About Mrs Reed Warbler
Our adoption story begins in December 2013. We had been together for several years and had been legally joined in a civil partnership (we later ‘upgraded’ to an official marriage). We both had jobs we loved and had worked hard for, had a home we enjoyed, and a lifestyle that kept us entertained and well-travelled. We were extremely happy, with each other and with life. I don’t think it was as simple as something was missing. We had discussed the possibility of children several times and were both in agreement that we would enjoying being aunties and godmothers: all the fun and far less responsibility. But over Christmas we both felt a desire to adopt. I’m not sure we could initially answer why. For us, it seemed more a case of why not. There was lots we could offer children: stability, attention, knowledge, a home. Neither of us had ever considered conceiving a child naturally: adoption was our first choice for a forever family.
(Full disclosure: our first thoughts were mostly altruistic, focused on what we had to give. But, of course, there was an element of what we would get, what we would gain from being parents through adoption. Over time, our thought process has evolved and we are more familiar with the nuances of adoption and how much adopters gain and adoptees lose, but, initially, we saw it as a more equal exchange, quid pro quo).
After much discussion we contacted our local adoption agency, Derbyshire County Council, and registered our interest. Within a couple of weeks, a social worker visited us, gauging our understanding of the process, discussing our motivations, and filling in the gaps in our basic knowledge. With everyone happy, we were able to proceed and were invited to join Stage One of the adopter approval process.
Stage One covers much of the necessary admin to ensure that you can continue the process. There are very few barriers to adoption (being aged under 21 years old; being a UK legal resident for less than twelve months; and crimes against children or serious sexual offences) but due diligence is undertaken, especially DBS checks (Disclosure and Barring Service; formerly CRB), as well as checking with employers and personal referees. We began our training during Stage One though I believe this may have changed over the years. The recent regionalisation of adoption services means that authorities and agencies can more easily share good practice and improve their processes. We found Stage One a little frustrating, simply because you are usually waiting on other people before you can move forwards. Patience isn’t my strong point but its even more limited when it’s something this potentially exciting.
Stage Two felt more like what I expected from the adoption approval process. There was training on topics including loss, neglect, and conditions such as FASD (Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders). We were talked through what adoptees had experienced, guided through the legal processes, introduced to therapeutic parenting. It was full on. I had never heard of FASD or therapeutic parenting before beginning the adoption process. Suddenly I had a whole new language to learn. And, my goodness, the jargon and the acronyms. This is a good glossary for new and prospective adopters: First4Adoption Adoption Glossary.
Whereas Stage One had felt quite passive, Stage Two was definitely more active. We were assigned a social worker (M) who would see us through approval and matching. We were constantly thinking about adoption, whether it was as follow up to our weekly meeting with our social worker, completing the homework she had set us, or reading more widely about adoption and issues relevant to adopters and adoptees. (I’m glad that we took the time to read and learn then as it has provided a good foundation for us and we certainly have less time now to indulge in a whole book).
During Stage Two we also discussed what we felt we could offer a child and what conditions or difficulties we might not be able to deal with. This was probably the most difficult part of approval for me. We had to question whether we could give these children what they need. Thinking that we couldn’t be what they needed was heart breaking but ultimately the right decision for everyone. But it was also enlightening. When we first learned about FASD we would have dismissed it out of hand, but the more we read the more we understood that it is a spectrum so we should not discount our ability to parent a child with specific needs. I am grateful that our social worker was child focused and made sure we considered their needs first. Our needs weren’t ignored but they were secondary. However, she also made it clear to us that we needed to be OK for us all to be OK as a family and this has been a valuable reminder throughout our adoption journey.
Once we completed the workbook and training of Stage Two, M suggested we take a short break. Obviously, we were frustrated and upset, but the break gave us the chance to address issues such as mental health and weight, which we feared may be sticking points at Adoption Approval Panel. It was also an opportunity to step back from the process and enjoy time as a (relatively) carefree couple.
Once our social worker agreed that we had made enough progress and we had demonstrated our ability to continue, we worked together to complete our PAR (Prospective Adopters’ Report). This is a huge document compiled by the adopters’ social worker. Some of the contents remain unavailable to the adopter but we were able to view, and contribute to, parts that gave account of us now, our families, our childhoods, our educations, our hopes for the future… It is a revealing document. Between the PAR and our social worker, they know pretty much everything about us. Some people can find the approval process intrusive. We recognised how it could be but didn’t feel that way, I think because of the good relationship with our social worker. Mind you, if we hadn’t had M as a social worker then we may have felt quite differently. If we hadn’t had M as a social worker then I’m not convinced we would be parents now.
We were scheduled to attend Adoption Approval Panel in December 2014, ensuring that our PAR was available to the panel members at least a fortnight before. I can’t remember how long we waited between notification and the panel date but I know that it felt like a lifetime. Realistically, it will have been less than three months. But, again, it felt like a time when we were waiting on others and time stood still.
The panel comprises a range of people invested in the adoption process: foster carers; medical advisor; children and family social workers; adoptees, etc. I believe there were a dozen members of our panel but I’ve partially wiped that memory from my mind. Approval panel wasn’t scary. The people were all kind and patient. The room was bland but inoffensive. Our social worker was a calm reassuring presence. We were told that if you’ve made it to panel then you’re likely to be approved. If there are problems they should have been flagged up by your social worker before now. Even with these words ringing in your ears you cannot help but doubt what will happen. Logic and reason don’t seem to play much of a part when you get to this day, at least they didn’t for me. The questions were all straightforward, designed to confirm rather than confuse. The whole process was well under an hour, perhaps even less than half an hour. Honestly, my concept of time is completely skewed since beginning the adoption journey.
We were unanimously approved. It felt somewhat anti-climactic. It was pure relief rather than jubilation. The chair of panel also mentioned our (though mostly my) weight as a factor to consider. This was said, stood in the doorway, as we robotically left the building; something of an afterthought. When I shared our good news with my colleagues at our work Christmas party that evening, they celebrated with unbridled joy. I was mostly numb. That feeling lasted for at least a week, until the reality sank in. We are going to be parents.
Where Christmas 2013 had been something of a non-event, contributing to our realisation that we enjoyed the children in our lives, Christmas 2014 was more hopeful. There had been talk of us having a child or children placed with us by Christmas but that wasn’t to be. Instead, we enjoyed the festivities thoroughly and made the most of the adults only time, all the while optimistically looking forward to 2015, the year we would be a family.
Alas, that wasn’t to be. We kept our promise to Derbyshire of waiting three months before looking beyond the county (most authorities encourage adopters to consider ‘in house’ matches before looking further afield). When we had no realistic matches within several months, we began family finding online, using Link Maker.
Link Maker is an online service that matches children to families. The website often features children who are deemed ‘difficult to place’, because of their age, gender, ethnicity, complex needs, because they are part of a sibling group, or because they need to be placed away from their current geographical location. The first time we logged on I felt physically sick. It felt like an estate agency for children, including euphemistic language (extremely lively could often be read as ADHD) and staged photos. To be honest, I’m not sure how it could be done better so it’s not fair of me to find fault, especially as so many children have found their forever families through Link Maker, but it feels weird. I think I’m possibly more embarrassed that after a while I became desensitised to the whole process. Even ‘rejecting’ children became easier, though never easy.
We need to be clear that there were children we were considered for but were not suitable. That is, we were not suitable for them. I think it is vital to remember that we were seeing if we met the child or children’s needs rather than the other way around. Adoption seeks families for children not children for families. There were children that we were theoretically a good match for, but we knew, deep down, that we couldn’t meet their needs. Had we compromised we could have been matched much sooner but that would have been to the detriment of the child (and us).
While we waited, we did as much as possible to make ourselves theoretically better parents. We joined the gym and changed our eating habits, resulting in weight loss and improved fitness. Instead of cakes and chocolate, we devoured all the information we could about adoption, through extensive reading and ongoing training. Around the anniversary of our approval we had an annual review, to check that our circumstances hadn’t altered dramatically and that we were still committed to adoption. It was a tricky time for both of us – individually and as a couple. The main highlight was the procession of holidays, each being billed as the last before children. By the fourth vacation, a cloud of doubt hung over the holiday, as we wondered if we would ever enjoy family holidays with children. At the time it felt never ending and it was tough remaining positive. Now, it is just one part of the story, merging with others, the details fading. We remember the frustration but the intensity has left us. We need that energy and those resources now for different challenges.
Social workers of the more ‘difficult to place’ children may actively pursue family finding by attending Adoption Activity Days. These give adopters a chance to meet children – something that doesn’t usually happen during the family finding process – and see if they might be able to meet the needs of these children. We attended two family finding days and had two distinct experiences.
We attended our first adoption activity day in the autumn of 2016, after more than eighteen months of family finding locally and online. At this time, the number of adopters greatly outweighed the number of children looking for families. This is fantastic for the children, who have a much better chance of being well matched to a family that meets their needs but it made it more ‘competitive’ for adopters. Factors such as our age, weight, mental health, even being a same-sex couple, became decisive. We reasoned that we would be able to show our value at an adoption activity day, present ourselves as more than just words on a page.
Our first adoption activity day was hard. It messed with my head. We booked our places several weeks in advance but in the week leading up to the event we were linked with a boy on Link Maker, who would be attending the same adoption activity day as us. This was unprecedented. We would meet a child that we thought we could parent and whose social worker had already considered us a viable match. This possible match limited my openness to the event. I focused on the child we were linked to, even though it was quickly apparent that we were not the parents he needed. There were children at that event that we were better matches for, but we could only see that afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight and with the emotion of the day removed.
Our second activity day was a far more positive experience. We knew what to expect and that made a massive difference. We knew there might be a few sibling groups present who we were tentatively linked with through Link Maker, but there didn’t seem the same pressure as with the first activity day. We completely threw ourselves into the experience, dressing up as pirates and running around like loons. We focused on what we could do to make the children enjoy the day. Like we should have. And it was much better for everyone.
In June 2017 we were linked with a sibling group under the care of a neighbouring authority. The link was progressing and the chances of being matched were positive. They too attended the second activity day, a last-minute decision, so we were able to meet them. They became ‘real’ to us. Our local authority had discussed their concerns with us about adopting three siblings simultaneously but had promised to support us whatever our decision. Since they were transparent and supportive with us, we returned the favour and attended a family finding event hosted by Derbyshire County Council. We went with no expectations; truthfully, we thought it might be a good opportunity to meet with people from the neighbouring agency and learn more about the sibling group.
That’s when Little Chick’s story became entwined with our own.
As soon as I walked into the venue, I saw Little Chick’s profile photo and knew that would be my son. As cute as he was (and is) he was by no means the most beautiful child I had seen, or even being presented at that event. I genuinely can’t explain it. I had seen many children’s profiles online and even met children at activity days but this was an entirely new phenomenon. I knew we would become his parents.
We watched his profile video along with dozens of other prospective adopters, then joined a queue to speak with his social worker. From that first conversation with her I knew she would pick us as the right match. And I am one of the least self-confident people you will ever meet. The only times in my life that I have been certain about anything have been when I met my wife and when I knew I could be the mother that Little Chick needs and deserves.
My confidence was not misplaced and his social worker came for a home visit, to learn more about us and tell us (agonisingly little) more about Little Chick. After the expected delay in bureaucracy we were told that Derbyshire believed it was a good match and would prepare us for matching panel in September 2017.
That felt like a million years away, but we soon passed the time. As well as updating the house and ensuring it was toddler friendly, we prepared materials to help his foster carer prepare him for the move. The main items were a video and book, with a short rhyme repeated across them to teach Little Chick about us, our home, and our pets. We also purchased a cuddly toy who featured in the video and photo book and would provide lots of snuggles. Alongside this, we pored over the documents we had, telling us more about Little Chick. There were medical updates and the profile provided at the family finding evening, but the most useful document was his CPR. The Child Permanence Record charts Little Chick’s time in care and the circumstances leading to this. It outlines known or suspected conditions and gives some information about how he is now. Compiled by social workers, it shows as much of Little Chick’s character as possible while demonstrating the facts. Essentially, this is the document that is used to show why adoption is the right path (or not) and why. Obviously, Little Chick’s history is tied to his birth family. In truth, the document covers the birth parents (both past and present) more than the child. Initially, we found this odd, but it soon became clear that Little Chick’s story made no sense without the contextualisation of his wider family. Most depressingly, it was possible to see repeated patterns through the generations, helping us better understand the situation from his birth parents’ perspective.
Shortly before matching panel we were informed that Little Chick’s birth parents had voiced their intention to contest his placement order, citing several reasons for this. To say this was a blow would be a huge understatement. It rocked us. We were within touching distance of being a forever family for Little Chick and it may not happen. As much as we know that birth reunification should always be the priority if possible, it is difficult to remember this when you are emotionally involved.
Although it was still unclear what might happen, we proceeded to matching panel.
Matching panel was a doddle.
That sounds incredibly arrogant. But it really was. We had experienced approval panel as well as annual reviews and all were far scarier. By the time we went to matching panel, we knew the format, could anticipate the types of questions asked, and recognised most of the panel members. We also knew that our local authority would not have scheduled the panel date if they did not think we would be approved. Our social worker had also made this point at our approval panel; this time, with hindsight, we believed her. Realistically, everyone wants this to be a good match and wants it to be approved. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will dismiss concerns, but these will (should) have been dealt with before panel was even booked.
For us, the highlight of panel was the chance to wax lyrical about Little Chick’s qualities and why we were drawn to him. Until the match was formalised, we had tried to be sensitive about mentioning him too often as we knew friends and family would share in our disappointment should things not progress. Having free rein to say how we would meet his needs and how excited we were was an amazing opportunity.
As ever, we were overprepared. We had considered all possible questions and mentally formulated answers to each one depending on the focus and the asker. Like I say, we knew the panel members quite well by this point and could anticipate what interests they would have. Ultimately, they wanted to know:
- Why we were drawn to his profile;
- How we would meet his specific needs: physical and emotional;
- If we were happy with the information we had been given and if we thought we had a full picture.
That was it.
Like approval panel, we were unanimously approved. Like approval panel, we needed the outcome to be ratified by the Agency Decision Maker. Like approval panel, we were left feeling flat.
Most people begin introductions, the period immediately before placement of the child/ren, within a week of panel (forgive the clumsy language but I think its easiest to stick to the official language for now). With the ongoing legal case, this was not possible for us. Instead, we were told to wait at least a month. Often the Life Appreciation Day will be held in this period, an opportunity for the adopters to meet many of the important people in the child’s life, such as designated social workers, foster carers, nursery or school staff, and workers who have supported and engaged with the birth family. Little Chick’s Life Appreciation Day was held several months after he had been living with us. This proved more valuable for us. Had we proceeded as planned, I think I would have been most interested in his foster carer: I would have wanted to know about him now, in anticipation of meeting him soon after. This way, we already had a good relationship with his foster carer and she had shared lots of valuable information, so we instead focused on his past and gained a far better understanding of why he was taken into care. Meeting staff who had worked with his birth parents – as children and as adults – was incredibly useful, probably the most valuable part of the day. We have shared some of the anecdotes from that day with Little Chick already and will continue to give more information as he asks about his birth family.
A month passed. More legal wrangling meant more waiting time. This was the part of the process where I felt most helpless and most clueless. As good as our social worker was, she was dependent on the local authority’s legal services keeping her informed. Sometimes the information was late or limited and we felt out of the loop. But we knew that adoption remained the best pathway for Little Chick and we believed that we were a good match for him. We persisted. I began this blog.
Christmas 2017 came and went. Still we had no definite answers. As bad as it was for us, I genuinely cannot imagine what that period did to Little Chick. He must not have known whether he was coming or going. His foster carer began using our book and video to prepare him for moving but had to stop when it became clear that Little Chick was struggling to understand or believe that a move would happen. If the delays felt like an age to us, they must have felt like a lifetime to him.
Finally, in February 2018, we began introductions with Little Chick. I have not shared much about meeting Little Chick for the first time as I believe that should remain private and intimate. But it was glorious.
The greatest lesson I have learned since Little Chick has lived with us is to listen to and acknowledge adoptee voices. By extension, I try to remember birth families. I try to remember that I have gained so much through adoption whereas everyone else has lost so much. When I recall that first meeting, I remember how my heart soared, I remember how a shy, little boy slowly gained the confidence to join in, I remember that beautiful smile. But I also think of the birth parents who have loved, lost, and fought for their little boy. I think of the foster carer as we collected Little Chick that final time, who had loved and cared for him for almost two years and was now bravely saying goodbye before dissolving into a puddle of tears. Most of all, I think of a small, scared boy who had his whole world turned upside down through no fault of his own. I have learned that adoption is bittersweet.
We legally became Little Chick’s parents in November 2018. The celebration hearing followed in January 2019. There have been many more milestones since, first foreign holiday, another birthday, starting school. And there will continue to be many more, some big, some small. In the years to come, I will continue navigating adoption as me and the missus grow our forever family with Little Chick.
Edited: September 2019