Our adoption story – the ‘what kind of child’ tick box.

When Simon and I discussed what kind of child we wanted to adopt, the basis to every discussion was always, a child that no one else wanted. We never really got further than that. We had no particularly strong feelings about whether it should be 2 boys, 2 girls or 1 of each. We didn’t mind what age they were, and we really had no ideas about particular disabilities or special needs. We knew we wanted to adopt 2 children and it was recommended that because of the age of our youngest child at the time (8), we should be looking to adopt under 5s. We were told though, that adopting children with disabilities had different ‘rules’ and we may be considered for any age child, depending on the disability. This really didn’t narrow our options down. 

In order for our social worker to successfully match us with the right children, she needed as much information as possible about the ‘type’ of child we were interested in. Time to bring out the ‘tick box’ list. It seemed like the strangest and most unfair way of categorising children, and made us feel horribly uncomfortable, but it turned out to be an extremely useful way of bringing out discussion between us and narrowing things down a little (almost as if the person that devised it, knew what they were doing!). 

In thinking about adopting older children, it was pretty likely that they would have experienced some, if not a lot, of trauma in their lives. In all our discussions about ‘matching’, it wasn’t just me and Simon that we were trying to match to, it was also our birth children. At this point we began to start to say ‘no’ to certain things which felt so so hard, but was the right decision for our family and our social worker was brilliant at supporting us through the process. 

Even after the tick list process, we had still left our options hugely open and were leaving our SW with an enormous task if we were successful at panel. The decision was made for us to go to panel requesting to adopt 1-2 children of any age. 

And so, 2 years and 6 months after we’d started the process, our paperwork was ready!

Our adoption story – birth children interviews

Part of our social worker’s job was the important task of figuring out whether or not our birth children were ready for us to adopt. We had been talking about adoption to the children for a long time and so it wasn’t something we had to suddenly prepare for. They all had adopted or fostered children in their classes at some point during our assessment process and so knew a little about adoption from the child’s point of view. We were given various books by our social worker to give them to read and read with them, but none of them were particularly helpful (one day we’ll try and write our own!). One of them helpfully told the story of a family who adopted an older child who went on to bully and traumatise the younger birth children. Now, although things like this do happen, it’s not something we particularly needed to worry about as we were looking at adopting younger children than our own. With the benefit of hindsight we should have read the books ourselves first…

Our SW wanted to interview the children individually and so in order to prepare them for this she wanted to try and get to know them a little first. She suggested playing a game with them would be a helpful way to do this. The prospect of this terrified me as we play a lot of games and at that particular stage of life it was rare for them to end without some kind of argument. We chatted with them about what game would be best, and least likely to end in tears. Monopoly – no way; Jenga – “you nudged the table” – no way; etc etc. In the end they opted for Frustration, which thankfully was relatively quick to play and didn’t generally end too badly. 

Apart from the “their very competitive aren’t they” comment, it went well and she agreed to come back the following week for their individual interviews. 

The following week, we all sat in the lounge whilst our SW took them one at a time into the kitchen to chat to them. We still to this day don’t really know what was said in that room, but for the most part it clearly went well as there were no major issues from it. We’d tried really hard to not “prep” them and not tell them what to say if she asked certain things, as we were pretty sure it’d be obvious if we had, but it was definitely strange having her chat to them without us knowing what they might say and how much we felt was riding on their answers!

The children’s interviews saw the end of our assessment process and so we were ready to go to panel once the final few references were back. We still needed to do the “what kind of child” tick box session, but no more personal questions or assessments were needed. It had taken us 2.5 years to get to this point, so the looming panel date felt hugely monumental….

Our adoption story – home study

The main set of paperwork that was to go to the panel of people that would make the decision about our adoption future is called a PAR (Prospective Adopters Report). This includes a huge amount of information that is supposed to give anyone that reads it a really clear picture of who we are as a family and as individuals. Over a series of interviews, lasting anywhere from 1-3 hours, our social worker questioned us on every aspect of our lives, from babyhood to now. We had to describe how we celebrated, how we mourned, what our work ethic was, what our parents’ work ethic was, what our parents’ parents’ work ethic was (they really like the work ethic thing). 

There was a definite need throughout the assessment process to establish not just who we are as people and parents, but what experiences we might have had that would help us empathise with any children we may adopt. I’d had various things happen through my teenage years that meant I could show a clear understanding and empathy (although on a very different scale) of some of the issues an adopted child may struggle with. Once she’d been reassured that I’d had a period of counselling (10 years earlier) to work through any issues I’d had, our SW was happy to not discuss them further. Simon’s childhood and teenage years were pretty uneventful and it was almost amusing (in a slightly sad way) how relieved our SW was when Simon mentioned his brother had suffered with leukaemia as a teenager. Our SW hung on to this one event as being monumental in Simon’s development as an emotionally rounded adult and seemed slightly disappointed when he told her that his brother has been well for years now and, although it was obviously difficult at the time, Simon didn’t have any lasting trauma from that time in his life despite never having received counselling. 

Emotional stability is of course hugely vital for the whole family, and particularly for any children who’ve experienced any kind of trauma – I do wonder if a more formal assessment of mental health would be helpful although I’ve no idea what that could look like and I’d hate to make the process any longer than it already was. I also suggested at the time that counselling could be offered for all people going through the adoption process alongside the assessment as, although not necessary for all, there were times it felt extremely strange talking so deeply and intimately with a SW rather than someone qualified as a counsellor! 

Before our PAR could be completed, each of our birth children needed to be interviewed – but that’s for next time. 

Our adoption story – dead hamsters and other animals

As part of the assessment process there’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of checks. Health and safety of course had to come into it somewhere. One of the perceived big risks are household pets. This is certainly for good reason as some family dogs have sadly ended up ruining family’s lives by killing or permanently scarring children. One of our own children was bitten by a neighbour’s black Labrador and had to have hospital treatment so we really did understand the risks. 

The forms however, turned it into a slight farce and certainly kept us amused. There was one generic ‘pet form’ that had to be filled in for every animal in the house. At the time of the assessment we had a dog and a hamster. Filling the form in for Bramley was straightforward. She’s an excitable Border Terrier and is absolutely brilliant with children and incredibly tolerant. We were told that she would be assessed and we were slightly concerned about this as she jumps up when excited but this assessment never materialised (possibly because the SW had seen her with our children and felt comfortable that she was trustworthy). We made it very clear that we would never leave her alone in a room with a child under 5 (more for her protection!). 

When it came to filling in the form for the hamster, this was harder to do. Was she well trained? Was she used for guard purposes? Did she go upstairs? Fortunately everything was deemed to be fine with our pets and our forms were sent off with our report for panel. A few weeks before panel the hamster died and had been replaced by another one – this time a male. Here we had a dilemma. Things had been incredibly slow to get to this stage and so did we risk another delay by confessing that the hamster forms were no longer accurate? It was a boy instead of a girl and certainly wasn’t trained. In fact it had bitten the kids a couple of times already! With hindsight all this seems ridiculous but we were so desperate to get it right. Fortunately our SW was incredibly sensible and agreed it was fine to leave it. 

One of our friends who keeps chickens had the fun of naming them all so that she could fill in the forms. I was just relieved we’d given away our tropical fish a few years earlier….

Our adoption story – references references references 

Having said goodbye (rather abruptly) to our first social worker, it took a little time for someone else to become available. We eventually had the first visit arranged for after Easter and met the lovely (let’s call her L). In our first session she outlined everything that would need to happen in order to get us to panel. We were having to start again from scratch as our previous SW had failed to take any legible notes or work to the correct criteria. The priority was to get our references and police checks sorted out as these can be slow and so can sometimes seriously slow down the process (not sure it could have been going any slower really). 

L told us that we would need references from every place we had ever worked with children or vulnerable adults. From about the age of 12 I had been babysitting/childminding, worked with disabled young adults, taught piano and violin to at least 20 different children, worked in 5 children’s centres, volunteered in church youth and children’s groups (4 different churches) etc etc – the list goes on and on. Simon had done a similar amount of work with children and so getting all the references was a seriously daunting prospect. 

Some of the people I’d worked for were easy to get hold of and were extremely happy to provide us with a reference. In terms of my teaching, this was trickier as I have an appalling memory and just couldn’t remember half the people I’d taught. We wanted to be totally honest as if we missed anything and it came out later it could be misinterpreted as us trying to hide something. When people received the reference requests it was slightly hard as they were just written to asking to provide a reference with no indication of what to say and no specific questions to answer. Fortunately it was all fine and everyone said nice things (or at least that’s what we assume anyway as we weren’t told of any problems!). 

Simon’s were reasonably straightforward for the most part but had one that just ended up being a little ridiculous. As a student Simon had worked for a nursery agency (picture Simon (age 19) on his own with 6 babies and lots of stinky nappies – amazing he went on to have children really after that introduction! The agency he’d worked for had since closed down. Because he had stated that this was somewhere he’d worked, the LA really needed a reference from him otherwise it would count as a gap which is not good. Simon ended up asking his parents to go and see the building that the agency had been based in – a large office block. The building was closed and under re-construction so at the point when Simon sent our SW a google map photo of the building with a map reference and the details of the builders doing the construction work they finally caved and said he didn’t need to provide a reference for that job! 

We were also asked to provide 3 referees that could be interviewed and fill in more extended question sheets. One had to be a family member and the others had to know both me and Simon well and us as a family. We had lots of very lovely friends so deciding who to ask felt a little tricky as we didn’t want to offend anyone by not asking them, but also felt like it could be a time consuming exercise and wanted to make sure we didn’t put pressure on anyone who would find it stressful. It also needed to be people that were totally behind us and totally supportive of our decision to adopt. In the end it wasn’t such a hard decision and we remain totally grateful to the people who gave up their time for us and were part of our adoption journey. We know some of the questions were pretty difficult to answer. One of the questions was “How do Kate and Simon keep children safe?”  For one of our referees this was a slightly awkward question as the year before we’d taken their children on holiday with us for a week and managed to lose one of them. Fortunately they were found reasonably quickly but I’ve no idea how they managed to answer this question with straight faces! Thanks again lovely friends.

With all the checks and references taken up we felt that for a while we were possibly the safest people in our city to take care of children. These references then formed part of our report that went to panel. This was by no means the end of endless form filling…

Our adoption journey – social worker issues

We finished our preparation course at the beginning of October and then everything went quiet. Once again we had the ‘how much do we chase them’ dilemma. Towards the end of November we contacted the adoption team to ask what we should expect to happen next. Having met up with other couples on our course when it finished and kept in touch, we knew that some had been allocated social workers and some had been refused already. We just hadn’t heard anything so didn’t know what to think. 

Early in the new year we were allocated a social worker (SW) and met her for the first time towards the end of January. In the first session she went through the rest of the process with us which was helpful for us to have a clear idea of what would be happening for the next few months. She explained that we would meet every couple of weeks and in between each session we would have homework to do. 

The first couple of sessions went well and we had fun trying to draw our family trees and contacting various family members to make sure we had everyone’s date of birth/death correct! As Christians our faith is interwoven throughout all that we do and so this came up very early on in discussions. It was clear reasonably early on that this was becoming an issue for our SW. On the week that we discussed our ‘values’ we spoke about how we felt it was important to ‘put others first’ and this was something we talked to our children about. Our SW had a massive issue with this and just couldn’t cope with it as a concept. The rest of that session was spent listening to some really difficult issues that she had in her past and it became scarily clear to us that our faith was going to be a massive barrier between us and her sending us to panel. 

That night we nervously prayed about it and felt extremely confused. Up until that point we’d been really clear that we wanted to adopt and that we were doing something that felt right and for the second time (the first being the weight issue) we wondered if we weren’t going to be allowed. We knew other Christians that had successfully adopted and we hadn’t even got as far as discussing the really ‘meaty issues’ that we know had been tricky for other people. We contacted a few close friends and asked them to pray for us and give us wisdom about what to do next. 

We were somewhat nervous waiting for our next appointment. We were halfway through our home study by this point and really didn’t know how the next meeting was going to go. As usual for these sessions, Simon and I had both taken time off work and as this next session was first thing in the morning after we’d done the school run we were both home when she arrived and hadn’t had to rush in from somewhere else. I answered the door and could tell immediately something wasn’t quite right. Our usual smartly dressed, hair straightened official looking SW wasn’t there and was replaced by an extremely nervous looking, jean clad, frizzy haired woman. I almost didn’t recognise her as the woman we’d been meeting with for the last few months but recovered quickly and invited her in. She quickly said that she didn’t have time to come in but had just wanted to pop by and let us know that she didn’t want to be a social worker any more as she felt like it wasn’t the right job for her. She then turned round, got into her car and drove off, and that was that.

Our adoption story – be prepared…

We got our place on our four day preparation course for straight after the summer holidays in 2011 and went along to a community centre for four Fridays in a row. Simon went to school each Friday first as the course didn’t start until 9.15am and I headed over straight from school drop off. That first Friday we were incredibly nervous, but also excited as we felt like this was a huge leap forward on our adoption journey. Things have changed now as people tend to do their prep course at the same time as their home study interviews, but back then it was something you had to do before you could be allocated a social worker. 

In the letter inviting us to the course it was stated that a brief report would be written by the course leaders that would form part of our assessment and would include feedback from them about our contributions throughout the four days. This meant that Simon and I had an interesting discussion the night before our first sessions that he needed to be careful to not make too many inappropriate jokes and I needed to not talk too much! We were one of five couples and two couples couldn’t come. 

I’m not going to write loads about the sessions (mainly because it was so long ago that I can’t remember all that much about it!) but there are a few things that have stayed with me. 

A lot of the course was designed in a way to give people worst case scenarios which we found extremely sad. On the first day we were shown a video of a family that had their children removed. Many people choose to adopt as a way to be parents because of difficulties conceiving. This is great as it means that there are many people who are absolutely brilliant parents now who otherwise would not have been, and there are many children who are now in great forever families being loved and cared for forever instead of staying in the care system. It also means that sometimes people coming forward to adopt aren’t totally aware of the backgrounds that these children are coming from. For Simon and I, the video was extremely sad, but sadly not shocking, as we’d both come across similar things through our work backgrounds; for others it was very hard hitting and brought about some really helpful but difficult conversations very early on. Simon and I were the only ones in the group who had birth children living at home, and were also the only ones in the group who had experience of child protection. As the course went on it seemed that any school questions that came up ended up being directed at Simon and any early years/children’s centre type questions came my way. This was slightly tricky but didn’t particularly affect our enjoyment of the course. 

The most helpful session for us was when a lady came and spoke to us about the importance of being open about adoption from the start with our adopted children. She herself was adopted but hadn’t found out until her early twenties. She’d grown up in a place where everyone knew everyone and she soon found out that everyone in the village had known she was adopted apart from her. Finding out had changed everything for her and made her question her entire childhood and every teenage relationship she’d had. The shock and betrayel had changed her relationship with her “parents” dramatically and irrepairably. This was so helpful for us, as although we knew it was current policy to not hide adoption from children, it was so clear why by having a real life example in front of us of what happened when you got it wrong. 

The sessions we had on ‘parenting skills’ were hard to know how to handle. Before we were parents we had many ideals of how we were going to parent, but the reality of life with three children under four quickly changed that! We were in a room full of people that had all still had their ideals, whilst each day we came straight from the reality of getting three children out of the door on time for school without shouting too much. One of the sessions followed a particularly stressful morning and was called something like ‘acceptable parenting’. We were given lots of cards with different things written on them and asked as a group to lay them on the floor in order going from good parenting through to unacceptable. They said things like, “smacking”, “shouting/raising your voice”, “hugging”, “praising good behaviour”, “criticising in front of friends” etc. One of the cards said “sending your child to school without all the correct equipment” – everyone in the room felt that this was extremely bad parenting and some wanted it putting further down than “smacking”. I decided this probably wasn’t the moment to share that I’d just found Isaac’s harvest contribution in the boot of the car having forgotten to take it into school with him that morning.

The course overall had some helpful parts to it and we really enjoyed the opportunity to meet other couples that were hoping to adopt. We did feel that it may have been more helpful to have a course that was tailored differently for those of us with birth children as we did feel like we were coming at it from a different perspective than the others.

We were asked to feedback and evaluate at the end of each day and then a longer feedback form was given to us at the end of the fourth day. We were as honest as we could be in our feedback but this was difficult as we hadn’t yet had our feedback that would form part of our report so it was tempting to just write, “the course is great, you’re great, we’re learning loads and please let us adopt…….”.

Now all we had to do was wait until a social worker was allocated to us if they had been happy with our contribution to the four days. 

The image featured is a letter written by the adopted daughter of one of my friends.