January 2014 Prep Group Blog

WEEK 4 – 8 February 2014

Prologue

It’s the usual blogger’s other half here. I thought I’d write the last part of this blog to get yet another perspective on the preparation meetings and to relieve some pressure while he’s got work deadlines to get on with. So if you’re sitting comfortably then I’ll begin.

Chapter 1 Act 1

We arrive at Scottish Adoption, and now that our group has now got to know each other a little better there’s chat about what we’re doing for the rest of the weekend; some are watching the rugby, others are having a quiet night in, while one couple is off on holiday to the Big Apple! We swallow our envy and wish them well for their American adventure; this next holiday possibly being the last quiet one for some time.

After Adoption

Maureen Kinnell, Practice Manager of the ‘After Adoption’ team starts today off by explaining the many services available through Scottish Adoption for both adoptive children and their adoptive parents. She acknowledges that it is probably quite difficult for us to think about what happens after we adopt as we are early on in the process. To be honest it is a little strange to think about this but ultimately it is helpful to understand that Scottish Adoption is a source of support long after we become a family.

Maureen goes on to say that children will be thinking about what adoption means to them and that this will crop up at various stages of their life. It makes a lot of sense to be open with children about adoption and to discuss this from an early stage, in an age appropriate way. All the way through the preparation groups this openness and willingness to talk about adoption is emphasised. Thankfully it’s a far cry from how this subject used to be handled.

Meeting Margaret Moyes

These preparation groups have been a great opportunity to learn a bit more about Scottish Adoption and to meet more of the staff who work here. Margaret Moyes, the Chief Executive of Scottish Adoption, joins us for a quick chat to explain a bit more about the management structure and to give a brief history of the agency. She is keen to hear our feedback and asks why we chose Scottish Adoption over the other 36 adoption agencies in Scotland. The general consensus is that the website was really accessible and contained lots of useful information that helped base our decision. There’s mention of the next stage of the process, the home study visits, and Margaret reassures us that although we will be working with one social worker over this period that Scottish Adoption is still there if we ever need more information or support, so that’s nice to know!

What is Child Abuse? The Impact of Abuse and Neglect On Behaviour and Attachment

Our facilitators start this part of today by asking us to write down on Post-it notes words to describe what a child needs. Words relating to love, fun, food, consistency, opportunities, shelter and family are common responses. The facilitators then examine the ways people like Mia Kellmer Pringle, Dan Hughes and Holly Van Gulden have written about the needs of children. It’s encouraging to know that, as a group we’re all on the right track. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is mentioned, which says that for a child to develop healthily, needs relating to basic survival (e.g. sleep, food, shelter) must be met before higher-level needs such as self-development and esteem. It’s important to understand these basic building blocks help shape a child’s development and to consider the potential impact when these are missed out.

We’re then asked to split up into groups and identify types of neglect and abuse. A few have dealt with this in their line of work so, whilst not easy to talk about, they are more readily able to identify the different types of trauma and the categories of abuse. We are encouraged to find ways to talk with children in an age-appropriate way about their earlier experiences including, where appropriate, earlier experiences of neglect and abuse. We then watch a video clip where Kate Cairns discusses the different types of behaviours displayed by children that might indicate early experiences of trauma. Personally it’s been quite challenging today but I recognise it’s an important and necessary part of the meetings to understand the situations some children have experienced.

Lunch…

It’s a welcome break to head out to grab a bite to eat and some of us head to our now local haunt. Big shout out to one of our group, whose extensive knowledge of the local eateries has helped us get well fed and well watered each week.

Therapeutic Parenting

After lunch we’re asked to identify the things that children do that can annoy us. Suggestions such as pushing boundaries, fighting, tantrums, jumping on furniture and drawing on things are offered, although it seems more like a check-list of my personal behaviour than anything else!

Sheets of paper with words relating to how we respond when we get angry are then laid out on the floor and we are asked to stand on the word or words that best represent how we react when angry. Some people gravitate towards Go Quiet, while others towards Negotiate. It was rather lonely over on the Shout marker. Following on from this activity we’re encouraged to recognise the need to find new ways of responding to a child who may be hyper-sensitive to certain types of anger as a result of their earlier history. Empathy and playfulness are important ways to handle our angry responses and while of course we’ll all get angry at some point or another, it’s essential to reconnect quickly with the child in order to reinforce attachment.

We watch another video by Dan Hughes in which he discusses how children who have suffered neglect and/or abuse can require additional support, such as making opportunities for playful interaction and encouraging eye contact, which may have been lacking in earlier life. Again, we’re reassured about the additional support available from Scottish Adoption around therapeutic parenting and working with children whose earlier lives might have left them with additional attachment needs.

What next?

We recap on the next stage, the home study, in which we’ll be completing Form F with our allocated social worker. We’re then given a form which indicates our interest in progressing with the process. I had expected to write a small novella justifying why we wanted to proceed and while we’re just to sign our names on the dotted line we’re told to take these home so we can have a good think about things and to hand these into Scottish Adoption the following week.

At the end of each week we’ve been given hand-outs of various information related to adoption and issues focussed around that subject. This week is no different and I spot a rather academic looking paper that I’ll save for a quieter evening to get stuck into.

But this is it, we’ve come to the end of the preparation group meetings. We swap contact details, wish everyone good luck for the next stages and we say our hopeful good byes.

Epilogue

For me, writing this blog has proved a useful way to reflect on all the things that have been discussed, not only in today’s meeting but all the others we have previously attended.

The preparation meetings have provided a solid foundation of knowledge which has at times challenged my preconceptions but also reinforced my (and our) thinking about the adoption process.

I know we’ve got a long way to go but we’re left feeling quite positive about the home study stage of the process. We expect it will be challenging and will raise difficult questions but as the adoptive parents we met last week said, it is also an opportunity to get to know each other better.

WEEK 3 – 1 February 2014

It’s my partner’s birthday this weekend, and although he was dropping heavy-handed hints last week about expecting cake, he still didn’t notice the balloons and banners that had been put up for him when we arrived! It’s a lovely welcome, and a great way to start the day.

Contact with birth families, continued

Our facilitators, based on our questions and concerns about contact last week, start by showing some DVDs about the more ‘negative’ aspects of contact with birth families. We see adoptive parents and children talk about occasions when contact can be confusing or distressing for children, and hear about situations where the birth parents stop making contact, sending updates or replying to letters. We acknowledge that contact can sometimes be complex, but we’re a bit relieved to hear that it is not a static once-and-for-all arrangement and can usually be tailored to the needs of the child at varying stages. While it’s understandable that contact with their birth family might sometimes be confusing or upsetting for a child, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for them in the longer term, and careful judgements need to be made about ways of managing contact in the child’s best interests. While we might initially think about contact with birth parents, there are sometimes also grandparents, siblings and others to consider. We also have to acknowledge some of our, perhaps less rational, fears about contact, such as an anxiety about competition between birth and adoptive parents. It is good to be presented with a balanced picture about contact with birth families, and open discussion probably helps address some of our underlying concerns and fears.

Gender groups

Our facilitators then ask that the men and the women get into separate groups, one in the training room and one in the library, so we have some open space without the facilitators present to discuss our experiences, questions and concerns. As my partner and I were both in the men’s group we don’t have much insight into what happened in the other group, other than hearing lots of laughter when we snuck out for a coffee and a biscuit. We guys clearly had less to talk about (the women requested additional time) but we talked about the process so far, some of our questions and concerns about the process, work and adoption/paternity leave, and where we thought the secret cameras might be hidden! We also looked at Scottish Adoption’s annual review, focusing on the number of children placed for adoption each year and the age range and locations of children placed for adoption: http://www.scottishadoption.org/about/reports. Our facilitators had brought cake and chocolates for my partner’s birthday. These proved a welcome distraction when conversation ran dry!

When the groups got back together we had some time to share some of the issues which came up, including the process of home study and building relationships with our social workers, of the importance of being honest throughout the process, and of going to panel.

We returned again to possible anxieties about meeting a child for the first time without having seen a photo, but having read reports about their known history and experiences. It’s a bit of a daunting prospect and we’re advised not to expect love at first sight – there is a process of attachment we should expect to work through. Again it is emphasised that photographs might tug at the heart strings but the decision to adopt needs to be taken on the basis of a good-enough match between the needs of the child and the prospective adoptive parents.

Lunch

We’ve got an hour for lunch today, and most of us decide to go to a local café together. It’s good to have a bit of social space outside the press of the training agenda, and to get to know one another a little bit more outside of the group setting.

Meeting an Adoptive Couple

After lunch we get the chance to hear from a couple who have been through the process. It is so helpful to hear their experience of home visits, panel, matching and of their legal process to adoption, which they generously and openly share with us. They’re accompanied by their social worker and together they discuss their experience of home study, something they said was an emotional but positive experience for them where they thought about their own childhoods, laughed a bit, and learned more about one another. We also hear about their positive (though understandably nerve-wracking) experience of panel; something they described as full of ‘advocates for adoption’. We’re struck by the metaphor which one of them uses; that following their acceptance by the panel, the ‘little shadow’ that is the potential child they have been imagining starts to become more real, more substantial. They were matched quite quickly and they tell us about their experience of meeting their child for the first time, of their difficulty reading the ‘sad details’ of her earlier life, of meeting her, and of being driven back home by a friend of theirs - a big burly bloke – who was sobbing with them as they took their daughter home.

Helpfully, they don’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the experience, which in their case revolved around significant legal wrangles and a long, fraught, and occasionally badly managed process to legally adopt their daughter. They’re anxious not to put us off adopting, but their honest sharing doesn’t put us off – it provides useful balance and helps us prepare for potential difficulties.

While they did experience challenges, there’s laughter too about their attempts in the early days of having their daughter home to practice funnelling – trying to manage unexpected contact with excited grandparents by ducking behind trees, for example.

We see the photo book they had prepared for their daughter before the initial meeting, showing her who they were and what their house looked like, and some photos of their beautiful smiling daughter at home.

It’s undoubtedly a highlight of the day, hearing about their experiences of the adoption process (both the ups and the downs), and the way they feel their daughter has improved their life.

House Rules

We conclude the day with an exercise about ‘house rules’ – what do we find acceptable or unacceptable? We’re given a range of statements and we have to indicate where we would stand – for example, a fourteen year old girl leaving the house in a miniskirt; leaving the toilet door open; adults walking about naked in front of children; a younger child watching a 15-rated movie; a teenage boy having a topless poster on his bedroom wall. It’s interesting to look at the diversity of opinions in the room (and sometimes between partners), and it’s good that our facilitators join in so we’re all in it together. It helps identify some of our ‘hot buttons’ and expectations, and we conclude with a reminder that this might be what we think now, but parenting might change our ideas!

We think ahead to next week and acknowledge that the weeks have flown by.

WEEK 2 - 25 January 2014

We’re not feeling so nervous this week, having a clearer idea what to expect and knowing there will be some familiar and friendly faces there.

Typical Stages of Child Development

We begin by getting into two groups, each of which has to identify the typical age at which certain stages of child development will begin; for example bonding, or beginning to be interested in friends and fashion. There’s some interesting debate in our group, based on how we interpret the words for each stage. For example, the stage ‘when mum needs to have eyes in the back of her head’ could last from ages 2 to 42! When our two groups get back together and compare our answers it quickly becomes apparent that one group was very decisive, followed the rules conscientiously, and made sure all their answers were placed squarely within a single category, while the group I was in interpreted the rules slightly more ‘creatively’ and put a number of our answers across the border of two categories, hedging our bets a bit!

Once we’ve compared the answers of the two groups, we go over the typical stages of child development and consider the delayed development which some children placed for adoption show as a result of their upbringing and experiences.

The Importance of Play, and Chocolate!

We’re shown a short video, supposedly to help us understand an important point about child development but, as one of our facilitators confesses, also because it’s fun. We’re shown a number of small children left alone in front of a chocolate cake with clear instructions not to touch it or eat it until the adult returns. Understandably, the temptation is too much for most of them (as it would be for me too), and we watch their sidelong glances turn into tentative touching, then gently nibbling a corner or, in the case of one small boy, launching himself face-first! When the adult returns we see them try to pretend they have followed instructions not to eat any, some of them still smeared with chocolate in front of devastated cakes.

While it is ‘cute’ to see a three or four year old deny eating chocolate cake with the evidence all over their face, we’re asked how might we feel with a seven or eight year old in the same situation? The warm and playful responses of the adults in the video are highlighted as helpful and appropriate, bearing in mind the capacities of the children, and we’re reminded that adopted children may need greater understanding in relation to their developmental age and stage, which may not match their chronological age.

This brings us on to a discussion about the importance of play – the warm interactions which occur in play help children to learn and are centrally important for their development. Children who have had limited or inappropriate opportunities for play may need extra support and opportunities to experience the types of play which they might have missed. For example, peek-a-boo – which might be normal interaction with a small baby - might be therapeutic for an older adopted child, helping develop their sense of the constancy of caring adults.

Attachment Theory and the Impact of a Lack of Attention

Illustrating the importance of interaction, play and warm attention in child development, we’re shown a video of children in a Russian orphanage. While some of the children have some regular interaction with caring adults (as is the case for one wee boy whose homeless mother visits every day and plays with him) others have less one-on-one attention. We see the impact on these small children as they turn their faces away from the adults who pick them up, refusing or being unable to tolerate direct face-to-face interaction, or as they become placid and slightly dull-eyed as they stop crying for attention, having learned that no-one will necessarily come. We see the impact on brain development, with neglected and under-stimulated children showing significant differences in parts of the brain associated with language, interaction, motor skills, and basic survival. It is upsetting stuff.

The video hammers home the importance of consistent, warm interaction and play, of one-to-one attention from a caring adult, for normal child development. The good news is that recent research has been suggesting greater ‘plasticity’ (i.e. ability to continue growing, changing and developing throughout life) than was previously suspected, and while there’s a lot of advanced research going on in this field, the things which seem to help are (thankfully) not rocket science – play, warmth, care, laughter, interaction.

Before lunch we watch another video of a young girl who had half her brain removed to prevent potentially life-threatening seizures. We’re shown the remarkable recovery she has made, illustrating the ability of the brain to compensate and to continue developing, given the right care and an appropriate environment.

It’s been a lot to take in and we’re relieved when we’re given an hour for lunch. This time a few of us decide to go for lunch together, getting to know one another a bit more. Thankfully one of the other prospective adopters knows the area well and recommends a nice local café. It’s a relief to have a breather and to decompress a bit after what has been challenging emotional material.

Brain Development, continued

After lunch we return briefly to the theme of brain development, watching a short video by Daniel Hughes, who we’re told is a special favourite of one of our blushing facilitators! We talk about the impact of neglect on brain development and in particular the amygdala (the ‘reptilian’ or ‘primitive’ brain which controls survival and basic functioning). While this is linked to a lot of serious academic theory, the basic message is that abuse and neglect impact significantly on child development, and that children may consequently need the types of care and support which typically would have been provided at earlier ages. Neglect can be particularly difficult, having a more damaging potential impact on brain development. However, therapeutic play and consistent warm attention can be enormously helpful for children who have faced these enormously difficult circumstances.

Losses and Gains for birth parents and for adoptive parents

We’re asked to get into two groups, one identifying losses and gains from the adoption process for birth parents and one identifying losses and gains for adopters from the adoption process. We recognise the loss of dignity, power and respect which birth parents may feel, alongside their loss of contact with their children, and some of the losses which we as prospective adopters may face, from the serious (e.g. loss of some degree of privacy as a result of the adoption process) to the potentially more frivolous (e.g. loss of lie-ins, loss of tidiness and order in our homes). We’re encouraged to recognise grief as an inevitable part of the adoption process for birth parents, for adoptive parents, and for the children themselves.

Contact

We get into groups again and we’re asked to identify any questions we have about contact between birth parents, siblings, wider family, children, and ourselves. There’s some trepidation about this, and a range of powerful feelings. How do we feel about birth parents who may have been neglectful, incapable or abusive? We have a range of fears about our own safety, about the potential risks for children and, if we’re honest, about the impact on our own bonding with the children, which we start to talk through.

When we come back into the group we watch a number of videos – one from a birth mother whose children were later adopted. We hear a little about the circumstances which led to her children being placed for adoption. Other videos of adopted children, birth parents, and adoptive parents demonstrate the helpfulness of some contact, helping us to put it in context. We’re reassured to some degree about the ways this can be managed by the agency so it’s safe and in the best interests of the children, and we begin to appreciate the advantages there can be when it goes well. We hear about birth parents who, despite being angry with social workers and disputing the adoption process, can offer important information about their child’s early life, routine, favourite things. This initial contact, where possible, allows a greater degree of continuity and a smoother transition into the adoptive family. It also means the child can have a sense of their earlier history, of where they came from and how they came to be adopted, delivered in an age-appropriate way.

We end the day full to the brim of thoughts, feelings, anticipation. Next week, we’re told, we’ll be given some space to talk amongst ourselves. I suspect we all have a lot to talk about!

WEEK 1 – 18 January 2014

We gather nervously together in the training room, a group of strangers starting a new year together by exploring a possible new direction in our lives –parenting through adoption.  It’s nerve-wracking stuff, we’re not entirely sure what to expect, and we try to keep our self-consciousness in check while we wait for the group to begin, making slightly awkward chit-chat. Our facilitators help by warmly welcoming us, joking and encouraging us until it is time to begin.

Introductions – Getting to Know You…

We’re asked to get into pairs, couples working with someone other than their partner, and to briefly introduce ourselves, saying our name and giving a little background. When we’ve had sufficient time, we then have to introduce each other to the larger group. Some of us initially feel unsure we’ll be able to remember important details about the person we’re to introduce, our own anxiety getting in the way of accurate recall, but we all manage and it’s good to hear people’s voices and begin to know the group.

In fact it’s relief hearing a bit about one another. We’re a mixed bunch: couples with children and step-children by previous relationships, single adopters, same-sex couples, a range of backgrounds, professions, experiences and interests. We begin to settle a little as we move into the first exercise…

Childhood Homes and Memories

With introductions complete, and feeling slightly more at ease in one another’s company, we’re asked to take some flipchart paper and pens, and to draw both our childhood home and the home we live in now. When we’ve had a bit of time to do this we gather together again and each introduce our drawings, highlighting the significant people and places that surrounded us in childhood and in our present lives. We’re drawn back to our histories –to childhood adventures, pets, to smoking grandmothers, to the places where we played, or where significant events happened (X marks the spot).

Our facilitator notes that we mostly offered positive memories and associations of our childhood homes, being able to recall them and the people who were consistently around. We’re then invited to think about the experiences of children who may be looking for adoption – they might have had multiple homes, various carers and fosterers, chaotic beginnings populated with a confusing array of parents, neighbours, family members, social workers and others, perhaps multiple moves. Presences and absences which might make it difficult or impossible to remember clearly, to have a coherent sense of self, history, place and identity. We take a short coffee break, thinking about the importance of people, place and consistency in the development of memory and identity. It also gives us a more informal opportunity to talk to one another, to bond a little bit more with other group members.

After the break we meet David, Scottish Adoption’s resident IT and marketing expert, who briefly introduces himself and forewarns us he’ll be looking for a volunteer for the preparation group blog. There’s also a brief mention of social media such as Facebook and the considerations there may need to be about privacy and anonymity for children.

Children’s Profiles

We are asked to get into three groups, each of which has to look at an (anonymised) profile, either of an individual child or a sibling group needing adoption. We’re asked to identify any questions we have in response to the profiles, and the feelings stirred up in us. Discussing this in the larger group, we notice the questions we might have about what had really happened in the children’s birth families and histories, the unknown risks they might have been exposed to, the ways some of their basic needs might not have been met, the range of feelings we might have about ongoing contact with the birth family. We hear about kids who have grown up in chaotic, confusing, frightening and unsafe situations, children whose parents have been unable to look after them because of mental health problems, chaotic and unpredictable family environments, substance and alcohol abuse.  About parents who want to fight to retain custody, who feel angry and disempowered. The complexity of the feelings and backgrounds which can be involved in the adoption process quickly becomes apparent.

The written profiles offer some background information about the children and their histories and families, but the language used is compared to ‘estate agent speak’, leaving us unclear about the potential for double-meanings and for lack of clarity. For example, a description of a little girl who is generally sociable but prone to occasional temper tantrums could be read as an entirely ‘normal’ and expected stage of development, but without specific detail on the extent and intensity, it’s difficult to know.

There is some discussion about contact with the birth family and the different ways this can happen, including occasional letters or supervised visits.

The Process Spelled Out

After lunch, we’re given more detailed information on the formal process of adoption from expressing an initial interest and preparation groups, through making a formal application and home visits with a social worker to complete Form F and going to panel for approval, to matching, placement prior to adoption, and the legal formalisation of adoption. It’s helpful to have the process spelled out so clearly and to understand what to expect.

While we’re familiar with much of the information, there are still some surprises – some of us weren’t aware that children would have to be placed for approximately three months prior to legal adoption, and some expected that we would see photographs of children along with their written profiles. One of our facilitators explains that people tend to respond to photographs with their heart rather than their head, leading to prospective adopters overlooking the most difficult or challenging information in the children’s profiles, and this is something to be careful and thoughtful about. We also have a discussion about the matching process, including the standard matching of children’s written profiles with prospective adopters’ Form F, and newer (and potentially controversial) methods of matching like adoption exchanges and events where groups of children and prospective adopters are both present.

Losses and Gains from Adoption

We break into two groups, with one group considering the losses children might experience in the adoption process and the other group considering possible gains. We’re struck by the potential loss of identity, security, home, birth parents, siblings, familiarity, pets, toys, school, friends and culture which children might face while going through the adoption process. While there will hopefully be lots of gains, including security, consistency, new networks, and fun, it is obvious that children will need additional help and support to negotiate these potentially difficult transitions and to be offered an environment where they can talk about the range of their feelings.

Names, History and Identity

This brought us into a discussion about the importance of names and the loss some prospective adopters can experience in not being able to name their child. The multiple losses adopted children may already have faced, and the need to preserve a sense of continuity and identity, means it is vitally important that they retain their name, offering some consistent sense of who they are and where they came from. We talked about the feelings we might have about living with a name we would never have chosen ourselves, and the ways we could potentially manage this while helping the child to retain their identity and their link to their birth parents. Linked to all of this was the importance of honesty, transparency and openness, of being able to talk to children in an age-appropriate way about who they are, where they come from, and why they were adopted.

We then watched a couple of videos – one about a woman who realised later in life that the name she had been given by her adoptive family was not her birth name, and the confusion and distress this caused her, and the other showing a number of adopted kids talking about their own understanding and experience of adoption. It was good to see kids, many of whom would have had challenging beginnings like those we read about earlier in the children’s profiles, doing well and articulating themselves confidently and clearly; one of us said there were a number with older heads on their young shoulders. This helped emphasise the importance of honesty and openness, of presenting information in an age-appropriate manner to help children make sense of their experiences. I told the group I had recently read Jeanette Winterson’s book “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?” which talks about her own experience of realising she was adopted and going in search of her birth mother. In it she compares the secrecy of her own adoption to reading a book with the first few pages missing.

We’re at the end of the day. It’s been a lot to take in and we are thoughtful and reflective as we prepare to leave. Just before we go we’re asked to identify a volunteer to write the weekly blog and I agree following bribery with chocolate biscuits.

We say our goodbyes and head off with notes from the day and a copy of the Form F which we’re asked to look at and bring any questions to the following week’s meeting.

It’s been a very useful and full day, giving us a deeper and more sophisticated sense of what we might expect from the process. We’re already looking forward to next week.