“Keep going you reckon?”
“I think so, yep … oh here, here”
My mother, driving, pulls in to an unfamiliar car park. She pauses and we look around trying to work out what next.
“Shall we go a bit further? Over there?”
We thread our way through the main car park and on down past what looks like a sports hall.
“It’s a netball court.”
“Looks like the best parking though if it’s going to carry on raining.”
We stop. We sit. We look at each other.
My mother and I have arrived at our first Exchange Day. Or at least we assume we have. There seem to be quite a few cars. We do that thing of just sitting for a few moments staring out. I think both of us are slightly edgy.
My Social Worker has prepared us. Ok, more accurately she has prepared me and I have faithfully passed on the tenor of her comments to my mother:
If I feel able and willing to attend she thinks it will be a good experience.
It can feel like it’s all a bit much though.
Would my mother be able to come did I think?
I should treat it as learning.
If my mother were able to come that would be really good.
I don’t need to worry if I feel overwhelmed.
It can seem a bit full on. I might just want to leave straight away; if so that would be ok.
Is my mother definitely able to come?
When I had asked some weeks earlier if (as a singly) I should take someone with me to any of the preparation courses I had received a surprised look. I had wondered out loud whether that would be seen to be demonstrating I had a supportive network, or that I was too reliant on others and unable to stand on my own two feet. My Social Worker didn’t seem sure but I did receive a clear message at that point that it wouldn’t be the norm for anyone to come with me. Given I was happy to go alone, we never returned to the subject.
Two or three months further on, discussing my attendance at the Exchange Day, it was an entirely different matter. The polite but insistent checking that my mother would definitely be coming seemed to be the strongest indication that my Social Worker was working hard to prepare me for something I might find a challenge.
Being the kind of reliable and amazing mother she is, we thus now found ourselves parked up on a netball court seeking motivation for the next move. After a perceptible pause we clambered out and eventually found a door, a sign and a queue. We had arrived.
Friends had been intrigued by my mention of the day. I had explained that I thought the event I was attending sounded rather like a trade show or a freshers’ fair but I didn’t really know. I had guessed right though. As I passed the reception desk, was registered and badged and given instructions, arriving at the Exchange Day – or Consortium Event – did feel exactly like walking into a trade fair, albeit on a small scale.
As far as I know similar events are held in each area of the country, bringing together all the Local Authorities (LAs) and Voluntary Agencies (VAs) from that region to share information about children and adopters and hopefully identify potential links.
All the VAs and LAs from across our region had tables around the three sides of a room about the size of a sports hall (we’d possibly been right in our view we were parking on a netball court!). If you’ve ever been to anything like a trade event or exhibition it might well feel quite familiar – right down to the row after row of coffee cups and the cheap biscuits laid out all over the tables on the fourth side of the room.
The experience of moving between stalls would also feel familiar to anyone who has cringed their way around a trade fair. All the staff seemed friendly, helpful and interested to talk. Each stall included as a minimum the profiles of children for whom placements were being sought. Some stalls included DVDs, others large pictures of some of the children, others copies of prospective adopter profiles – as with every trade fair everywhere, part of the deal is that each stall-holder aims to sell their wares to those nearby just as much as to the eager visitor. If you are someone like me you try very hard, at least at the beginning, to peer at profiles and pick up files to flick through without actually being engaged in the scary concept of a conversation by any of the professionals – even though you know really that’s what you’re there for.
We stayed for over two hours in the end I think, my mother and I. She found a table to sit at with her coffee after a while, while I kept scouting around visiting stalls and peering over shoulders; as I became braver, I even found myself talking to Social Workers and Family Finders by choice.
It was an educational day.
I picked up a number of profiles and in most cases also provided my name and the name of my Social Worker and agency so they could follow up. I found myself intrigued by profiles that were not obviously those I came seeking. It was good to get to speak to Social Workers directly, however intimidating it felt. Repeating over and over my mantra “I’ve not even been to panel yet” I didn’t expect to be a high priority; however again and again I was warmed and surprised by the positive and supportive responses of both professionals and other visiting prospective adopters.
I was lucky my Social Worker was able to be there – not only did she sit and review the profiles I’d picked up, and talk to my mother a bit as I flitted about (they’d met before when my mother was fulfilling her “referee” role), she also simply provided the comfort of a familiar face and a sense that someone else was there “on my side” if I needed it.
Some other observations for those looking to learn as much as possible:
- Profile production values matter which may be obvious; but for me it also felt unfair – some of the photos in particular were much better quality than others, depicting children imbued with personality, and drawing you in almost immediately
- The presence of informed professionals makes a huge difference too – in one case really good photos were accompanied by minimal profiles, and despite there being only a few children being promoted on that particular stand no professionals seemed to be available with knowledge about the children beyond the text on the table
- Children’s profiles do not all follow the same format. The specific criteria included, the general information provided, and the way the content is presented: all vary hugely between agencies. You find yourself wondering why profile one details contact information and health concerns, and profile two mentions sibling bonding and provides an assessment of attachment type, but profile three from the stand across the way contains no references to any of the above and is an apparently entirely positive story of two children, aged 5 and 6, who are just the best ever builders of lego, collectors of swimming certificates, visitors of beaches and viewers of Peppa Pig.
- How stalls are set up can vary considerably: the number and the circumstances of children currently seeking their forever family varies hugely from LA to LA, and this means the stalls can look very different too. Some LAs displayed boards with a huge range of profiles for both single children and sibling groups, accompanied by further files on tables and piles of profiles that potential adopters were encouraged to flick through. In contrast one LA had only two children currently seeking placement, both with specific needs: their tabletop was much more sparse, being simply the IT needed to run continuous looping DVD footage.
For me the Exchange Day didn’t result in a potential link or match: equally I would have been very surprised if it had, especially given my pre-approval status. However it did provide the basis for many further discussions about matching, and more recently some follow up enquiries. I know there were some children and potential adopters for whom a link did result.
So … should you attend such an event?
Well, as my own Social Worker had encouraged me so I pass that encouragement on.
If there is an Exchange Day in your area and you’re thinking about attending, perhaps being worried about feeling you might be a bit overwhelmed? I’d suggest going anyway. You can always leave. And if you do start striking up conversation yes it is very real, but it is also a great insight into the backgrounds and situations of real children. You never have to give your name or take any paperwork away.
I’d also say (as again my oh-so-wise Social Worker had clearly identified) it was a good thing my mother came too. Just having someone to talk to – however idly – matters. Afterwards you can have all those conversations that help tie your thoughts together – the conversations that begin “Did you see the Social Worker who …” and “I heard someone say that the little girl, x, …”. Ultimately I need someone I can talk to properly about matching. Having someone who has shared the journey with me has to help.
Plus in my case at least I am blessed due to a simple reality: if I can be half as good a parent to my future child or children as my mother has been to me I will be doing better than I can ever hope. Her support has been and I am sure will continue to be hugely valuable.
The journey goes on
Eventually we are among the last to leave after I chat to just one more Social Worker about just one more child (I’m not sure whether she was pleased or annoyed her colleagues ended up doing most of the work to collapse their stand!).
We go back out to our car and find our packed sandwiches we brought with us.
We sit. We eat and talk and ponder.
It is possible that one or two of the children we have seen pictures of and talked about today will be my children. Unlikely but not impossible.
We are mindful that of course I am not approved, and therefore there is still much to do before I can even truly consider matching for real.
There is no question though that the day has made a difference. We are both tired (and suddenly hungry!). We are indeed slightly overwhelmed – there are so many children needing homes and love and intervention and support and more love. We know that there may be a hugely long way yet to travel. Above all though I – and I think my mother too – know that the day has been another step along the right path for me and for us.
Profiles resting in my lap, empty sandwich boxes deposited on the back seat, we secure our seat belts and turn on the windscreen wipers. Slowly we pull out of our space and navigate back out of the car park. As we rejoin the main road we start to chat about the day. The journey may yet be long but we are nevertheless further on than we had been just a few hours before.