Today I revisit a blog I originally posted back in November when I was writing my family tree. Now we’ve started Stage Two I thought I would re-examine the cracks in my extended family in light of conversations with Denise, our social worker.
I come from a large family and I was struggling to fit everyone on to my family tree. And that was without including my sister – or half-sister to be exact. And, I suppose if we’re going to be exact, I should also call my brothers “my half-brothers” – a title that I would never dream of using when introducing them to anyone or generally talking about them.
I’m the only child of my parents’ marriage. My three brothers are from my mum’s first marriage and I grew up with them in the same house after my mum left her first husband and moved in with my dad. It must have been difficult for everyone but my parents and my brothers’ dad dealt with it brilliantly. There were occasional issues between my older brothers and my dad but they got through it, and my nieces and nephews call my dad “Granddad” without any thought to whose blood is in whom. We are a family. End of.
This is all in stark contrast to the relationship I have with my sister. There is a 22 year gap between my parents and as a consequence my mum is only a few years older than my sister. I appreciate this must have been difficult for her at the time, but when I was born she was a woman in her late twenties and a few years later would be a mother herself. Yet it took her until I was nearly 30 before she would even entertain the idea of acknowledging my existence.
About six years ago my dad became ill (he’s fine now) and he asked for us all to meet up. So my Mum and Dad, my sister and her husband, and Tom and I all met for dinner. It was fine (if not very strange) and we meet up now and again at my parents’ house but we don’t call each other or see each other outside of these meetings.
I know my dad would like us to have a similar relationship to the one I have with my brothers. But the fact that she’s more of my parents’ generation than my own, that she ignored me for 30 years, and that she has continually rebuffed any efforts I’ve made with her mean, for me at least, that the opportunity has passed. Plus, I’ve always felt like I was somehow betraying my brothers by having a relationship with her – I know this is completely irrational, and when I’ve said this to them they’ve always said they would support me in any decision I make, but I can’t shake that feeling.
I was originally worried about how this broken relationship would appear to Denise. Would she see it as a weakness in our application that I hadn’t been able (or willing, if I’m honest) to mend the relationship between my sister and me? Would it matter that I’ve met her two children only once, and never their children? Would it matter, when asked who’d support my ageing dad in future my answer was immediately “my brothers” (related to him by marriage), and that Denise had to remind me I had a sister (his daughter) who might take the responsibility?
As it turns out, the answer seems to be no. What I’m starting to realise is that what I thought might be considered ‘weaknesses’ by Denise are actually bonuses. Many of the children we’re likely to adopt may also have complicated families. Being aware of how that feels and can be managed could be a crucial part of what our children need.
Being British, I tend to shy away from discussing my personal finances in public. But today I’m going to make an exception - whilst still being vague enough about the details to protect my bank account and avoiding sounding too vulgar.
At our first assessment meeting last week, Denise, our SW, raised concerns that as two self-employed ‘creative types’ the panel may see us as having a weakness in our application to becoming adoptive parents. Over the last few days I have had a number of Twitter conversations and responded to comments on this page where people have pointed out that Denise is only trying to make sure that any ‘weaknesses’ are resolved so the panel can’t trip us up later on in the process. I’m sure they’re right, but my worry is that even if these are not Denise’s concerns, they are someone’s.
And that ‘someone’ in the adoption approval world has decided that two people who own their own home, have savings, and in most years earn near enough the national average from our ‘creative type’ jobs are at risk of not being able to feed and clothe our children. We’re not rich by any stretch of the imagination but we’re not destitute either. What more do they want?
I accept that the approval process has to be rigorous to ensure that vulnerable children are properly looked after, but some common sense has to be used as well.
I remember when we first started looking into adoption we visited the First4Adoption website and it listed who was eligible to adopt. The list was pretty comprehensive and the final line stated ‘those who were employed or on benefits’ (I went back this week to check I remembered right).
So I ask myself the question: if it’s possible for someone on benefits to adopt, surely we’ll be OK. Or is that line added on the website to be ‘inclusive’? Does that mean that if you are on benefits it would be seen as a weakness and someone’s adoption dream would end there? Surely that can’t be right.
The other big financial issue for us is the fact that self-employed workers are not currently entitled to any form of Statutory Adoption Pay. Whereas a friend of mine who is self-employed and recently gave birth can claim £140 per week, and another friend who is employed and has just adopted a child can claim a similar amount, I can’t. It’s my understanding we all pay the same amount of tax and national insurance so what’s going on?
I’ve written to my constituency MP, who has written to Nick Boles, the Minister of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I received a letter from him explaining nothing beyond what I already knew. Apparently “nothing can be done”. But I have no intention of leaving it there, I can tell you. It’s so frustrating that this is yet another hoop that Tom and I (and countless others) have to jump through in order to have children.
So where does that leave us? I normally try to end my blogs with some kind of resolution or an uplifting remark. But this week there seem to be more questions than answers and, as is often the way with money matters, there’s nothing uplifting about it. I suppose all we can do is gather together enough evidence to prove that we can afford to look after our children.
And pray HMRC come to their senses before we’re (hopefully) approved to adopt. Now, that would be uplifting…
And lo! Adoption UK spoke and our prayers might be answered after all. On Tuesday, minutes after finishing this week's blog, a report by Julie Deane OBE was released that makes recommendations to the government to offer adoption pay to self-employed adopters. Fingers crossed.
Today is my 14th blog about our journey to becoming adoptive dads but it’s the first one to be in ‘real-time’. From now on my updates will be in the moment. Well, kind of - they’ll be delayed by a few days while I write them, edit them, and agonise whether they’re any good. I should also point out that this blog is a long one, so get comfortable…
So we’ve finally met our new social worker, Denise, and completed our first Stage Two meeting. Denise announced that she had a form we had to fill in that would officially start Stage Two proceedings and that at the end of the meeting she would decide to either leave the form with us to complete and we’d carry on the process - or she wouldn’t. If that happened that would be the end of our adoption journey with our agency. Righto!
Denise followed this by explaining she wasn’t going to pussyfoot around any issues and would be forthright with us throughout the whole process. She looked like she meant it too.
Both these announcements were enough to make me feel like I wanted to be sick. I wasn’t but it set quite a combative tone for the rest of the meeting.
It all started off easily enough with Denise going through our family trees, chronologies and eco-map. Tom went first and explained who particular people were on his family tree, discussed his relationships with his family, explained how he’d got into his line of work, and answered a whole host of questions about education, finance (more of this later), and a lot, lot more. The type of questions that need a bit of thought but nothing too strenuous.
Then it was my turn. In a earlier post I explain my ‘complicated’ family tree and gosh did it confuse Denise. Being inside my family I don’t think it’s that difficult to understand that I have three half brothers that I grew up who, to all intents and purposes, are my brothers. And I have a half sister whom I barely know. But this had Denise’s knickers in a twist as she tried to work out the relationships between various people. She was particularly perplexed by the story of how my parents met and asked me to ask them to get clarification on it* as she was unsure of their story (which is theirs so I won’t share it here).
*I have since asked them about their first meeting and it’s as brilliant as I thought it was and I was right. Take that Denise! I realise by not telling the story it sounds sordid somehow - I promise it isn’t. It’s actually very sweet – although no daughter of mine will ever meet her future husband in that way!
What I will share is why I cried. When I was 12 my mum suffered a devastating breakdown. This was triggered by the next brother up from me (the youngest from her first marriage) moving out of our family home. However, the root cause of the depression was my mum’s experiences growing up in a children’s home in the Republic of Ireland in the 1950s which she had kept hidden from us all until this moment. All this, mixed with a large helping of Catholic guilt, has meant she’d always felt she was a bad mother to us all and had let us down (my brother moving out was the straw that broke the camel’s back). It doesn’t matter how hard we try to prove to her this isn’t the case (the happy and successful lives my three brothers and I lead did not come about by accident) she still feels like she’s failed us.
My mum is actually convinced that her depression will somehow go against us as part of the approval process but, perversely, I’ve always had the feeling the social workers I’ve spoken to have been rather pleased there’s a bit of trauma in my background that I’ve overcome.
Anyway, I felt, wrongly or rightly, that Denise was somehow attacking my mum’s honour with questions about how she met my dad, her childhood, how she interacted with my brothers and me etc. And it bothered me. And as I defended my mum’s character I felt my hand reach for Tom’s leg, my cheeks get hot, my lips tremble, and then tears streaming down my face as my voice cracked. WTF?
I rarely cry. If you don’t count weeping at weddings or sniffling whilst watching a soppy move or the latest John Lewis Christmas advert (and let’s not for the moment) Tom has only seen me properly cry about three times in nearly 13 years. This is not to say I’m emotionally devoid of feeling – I am very in touch with my feelings – I just very rarely cry.
Another moment that made me bite my tongue was when Denise was talking about my first teaching job when I left university. She seemed to suggest that the only reason I got my job was that the school I applied to was so terrible (it really was) that no one else applied for the job. She seemed baffled that I could get a job at a school having just finished university. I was livid. And confused. What was she saying about me? Did she think I was unemployable after meeting me for an hour? It turns out she had misunderstood my chronology. My job title after I left after seven years was the head of a department. She thought I’d started straight out of university as a head of department, rather than as a class teacher, which explains her confusion – if not her rudeness.
Whilst talking to her I knew I was saying the right things – in as much as I was talking slowly and thinking about what I was saying. Unlike our first meeting with a social worker back in August. However, I was too aware of my body language. Should I cross my legs, lean back, lean forward, clutch my cup to my chest or put it down? I must have look deranged as I shifted from one position to the next thinking about the signals I was sending.
The final irksome moment was our finances which for obvious reasons I’m not going to divulge on a public blog. Suffice to say Denise felt that two self-employed creative types may not have the resources to bring up two children. We assured her we did and will spend the next few weeks proving that fact. It got me thinking though – is adoption only available to the rich? That can’t be the case surely. This will be the basis of a future blog so I’ll say no more on this topic for the moment.
We eventually got to our eco-map. Denise went through each person with a fine-tooth comb and talked about how they might support us. She felt that we might need more people in our immediate locality but she was generally positive about it. Thankfully, most of Tom’s school friends live relatively close to us and it’s just a matter of adding them to the eco-map.
Throughout the whole session Denise looked like she was drowning in a sea of paperwork. I had to stop myself from going to my desk to get her a stapler and putting her files in order. We knew from the couple of phone calls with her that was probably scatty but this really took the biscuit. For someone who is as freakishly organised as I am she is possibly my worst nightmare. Anyway, I’ve already decided that when this is all over I am going to buy her a stapler to say thank you.
We finished up by having a walk around the house where we talked more like people getting to know one another. She asked us about the books on our shelves, pictures on walls, where our bathroom tiles came from, and whether we had a gardener (I’ll admit it - we do). I’m pleased we did this as I think it showed her a bit more of who we are and equally who she was. I really wish we’d done this first as I think it would have put us all at ease and put her questions into a better framework.
Before Denise left she thankfully handed over the Stage Two application form (HURRAH!) and we set some dates for the following meetings plus a provisional date for our panel (AGHHH!).
When she did leave, Tom and I had a spot of lunch and talked through everything that had just happened. We both felt drained and poor Tom had to go to his first volunteering session at the local primary school. I meanwhile went for a long run to clear my head. When we both got back we opened a bottle of wine and talked some more.
So we’ve finally met our new social worker and it only took three and a quarter hours for us to decide that we like her. In that time I went from disliking her intensely, crying in front of her, drinking a lot of coffee, liking her, disliking her again, and finally making up with her. By the time she left I was exhausted but I genuinely feel like she is someone who is on our side and is going to fight our corner every step of the way. You can’t really ask for more…
NB. She phoned the next day to check I was OK – nice!
Back in October 2015 we started Stage One of the adoption process. We had been told by our agency that it would take around two months. Well, four months later I’m glad to say it’s finally over and the first Stage Two assessment is imminent.
What has taken so long I hear you ask? Well, if you’re sitting comfortably I’ll begin…
One of the first things we completed was the DBS forms as we were told they could take up to eight weeks to be returned. I’ve completed countless DBS checks over the last 15 years and the longest I’ve ever had to wait was about three weeks. When the end of week seven came and went, we got a call from the agency telling us that the Metropolitan Police were taking up to 16 weeks to complete DBS checks. This was a massive blow to our timetable. We were hoping to start Stage Two before Christmas but this was clearly not going to happen. Annoyingly our forms arrived three weeks later but by this stage our social worker didn’t have time to get started before Christmas.
So, we knew that our referees had sent in their references, we’d handed in all our homework, and now our DBS checks were complete so the only thing we needed to finalise was the medicals.
When we had our medical examinations we knew that our GP had picked up on something from one of our family history that would have to be flagged up. We were assured it wasn’t an issue and that it wouldn’t hold anything up (it has since been checked and all is well). What followed was a very slow game of letter tennis. The agency wrote to our GP for some more information. Our GP sent the information. Another question was asked and another letter sent. The bureaucracy of all this was the only time I came anywhere near losing my temper with the process.
Add to all this the fact the agency doctor temporarily ‘misplaced’ our medical examinations meant there was a hold-up in getting everything signed. Finally everyone was happy and the documents were ‘found’ but we had to wait for a final signature from the agency doctor before we could be signed off.
This all happened just before Christmas so we were going to have to wait for everyone to return from the holiday before anything could be done.
I have to admit that I have to take some responsibility for holding things up. I have spent almost the whole of January working away from home which meant scheduling a meeting was very difficult – having said that, had we been offered an earlier date by our SW I would have made sure I was available.
So has it been a disaster having to wait so long? Well, we missed out on a date for our final preparation day but it’s been rescheduled for a date in May. And we missed out on a 12-week volunteering programme with our agency that our old social worker suggested we do due to Tom’s ‘lack of experience’ with younger children. How she came to that conclusion is beyond me as between Tom and me, we have 16 nieces, nephews and godchildren ranging in ages from 2 to 17!
However, I know I was delighted at not having to do the volunteering as I didn’t relish the idea of giving up our Saturday mornings before we really had to. It actually worked out well as Tom’s now helping children with their reading at the local primary school that we hope to send our children to (I know we don’t necessarily need to put the effort in but every little helps).
It seems to me that so much of the waiting was down to box ticking and red tape. All of which I understand needs to happen for the safety of the children in the care system but, like so many other government-led processes, there has to be a smarter and quicker way through.
So all in all not a real disaster - just a lot of frustration and hanging around when we’re itching to get our family started.
But for now Stage One is complete and as of next week we’ll officially be in Stage Two.
My husband and I have adopted two wonderful children. Duckling is 5 and Gosling, her little brother, is 3. I'll be keeping track of our journey here...