Monthly Archives: December 2011

Say What You See – Resolutions for 2012

2011 has been a testing year in the Donovan household.  So much so that by the middle of December I found myself contemplating whether I had the mental fortitude to survive another week with my traumatised children, let alone another eight years.  And the prospect of Christmas was hanging over me like a threat.

I spent a day wallowing in self-pity and grief for what might have been.  I dreamt of getting on to a plane, starting a new and simple life somewhere in the wilderness.

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic meltdown for me to realise that I need help.  So the following day, quivery voiced, I rang Mr R, our therapist who deals with all things trauma and attachment.  It was the day before the schools were about the break up for christmas.  He agreed to come the following day.  I rang off and cried again.

When he arrived I reeled off the problems from a crib sheet which Rob and I had prepared the night before.

‘Jamie won’t do anything we ask him to do, won’t get out of bed, get dressed, get washed, anything, it’s all a battle.  He has constant and unrealistic demands which we can’t meet.  And if he hears ‘no’ he becomes uncontrollable.  He fronts up to us constantly.  He’s abusive, threatening, physically destructive.  It feels like we don’t have any good times anymore.  And none of the old methods work.’

Mr R is a man whose mind races ahead at speed and I could tell he was getting itchy listening to me.  I could also tell that he was relieved I didn’t cry. 

We talked about how the landscape around Jamie has shifted, his recent start at secondary school and about his friend and role model Michael, also adopted.  To cut a long story short, Michael had been experiencing such extreme anger that the resulting violence had caused my friend Clare and her husband, his adoptive parents, to put him into care, for everybody’s protection.

I described a strutting and swaggering in Jamie which I hadn’t noticed before, an untouchability.  He was becoming uncontrollable and at eleven years old, I was fearing for how I was going to cope with him as a big, strapping teenager.  I had started to project an uncomfortable future for us all.

Luckily Mr R has the knack of getting straight to the heart of he matter.

‘Do you think that Jamie is worried that his anger is going to take him on the same path as his friend Michael, into care?’


‘Do you think his anger is coming from shame?’

‘Yes.  He told me recently he must have been an annoying baby to have deserved to have been beaten.’

‘What did you say to that?’

‘We talked about babies we know and Jamie thought they would not deserve to be hit.’

‘OK so he gets it intellectually.  But he probably doesn’t really get it, deep inside.’

I agreed.

‘You have to find the right times to reach that shame and blame.  Remember to say what you see.  Try starting with ‘I think I’ve worked out that getting angry isn’t about me, I’m slow aren’t I?’.  And be more direct about Michael.  Don’t be afraid to say ‘I see you are not Michael, but maybe you think you are’ and ‘what might happen if your anger takes you over?  Who would I phone? How do you think things would change around here?  I guess we’d have to get some special help and work it out’.  Jamie’s fears are projecting him ahead so you need to project with him and show him that things could go differently.’

A few days into the christmas holidays the opportunity to talk with Jamie arose.  He made some surprising revelations.  He had locked things away in his head and a pressure was building up inside.  He agreed that we needed to try to open up the boxes a little and have a look inside.  He thought this might help to stop the angry feelings because he was sure they were coming from the boxes.  We talked until he suddenly said ‘stop, I’ve had enough now’.  Then we drank hot chocolate and ate mince pies.

His behaviour became worse for several days.  Play dates were cancelled, in as therapeutic, non-blaming way as I could muster.  Then four days before christmas he woke up after a long sleep and he looked different.  It was as though his face had a light behind it and his body had lost the swaggering body language.  We managed a trip to the cinema with a friend.  It was successful.

We talked about how we could handle the stresses of socialising over christmas.  We agreed on some secret signs and some escape routes.

At last it feels as though we are battling this shame thing together.  Christmas, bar a couple of minor meltdowns, was peaceful and happy.  No longer engaged in constant battles, Rob and I now have energy to spare and have been able to reach out to our children much more.  Jamie and Rose have enjoyed beating me at Plants vs Zombies (‘you are so rubbish Mum, shrooms only work in the dark’).  Jamie and Rob are playing Call of Duty together on the new X-Box (‘cover me Dad, while I reload’).  I know that there are no easy solutions when you are parenting traumatised children, but I feel positive about 2012. And my new year’s resolution?  To seek help when I need it.

The Truth About Adoption, Panorama, BBC 1

I watched Panorama, The Truth About Adoption last week hoping to see something of my own experience reflected there: my experience as an adopter of children from the UK care system.  I wanted to see something of the tremendously hard task faced by many adopters and something of the adoption myths which hamper us.

In fairness to the programme I did see something of the process, its hold ups, complications and frustrations.  I saw what this meant for the children that were featured, the children who were buffeted this way and that, by the bureaucracy, by its inefficiencies and its confusions over what was best for them.

There are many myths about modern adoption.  One such myth is that adoption is the silver bullet which soothes and loves away the hideous effects on the baby brain of neglect and abuse.  Fortunately modern science has proven this particular myth to be just that. There is now bucket loads of evidence to support what many social workers, foster carers and adopters have long known, that parenting these children can present a significant challenge.

Kieron, Katie and Chloe had been in an adoptive placement for three years before it broke down and they were returned to the care system.  We heard from everyone bar the adoptive parents themselves, which is understandable given the huge pain that they must feel and their probable need for anonymity.  But their position wasn’t even represented.  Instead we were treated to a dose of the old myth by an Independent Reviewing Officer, spouting his simpleton views as though modern brain imaging had all been a dream. 

‘I couldn’t quite believe that three years down the line they could say I don’t want them anymore, I could quite understand that after 6 weeks ….. but after 3 years, I was gob smacked by it,’ he said as though he were propping up the bar of the local hostelry.

I was not gobsmacked by it, neither was my husband and neither were many posters to the Adoption UK message boards.  We know the reality of parenting children like these, the raging, the fighting, the shouting, the breaking, the anxieties and the fears. And many of these difficulties only come out from the light several years into the adoption journey, when the children start to feel a real and to them frightening attachment to their new parents.  What did gobsmack me however was that the reviewing officer did not appear to know anything of this, nor of the lack of support provided by the state to help parents striving under these difficult circumstances.  He appeared to blame the parents (oh such a cop out) and in their absence they were painted as being a bit flaky, indecisive, not really having their hearts in the thing.

The professional approach should have been to undertake a full ‘lessons learnt’ exercise.  Why did the placement break down?  Was adequate support provided?  Did the parents feel the training offered to them had been adequate?  Had all information been shared?  What were the surprises?  Instead of this we saw a void of empathy for those parents and then the truck was put back into first gear and revved up again for the next adoption placement.  It was like watching a car crash. 

There were many other parts of the programme which left me feeling exasperated; the dog, the lifestory work and the confused approach to contact being a few of them.  But the one message that I would shout from the rooftops is ‘LISTEN TO ADOPTERS’, oh and ‘start collecting some meaningful statistics’.




How I Lost Weight by Eating Real Bread

That’s correct, you haven’t misread the title, I have lost weight by eating …… bread. 

I have held off writing this post for some weeks just in case I had fluctuated or was hosting a tape worm, but no, the results are irrefutable.  Five pounds, gone, sustainably.

My blog followers may remember that I recently spent a day in a craft bakery learning the essentials of bread making.  I came away having seen the light and vowed to banish quickly risen, mass produced bread from my diet with its air and its spikey gluten and its foul preservatives .  

By way of scene setting, I will just tell you that one of the problems of doing a physical job (gardening) is that one can struggle to fill the tanks, resulting in much stuffing of chocolate digestives and the like.  I long ago learnt that a bowl of commercial cereal does not provide the fuel to get through even a couple of hours of heavy work whereas a bowl of muesli or porridge does.  But I hadn’t thought too hard about the sandwiches I was eating for lunch and why I was coming home from work and mainlining sugar.  And a few extra pounds had crept up on me and hung around and wobbled now and again.

I have kept my vow and been making and eating bread.  White bread, wholemeal, rye and spelt.  I have been eating toast with eggs, bread and cheese, bread and soup and warm bread with butter oozing through it.  And I have been feeling FULL.  Yes full and satisfied.  I have not been getting home from work and raiding the cupboards.  I no longer obsess when there is chocolate in the house.  And five pounds have gone and stayed gone.  Not a lot, but enough to get into some clothes I was starting to miss.

So my unlikely advice this merry calorie-ridden season is, eat real bread, either your own or that made by one of our growing number of craft bakers.  It tastes fantastic.  It’s a meal on it’s own.  It’s filling.  And its the new wonder diet food.  What an uplifting New Year’s resolution it would make.  Hang on, that’s the dinger I hear, I’m off to get my next loaf out of the oven.

The Angry Adoptive Parents Make a Difference to Education

In my previous post I wrote about a meeting between the Virtual Headteacher in our county and a large group of adoptive parents, all angry that schools did not appear to understand their childrens’ needs.  I had a significant response on twitter and by email.  There are clearly more angry adoptive parents out there who would love to have their five minutes with a Virtual Headteacher (or even a real one).

So for all of you here is what we did in our county to raise the profile of adopted children in schools and to improve the service they receive.

A few of us ‘angries’ and the county Educational Psychologist formed a working group.  Together we decided that our children, with their parents agreement, need to be identified to schools, monitored and supported, similar to the way that children in care are. 

Now I know that not all parents want their children identified as adopted, I on the other hand would wear the t-shirt, hat and car sticker (but that’s a blog post for another day).  It is safe to say though that the majority of children, whether adopted from the care system, from overseas or from within families will have experienced broken attachments and worse and will need additional support in school to prevent their early experiences from becoming a barrier to learning.

The six of us met in various dusty halls and cramped meeting rooms, in far flung parts of the county, over many months.  What grew out of our meetings was, not very excitingly, a form.  But education runs on systems and forms, so we thought we would demand a piece of the action.

The form is called the EPAC - Education Plan for Adopted Children.  It requires a meeting at the school between staff, social worker and parent.  It lays out the basics of the child’s early experiences, their moves into and within the care system and their adoption.  After this initial meeting, the EPAC is produced and then updated regularly at follow-up meetings.

 The system prompts discussion about how the child presents themselves, their fears, needs and challenges.  It demands actions with clear owners.  It informs the school and empowers the parent. 

The form was successfully trialled in parts of our county and then rolled out across all our schools.  It has been received well.  Of course any system which is not required by law, stands or falls on the willingness of those people involved in it to make it work.  It will not transform a school who demonstrates no wish to understand attachment issues.  But it provides some authority and legitimacy.  It says that parents are not seeing ghosts and that their children are not merely ‘naughty’ and badly parented.

This morning I went to my first EPAC meeting at my son’s new secondary school.  The school is situated in a different county to the one in which we live (and the one in which the EPAC was born).  But the school welcomed it with open arms and already see many opportunities to use it with other pupils.  Our meeting was very fruitful.  We all learnt something and many useful actions came from it.  I left there knowing that the school have a much better understanding of my son.  I hope the staff feel that I have something to offer them too. 

I know from experience that the next five years will present many challenges. I also know that key to my son’s successful school career is a collaborative approach to his education, with adults around him who are willing to listen and learn and to understand his needs.  Many of us know the trajectory that these children, if failed, can follow so the stakes we are playing for are high.  But if ‘Every Child Matters’ is to be more than an empty phrase, it is time that educators and politicians stopped fighting with adoptive parents and recognised that early trauma and broken attachments have left our children with specific needs that must be met in schools.  So if I was Queen of Education, I would develop and roll out a national EPAC with guidance notes and training for all teaching staff.  I could do it on a small budget and just think of all the money and heartache it could save.  Go on Mr Gove, give me a shot at it.

PS If anyone would like a copy of the EPAC documents please contact me via this website  and I will email them to you.  You can use a false name and your details will NOT appear anywhere.