“We have been fostering a 4 year old boy, of mixed parentage, for three and a half years now - since he was 6 months old. His black teenage mother could not care for him and his white father was an untraceable one-night stand. We were supposed to be a short-term foster placement but social services were unsuccessful in finding a black or mixed parentage family to adopt him so Christopher has been with us ever since. After a year we wanted to adopt him ourselves but Social Services said they had to hold out for black parents. Now, just as Christopher’s mother has reappeared to demand regular visits -which she never manages to keep and which have been traumatic for Christopher - we are being encouraged to adopt him. Having wanted that for so long we are now concerned that we will have to continue “nursing” his mother.
Mr and Mrs SL
A young man is walking about unaware that he has fathered a 4-year-old son. A young woman has had a baby whilst emotionally a child herself. A Social Services department has delayed a child’s long-term security for several years by prioritising half of his genetic inheritance. However, Christopher has had stable parenting from the SL’s who have been looking after him for the last 3 and a half years. This has provided him with secure emotional attachment (whether biologically linked or not) and some understanding of his biological heritage.
In optimum circumstances, the young child has those needs all answered by birth parents. Where a baby or child is taken into care and birth parents are unable, even with support, to manage their child, we have a two-family child; a child with birth parents (however absent) and adoptive or foster parents.
If there were a large pool of would-be adopters, there might be more sophisticated fine-tuning in matching a child with a family. Sarah, who had blue eyes and red hair, was particularly thrilled when she met a prospective adoptive mother who also had red hair. “I could have been your real daughter”, she said. However, after a child has already settled in and grown up within a family for several years the match has possibly already been made.
Black BAP Psychotherapist Lennox Thomas comments “Had social services found a black or mixed parentage family right at the start that could have helped Christopher’s sense of identity in a predominantly white society. However, I am concerned about the delay. The SL’s have been good and loving parents for the past few years and they will need to provide Christopher with the appropriate materials in his education, play and social experiences to firm that black part and not make an apology for it. Joining a multicultural society, like Harmony, can help. However, having to look after the teenage mother is not a burden they should be carrying and social services should make provision for her also.”
The problems of “open” adoption are relatively new ones. In the past, when a baby or toddler was adopted, there was a major problem about “closed” adoption. Some parents never told their adopted child that they were adopted until they were old enough to be given their birth certificate. Other adopters made clear they considered any questions about the birth parents disloyal. Countless adults waited until their adoptive parents had died before they felt free to discover their biological parentage. The emotional toll was very high.
“I still don’t know what my real parents look like”, said Martha, a 47 year old advertising executive. “All I know is that I was another of those war babies that nobody wanted to admit having given birth to. I spend all my work time choosing the right faces for adverts and I know quite well I am scanning faces all the time to see who I look like. Imagine, to not even have a single photograph”.
It was to help people like Martha that legislation was passed allowing adults the right to find out about their birth origins. Since then there has been a momentum - culminating in the Children Act - that strengthens the power of the biological link. There is a universal need to know who we have come from and the lack of such knowledge has a profound impact that can be extremely damaging.
However, having contact with birth parents may also be disturbing for the child. Mrs Sheila Miller, a consultant child psychotherapist and convener of the Tavistock Fostering and Adoption Workshop comments “ If the unreliability is extreme and children are made promises that are not kept this can be very cruel for the child and the severance of contact may be preferable. However, in many cases, with proper support, it is possible to work out an acceptable level of contact.”
Consultant Child Psychiatrist Caroline Lindsey knows from long years of clinical work in this area that some birth parents can be helped to manage their child so that adoption is not in the end necessary. In some other cases, she considers that the birth and adoptive parents could be supported to work together in the child’s interest. “A secure adoption with links maintained with a biological parent can be optimum”.
Research backs her clinical evidence that “Adoption, rather than fostering, is the best way to give children psychological security.” However, she is concerned that the new emphasis on open adoption and providing space for the birth parents could make it harder for some people to adopt. She is also concerned that in some cases there might be pressure on a damaged child to try to keep two attachments going when the child was already having difficulties with just one.
Dr Lindsey and her colleague, social worker Ms Lorraine Tollemache are providing a Consultation service at the Tavistock for social workers together with foster and adoptive families. “Social workers can make referrals about new or proposed placements or about families where the placement is undergoing stress. The sessions give an opportunity to think about the child’s history and how it fits into the current picture. Given the difficulties Christopher’s mother has experienced in her young life it might well be worth the whole team working on this matter. Is it only how difficult she is that makes the S.L.’s wary or does her renewed appearance puncture their longing to see Christopher as wholly theirs?”