How can adoptive parents and social workers get the best outcomes?

The twitter adoption community regularly has rants, (sorry, did I type rants? I meant disussions) about social workers.  Quite rightly so. There are many issues  to get out and get over. When I  saw @instantmummy’s tweets today about what would help parents I thought I would have a bit of a blogflection. Here goes…

I am a mother through adoption, and I am a social worker.  I don’t work in adoption services or child protection, but I do have vast experience of working for local authorities.   I have therefore seen things from both sides of the fence.  And therein lies the problem.  The fence.  So how to break down that pesky barrier?

As adoptive parents we are clear what we need from social workers.  We all have our own individual versions of this, but it usually encompasses things like being experienced, a good listener, grasping issues quickly, having empathy, understanding trauma and attachment issues, permanency etc, knowing the legislation, and having practical solutions and resources to help us. Most social workers are clear that we need these things too.  A bit of human warmth will also go miles further than a social worker who presents as a form-filling bureaucrat.

The majority of social workers come into the job because we have a passionate belief in social justice, and we want to help people lead the best lives they can.  Unfortunately along the way we can become jaded, cynical, and so on.  We  may (*will*) be overloaded with work, frustrated with cumbersome and unclear systems and processes,  and be under great pressure from managers to increase our caseloads beyond a safe or manageable level.


 We may also spend our working hours within a culture which shows little value for its staff, as well as being accused on a tediously regular basis by the media that we are incompetent and power crazed. The most positive and powerful thing adoptive parents and social workers can do together is reinforce their commanality, and nurture a good relationship which is open and honest, focused on a mutual goal: the best possible outcome for the child and family.

Which brings us swiftly to the power dynamic within the adoptive parent and social worker relationship. There is a fear amongst some adoptive parents that if we ask for help we will lose control of the situation, or be judged or criticised.  If this happens then social workers are simply not getting it, and need to be challenged.   I know myself how hard that can be.  We once had a social worker sitting in our dining room telling us we were ‘anxious parents’ because we had raised concerns about our child, which he dismissed. After much soul searching we asked for another worker to assess Bubble’s needs. An e-mail to the director of the service, or a formal complaint – which can usually be done online – generally brings about some change in the situation, (especially if the local MP is copied in). A good social worker will actively listen, and work on building up the trust and respect, and strive to understand the adoptive parents’ strengths, and use those strengths to help forge the way ahead.                             

Many social workers are grizzled old things who may come armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience.  Others are young and keen and determined to prove their worth. Of course nobody knows everything  and the most  effective social workers are prepared to say ‘I don’t know, but I will find out’.  We need to be clear that parents are the experts about their own children, and that we have to work together for the best possible results. If this does not happen, and  we find our hackles rising, throw in a theory, a name or two, or the latest twitter topic of discussion. A receptive social worker will appreciate being informed about The Open Nest, or The Adoption Social, and all the other brilliant things that are out there. So go on: share that knowledge!  Letting the social worker know that we are informed, concerned and want to move on from the current struggles is a clear and powerful message. 

As humans we all have our talents,  as well as those teensy weensy little bits of ourselves that are maybe in need of some nurturing/practice/a ruddy great bomb to develop.  And so it is for social workers, who are encouraged to engage in ‘reflective practice’. In order to do this we need time, and preferably a good supervisor. Most of us don’t have the former. Some of us don’t have the latter either. But it is up to us as registered professionals to ensure we make the effort to become better at what we do.

Good social workers will ensure we have support, that we have the space and time to establish and sustain meaningful connections that can help us as adoptive parents, and that we take time to nurture our current relationships. It may mean going to our managers and making the argument for resources. So give the social worker all the arguments they need.  Do not cover up your struggles.  Tell it how it is. 

When Bubble and Squeak landed in our home it was shocking. We were all in a state of shock and transition for quite some time. Slowly we built up our relationship with them,  and it is still evolving. At points it has helped me as an adoptive mother and as a social worker to see both those roles in a similar way, and to go gently with it, whichever side of the fence I am on, so that the gate in the fence can be gradually opened, and eventually the fence can be taken down.

In order to do my best as a social worker and an adoptive mother I need to believe that fences can be broken down. To do this we need to put our energies into working together for the best possible outcomes. Unless we do this we will not be successful in giving our children the  roots and wings that they need.

Crisis point was reached on Monday with OH and I blubbing our way through a much needed discussion. Through our tears we hatched a cunning plan. I continue to fight for flexible working, and OH asks her employers for a year’s break from work.

She is now negotiating with her employers, who appear to be supportive. So we’ll see what develops.

We need to do this.  For our family. For our sanity. We hope it will help with the permanency and constancy that our children crave. After 3 years we know that unless we can find something else in our toolbox right now, we will be fighting a losing battle come secondary school years.

And what happens if my flexible working appeal is unsuccessful? One of 2 things: I keep fighting, or I find another employer. My decision will be based on what is best for our family. I don’t want to quit my job. I believe in social justice, and  think I do as good a job as the system allows. Principles and sense of outrage aside though, sometimes there is strength in knowing when to move on.