Adoption UK Conference 2019

Throughout October we experienced some giddy highs and nauseating lows. I haven’t blogged much and have shied away from social media. I had penned a post called ‘Trick or treat’ (which the lovely Ali Scothern had kindly illustrated), but it felt imbalanced and angst-ridden. With hindsight, it was written on the days when I was at my lowest point, when I felt like life was constantly tricking me. That’s valid, but it’s not representative of every day. I was underappreciating the treats that I was also granted. I began to forget that they were happening but, worse, I stopped believing they would happen again. I was losing hope.

Cue the Adoption UK 2019 Conference.

This year the event moved from Birmingham to Harrogate, kickstarting the tour over the next few years of conferences being held in different venues (next year we are Bristol bound). The theme for this year was slightly broader than in previous years: “Stronger Families Brighter Futures”. Rather than focusing on one single aspect, such as education or life story work, they considered a wider range of issues affecting adoptive parents and their children. There was an addition to the proven format, with delegates choosing two workshops (from a list of seven) to attend.

Knowing that Little Chick would be happy, safe, and well with his grandparents, we took the opportunity to head to Harrogate on Friday afternoon. This was a canny move considering the floods affecting Derbyshire and parts of Yorkshire but, more importantly, meant we could attend the pre-conference drinks. I love the idea of things like this, a chance to meet with like-minded people and talk about a shared interest. But putting that theory into practise is terrifying and my social anxiety does not always allow it. Fortunately, I found a few other people who were happy to forego small talk (yuk) and delve right into the big talk (yay). Even before the event had officially started, I felt connected and affirmed.

The welcome was given by Rob Langley-Swain (Head of Membership for Adoption UK, hosting his first conference – and performing admirably), who instigated the ‘snowball game’. Every delegate was asked to write what they wanted to get from the day onto a piece of (high quality) paper. That paper was then scrunched into a ‘snowball’ and, when directed, everyone threw theirs in the direction of another person or table so that we could see and share some thoughts. In a moment of brevity, I wrote just one word. Worried that my paper might not make it to another table, I launched my snowball, throwing it straight over the adjoining table into the wastelands yonder. This seemed a fitting metaphor.

Sue-Armstrong Brown (CEO of Adoption UK) gave the opening remarks, focusing on the results of the Adoption Barometer survey. There were, understandably, statistics showing issues with the adoption process, recurrent problems within education and then issues gaining employment and training, as well as difficulties accessing ongoing adoption support. Overwhelmingly, most adopters surveyed (approx. 4 in 5) said they would encourage others to adopt despite the challenges they face. This set the tone for the day. This was a room of people who want the best for their young people and will fight for them.

Joanne Alper – Encouraging resilience

Founder of AdoptionPlus, Joanne Alper focused on the need for and importance of resilience. At the heart of this, she highlighted vulnerability. Embracing and accepting vulnerability allows flexibility, a vital component when building resilience. She drew on her own experiences to show this, which I believe helped delegates feel more at ease. I’m always impressed that the speakers at these events demonstrate immense knowledge and understanding but deliver this with humanity. It feels like we’re all working together – a theme that was touched upon several times throughout the day.

Further, she highlighted the importance of self-compassion and the need for parents (all, but especially adoptive) to be kind to themselves. I especially liked her reminder to stay curious, as this is something I try to do but often forget. But when I am curious life is better, and easier, for me and my family.

My biggest takeaway from her informative and compassionate talk was the value of finding your tribe. This is something I have been exploring a lot recently, especially as we await official adoption support, and it was reassuring (though a tad frustrating) to know that others felt the same. At the Adoption UK conference, I found my tribe, some of whom I already knew (in real life or from social media), some I met for the first time. I am ridiculously grateful for that.

Adoptee panel hosted by Sally Donovan

This was a highlight for me at last year’s conference. The young people sharing their experiences of adoption were brave, honest, funny, clever, and bloody amazing, quite frankly. But, my goodness, the tears. I should have learned from last year that such raw emotions will require tissues. Perhaps these could be supplied next year.

Sally Donovan facilitated the panel perfectly. Her measured approached and gentle tone seemed to help Nellie, Louise, Lara, and Martin feel at ease. I cannot emphasise enough how impressive they were. They were absolute stars.

I’m conscious that adoptee voices aren’t heard enough and that adopted people are not always granted the same platform as adoptive parents. The four young people were immense and their tips and advice on what they believe helps make Stronger Families and Brighter Futures were insightful and well considered: their standing ovation was deserved. They highlighted the benefits of connecting with other adoptees, the role pets can play (as non-judgemental companions with unconditional love), and the importance of supportive parents who listen to them and never give up on them. I will try to remember these lessons now and as my son grows and vow to always champion him.

Dr Dave Williams – Building the village

Next, Dr Dave Williams, an adviser to Welsh government on children’s mental health, spoke about supporting one another and the strength that comes from being acknowledged and heard. He used the analogy that there is too much focus on a person who is ‘drowning’ and not enough on teaching them to swim. As someone who feels they are treading water at best this was a valuable mental image. Again, he promoted the need for a collective group, a village, to help children and families. The message that families can only become stronger by asking for and receiving support was loud and clear by the time we entered the coffee break.

Workshop 1 Becky Brooks – Home education

Although school have been brilliant so far, I thought it might be prudent to have home ed on our radar. I didn’t attend the workshop with the intention of removing him from school the following Monday. Rather, I wanted to know how people arrived at the decision to home educate so that I could learn from them, from their successes and their mistakes.

Becky Brooks is Adoption UK’s education policy adviser and knows her stuff. I enjoy her tweets and blogs and her recent publication (The Trauma and Attachment-Aware Classroom: A Practical Guide to Supporting Children Who Have Encountered Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences) has been recommended to school. She was able to share her own experiences of home educating as well as guidance on legislation, requirements, and practicalities.

The other adoptive parents shared their stories, enabling me to better understand why people educate their children at home, usually as a first choice or as a last resort. Those whose children have attended school before being home educated were most helpful to me as I was able to understand what we and school need to do better to ensure Little Chick’s success. By success I don’t necessarily mean a raft of top GCSE results. I mean a child who is happy, safe, and well, who can undertake practical tasks, and is able to ‘function’ in society.

It was extremely useful to hear other people’s experiences and, although I hope we never need to home educate, I feel less daunted by the prospect. I also feel better equipped for working alongside school to create a plan suitable for Little Chick. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler chose to attend a separate workshop, giving us access to more information and resources. She learned more about sleep therapy and was able to garner a few tips. We now also have further ideas to share in our meetings with the GP and behaviour specialist.

Lunch was a welcome break. The morning was fantastic but there is a lot of information to digest and emotions to deal with.

Workshop 2 Philippa Williams – Life journey work

I find life story work one of the most interesting aspects of adoption, perhaps because of my own struggles with identity and fascination with storytelling. Adoption UK’s Philippa Williams refers to it as life journey work. I like this word choice as it suggests that it is ongoing, continued. There is also the opportunity for travel companions and help along the way.

Partly because I have attended several life story workshops or training sessions recently, partly because I am jaded and cynical at present, the introductory overview was familiar and offered nothing new. However, the second part of the workshop was the best I have experienced in terms of practical tips and suggestions.

Drawing on work she has done personally and professionally, as an adoptive parent and as Early Intervention Support Manager, Philippa Williams shared ideas of how to help adopted young people better understand their past, present, and future. Combining music, artwork, stories, photos, and artefacts, she skilfully showed how these could prompt important questions or conversations. I especially liked her idea of a magic box as this is something that we could start now with Little Chick and it will evolve as he grows.

Importantly, I was reminded of the importance of asking questions when given photos, gifts, or information. Asking who gave him that outfit? Where was this photo taken? Why did he have this? Equally, labelling things is essential, particularly with names and dates. A beautifully presented photo album has less value if it is unclear who or what is pictured.

By the end of the workshop, I felt reassured that we are doing the right kind of things with Little Chick in mostly the right ways. However, listening to other delegates, I was angered and frustrated that this work is given such low importance by too many local authorities and the quality of life story books and later life letters is still woefully poor, if they exist at all.

Again, The Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I attended different workshops. She refreshed her knowledge of therapeutic parenting and was reminded of a few practical tips that we can employ in daily life.

Simon London – Overcoming adversity

Simon London is an incredibly interesting guy – the kind you would love to chat to over a drink – and he delivered his story with a fantastic mix of humour and honesty. Recounting his experience as a black adoptee, he wasn’t maudlin or negative, despite the challenges he faced, and his call to keep looking forward and remain positive were a welcome reminder. This was his first time speaking publicly about being adopted and I hope it is not his last. I felt honoured to hear his story and I hope he can share it with others who can learn from him.

Dr Marie Kershaw – The power of positive relationships

After a long but extremely worthwhile day, I felt for Dr Marie Kershaw, presenting in the final slot. However, her talk was extremely engaging. More than that, it was incredibly uplifting and a fitting end to the day. She focused on how trauma can trap us and make us feel stuck but that we can overcome that. Primarily, this is achieved through positive relations, with other adopters, professionals, and within our own families. Her talk centred around hope. There were so many Aha! moments as she spoke, but her reminder than adults can hold onto their children’s hope until they feel able to look after it themselves resonated with me (and most of the room). As much as I am struggling to remain hopeful, I need to remember that Little Chick is facing a much harder time of it than I am. I need to safeguard his hope.

As the conference ended, I wanted to stay to chat and ask questions, introduce myself to people who only know me as an avatar and online persona. But tiredness and anxiety won out. Hopefully, I will attend more Adoption UK events in the next year and build my confidence by next year’s conference. That evening The Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I decided against our planned date night and stayed in the hotel with takeaway, excitedly sharing what we had learned and optimistically planning ahead.

On Sunday we prepared to return home, armed with new ideas, renewed confidence, and hope. We received a surprisingly warm welcome from Little Chick, a timely reminder that he is why we attend such events and why we want to be better parents and advocates.

After conversing with other adoptive parents, adoptees, and professionals, our chats with family (who politely enquired what we had gained from our experience) were welcomed but frustrating. The conversations revealed how much people wanted to know and understand but how far they are from that point. This theme recurred throughout the conference and is, perhaps, an idea that could be considered next year. It is also something we will be discussing further with our own regional adoption agency.

Overall, the Adoption UK Conference was the shot in the arm that I needed, at the required moment. I felt that I had found my tribe, been reminded of the importance of a village, learned new things, consolidated existing knowledge, and felt more like me than I had done in weeks.

Oh, and what was the single word I penned on my snowball? The one word that worried me I hadn’t written enough? The one word I needed? HOPE.


I should have posted this sooner – building on the momentum of the day – but I have had neither the time nor the headspace. The Adoption UK conference was immense and we had a truly fabulous weekend. After the elation of such an event we have crashed back to Earth with an almighty bump. However, I still have hope, kindly given to me by the speakers, organisers, and delegates of the Adoption UK community. This will sustain me and my family, hopefully until we receive formal adoption support from Adoption East Midlands (promised within the month), and I am extraordinarily grateful for that.

(Re)Building blocks

One of the best metaphors used in our adoption training was the image of a brick wall. Each brick represented a need, such as warmth, stimulation, and comfort. As children grow, more needs develop, adding more rows of bricks. As children’s needs were met the wall became stronger and taller.

For adoptees, there are usually missing bricks. They may not have been regularly fed, their home may have been cold and damp, and they may not have been taught how to play.

Subsequently, their walls lack solid foundations. As the wall grows higher, this becomes more problematic. Irregular food and drink may lead to unhealthy eating habits such as binging; living in poor conditions may mean their body doesn’t recognise true sensations of hot and cold or wet and dry; not learning how to play may lead to doing so in an unhealthy way.

I’ve seen this image dozens of times since. I’ve shared it with others. I’ve taken it on board.

But I don’t think I fully ‘got’ it until Little Chick started school. Now his bricks – or, rather, his missing bricks – are becoming more obvious. Even the very act of playing with building blocks is trickier for him than his peers. His literal and figurative bricks are wobbling precariously. I’m worried that they could topple at any moment.

Little Chick was relatively young when he was taken into care and placed with his foster carer. Some people assume he will be OK because he was ‘given a chance’ at such a young age. Unfortunately, this is not the case. (And this isn’t even taking into consideration that adoption itself is trauma.) The bricks (the needs) in his first six months were unstable (unmet). In some cases, we have tried to repair the damage by stripping things back and starting again. We have tried to meet those unmet needs, such as cuddling Little Chick at bedtime, feeding him with a baby’s bottle, and singing him soothing lullabies while we maintain eye contact. Missing out on this as a baby means that Little Chick finds it harder to accept comfort and reassurance. He struggles making eye contact, especially with new people. Currently, he is torn between being a big boy and a baby. In some ways this is developmentally appropriate. However, Little Chick’s wall is not stable enough to underpin this exploration. As he switches between wanting to be a grown up and a baby, his need for nurture is primal. He needs to be treated like a baby, or certainly a child younger than his chronological age, to fill in the gaps in his wall, to meet the unmet needs of infancy.

Subsequently, it is no surprise that his sense of self is so confused. In the first six months of their life a healthy child would have received comfort, stimulation, security, love, and cuddles. Little Chick experienced some of these, but inconsistently. Some he never experienced. As such, Little Chick finds friendships harder to form than most of his peers. He struggles to play appropriately and unsupervised. He doesn’t always trust that his needs will be met and we must convince him to trust us. All of this makes starting school ridiculously hard.

School are managing Little Chick but, by their own admission, this is not good enough. He deserves better. As much as it has saddened me to see Little Chick struggle, it has heartened me to see how school have responded. The other pupils have shown kindness and empathy; the staff have shown patience and a willingness to learn. The headteacher has been incredible, a genuine silver lining in an otherwise gigantic, gloomy cloud. Yes, it is early days, but she is an excellent ally. She gets it, she gets Little Chick. She is impressively efficient without compromising her humanity. She is on our side. She has even chased adoption support regarding their lack of action.

For now, we take half term as an opportunity to rest and reset. We practise self-care so that we are all a bit better prepared for what faces us upon our return. Next term we need to remember that some of the building blocks we thought were secure are not. We need to strengthen them or rebuild them altogether. It won’t be easy and it will continue to be a strain on Little Chick. But with school onside and asking what they can do to help we will get there. We will build up Little Chick’s wall together. In doing so, hopefully we will also build up his sense of self. Everyone who has met him at school has commented first that he is a lovely boy. Now we need to help secure the bricks in his wall, so he believes that himself.

Adoptee voices

Lately, I have been thinking about adoptee voices. My adopted son is only four years old. He doesn’t say much and what he does say isn’t always easy to understand. But what he says is important. I listen carefully to what he shares. So, when do we stop listening to adoptee voices? Do we only listen to our own children? Because it seems that adult adoptees are not being heard.

National Adoption Week is in full swing and there is a distinct absence of adoptee voices, notably adult adoptees. National Adoption Week is a recruitment drive, raising awareness of the children who still need adoptive families and encouraging those considering adoption to find out more. Perhaps this isn’t the right forum for adult adoptees to share their stories. But when is? Are they given that opportunity? I feel like adopters are given a platform. Which is good. And right. But it seems to be a case of either/or. Shouldn’t we be looking to promote all voices in the adoption community?

Perhaps I’m being naïve. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right places. Perhaps I’m not listening.

Adoptee voices need to be championed. All my friends who have adopted will fiercely fight for their children’s rights to be heard. When does this stop? When they turn 18? When they start to say things that sit uncomfortably with our own narrative, with our own take on adoption?

It is tricky for younger adoptees to share their voices safely. If adoptive parents help share their stories it can be deemed exploitative. Social media is a potential opportunity but there are – sensibly – recommended age restrictions. Then there is the issue that many adoptees, because of the trauma they have suffered, are developmentally younger than their chronological ages. Organisations such as Adopteens and Who Cares? Scotland are excellent at promoting the views and rights of care experienced children. But there seems to be less available when they reach young adulthood. Less still for adult adoptees.

Some adult adoptee voices are easily accessible. For example, Jeanette Winterson has spoken openly about her perspective as a child adopted in the 1960s. Her memoir Why be happy when you could be normal? reflects on her childhood with her adopted family and charts meeting her birth family as an adult. It is raw, honest, and incredibly moving and should be recommended reading for all prospective adopters. But if you’re not picked up by a mainstream publisher there isn’t always the opportunity to share your story.

The Open Nest charity is excellent at giving adoptees a platform. Equally, birth families are included. The whole adoption community is welcomed and valued. We attended one of their conferences while in the adoption approval process and I honestly think it was one of the best things we could have done. It positively shaped our view of adoption and exposed us to the myriad voices of adoption. This week they hosted another conference, focusing on Preservation or Severance. Childcare issues prevented me from attending but the feedback from delegates was wholeheartedly positive. Afterwards, several experienced the ‘hangover’ of being immersed in a community then having it withdrawn. How do we ensure that these opportunities are less rare but still treasured?

So why I have I bothered with this blog post? I guess the answer is twofold.

First, for want of a better expression, I would like recommendations. Where can I hear adoptee voices? Blogs? Books? Social media accounts? I’m not suggesting that some voices are more valuable than others but I am looking for accessible voices. The opportunity to listen without being attacked. The potential to engage. To learn. To educate myself so that I can better parent my son, now and in the future.

Secondly, if you are considering adoption, I am not here to discourage you. I do not aim to paint a grim picture that advises you against finding out more. But I encourage you to view adoption realistically. To remember that adoption is finding families for children and not the other way around. I urge you to listen to, speak to, adoptees. Hear their stories first-hand, to give you a better overview. National Adoption Week focuses on the present, the urgency of adopting children who need families now. There is less acknowledgement of the past (why they have been taken into care) or the present (the support they will need because of past trauma (while not forgetting that adoption itself is a further trauma)).

I pose a lot of questions and I offer few (if any) answers. It’s certainly not my intention to lecture anyone else on what they could or should be doing. But it is a reminder to me to listen to all voices. Even if what they say is uncomfortable and hard to hear. I won’t tolerate abuse or insults. But I appreciate that there is a great deal of anger and trauma. As hard as it is to hear, I am sure it is far more difficult to articulate and share. And I am grateful to the adoptees who share so freely and openly. Twitter was a great forum for this but it has become more closed off recently. I am guilty of this too, locking my account as a security measure. Perhaps I need to reconsider this. It’s tough to face the hostility sometimes, to face the divide of ‘us and them’. But, I believe, adopters are in the most privileged position within the adoption community and therefore have a responsibility to listen. Adopters have the greatest access to a public forum and need to use that opportunity to champion all adoptees, not just their own.