Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Foster Mum... What happens when you die?"

When you foster, and a new child arrives, you have to pick up a bunch of key life issues and work them along. Your new child has had some sex education, somehow, but what? And how do you advance it?
If you’ve had children of your own, it’s been a continuous thing, so you’ve always known roughly where they’re at.
Maybe your foster child knows something about drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Pornography, violence and the criminal justice system.
They probably think the police are the enemy. And that Social Workers and fostering agencies are some dark force.
These things aren’t so hard; you can inform them of all the positive truths, although you’ll have to do it often and consistently and with vigilance – if a police car pulls up behind you at the lights you have to say “Oh good, the police are around” Not; “Oh blimey there’s a police car behind and I think my brake light is knackered.”

The really, really difficult one is “What happens when you die?”
It’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.  And children want a good answer.
So do I, actually. Which makes the question even harder.

Some foster carers are lucky enough to have solid religious philosophies and are comfortable, commanding even, in explaining Heaven and God and that a good life leads to an everlasting one.
If your child is young this can be comforting for the child, and rewarding in that it may improve lots of behaviours.
If your child is older, and has heard about the size of the Universe, and has already begun a worldwise adventure into science and street sense, that child will think you’re not in the groove.
When I was nine years old I was sent to live for a week with a family whose fourteen year old son had cerebral palsy. One day he said to me “My dad is in that room with the door locked. Know why? He’s praying. What a prat!”

So here’s what I do, and I’m not saying it’s right, just what I do. If they’re young  I tell them about Heaven, and God being a friend and a helper. They will get this at most schools, so you might as well sign on.

But I judge the moment when they begin to develop their own philosophy, and try to come alongside, because my own belief is: we just don’t know. If they want to join a church, brilliant.

Eternal nothingness is not what they need to get their heads around when they’ve been through hell already. But I’m not going to hold out on supporting Heaven and eternal life with them once they’re ready for their own opinions, because looked-after children are more robust and perceptive than most of us and if they think you’re spouting Bulls**t  you could lose them, and they need to go with your credible views on… sex, drugs, violence, the criminal justice system, love and goodness.

I think it’s what Jesus would do. And Mohammed, Budddha and the rest of them.

Mind, they never fostered.

The Secret Foster Carer

Sunday, July 22, 2012


You may have caught the reports at the weekend about the woman who is saying that problem families are having too many children. Her solution: “The mothers need to think carefully next time”.
I dare say I’m not the only Carer who thinks capping these families is a good idea. Severely incapable mothers need to stop having children. But does anybody really believe we can solve the problem by asking the mothers to think?
I don't. But even in my anonymity, I'm too sensitive to the awaiting backlash to pin up my views, as, I suspect is the author of the report. I'll pussyfoot, and say that I believe the time has come for a debate about intervention.


The woman who has drawn up the report, Louis Casey, doesn't usually mince her words. In fact she’s famous for telling it like it is: If No 10 says bloody 'evidence-based policy' to me one more time I'll deck them," she joked. "... and probably get unemployed."
The Guardian said “Those who know Casey said her speech had been intended to be ironic and was in character”
She became:
Deputy director of Shelter in 1992.
Head of the Rough Sleepers' Unit (RSU) in 1999.
Director of the national Anti-Social Behaviour Unit (ASBU) in 2003.
Head of the Respect Task Force in 2005.
Victims' Commissioner of the United Kingdom in March 2010, a role from which she resigned in October 2011.
Head of The Troubled Families Programme 2012


Obviously this is an issue that affects every Foster Carer more deeply than most of the rest of the population – although it’s worth knowing that the 150,000 troubled families in the UK are costing the country £9 billion a year.
The report looks at 16 case studies: real live “families” whose identities have been changed. Louise thanks them graciously for their openness.
I suspect that she has gone for the most extreme examples, as those probably harbour more insight, but give it a quick look yourself: almost every family reads like the average case we have to deal with. 
"Phil" is the most interesting to me, 9 children with another on the way, he and his partner both with learning difficulties.
I’ll put the link to the report here, I’d be interested in your thoughts.
I won't spoil it by pre-empting the causes of the families' troubles. If you're a carer reading it you'll just keep nodding your head, and muttering "yeah, yeah,yeah".
One or two titbits to be going on with: 
“Children in care or leaving care have repeatedly been shown to be at higher
risk of teenage pregnancy. One survey showed that a quarter of care leavers
had a child by the age of sixteen and nearly half were mothers within eighteen
to twenty four months after leaving care”

“Many of the families we interviewed had large numbers of children. 8 families
(half of those we interviewed) had four or more children – whereas in the
general population it is unusual to have four or more (only 4% of the
population do so).”

 “Many were in and out of care from early childhood. It is difficult to disentangle
which problems resulted from what happened at home and the impact of time
in care. In addition, there was always an ongoing relationship or contact with
the family. Sometimes, this was positive – but more than often it was not.” 

“And even if there were serious enough problems identified for a child to be
removed from their parents, few talked of being offered any professional help
to come to terms with what had been occurring. Stella identified how she had
carried problems from her childhood into adulthood, and what would have
The only problem with children’s homes, that I didn’t see back then that I see
now, was that I had no help with the abuse, I had no help with nothing. No
counsellor or nothing, I was just left to deal with my life. Because there’s this
thing that people seem to think that once a child is taken away from abuse,
they are okay. They are not, it sticks with them. And they grow into adulthood
with all this going on.” 

The Secret Foster Carer

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

                                       PARTY HANGOVER
Our neighbours organised a Jubilee Street Party and there were two hangovers. One; what to do with the leftover beer? Two, the neighbour opposite us is thinking of becoming a Foster Carer.
Our school secretary nabbed me just before the end of term and said goodbye. She'd asked me lots of questions about fostering. Turned out she'd applied and was leaving the school office to do it full-time.
People don’t miss much and if they see you a second time with a child they don’t recognise as yours, they are curious. You tell them you’re a carer, they say “That’s marvellous” and then try to find out what they can about the child, because now they’re even more curious. You explain about their right to privacy, so the conversation moves onto yourself, and fostering.
The first question is usually:
We reply that it had been in our mind for some time, we like children and we had a spare bedroom.  Carers can choose to be on the books of a local authority or a fostering agency. We prefer agencies as we suspect that if you’re with your local authority  you’re dealing with a comparatively amorphous giant that has to manage everything from schools to wheelie bins, whereas with an agency everyone’s on the same page.
In our case, the town we lived in had a fostering agency based in a high street shop and we often found ourselves browsing the window. Then one day we went in, and that was the start. Then we moved home, found ourselves in a new area, and Googled “Fostering”. Blue Sky came up first. I phoned them and got a good feeling from chatting, so it went from there.
We say it’s very rewarding, but that it is demanding. You’ll never be bored again.
All sorts. All ages and backgrounds. Seems to be more women than men, but men do it too. You don’t have to be “happily married”, or even have had children of your own, but those things can sometimes help. Ditto with professional skills; if you are a teacher or have experience of youth work; great. But not essential. Foster Carers are normal people (whatever that is), who can try to offer a normal life to someone who needs just that. 
Remember: normal people have had upheavals and turbulence in their lives. Good Foster Carers, for me, are people who have come through life's difficulties and maybe learned some universals about how to stay afloat.
Every looked-after child is unique, some more so than others. There are special areas such as Emergency cases (where a child needs a bed immediately - maybe 30 minutes from the first phone call). There’s Respite Care, where you take a child for a period (often a weekend) to give parents or other Carers a break. There’s something called “Parent and Child” where you give a temporary home to a parent (usually, but not always, the mother) and a new baby (though they can be older).  The job is to help the parent learn parenting, and to monitor their progress.
It's not "vetting". A Social Worker will visit you at home once a fortnight for a couple of hours at a time to fill in a form about your background. This lasts several months. Sure, they have to be confident people are up to it. If you've got some gaps in your background what Blue Sky do is try to help you fill in those gaps. Admittedly some people fall away. The stakes are high. It’s the rest of a young person’s life on the line.  Nobody is ready to foster straight away, or at least do the job to the best of their ability. The period that runs up to a Carer being accepted is more about getting them ready for the job than finding fault with their wherewithal.
Training is ongoing, on everything you need to do the job well.  And the sessions are a good chance to socialise. You make friends for life with other Carers. These are people who have seen what you're seeing, and we need each other.
Each Carer has their own Social Worker who is your first port of call. They visit your home every month and are there anytime to advise and help. Blue Sky holds monthly support meetings where carers can pitch up and talk to staff and other carers. Blue Sky even has a 24 hour Out Of Hours service you can fall back on in the middle of the night. (Always tickles me it’s abbreviated to “OOH”)
Prospective Carers are usually reluctant to ask this question. It's like they’re worried about seeming mercenary. If I can persuade those people of one thing, it would be this: you should have the same pride in banking your remittance that any nurse, doctor or teacher has.
Foster Carers receive an allowance. It won’t change your life, but it can augment a family budget. Much of it is channelled to the child’s needs either directly (food, clothing, transport) or indirectly (their share of the utilities bills and the community charge). The remainder is your fair return for a job so vast and multi-faceted not even a City Banker could dream up a figure.
Get in touch. Now. In the time it's taken you to read this post, 3 more children have become people who need you. The process of becoming a Carer takes time, so make a call now. 
The Secret Foster Carer

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I was at a party, professional people, it was about 10pm, adults mingling. The couple whose party it was had allowed their ten year-old daughter to stay up. She was in a frock standing in the hall sipping a coke through a straw. A steady stream of adults were drifting past in both directions. If they noticed her, people stopped and had a few words."Hello! Don't you look pretty!" "Oooh I hope there's going to be trifle! Do you like trifle?""Are there going to be games later? I love pass the parcel!"
They spoke using that soft baby-talk where your voice goes up and down, and the girl spoke back in the same whispy tones. I noticed that while she talked she had a slightly goofy smile and widened eyes.But I noticed that when alone, she would suck on the straw and relax. Her face strengthened, and her eyes either darted about or narrowed in deep thought.Then another pair of adults would descend and practice  their "kiddy skills" "Hello, ooo must be Samatha!" "Ik's not 'Shamamfa'... I wike to be 'Shammy' ".
A gap in the traffic, so I spoke to her myself."Hello" I said."Hewwo..." she started.I said "Do you not get fed up with people talking to you like you're brain dead?"She didn't bat an eye or miss a beat, didn't need to think about what I'd said. Her voice, her body language, her face, became who she really was."A bit. But it's what they want, and it's easier than talking to them as myself."We chatted for a while, me being me and she being she. Who was "she"? Just yet another ten year-old who, like the ten-year-olds we all were, is much more mature inside than people realise.
This is true of children in general, and it's even more true for children in care. You'll see powers of perception, social intuition, and negotiating skills that are well ahead of the national average for adults.
Why? Because from day one in their lives they've needed those tools to be as good as they can be, just to stay afloat. Skills they teach psychology students and law graduates, these youngsters need in buckets at their mother's knee. If mother was there at all, that is.
As a general rule I talk to all looked after children as I would a sharp-minded, world-wise if uneducated adult. Such as a Premier League footballer, for example. Speaking of footballers, let's talk about bad language next time.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

One thing I hope we can do on the Secret Foster Carer Blog is to swap experiences, especially things that have surprised us about fostering. My partner and I encountered something odd very early in our life as carers, and, as one tends to do, we put it down to being something particular to us. Only after many meetings with other carers did a pattern emerge.
I wish a solution would emerge too…
In the meantime, here is the phenomenon:


In my experience, most children in care have an axe to grind with their carers, at least during the difficult first months. As carers we know we can expect it.
Their hostility is understandable:

      they are angry about almost everything
      they think the carers are the ones behind the decision to take them from their real home
      it’s the carers who have to say “no” to things they got away with before
      they transfer conflicts from their real home – with parents and siblings - to their new home.

But what’s astonishing is the level of resentment they direct towards the woman of the house.  There’s no way new female foster carers can be prepared for their care and kindness to be met with total rejection.  The child responds completely in the opposite way to the proper reaction to one of life’s most basic deals: “I’ll be nice to you and you be nice to me.”

It comes as a shock, especially when the harshest behaviour is directed towards the foster mother.

And from my own experiences, and talking to other carers, this is the norm. In our house, a new and addled child will dish out some disobedience to the man. But they usually save everything from the subtle stuff (casual putdowns), to the blatant stuff (outright confrontation) for the woman.
The man gets more engagement and friendliness, even if he has the job of saying “no” and “bedtime, no argument please” more often. The woman can find herself in an ongoing battle, even though she is the one with the sticking plasters, soft voice and kind words.
Perhaps most surprising is that this seems to apply to boys in care as well as girls.

I’m going to skip this bit: because, in all truth, I think certain reasons are obvious and well known, such as they resent another woman trying to be their mother. Other reasons have yet to be unearthed and measured. I have a theory of my own I’ll run past you at the bottom.

This is the most important bit. Be prepared for it. Talk about it between yourselves and everyone else you trust who’ll listen, especially your social worker. Work hard on it, praise good behaviour towards the foster mother. If you think it’s possible, talk to the child and let them know they cause hurt. Try not to fall out at home over it. This is very hard, and it’s what’s led me to my theory.


This doesn’t explain it all, of course, but it’s a contributory factor, and something carers can control. A looked after child has probably been in a home where there has been a lot of conflict. It may somehow be a comfort to them. Certainly, if their parents were at each other’s throats the children were safer than if they were the target for the parent’s anger. All children play their parents off against each other one way or another, at some time in their lives. The looked after child may have learned a higher stakes version of this, and is putting their skills into practice to achieve the world they know, where the adults are in conflict with each other. And in order to have one adult as their friend, they must make an enemy of the other. As foster carers we have a child in our home who needs to know that a pair of loving adults stay a pair, and help the child discover a new place in the home.
If this is something you have experience of I’d be happy to hear your comments.

The Secret Foster Carer

Monday, July 02, 2012

Thanks to those who have pitched up with comments. I’m pleased we are getting the feel that we are all together in fostering, it can be a bit lonely at times.


As Foster Carers we get plenty of excellent training on why children arrive in our homes with dysfunctional personalities.  We happy breed of amateur psychologists are ready and willing to learn about attachment disorders, the consequences of neglect, the emotional impact of abuse - to name but a few of the main causes.
Of course, it’s one thing to know why a child is chaotic, it’s another to know what to do to mend them. And to be fair, Blue Sky provide great support for the big goals of either returning them to their real family or a achieving a healthy independence.
But no-one can help us with the mundane day-to-day specifics of the individual looked after child. You may know that your child has been exposed to domestic violence, been denied food, and been cruelly punished for bed wetting. But how does that knowledge help you when they won’t get dressed for school? Or scream defiance at bedtime? Or refuse point blank to eat any fruit or vegetables.
So it’s up to us as carers to swap the little devices for the myriad of moments when we need to get a quick result.


The following have worked for me to varying degrees depending on the age and profile of the child, and whether you have enough energy left to do them with conviction…


Enjoy your vegetables yourself. Discuss their flavour at the table “Mmmm, these green beans are perfect, perhaps a little more salt?” “Do you think? I’m adding a twist of pepper to mine.”
Food is often a massive issue for children in care. They may not eat fruit willingly, but put a small bowl in their bedroom with an apple and a couple of bananas, tell them it’s their property, and you might get two results; they eat fruit, and don’t feel panicky about being hungry. Sure they’ll want biscuits too, so what? A few buttered cream crackers up there as well can do the same trick.


Believe it or not, making a race out of “Who can get dressed quickest” works (in own bedrooms with doors closed, obviously). Equally successful, is the old faithful “See if you can clean your teeth and come back before I count to 10”


I find turning any TV or music off downstairs helps enormously. I allow “quiet time” in the bedroom before lights out, and make sure their bedroom is more fun than downstairs. They’ve got toys, drawing materials and…a bedtime snack.


I am now a big fan of points for good behaviour and rewards. I used to think it was a cheap trick; a false premise, but hey, who goes to work for no money? Collectables are a great incentive, the current vogue is “Trashpacks”, creepy little foam models of garbage waste. I’ve cut a deal where the child can get up to fifteen points per day for three specific things they need to work on, such as “Doing as you are asked.” Seventy points won in seven days and the reward is theirs.


I hear so many parents telling their children to say please. They don’t ask them to say “please”, using the word itself. This is a bit dumb, frankly.


Don’t bother. Your child has possibly been subjected to punishments the like of which you couldn't imagine in your worst nightmares. Anything you've got is likely to be water off the proverbial duck's back. I hear some Carers talk about sending children to their bedroom as a punishment. Who are they kidding? It’s because they want a respite from the child. If you make their bedroom a place of punishment, how can you be surprised if they don’t want to go there at bedtime? Ask them to go into the living room and cool down, maybe. But as a rule, go for rewards.

There are others, but over to you. Click on the blue “Post a Comment” at the bottom of the page and add yours, if you have a moment.