Tag Archives: adoption

All you need is a spare room

The charity Home For Good working with Bath and North East Somerset Council invited me to speak at a service to mark the work of foster carers, kinship carers, special guardians and adoptive parents at Bath Abbey on 11 February. I’d like to thank them for inviting me. It was wonderful event. This is what I said.

Last year a local authority was forced to issue an apology after it launched a recruitment campaign for foster carers, using the slogan “all you need is a spare room”. You can see what their intention was, but it was rather tone deaf.

That same slogan popped up on my Facebook feed this week. “All you need is a spare room” it declared. There was a jaunty but unconvincing exclamation mark at the end, trying a bit too hard, as exclamation marks so often do.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, that’s abuse, neglect other toxically stressful, traumatic experiences are driving a public health crisis. This one, isn’t the result of a single pathogen, like a coronavirus. It’s causes and transmission routes complicated. The headlines are that across a population, a score of 6 or more ACES increases the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, mental health problems, diabetes and substance abuse and reduces life expectancy. At a population level, toxically stressful childhoods lead to poor outcomes and are costly at a human and a national level.

Just last month a small study in Wales found a link between a high number of ACES and vaccine hesitancy as well as resistance to mask wearing and abiding by lockdown rules. One could also ponder the similarity in the behaviours of the chronically under- and chronically over-privileged. But I promised myself I wouldn’t stray into politics, so I won’t go there. The study concluded and I quote: “better compliance with public health advice is another reason to invest in safe and secure childhoods for all children”.

But what does that mean? Investing in safe and secure childhoods? How do we untangle and address the underlying causes of this public health crisis?

There is one intervention that we know of. According to the World Health Organisation, it is the single most effective intervention for abuse and neglect. It buffers the effect of ACES, dramatically improves mental and physical health and increases earnings.

That intervention is good parenting.

And that’s what all of you here provide, day in and day out, in addition to a spare bedroom.

Through your love, care, commitment and perseverance you make a profound difference, to the lives of children and young people. And collectively you are tackling the roots of a public health crisis.

If you are squirming in your seat, because you find the praise a bit awkward, then buckle up. There’s more to come.

In my day job as the editor of a magazine – Adoption Today – the membership magazine for the charity Adoption UK, I have the privilege of interviewing many special guardians, kinships carers, foster carers and adoptive parents. I zoom into their homes and they share their stories and their advice and they allow me to share these with our readers. They are as are you, an exceptionally generous group of people.

Recently I’ve been interviewing those supporting young people with stacks of ACES, as they negotiate that most difficult life transition – moving into adulthood. Young people with substance abuse problems, severe mental health issues, and involvement in the criminal justice system. Many of these carers and parents manage high risk, life and death situations on a fairly regular basis. And there are those who after years of raising a child are now raising that child’s child – something that they had never planned to be doing in their retirement years. If all that wasn’t enough to contend with, almost all of them describe the battles they fight for services, support and sometimes even understanding. They use the words “battle” and “fight”and I’m sure many of you here today would use similar words. Revealingly, it is the language of war – waged by whom, isn’t entirely clear.

These are stories of heroism. No other word fits. These carers and parents wouldn’t regard the continued, committed, extraordinary care they give as heroic. “It’s what you do”, they would say, “because you care and you love deeply. You never give up hope. You keep doing your best for that young person, because they deserve it. And because usually there is no one else”.

Heroism isn’t only about the strength summoned up in the extreme situations. Heroism is found in the everyday effort required to ensure our children can access what they so desperately need and have a right to – a good and inclusive education, involvement in community, the opportunity to play sports and engage in the arts, opportunities to witness different lives, to travel and to dream. Every day heroism is to be found here, in Bath Abbey today.

The daily and often unnoticed and undervalued heroism that you all show up with, is quite literally changing lives. And it is so much more than a spare room.

Thank you.

The Traditions That Glue Families Together

What makes a family?  For many people this question doesn’t ever need asking, but for those of us who have assembled a family through adoption it is a relevant one.  So many things do not make our families.  They are clearly not made by a shared genetic heritage.  I am no more biologically related to my children, than I am my husband.  There are many aspects of our own experiences of being parented which we cannot hand down either and so we have had to learn new ways of parenting.  But nevertheless, the Donovans, the four of us, are a strong family unit.

Our esteemed Social Worker, Mr R who has helped us through some tricky times, recently talked to us about family traditions, ‘you know’ he said, ‘the sorts of things that are particular to your family, little phrases, particular names for things, days which are marked in special ways’.  He described these family oddities as the glue which sticks and binds and is the starting culture of a shared heritage.

Of course, when put on the spot for something like this, the mind goes blank.  (It is like being asked what your favourite books or albums are and inexplicably your brain is only able to access the late 1980s – ‘yes I very much enjoy The Bone People and kd Lang).  So to Mr R, Rob and I both looked as though we lacked the imagination to create even the flimsiest of traditions.  The obvious family traditions are woven into the Big Days such as birthdays and (breathe out first) Christmas.  But for many adoptive families, the Big Days are littered with landmines, which are exploded by the trip wires of vague memories, broken attachments and shame. So for our families, more than most, our traditions have to be rooted in the every day, the mundane and also the bizarre.

Here are a selection of some of my favourite Donovan family traditions:

  • the person who creeps downstairs early in the morning and eats biscuits and cake decorations is known as ‘the cupboard fairy’, we all know her human form, but we do not speak her name, for she knows who she is
  • the cloth which removed all signs of food around tiny mouths after mealtimes was affectionately known as ‘the magic flannel’, it has gone out of use, but it’s memory continues
  • ‘I’m Thinking About My Doorbell. When You Gonna Ring It?  When You Gonna Ring It?’ by the White Stripes is the family anthem, we all know the words and can air drum along to it, the little Donovans are yet to understand the true meaning of the lyrics
  • we have our own Donovan family ranking system for swear words which starts with ‘arse’ and ends with, well, a word which came up when whilst we were reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the eldest Donovan child, which I shall leave for you dear readers to deduce.

And all these strange terms and quirky little songs and the memories which they hold, all play their part in giving us a shared language with which we can celebrate the good times.

E-Petition, Rights for adopted children formerly in Local Authority Care

When our son started to have significant problems at school, it came as a shock to our family that the state had no legal obligation to provide either psychological or educational support for him.  If we had fostered and not adopted him, he would have been eligible to receive the support he needed.  The impact upon chlldren of neglect and abuse is obviously not washed clean by the granting of an adoption order, but the beaurocracy chooses not to see it that way.  Adoptive parents are left fighting a system for help, when their time and energies are already under great strain.  Adoptive children are left to fail, which only goes to reinforce their view of themselves, that what has happened to them is their fault.  At the same time that these huge demands are put upon adoptive parents, we are told that there is a desperate shortage of adopters.  There could well be a connection.  It is estimated that for each child adopted the state saves a million pounds.  It does not seems unfair that a small part of this saving should go towards supporting some of our most vulnerable children. 

An e-petition has been posted on the government website which seeks to rectify this situation.  It hits the nail on the head.  I urge everyone to take two minutes, follow the link and to sign the petition.  It could make a real difference to thousands of children who have the right to a second chance.




Let Them Eat Baked Beans – is there something in the UNICEF report for us all?

After several years of dealing with our childrens’ challenging behaviour (as it is somewhat euphemistically referred to) we were lucky enough to get help from a brilliant social worker specialising in fostered and adopted children.  If I could boil his message down into one easily digestible mouthful it was this: spend every moment you can with your children, it will help them to feel secure and will lessen their opportunities to fail at things.  He did not recommend that we kit up with Apple products, a flat screen television and an x-box kinect.

Ground down and brain turned half to jelly, this didn’t sound too appealing at first.  And I thought I was already spending lots of time with them.  He persisted.    ‘Forget about what the house looks like, forget about making wonderful meals, eat Heinz beans every night if it means you can be with them and do whatever they want to do.’  That part was music to my ears.  I bought baked beans, plus eggs and some grated cheese (I still have my standards) and therein began a big transformation in our family.  We watched hours of Almost Naked Animals, Barbie Swan Lake and Deadly 60 together.  Then after our beans on toast, we watched The Simpsons, or rather the children watched me laughing at The Simpson’s (why’s that funny mum?/well that man there is Richard Nixon… never mind’).  It wasn’t all television.  We made things, like paper money and toilet roll people, we cooked, we had a sports day in the garden.  Hardly the stuff of a mumsnet blog, but it made the most remarkable difference to both of our children.  They became calmer, less confrontational, we talked about things, we had fun.  They came to understand when I was tired and needed to doze through ‘Tracy Beaker’ and sometimes they happily took themselves off to play in their bedrooms.  Whenever things get difficult now I restock the tin cupboard, ignore the mess and get down with the kids.

In 2007, a UNICEF report found that children in the UK are the unhappiest in all of the industrialised world.  Yesterday they issued a report which tries to explain why this might be.  Their conclusion?  We try to compensate for spending inadequate time with our children by showering them with material goods.  And guess what?  It doesn’t work.  And this applies to families of all social classes and all races.  Maybe there is a lesson in there for all of us.