Tuesday, May 23, 2017

WHERE ELSE IN LIFE DO YOU GET GIVEN A 5 STAR FRIEND?




We're having a nice breather in the house at the moment.

There's a spare room, which we're all agreed can be filled anytime; one of fostering's great joys is wondering who's coming next.

What happens is you get a phone call asking if you would "Take a child who..."

Then you get a profile of the child. They email it over.

It's a file of information about the child, the key stuff. Mind, as I've always said, not a complete picture, I mean, could anyone sum up anyone in a page and a half, or even a hundred?

It's usually a couple of pages. By that point, your personal social worker starts getting involved.

Certainly, waiting for your next placement in fostering is one of life's most exciting/trepidatious  experiences. I love it.

We're a family who tries to say yes. We have only had one no-no, and that went back to when Aids was huge and one of my own children had his/her fears about it overblown by all the media hype, and ended up with a bit of a phobia. I was sad to have to talk to Blue Sky about the problem and say we would have doubts about taking a child who might be HIV positive but they were fantastic. It never came up as an actual issue, but I'll never forget how understanding they were.

So as I was saying, you get an email with a profile of the child who needs care and frankly, when it's your first placement, you're somewhat in the dark about what the information means.

Luckily your personal social worker is right on hand to help interpret the case. 

When you foster you get;

a) A foster child, plus the foster child's social worker, whose role is to help and support the child. 

And;

b) A separate social worker whose job is to help and support YOU.

Newcomers to fostering aren't really clear what this means.

Having your own foster carer means you have a person, a professional, whose job is to look after you and your family. Once you get your head around this level of support you feel a million dollars. 

Life is a scary, sometimes lonely, journey. Most of us try to forge relationships along the way. A partner, a bunch of friends, our families. Those people are there for us in their own sweet way, some of them are rocks. And we are there for them. It's a slightly haphazard network thing, but on the whole it works, most of the time. People do their best; untrained and often busy with their own lives.

We don't get assigned a professional carer, a full-time paid supporter available 24 hours a day 7 days a week whose job is to back us up. But in fostering that's exactly what you get.

And they don't do it just because it's their job and they're paid to be there for us; every single one I've ever had attached to us has been full of love and care, and have ended up friends. 

You're not really supposed to keep them as friends, but one of our ex-social workers is just that; a true friend - yet still a professional; she doesn't ask anything except general chit-chat about the fostering we're doing now she's no longer officially attached to us.

Your personal social worker is all the things you want them to be; excited as you are when a new child arrives, as concerned as you are about the things that have to be tackled with the child, and as delighted and exhilarated about the rewards you and the child experience.

From the heart; having someone on your side, a dedicated supporter who gets to know you, gets to know your real family and your fostering family, and is there for you all the time is probably one of fostering's most unsung wonders.

It becomes a type of love, and I love it and am eternally grateful for it.

Now, come on phone...RING!







Monday, May 15, 2017

GCSES 's and FOSTERING



GCSEs start today.

Exams are stressful every time, for students and teachers alike. And parents.

But they seem especially stressful for foster children and foster parents.

I'm not pulling rank here and saying our job is harder than the average parent.

Oh who am I kidding; that's exactly what I'm saying. GCSEs are harder for foster parents in almost every way except one.

The one way in which it's slightly easier for foster parents when their foster children are taking GCSEs is when the child in question isn't going to be part of your family forever, so a small voice reminds you that if they do badly and end up with poor prospects they'll be elsewhere when the stark reality of how little the world wants unqualified British labour kicks in.

But even that easing of our burden is counteracted by the fact that you worry even more about ensuring they do their best because if you're not there to help them pick up the pieces there might be nobody at all.

We get to look after other people's children for different periods of time. It might be a single night or a weekend. If it's short term you don't get a chance to focus on their exam prospects, even if they're sitting an exam the next day; the likelihood is they are up to their ears in family problems and will probably be re-scheduled to sit the exams again when things are more settled.

The big stressers, when it comes to helping foster children take their GCSEs, lie in the fact that you've got no first hand experience of their educational strengths and weaknesses down the years. So it's that much harder to get a bead on their academic potential.

And you know less than you'd like about the aspirations their real family had loaded onto them, or equally, how much they had consciously or unconsciously hampered the child's intellectual development.

How much damage had been done to the child's desire to take on the world.

We had one girl stay with us who was being readied for her GCSEs. She arrived during the school holidays so we had a couple of weeks to get to know her before school became an issue.

She was very, very bright. Bright in that sharp way that looked-after children often display. She'd have made a GREAT lawyer. She could argue her way through anything and anyone and come out the other side with bells on.

I expected, once she started back to school, to discover she was University material.

But no, you're probably ahead of me here, she was getting special help in almost every subject!

The school wanted her to sit every exam across the board even though she had years of catching up to do.

I got onto them and said that rather than her end up with low marks in twelve subjects, we should pick three or four, play to her strengths, and concentrate on getting good marks in them.

I wanted the school to excuse her from eight subjects, freeing up time for her to top up in the ones she was concentrating on.

Long story short; it didn't happen. The school said they couldn't cope and that if she was allowed to do it they'd be inundated.

The girl often told me she wanted to work with animals.

Animals rather than people, I remember thinking. People let you down in ways that animals don't, she'd already learned that.

I hope she managed it, I doubt it. You need qualifications for the job of your dreams, but foster children have often had to spend their short lives coping with so much turbulence and unsettling events that their schooling has gone by the wayside, and suddenly here they are being fed into a big hall with desks arranged just so, a silence descends and when they turn the paper over they get the first concrete shock to their system that they have struggled at home, struggled with family, struggled with school and now, as they look at the exam papers, realise that their future life itself is going to be a struggle.

Parents of their own children hopefully help all they can with revision and soothing words.

We foster carers have to do our darndest with the revision, but it's with all the other aspects of GCSEs we come into our own. 

The emotional aspects. 

You have to find a way to tell somebody else's child that on the one hand GCSEs matter, and that on the other hand they don't matter all that much. Not compared to their emotional wellbeing.

I never managed to get that message right with my own children, and try as I might I can't make it stick with other people's little ones.




Monday, May 08, 2017

WE NEED MORE CARERS



Foster Care Fortnight is under way, it's an attempt to tempt more people into fostering.

Is that you? Or, if you are already a foster parent, do you know someone who's made of the right stuff but needs a gentle urging?

One big thing I didn't realise when I first enquired (1985!) is how varied and flexible fostering is.

What got me interested was that a fostering agency had taken over a shop in our high street and every time I went past I got more and more hooked.

You may not believe this, and I have to pinch myself - you couldn't do it nowadays - but they had photos of children who needed foster homes in the shop window!

They were all aged 10-12 and looked idyllic, and the blurb talked about the average stay being 3-6 months. So I picked up the notion that fostering is a fairly standard procedure.

But standard it most definitely is not; its diversity is its strength and also one of its great attractions for would-be carers.

So if you're one of the countless people who are pondering about taking what seems like a huge step, let me borrow from The Fostering Network who've listed how many different types of fostering there are, because there's almost certain to be one or more that fits you, your life and background, and your family set-up.

EMERGENCY 
Emergency foster carers need to be prepared to take a child into their home at short notice, at any time of the day or night. Children will usually need to stay for only a few days, while longer-term plans are being considered.
SHORT TERM
This can mean anything from overnight stays to a period of several months. Short-term foster carers provide a temporary place to stay until the child can return home to their own family or a longer- term fostering or adoption arrangement can be made.
LONG TERM
Long-term fostering allows children to stay in a family where they can feel secure, while maintaining contact with their birth family. There is a particular need for this type of foster care for teenagers and sibling groups.
SHORT BREAK
This covers a variety of part-time care, including offering a break to the family of a child with disabilities or for a foster family. A child could come and stay for anything from a few hours each week to a couple of weekends each month.
SPECIALIST SCHEMES
There is a wide range of specialist schemes which focus on working with children with particular needs. These include parent and baby placements, therapeutic foster care and fostering young people on remand. Support care Offering support care to a child’s family is aimed at preventing young people from entering the care system on a full-time basis. Foster carers offer part-time care to children so they and their family can have a break, before difficulties escalate to a point where they can no longer manage. 

Actually, fostering is even more varied than those categories suggest.

It's not until the child arrives that you find yourself tailoring the placement to suit the child's individual needs. A large part of the reward is learning who they are and how you can help. Even if a child is only with you for 48 hours, they need supporting and helping.

And, just as the nature of fostering itself is many and varied, so are foster carers.

When I started it was mostly mums whose children had grown up. Nowadays, goodness, go to a Blue Sky gathering and it's chockablock with people from all sorts of backgrounds; singles, young couples, people who thought they were past their sell-by date, same-sex partnerships, different races, different nationalities.

But despite this wide catchment...

THE COUNTRY NEEDS MORE FOSTER CARERS.

Can you help???











Sunday, April 30, 2017

GOOD COUNSEL




We have a spare bed again.

Our latest has left. The gentle, frightened, musically talented, passive, compliant, nearly-adult young man with what everyone continues to call 'mental health issues'. He was so vulnerable, you just wanted to wrap him in cotton wool.

He was small for his age, smaller for trying to shrink himself invisible. He was of the opinion he didn't amount to much, found small talk impossible, and one thing that struck me was that the reason he didn't take any interest in other people was down to the fact that he thought he mattered so little it wouldn't make any difference if he did take an interest.

Actually, not so long ago, his internal problems would probably have gone undetected, and only the chaos of his home and the other external negative influences on him would have been under the microscope. 

I'm starting to wonder how much bigger the mental and emotional issues affecting children to come into care are starting to appear and are going to play a bigger and bigger part in fostering, which is good news because we can get to grips even better.

He's not gone home, which is what he's dead certain he wants, but to a sort of halfway house; a rented room is a house-share not far from his real home.

Going home wouldn't be good for him because the place is shot through with triggers which have built up down the years. The look of his front door and what lies behind it, counting the boots in the hallway to see who's inside and lurking, the kitchen where there was that screaming match, the back room where the police officer took him to find out what happened while the other family members discussed with the other officer in the front room. Etc etc etc.

You always miss things about them when they go, this time I miss opportunities. I could have done more in the short time he was here.

So I've been reading up on courses in counselling. I'm motivated at the moment because all the time I remember not knowing what to do to help him; what to say, how to behave.

'Mental health issues'. The phrase covers such a huge range of things, and though I respect psychology as a practice I'm frustrated that there's so much more to discover about our minds, and especially how we can repair things that have gone wrong.

Take the boy/man who has just left. What was wrong with him? We heard terms like Aspergers in mosaic form, Narcissistic personality disorder, transference, attachment disorders... the list could have gone on for eternity.

The only solutions yet known to man are medication and counselling. Well I can't administer anything better than tea and sympathy, but it's the sympathy I'm thinking about doing better which is why I'm thinking about doing a counselling course. Blimey it's a year long and there's paperwork and it's not cheap.

But one thing I notice that the course notes talk about is that counselling can be a useful tool in the workplace. 

Well that goes for fostering with knobs on.





Thursday, April 27, 2017

FOSTER CARE FORTNIGHT



Foster Care Fortnight starts soon.

Most of the fellow foster parents I know are too busy fostering to get their heads up on national campaigns and what have you, but Blue Sky are behind it and we thought it was something to flag up on the SFC blog.

You can get the works on it at their site, Google; "Fostering Network".

I had a look myself and was pleased by looking. Sometimes you forget how much you are doing when you do what you do and get on with it day in day out, and when someone else takes a bird's eye view you get a different perspective.

I was struck by one of their criteria on the page about what a potential foster carers needs to have going for them.

Along with the golden rules such as being 21 or over and having a large enough spare room was;

'Your friends and family - are there people who can support you to foster?'

It made me stop zizzing around the site and think.

They are so right. Without a bunch of pals and a gang of nailed-on family members you are going to struggle.

The other requirements are easily understood, but when I tried to cotton onto why the Fostering Network considered friends and family a necessity I experienced a very very happy feeling I'd love to share.

See, often we take friends and family for granted. A bit like a pair of old jeans or a favourite LP, you appreciate them, but rarely celebrate them as heroes or lifesavers.

And for most people that's probably about the mark, but not for foster carers.

Our friends and family supporters are lifelines. They have to hear our ups and downs, respect privacy and anonymity (and anyway we don't give them real names etc, and they know that and understand).

But my goodness, you get a coffee friend round and after a quick-fire "How are you?" "Fine. How are you?" it's on to the fostering. People are never less than amazed at what we do.

Amazed. Fascinated. Flattering. Supportive.

It gives you even more energy, and sometimes you get good advice and some thinking 'outside the box'.

I'm already up on the deal having started my little investigation into Fostering Fortnight; watch this space!




Saturday, April 22, 2017

THE TEA CUP PROBLEM


A teacher in our family says that two of her best friends and allies at school are her selective deaf ear and blind eye.

Same in fostering.

She says that if she picked up on every single thing that the students shouldn't be doing or saying she wouldn't get any teaching done.

And I find that too, especially with our latest placement.

He is pretty much an adult, but because he's dealing with depression there are all sorts of small not-quite-right behaviours which I'd discuss with most children, but which I've found myself ignoring with him. Because if I picked up on them all he'd be crestfallen and that could lead to black dog moods which set him back weeks.

The teacup issue is the absolute case in point.

THE TEA CUP ISSUE

It doesn't seem like a big deal, but then again it is. See, we use rounds of tea in our house to bring everyone together. Saturdays, Sundays, school holidays; the kettle is always warm.

When he first arrived, no-one minded him leaving his cup wherever he put it down after finishing. For the first week or so we didn't want to start nagging; he was in a strange house, he'd had a bad time. He has low self-esteem and over-reacts if he thinks he's being criticised, not in an aggressive way, just withdraws into a cocoon of silent sadness.

He's been steadily improving in most respects, but the tea cup issue must soon be considered.

I've got past being annoyed. Even when, one day, there were only three of our tea mugs available and clean in the kitchen. Several brown-stained ones in the dishwasher. I did a hunt and found two hidden out of sight on the floor next to the armchair he uses, three dotted around the computer room and FIVE up in his room.

One in the back garden and one under the tree in the front garden where we suspect he might hide to have a crafty roll-up even though he swears he doesn't smoke.

Therefore The Tea Cup issue is bigger than I thought. After all, he usually takes his plate up to the sink after a meal. He puts used clothing in the laundry basket.

So; 

WHAT IS THE TEA CUP ISSUE?

Is it an unconscious longing to be an infant again, wherein all things are done for him by the adult? Or at least they should have been done for him, so maybe he's having a miniature re-childhood and experiencing the right feelings of being looked-after. Or perhaps tea-drinking is a mark of adulthood and he doesn't want to be there yet? Doesn't want to be an adult until he's had a proper childhood?

Or is it an unconscious rejection of his new foster home? Does he recognise the symbolism of our relentless; "Who' wants a cuppa?" as a way of saying "We are family" and, grateful as he may be for our support would rather be with his own chaotic clan.

Then again; possibly it's to do with the fact that his mind is always teeming, so that at most given moments he's a million miles away, turning everything over and over in his head so that he's oblivious to the fact he's just finished a cuppa and ought to do something with the empty like everyone else does.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE TEA CUP ISSUE

Well for starters here's what I'm not going to do; I'm NOT going to say;

"Would you mind taking your tea cup out please, and put it in the sink." 

Because;

a) that's only a half solution, I really want him washing it up, drying it and hanging it on its hook. 
b) he'll twig that it's been an ongoing thing and his mood will likely plummet when he works out we've had a long-term grievance and put up with it because he's not well (he is resistant to the idea he has a mental health issue, ask Prince Harry about that). 
c) Bottom line; it wouldn't work. I just know it in my gut, we'd be back to square one on day two.

What I MIGHT do is;

Buy a set of individualised mugs (many of ours are matching) so that everyone has their own mug. It would mean he'd get something he's probably never had, namely ownership of a household item. It would lead to jokes about why is dad drinking out of mum's cup, is there something he wants to tell us?

I might put the communal cups in a cupboard, it's not as though we ever have  two dozen people around all wanting tea.

What I PROBABLY WILL do is...carry on as before, picking up his mugs as I go along and washing them up for him. And feeling a bit like a butler. But also, feeling a bit like someone who's doing all they can for him, showing as much care and love as can be done.

Because I suspect that, bottom line, a piece of him loves testing how much we care and feeling safe when he gets the re-assurance, and if the Tea Cup Issue is giving him that, then bring it on buster!

And;

I'll try to pay enough attention to myself so that when the day dawns that he takes his cup to the sink, washes it out, dries it and hangs it up, I'll notice, say nothing, but do three mental cartwheels for joy. And happen it will.







Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A LONG GOOD FRIDAY




Sometimes you can tell right from the off if a day isn't going to go well.

Children in foster care occasionally get out of bed on the wrong side and there's not much can be done.

I learned the hard way to have my antenna twitching from my first  cheery 'Good Morning!'. If there's no reply you know what you've got. Or maybe you get a grunt back, and have to assess what the grunt means, and what's the level of grump.

When it happens you have to concentrate to get things right and avoid a build up.

When I started fostering, having brought up my own children who by comparison (or so I remembered) were models of consistency, I was a bit affronted when a foster child ignored me or  made dismissive noises that translated as "I don't know/care" if you asked what they'd like for breakfast.

I'd make the big mistake; I'd try to fix things for her. I'd make her favourite breakfast, compliment her hair and choice of T shirt, dangle a treat;

"Would you like to go to the cinema on Saturday, or bowling?"

And somehow my efforts seemed to make things worse.

I learned the best thing to do every morning is to be neutral. No overblown good cheer, no singing along to the radio, in fact no radio. Just a calm, measured household. No fuss when they show their face, sometimes they seem to wish they were invisible. Or maybe not exist at all.

I stopped digging to try to find out what the matter was. The reason I gave up was because they themselves didn't know.

It happened this Easter;

Good Friday morning. A bit of a lie-in for all, but he clearly didn't want to get going. At half past ten he appeared, scurrying to the bathroom then back to his bedroom.

I made a bowl of cereal and took it up.

'Wassat?'

"Coco Pops"

"Don't want it."

What I've found is that it's all down the next things you say or do.

I DON'T say anything like; "There's no need to be like that" Nor do I say "Well what would you like instead."

I MIGHT say "I'll leave it here in case you change your mind".

I DON"T say "What's wrong?"

I WON"T do anything that might be construed judgemental such as pick up socks and pants off the floor or even open the curtains.

I MIGHT say something like; "It's going to be a quiet house today, but if you want a lift to town or a friend's just ask." And I definitely wouldn't mention friends unless I was sure there hadn't been an argument.

I find that if you avoid trying to take control, and definitely avoid getting into a discussion/disagreement/argument, just become a piece of furniture, that's your best bet.

It's frustrating because you want to get to the bottom of the low spirit, maybe even solve a problem.

But you can't; it runs too deep. They have to be permitted to feel glum from time to time, surely to goodness.

The Good Friday grump turned out to be a Short Good Friday grump (apologies to Bob Hoskins).

I tried to suss what had brought it on; maybe bad family memories of Easter, no Easter eggs or egg-hunting games, maybe a child shocked at the story of a man being nailed to a cross, maybe he got busted on a computer game, or someone hacked him off online.

I'll never know. All I know is that by biding my time and picking the right moment to use my secret weapon, distraction, we started to climb upwards. I said;

"Do you remember your April Fools Day joke on dad? When he was in the bath and you knocked on the door and told him there was someone on the phone for him?"

His mind filled with a happy moment, and we were up and running.


Monday, April 10, 2017

MONDAY MORNING PURPLISH BLUES



People often ask me why I started fostering.

It's a hard question to answer, but only because if I decide to answer it honestly it ends up sounding as though I'm actually asking whoever has asked the question why they themselves haven't started fostering.

So, seriously;

"If you haven't started fostering, my question is why not?"

Look, of course it's impossible for some people. They might not have the space or might be having a turbulent time. 

And some people probably aren't cut out for it.

But if I find myself talking to someone who had a spare bedroom - especially for example if they are going through 'empty nest syndrome' - and their family life is reasonably settled, and (crucially) they like children...then yes, I truly wonder why they aren't doing it.

Not that I'm critical, don't misunderstand; I recognise it looks like a big step, scary even.

But take a typical Monday morning. We're all a bit downed by it, I'm just back from the supermarket, the lady on the till was all Monday morning. 

Only I wasn't. I went along with the game, because it's a good game, Monday morning moaning, but my heart wasn't in it.

I love Mondays, especially when the schools have broken up.

The house is a home; full of people who are happy (or at least happier) because there's no school.

One of mine has got a big day planned with a friend, all mapped out; several firsts (first solo bus trip, first visit to a sit-down cafe,) and is excited, nervous and proud. And I get to share it (at a remote distance).

Another of mine intends to stay in bed until about lunchtime, because he can.

Tomorrow I'll get "I'm bored" right left and centre and hey, that's great, because they are asking me to play with them, or at least come up with stuff to do. Baking, painting, hide and seek, chase, pirates, living-room-parkour, den-building - and that's just at home and in the garden.

Fostering beats away the Monday blues even on a school day, there's so much to do you can't start feeling sorry for yourself.

A lot of people feel sorry for themselves because deep down they suspect they haven't fulfilled their potential.  The lady on the supermarket till, I mentioned to her that one of my real children is worried about not doing anything in life. She replied "God I know the feeling, I'm 53 and I haven't done anything in life!"

When we're young we dream of being pop stars or millionaires. As we grow we realise that (though that would be nice), it's even more rewarding, more uplifting, to do something substantial for someone else.

That's fostering, that's largely what drew me to it.

When I look back I remember the first time I learned that there was such a thing as fostering, and thought to myself;

"I bet I'd be okay at that, I reckon it would be tops, wonder if I'll actually ever do it?"

Well, I think I am okay at it ( no more than that, no smugness here), it is tops (yes it has its bottoms moments too) and yes, I did do it, and I'm skipping this Monday morning because I did actually do it.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO ASK ABOUT FOSTERING (WELL ALMOST...)



People who are wondering about entering fostering tend not to ask the questions they really want to know. They usually vague questions such as;

"What's it like?'

If I was starting out again I'd ask the following, more specific questions. 
And I'll try to answer them honestly, from my own personal experience.

Q: "On the whole is fostering worth doing?"

A: "All life's big things; love, marriage (or partnership of whatever flavour), children, family, and work, are what you make them. Fostering has its challenges, I'll be quite honest about that, but on the whole it's fantastic (otherwise I wouldn't still be doing it). In fact, for me, it's the best thing I've ever done.

Q: "Is it hard to get into?"

A: "Takes time. After you've phoned or emailed your local authority or a fostering agency, and said; "I'm interested in becoming a foster parent" someone will visit you and have a chat. They're making an early quick-fire assessment. Some people aren't right for it; maybe their home isn't right, might be their situation, (eg free-roaming pet snakes, the only spare bedroom being the utility room next to the washing machine....)
I don't know what percentage fall at the first hurdle, but no-one's time is wasted. There follows a period of six to twelve months where you get regular visits at home from a specialist social worker whose job is to go through all your circumstances. I've been through this twice, found it fun and helped me focus. They dig into your whole life. They're not looking for perfect angels, those people don't exist. They are interested in how you've dealt with the different difficulties we all face in life.

Q: "Is there an exam?"

A: "No. At the end of your assessment you go and see a panel of people, sounds scary, but they are friendly and supportive. You must be good to have got thus far."

Q: "Do you have any say in which children are placed with you?"

A: "Definitely. Even before you're approved the social workers will be working with you on what sort of profile your ideal placements will be. Some people are better suited to teenagers. Some will prefer younger kids. A lot depends on the shape of your family, especially if you have children of your own. Some carers are initially cautious about children who've had their troubles. Some are worried about being thrown in at the deep end, so they opt for weekend respite (you get a child to foster from Friday afternoon to the next Sunday evening)."

Q:"Are you on your own?"

A: "No! Each foster carer has their own designated social worker whose job is to help, advise and support the foster carer. Mine visit at least once per month, for a whole morning. They are always there at the end of the phone. Plus I can attend support groups with other carers to chew things over. Your foster child has their own designated social worker who also visits regularly, and works with your own social worker to keep things on track. Frankly, in all my years and so many different jobs, I've never felt better supported.

Q: "What happens if things aren't working out?"

A: "Good question. You know, I sometimes wonder if they ever seem to be working as I'd like! But if a carer is having frustrations that's when you pick up the phone for support.  And of it gets too much for you, you can always end the placement. 

Q: "If I end a placement will that be the end of my fostering career?"

A: " No, (unless that's what you want). The UK needs all the foster carers we can get. Your qualifications and credentials are valuable, it's up to the system to play to your strengths. I found that things got easier the more fostering I did, I got familiar with the stresses and strains and learned better to identify the joys."

Q: "What's the hardest thing about fostering?"

A: "For me, and this is only my personal view, the biggest bugbear is Contact. This is where foster children have to be taken to see their real parents (or 'significant others') frequently as often as once a week. It can be very upsetting and often disrupts your efforts to get the child on an even keel. They don't get much from it, nothing they couldn't get from a phone call or even a text message session. In my experience the children just want to know their parents are alive and okay. The idea that it paves the way for the children to return to their real home is basically misguided, especially at first.
The other thing you have to live with is that foster children don't fall on their knees in gratitude when they walk through the door that their foster carers are offering them a much better home life. They don't see it that way because they're frightened, mixed-up or angry. Or all three. But as time goes by they warm and mellow, always. Then the real fostering begins, up until then it's about basic needs, but once they get it, you can do a bit of healing.

Q: "How does the Allowance work?"

A: "Fostering is a profession. We are all professionals. Our remittance is termed an 'allowance' rather than a salary or a wage because i) we are only in receipt when we have a child or children in place ii) If it were called a wage then the fact that we are basically on call 24/7 would mean we'd fall below the National Minimum  hourly wage. The basic payment varies according to your local authority or your agency.  Last year I received £31,000 in allowances (there are 35,000 hours in a year so if I was paid hourly it would be less than £1 an hour). I paid a tiny amount of income tax. I get credits for my NI contributions. Fostering allowances are taxed very sensibly by the Inland Revenue because the foster carer's overheads are hard to calculate so they're very sympathetic. And it's all above board, don't worry about that, it's official; we are special cases.

Q: "Is there anything else I should know?"

A: "Sweet Jericho, yes! Lorry loads. But the bulk of it is stuff you have to find it out for yourself as you go along, and so you do. Each child is so utterly unique you have to make tailored arrangements to help their specific needs, and that means making your fostering up as you go along. There's paperwork; not much. Blue Sky ask you to fill in a report every so often on the child. There's training, and social events. But mostly you're just finding out how to be a good mum or dad to a particular poor lonely child who's done nothing wrong to end up sad, worried and frightened. 

Any other questions, you can post a comment or send me a private email via Blue Sky.

Friday, March 24, 2017

FOSTERING FEELGOOD



Something we're not very good at in this world is giving ourselves a boost.

There are so many terrible things happening around us it almost seems selfish to make ourselves feel good.

But I worked with a kind man way back, I always remember once somebody saying to him;

"Have you had a good day?"

and he replied;

"Of course. No point having a bad day."

So here I sit at the kitchen table, I've got no more worries than anyone else, probably no fewer either and if I wanted to I could drum up no end of problems I have to tackle and end up working my way down to feeling thoroughly glum.

Instead I'm going to cheer myself right up.

This blog is about fostering, so;

Here are my some of my top hundred golden moments in fostering.

Watching a 15 year old boy who'd never known his dad, following my other half around the house and imitating all his little blokey mannerisms. It was devotional.

The way a girl who was desperate for a hamburger after having a panic attack at midnight and we found a place still open and drove there and got her one, the way she said, from the back of the car; "Fank you", and really really meant it. (And it worked, the fast food medicine).

Seeing the blissful look on a girl's face when we took her back to her real mum. The place was in absolute chaos, no offence it was a tip. But it was her tip, her mum was there, sitting on the sofa putting Swarfega on the boil of a one-eyed cat. The look on her face was because she was HOME. Never seen anyone so overcome with peace.

Every time you get one home. It hurts; you'll never see them again. But it's the job. A great job.

The young mum and her baby, the mum was frightened of everybody especially any mother-figure, I met her real mum once, I could tell straight away why. After a few weeks she started venturing out of her room and sitting next to me at the kitchen table in the mornings; we'd chat over tea and biscuits. One day, after her social worker had visited her, the social worker said to me "She told me she didn't know before that there are kind people in the world, and now she wants to be one." I actually cried. Good tears.

The morning I took a troubled lad aged 10 up to the meadows near our house. There's a spot where you can't see a single sign of civilisation. He spread his arms wide and started spinning round and round with a silly grin shouting "I'm Freeeeeee!!! Freeeeeeeeeeeee!!!"

One Christmas morning a child who had never had a Christmas (so we were told :"Too expensive") looked up from unwrapping everything that had been on Santa's list and said, in all seriousness: "I'm dreaming, right? PLEASE don't wake me up."

A difficult child who had been with us for respite and needed another weekend with us to give his carers a well-deserved break. The look on his face when I opened the front door, he was deeply relieved. He'd been taken somewhere he knew, so no surprises or unfamiliarity. There was something else. He saw that we wanted him back, we welcomed him (knowing he would be a handful). He was tasting acceptance, maybe something even sweeter.

The boy who asked if he could try to fix our broken downstairs toilet. He had an hour in there with the toolbox, can't remember if he made it better or worse, but I did the whole workman thing, gave him a radio (tuned to Radio Two, like all workmen), even made him a cup of builders' tea.

Every time; the first time they ever choose to use the word 'mum'.

Sitting up all night one night, squatting on the floor with my back against the wall, next to the half-open bedroom door of a little fellow who'd only just arrived and was getting night terrors. Every ten or twenty minutes he'd say quietly; "You still there?" and I'd just go; "Still here darling." I checked myself in the mirror later that day, expecting to look a wreck, but actually not bad. Maybe fostering keeps you young, maybe it doesn't. Makes you feel fine.

Could go on.

I don't normally go back and read my posts much, but I reckon I'll return to this one from time to time, not to puff myself up but because fostering can knock you around a bit too, and it's important to remember the glorious moments.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

THE PEANUT BUTTER KNIFE



You learn something new every day in fostering.

That's if you have enough of your wits about you, what with putting into practice all the little things you've already taught yourself. Not to mention if you've got enough energy left to keep your eyes and ears peeled and your brain in gear.

The small matter of the peanut butter knife it was, yesterday, that pulled me up sharp and got me thinking.

The peanut butter knife issue.

See, at the moment in our house everyone is able to make themselves a slice of toast whenever they want as long as it's not just before mealtime. Children, especially foster children, love the sense of grown-up-ness from being able to make themselves a cooked snack.

They learn where the small plates are stored, how to raid the bread bin, how to put the slice of bread into the toaster and how to slide down the lever that lowers the bread and gets the toaster grills warming up.

You teach them about the dangers of electricity and heat, not to poke around in a recently hot toaster, not to mess with plugs.

They learn where the marmite and peanut butter is kept (we aren't a jam household and I've always had my doubts about Nutella).

They learn time management; if you get the bread toasting first of all you get 2 minutes to get out a plate, the Flora, the spread, and the knife for the spreading.

These are all bog standard toast-making things.

But what hit me hard yesterday is that there's a bunch of little things which we all do in our house when it comes to toast that are specific to us, they've evolved in our house, and which are so second-nature to us we don't think to point them out. Then when we do point them out, we suddenly seem petty and a tad OCD.

For example; the Flora isn't always in the fridge. Sometimes it gets put in the larder. There's no rhyme or reason to this, except possibly when a person puts the Flora away after making peanut butter toast it's easier to put the Flora back in the larder along with the jar of peanut butter.

The point about the Flora is that it's a family quirk; if it's not in the fridge it's in the larder. But if you're new to our home, it could cause a problem.

Then there's the almost-empty jar problem. When the marmite or peanut butter jar is almost empty we try to remember to leave it out on the kitchen work surface so whoever is going shopping next knows we are out of whatever it is. The empty jar shouldn't go back in the larder because the next person wanting some will have the annoying job of scraping around the contours of the glass.

Ideally, whoever uses up the last of a jar washes it out and inverts it on the draining board so it's ready for the recycling wheelie. Bill and I both try to do this and hope our example rubs off.

Then there's the crumbs. When you make toast there are crumbs. Ideally they should be swept off the work surface into the palm of your hand and chucked in the bin, not wiped into the J cloth. And definitely not left for someone else to discover.

Then there's the peanut butter/marmite knife. Try as you might you can't get the knife completely clean by wiping it on the toast, so it's got a smear. It needs to be run under a tap, dried and put back in the drawer, or maybe put in the cutlery compartment in the dishwasher. It doesn't need to be licked clean. Nor does it need to be left out on the work surface. But, by the time a young mind has got itself a slice of toast all done and dusted it's easy to walk off and leave the crumbs and the smeary knife.

Then there's the plate, which after the toast has been eaten needs to be brought out into the kitchen and dealt with. Not dumped in the sink.

That's merely the making of a slice of toast. A simple enough business. But then again it's anything but simple.

I bet every household has their own variation on the toast thing, and indeed all life's other family activities such as bathroom/toilet practices, use of other people's stuff, whether it's ok to take batteries out of the backup remote to put in the X Box controller...

etc etc etc etc etc etc.......

Difficult enough for a child who has lived all her life in the same household. Nightmare for the new arrival, and funnily enough, a problem for them that gets more difficult before it gets easier.

What do we carers do about this one?

I guess we manage our expectations, stay patient and understanding. While at the same time remembering that it's ok to have our own house rules and practices, and try to teach them as time goes by. And stay flexible and open to new ideas;

After all, it was a foster child who pointed out to me that there's no point cutting a piece of toast in two;

"It just makes more crumbs"

Saturday, March 11, 2017

FOSTERING AN OLDER CHILD


NO-ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION

I have to keep this one short, because it's just an inkling.

Our new placement, Glenn, has been with us a couple of weeks and is settling in.

And then again he isn't.

And the ways in which he isn't settling in leads me to an unsettling thought.

In fostering, usually, the child finds it difficult to fit into the foster family and that's no surprise, what with what they've been through.

One of their fears is that the break-up of their real family was their fault. It's heartbreaking when you find out, for example, that a six-year-old child whose family fell to pieces thinks that it was his fault because he didn't keep himself clean enough.

The above case actually happened with us; the poor boy blurted out that he'd tried everything he could to make the family work; washed his hands 'til they were red before every meal, cleaned his teeth for five minutes after every meal, washed his face and combed his hair with water, you name it. But still the arguments, the drinking, the different people in his mother's bed.

All his fault for not keeping himself tidy enough.

Back to Glenn. He has depression, but it's low-level and manageable, if it wasn't he'd be in specialist care. He is an older foster child, more fully-formed than the average, stronger, less likely to be accepting of new ways of thinking and being.

We (other half and me) are learning his ways and sit up in bed most nights discussing what to do to help.

We know we have to be on our toes with Glenn because we are learning the little things that unsettle him.

We are wondering how much he requires unsettledness.

It's difficult asking him abut himself. Fostered children often clam up when you ask anything about their past or the way they feel. They can make you feel like you're the Spanish Inquisition.

The thing that's in our mind is that maybe, just maybe, in Glenn's case, he did contribute somehow to the deterioration of things in his real home.

Having your own children is not plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination, especially nowadays in that we don't have extended families round the corner, mums have to go out to work, childminding can be expensive, and childhood seems to end around the time children reach double figures, or sooner.

I imagine the burden of bringing up children is sometimes a nail in the coffin of some people's attempts at happy families. After all it's the hardest job and the one with most responsibility that any of us ever do, and yet it's the one thing nobody gets trained or taught how to do.

The job at hand for us right now is to be alert to Glenn trying to unconsciously re-create the home life he was used to, one of trouble and strife.

So we've got two things in our mind now that Glenn is here;

One; did he play a part in the breakdown of his real family?

Two; is he unconsciously trying to lead us towards similar chaos?

And Three, three things, (God I'm starting the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python), the Third thing is; Do we let him be or try to turn him round?

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

SUPERMARKET SURPRISES


Fostering is great, but anything that offers opportunity comes with challenges.

For me, and most other carers I speak to, the biggest bane is the thing called Contact. Which can take many forms.

Contact (If you're a reader who doesn't foster) is an arrangement whereby the real parents (or 'significant others') of children in care are given contact with the children. It's the law, a law passed by politicians who meant well, but frankly didn't know what they were doing, not with this one. Contact does way more damage than good, in almost all cases.

The reason I'm writing about it (again) is that I met a carer who is with his local authority and we talked and compared thoughts.

He and his wife look after a family of three sisters; the eldest has just moved into secure accommodation, the middle one being prepared for the same thing, the youngest only just old enough for secondary school.

They bump along fine. The children all have their emotional problems from their experiences before they were removed, but their foster parents - who have two children of their own - have been working hard and are making progress with them.

The hardest part of their job, and he was quick to get there, is Contact. And not only the robotically designated Contacts (once a week, for an hour, generally), which is disruptive enough, but the apparently accidental contacts.

It's happened to me with previous children. You decide to do a supermarket run and the children have to tag along. Boring enough for them, but then you push the trolley round the corner of the pasta shelves and BOOM, there she is.

Mum.

As I remember in this case, she would be standing there with just a basket because she's just only shopping for herself these days, and she sees what she thinks is a stranger playing happy families with her children and, so she thinks, getting paid a fortune to do it, and she gets the knife out.

She didn't know it, the particular mum I have in mind, because she didn't have any mindfulness, it never occurred to her to examine her own thinking.

If anyone had quizzed her afterwards as to why she left us all feeling bad, she would have replied that she was only being a good mother and trying to do the best for her children.

But the chance meetings, in the street or the supermarket, between foster children and their real relatives is always an emotional disaster. Even if it's no more than a wave across a busy road.

When you think about it, a wave across a busy road can be even worse because the only thing most foster children want to do is get back to the parents they are in denial over.

So by the time we get home after the encounter there are a lot of pieces to pick up and mend.

For me, establishing where the real family live and what their haunts are is really useful.

You can get information either from the social workers, or (carefully) from the children yourself. For example, most people use the same supermarket, so if you find out that the children know their way around the local Aldi, don't take them to Aldi. Go to Sainsburys or Lidl. If their family has a dog you can ask where it gets walked and avoid.

Where it gets really tricky is when real parents want to 'check up' on their children.

This is discouraged by the authorities, often its an offence for parents to even park their car outside school and watch you collect them. And thankfully it's very rare. But it's something we professional foster carer make ourselves aware of. I rely heavily on our social workers to alert us if any such possibility exists, and the proper procedures.

It's only happened to me once, it wasn't any problem, the mum just wanted to watch. She sat discreetly in her car with a baseball cap on and sunglasses. And y'know what, my heart went out to her.

It's what I'd want to do.

But wouldn't, because for me, and all foster parents, the children come first.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

LANGUAGE BARRIERS


In fostering we frequently encounter language barriers with our foster children, well, not barriers really, maybe just speed bumps.

Not because they don't speak English - although come to think of it I once accepted three Afghan brothers who'd hitch-hiked across Europe and made it to Dover in the back of a lorry, they didn't have a word of English.

But no, the problem comes with the new English spoken by da kids.

I first ran into this when the word 'Wicked' arrived. It was used by kids to mean something being good in a devilish way, in other words the exact opposite of its dictionary definition. Around the same time the kids started using 'Gay' differently from how I had learned to use it - as an acceptable term for homosexual. They would say something or somebody was "Well gay", and I had to respond with slight confusion, which was part of the game. Hearing them describe a flashy sports car as "Well gay" left me bemused. I still don't know for sure what their use of the term means, not with any precision.

The game being played is to stake out ownership of a portion of the English language which not only belongs to them but is denied their elders. When I ask for an explanation of their different usage of words they roll their eyes as if I'm a dinosaur who not only doesn't speak the modern way, but probably NEVER ENCOUNTERED THE CONCEPT THEY ARE USING THE WORD FOR.

Apparently in California there was a species of teenage girl whose language was totally impenetrable. They didn't merely hi-jack existing words, they made words up and changed sentence construction. Something wasn't 'Bad' it was "Grodie'. If it was very bad it was "Grodie to the max."

The discussion about the mysterious uses of the 'N' word is very important, because it has so many unpleasant connotations. So much unpleasantness that the word is under new ownership where it is a sign of mutual respect and brother/sisterhood for the very section of humanity it once was used to abuse.

The language barrier between us foster parents and our foster children isn't a big deal, but it's there.

I'm sort of fighting back actually.

I've started using words differently from their technical meaning. Preferably biggish words, words that get used formally. Extended vocabulary.

The one that's catching on around the house is "Intangible".

I had been reading the report which preceded our new placement, Glen. His ambitions, to be a rock star and a film star were described by a social worker as "Intangible". And seeing his hopes and dreams, which I want to respect, even maybe encourage, get a slight dissing ('Diss" is another bit of teenspeak), made me mutter the word under my breathe a few times and not long afterwards my Blue Sky social worker asked me how Glen was shaping and I just replied;

"INTANGIBLE!"

And she smiled, not knowing scientifically what I meant but getting my meaning; brilliant.

So now anything that is brilliant, mesmerising, delicious or otherwise welcome gets called "Intangible". By me. And it's catching on.

Try it yourself. Give it a bit of extra emphasis on the "IN".

Glen's depressed.

Depression, I have read, can benefit from the person focusing on the future and the positive things they intend to do, so that even if those things don't happen some solid good comes from them being thought about at the time of thinking.

So 'Intangible' is the right word, because Glen's positive daydreams are tangible while they're in his head, and therefore the opposite of the dictionary definition.

INTANGIBLE!!!