Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Actually, I lie..."

I woke up at 1.40am this Sunday morning, don't know why, possibly partner creeping upstairs after coming in from a Beach Boys tribute concert. Whenever one of us is going to be dead late home or getting up, one of us sleeps in the spare bedroom, if there is one free. Partner went with pals but without me because one of our current foster children is not yet able to be babysat. Maybe she is maybe she isn't but in fostering you always minimise risk. 
When I wake up suddenly  that's when I remember the dream.

We're spending a lot of time with therapists recently, they work with the child, but also talk to us. They're helping the child with her life story, so she can get a picture of who she is. It's not healing the child yet, because there's a lot of anger to come out first. But the therapists explain the way the mind works and it makes sense.

It makes us think about our own minds too.

In the dream, I was back in the house I was brought up in as a child, but I was an adult, and my dad, who is 10 years dead, was alive and sitting in his armchair. The foster child was giving us all some ID badges  she'd made, the kind of things you wear round your neck with a length of ribbon, and a plastic card saying "Visitor", when you visit a big building.

In the dream, she had clearly painstakingly made the necklaces out of those pop-together little toy beads you used to get, but don't see anymore. She was helping my dad put his over his head. I was just about to look at what she'd written on mine, and try to sneak a peek at the one she'd made for herself, when I woke up. I never saw what she'd written, but somehow knew that the cards gave us all the same status.

When I woke up later with the sun in the bedroom, after checking partner was okay and making a cup of tea I found myself wondering about the dream, before its memory faded, as dreams do.

The therapists talk to the child about her nightmares and night terrors, so I've picked up some titbits of how they interpret them.

In the dream I felt proud of the child, for being clever enough to make something like identity cards out of stuff lying around. And chuffed she had made one for my dad, who often used to think he was left out of things.  As always I was curious about what lay behind the child's activity, what its real meaning could be.

It was obvious I had dreamed the activity because I wanted her to feel part of the family, and in my head there was no more powerful image of her being one of us, than for her to be giving out identical official identity cards and putting them round the neck of my dead dad, like a garland.

It was a useful dream.

Not as good as the dreams of one of the Blue Sky team who is a big football fan, and last year dreamed the exact result of several matches, and I know this for a fact because I got the predictions as a ps on the emails that fly between foster carers and the Blue Sky offices.

Actually, I lie, it was the best possible dream, assuming I understand it right.

I understand partner right for sure, and the slightly heavy footed trip to the bathroom I've just heard is French for "Any chance of a cup of tea?"

So I'm off downstairs to brew, and hear a quick report on how wonderful the fake Beach Boys are complete with compulsory "I really wish you'd been there, I missed you....etc etc", followed quickly by my story about the dream, then a very quick whispered chat about whether I tell the child or not. 

Our stairs creak you see, and foster children are all usually very light sleepers. 

Secret Foster Carer

Sunday, July 21, 2013

When they ask "What's the point?"

Looked-after children are usually acutely aware that their lives are worse than most other children.

Many foster children have given up trying before they come into care. Their parents have let them down; neglected or abused them, they have no reliable extended family, no dependable siblings, no solid friendships. Their teachers and schools have often admitted defeat. They don't trust the police or social workers.

Then the day dawns when they are standing in your hallway with a bag of tattered clothes and a few broken toys.

They don't have any broken dreams, because they've never risked having any dreams, knowing they would have ended up being broken.

So when we try to persuade them to get up and get to school on time, or to complete their homework, or try a bit harder with their maths or English, we can't invoke the pledge which my generation was told when we were at school, which went something like this:

Work hard at school, get the best exams results you can, and you'll be rewarded with a good job, which will in turn help you to be happy.

Just while we're on the subject, I'm not sure there are many children of any background who believe it nowadays. I am sure it cuts no ice with the average looked-after child.

So, let me ask you, reading these words, how did you tell your children what the point of living is?

And if you foster, or are thinking of fostering, what would you say to someone else's child?

To be honest it's not a question any child has asked me outright. But one suspects it's in their mind a lot.

Myself and a number of other carers I've spoken to agree that looked-after children are curious about how a functioning family works. Of course, no-one's family feels like it's functioning to its members, but if you have a foster child in your home, believe me, they'll think they've landed in with The Waltons.

I make sure I'm honest with them, and if sometimes my partner and I get on each others nerves we are not ashamed to say so, then make up and laugh about it ten minutes later. We never raise our voices in front of them, or let disagreements last. But we also are honest about the fact that we love each other and that love, plus our love for our children, is the biggest thing in our lives.

We let them know we have to work at it. If they ask we admit we split up once for a few years, before our children were born, but patched it up.

So I guess if we hint there is a point to life, it's love.

From now on I'm going to finish any such conversation with them by playing the game where people have to think of song titles with "Love" in them and substitute "Hove"

Hove Is A Many Splendoured Thing

All You Need Is Hove

I'll Do Anything For Hove (But I Won't Do That)

Crazy Little Thing Called Hove

A World Without Hove...

Secret Foster Carer

Monday, July 15, 2013

School Dinners and Fostering

Every so often the business of school dinners comes up.

Sometimes it's TV chefs banging on about them, sometimes it's an official pronouncement of some sort. Recently there have been calls to ban packed lunches because too many parents make rubbish ones.

Foster carers have to be massively tuned in to their children's food needs, and I suspect I speak for every one of us in stating that the more options the better.

We only have to summon up memories of our own school dinners to take the view the child should be able to eat what they prefer in the middle of the day, it's our job to guide them towards a good diet, not private  caterers and the dinner ladies (or dinner persons if that's correct).


What, they don't know it? They don't know that many young children get nervous, scared, terrified of meal times not knowing what horrors are in store?

Blue Sky often throw gatherings for carers and their looked-after children. The first thing you notice about the children is that most are underweight, underdeveloped. A high proportion of them wear spectacles.

They've often not been fed enough, and the things they were given to eat were a narrow range of cheap convenience food.

Foster carers work hard to understand and develop the eating habits of looked after children. Our school packed lunches are a bond between us and the child. I don't always enjoy the daily task of coming up with an attractive, balanced box of snacky food, but each afternoon when I check the box to see what went down well, I get a kick from knowing that they ate all the cherry tomatoes, and the quartered apple (cored and wrapped in clingfilm) as well as the Hula Hoops and the mini-sausage roll.

I get a kick from knowing that in the middle of the school day, I played a part in helping them, that maybe they were reminded that somebody cares enough to know they are currently off prawn cocktail flavour.

That somebody cared enough to wash out the little tupperware tub that smelled mildly of yesterday's strawberries, and is going to have cucumber today. That somebody didn't bang on that they didn't eat the cheese thing in a plastic tube, but instead made a mental note they don't like the cheese thing in a plastic tube.

There is a lot of love in a packed lunch, even if there isn't always 100% nutritional needs. 

One child we look after had to be taken to Contact with her mother once a week. The woman had been advised by Social Services to bring some food for the child to eat during Contact, it's a standard suggestion. A bonding exercise. So what did the woman do? She racked her brains to remember what the child's favourite food was, then on the morning of Contact she would lovingly prepare it in her kitchen, assembling and arranging a mouthwatering package of tasty, nutritious, attractive fare which would gladden the child's heart.

No she did not.

She called into the cheapo off licence-come-corner-shop en route to Contact and bought a £1 sandwich consisting of bargain white bread, a smear of fish paste and a couple of thin bits of cucumber, sealed in plastic. And a stick of bubble gum. She gave it to the child in the shop's flimsy carrier bag. 

It was her way of reminding the child how worthless the mother thought the child was. How little she cared. 

If that's the best the woman could do under scrutiny, when her actions are being examined, when she's on her best behaviour, is it any surprise you could see the child's blue veins criss-crossing her pencil-thin legs beneath her translucent skin?

You'll be pleased to know the mother is not getting the child back, though not because of  her starving the child. There was other stuff that would make you feel faint.

The child now enjoys her packed lunch so much she doesn't eat it. 

Yes, she prefers to nibble a few bits of it at lunchtime, then spend the rest of the day knowing food is available to her, food she owns and likes. Her private stash. She eats a good breakfast so she's fine to do this, I've been through this with Blue Sky and her school; she's free to use her food to satisfy something that runs deeper than feeling peckish. I sometimes wonder if she is subconsciously resisting destroying something that symbolises her new found security and freedom, because the minute she gets in the car to come home, she opens her lunch and finishes it. And the minute we get home, she asks for something to eat.

So let's keep options open please, let parents be free to meet their children's needs.

Above all, let children be free to use food to meet needs that the well-meaning Jamie Oliver and the nutritionists can't get their heads round. 

The Secret Foster Carer

Tuesday, July 09, 2013


Blue Sky put on lots of training sessions, you always get some nuggets of practical use. The one we were all most looking forward to was on "Resilience". Most of us, myself included, hoped it was going to be about how to help us Carers maintain our resilience. Actually it turned out to be about how to help the child's resilience, which is an interesting feature of looked-after children. Take yesterday.

I'm fingers crossed all day, for a phone call from school.

Last week the child had "Transition Day". Each year they move them around. She spent a whole day in next year's new classroom, with a mostly new set of classmates, and a new teacher.

Had to fill in a Violent Incident report form after she'd gone to bed (finally) that night. 

Nothing serious, just threats. When she spits, she doesn't actually spit, just collects a teaspoon of saliva on the lips and allows it to dribble. She'll throw things, but only cushions and soft toys, and only ever across the room, never at us or breakables. These shows of anger don't peter out, they gradually escalate until we have to intervene for everyone's sake. We've talked to Blue Sky's psychotherapist and our social worker aplenty, and all agreed; she's testing our loyalty plus she needs the comfort and security of being under a loving, controlling authority she can trust not to hurt her.

So I had to hold her by her upper arms, gently, approaching from behind, after trying all the de-escalation techniques we get trained in. I only do this with my partner present for support. Distraction is best. Logical argument the worst, in fact it's not even recommended.

I saw a woman in the street recently with a four year old  standing at her side crying his eyes out. The woman was using logic to stop the tears; "I explained earlier that we are not having anything more to eat until we get home, and you agreed, we have to walk back to the car there is no alternative, so what is your issue?" All the babe needed was a lolly and a carry, something had frightened him - possibly living with a mum who treats childhood emotions like a boardroom negotiation.  And yes, she actually asked the infant "What is your issue?"

I take the child's arms in a gentle grip and she immediately starts to calm down. I say "Would you like to walk upstairs or a carry?" (Giving her a choice let's her feel in control, but I get the outcome I need). She always, always chooses the carry, and when I pick her up she folds, exhausted, into me. Exhausted with all her troubles and memories.

She is always placid after being angry, provided I don't lose my concentration, or give in and get short with her.

Anyway, it seems this episode was triggered by "Transition Day". She finds her new teacher looks a bit like someone who abused her.

I went to school  and asked the Head if she could be switched to a different class. He said he'd try, but couldn't promise. Fair enough.

He also explained they structured the child's progress through the school to develop resilience. Protect them against the shock of moving on to another school.


I saw a documentary recently about a British woman from Hertfordshire who gave it all up to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. She spent 8 years up a freezing mountain, living in a cave alone, with only a wooden crate which she stood in to pray for 12 hours every day. To build up her resilience.

I nodded politely when the Head explained the need for resilience.

This little girl has enough resilience already to put the Dalai Lama in the shade.

Unfortunately she doesn't have the enlightenment. 


The Secret Foster Carer

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Don't tell Cliff....

Summer Holidays are scrapped.

Michael Gove says so, from next year 70% of Primaries, and 30% of Secondaries can choose their own holiday dates, and the main freedom is to knock a couple of weeks off the summer break and stick them elsewhere.

So you could get a 7 term year, like at some private schools, with fortnight holidays every seven weeks.

It's up to Heads and governors.

Don't know about you, I've learned to go with the flow, make the best of whatever you're asked to make the best of.

It will be hard for parents of children who go to different schools if the new holiday dates don't match. It'll also be a nightmare to book an EasyJet flight to Alicante, a hotel or a package anywhere for anybody, so I'm hoping that school's will give a bit of wiggle room to carers. Well, to all parents really.

But on the whole, don't you think Michael Gove has got this right? It's crazy that our school's are shut down for 6 weeks as a result of the need for children to help get the harvest in! 

Maybe we should have cashed in and leased our children to local farms as cheap labour. 

Don't laugh. A social worker once told me about a couple who were rejected as potential foster carers. They owned a small farm. The assessing social worker was left in no doubt they were looking for nothing more or less than getting money to have a couple of robust fostered teenagers work for free with the milking and feeding!

The only shame is that I remember, and I bet you do too, the heady feeling of joyous freedom from the drudge of school on that final day walk home. The sensation that you belonged to yourself, no-one could tell you to sit down and be quiet, or check your work. For 6 weeks.

But boredom would hit soon enough. Seems to hit faster nowadays.

So all in all well done Mr Gove.

Former looked-after child Mr Gove.

The Secret Foster Carer