‘I was a respected social worker, but all that stood for nothing’
Sally Donovan tells the agonising story of a British social worker who adopted a child, only to experience the care system at its very worst
In 1990, Clare*, a married social worker with three sons, adopted a seven-month-old baby girl from an overseas orphanage. Almost immediately, she noticed differences between her daughter and three sons’ behaviour.
“It was as though Nicola* didn’t need anyone,” Clare says. “Even as a small baby she wouldn’t allow me to feed or comfort her. She was very controlled. There was no spontaneity, but she’d go off with strangers and show them affection.”
“As she got older she became all-consuming. Then, when she started school it became clear that she just couldn’t do relationships. She needed to be in control but at the same time was very vulnerable.”
To those familiar with attachment theory, these behaviours are consistent with early neglect and trauma, but in the early 1990s the mistaken belief that children would ‘get over it’ still dominated thinking on child care.
People parenting children with attachment difficulties frequently report that they feel blamed for their child’s problems. Clare was no different. “Nicola would steal, lie and be bossy and controlling. I felt constantly blamed, judged and patronised by people who had no idea.”
Shame and judgement
Despite feeling shame and judgment, Clare knew something significant was going on and set out to discover what it was. She looked into various diagnoses, but it was only when she read a book by American parenting expert Dan Hughes that the pieces fell into place. “What Dan Hughes was describing was my child, it was scary, but it was also a huge relief. I wasn’t imagining it, I wasn’t neurotic and I wasn’t a bad parent.”
The teenage years were very difficult. Nicola left home at 16 to move in with an equally vulnerable young man. That relationship broke down and she ended up in shared social housing where she fell pregnant. “Even though my fears had always been around drink, drugs and pregnancy it was a huge shock,” Clare says.
“My marriage had ended and the only support I got was from my sons. At the same time I was working in child protection, and then adoption, as a social worker. My career was going well and work kept me going.”
Clare helped Nicola move into a flat and furnished it for her. It was to be a fresh start and somewhere for Nicola to bring up her baby with Clare’s support.
A very strong bond
“It went well until Nicola’s boyfriend moved in. He was abusive towards her and the baby. Nicola couldn’t put her baby’s needs before her own. She could do the practical side of childcare, but the nurturing and bonding just weren’t there.”
Clare saw her grandchild regularly and when social services got involved, provided respite, having her grandchild for regular weekend stays. “She was a part of our family. We were the most consistent people in her life. She loved coming to stay and we loved having her here. We had a very strong bond.”
Eventually social services took Clare’s grandchild into care. Clare kept up regular contact and was still asked to provide respite care, which she did. Then, when Nicola failed a parenting assessment, plans for adoption were mentioned. Clare was asked to consider taking her grandchild under a kinship care arrangement.
“I agonised over it. I was working full time for our local authority at this point. I had a mortgage and no other means of supporting myself. I thought my grandchild deserved to have a stable family and I naively believed what I was told – that if she was adopted, I and my sons could maintain contact with her.”
‘Difficult and distressing’
It was at this time that Clare’s position as a social worker within children’s services and a birth family member being dealt with by the same department became extremely difficult and distressing. Clare felt herself being marginalised.
“I wouldn’t be told about important meetings or they would be alluded to and I was meant to deduce what was going on, and I was lied to. I would be treated either as a professional or a grandparent as they saw fit. I saw judgmental and inaccurate things written about me.
“The worst was ‘Nicola is the way she is because of lack of care and emotional warmth in her childhood’. That has never left me. I was a respected social worker, I had successfully brought up three sons and I was good enough as a respite carer, but all that stood for nothing. Everything we know about trauma also stood for nothing. It was all about me being a bad mother and a punitive parent. It was as though they’d already made up their minds.”
This time is incredibly painful for Clare to recall. “The agreements around a farewell meeting, regular direct contact and letterbox contact fell away as soon as my grand daughter was placed. All we have now is inconsistent annual letterbox contact. I dread to think what my grandchild has been told about me. Will she grow up thinking no one cared? Will she wonder what happened to us? As far as she knows we just disappeared off the face of the earth.”
Simplistic blame culture
Clare has since left children’s social services, but not her chosen profession. I asked her what this experience has taught her. “I’ve learnt that children’s social work practice is too often uninformed by the evidence,” she admits. “My grandchild had significant positive attachments, which were brutally severed. I would go so far as to say that this action was more traumatising than my daughter’s inability to parent. We still operate a simplistic blame culture that pits good against bad.”
As we wrap up our interview, Clare recalls the last time she saw her grandchild. Neither of them knew it would be their final meeting. “She hugged me and said ‘bye Nana, see you next week.’ That was four years ago. We haven’t seen each other since.”
*Name has been changed