So, we are 2 Mums and 2 boys living in South London. Biff came to us at 8 months, he is now 8 years old. Buster came to us aged 2 and he is now 5. Our boys are unrelated by birth and have very different backgrounds and histories. This blog is intended to give a snap shot of life in our adoptive family, salient points from our journey and hopefully some insight and advice for potential and current adopters and their families.
Oh and I’ve also published a couple of children’s books for LGBT families called
Two Dads and Two Mums and a Menagerie– available on Amazon. Click on the book titles here. Also available in most bookshops.
Social media is awash this week with ‘first day at new school’ photos; smart kids beaming proudly in their as yet unstained new uniforms. Buster starts a new school today, but I don’t feel happy or proud. Today he starts at an EBD school. Buster bravely boarded a ‘special’ bus into central London with a group of people he’d never met before. Of course we gave him a joyous ‘It’s going to be fantastic, you are fantastic’ send off , but as the bus rolled away I felt extremely sad. Gone are the days of walking up to school together with his big brother and the dog. Gone are friendships with local peers, the chatting at the gate, the impromptu playdates.
We tried EVERYTHING we could to keep Buster in mainstream education but two things prevented us. Firstly our own understanding of Buster’s needs, they were more complex than we initially realised and putting him in a three form entry school was not the wisest of moves. Perhaps a smaller school would have helped, perhaps a long spell of schooling at home would have helped. Maybe if CAMHS had been more interventionist in early therapies? We’ll never know…
The second cause was the school itself. Despite encouraging, lobbying and a good deal of external pressure the school simply did not attempt to become in any way attachment aware. Buster’s tantrums and explosive (sometimes violent outbursts) were always perceived as behavioural issues that could be corrected and dealt with through exclusions. Buster had a fully funded EHCP but no staff member working with him ever got trained in attachment and early trauma. I sent suggestions of free training courses to the head and inset ideas and this was met with disdain as senior management knew best… I found the head intractable and at times deliberately obtuse. He wanted Buster out.
By the middle of year one, the multiple exclusions meant Buster’s self-esteem hit rock bottom and our family stress levels hit an all-time high. The proverbial straw came when the deputy head rang us in the summer term to announce that future exclusions would be a week at a time. We were being forced to look elsewhere. We considered other (less severe than an EBD school) options for Buster, but as he had had so many exclusions, at such a young age, other schools would not take him.
So now he’s in a school for children with severe behavioural difficulties, many of whom come from extremely difficult and dysfunctional families, very much like the one Buster was removed from. I know the school will have many benefits; the staff seem brilliant, it is holistic, therapeutic and class sizes are small and manageable. There’s a good deal more play and bags more understanding of children’s complex social needs. But it is very different… and it does feel very sad that our tiny son, whose favourite programme is Peppa Pig, is thrown in amongst the toughest to teach kids in South London.
Attachment or not attachment that is the question…
We are on diagnosis number six for Buster. So far in the roll call we have: ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) Neurodevelopmental delay, mild autism and separation anxiety (more commonly known as attachment disorder). These various diagnoses have come out of paediatric and CAMHS assessments. We are utterly confused as to the best way to parent and what this all means.
CAMHS initial treatment was to put us on a parenting course called “The Parent Child Game” which was in equal parts patronising and unhelpful. “Extreme ignore” is a session I never want to repeat as it ended in a full scale meltdown which had me and Buster in tears in front of a two way mirrored audience.
So the picture that emerges for us is; it’s complicated. Buster has a myriad of issues that require a myriad of strategies. There isn’t a silver bullet/gold standard parenting style that will help. We have read heaps of books and attempted dozens of strategies but none work in isolation. Bits seem to help. But the problem is, a child who becomes so easily dysregulated has poor impulse control and school especially aren’t able to cope with his outbursts. All we know is: he’s scared.
We still believe that attachment disorder underpins a lot of his behaviours because they are, without fail, much worse when we are not around. He spends a lot of time in a state of high anxiety and we are the best ones to soothe him when he gets overwhelmed. Some of the triggers that set him off we are aware of (busy spaces, loud noises and either one or both of us being away) but a lot of the time it’s educated guesswork.
Traditional parenting really doesn’t work. Lots of carrots and a couple of sticks does, sometimes. Taking things away simply reinforces his already low self -esteem. He is occasionally motivated by sticker charts but soon disinterested in them. I think the biggest shift for us is in recognising that when he does have meltdowns, it’s because he is petrified and we can learn from him what it is that scares him. We recently attended a Great Behaviour Breakdown course and I have never heard so much sense spoken about our children. Fact: early trauma and loss has a profound effect on our children and the more we understand trauma, the more we can help our kids and our struggling families.
Being told we were to receive a fully funded EHCP for Buster was the equivalent of finding a Wonka’s Golden Ticket. We were elated. A year of painful school meetings, social work meetings, paperwork, arguing, advocating, appointments with various doctors, CAMHS and support services, more paperwork and lots of stress had paid off. Full funding basically meant that Buster would get 1:1 classroom support and hopefully this would increase his chances of remaining in mainstream school.
If anyone had explained to me, at the beginning of our adoption journey, the amount of advocacy I would have to do on behalf of my adopted children I would never have believed it. Prior to adopting I had a rose tinted view of the world that our children would be cushioned by a net of societal support and understanding. This is no longer my view. If your adopted child has issues, be prepared to fight. We stood on the precipice of a massive sink hole with school and Buster almost got washed down it. It makes me effervesce with anger that support has to be so hard fought. I have a sound working knowledge of the education system after teaching for so many years, but what about families who don’t have that kind of knowledge?
Other than people within my immediate social circle I also gleaned a lot of advice and emotional support via twitter. Thank you tweeters, too many of you to mention but in terms of groups…massively helpful twitter accounts: @AdoptionSocial @TheOpenNest @ThePOTATOgroup @lgbtadoptfoster you guys rock.
Adopted children almost exclusively have difficult starts but many people working with children still believe adoption is some sort of panacea. Perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by most carers and adopters is the level of awareness schools have. Few teachers have a working understanding on attachment issues, neurological developmental difficulties and the effects of early loss and trauma on children’s social/emotional and educational success. There is also a lot of evidence to show that many adopted children have problems with executive function which impacts on all areas of learning.
You may be lucky enough to be in a school with a strong understanding of your children’s needs, but if you are not, then you may have to be the one enlightening the staff and pushing for entitlements.
In the previous weeks school meeting we had been told that our chances of getting an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) were extremely slim, it would also take a long time (hence the school’s push towards a PRU). Anecdotally I had heard the same over the years and knew it would be a battle. EHC plan’s replaced the old statementing system but basically amount to the same thing; your child gets funding for support in school that can be either devolved to the family directly or to the school. The support usually takes the form of the school finding a learning support assistant who works alongside your child, crucial if you have a child with extreme behavioural difficulties and problems self-regulating.
The school SENCO agreed we should try and go for it and so she set the ball rolling for EHCP application and an educational psychologist came in to asses Buster. Operation; we will get an EHCP, began. A note to the wise: if you have a looked after or adopted child keep absolutely EVERYTHING you can in terms of paperwork that would ever support a claim your child has difficulties; luckily we had. We had kept every doctor’s report, CAMHS assessment, Ed Psych, Speech and Language Report, pediatric assessments, nursery and school reports, exclusion letters, hospital letters… you get the idea. We had boxes and boxes full of letters and we sifted the most relevant and attached them to our application.
There are several organisations around that can help fill out the form (which has ridiculously tiny boxes for vast amounts of info, I attached 14 appendices ;0 ). The free agencies out there to help are : http://www.familylives.org.uk/ http://www.sossen.org.uk/ https://www.ipsea.org.uk/
We received stellar advice that helped us put together a very convincing case for our son to receive a fully funded EHCP. All we had to do after the hard slog of putting together our application was wait.
After the school meeting I went home and collapsed, not in a heap on the floor, I mean emotionally and mentally caved in. I walked upstairs, closed the bedroom door and wailed like a banshee for over two hours. I didn’t even recognise who I was and felt incapable of anything like rational thought.
I spent the following day in a miasma of worry and fear but over the weekend my thoughts cleared and something else took over; I began to feel angry. Really, really angry. I was furious at the schools intractability, lack of empathy and disregard for our vulnerable little boys’ well-being.
Sometimes anger is a good thing and in this instance it became a huge motivator for me. First things first…there was no way we were going to be pushed into any decision over whether or not our tiny son should be placed in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU)/special school within the 48 hour time frame the school had given us. Secondly I made the decision that he would go into a PRU over my dead body.
After teaching for over twenty years I was well aware of what PRU’s were used for. I believe they are effective and in many cases help children with social and emotional issues re integrate back into mainstream school. However many of the children in PRU’s have a host of behavioural problems that I believed would influence Buster in a negative way.
Also…he was only FIVE YEARS OLD! With only one term in mainstream school and a history of neurological and emotional needs around attachment disorder and ODD why on earth would we consider putting him in an environment that would make him even more anxious?
I rang the school at 8.30 on the Monday morning and told them we wouldn’t be attending the proposed “decision meeting” for that day. In fact we said we would contact them with a new meeting time once we had prepared what steps we thought should be taken next.
Last school year was without doubt the WORST experience of being an adoptive parent thus far and the reason behind no blog, in fact no ‘anything creative’ at all. Buster started mainstream school. He moved up from the nursery (where after five terms he had just started to settle) into reception class.
The initial weeks weren’t so bad as a very staggered start meant only partial days and nipping back at lunch time. By week four the teacher reckoned all was fine and we breathed a sigh of relief. However things took a steady turn for the worse in late October, after the mid-term break. First there were red slips (for bashing other kids) then came the meetings with the class teacher (for lack of compliance and generalised odd behaviour) and finally, in November, he got his first exclusion.
By January things had deteriorated so badly (three more exclusions) that we were hauled in for a multi-disciplinary meeting and told rather bluntly that his mainstream education career was just about over. The options handed to us were either a sideways move into the local Pupil Referral Unit or a further afield special school, or to stay as we were with guaranteed further exclusions leading to, in the schools eyes, an inevitable permanent exclusion. Dazed and confused I sobbed my way through the meeting. He was only five years old and had only just one term of mainstream education under his belt. Surely, I argued, they were jumping the gun? No, they replied his behaviours were the worst they’d encountered in years. He had spat at adults, over turned tables, hit other kids, thrown things at teachers and other kids and it was clear, the parents of the other kids were far from happy.
We were shown colourful graphs of incidents and detailed breakdowns of all his minor and major offences. We were told they had done everything they could think of to support him with pastoral care from in-school emotional support service, some 1:1 ad hoc in class help and interventions from SENCO. Surely, I argued, we should attempt getting an EHC plan funded before going to the extreme lengths of placing him in a PRU or special school?
The meeting closed on the Friday afternoon with a weekend to make a decision; PRU/Special school or the rocky road to permanent exclusion.
As Buster’s language improved we decided we should give part time nursery a try. Buster’s first foray into education was a heart wrenching mix of him being petrified I’d abandoned him (they had to peel the poor love off the nursery door every morning after I left) and him struggling with new relationships.
It was only mornings and I was allowed to stay in with him for the first 2 weeks. This made a massive difference to his transition into nursery but he found the first term the most difficult and he didn’t make any friends largely because he did a lot of bashing. However he did enjoy the toys and games on offer and as the weather improved and he was able to go outside and get stuck into the big bikes, bricks and tractors, Continue reading
When Buster was first placed with us at two he had no speech whatsoever. We weren’t too concerned as we understood that it was normal for children who’d experienced trauma and separation to have language delay. However as the months went by we became increasingly worried. Buster was becoming frustrated with his own inability to ask for things and had started lashing out, pushing and grabbing. He also cried and screamed. A lot.
Added to the speech delay was his drooling habit. We initially put this down to teething but as he had a full set of gnashers by the time he was two and a half we realised this wasn’t the reason. Buster drooled prolifically, everywhere and over everything. We bought a dozen bandannas in every conceivable colour for him to wear as drool catchers to save him from getting a soaked chest.
Buster had been very attached to his dummy which he’d had at his foster carers. We figured it may be impeding his speech and had managed to wean him off it during the day but night-time was impossible. He needed that pacifier!
A trip to the G.P got us a referral to a Speech and Language clinic. Maybe it was a case of wrong S&L therapist at the wrong time and I don’t doubt that there are some fantastic professionals out there but ours had precious little advice. For the drooling we were told to try Buster on a selection of different textured foods (like we hadn’t already done this!) and give him something to chew on!? The therapist spent the session mopping up after Buster as he drooled all over her toys with tuts and comments like “I’ll need to wash this after” Regarding his lack of speech she told us he was very globally delayed and we needed to sing songs with him and practice pointing at objects as we were saying them and praise any sounds he made. Of course we’d tried all this before. We left feeling seriously underwhelmed.
We took matters into our own hands and every day for a month we practiced just one word with him; JUICE which we pronounced ‘joooooooose’. He loved juice and pointed animatedly every time he saw a carton. By the end of the second week he’d got an “oo” sound, pursing his little mouth. We wept. It felt incredible. By the end of week three we had a word that actually sounded a lot like jooooos. He’d finally made the connection between a word and an object and he could ask for something. Yes he drank a lot of sugary drinks but boy was it worth it. His journey into language had begun.
Within a matter of weeks Biff went from being a calm and happy child who rarely lost his temper to an incredibly angry little boy. It was a shock. We thought we had prepared Biff well for his new little brother. We’d involved him in the process from the very beginning, talking about how he felt, what he was looking forward to and what he was not. We asked his opinion on what he thought his brother would like in his room, he helped us choose some clothes, teddies and cup and plate set. Of course he got presents too!
It’s hard enough on birth families when a new baby arrives, I’ve heard the youngest child often regresses and feels jealous.. However at least a new baby sleeps a lot of the time and doesn’t move around. Having a 2 year old toddler suddenly thrust into your life is a completely different experience, and incredibly hard on the other child. Toddlers are demanding. Buster was into all of Biff’s toys, he ran around, wanted our full attention all the time, he was non-verbal so communicated through crying, screaming and grabbing.
In retrospect it was no shock that Biff lost his cool. We all struggled to adapt. It was a very tricky time as there was so much to balance. How do you manage the overwhelming emotional and physical needs of a newly placed child alongside an already placed, feeling usurped child? Biff started saying he hated us. He hated his new brother, he told us he wanted to go to live with his birth Mum. Every time he saw either of us cuddle or re assure Buster he said we didn’t love his as much as his new brother.
Biff started having tantrums, throwing things around his room, at us, screaming, refusing to go to school, refusing to join in with activities. He became bad tempered and surly. No amount of re assurance worked. He was simply furious.
Our prep course hadn’t dealt with how to prepare our first child for a new sibling AT ALL. We asked at the time and were given some ‘reading’ but that proved ineffective. It was a travesty that we hadn’t been given training and advice on how to support our first child. We had been bunged on the same prep course as first time adopters but our needs were vastly different.
The first glimmer of getting the old Biff back came about 8 months into the placement. My brother had moved to Paris and invited me over. We decided I should take Biff on my own. The second we got onto Eurostar the furrowed brow disappeared and I had my happy little boy back. We seriously re bonded that weekend. He was lavished with attention by me and his uncle, given lots of treats and exciting new experiences. That weekend changed a lot for us. It made Vic and I realise how rotten Biff had been feeling and that we needed to both take Biff out on his own with either one of us. He needed space from his brother and time to just be the centre of our world again.
The second child placed with us, Buster, was 20 months at the time of matching and we were to take him home aged 22 months.
Biff was initially very excited at the prospect of a little brother. We tried to get him involved in the process as much as possible. He chose his new brother’s plate and cup set , chose a bear, helped find things to decorate his room and even relinquished baby books from his shelves that he thought his new brother would like. He helped in the making of video and photo book for Buster and proudly showed him around the house on camera. We did a lot of talking and re assuring and explained how special Biff was and that he’d be a fantastic older brother.
Buster’s history was very different to Biff’s. He’d had a rockier start, his prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol and his subsequent hospitalisation at birth worried us. Buster still had twice weekly contact with his birth family and that was set to change to letterbox only. We wondered whether that would be an enormous wrench for him too.
Buster was in foster care from roughly two weeks and so had a firm attachment to his foster mother. She absolutely adored him (he’s an immense cutie) and they were very connected to one another.
Introductions with Buster didn’t go anywhere near as well as Biff’s had. Firstly Buster was ill. He only had a mild chest infection but as with all children, he’d regressed and needed the cuddles and reassurance from his foster mother. After a couple of great first days, things went downhill. Buster wasn’t interested in us and just wanted to be with his carer. He’d hide behind her when we arrived and screamed whenever she left the room. Looking back we often wonder whether this slightly botched introduction has affected Buster as he still has profound separation anxiety now. Perhaps we should have pushed back and taken longer over the introductions. It was discussed at the time but the SW felt elongating the process would do more harm than good.
So Buster arrived home in late May. Shell shocked and bewildered by the change, his first few weeks with us were fairly smooth running. He slept and ate well and we spent adoption leave time together as a family picnicking in the local park or playing in the garden.
All was well for those first few weeks but suddenly, out of the blue, Biff our eldest child, began to display disruptive and oppositional behaviour. The tantrums had begun…