“Nobody thought they were doing anything wrong”

8 October 2020

Last week was the launch of 100 years of the Tavistock and Portman with award-winning poet, playwright and broadcaster Lemn Sissay. Sheena Webb Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Service Manager and Joint Clinical Lead for our Pan-London Family Drug and Alcohol Court Team reflects on the talk and its implications for practitioners who work with children and their parents.

In our talk Who do we think we are, we heard Lemn give a powerful testimony of the lies and misguided actions of the people he was supposed to trust. Thirty years after receiving his files, he found out his mother had not wished to put her child in care. “The social worker said to my mother, you want this child adopted don’t you?” Lemn explained. “And she said: “No, I don’t want him adopted. I want him fostered for a short period of time, while I am studying and then I’ll take him home with me.” Despite this request, Lemn was given up to adoptive parents who raised him for the next 12 years before sending him to a care home.


As I read Lemn’s book My Name is Why and feel the emotion of his experience carried in his voice, my overriding feeling is guilt and anxiety that comes with making decisions about children. Although I know that we in the Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC) are trying our hardest to keep families together, Lemn’s words about his social worker, adoptive parents and others around him, “nobody thought they were doing the wrong thing”, still ring in my ears. Some things in the system have changed for the better, other things have not changed that much. We do put more effort into supporting birth parents, and into trying to keep families together. However, we can still be quick to dismiss a parent’s importance in their child’s life, if we see them as posing a risk.    

Lemn pointed out that every child’s story starts before they are born, it starts with their mother’s story. For me, this is where the system is still failing, in not truly understanding the story of each parent and how that story has caused them to arrive in a situation they never wanted or intended. Sometimes our focus on safeguarding children causes us to turn away from the parent. Sometimes we write in reports, “this parent has failed to prioritise their child over their own needs”, as if the parent had a choice and made the wrong one.  

Those of us making decisions about the future of children, on behalf of children, need to be fully aware of our own biases and blind spots. We need to recognise that the parent we may see as risky or harmful, is still an important figure in that child’s life, and cannot be deleted from that child’s story. Understanding the parent’s story, helps us to understand the child’s.  And yet, as a professional, I have often been challenged, “How can you focus on the needs of the parent without that being at the expense of the child’?” As if we have to choose.  

We don’t have to choose. We can hold compassion for both parents and children, understanding that their stories are continuous and connected. I feel that Lemn’s story and those of other parents and children who have experienced the care system, reminds us of the true nature of trauma, how it silently trickles down the generations, despite each parent loving their children, and trying to do their best with what they have been given.  

He specifically named racism and sexism as the prejudices his mother faced in the care system. This insight is important in the discussions we’re having as an organisation and society, following Black Lives Matter. He poignantly expressed how his adoptive parents were missionaries who literally thought they were "saving an African child from Africa". This suggests there are powerful archetypes in how we relate to people of colour in care, creating prejudices that work to their detriment. 

The implication from Lemn’s story is the need for more compassion when working with parents and children and continued critical self-reflections to identify our own prejudices, racism and unconscious biases. 

In case you missed it, you can watch Lemn’s talk again on our YouTube channel.

For 100 years, the Tavistock and Portman has proudly been at the forefront of exploring mental health and wellbeing. From attachment theory and infant observation, to applying psychoanalytic and systemic approaches in varied settings, our ideas have led to changes in care, education, how organisations work and beyond. 

Our centenary festival will celebrate our history and explore contemporary issues in relation to identity, relationships and society. It will consider how we continue to draw on our heritage to provide valuable responses to contemporary and future problems from the perspective of equality and inclusion.

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