Thursday, September 27, 2012


I attended a school Parents Meeting this week, they laid out what they were about, with a PowerPoint.

The first slide was what they needed from us for the children.

The first request was "SLEEP".

The teacher said "We need the children to be fresh and ready to learn each morning, so we ask you to make sure they get enough sleep every night."

I didn't want to be a dissident, so I chickened out of asking her; "How do we do that?  If you know please tell us?"

All children seem to fight bedtime and going to sleep and in my experience looked-after children fight it even more than our own ones. And by God they can fight it literally too. Every evening works toward a climax of "It's time to go upstairs" Once in a blue moon it's a straightforward carry up. Most night's it's a right carry on.

Like yourself, I'm sure, we've been to all four corners of the Universe looking for the answer. We've tried everything bar what a train driver once tipped me; "Put a drop of Drambuie in their last bottle at night. Works every time." Having said that, when they are very young, Calpol doesn't just help with sore throats...

You can feel the tension rising as the clock ticks round to the time. They start all sorts of tricks to gain a few more minutes downstairs. You quieten the house, you've made their bedroom tidy and restful. "Yes you can have a drink and a snack to take up." "Yes I know someone in your class goes to bed later than this." On it goes.

You try being fair, gentle and calm. You try being firm, and forceful. You still remember the time you lost it and had a bit of a paddy. You beat yourself up with guilt because you know that part of the tension is that they're eating a piece out of your own quiet time. You brand yourself rubbish because you don't have the brains or the skill to do a simple thing; get your child to go to bed and go to sleep.

Thank God for other parents, or in our case other carers, where we find out it's the same for everyone. Which helps a lot. Until tonight, when it's another case of "Seconds out, round one!"

This morning I watched the children racing around the school playground, the ones who the school wants to arrive full of energy. They are.

I decided, in a dark moment, that if the kids are falling asleep in class, maybe it's because the lessons are boring.

I can be a very bitchy foster carer.

The Secret (Bitchy) Foster Carer

Sunday, September 23, 2012


What is the status of a foster child? In your family, I mean.

We open the front door and a complete stranger crosses the threshold, often with little more than a carrier bag of tatt and a precious cuddly toy. Their baggage, and plenty of it, is in their poor little heart.

Look at it from their point of view; they've joined a strange family. But who are they to this family? As time goes by they want to know. They eventually ask. We want to tell them...but we don't ever know, exactly.

We know their status in law, and so does the law, it's been developed by legislation and case law over decades.

We foster carers are left to design and build their status in our family, and the reward for us lies in growing it, level by level.

I'm thinking of getting a tattoo, a small one somewhere that only shows when you're in your swimming costume. I'm going to have my partner's initials, and below them, the initials of my children. Do I add the initials of our foster children? One is a permanent placement. I'm thinking of adding the permanent's letters, but underneath my own children's.

I'll leave it.

But if we wonder about their status in the family, think how much they do. They are forever fishing to find out where they rank.

Children get peace from certainty. My children have asked me "Who would win, a tiger or a shark?" or "Who is the most important person, a policeman or a soldier?"  They just want structure.

Our fostered children have asked me:

"Who do you like best, me or the cat?" and "If I died how sad would you be?"

I once said over tea, half-jokingly, to underline how much I love my children, that I'd take a bullet for any of them, even if it meant they'd get just one day more on this earth. Jokey metaphor, meant as a light throwaway, to end a tricky "love" conversation. Instead of being out of the woods, I was up to my neck.

The looked-after child took hold of the idea and put it through the mincer. And as always, we had to try to answer questions as honestly (and kindly) as we can:

"Would you take a bullet for your children to get them another one minute?"

"Would your oldest take a bullet for your youngest?"

"Would your mummy and daddy have taken a bullet for you?"

The big question went unasked. They didn't say it; "Would you take a bullet for me?" I don't know either the real answer, or the one I'd have given them.

Many good foster carers I've listened to talk about foster children raising the "love" question. And it's such a complicated thing. I know how much I love my partner, my own children, my parents, my sibs, my lifelong friends.  Couldn't put it into words ever, and thankfully, none of them really press the question.

Except foster children, who often press and inquire. And always watch and listen.

Hey, it can get even more complicated. Took a young looked-after and her best friend to the beach during this year's short summer. The friend's mum wondered about the tide and the current. I told her I'd checked it all out and we were good. She said "Only you understand, how precious one's own child is..." And I thought; "Jeez, is she asking me who I'd save first if it came down to it, out there in the waves, her own real child or my looked-after child?". Obviously she wasn't - too lovely a mum to think that way for a moment - but it popped into my mind.

Then I spent some time, too much actually, wondering.

And by the way, a tiger would beat a shark on land, and a shark would win in water.

And who is more important, a policeman or a soldier?


A foster carer, so she is. Or at least, right up there.

The Secret Foster Carer

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I am writing this fast, as I have a ten minute window between getting the breakfasts out and loading the car for the school run.

The dreadful shooting of the two policewomen is all over the news, but because the journalists need something to "discuss", the tragedy has turned into a debate about whether the police should be armed; yeah right, like in America, where you're much safer...

Every time I have to look, with a shudder, at the face of the man they assume is the killer, I want them to tell me what happened to him as a child.

I have to say this next bit to avoid any flak, even though I would hope it's obvious: 

There is no excuse for violence of any kind, most especially the ultimate act of violence; murder. 

But sometimes there are reasons, which can be understood, and maybe acted on.

I will never forget at a Blue Sky training session, the lecturer pointed out that while the the boys who killed James Bulger were demonised, Baby P was universally mourned. His point seemed to be that had Baby P lived he would probably have become a big problem, maybe a menace to society. The public wouldn't be shocked and saddened by what happened to him as a child, only angered by what he did later, as a result.

I haven't put this as well as I'd like, being on the hoof, I hope you get my point about why we need to know what happened to the man who killed those poor women; not because we need to care about him; he's past that, but to improve our understanding, do our job of looking after children who may be on the edge, even better.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


They say dogs grow like their owners, or maybe it's the other way around.

Then there was a Woody Allen film I remember, called Zelig, about a man who turned into whoever he was with. 

I remember a training session from way back, where we learned about "Centering" (the American spelling). It's where a therapist who wants to pull someone back from bad ways begins by signalling her good intent by becoming a bit like the the person she's treating. The idea is the person unconsciously does the same thing back and becomes a bit like the therapist. It's based on the human need for approval and connection. Of course it takes time to work. 

But who spends more time with people who might have bad ways than foster carers?

You start to notice this "Centering" with your foster child in little verbals tics. My partner, instead of saying a plain "yes" to a suggestion, says "Good idea!" It seems to take a week to ten days for a new child to start saying it. And only a bit longer for us to pick up on some of theirs. Suddenly you hear yourself describe the new cereal you're trying out as "Epic". Or even "Sick".

Does it go deeper though? I reckon it can, the longer the child is with you.

Last week I was writing up my records for one of our children and I get on the phone to our Social Worker. After a bit she said to me, in a very kindly way,  "You OK? You sound a bit grumpy, that's not like you." I replied "I'm fine, just fed up with... (blah blah blah - whatever it was I was fed up with)". 

When I put the phone down I had a quick think. I noticed that recently a lot of people had not been doing their job properly. Around the house, on the fostering partner had not been coming up to scratch. And every time, it fell to me to sort things out.

And at the same time, I got prickly that someone thinks I'm being difficult. So I went back to filling in the records. I wrote, (approximately); 

"This child, who has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder*, though improving generally, continues to display disapproval of (almost) everything anybody does, either for or with the child. This morning the child disapproved of: the way breakfast lay on the plate,  the parking space I chose, the T shirt I had on, the pace I was walking to school at, the tune I was humming, me bending down in the playground to whisper something..."

And as I wrote a huge penny dropped. 

Maybe I'm getting ODD?

Not full blown; haven't hurled any metal toys at anyone's head or threatened to open a vein (not yet anyway). But I have become less tolerant and more pass-remarkable the longer this particular child has been with us. I disagree, where before I'd compromise. I've even picked up the child's low growling noise "Grrrrrrrrrrr!"

Except I don't incline this way towards any of the children, and especially this particular child.  Who can be, as they almost all can, incredibly infuriating plenty of the time. 

In fact, the harder the children push, the more I consciously try for patience, understanding, and a helpful response to their behaviour. Of course, being honest, there are times when it's simply not possible to come back with anything other than a a firm rebuke in a strong voice, backed up with what they call "that look".

Why do we go the extra mile for them? Maybe it's because, provided you're on the look-out, you see them being kind where before they'd been selfish, go fetch a glass of water for you to take a paracetamol where before they'd have gone "Har Har" about your headache. 

Then with some children, the best you can hope for is to stem a downward spiral; they might not make upward progress, but they have stopped declining, and that's a kind of progress.

I've been giving this a lot of thought since I spotted it. I'm sure part of it is that I'm still cream crackered after the school summer holidays and fed up with the rain and the doom and gloom on the news. 

But I think there's something in the idea that our looked after children affect us in ways we know, and ways we don't know. I just hope we affect them right back. In every way possible.

The Secret Foster Carer

* As I find so often, there's not much out there on how to deal with a child who has ODD, but with this particular disorder there's precious little on the cause or exact identifying traits either. But hey, it's got a name, and a memorable one at that, so maybe there's something in it...


"How true I thought I was going mad? and the child's medication was not working, the web site you sent us to explains my child to the letter. I have never heard of ODD before but it explains a lot. I will now have to talk to the Doctor about this. But I suspect they will say it is Attachment Disorder as this is what they said about ADHD."


"I hadn't heard of it until one of our looked-afters had to have a "360 degree" psychiatric analysis in connection with a separate issue, and the psychiatrist listed ODD on the report. We looked it up and it fitted like a glove. 

We have a strategy we are trying out to adjust it and it's slowly working. We largely ignore blatantly ODD oppositional remarks and defiance. For example, child is requested to come and eat tea, child replies "Don't wanna have tea. I'm watching TV". We don't react, don't say anything, just sit down at the kitchen table. After 3-5 minutes the child comes to eat. We don't refer to the ODD response, just act as if it never happened. The child may say "Why did you start without me?" If it's a bona fide hurt, we say "We'd never do that, we enjoy eating with you." If it's an ODD whinge we skip it and go straight to: "Who's had an interesting day?"

We respond and discuss with the child non ODD opposition (say for example, child doesn't want to go to school, which is pretty normal).

It's the ODD knee-jerk, automatic: refusals, disagreements, doing the opposite of whatever they're asked, that we are not rewarding with any focus (unless of course the child risks himself or others)."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I suppose I've always kept an eye out for low-grade parenting, I don't really know why.
But ever since I started fostering my radar has got even sharper. I find myself working out what's going on and how it might hurt the kids.
I've only challenged parents in public on two occasions and got a mouthful back both times. Both parents were below the breadline, as we used to say.
I was on the verge of calling the police a while back as a young woman, fag on, effing and blinding, dragged and smacked a child along a pavement, for a long way.
And a few weeks ago I called my local social services after a man, palpably drunk at 9.30 in the morning (he was holding a can of special brew) was pinning a child into a wheelchair and yelling threats. They thanked me, turned out the family were known to them.

Then again, sometimes the poor parenting is subtle, even apparently well meaning.

We were in a pub garden a few days ago; it was a gastro pub.  The only other family sitting outside consisted of a mum, the gran - almost certainly the mother's mother - and 3 boys aged about 6, 4 and maybe nearly 3. The women sat diagonally opposite each other and barely spoke. The children roamed, and were periodically told by the mother what not to do: "Don't stand on the seat." "Don't go near the doggy." The grandmother's face set into a grimace. The mother's body demeanor was "I'm very relaxed with my children's behavior".
There was clearly a tension between them. The grandmother was becoming embarrassed that the children she was with were not "behaving", ie sitting upright at the table and not speaking until spoken to. The mother was sticking to her more relaxed parenting.

Then the eldest two  boys pottered around the two foot high wooden rail separating the garden from a safe grass field, and peered over at their mother and gran. The gran hissed to her daughter "Look where they are now."

The mother turned and said "Don't go too far".

The youngest followed his two brothers round the rail  and peered over the rail, just like his brothers. The other two took a few steps further out into the field. the mother started "I said..."

The gran leaped up and marched round the rail. The 2 year old had his back to her and didn't know she was coming. She picked him up by his underarms, fast, swung him over the rail and plonked him down on the garden side. The lad burst into tears, frozen with surprise and fear. The gran commanded the other two "Get back in there."

The 2 year old was inconsolable. He'd been innocently copying the others when he was unexpectedly hoisted - fast  and roughly - into the air and dumped down, he didn't know by who or why. 

The grandmother returned from her triumphant, decisive sortie. Order had been restored, discipline applied. Oblivious she'd traumatised a tiny infant - something that would have seen her in court if she'd done it to an innocent adult.

His mother said nothing, did not console him - it would have seemed like a challenge to her mother's behaviour.

One boy was sobbing, the other two on a knife edge. They didn't know what they were supposed to do by way of play or exploring.

Harm had been done. In our training we learn about the impact of confusion about rules and the inconsistent consequences of breaking them, and how that can develop into neuroses, stored up anger against authority, personality disorders. The "family" ate their deep fried battered fresh local cod with roasted potato wedges (fish and chips to you and me), in silence, and sloped away in their Range Rover.

I doubt any of those children will end up in care, hope not. More likely they'll bond with other young men with similar dispositions at prep school and become useful members of society, running banks.

As foster carers we see our fundamental principles of  respecting the child, sharing their world, protecting them from harm, being denied to other children so often it is quite grievous.

That said, the vast majority of mums and dads are absolutely brilliant; loving, patient and caring.

I guess my point here is that the bad stuff isn't confined to sink estates.

The Secret Foster Carer

Saturday, September 08, 2012


We come into contact with a lot of people who have problems in their head. The children we look after have mostly had a terrible time, and it's messed with their mind.

Our job is to give them a safe home and feed and clothe them. In a stable, loving family.

But is it our job to make them get better?

If a child has been injured in a car crash, and her life is in danger, they're air-helicoptered to hospital, for doctors and surgeons to go to work on. Nurses and physiotherapists continue the repairs. Every one of them highly trained. Some of them very, very well salaried.

God bless the NHS.

If a child has been deeply damaged in a chaotic home, he may be a danger to himself and others. Now and especially in the future.

He is put in the back of a social worker's car and driven...round to your house. The social worker and yourself digest a few pages of notes about the child's history, the damage done, and what they need. Then the social worker finishes their second cup of tea and leaves. And it's just yourself.

God bless you sister!

Of course, you're not alone; as the weeks go on Blue Sky and the child's local authority social services will always maintain a strong interest in the child and yourself.

"Is the child getting everything they need?"
"How are you coping?"

Then comes the impossible question, every time:

"Is she making progress?"

And that's the thing I find myself wondering about, a lot, the more I do this fostering job. Are they getting better?

If you're new to fostering, you'll be made aware that "therapy" is available for the child, if needed. You may find, as I did, that a wave of relief passes over you if your child is given therapy. It means that the child is officially the handful you've been saying. It means that the reason the child isn't "getting better" is not because your efforts are rubbish, but because the child needs professional help. It means someone is going to share the hands-on burden of helping the child make progress.

But does therapy work?

My understanding is that the people who invented therapy called it "the talking cure". Although  by "cure" they seemed to think that if a person with problems understands the problems, they're kind of cured. Cured of the mystery as to why they are unhappy.

I have had counselling three times in my life, so far. The first time with a psychiatrist to help deal with an emotional trauma at the birth of our first child. The second when we were having a marital blip. Third when my dad died. Did it work?  I think I made it work. The therapist remains neutral and helps you re-arrange your thinking by asking the right questions. You put your problems into perspective, carry out some controlled shrinkage of the niggles that have grown into monsters. The reason I say I made it work is because I carried on the work through the week.

But my problems were nothing compared to those of many looked-after children. And we can't expect them to carry on the work through the week.

I think the best chance therapy has is for it to be a partnership between the therapist and us. The therapist will be able to make insights into the child's problems, build a programme of development, and measure progress. But it's the foster carer who does the work.

One of our current kids told me I must be going deaf. Maybe I am, but the reason he thinks so is because I have a technique for allowing myself time to think about what to say when talking to a child with problems.

Take this for example. I'm standing at the sink washing up a few cups, it's 4.30pm, tea is an hour away. A voice at the kitchen door asks "Can I have a biscuit?" With my own children it would be a straight "No, it's nearly teatime". But hang on. This child was deprived of  food. Food is a big issue. Is it the biscuit, or the knowledge that food is available? Or is it a control thing? The child is always trying to get control of the house as an antidote to having no control over his life. Will an outright "No" trigger a tantrum which will throw the whole house off balance? I'm thinking all this while the child is waiting. So I say "Sorry pardon, what did you say?", "Can I have a biscuit, are you deaf?".

In other words, I'm amateur-therapising all the time. We all are. I ended up saying "You can have an apple, and a biscuit after tea. Is that Spongebob I hear starting up?"  So I kept control, encouraged good eating, and used my fail-safe when a tantrum looms; distraction.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

As for progress, in my book, if the child wants to fit in, they will make progress. The younger, the better.

There was a quiz question on TV this week; "What is the only organ that can re-generate itself?" I shouted out "The brain!". The answer? The liver.

Speaking of which. my post-school-summer-holidays-health-drive has stalled. I dropped 1lb, put it back on. 

What was that man saying about the liver re-generating itself?  And would I like a glass of red to watch Dallas? Oh go on then...

The Secret Foster Carer

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Here I go again. For the umpteenth time since my teens, I'm going to try to get into shape. 

As usual, my plan is bulletproof.

Using a change in circumstances to help change mindset, from tomorrow I'm going to do 500 calories every alternate day eating normally on the other days. 

The change in circumstance is the end of school summer holidays. Nobody in our line of work can diet or keep fit from mid-July through to the second week in September, a controlled decline is the best we can hope for.

Walk as much as possible. School is a mile and a half on foot. But will they agree to walk?

Do a bit of yoga in the living room twice a day. I went to classes (who didn't?) many years ago, I can still remember several poses; cobra, dolphin, half-moon. And the one I was okay at, the ignominious downward facing dog. 

Do some sit-ups.

Drink lemon or peppermint tea, except for the first cup of the day, which will continue to be the medicinal kick-start "builders" with a spoon of honey.

Skip breakfast. They say you shouldn't but I find it quite easy, and it must help cut calories. Never finish the crusts from their lunchbox.

Cut down on the wine. This is going to be hard. Can't remember the last time a day didn't feel like it owed me an evening glass or two. Got to be done though if I'm going to drop 10 pounds, as alcohol makes the body retain water.

Remember to take the health food tablets I've bought, a brand which help release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine encourages focus and self control, which supports lots of things in life, not just getting in shape. I've been on these tablets since last week, and I do seem a bit tougher with myself, mentally.

Weigh myself every morning. Today I am 11st12lb. (I was under 10st throughout my twenties).

Check blood pressure with the Boots Pressure Monitor I bought several years ago. Today I was 162/108 when I started writing this post, and now, just ten minutes later, I'm down to 133/91. Perhaps the sudden drop is because the children have shut themselves in the front room to watch last Saturday's Dr Who on the (parent controlled) laptop, and I've had a bit of peace.

Count calories. So far today, (up to and including lunch);

1 cup tea with honey                               65 cals
2 cups coffee                                           0 cals
1 bowl of fruit salad (apple, plum melon)  85 cals
1 plain bagel                                         200 cals
with 1 smoked mackerel                        345 cals

The smoked mackerel calories was a shock; I thought it was meant to be a 5 star health food? How am I going to do under 500 calories a day!?!?

However, I shall start for real tomorrow morning since tonight is the last night before first day of school and I've promised 
  • take-away pizza (stodgy dough + gungy cheese = 295 cals per slice) 
  • and popcorn (oil + butter= 50 cals per cup) 
  • to watch The Lion King (sugar + artificial sweetening = 2000 cals per schmaltzy bit)

The Secret Foster Carer

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Fostering and Witchcraft

When the schools go back after the summer holidays many foster carers will go down with a headache, a funny tummy, a summer cold. Maybe all three. This is because when the kids are with us every day, we don't have time to be ill. Our body refuses to let these sorts of ailments come out. It's storing them up for later, when we have time to be unwell.

The official medical line is there's no such thing as delayed illness. So maybe I'm just another foster carer who believes in things science doesn't.

Most of the women who were accused of witchcraft were the women who assisted at childbirth. In other words, midwives.

They offended the doctors and churchmen. These women were all...well...women. And amateurs. Who were doing a crucial job the professionals could only view from a distance. And who gave the impression it was a job the professionals couldn't do as well as them.

I suspect that if fostering had been around back then, quite a few foster carers might have been up in court for witchcraft too.

We're not doctors or psychiatrists or scientists. I've never heard of a foster carer being granted a research fellowship to investigate a theory. We're too busy fostering.

And we do a job the professionals can only view from a distance.

I wonder if some professionals feel unnecessarily vulnerable that they have never fostered, and as a result are a bit biased towards the "evidence-based" theories.

I was at a training session about the long term effects on children of their early experiences when a carer said to the lecturer "I think there must be more to humanity than electrical impulses in the brain." He replied "Where's your evidence for that?" She didn't have any books or slideshows with measurements of the human soul, or whatever her point was. So she let it go.

Carers do have evidence. Evidence of things we've witnessed with our own ears and eyes over and over, so we know they are fact. They won't go away or even diminish just because the men and women of science haven't got any equipment sophisticated enough to measure it. "Ah!" they say, in reply "You see, your evidence is merely anecdotal."

For example. (And please don't laugh, I'm totally serious).

I am almost certain that a full moon throws all of us off centre, including (perhaps even especially) looked after children

The experts say the moon doesn't affect us at all.

And yet...

When I worked in a care home many years ago, the supervisor said to me "You're on overnight shift  tomorrow. Be on guard, it's a full moon." I laughed, assuming it to be a (bad) joke. "Oh, don't laugh" she said with a very serious face. I learned a lot that night. Residents were wailing in their sleep, stumbling around with glazed expressions, even coming to blows. The next full moon one died and fell out of bed.

I mentioned the full moon once to a policeman, a superintendent. "Yes, we know about this." he said "Every Friday night after a full moon our cells are always full to bursting." I asked him "Why don't you say something?" He replied; "Because I like my job, and this would make me sound, well....loony. Literally."

A florist told me she has to make more wreaths on the days after a full moon than the rest of the month.

The moon's cycle is 28 days. Maybe if men's bodies were pulled around every 28 days they'd put two and two together.

Our house is fairly well prepared for the full moon, though sometimes it catches us unawares. Everyone's on tenterhooks, whackier than usual, tetchy, forgetful, belligerent, then suddenly one of us will come out with our catchphrase "Full moon last night?" And sure enough... 

I keep one set of records (for approved legal reasons) of a child who has particular episodes. I highlight each episode in yellow. I've just checked them, and since January this year, sure enough, about 50% of these highlighted episodes happened during the week of a full moon. And two of them the very next day after the moon was full.

I wonder if other carers have ever noticed this particular one, or if they would keep an eye out for it over the next few full moons.

In the meantime, enjoy the peace and quiet. And the headache, nausea and runny nose. 

The Secret Foster Carer

ps I tried to find a nice picture of a witch to add to this post for fun, but all the Google images for "Witch" were either teenage bimbos in pointy hats or overly hideous warty crones, neither of which is how I see us...