Monday 29 October 2018

Guest Post - Does labelling support the notion of ‘divide and conquer’?

By Ren
I often wonder where our obsession with labelling started especially in education. Personally, I find the term SEND limiting not only for the child because it tells me absolutely nothing about a child, but limiting also for all those who are involved in the child’s care and support; because in reality it is such an impersonal way of thinking about a child or young person it dehumanises them. I also ponder why we call this SEND anyway- given it stands for ‘Special Educational Needs and Disability’ because in reality the child does not have an educational need they have a LIFE need- after all you can’t realistically leave your ADHD, ASD or Cerebral Palsy at school – so its not and never has been an Educational Need or and Educational Disability, it has always been a LIFE need or disability, Myelomeningocele spina bifida doesn’t disappear when you leave school for example it stays with you for all of your life, so it cannot just be an Educational Need, yet there seems to be a complete disregard for the social and care needs beyond education; in so much as parents and carers are fighting and struggling on a daily basis to get their child’s needs met and without an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) even more so. Here again the emphasis is on Education, in that without being identified as SEND then it is highly unlikely families can get an EHCP. The term is for schools and ministers to use to define a specific group of children and young people- but what does it offer the child or young person other than another label? These children are awash with labels, and often buried under them, from chronic medical conditions (generic term), SEND (generic term) to more specific ASD, FASD, Cerebral Palsy or ADHD (more specific but still general terms and often several applied at the same time) in addition they may also have further labels attached such as Conduct Disorder, Mental Health alongside Key Stage levels and indicators or assessments that outline just how much these children don’t measure up to their peers through the use of more labels. This over labelling obsession often buries the very child they are supposed to be used to help. In a country where testing and measuring up to everyone else is the primary focus of education provision, irrespective of whether or not educationalists (such as teachers) agree to this approach, we see outcomes rather than individuals, we look to achievement of only those things assessed rather than achievement overall and we focus on what someone fails to do rather than celebrate what they can do; in a hope to encourage them to do more to meet the desired tick box. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this is why so many children are failed by the ‘system’- in our mad rush to apply all the labels we can we seem to forget EVERY INDIVIDUAL CHILD IS DIFFERENT and every individual child has ‘specific needs’ -  just some children have more specific needs than other children, or more individual needs, or more special needs but every child is special to their family, is individual to other children and will have their own quirks and characteristics specific to them- as we all do. I would argue then that it should be our job as adults and as a society to ensure they get all of the encouragement and support they need to use the skills they have to enable them to achieve, not highlight their failures or add so many labels to them we lose sight of the child altogether because we are too busy trying to address or fix the ‘faulty parts’ labelled by adults for our adult attention.  
This leads me to my 2nd ponder, what if we simply stopped calling children by their legal status too, first and foremost they are not adopted, or child carers, or kinship care children- they are children. They may be children in need, but every child is a child in need are they not? What is overlooked frequently is that it is not the fact they are adopted or Asylum/ Refugee children or in Guardianship or Kinship care but that many of these children have experienced circumstances the majority of society have never had to and for some children circumstances the majority of society could never imagine either. Very many of these children will also be identified as SEND for the purpose of education or for the purpose of ‘grouping’ them into predetermined categories. Yet, they tend to be divided from those birth family children identified as SEND, for statistical purposes. So much so that these children become the ‘adopted’ children or ‘looked after children’ or the refugee children’ rather than being included into those children with SEND per se. Yet the statistical outcomes for these marginalised groups such as educational achievements, risk of exclusion or ‘behaviour difficulty’ should be seen as part of the SEND outcomes, which are failing all children who require additional support irrespective of where these children reside. This makes it difficult to determine if the indictors for the children who are ‘looked after’ or have been ‘previously looked after’ are as a consequence of their unmet SEND or as a consequence of their legal status. Published indicators tend not to separate how many of the group – such as Adopted (Previously Looked After Children) – who have experienced school exclusion or with regard to their GCSE outcomes, have a diagnosed SEND and how many do not have any SEND. By nature of their legal position, in that their history suggests there was need for them to be ‘taken into care’, it would be anticipated a significant proportion would have a number of SEND labels diagnosed or under assessment. So what would happen if we left the legal status label to one side and actually saw the child underneath, this won’t remove their additional need or any diagnosis they may have such as FASD or ASD or ADHD or Global Developmental Delay, but it might enable the actual need to be more readily seen rather than being hidden by the legal position label. What’s more if all of these families spoke as one rather than as an ‘Adoption Community’ or a ‘Kinship Community’ or a SEND parents forum for example they would make a lot more noise than as individual groups. 

I get that for many families they need the labels to be attached so they can get the help and support they need for their child, and totally understand how the current system fails so many children daily. I just don’t quite grasp why this has to be so, why we need to fight and push and argue to have children labelled simply to gain support. As a developed country we should be able to support all of our children in society and recognise not all children are the same. We should acknowledge all children have different strengths that enable them to excel beyond their peers as well as areas where they are not as able as their peers- this is their uniqueness, something we need to not only recognise but encourage, so that all children are able to achieve to the best of their own individual ability rather than be demoralised by not being ‘equal’ to someone else. So the next time you are working with any child or young person with individual needs, try to ‘see’ the child instead of the ‘label’, recognise the child is unique and individual, accept the label is for everybody else’s use but should not define the    child into predetermined boxes and whatever their legal position remember they are a child 1st and foremost, they may have very complex needs and if they do, we as a society, should be looking to support this not label it, predetermine it, or make this the main focus of how we respond- because if you do not see the child you will never know what they may just be capable of. 

Saturday 27 October 2018

Adoption & Fostering Podcast - National Adoption Week

This is episode we recorded a few thoughts on National Adoption Week as we sat on a wall outside the National Adoption Awards at the Foundling Museam in Central London. We also managed to grab the winner of the Adoption Blogger of the Year, Adoption BlogFox, for a short interview.

It's a shorter episode as we're all caught up with half term and the business of family and stuff. We will be back to normal in the next episode.
As always thank you for listening, give us a share and if you're inclined a review on iTunes here.

Friday 26 October 2018

Empathic reflex

Lot's is happening, I mean a lot. Writing, work, podcasts, doors opening, door shutting, meetings, training, screenings, blogs, dogs and house alterations.

In the midst of all that we've had the formulation back from one of the massive's assessment that was funded by the Adoption Support Fund. 

What a peculiar feeling. To see what we've been banging on about for over a decade formalised, witnessed, understood and most importantly validated. It was odd, I kept thinking in my head, they get it, they really get it. We were open to being wrong but we've attended the training and then delivered it, we've read the books, watched the youtube clips and, by gum, we've lived through it. To finally not have to lay it out in the simplest terms for whatever professional is in front of us is an amazing experience. 

So, we've these words that make sense of our child's view of themselves, the world they inhabit, the people in it and the peculiar world we've built around them to keep us all safe. 

I then felt sad again, an empathic reflex I wasn't expected as I've had a little bit of a kicking recently so had turned off the feelings a little.  Anyhow, lets not open that can of worms as we'll never get the lid back on them. 

Someone had listened and agreed. It was like a cold drink on a hot day. I know that it doesn't fix anything, I'm no fool. I'm not sure of the route forward from here but I feel a strangely better with a document that tells me how we got here.

There's a lot more to ponder and reflect on, but for now this will do.
Beware the worms. 

Thursday 18 October 2018

That Giffgaff advert - a few quick thoughts

I'm reluctant to weigh into the giffgaff debate. Mainly because I don't want to appear precious and over sensitive to how adoption is portrayed in the media and film. That's a slippery slope ending with me boycotting literally every Disney film due to the harmful mis portrayal of contemporary adoption/kinship care and step families. 

If we object to one then do we have to object to them all? Can we select what we're offended at? I'm not sure, of course Giffgaff don't get to choose how we receive their advert and I don't agree with many portrayals or references in media of adoption but I'll be honest I still enjoy Annie and most of the other stuff. So, what to think about Giffgaff? well being cynical I'd suggest that their marketing team are giddy that they're stirring up a mini storm that they can capitalise on, as they say there's no such thing as bad publicity. There was no chance that I'd be looking at their Twitter profile if it weren't for this.

So, what's the issue? 

Firstly, I think that there's a lot of adopters/adoptees/birth families feeling a little delicate due to it being #NationalAdoptionWeek so this message comes at a tricky moment when many of us are a little tetchy.

Secondly and more importantly, the advert unpicks some of our most basic fears as adopters that our children are not ours and we will be rejected by them, perhaps our children will leave us and return to their origins. The message of monsters as birth parents plays as an overt metaphor for our children's parents and dances around our fears and even the language that is sometimes used. So, that's all a bit close to the knuckle.

Finally, for adopters the advert plays into our fears for our children that they will find their identity caught up in the character, behaviour and circumstances of their biological families. To listen to a teenager's fears that she'll become like her birth mother mother is hard and we know this advert has the potential to stoke those fears. 

Of course I empathise with those upset but I watched it and as requested and if I overthinking it I can see other's worries and concerns but I'm not worried by it at all. This advert is a fantasy, a story and not a social commentary on contemporary adoption. I'm robust and from the outset I've taught my children that almost every book, film or programme that we read or see that features adoption is usually wrong and to take them as entertainment only. On that basis I've no offence.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

National Adoption Week - Complicated

Firstly, I did promise myself that I'd not write a blog on the subject and I'd keep my head down this #NationalAdoption Week. But then as a favour to a friend I did a radio interview for #National Adoption week and again like Canute I could not withstand the tide of goodwill and limited knowledge of the reality of contemporary adoption. So, sorry, I'm rubbish at principles here's a blog.

#NationalAdoptionWeek is a peculiar feature in the calendar in comparison to the other awareness days, weeks or months. It stands out to me in that it is wholly focused on a system and recruiting more people into the process of adoption while systematically alienating at least two thirds that have been through the process regardless of the direction of travel or point of origin.

If it was #NationalAdoptionAwarenessWeek or #NationalAdopteeWeek or  #FindChildrenHomesWeek or even, heaven forbid, #NationalAdopterWeek then it would be a very different creature as it would then be about people* rather than a process. What is increasingly a contentious process. In reality, it feels and I'm pretty sure it is #NationalGetMorePeopleToAdoptWeek. So be it.

That seems to be the crux of it for me. With a system in transition and large communities on different sides of the so called adoption triangle** asking big questions then #NationalAdoptionWeek feels at times like a misstep. Parts of it seem to work, celebrating the dedication of many individuals, families and professionals to improvement and the welfare of children seems like a laudable element of the week at the #NationalAdoptionAwards. However, the questions of those bruised buy the 'system' remain fairly well hidden. of course the debate around funds used for the #NAW and the if's and buts of how that money could be used elsewhere in early support ring true but I'm not sure that they reflect the reality of funding or add up.

So, as I tweeted this week I find myself in a pragmatic stew caught between the good, the bad and the very large bit between.

Almost every adopter I ask about #NationalAdoptionWeek pauses, twists their face and says, 'well it's complicated isn't it?' Yes, on this we can agree.

*I think its a stretch to imagine we'd ever get to a point where we'd have #NationalBirthParentWeek

** It's not an Adoption Triangle its something entirely different as described here. 

Monday 1 October 2018

DfE Adopter Reference Group

Today I was at the DfE today sharing the views and experiences of adopters at the Adopters Reference Group that feeds into the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board. I'll be honest I raised a few points at the meeting and the views here are mine, they may be shared by others but that's for them to declare.

Firstly. I was wanting to call this post '365 days to save the Adoption Support Fund', better sense prevailed.

Behind that kind of sensationalism is a serious question. In the autumn of next year the Treasury will do the sums and make a decision/recommendation in relation to it's value and sustainability in the financial context. They will then decide if it's going to continue beyond 2020.

Firstly, do we want the ASF to continue?

It's not a trick question,  the online narrative is often focused on the barriers or challenges that families face in relation to accessing the fund.  If you read only that then you may think that the ASF is a disaster. 90% of the issues I hear about are process problems and usually the responsibility of the Local Authorities, though it suits them to deflect that onto the ASF managers. Of course it's not perfect, what is, we need to be free to highlight areas for improvement. It's complicated

So, do we want the fund continue? The case has to be made that it presents value for money, that it's not paying for what is expected to be provided by the LAs as part of their core PAS service. The ASF has become part of our adoption landscape and has brought a lot of good to many, my view is that it's made us look up and seek out support, it's got social workers listening to our needs and seeking to support them, it's helped many. However, that 'many' are perhaps not the vocal ones, what can we do to present our case for continuation and justify its continuation, again if that's what we want. I realise writing this that for some they've been unable to access the Fund and that's not acceptable but their reality.
Lots to unpick there and I'm sure some will care less but I've a hunch that it is more welcome than not. Anyway, I'm just putting that out there.

We chatted about a few other issues including education and health and the challenges that parents and children face. If I'm being brutally honest, it felt a little like old ground, we see incremental improvements but culture and children's workforce knowledge are like the proverbial supertanker, they take a long time to re direct.

We briefly chatted about PAS workforce development, to me this is a tangible area that we can influence and though it's contentious I believe as users of the service we have a bona fide stake in the skill level of social care professionals (as we do any professional who wields power over us, ie I demand my doctor knows what they're doing and have continued there learning). The Governments documents on adoption reform mention it in passing but are  mainly focused on matching and quick approval. Anecdotally, it hasn't gone un noticed that the emerging RAA agendas are focused on systems, process and recruitment. Where is the support? Really, are they so focused on recruitment at the expense of support that that they'll throw more adoptive families into this challenge unequipped? Overstatement? Hmmmmmmm............

We need our social workers to be experts in support not generalists in social care, to understand therapeutic parenting, therapy pros and cons, trauma, loss, brains and living with traumatised children. More to the point, the reforms to policy and practice that we want to see will be implemented by those staff so we need to invest in them rather than systems that will not function without competent staff. Oh, I could go on. Social work seems to be in a flux about this but there are moves to add a little pressure to that pot.

Adoption policy appears to be in a time of transition and as we know transitions are hard with forces and pressures from many directions and this is overlaid by ongoing austerity with LAs struggling like never before. How will this pan out? I don't know, coming away I'm conscious that politicians come and go, focusses move this way and that, opinions and perspectives shift. This uncertainty will pass and maybe so will the ASF but an adopter I will remain.