Monthly Archives: February 2012

Boom Boom Shake the Room

‘BOOM’ he shouts, ‘BOOM BOOM BOOM’.

The ‘B’ of boom bounces around the enclosed space and each ‘BOOM’ is well-spaced for maximum effect.  We are driving a dark, fast country road with high hedges either side and the ever-present threat of catastrophe just around the next tight bend.


My daughter Rose is sat in the front passenger seat next to me.  She looks at me uneasily.

‘That’s getting annoying isn’t it?’ she says softly.  We both know this is a great understatement.


‘DIE DIE DIE’ is delivered sing song and screechy. A car drives perilously close behind me, it’s double set of headlights bite into my eyes and threaten to unravel the scraps of concentration I’ve been hanging on to.  Out of the darkness the road opens out and to my relief we reach houses and streetlights.  I slow and the car behind accelerates thunderously and overtakes me at great speed.


The word ‘chainsaw’ is drawn out and given extra emphasis.  The small car park outside the village hall is bustling with cars from which children spill out in their green cub uniforms.  I park around the corner from the hall in a quiet cul-de-sac and switch off the ignition.  The soundtrack coming from my son Jamie in the back seat continues.  It is mainly nonsense but spiked with the occasional insult of jaw-dropping intensity.  I sit from a moment to compose myself.  Rose rubs my back and then I take her hand and stroke her tiny, bitten nails.  It is our shared acknowledgement of how difficult the past few hours have been, how wounding the insults, how unsettling the detail behind the threats, however unintentional and unmeant they are.

‘Come on, let’s go.’

The protestations rise in intensity and he leans forward and hurls his displeasure at close quarters.

‘Listen Jamie…. listen …… LISTEN.’

I talk over him; a battle of wills to be heard.

‘I cannot leave you in the car alone, because….. BECAUSE.. you are not in control right now and I need to keep you safe.’


I walk around to his side of the car, open the door and stand looking at him, arms across his chest, looking up, smirking.

‘Come on, get out.’

He ignores me.  I wonder for a moment where this particular conflict will lead.

‘Get out now.’

He slowly unfolds himself, not looking at me and very slowly, agonizingly slowly, puts one foot on the wet pavement.  Then the second foot, slowly again, an act of quiet goading.  When he is almost out of the car he shouts,


Then he notices a car behind us.  There are happy noises, children getting out, chatting, excitement.  He flushes with embarrassment and I know I have got him.  I lock the car and say quietly,

‘Jamie, you chose not to put your shoes on.’

Rose takes my hand and we walk briskly, Jamie sloping behind, quiet now. 

We deliver Rose who runs happily into the village hall and I walk back with Jamie hanging behind me.  The car journey back home is endured in silence.  We pull into our drive and I deliver Jamie his instructions.  He wordlessly goes into the house and up the stairs to his room where he plays quietly until bedtime.

My husband Rob is home from work.  I try to explain the mess of hours which have passed since we got home from school and which started with my discovery of food, taken from the cupboards and hidden under and down the sides of the sofa.  Maybe I didn’t handle it well, but I can’t remember clearly exactly what was said, how things built up.  I recall shouting so I have broken at least one cardinal rule. 

I know the conversation that I will need to have with Jamie, about shame and anger and blame.  He will say he didn’t mean any of what he said and I will say that I know he didn’t, but still.  I will tell him that I love him more than any other boy in the world.  And we will take another glimpse into the big box of painful things that Jamie has stashed away in his head and I hope that he will start to feel safe enough to prise the box open a little more.

‘Have we got any alcohol?’ Rob asks, ‘you look like you need some’.

The alcohol corner of our kitchen is down to the dusty ancient specimens that no one really likes, so I settle for a nip of creme de cassis that I fear must be at least seven years old.

‘Happy anniversary,’ says Rob.

‘Happy anniversary.’

‘Only another ten years of this. Cheers.’

The sweet, sticky cassis slides down my throat and is warm and comforting.  We laugh, rather hysterically.  Gallows humour is our release valve at times like this.  Neither of us needs to express out loud the deep love we feel for our children, or the joy of adopting them eight years ago now.   But sometimes we need to acknowledge to each other just how relentlessly difficult it is to parent the victims of child abuse and neglect.  And sometimes we could do with some wider acknowledgment and understanding of that too.

Protecting Our Children, BBC 2

Watching the three-part BBC 2 documentary Protecting Our Children I was prepared for horrific scenes of child neglect and indeed there were filthy houses, ferocious dogs, a lack of basic furniture and flimsy relationships built on the foundations of shame and self-loathing.  But what was so effectively and yet quietly illustrated was cross-generational neglect as the baton of poor parenting was passed from grandparent, to parent, to child.

Throughout the programmes Twitter was ringing with the clatter of heavy judgements.  ‘Castration’, ‘sterilisation’ shrieked the shocked and the old favourites ‘feral’ and ’scum’ made another appearance fresh from the aftermath of the riots.  The judgements were clearly made by those who look upon themselves as intrinsically good and upon these parents living amongst the dog shit and rubbish as intrinsically bad.  And indeed it can feel tempting to retreat to the safety of simplistic analysis when situations become uncomfortable to watch.

The person who blew this simplicity out of the water was Shaun who appeared in Episode 2, Expecting Trouble.  Shaun was like a child in a man’s body, acting out, posing, trying on different characters for size.  His swagger barely disguised the raw anger which boiled away inside him and which fuelled his unpredictable behaviour.  Several of his children had been taken into care as babies and his girlfriend was pregnant.  I would have avoided him in the street.  He looked like trouble. And he looked very much like a man related to our adopted children.

To adopt children from the care system in this country is to adopt their wider families and their histories as well.  The children come with all the damage which was done to them both passively and actively and this damage exists and persists within our family, years after that damage was done.  And when children become knitted into your very being, as ours our, coming to terms with that damage is very hard indeed.  Of course I know intellectually that their birth parents didn’t know how to be good parents as they in their turn were poorly parented.  But to really feel that truth is challenging, at least it has been for me. 

Awash with alcohol, Shaun appeared in the street outside his house and spoke to the camera.  He explained that he was abused and that he drinks to wash away his feelings, and yet he wakes up the next morning and they are still there, like a perpetual haunting.  Someone tweeted ‘And there but for the grace of God go I’ and that nailed it.  There are certainly survivors of abuse who have gone on to become upright members of society, just as there are those who have smoked 80 a day all their lives and lived into their nineties.  But the fact remains, childhood abuse damages people so that they cannot live as the more fortunate amongst us do.  They are not only robbed of a childhood but robbed of adulthood, parenthood, relationships, careers.  Shaun wanted to be a dad to his children and to buy them bikes, you could see he had a mental picture of his children playing in the street where he was standing.  It was never going to be.

It has been helpful to see and hear Shaun in all his complexity.  It isn’t often that someone in his position is granted a voice.  I am angry about what happened to my children, the pain it has caused them and the strain that it puts on our daily lives.  And I’m angry about the general lack of understanding of the long-term effects of child abuse and the pitiful lack of support available for most adoptive families, but I think I feel less anger and more understanding now towards our children’s birth family members.  Shaun was once a vulnerable young boy, just like ours.  He deserved better.  And there but for the grace of God go I.

Our Family and Other Animals

‘So you would definitely not consider having a pet?’ asked our Social Worker during one of our pre-adoption interviews, as though I was some kind of monster.

‘No,’ I replied, ‘absolutely not’.

Nine years on and we not only have our two adopted children, but a rescue cat and two rescue guinea pigs. 

Our daughter loves animals and I mean loves animals.  She can explain the differences between a Tiger shark and a Goblin shark or a King penguin and a Rock Hopper penguin.  When we are out walking together she will counsel me ‘don’t worry mum, it’s a Jack Russell, some of them can be a bit nippy but this one looks alright’, before petting the thing confidently.  Her favourite programmes are ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ and ‘Safari Vets’.  She is, it’s fair to say, obsessed.

I on the other hand grew up in the 1970s in a street populated by dogs all capable of ripping a child’s face off.  There were frequent shortages of things like toilet rolls and potatoes back then and so dog training classes were considered an unnecessary luxury.  Our next-door neighbour’s dog once bit my Dad so badly he had to take a week off work.  No one batted an eyelid and the offending dog lived to bite again.  I am still haunted by the phrase ‘he won’t hurt you,’ spoken many a time as an owners hound puts his enormous paws on my shoulders and barks and slavers in my face.  As a result I would cross the road to avoid a dog and the dog-phobia transferred to other creatures too.  So actually keeping an animal by choice did not feature anywhere on my ‘things I really must do in my life’ list.

But thechildren arrived and soon after the nagging started.  ‘When can we get a pet?’, ‘Everyone else has a pet’, ‘Look at this Dog’s Trust website, doesn’t Jimmy look adorable?’.  The nagging continued. ‘How old will I have to be before I can have a pet?’, ‘I’ll do all the pet care, PLEASE.’

It took about three years before I finally cracked. So one January morning I visited our local RSPCA centre with the aim of checking out the cats.  There were all sorts of sad cases there; cats with no hair, cats with loads of tangled hair, scaredy cats, growly cats. But one cat in particular caught my attention: Ronnie.  Ronnie was shy and sleek and black and female and had been found wandering the streets. 

I didn’t fall in love with Ronnie immediately but our children did.  Whilst they followed her everywhere, I ignored her.  She brought mice and birds into the house, miaowed all night outside our bedroom door, left black hairs everywhere and pee’d in the laundry basket.  I began to wish I’d never given in to the pet thing.  Pets were annoying and time-consuming and dirty.

But gradually something marvellous began to happen.  Ronnie started to greet me when I came home from work with a catty ‘hello’.  I began talking to her in cat language, she would respond.  She wouldn’t sit on anyone else’s lap but mine.  She would sometimes sleep next to me in bed, wake me up in the morning with a friendly paw.  I fell in love.  And now I couldn’t imagine my life without Ronnie.

‘Mum doesn’t love us anymore, she just loves the cat,’ is the complaint I most often hear now, because in our family there is the underlying fear that there might not be enough love to go around.

‘Well that should teach you to be careful what you wish for,’ I reply with a smile.

Wonderland: My Child the Rioter, BBC 1

I was profoundly touched this week by a great example of the best kind of documentary making, My Child the Rioter, shown on BBC 1 on Tuesday evening. 

It carefully and sensitively allowed young people involved in last summer’s riots and their parents to share their experiences.  The gut reaction politics at the time set the agenda for the police and the judiciary. There was to be no leniency, no consideration of extenuating circumstances, these ‘feral’ children were to be dealt with and dealt with decisively.  In allowing the vilified to speak, the complexities of the causes and the human cost of such an uncompromising reaction unfolded.

One young student Ryan claimed he had got involved for political reasons, his only regret that he hadn’t ’done’ more.  It wasn’t clear what point he was trying to make but what did come over is the excitement that swept over the rioters.  This was echoed by Lei who had been jailed for his part.  He said ‘everyone was rejoicing in how much stuff they could take’.  His only regret was getting caught.  I didn’t buy Ryan’s motives for one moment but he wasn’t a young man who was ever likely to be troubled by self-criticism.  Lei came over as a more complex young man, supporting his family after he had stood up to his father following years of abuse.  He was articulate and likeable, but with no sense that what he had been part of was morally wrong.  One wondered if some of this was bravado, protecting a vulnerability.

There were lives that had been ruined by minor criminal acts, dealt with harshly by the courts.  Much of it could be put down to naivety and being swept away in the moment.  The fall out was heart breaking and it made the approach to these young people look crass and lacking in thought and real judgement.

The account that touched me the most was that of 19 year old Fabiano and his father David and never such an odd father and son couple would you ever see.  David was a well-spoken, considered, middle aged man who presented rather like an architect or a university lecturer.  His son was a tall, handsome boy, of mixed race who talked like he came from the ganglands of New York.  He sat confidently and laughed about his arson charge.  He acknowledged that what he had done was stupid but didn’t seem to really get it at a deeper level.  My husband Rob and I both remarked that Fabiano seemed similar in some ways to our eleven year old son, who also laughs at times of great import, can excuse the gravest deed and can behave in a way much more appropriate to a younger child.  It then emerged that Fabiano, like our son, had been adopted.  He was frequently stopped and searched by police and his mother had recently moved to Brazil, a move which he had made with her but which had not worked out.  I could take a guess at the issues of identity, security and self-esteem that Fabiano struggles with and I could also guess at what he may have unintentionally put his parents through.  And like all good documentaries, the viewer was left to fill the gaps with their own pre-conceptions and experiences.  But there was one intervention by the voice behind the camera which really got to the heart of Fabiano.

‘Are you worried about the future?’

He could not keep up the act any longer and crumbled, tears rolled down his cheeks.  He was a boy, uncertain how he could keep out of trouble, scared of ending up in prison, not sure how to navigate his way in life.  It is easy to see cockiness and strutting over-confidence as just that especially in strapping young men and maybe in some cases it is.  But in our house at least it is warn as comfort blanket, hiding pain, loss and fear. 

I’m not seeking to excuse what Fabiano and the other young people did and neither did the documentary, but behind shouty news headlines always lies a complexity worthy of exploration.  Many of the young people were certainly guilty of immaturity. But rushing to simplistic judgments whilst our bellys were full of anger? That wasn’t particularly mature either.