Let the magic happen!

"Warning! Reading this article could seriously change your life. I hope so anyway." Jennifer Cousins, Disability Consultant on BAAF's Opening Doors project, on falling in love with a little boy who found inventive ways of not wearing his glasses.

When I look through Be My Parent every couple of weeks, I can hardly bear to see page after page of trusting children’s faces smiling out at me. I imagine it makes many readers feel upset and guilty too, especially if this is your first encounter with our newspaper.

We all know that behind the smiles there are sad and sometimes awful stories to be told. Most of the children will be grieving desperately for their first family; some will have been neglected or badly treated; and many will have the extra difficulty of coping with impairments or a special need – and that horrid feeling of being different from other children. And for every child there is the uncertainty about ‘tomorrow’ – Where will I be? Who will be my family? Will I ever have a family again? – questions which for me seem unimaginably terrifying

I have spent my whole adult life helping children through social work, all sorts of children: children hospitalised for months on end through accidents and burns; children with psychiatric and relationship problems; children with severe impairments or an unexplained failure to make progress. So I have made what I hope is a useful contribution to the lives of a lot of children over the years. But when I look at Be My Parent, I sometimes wish I had been the kind of person who had adopted even just one of these sad children and given them the gift of a family, and I think that would have been worth all my other efforts put together.

How would it have worked, I wonder? I might have started with a clear idea of the ‘kind of child’ I thought I wanted, and I would have pored over the newspaper to see which child fitted my perfect prescription. But life isn’t really like that, is it? Isn’t it better just to fall in love and work things out later? A couple of years ago I saw the photograph of a little boy and heard how he had hated wearing glasses so much that he managed to put them under the wheel of his social worker’s car, so that when she drove off, she broke them – and hey presto, he didn’t have to wear them any more! I fell in love with him immediately. Had I been 20 years younger, I would have fought tooth and nail for us to become his new parents. Wild horses and the fact that Charlie has cerebral palsy wouldn’t have got in my way.

The point is that, though I’m pretty scared of the idea of cerebral palsy, that’s all it is – a general label: one size fits no-one. I’m sure that my love affair with Charlie would have overcome the particular problems which he has, one by one, as they change over the years. If you love someone you don’t just discard them when things are less than perfect, or go wrong. You want to support them through the difficulties because there’s so much else which is good about being together.

Becoming an adopter or a permanent foster carer isn’t an easy ride of course, nor should it be. If you’re privileged to be given the care of someone else’s child, their first family has a right to expect the authorities to make doubly sure you are suitable. So when I said I would have fought tooth and nail for Charlie, I would have expected someone to challenge whether I was just indulging in a moment of sentimentality, or whether I was indeed the right person with an enduring commitment to making things work out.

In many of the profiles in Be My Parent, because social workers want to tell you honestly about any difficulties, they will mention impairments and complex needs, but they won’t have the space to explain exactly what these mean for that particular child, which is the crucial bit! So if you think you could fall in love with a child, get on the phone and find out more about her or him. Don’t be put off by the generic label, it’s rarely very useful. Even punching it into Google won’t tell you about how it affects the individual child you are interested in! Remember that, with advice and information, you could robably gain the confidence to care for ‘this child’, whatever their particular difficulties.

Remember also: it’s just this child you would be caring for, not all children with the same impairment. I have heard about the most surprising matches where people have been amazed to discover what they could manage once they had all the information, and they were so relieved that they took the plunge. Lots of short-term foster carers who fall in love with their disabled foster children eventually want to be the permanent carers, and with great success. These people know that there is more to a child than a complicated label.

And don’t forget other important things: you can be disabled yourself, or not, but you don’t have to have disability experience already, just a commitment to learn about ‘this child’. The other message, for adopters, is that you will be offered Permanent foster carers often value the ongoing involvement from social services, and adopters can have something similar if they wish, including financial support. Everyone knows that this may be really helpful if the child has some difficulties that you are helping them to overcome or make the best of.

In a way, that’s the best approach: you are helping a child to make the best of a difficult situation. If your starting point is ‘we want a child who will fit into our lifestyle’, then maybe adoption isn’t the right thing for you.

I have seen people fazed by the 'tick-list' in the old Form F who end up with what sounds like a prescription for a near-perfect child and a quiet life. This is probably not their fault, but the fault of the forms. Thankfully we are moving away from that list, which puts people and children into immovable boxes and made us all feel so guilty. The best approach is to see adoption as an adventure where wonderful things can happen if we keep an open mind about finding a child.

So my message to people ‘out there’ who are reading this newspaper is: learn about what’s involved, listen to advice…and then just let the magic happen! You might end up making a world of difference for a child who otherwise would never know what happy family life is about. I hope that reading this has – as I warned at the beginning – changed your life.

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in July 2006.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 21 May 15

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