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.