Sixteen years ago, I was choosing gifts for my children. My eldest son, then aged five, had asked for a “big boy’s watch”. My 18-month-old son would be happy with something he could eat, whether it was edible or not.
I found a shop selling silver tankards, chose two and had my sons’ names and nicknames engraved, along with “mammy loves you”. I spent ages browsing for the perfect card for each of them.
Sounds lovely doesn’t it? Except the reality was very different. Home was a single room in a refuge. I had been living there for a few weeks since my discharge from hospital, where I had almost died. I had attempted to kill myself following years of abuse, culminating in social services removing my children. The tankards and cards were goodbye gifts, as it had been decided that my sons were to be adopted and I would not be allowed to see them.
My goodbye took place in a dark, dirty conference room with a social worker watching.
In the years that followed, I focused on the negatives of that contact. The room was totally unsuitable with no space to play; I was forced to say goodbye alone; I was only allowed 45 minutes, not the full hour, as an accident had delayed us. All these things clouded my memories.
Little did I know that, years later, I would look back and realise how lucky I was. I could hold my children, show them photographs of family and friends and give them copies. I was able to share stories and memories. I cuddled my eldest son and sang the song that used to send him to sleep as a baby, and we were able to hold each other and cry together.
I gave them their gifts and explained what they were and what they meant. And at the end of our time together I was able to carry them to the car, strap them in, kiss them goodbye and wave as they drove away. I got to give them a memory to keep of me as well as create one for myself. Never once did I think that I would be feeling grateful for that. But some families today simply aren’t so lucky.
Due to Covid-19, a number of local authorities have stopped face to face contact. Mothers whose babies have been removed at birth are being told they cannot hold them, but the child’s foster carers can.
Imagine saying goodbye to your children via a computer screen; being told you cannot hug or kiss them one final time. I cannot begin to imagine the pain of being made to do that remotely. It isn’t just cruel, it’s downright inhumane.
Whatever we as parents may have done (and a large proportion of us haven’t done anything; we are just deemed to be a future risk), we deserve a proper goodbye. Our children deserve to know they are loved and will be missed. We do not simply say goodbye and then magically cease to be a parent. We grieve our loss for a very long time, and part of the process is that goodbye.
It isn’t just parents being denied “goodbye contact”. Siblings in care are also being denied the right cuddle their baby brother or sister who is being adopted. It is heartbreaking, but not inevitable. Covid-19 cannot be allowed to destroy or stand in the way of those relationships.
I treasure my memories, however negative they were, to this day. They are all I have. I have a film made by the social worker who supervised so I can remember every detail. And what is now most important is that I am able to show my daughter a video of her brothers. She has that connection that she may have otherwise not been able to form.
While it is important to mitigate health risks, family relationships should not be lost. Risks can be reduced to manageable levels but this requires a local authority to want to do so. These issues are going to be here for some time to come, so a sustainable solution must be found.
I can’t help but think how different it would all have been for me had that been happening now. Being told that I can say goodbye to my children on a screen. No touch, smell or hugs, just a moving picture on a computer. Then what? Isolation and loneliness.
That part never changes, but without those memories to treasure, how many would just give up on life? I know I would have done. Contact, whether it was that time we said our goodbyes or the subsequent letterbox contact I fought for, motivated me to keep going. It spurred me on to be a better person and gave me a reason to live.
So what I’m saying is very simple: if we really must say goodbye to our children, then please let us hold them for one last time. For us and for them.
Angela Frazer-Wicks is a founding member of the Family Rights Group’s parents’ panel. The Family Rights Group’s freephone advice line is available on 0808 801 0366, Monday-Friday 9.30am-3pm.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org