I’m a parent but like many parents I’ve never had any interaction with the social services. I’ve heard the anxious whispers racing around the playground, the story about the woman who took her son to hospital with a head injury and then had to be supervised with her own child for months; the advice is don’t ever contact the social services, they’ll never leave you alone if you do, although surely they protect children, I mean isn’t that their point? And now here I am with my husband (let’s call him H) in a modern municipal building waiting to meet the social services and talk about H’s little sisters. We’re led through corridors, past cream sterile rooms, swinging doors and into a bright yellow room with a view over the car park, a room where small children have played, plastic toys clutter the corners, pushed firmly to one side. H sits next to me on a low sofa, three social workers sit around us in straight backed chairs, trying to make a friendly circle, let’s call them A,B and C. We’ve called this meeting and so A, B and C wait for us to begin, H defers to me, I read my notes that look like meaningless scribbles on paper scraps, I defer to H. Six eyes watch us beadily with pens and notepads ready.
H has two little sisters who are in foster care, he wants to see them, he doesn’t think he needs permission from A, B and C, we’ve done nothing wrong. He’s passionate, animated, our relationship with his sisters doesn’t need to be part of their social care system. A, B and C listen like they’re trained to listen, they don’t interrupt, I realise they’ve heard it all before, people criticising their system, fighting against it. H exposes heartfelt feelings for his little sisters, expressing his newly found brotherly love for them. My own heart flutters at his emotional honesty while six glazed eyes watch him, waiting-
This must be frustrating, answers C.
H and I agree, it’s very frustrating.
A little background to our story… H was adopted years ago and a recent search for his blood family led him to two little girls (let’s call them X and Y) who are his half sisters and in foster care. As soon as we found out about them, we wanted to meet them. A fraught year followed, a plan to have DNA testing, negotiations to have DNA testing, finally a DNA test that took months, (how does it only take a few hours in TV dramas?) more negotiations, emails, pleading emails, one arranged trip to meet, thwarted by A, B and C a few days before we arrived, reams of iMessages from the girls and their carers, the girls wanted to meet us, we were desperate to meet them. It took us a year to be given permission to meet X and Y from the time we found out they were in care. A whole year. A year in their short lives is a long time, they are young adults, the same age as our sons, (12 and 14) we know how many emotions they spun through in a year, we know how much time we have already lost. It was 365 days until the day when we finally hugged them both.
We’d like to know more about your intentions? C asks.
Intentions? Intentions? When you have children of your own or have nieces and nephews how often do you get asked about your intentions? Will you keep your children forever, absolutely, will you look after them even when they have been ridiculously naughty and upset you or broken your most valuable possession, yes. Because when you take them home for the first time you’ve already signed up to this crazy roller coaster of a parenting journey so intentions are a given, intentions are self-explanatory.
H declares that he loves his sisters, it’s as simple as that. He’ll always be there for them now and in the future. And I agree with him, adding that I want our relationship with them to be sustainable. I regret saying sustainable, it feels like a hollow word, but I’m trying to please C and she nods, I mean how can you quantify love, how can you measure love for different children, we all know you shouldn’t, they need the same love, love is love is… love is seeing children happy, love is having them near, love is everything. Do you ever fall out of love with your own children? Maybe for a short time. What happens when they slam doors and annoy you and you annoy them, underlying the most difficult times is the ever constant net that catches you, holds you and brings you back together, it’s love.
A explains that F’s sisters are wards of court and all our contact has to be agreed in advance, we can’t just turn up, we can’t ring on their door bell and take them out for tea, we can’t behave like any other uncle and aunt, or big brother and big sister.
We are surprised at how quickly your relationship is developing, we’re happy with progress but we do need to monitor it, C continues.
But if it doesn’t happen quickly, we’ll miss out on their childhood.
And it’s seems pointless arguing. We have had police checks, we will do anything that’s necessary, we have nothing to hide, we’ve had references from work, references from friends about our parenting and character that are so tender and generous I can’t finish reading them without welling up but they’re not enough. And I know in that moment that now we are part of the system too. And all our words will be noted and swallowed into this hungry old cranky clogged up system.
I start to describe how wonderful our recent days out have been with X and Y as if I’m trying to justify our relationship, how we cycled round a park in the sunshine, how Y tore down the hill so fast and laughed so loud, she made us all laugh, how we went bowling and everyone got a strike, how X ate bright blue ice cream and smiled like an angel and we shared jokes in the car like a family. How we are a family. I show A, B and C beautiful photos of X and Y and F and T (our sons) in front of stunning vistas because I want to celebrate our happiness and we feel lucky to have been united.
We want to see X and Y over Christmas, I continue. We want to share a family Christmas, a meal, open presents, see smiles on their faces, have a game of Monopoly that could end when someone shouts and storms out throwing their money down because no one likes losing and that’s a family Christmas isn’t it? The social workers have listened for two hours but they have offered us nothing. We can apply for visits, we can apply to see X and Y for Christmas, we should apply in advance which gives A,B and C more time to discuss our contact and that’s the system which now we are part of…
We have a five hour trip and flight home, to mull it over, I start making notes, trying to plan the next year in my head but we feel defeated, we have changed nothing. X messages me to ask if she can stay with us on her next holiday, I tell her I’m sorry but it’s really unlikely but ask A. Two weeks later and there’s still no word from the social services, no official permission for our Christmas trip. An email arrives from A apologising and explaining how busy they are with emergency cases. Of course our case is not an emergency, they’ll be other christmases… I look at the flights, I see the prices going up, I think of X and Y opening their presents, imagine their smiles, I think of that game of Monopoly, I think of creating new family memories.
I hold my breath and book the flights.