Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Collectors

‘Can we go on the beach and collect shells?’ they asked.

Rob and I sat on the sea wall and watched them for a while and chatted until out of the corner of my eye I saw them frantically filling a large carrier bag.

‘Oh God’, said Rob, already imagining the arguments about bringing the shells into our already over-stuffed house, finding them all over the place, crushed and crammed down the sides of beds, under sofa cushions, exuding their fishy stink.

I walked on to the beach by which time Jamie and Rose had charmed a volunteer: an elderly lady who was discovering shells as enthusiastically as they were.  The carrier bag was so full that the handles would no longer meet at the top and shells were not it’s only contents.  Inside was a battered and salt-corroded Blackberry, oozing battery juice, a white, plastic bottle and a rubber glove.  Both children came at me, talking quickly and loudly into my face.  I knew they knew what I was going to say.


I showed him the back of the phone and the leaking battery and reminded him about the dangers of heavy metals.  He reluctantly dropped the phone and with more negotiation the bottle and the rubber glove (‘BUT WE COULD USE IT!’).  Neither children would agree to ditch any of the shells at all and  so we walked to the sea wall with them and sat down.  Mindful of all the rubbish that they pick up every single day and bring home and the endless subterfuge I have to employ to spirit it out of the house I decided upon a different tack.

‘You both know don’t you that you will always have enough; enough food, enough to wear, enough toys and games don’t you.’

‘Yes,’ they both say, a flicker of something passing across their faces.

‘Well I wonder if the reason why you like to collect lots of things and bring them home is because you sometimes worry that there won’t be enough.’

Surprisingly I get a mumbled ‘may be’, which by our standards counts as a bell ringing success.

‘So I wonder if perhaps you could choose may be four each, the really good ones and put the others back on the beach.’

‘Five, five each,’ is their immediate, unconscious response.

‘Okay, five.’

And to our utter astonishment, they return to the beach, choose the shells they want to keep, tip out the rest and join us on the sea wall.  We admire them together and remark on how well they have chosen.

A year ago I would not have dared to try this approach for worry of whipping up a storm.  The shells would have joined the wave of detritus, chaos and helplessness which was breaking over us and threatening to pull us under.

It was a small but significant moment and a marker of real and lasting progress.

Exploring Food and Children in Care and Adoption

Sally Donovan and Lisa Cherry in conversation.

Sally:  So Lisa, you talked on Woman’s Hour recently about the importance of food and taste to children in care, for those who didn’t hear the programme could you just explain?

Lisa:   Yes. I explored food in my book The Brightness of Stars as for me, it seemed to define each placement I had during my time in residential units and foster placements. What has emerged is that whenever I write or talk about food in relation to children in care it excites a lot of interest and knowing looks.  I know that you, as an adopter of two children, have written about food and had a similar reaction. So when we chatted on twitter it made sense that we had a conversation about it.

Sally: Food has been a major part of our lives since we adopted. I’ve experienced food being eaten out of the bin, it being a constant pre-occupation, consumed at a huge speed and food being taken and consumed in secret.

Lisa: It makes absolute sense of course that when food has been in ‘lack’ and/ or prolonged feelings of hunger have been endured, that the relationship with food is going to be tricky. Food becomes only about survival in those circumstances. For me it was more about it being cultural, socio-economic and filled with an agenda. Having had what I would call ‘loving’ food as a young child (my Gran was French so cooked beautifully) I moved in between daily roast dinners to cabbage and sausages to large canteen style cooking through to locked larders filled with row after row of cheap food. This makes the food a defining feature.

Sally: Anxieties around the availability of food seem to over-ride smell and other sensations in our house. Food is something of great concern and worry. ‘When is tea?’ and ‘What’s for tea?’ are questions I get asked many times a day. Meals are eaten extremely quickly, food disappears and is hoarded and there is a tendency to over eat. The impacts of early experiences of hunger seem to be difficult to shift.

Lisa: What strategies have you tried in terms of shifting early experiences if hunger? What have brought the most success and have any caused more distress?

Sally: The most effective strategy has been regular meal times and simple food. They find a help yourself’ buffet style meal difficult so we manage these carefully. Now that the children are older we try to help them understand why they experience anxiety over food and to reassure them there will always be enough for them.  I wonder how long these issues will persist for? It’s been ten years now. Anything that adds emotion and shame to food and mealtimes is detrimental.

Lisa: Do you have any ‘top tips’ for other foster parents or adopters around food?

Sally: I can explain what has worked for us. It has been about trying things out and seeing what works and always testing strategies against a knowledge of early trauma and therapeutic parenting.

  • Regular meals as they provide a strong structure to the day
  • Not persisting with foods they don’t like – taking away opportunities for failure at the dinner table – taking the emotion and shame out
  • Providing foods that they ate and enjoyed in care – even now, ten years in
  • Planning meals that don’t take long to prepare so that more time is available for one to one parenting and close supervision  – meal prep doesn’t become something that takes away mum’s attention – and the more time between the start of prep and the food arriving, the greater the stress
  • Lots of fruit available to satisfy the constant desire for food
  • Verbal reassurance – ‘there will always be enough food for you’ ‘ I will not let you go hungry’
  • Cooking and baking – preparing food, learning about it, shopping together
  • Some choice – would you like x or y for tea
  • Being tuned in to what they like and providing these foods frequently

Thanks Sally. For more information it’s worth checking out:

Surveillance and Food Practises Within Residential Care For Young People

Recipes For Fostering by Andrea Warman

The Importance Of Food in Relation To The Treatment of Deprived and Disturbed Children in Care

Mother forces adopted daughter to bare her a child

On Sunday evening The Guardian broke the chilling news story of the mother who bullied her daughter into inseminating herself with semen which she had bought over the internet.  What this particular headline does not mention, but others do, is that the girl, who gave birth at the age of 16,  had been adopted from overseas by her mother, along with two other younger and unrelated children.  Occasionally a news story will emerge where the matter of adoption is mentioned despite being irrelevant, but that is not the case here.  The adoption by the mother of the three children is central to the criminal act and the damage done (she was jailed for five years for this wrongdoing plus cruelty to a younger child).

It sounds stupid to say this, but it felt like a body blow to the brotherhood and sisterhood of adopters who parent damaged and vulnerable children.  I like to think we are all in it for the greater good, learning to parent therapeutically as we must, and with great respect for our children’s origins.  Simplistic, I know.

Adopters must be able to tap into vast amounts of empathy to do the very different type of parenting that they do.  Empathy was vacant from this drama.  This woman wanted another baby and would sell her soul and use her child like a breeding machine to get what she wanted. This blind, all-consuming madness is Shakespearian in both its nature and the tragedy it has delivered upon the innocent.  What she did is barely recognisable as fact.

Having gone through the adoption approval process myself and become an adoptive parent I am astonished that she was ever approved to adopt.  Easy for me to say perhaps, I don’t know her, didn’t interview her, but she doesn’t sound like a safe bet.  She adopted the children from overseas.  Whether that is easier to achieve, whether there are loopholes, I don’t know, but it feels like that may be part of the story.  Overseas and domestic adoption are certainly separated bureaucratically in this country and I’m not sure why, although I suspect that an agenda to encourage adopters to look to the UK care system and not overseas may be part of it.  A kind of first and second division of adoption perhaps, which doesn’t sound like it passes the ‘best interests of the child’ test to me.

After being able to adopt three children, the woman was able to isolate herself and them from anyone who may have been able to spot that things weren’t right.  There are the usual stories of alarms being sounded and no one following these up with sufficient rigour.  Evidently she talked a good talk (how often do we hear that one?).

Serious questions are posed by this case and there are uncomfortable truths to face too.  Not everyone is capable of parenting vulnerable children, much as we would wish it otherwise.  Children can slip under the radar if someone wants them to and be in significant risk of harm as a result.  And in efforts to reduce the numbers of children awaiting adoption in the UK alongside poor funding of adoption support, are we overlooking some clear issues around overseas adoption?

At the heart of it are three vulnerable children, dislocated from their countries of birth, who found themselves not only parented by someone who was unfit to do so, but cut off from any form of reliable help and rescue. And now there is a vulnerable baby to be considered too. The damage wrought is deep and widespread and will echo down through the generations to come.  We can only hope that all four of the children will find the support, nurture and therapy that they will need to  make sense of what has happened to them.