Families reunited

Adopted or fostered children fare better if they maintain
contact with their birth parents and families – and social workers
can play an honourable role in maintaining this link, writes Bob

Elsewhere in this issue we focus on the struggle in the Irish
Republic to enable adopted children to contact or know about their
birth parents. The same matter has loomed large for social workers
in Britain for years and not just regarding adopted children.

As a young child care officer in the early 1960s, I knew a capable
foster mother who considered that the visits of the birth parent to
her foster child were disruptive and should be stopped. One
evening, she phoned me in a panic to report that the girl had run
away. I raced to the station and told the ticket collector that I
was looking for a 10-year-old, fair-haired girl. “Aren’t we all
mate?” he grunted. I then made for the one place that was still
open. As I opened the library doors, she rushed to me and sobbed:
“I want my mum.”

My supervisor was John Stroud who, for more than 10 years, had
dismissed the view that children in care needed a “fresh start”
away from their so-called inadequate parents and insisted on
maintaining links between them. Being a bit of a research prig, I
asked for more evidence than his subjective experience. With a wry
grin, he recommended Eugene Weinstein’s The Self-Image of the
Foster Child (Russell Sage, 1960). This study showed that children
fared better in foster homes if they had regular contact with their
birth parents and knowledge about their backgrounds. Thereafter I
strove to follow the practice of John Stroud.

He went on to specialise in re-uniting twins who had been separated
at birth and placed for adoption. In fact, children separated from
their birth parents should not be cut off from their roots, even if
it is not appropriate for them to meet. Knowledge of the past is a
part of the very being of children and has to be integrated into
their present lives.

Some children remain with one parent while losing touch with the
other. During a swimming trip, I slipped away to rest my old bones
in the hot pool. A teenager followed me and wanted to talk. His
absent father had recently asked his mum if he could visit him. The
mum was reluctant, saying that the dad just wanted to show off his
new woman. The boy was desperate to see his dad yet did not want to
upset his mum. On an another occasion, a 20-year-old woman came to
ask me to trace her alcoholic mother who had disappeared 10 years
earlier. She wanted her mum to know that she was pregnant.

The right to see birth certificates and the option to seek contact
with birth parents has to be set in a framework of wise
legislation. But this is not sufficient. Within the statutory and
voluntary social work services, there has to be a place for staff
who specialise in helping youngsters who struggle to understand why
they do not live with their parents. As I showed in a recent book,
a characteristic of children’s champions, such as John Stroud,
Clare Winnicott and Barbara Kahan, is the ability to communicate
with children about their deepest emotions.

These workers are most effective when they operate long term. They
are around when families break up; they keep in touch with the
children thereafter; and they are available if, later, they want to
understand more about their past. Such workers may miss out on the
status and salaries of top management posts but they fulfil a
function that cannot be measured in money.

It is the same in the community. The boy in the pool felt able to
approach me because we lived in the same neighbourhood for years.
The young woman turned to me because I had known her mother. I do
not possess the advanced casework skills of some excellent social
workers, but I have been close to a number of children as they grow
up and this bridge facilitates communication.

Unfortunately, long-term social work – whether in statutory or
voluntary bodies – seems of little interest to those who devise
strategies or allocate funds. They are more concerned with setting
short-term targets.

They do not seem to understand that children have individual needs
which cannot be expressed as numerical targets. And they do not
appreciate that, in regard to their birth families, children often
need help from social and community workers whom they have trusted
for years.

Bob Holman is the author of Champions for Children, Policy
Press, 2001.

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