‘If these children are not separated, they will inevitably end up in a sexual relationship with each other,’ the psychologist said, ‘I can guarantee it.’
I was flabbergasted, struck dumb momentarily. The children in question were aged four and five at this time. Rose and Alfie, brother and sister, had come to us as an emergency placement eighteen months before. The sexualised behaviour which they displayed towards each other and towards other children and adults was a real worry. Severe sexual abuse had been happening on a regular basis within their birth family home, and unsurprisingly, it had a knock on effect on the children’s relationships.
The psychologist who made this announcement had called me to a meeting with her colleagues and a barrage of social workers. I thought it was to list the support and services which were going to be offered to us and the children. How wrong I was.
‘But they’re so young,’ I said, my voice faltering under the gaze of the combined professionals present.
‘Yes, but they’ve already been groomed – hard wired really, to respond to each other in a sexual way,’ the psychologist replied, looking sympathetic.
‘But therapy, surely can change that…?’ I asked hopefully.
‘Not the hard wiring. We can re-educate the children and try to explain why its wrong to behave this way, but it will always be there, just under the surface, waiting for the right, or wrong moment to rear its head again.’
I thought about the incidents where I had walked in on Rose and Alfie and found them behaving inappropriately with each other. It had been hard to see, and even harder to talk about with the children. My vocabulary just wasn’t up to explaining what was wrong with their actions. They didn’t understand what I meant by ‘wrong’ or ‘not normal’ or ‘inappropriate’. I usually ended up by lamely telling them ‘In this family, we don’t behave like that.’ Which statement just seemed to confirm to Rose how weird we really were.
I was brought sharply back into the room by the realisation that the children’s social worker, new to the placement, was expressing her view. ‘You know Rose has passed the magic window of adoption opportunity now – she’s nearly six. Whereas Alfie is still four and he’s such a little charmer – he’s highly adoptable.’
I was trying to compute what the social worker was actually suggesting when it finally sank in – she was backing up the psychologist in pushing for separation. My heart started to beat a little faster in anticipation of an argument. I hate confrontation but when it comes to fighting a child’s corner, I can weigh in with the best of them.
‘Yes, we really have to consider whether or not it is right to consign Alfie to long term foster care just because Rose is unadoptable,’ One of the social work managers spoke up.
‘Alfie is so cute……I could see him fitting into any family really well,’ this was Shell, an assistant social worker. ‘Whereas Rose….she’s that bit older, that bit more damaged and difficult.’ Shell smiled at me, but I couldn’t return the grin. My mind was working overtime.
‘Well maybe then, we should think about advertising Alfie on his own?’ the social work manager said, ‘Just to see what the response is.’
‘Hang on a minute,’ I leaned forward, folding my arms and grabbing onto my elbows in an effort to exert some self control. I didn’t want to start showing my anger and waving my hands around like a crazy woman. I already had an embarrassing track record of doing that.
‘In the last eighteen months, these children have lost -‘ I unfolded my arms without meaning to, an automatic desire to visibly count off the items on my list. ‘Let’s see – they’ve lost their baby sister – killed in front of them. They’ve lost their parents – however much we feel that’s a good thing, it’s still a loss. They’ve also lost all other extended family, plus the actual home they lived in. They’ve had to lose pretty much every value and behaviour they’d been brought up to see as normal. They’ve lost everything. The only thing that they have left is each other.’ I took a breath. ‘You can’t separate them. It will be the final straw. They’ve survived horrific abuse and neglect because they had each other. To rip them apart now is to destroy them.’
There was a long silence round the table. The children’s social worker smiled at me reassuringly, ‘It’s just an idea at the moment, one of many that we are considering,’ she said, ‘And we all want what’s best for the children. I could see Rose really blossoming on her own, not having to be ‘mum’ to Alfie, having that one-to-one attention. And Alfie – he needs a different role model, a healthy one.’
‘I’m sure Grace that you wouldn’t want Rose to be dealing with an incestuous pregnancy at fourteen, would you?’ the psychologist chipped in. ‘That might seem far-fetched, but believe me it’s not.’
‘So, say Rose and Alfie stayed in long term foster care, with two carers in a healthy relationship as their role models, and with daily support and encouragement, are you suggesting that they would still end up sleeping together – that there’s no hope?’ I directed my question back at the psychologist.
‘I’m afraid so,’ she said gently, folding her hands into a prayer-like gesture and resting her chin on them.
‘Well I can’t accept that,’ I shook my head, ‘I have to believe there is a chance to change that future and to keep the children together.’
‘Nobody is going to adopt Rose and Alfie together,’ the social work manager said grimly, ‘So do we sacrifice the happiness and security of both children or do we salvage the chance of permanence and a normal family life for one of them?’
‘They could have a happy, normal life together in a long term foster placement,’ I was quietly seething now. Adoption is a fantastic option for some children, but it annoyed me that fostering was seen as second best, a poor substitute for real happiness and belonging.
‘Permanence is what we look for, it’s the gold standard,’ the manager said, giving me a hard stare. It was obvious his mind was made up and I hoped he wasn’t just calculating the money saved if Alfie was adopted.
The meeting left me feeling anxious and depressed. The more people I spoke to about the possibility of separation, the more my feelings seemed justified. There was my friend Sally whose sister had died when both girls were teenagers. The loss had shaped her life and choices, and still sat heavily with her every day. The head teacher at Rose’s school (and Alfie’s pre-school) was incandescent at the suggestion that the children would be without each other. She wrote a powerful four page letter to the local authority detailing the strengths of the children’s bond, their need to be close to each other, the love and support they provided for each other. The children’s respite carers also wrote to the local authority strongly condemning the idea of separation.
A few weeks later, we heard from Rose and Alfie’s social worker that the children would be put up for adoption together.
‘We’ve decided it would be too damaging to separate them. They need each other, and we recognise that,’ she said.
We all breathed a huge sigh of relief. In my heart I knew the children needed to be together. Life was going to be tough enough for Rose and Alfie, even if adopters were found, but at least they would face the challenges as siblings.