Last Sunday there was an article in the Sunday Times, by Megan Agnew, titled “We had to hand our adopted child back – we had no choice.” The article is behind a paywall and I appreciate it may not be accessible to everyone, so I can tell you that it includes material from interviews with a number of adoptive parents, from Adoption UK, Nigel Priestley, Professor Stephen Scott and a spokesperson from the Department for Education. It talks about the changes in the adoption system over the years, about the need for support for families from the very start of the process because of the early experiences of children, and the tragic circumstances of families who no longer feel able to provide safety and security for their children and the rest of their family. Some of the families concerned were able to access support that was helpful, some went on to ask Children’s Services to accommodate their child under s20. In some situations this was seen as a success story; in others the plight of the child and the family became even worse. Essentially the piece is highlighting the need for proper support for adoptive families to enable them to stay safe and stay together; the reality of child to parent violence for many families driven by trauma and mental health difficulties; and the post code lottery of support available. In that sense it is not a new story, but by retelling it there is a hope that one day things might improve.
I was on holiday last week, and I read the piece on my phone sitting on a bench in the bright sun, outside a church while I waited to meet someone. I tell you this only to admit that the circumstances for proper reflection were not ideal! What I read suggested that the author had listened to the families interviewed with some compassion, and that she had sought to present their stories in all their messy details. There was a mix of outcomes to reflect life on the ground. Each of us will come to a story from our own perspective. Mine is that of wanting to raise awareness of child to parent violence, and to promote better services for families to keep all members safe; to understand that the children concerned are hurting as much as their parents; and that only by addressing the needs of all family members can we achieve safety and growth. As my wait on a bench came to an end, I retweeted the piece and added some comments about the stories being powerful.
As with all these things, there have been some who liked the piece and found it helpful and informative, and others who felt otherwise. (The response from Adoption UK, for instance, is here.) Some of these views have been expressed generally on Twitter, some have been directed to me personally and I would like to think about these. Some people were concerned about the content, that it was not representative, others were more hurt by the words themselves. There was particular concern that the the voice of the young people themselves was missing, and that it was thus a one-sided article; and furthermore that the actual phraseology was clumsy and damaging, particularly the words “hand our adopted child back”. I won’t try to defend the author – I am sure she can do a better job herself. It’s likely she had little or no control over the headline, that’s the way these things work. I will say that this was a longish piece, extensively researched and with the aim of telling a particular story. Inevitably it is difficult to include everything. I stand by my original observation that there was real compassion in the way the stories were told.
BUT … all of us would do well to consider the words we use, and I include myself very much in this. The reality that adopted children cannot always remain within their new family is a difficult one, and how to express the pain of many parents having to admit that they cannot carry on in the same way when they ask for help is one that needs sensitivity, informed by those very parents. “Parenting at a distance” has become a concept that many people now recognise, but how to describe the process by which this happens? “Hand back” is not a phrase that adoptive parents, nor the children themselves, would choose.
And secondly, how can we ensure that in future we better include the voices of young people, often care-experienced people, rather than simply as objects in the process? I know that when researchers have tried to hear from children using harmful behaviour, it has been a fraught affair, blocked either by ethics committees or by parents anxious about further increasing the harm. There is a growing library of words about the issue of child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse, but where this includes the voice of the young person, this is the exception. We need to find a way to change this, to hear more from young people about how they experience family life, what the violence means to them, what helps from their point of view, and importantly how they would like their experiences to be described. I hope that some will contact me, and help me to do better myself in future.