Child Protection for the Autistic Child - A Resource
Meaning - "the fact of being who or what a person or thing is."
My identity as a mother took a battering when my son entered Care. It is hard to overestimate the loss of identity involved for a mother in these circumstances. One minute you are worrying about school uniform, shoes that fit a growing child and dentist’s appointments and a few months later you are phoning HMRC to discontinue child benefit. Most of your friends are still buying school uniforms and you have an empty bedroom with a cupboard containing clothes your child will never wear. You have no idea where and when and to whom you should start and stop explaining any of this and you have no answers for anyone.
I had to put my name to something on-line recently and for obvious reasons I did not want to use my given name. I’d chosen the web identity of ‘looked_after_child’ as my way of pulling the sting from a label that is generally considered to be very stigmatizing to the parents of looked-after children. Things move on though, so I’m ambivalent about that name – is it an accurate reflection of who I am now? - Not really… Is it an accurate reflection of those I campaign on behalf of – Not entirely…. So this is the web name I chose – ‘A parent, first and last’ That pretty much sums up my ‘web identity' but I’m more than this. I’m a partner, a family member, a friend and a colleague. I have skills and a shared family history. I have a passport that confirms where I was born. I have birth and marriage certificates that name the people who made me and the person I chose for myself in adulthood. I recognize my father’s hair and my mother’s smile in the mirror. I recognize the tenacity of the strong women in my family, in myself. I recognise my father’s love for his children in my brother’s love for his. I have a faith, bits of which were given to me and bits of which I made myself. I feel happiness, confusion, anger and boredom and the range of human emotions although the reasons for these emotions as I feel them, stem from who I am. I’m me – just me.
It strikes me that some of the most important issues that the Care system is failing to address are ones of identity. If the lens of identity were used to reform the Care system and beyond what would change?
The complexity that child protection professionals face when trying to understand issues of identity was recently articulated by a judge :-
Do professionals have the ability to respond to the personal identities of the people, including children they are working with?
The quote below was made in the context of an enquiry into radicalization of two young men but I believe could apply equally well to many children who enter Care:-
“This case highlighted that professionals were not curious enough about what life was like for this family before arriving in the city, including why they left their country of origin and the political links of the wider family. In this case there was inadequate consideration of the role of identity, religion, culture, family and community in the lives of the children and their parents including the existence, or not, of Islamist thinking. The issue of identity for adolescents is developmentally significant, especially if they perceive themselves as different to those around them. Practitioners may not know how best to support children and families from different cultures and countries who may be subject to conflicting identities and political or religious loyalties.” http://brightonandhovelscb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WX-Briefing-for-frontline-staff.pdf
Adoption is most often presented in terms of what a child is given - new loving parents. There is much less public discourse about what a child loses – including their name and many of the things that I think of as essential to my identity – from my faith to understanding why my hair misbehaves the way it does. I find the idea that so much is routinely taken from children that are adopted very disturbing. Are we so sure that what is given, outweighs what is lost in each and every case? Whose needs are being met by the ‘clean-slate’ of closed adoption – the adoptive parents or the child’s? What does the future hold when both may have high and potentially conflicting needs and how will all navigate into adolescence and beyond where issues around a person’s identity come to the fore?
Adoption seems to be most often considered in terms of relationships, or ‘attachments’. See for example, Children’s attachment: attachment in children and young people who are adopted from care, in care or at high risk of going into care, NICE guideline [NG26] https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng26/chapter/recommendations Much less consideration seem to be given to ones of identity. Relationships and identity are clearly linked in complex ways. (Perhaps good relationships can help children develop into their best selves whatever that might be?) yet for me and I suspect many others, identity is considerably wider than ‘attachments’. Identity answers the question – ‘Who am I?’ Closed adoption is likely to give a devastatingly inadequate answer to that question for many – although I have no doubt it is the best approach for some and I should stress, I have no personal experience of Adoption.
Children in care are often negatively labeled by others with a very superficial understanding of their life stories and sometimes their difficulties. This is often presented in terms of stigma rather than identity. Identity is neither good nor bad. It can be either or neither. Stigma on the other hand is bad. (Think of who can use the word ‘Nigga’ and why ) Does being in Care with few links to the past lead to a sense of rootlessness for a young person and if so is ‘permanence’ the answer? Not if it removes a child’s previous identity in my view. We will always be a little bit lost without an identity to claim as our own – without stigma, with compassion and understanding when children have experienced terrible things, that shape who they are now.
The Child Protection system is largely interventionist by its nature and the people who work within it, sometimes seem a million miles away from understanding the harm bad interventions into families can cause. There is little discussion about the losses children suffer in these processes. When it comes to children with disabilities including autism who enter Care then children are very likely to lose the only people who ‘know their normal’ – and know what good and bad days look like for them. Only very skilled professionals and carers can fill that gap, yet child protection professionals are trained to see all deviations from the ‘normal’ as potential indicators of neglect and abuse – not of cognitive difference. What horrors are likely to be occurring to many children who are not ‘normal’ within and beyond Care and whose identities as autistic children may never be acknowledged because for many, the routes to diagnosis within Care do not exist?
Identity is not a garment that can be bought or handed on, we sew it together - some pieces are those that others give us and some we choose or reject for ourselves. New pieces are sewn in and pieces change as we age. I believe that for each child, the Care system should carefully gather the pieces that make up a child’s identity, explaining to the child where each came from, why it is what it is and ensuring others place understanding of and respect for a child’s identity centre-stage. Identity is the answer to ‘’Who am I?’’ To strip that knowledge away from a child, even with best of intentions, is a terrible wrong.
See Website links to post adoption contact studies and resources. http://contact.rip.org.uk/ and https://www.uea.ac.uk/contact-after-adoption and ''Adoption visit 25. An adoption visit (“adoption visit”) which follows the making of an adoption order is an informal celebratory occasion held at the discretion of the judge for the benefit of the adoptive parents and child if they desire it.'' https://gallery.mailchimp.com/2750134472ba930f1bc0fddcd/files/c4d35a7e-80e8-4201-804b-fef11b67dd1a/GUIDANCE_Adoption..pdf and Speech by Lord Justice McFarlane NAGALRO Annual Conference 2018 Keynote Address Contact: a point of view https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/speech-by-lj-mcfarlane-nagalro.pdf