by Amanda Boorman
Nowadays it can be hard to tell what is true, what is spin, what is real news or what is fake news. Of course to further confuse us, the ‘truth’ is subjective and depends from what angle you are looking at things and from where you might be coming.
As a charity professional who advocates for birth, adoptive and foster families it increasingly worries me that the ‘truth’ in assessments for child protection and/or family support needs can be a version totally unfamiliar to the families who are recipients of the assessments.
As an individual that has needed support from health and social care for my adopted and fostered children I have first-hand experience of how traumatic it can be to see yourself reflected in a way that criticises you for something you haven’t done, or that takes your words or experiences completely out of context.
As a family we washed around in a non-action soup of multiple assessments for many years. Thousands of pounds worth of social work. I remain convinced that some of the ‘fake’ stories about our needs and experiences was to fob us off and grind us down. I’m not really sure why that would be necessary but it sometimes felt quite threatening and sinister.
Being determined to receive the support the children needed did not make me popular and it would not be exaggerating to say it made me unpopular. This is reflected in some file recordings and the minutes of some multi-agency meetings.
We eventually got the support the children deserved and through official complaints an alternative narrative exists on the files. No apologies, of course.
Thankfully, I wasn’t fighting to keep my children from removal and I had resources and family networks to prevent us going down completely.
My experience of asking for help and being misrepresented was in part what motivated me to contact my adopted and fostered children’s parents despite their very negative appearance in social work files and reports.
If my words and intentions could be twisted to come out as negative then what chance could they have had to be heard through the child protection files that would eventually become their children’s life story?
See their truths
I wanted to meet them and see their truths from my viewpoint and perspective. After all, it was our family that needed to make and act upon an assessment of them as they were connected to us forever whatever the previously recorded ‘truth’ of it all.
It turns out they weren’t as dangerous as I had been led to believe. They were defensive and broken; they had damaged their children due to their own problems and personalities.
There were multiple injustices done against them in their lives including professional opinions of them recorded as facts. Injustice was also done through the omission of facts that would elicit any empathy towards them.
Positives about their families and family history were not featured at all.
An example to illustrate poor recording is that we discovered our daughter’s mum wasn’t a prostitute, as had been suggested in the files.
This misrepresentation of opinion as fact was due to our daughter’s dark-coloured skin and her brother’s light-coloured skin. It was suggested that their father most probably wasn’t the ‘real’ father to our daughter.
As it happens, our daughter looks just like her dark-skinned mum and her brother looks like his light-skinned, red-haired father.
Had the children not seen the files until they were adults these facts would have been harder to view as just an opinion as their father died during their late childhoods.
Thankfully they met him and had a healthy and happy relationship with him for many years. They didn’t need the DNA test to know he was their father. Had they have needed a test it would have been too late.
This was a very serious misrepresentation of somebody in a file. It could also be viewed as racist, and definitely judgmental. The consequences had the records not been corrected could have affected people’s lives and identities very deeply.
As a professional advocate I sadly remain shocked at some of the written assessments I see about people even though I have been present during the recording of them.
Words get taken out of context and meanings twisted. Actions are misinterpreted to suit a certain narrative. A narrative of blame.
A recent example I have seen is the recording on file that a father we are now supporting had not been bothered to attend contact with his son and had even left one contact session early. That his attendance rate was less than 50%. The clear opinion on file was that it was a shame he couldn’t be bothered with his own child.
I know this father well. He is proud, sensitive, stubborn, afraid to appear weak. His truth is that his heart is broken. He needs support to express his grief and he also wishes to provide some of his benefits every week to the foster family who have his son.
He doesn’t trust services due to the negative opinion of him on files since he was a child himself and he finds it difficult to trust social workers enough to engage with them fully.
I understand that in a child protection assessment where a child or unborn child is at serious risk of harm a social worker must make a robust case to put before court. That isn’t the moment they want to be highlighting all the positives about failing parents or their wider families.
It seems however that there is perhaps too much pressure to focus on the negative, and while the best interests of the child are being focused on so intently there can be a sadly ironic damage being done in the process.
Children are not separate islands unconnected to their families. However unable to care a family may be at any particular moment in history they are connected to their children forever through generations of history and cultural identity.
You cannot whitewash that and naming child protection as the reason is lazy and potentially abusive.
Truth of politics
In the case above I think it would be okay to record that the father couldn’t attend all the contact sessions precisely because his heart was broken and that sadly our culture is one that does not put funding and support towards failing fathers who have lost their children in child protection proceedings.
The truth of politics and funding is okay and should be shared in public records. Record that he wanted to come but couldn’t cope. That he wanted to contribute to his son’s care from afar and that he hopes for reunification one day. Surely his child would benefit from that truth when they read the files rather than the fake truth that he didn’t care at all.
It would be good practice that alongside child protection social workers, independent recorders could directly gather a parent and/or wider family’s history and experience so that such a document is placed alongside others. Gathering a child’s life story is urgent at this point, and should not be started years later by a non-family member.
A truthful life story is crucial to identity, belonging and self esteem, especially the good bits but even the tough bits.
Any story that leads to changing the course of a person’s history forever should deal with the evidence in its entirety and doing social work in complex situations does not make this less true.
Amanda Boorman is an adoptive parent and the founder of The Open Nest.