Clare Jerrom talks to Angela Frazer-Wicks about her experiences of the care system after her children were placed for adoption in 2004.
"Mummy," my five year old son said, "You'd better sit down."
He placed his tiny hands in mine and his big eyes looked up at my face. "After the visit next week, we won't be able to see you again," he said looking at me trying to be brave as we knew the next contact visit would be the last before he and his brother were going to be adopted.
Of course, Angela already knew what was coming. "I'd been trying to be brave, worrying about him while he was clearly worried about me," said Angela, whose children were placed for adoption in 2004, a situation enough to break any mother as she learned she'd never see her children again - until they were 18 and she could find them for herself with nothing standing in her way. But with the children aged five and one, this was a long time away for the two small boys who asked her to carry them to the car that would be taking them away from her for good.
Amidst the fog of the 'toxic trio' she was experiencing - severe mental health problems, drug addiction and domestic violence following a childhood of abuse, Angela could have crumbled. And it's fair to say that for a while, she did, culminating in a very serious suicide bid. However, not being defined by the horrific situation of having her two beloved boys adopted, Angela used her experience of the system, to become a fighter; a warrior; someone who used her horrific ordeal to make positive changes for other families. Today she is a changed woman following a remarkable turnaround.
'My world imploded'
Angela says she experienced childhood abuse and, unsurprisingly, went on to develop mental health problems, eating disorders and candidly admits she had always been a recreational drug user. However, she was successfully living as a single mum with a stressful career as well as studying law. Her son was at nursery, she bought her own house although the stress of juggling everything meant she often drank when the baby was asleep in bed.
"I was a functioning addict, everything looked fine, but I'd drink when the baby was in bed. But I'd always be up the next day and back at work," she explains.
However, everything changed when Angela met her ex-partner. "He came across as charming to me and although everyone warned me against him I didn't listen."
She says he stole money from her, became abusive and isolated her from her family and friends. He then made it difficult for her to work by calling her constantly, accusing her of having affairs. Soon she lost her job and couldn't afford to send her child to nursery. "My world imploded she said. He got a council house and I lived with him which made me totally dependent on him," she explains. In just six months she'd gone from being independent and confidently juggling parenthood as well as working and studying to becoming reclusive and entirely dependent on her abusive partner.
'We are moving forward with adoption'
What followed was years of drug, alcohol and physical abuse, severe mental health problems then a pregnancy. This resulted in her being able to access support services and during which she got clean. She says she repeatedly asked for help for her addiction and mental health problems but was told that she never met thresholds for help apart from when she was pregnant. By the time she was assessed three and a half years after initially asking for help, the psychiatric report said she would require 18 months therapy which was not in the children's timescales and so the authorities said they would be moving forward with adoption. That was New Year's Eve. In February, aged 29, she made a serious suicide attempt, taking heroin and paracetamol. She claims her partner left her for 48 hours before neighbours sounded the alarm and alerted help.
On waking up, with lines going into her heart, she - and hospital staff - were amazed she had survived. She was told she would be able to have contact with the children if she sorted herself out. This was Angela's defining moment. Clinging to the prospect of contact with her children she pledged to get clean and well.
Hospital staff helped her to access refuge. The journey was not without its setbacks like, for example, when she found out her ex would be testifying against her in the care proceedings and his evidence was that the court shouldn't place her children back in her care. She asked for another psychiatric assessment as her ex-partner had been in the room while she was previously being assessed and as she was terrified of him she had "taken the blame". She wanted authorities to see the real her now that she was free from drugs and her abusive partner.
Angela had just three hours a week contact with the children while they were in foster care but pledged to make the most of that time together. However, it wasn't long before she received a letter saying that the contact would not be conducive to the adoption as the eldest child, five, would blame the future adopters. She had two weeks of contact left which is when her son sat her down to deliver the news that she had heard from
I clung to the prospect of contact
"On 2nd July 2004 I said goodbye to my boys," she says quietly. "The boys asked me to carry them to the car and I promised I'd write. As they were driven off, I collapsed."
When she had been in hospital desperately ill after her suicide bid, nurses often sat with her at the end of their shift to talk to her. Angela explains how one nurse had told her how she had been married with two children when one day her husband upped and left with the two children, who had dual citizenship, and went abroad with them to never return. She had no idea where they were and no way of contacting them. She had gone on to meet another partner and had another child although it would never take away the pain of having her two children taken from her and she had just had to learn to cope with the situation.
"I was still able to contact my children. I wanted to show them that the person they had seen wasn't me. I wanted to make them proud of me," she said, as she clung to the prospect of her post box contact.
Yet after the children were taken into care while adopters were sought, Angela says she could not get a response from anyone about where she could write to. "Finally I was told that there was no order for contact. Any contact would be at the discretion of adopters but because the children hadn't been adopted and were in foster care, there was no one to ask."
Living in hell
"I was devastated. I'd made a promise, the one thing that got me through was that I would still be able to write to them," she adds.
Angela spiraled out of control, going back with her ex-partner, getting thrown out of the refuge and back on drugs. "What was the point? I'd always thought the reason I hadn't died was because I was meant to be in my sons' lives. But at that point I thought I had survived so I could be constantly punished in a living hell," she adds.
The charity After Adoption got in touch and a social worker, Norma, was assigned to Angela after they said they might be able to help her with contact. Naturally following her experience, Angela was loathed to engage. It took six months, but Norma persevered and Angela finally agreed to meet her. "She was an amazing woman. She spoke to me like a human being. She listened," says Angela.
Several more meetings ensued and finally Angela allowed Norma to come to her house. They spent time talking, and eventually Norma said she thought she could help with fighting for contact.
"Around this time two sets of prospective adopters had been found and thankfully I was allowed to be involved. My sons got the perfect parents, they were a godsend. They were lovely people, good honest members of society with good careers," said Angela.
"Then a miracle happened. I got post box contact and received a hand written letter with photographs from my son. He looked so happy, he was on holiday, tanned and beaming. It was such a relief and it was a turning point to know they were ok," she said.
"I didn't want to write back to them as an addict, I wanted them to be proud. I got drug treatment, got some confidence back and volunteered at a charity shop which was amazing given I was virtually agoraphobic. I started working two hours a week. Within six weeks I was helping them to run the place, cashing up and locking the shop. The people were welcoming and trusted me. I also had a chance meeting with a lovely couple at a corner shop who, to this day, I call my mum and dad," she added.
"When I found out my children were ok, that was the catalyst and I tried to help After Adoption. When you live the way I had lived and someone asks you to do something, they want you, they trust you, it's amazing," said Angela.
Norma wanted to change the perception of birth mums. She wanted people to realise that birth mums can help with the settling process which helps both adopters and the children. Norma said she thought people should hear Angela's story so Angela made a video about birth parents and was interviewed on the radio about it. She attended a conference in Cardiff where she was meant to give a birth mum's perspective in Norma's workshop, but Norma put her back out which meant Angela had to run the whole workshop.
Angela explains that she was petrified prior to the conference and the night before woke from a dream where she'd met this incredible, beautiful woman with dark hair and she had got chatting to her and missed her flight. Putting it down to her anxiety, Angela tried to get back to sleep. But during the workshop, she was aware of a woman beaming at her and who led a standing ovation at the end. This woman was Bridget Lindley and approached Angela afterwards to talk to her, explaining that she worked for Family Rights Group, a charity that works with parents and families in England and Wales whose children are in need, at risk or are in the care system. Angela said she was like the woman in her dream and on the way to the airport, there was an accident and Angela missed her flight.
"It was just like the dream and I felt this was the world's way of telling me what I needed to do," she said.
His days were numbered
"The more confident I was getting, my ex-partner knew his days were numbered," she said. She eventually got rid of him by putting a deposit on a flat for him. Yet a year on he was still hassling Angela so she moved areas to be free from him.
Following her meeting with Bridget, Angela became involved with FRG and at that point she was the only parent on FRG's parents’ panel. She was also speaking for After Adoption about the importance of contact for everyone after meeting Norma. Her campaigning and influencing around birth mums meant she could write to her children telling them she had been to the Royal Courts of Justice or Westminster. "My life became about what I could tell them in my letters but I benefited from it too," she adds.
Her local authority appointed her a co-ordinator, Lindsey, who advised her on what she should and shouldn't say in her letters to her children. It later emerged that Lindsey kept records of every interview, meeting and campaign Angela had done so that she could show her children in the future what their birth mum had done.
"Making bad choices does not make you a bad person. I have taken responsibility for my actions and I can't change the past. I can use what I learnt to help others. Being bitter and angry is not going to help anyone," she said. "I can use all of that experience to make positive changes to the system and show birth mums there is a way through."
Angela is still involved with Family Rights Group and they have both a parents’ and kinship carers’ panels which have approximately thirty members with lived experience of the system and the groups help to design the way the charity works. The contribution of the panel members is invaluable to FRG as they contribute to the shaping of their service delivery, attend events and campaign. The panel members views and lived experiences are also regularly sought after by resource institutions, government departments and a variety of organisations who want to learn about the benefits of working with those with lived experience.
70% of calls are about domestic violence
"I found out that when a child is adopted, they are cut off from everyone. I knew how that felt and I was an adult. My son was five years old. We have to ensure that we are doing what's best for the children and that the voice of the young person in the care system is being fully heard. But if we concentrate on the child and not the family, that is not in the child's best interests. We must ensure that we don't hone in on the child, pick that child up and move them away which will create future problems," said Angela.
"When designing services, it's vital that we ask the people who use the system whether it works. I've reached the point where I can talk professionally hoping to help for the future," she added.
The Family Rights Group carries out domestic violence training for social workers and child protection training for domestic violence workers and all training involves panel members. "Domestic violence is the main factor in 70% of calls to our helpline in cases where local authorities are involved. Yet there are no refuges. Whoever is the victim of domestic violence needs to protect children but there is nowhere for them to go. By your child witnessing domestic violence a mother can be accused of emotional abuse and the child can be removed and taken into care. But once the mum doesn't have a child with her, she cannot access services. We had hoped things would get better but it's actually getting worse," said Angela.
Problems are further compounded by high thresholds for help, Angela adds. "There are few family support workers as they have been cut so families are in crisis because the threshold for any intervention has been raised. Families are sent away because they don't meet thresholds so they think that they should be able to cope but people with mental health problems cannot treat themselves and addicts can't stop taking drugs or drinking without help," she said.
"So we are sending families away and the problems are escalating and families are in crisis before they meet a threshold and then it becomes a child protection issue," she added. "So families are very angry and frustrated that they have asked for help and been turned away. Sir James Munby, former president of the family division of the High Court, highlighted the number of families coming into court who say they asked for help."
Nothing will change the past
"Our family panels are working with some local authorities and Cafcass, asking people using the system what they think the money that is available should be spent on," said Angela.
"The Children Act 1989 is about working with families and we want good practice explained to families at the beginning of their involvement with social workers. They need to know what is expected from their family and what their family can expect from social workers. We don't hear enough success stories, we want best practice shared and we want people to be saying 'my social worker was great'. One young person had the opportunity through FRG to take someone with them to Buckingham Palace for their annual summer garden party. That parent chose her social worker in recognition for how well she felt that she had been treated. If families feel supported and listened to, they are much more likely to accept things, and work on making changes" she explained.
Unfortunately, Angela hasn't heard from her two boys for around two years. She said it happened organically as when her eldest son was around 14, he had some questions about the situation. "I fought for contact for him as I'd made a promise. But if it's not best for him, then it should stop. I'm not going to force it, it has to be about him, not me. When he turned 18, I had a letter from his adoptive mum saying 'You'd be so proud of your boys'. What a selfless human being? My son had always wanted to be a teacher but in my last letter it seems he's changed direction and is training in social work and psychology. So maybe he's seen the difference my work has done? I've found a way to help by making a difference. Nothing is going to change the past."
Angela is now happily married to a supportive partner of 10 years and has a seven year old child where there has been no local authority involvement. She has been sober for 10 years and clean for 13 years.
"I'm in a good place. It's hard to reconcile I am the same person as before. Because of my PTSD I get flashbacks but I do domestic violence training and use those flashbacks as examples in the training so I write it down and use it to put a positive spin on something negative."
"My husband supports me. He knows my work is my therapy. If I think something is not fair I try to do something about it," Angela concluded.
You may want to read our interview with Cathy Ashley, chief executive of Family Rights Group