminded all of us how beautiful life can be without social friggin’ media.

It’s a simple plan. We do something together every Wednesday evening; go to the cinema, walk  along the beach, eat a meal and none of us uses a device while we’re doing it. It’s not meant as a punishment but as a beacon of reconnection during the week when we attempt in a tiny way to hold back the psychological tug of the tech industry.

Our first Wifi-free Wednesday involved eating crisps and watching Ready Player One, a Spielberg film set in a future where the populace live with more gusto in a virtual world called OASIS than in the real one. The designer of OASIS has died and left a game within the virtual world, the winner of which gets to own and control OASIS forever. As a god-like gesture it’s rather laissez-faire. The baddies are a tech giant set on evil domination. The goodies are a disparate group of plucky kids with the dice loaded against them. The plucky kids win, share ownership and introduce some human-friendly changes one of which is to close OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays to encourage it’s real life citizens to rediscover real life relationships. Well, blow me over. It was an unplanned but fitting message for our first Wifi-free Wednesday and some weird synchronicity.

There was some initial resistance to Wifi-free Wednesday that fell away when it was actually fun. It propped up a heavy first week back to work and school after the holidays and put a spring in all our steps. We will continue our experiment and see if our little oasis improves as a result.

The exploitation of looked-after young people – are we complicit?


When I arrived at university as a hopeful and nervous fresher, attempts were made to groom me and an overseas student I shared a flat with. A fundamentalist religious group identified us as a potentially lonely pair, invited us to social gatherings, strummed guitars at us and only some way in unmasked themselves and brandished their direct debit forms. It was all very underhand. I wouldn’t have called it grooming back then but the tactics were uncannily similar to those now being used by criminal networks to exploit young people in the care of the state. The similarity ends there.

Criminal drug gangs are frighteningly trauma informed, practically and psychologically. They know where the state houses its most vulnerable young people, when and how much they receive in benefits and allowances, how robustly their residential accommodation is managed and whether anyone will ask ‘where are you going and who with?’ They know how disrupted, traumatic childhoods work. Our ‘tough on the outside’ young people, with their lack of trust in authority and their propensity to form relationships quickly and uncritically wear their vulnerability on their backs. They are easy, self-identified targets for exploitation – cash generating, drug carrying expendable pieces of meat. Where the state leaves a void of real care, the drug gangs sweep in and sweep up our children and put them to work. We (the state) make it far too easy for them.

The grooming process which starts with befriending and promises of riches builds into faked but shared sense of living in an exciting sub-culture and results in indebtedness and retribution, drug addiction and criminalisation. When they don’t come up with the goods our young people are disfigured with keys or cheese graters, stabbed in the legs, cut, burned, locked away. They may disappear for days then resurface miles from home in a run-down seaside town or in a police cell facing serious and life-changing charges. The resulting devastation of futures, of opportunity and mental and physical health is a tragedy we don’t take nearly enough interest in or responsibility for.

The state (all of us) is complicit in this criminal, exploitative and drugs trade. We have starved children’s services of money, we house our most vulnerable young people together in accommodation away from home and in the worst parts of town, on the doorstep of those looking for fresh meat, we pretend that parenting is providing young people with little more than the practical means to survive, we staff our homes with under-trained, under-paid workers, we hand out money without question and we tell ourselves that young people of 15 or 16 say are old enough to make their own life choices. If they chose to prioritise spending on drugs over spending on food, that’s surely up to them. If they stay out all night, we can’t make them do otherwise. And failures in the education of vulnerable, care-experienced young people leave them under-equipped, under-educated, excluded and with a lot of time on their hands. The combined result is that our young people who are or were parented by the state (us) are handed to criminal gangs on a plate.

There will be cries of ‘not all children’s homes are like that’ and ‘there are good reasons to exclude some children from school’ but try explaining that to a 17 year old lying in hospital bed with his gums cut to shreds because he owed money to a drug gang. We have to join the dots and disrupt the business of exploitative gangs by taking our role as corporate parents much more seriously and by raising our standards. If you wouldn’t want your family living in the same street as a nest of drug dealers, why is it acceptable for looked after children to live there?

What protected me from my tambourine-wielding groomers was a sense of myself as a good person, a solid network of friends and family and a well honed gut feeling that these wide-eyed people were ‘off’. Our most vulnerable young people do not have these protective factors. And criminal gangs operate in plain sight; in our town centres, our residential areas, outside our children’s homes and on social media and they exploit the void of parenting left when the state goes missing. They can’t believe they’re getting away with it. It’s time we got clever (trauma informed), joined hands around our care-experienced young people and played these bastards at their own game. Only the quickest and smartest will win and right now we’ve got a lot of ground to make up.

Billy Bramble – therapeutic story for children with angry, aggressive behaviours

Billy is an angry, aggressive 11 year-old who is disruptive at school and destructive, argumentative and difficult at home. His meltdowns are catastrophic and impact upon everyone around him including his parents and his younger sister Lucy. He is the title character in my book Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off, which was published almost exactly two years ago. Happy birthday Billy!

He is the kind of child that documentaries like Violent Child, Desperate Parents are made about, that strategies like Non-Violent Resistance are developed for, that guidance like the Home Office Information Guide: adolescent to parent violence and abuse is written about. He is the child that until relatively recently, no one much wanted to talk about, let alone try to understand and help. He spends a lot of his time in the school ‘naughty room’. ‘I think I am bad right the way through from my outsides to my insides’ he says. He is the child who on the face of it, isn’t much of a hero.

But Billy is the hero of this story; articulate, funny, interesting and lost. We all need stories that allow us to identify with the hero, to root for him or her. When does a boy like Billy ever get to read something uplifting and hopeful about someone just like him? The adults around our children also need the opportunity to share books and initiate difficult conversations. Billy is after all so much more than the huge feelings that overwhelm him. He has dreams and ambitions and is emotionally intelligent and determined. Brambles are interesting things he tells us, ‘The bramble is a survivor.’

The difficulty in writing about aggressive, challenging behaviours is shame. The shame children feel at carrying such huge, destructive feelings and the shame of the adults around them, left helpless and sometimes judged. That’s why Billy has an imaginery dog, a vicious, frightening hound called Gobber. Gobber represents Billy’s rage, fear and sadness, his dysregulation: something that with help Billy can learn to tame.

His parents are doing their best, learning how to parent him in new ways and occasionally shouting and throwing shoes. They are imperfect, like all of us. Much of the action takes place of the page and is left to our adult imagination, ‘I am sad and Mum is cross and now Mum is on the phone and I am scared she is arranging for me to be taken away’ he tells us, although we know Mum is calling for help. The jeopardy is real but short-lived.

Billy’s luck begins to change with the arrival of Mrs Buttress into his life, Teaching Assistant extraordinaire. She supports him at school and teaches him to cook. Through cookery, the patience and connection of Mrs Buttress, and the growing understanding and skill of his parents, Billy begins to experience himself more positively. As his confidence grows Gobber becomes calmer and easier for Billy to control. As success beckons, Billy must start to rewrite the story of himself, ‘He is not the boss of my universe any more and I have a feeling my universe will be a much better place to live in from now on’.

I would like to write more Billys and a Lucy (Billy’s younger sister, who competes with Billy for attention, struggles with homework and is always hungry). Therapeutic stories for older children are thin on the ground and many have connected with Billy and ask for more of him. I’m giving Billy a fresh airing for his birthday, in the hope that he has a chance at finding a greater readership and realising the potential I’d imagined for him.

If you know a Billy, or someone working with or parenting a Billy please tell them about my book and send them a link. It’s full of jokes, lists and recipes brought to life by the engaging and funny illustrations of super-talented illustrator Kara McHale and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Despite the difficult subject matter we set out to offer children and the adults around them something hopeful, entertaining and funny and a starter for gentle conversations around big feelings. We’re proud of what we created and we’d very much like to create some more. We have loads of ideas. Billy says a massive ‘thank you’ for your support and so do we.

Mother’s Day for Complicated Families

Mother’s Day. A day that recognises your dedication and hard work throughout the year. A day that’s all about you, right?


For children with complicated, dislocated and perhaps distressing experiences of mothers, a whole day devoted to their marvellousness might just be one of the worst days that could have been invented.

If Mother’s Day is something to be endured rather than enjoyed in your family then I recommend getting your head around it now, a good few days before the gushy event and before those tricky visitors; emotion and expectation move in and make themselves at home.

These are some of the things I try to do and sometimes succeed at to increase the chances that Mother’s Day doesn’t leave my family in a state of dislocated hysteria.

  1. Buy yourself a present, something you really like, a little plant perhaps or some chocolates.  Tell yourself it’s because you’re doing an awesome job at this mothering business. Anything else will be a bonus.
  2. Buy a Mother’s Day card, put it somewhere reachable, but not on display and say, ‘There’s a spare card on the sideboard in case you wanted to give it to me. No problem if you don’t want to.’ Say it casually and mean it.
  3. Take some time to consider how hideously difficult Mother’s Day might be for your child, even if they don’t say it out loud. Sit with it and decide that you will help them navigate their way through the day, because what could be a more powerful statement about what mothering is really all about.
  4. Set all expectations to “LOW”.
  5. Do not allow any cell of your body to look forward to a lie-in.
  6. Make a plan. Perhaps do something low-stress that you and your child enjoy doing, for instance going out for fish and chips. Perhaps have some ‘because I love you’ surprises in your pocket.
  7. Express the difficulties and complications out loud, with acceptance and compassion, ‘I know it’s a difficult day for you and I’m OK with that’/’I’m going to do my best to notice if you’re struggling’/’I know you love me and I don’t need you to show me’.
  8. Avoid all sources of sickly Mother’s Day emoting from others. Yuck!
  9. When the day is done and you’ve weathered whatever came your way, take some time to reflect on what did and did not work so well. No blame though. And perhaps say to your child, ‘I enjoyed spending time with you today.’
  10. Reward yourself with a big slug of self care. And remember that however your family has been stitched together, you are doing something truly remarkable. GO YOU.

Dissonance and the blame game

When a child comes into our lives who doesn’t see the world or ‘do’ relationships in the way we do, the resulting cognitive disruption can blow our minds.

“What do you mean you don’t trust me to give you tea, trust that this is a safe place to sleep, that I’m not going to hurt you and why do you fight me over EVERYTHING?” we may find ourselves exasperating.

I can’t tell you how hard I tried to make the traditional parenting fixes of rewards, warnings and consequences work. I tried until our home was a battlefield littered with casualties. The sheer discordance between what to me was entirely obvious and appeared to work for everyone else and the reality of raising care and trauma-experienced children has been the cause of much mental anguish.

For those of us fortunate enough to have been healthily-raised by people who enjoyed us, held us in their minds and arms and knew our needs before we even knew them ourselves, it’s easy to overlook that these first experiences formed the strong foundation on which all our future relationships are built. And it’s bigger even than that: our early lives gave us the working model our brain uses as a shortcut to understand the world. Enter a child, an adopted or fostered child, or a child in a residential home whose view of the world is built on entirely different foundations: they don’t bounce into our homes and our lives like little Orphan Annies thrilled at the prospect of having their relational and other deficits redressed.

Once almost everything we thought we knew about being loving parents and carers has been dashed on the rocks, once the dissonance is unavoidable, we resolve, or at least I did, to try and understand where the dissonance is coming from and to make some sense of it. From there we learn how to be the parents our children need us to be. It’s not just learning something new, it’s a profound and painful shift in perception and action. It’s necessary if we are to stand any chance of convincing our children that the world can be a safe, interesting and engaging place to be part of, that it is possible to have rewarding relationships and ambitions and a future to look forward to. We have to meet them much more than half way, peer into their working model of the world and appreciate it’s value in having helped them survive thus far whilst understanding it’s limitation for their onwards journey. At the same time we have to be more certain than we ever have been of who we are at our core. You can’t set sail on the open seas, psychologically speaking, without a sturdy and well-maintained vessel to sail in.

Over these years there have been many occasions when forces have been exerted upon my remoulded, child trauma-aware ways of ‘doing things’ back in the opposite direction and threatened my sturdy vessel (mental health). Hard-won knowledge and experience is called into question from outside and opinions are strongly and emotionally expressed. It takes great mental strength to stand and argue that, for example, your child isn’t choosing to behave like a nightmare, he’s traumatised and trying his best to survive in the only way he currently knows how, or conversely, that structure and routine is in place to create safety, and without that, utter chaos breaks out. As our family unit learned what works and adjusted our lives, so that created challenge and dissonance in those around us. I see it happening in the lives of my adopting, fostering and caring compatriots too. ‘You need to take away his treats/don’t give him attention/ teach him right from wrong.’ Or ‘why don’t you just <insert really simplistic suggestion>’. If this Billy-Basic type of parenting worked, don’t you think we’d all be doing it? Of course we would, we’re not self-flagellating fools. Perhaps, it’s your world view that doesn’t stand up? No? Too painful to contemplate? Tell us about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much easier our epic family life would have been if we’d been bathed by the warm waters of a more trauma-aware society, if schools, departments, surgeries, waiting rooms, shops and those who populate them were blessed with at least a basic understanding that children born into trauma learn traumatised ways of doing things. The answer is MUCH EASIER. We wouldn’t have had to fight on all fronts, to justify, to practice the most supreme patience, to experience the most profound isolation and self-doubt. Doing all that drains time and energy away from the job at hand. That’s not to say we haven’t had the most remarkable supporters on side, because we have, and they have made all the difference. Without particular social workers, educators and others we most surely would not have been able to continue.

The evidence to support the impact of childhood trauma and the ways in which attuned relationships in particular can help is now plentiful, but has not in the main dribbled down to all the places it needs to. The dribbling takes ages and even where it reaches it has a job to overturn strong and cognitively attractive narratives around naughty, out-of-control, offending children and young people – that they have a choice and are unwisely taking the wrong path, something we with our superior … superior something or other, would not do if we were to find ourselves in the same situation. The problem, in sticking to this cognitively comfortable but ultimately doomed narrative, is that the only logical response to the wayward behaviour of our children is blame. Blame is the sloppy response that protects us from facing the painful realisation that our experience of the world may not be the only experience there is and that perhaps we are not as innately and wonderfully ‘good’ as we think we are. Blame also acts as a barrier to helping trauma-experienced children and young people realise that they in turn are not innately ‘bad’ and given the right support could access a future as bright as that which the rest of us are raised to believe we deserve.

New Year’s Resolutions

My new year resolution for 2017 was to plan more fun stuff. Planning fun, doesn’t necessarily equate to having fun, but if you don’t buy the tickets, you can’t go to the Stewart Lee gig. If you buy the tickets and stick them on your fridge they are reminders to get out and and experiment with becoming untethered from misery. I dragged Mr D out to see Stewart Lee. I laughed like I might have a full-on existential crisis, but that came later in the year. In my quest to keep to my 2017 resolution I have dragged many people out with me. Some have come willingly. One time I couldn’t convince anyone to join me so I went to the cinema on my own. I saw Moonlight. It was so good it has ruined the rest of cinema for ever. There were four other people in the cinema. I wanted to talk to them all afterwards about the film. I never thought I’d ever go to the cinema on my own but now I’m sold on it. You can go on your own in the afternoon on a Tuesday and take in a coffee you didn’t buy in the cinema.

Harry Hill signed my youngest child’s Tim the Tiny Horse books and was very kind to her. We love Tim the Tiny Horse. My friend Geordie Jane came with me to see Sarah Millican. Youngest and I went to Edinburgh mid-crisis and saw Mark Steel and Katy Brand. We drank Irn Bru and fielded text messages that you wouldn’t believe. We came home and booked tickets to see Cressida Cowell.

In June I no longer had to pretend to keep my OBE a giant secret. We celebrated with a party in our garden. We put up lights and everything. Most of our guests were very surprised by the news. ‘What is it exactly you do?’ they asked and I didn’t know how to begin to answer them.

As I was emerging out from under the party hangover the police knocked on our door with a special knock that means business. I’d like to say their visit was unexpected. What they told us was hair-raising and there was much worse to come. I barely slept a whole night for months after that. The worry has been almost physically painful.

When one of our flock fledged way before time and flew off with itinerate crows and vagabonds believing them to be friends and protectors, the future broke and it nearly broke my heart with it. I’ve had to learn to protect my heart by packing it with fun and good times and tickets for things and trusting that the future will come good in the end. I’ve had to reassess my No Matter What principle, and still find it holds up. No Matter What isn’t the same as It’s Fine, Anything Goes. No Matter What is I’m Not Sinking With You But I’ll Be Here When You’re Ready.

Our reduced number went to Buckingham Palace for the grand investiture and had a 100% good time. Youngest child said ‘I feel like a famous person!’ and I loved that she said that. It was like an out-of-body experience: a million miles away from the shitshow. Peak 2017. We planned an overnight in a hotel and an afternoon tea and the plans paid off.

My new years resolution for 2018 is more of the same. Safety nets are in place to catch falling fledglings and plans are being made for the rest of the flock. A long distance walk, a mini-break. Tickets for Richard Herring and David Baddiel are stuck to the fridge. Without the tickets, you can’t get into the gig.



My National Adoption Week 2017

It’s National Adoption Week in England and this year the theme is adopting siblings; two, three or maybe even four. I have only two. Here’s my National Adoption Week so far. Please be warned that on our scale, this counts as pretty uneventful. 

I have my first ever session of Reiki. I chose Reiki because it’s 50 minutes of lying still and you get to keep your clothes on. If I had a full body massage I think my skin might come off. The Reiki woman says afterwards, ‘I sense you’ve had enough of explaining and talking’ and I spontaneously cry.

I meet one of my children in town. It’s something I try and make happen every week. We buy food in one of the only shops that hasn’t issued a banning notice. Then we go to the benefits office. The woman we see is kind and there is no judgement. Later I drive my child and two bags of food back to the hostel.

I see something of the lives of young people who have no one to shop for them, check in with them, catch them when they fall, grieve with them, fight for them, keep them in mind and it’s a reminder, despite its many imperfections, of what is valuable about adoption. Later I catch up with Woman’s Hour. June Sarpong says ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’ and I think ‘yeah, that’s more or less it in a nutshell’.

A letter arrives requesting that my youngest child take part in some research. The research has nothing and yet everything to do with adoption. Only a handful of kids in that particular school year were selected. What were the chances?!  I send a ‘no thank you’ email. Child is anxious until I send the ‘no thank you email’.

I respond to a document – the output of a committee I’ve taken part in. I ask if we could please nail down the rights and respect that should be afforded to ‘primary carers’. I also ask that ‘OBE’ be added after my name. I feel like a dick for asking. At the same time I’m so over being the sub-service user/sub-client/sub-whatever.

A friend contacts me in despair. Her child is out of control. Dangerous. Threatening. Disappearing. A passing professional takes the child’s word over her’s, not understanding that trauma has its bloody hands on the wheel. I’m reminded why I’m hoarse with asking for primary carers to be listened to and respected.

I’m asked if I would do it again. Adopt. My answer is more measured than it used to be. It’s gone from a bountiful and glowing ‘YES!’, to a ‘yes but’. It’s  ‘yes’ so long as there was a locked-in promise of life-long support and a much bigger dose of honesty during the preparation stage and beyond. As I’ve said before, I thought I was setting off on pleasant country ramble. What I got was an ultra-marathon I wasn’t equipped for.

We go to the palace; me, my husband and our youngest child. My child says ‘I’m so proud of you mum’ and I explain I can’t imagine myself without the love, the experience and the knowledge that both of them have given me. Then, ‘I’m so glad you’re my mum.’ We have a day that despite being tinged with loss is beyond amazing.

Adoption support – the tanker is turning

The media coverage this week, sparked by the File on 4/Adoption UK survey into adoption support has been saddening, a bit maddening and in a strange way uplifting. Uplifting because it’s the first time I can recall the knotty reality of parenting traumatised children being extensively explored and aired on mainstream media.

We adopted our children thirteen years ago when the prevailing belief was that love and boundaries would fix whatever was broken. There were few to no services within either local authorities or the health service. There wasn’t even a language with which to describe and make sense of the complex and totally unfamiliar set of behaviours that we and many others like us were faced with, some of which were reported this week. After years of bafflement and mistake-making it slowly became clear to me that what helped to make sense of the great magnificent mess of it all was an understanding of physical and psychological trauma. That realisation was like the illumination of a giant lightbulb and it has lit my thinking, my parenting and my work every since. But until relatively recently, to talk of trauma and even attachment (hardly a new kid on the block) was to risk much professional eyebrow raising and worse, being blamed.

For some years now I’ve been involved, as have many others, in the push to improve services around adoptive families, including improving the understanding of early life trauma and the provision of family-friendly, trauma-informed therapeutic services. In 2013, the then Minister for Children and Families, Edward Timpson, who crucially has personal experience in the context of adoption and fostering, secured an amount of money to trial the delivery of therapeutic services to adoptive families. It was to involve as little bureaucracy as possible, as much choice for families as would allow and would, it was hoped, invigorate a starved and conservative (with a small ‘c’) public, voluntary and private sector offering. It was an ambition of many that if proven to work, the project might widen to transform services around all care-experienced children. I was asked to join a committee to steer the design and implementation of the fund, which I did.

The Adoption Support Fund didn’t get a good rap on the File on 4 programme. I can see why the ‘this ASF is funding a load of hokey’ story stuck as surely it must make sense that therapeutic services should be delivered under the watchful eyes of CAMHS, but it’s a long way from the whole story.

The ASF funds a bunch of therapies that, crudely speaking, adoptive families like and find helpful and mental health academics and others write off as a pile of hokey being delivered by charlatans, the majority who work alone, like rogue traders. Damage could be being done, they say, funded by tax payers money. What kinds of idiots and cowboys must these adoptive parents, social workers and civil servants be to allow such awful practice to carry on, one might ask.

The ASF was born (again crudely speaking) because CAMHS appeared to be mostly absent, because it rolled it’s eyes when ‘trauma’, ‘attachment’ and ‘early adversity’ were mentioned, because it was able to declare ‘these are not mental health issues’ and ‘we do not treat adopted or fostered children’ (yes really) and because of its propensity to ‘medicalise’ and medicate symptoms and send parents on inappropriate parenting courses. It was and is also chronically lacking in funding. All this left an enormous, howling void of distress. Voids get filled, with all sorts of good and bad stuff. What happened with this void was that it got filled with the efforts and dogged  commitment of adoptive families and many of those supporting them to make sense of the behaviours, finding what improved the lives and outcomes of their children. Adopters aren’t stupid hysterics who will fall for any old horse-wash, not in my experience anyway.

What was found were the sorts of therapeutic approaches allowable under the Adoption Support Fund, many originating in the US and not evidenced to the satisfaction of UK bodies. These are approaches such as DDP and Theraplay. Many adopters who could afford to, funded these therapies themselves, some even remortgaged their homes. Word spread, conferences were attended, experiences were shared and many local authorities, recognising the value of these approaches, came on board too. Some professionals working within the NHS, such as clinical psychologists began to come across these approaches and finding them useful absorbed them into their own practice. (I know I’m explaining this mini-revolution crudely and possibly inaccurately, but bear with me.) These are some of the rogue traders that were described in File on 4 – individuals or collectives who left the NHS, for a multitude of reasons.

That’s not to say that all those practitioners being funded by the ASF are good, or that their practice is positively impactful, because lots more research is needed. It is said by some that we also need more research into some of the interventions employed under CAMHS – what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The ASF is the start of what promises to be a long, difficult process of assessing and embedding best practice, of encouraging more flexible, family-friendly approaches that respond to the complexity of individual need, of responding to latest findings, of ensuring that services around children are trauma-informed and of measuring long-term outcomes. I say it’s the start, but if the ASF gets written off as funding horse-wash then it risks being binned and we’ll be back where we started shouting into the howling void being pelted with CBT, Ritalin prescriptions and blame.

Changing complex human systems that sweep up the very best and worst of human experience, that involve budgets, politics and power balances is devilishly difficult. It takes bloody ages and for long stretches it can seem as though nothing is happening and all you hear are criticisms. But this kind of long, difficult work is like trying to turn a giant tanker, using a few little tugs, being fired upon by gunships. You have to stick at it.

The tanker is starting to turn. Discussions around the long term impacts of early adversity, childhood trauma and attachment difficulties are coming into the mainstream and tremendous work is being carried out around the country to support and heal adoptive children and their families. Things are unrecognisably better than when we first found ourselves grasping into the dark, being told that trauma wasn’t a thing. There is tonnes more to do for all children who have experienced early adversity for sure, but the foundations are there. Now is the time to build on those foundations, not to tear them up.

Improving mental health services for adopted children: co-production

The story so far ….

In October 2015 feedback from adopters about CAMHS services was presented to a large meeting of professionals and government officials. The feedback was the result of an informal but substantial consultation with adopters and professionals and the suggestions we made to improve services were cohesive and well thought through.

In March 2017, again in consultation those proposals were boiled down to two core principles that most agreed should be part of a good quality service that would meet the needs of adopted children and their families.

That brings us to now. This week I submitted four detailed proposals to the expert group I belong to. I’ve tried to stick to things that are achievable and affordable.  These are:

Mandatory training (initial and continuing) for all mental health professionals who work with adoptive families in complex trauma and attachment, co-produced by adopted young people and their families.

Adopted young people and their families to be embedded in commissioning and governance of mental health services and in their design, delivery and evaluation. Again, co-production.

Establishment of regional centres of excellence that specialise in complex trauma and attachment, that act as a focus for creating excellence in services and improving skills, education and research. Involve users in the design, delivery and evaluation of services. Co-production.

Development of an app for adoptive parents that encourages and supports self-monitoring of mental wellbeing. acts as a prompt for self care and records data around what helps and hinders. (Not meant as an alternative to professional support). Not very well thought out, so could be a crap idea.

NB I refer to adoptive parents throughout because these are the people who have taken part in this work. I don’t mean to exclude others who parent care-experienced children and young people, although these proposals could work across the board, I’m just taking care not to speak outside my area of experience.

Services that listen to and learn from their users, work best for those users, and adoptive families are no different. Plus we are engaged, committed and well-trained. What’s not to like?

Improving mental health services for adopted children

Some weeks ago I asked for your help in submitting user-based ‘evidence’ to an expert group tasked with improving mental health and emotional wellbeing support for care-experienced children and young people. I asked you to tell me about the clear and achievable ways in which you thought mental health services could be radically improved for adoptive families.

Your responses were full of experience, good ideas and passion. Almost everything you suggested boiled down to two principles that you told me should underpin improvements to mental health services;

  • empower, respect and ‘tool up’ families in order to improve their ability to support their children, and
  • improve professional expertise particularly in trauma and early adversity.

Many of you continue to report that when you can access child and adolescent mental health services your child’s early life experiences are not explored or seen to be relevant and you feel blamed for your child’s difficulties and disbelieved. The more experience I gain and the more I learn, the stronger my view that adoptive families, as well as others who parent care-experienced children and young people are a valuable, knowledgeable and essential part of healing and growth. It makes no sense in health or economic terms to work against the willing, the able and the emotionally invested.

Thank you to everyone who responded, including members of Adoption UK and POTATO. Thank you also to the professionals who checked out our principles and who gave encouragement and advice. Please feel free to use and share this graphic if you’d like to.