Social workers are just people doing a job and of course like all of us they are sometimes less than perfect; however they are dealing with people’s lives so even simple mistakes can be emotionally wounding. We became very aware of this through our own experience and also that of friends who have also been through the adoption process. It can be as simple as failing to immediately tell you of a change in the panel date – which of course means a huge amount to you, but is just a correction in a diary to them – to fundamentally not “getting it”.
There was one incident by our sons’ social worker in particular that resulted in upset to us and great distress to our eldest very early on in the placement.
He and his brother had been with us for just a few weeks. It had been weeks full of every effort from us to build a bond and to get the boys to attach, every effort to prove our love to them and to convince them of the fact that we were now a forever family.
Things were going well; they are warm and loving little boys and from the very beginning they were open to our relentless hugs and kisses and really seemed to accept us and indeed start to attach very quickly.
We had lots of fun and we were making the most of the time together as a family while I was off work. They seemed happy – on the surface anyway – and they both seemed to like the fact that we were their new parents and that this was their new life.
We used the term ‘forever’ as much as possible and would break into the 1970’s disco classic ‘We are family’ at every opportunity – it’s amusing to see that our support group was equally inspired by that track.
It was early days and I don’t for one moment think they were fully bonded or attached, but they certainly seemed to like the idea that this was forever.
Their social worker was new and quite inexperienced and on her first post-placement visit we remembered the advice from prep group that it can be a difficult and confusing time for the children and we thought we had prepared the boys well in advance and that they understood that she was coming to see them and to see how they were doing. She arrived and the boys greeted her with smiles and hugs and kisses and after 20 or so minutes they were sent upstairs leaving us adults to talk through our first few weeks as parents.
At that stage – still well in the honeymoon period – things were good and we had few issues to bring up, and looking back we realise that the social worker’s inexperience meant that she asked very little and offered very little, consequently she was soon ready to leave.
We called the boys down to say goodbye and only the youngest came. My partner went to find his brother and returned saying that he was acting very strangely, hiding under the sofa and refusing to come out. As he tried to coax him out he was told, “Go away; I know you don’t love us anymore.” My partner said it was clear that he was very upset.
At this point the story of a close friend who had also adopted came flashing into my mind. It was the first visit of her daughter’s foster parents whom the child loved dearly and as my friend opened the door with her new daughter in her arms, the child took one look at who was on the doorstep and turned with a look of total bewilderment and grabbed my friend with all her might. Clearly the presence of the foster parents from her old life was threatening and in her little mind could mean only one thing; that they were there to take her away from the security of this new forever family.
Which is exactly what our son was thinking, upstairs, alone, hiding under the sofa. Then – and only then – I recalled being told to look out for exactly this situation during our preparation.
Suddenly it was all very obvious to me and I immediately took control of the situation. With my partner left to say goodbye to the oblivious social worker, I went to sit with our son and reassured him that he was safe and secure with us and that she had not come to take him back. He was not immediately convinced and stayed in his hiding place until I went to the window and told him that she was now in her car and he could came and wave goodbye from the safe distance of a first floor window.
It was all so very obvious; both my partner and I were truly ashamed that we had not anticipated the inevitable and saved the anguish that the situation had so clearly caused our son.
Yet our prep group had been nearly two years before this and dealing with two children coming into our lives and turning everything upside down meant that nothing was as obvious to us as it should have been.
However, the meeting was organised by the social worker and although new, surely she had a responsibility to be prepared, to make sure we were prepared and, more importantly, to make sure that the children were too?
She didn’t and as a result our son was deeply upset, which of course hurt both of us too.
I guess it could be considered a small oversight on her part, but it is exactly situations such as these where their professionalism is essential and – novice or not – some things are just too important not to get right. The incident has stayed with us and it has made us extra-cautious of anything from their past coming back into their lives.
It also made us very aware that social workers, like all of us, are fallible and not the perfect professionals we sometimes need and perhaps unrealistically expect them to be.