Tuesday, August 27, 2013

CONTACT: A Better Way

It's hard work being a child. Most adults think children have got it easy, funny how grown-ups have such a pink-tinted memory of what they went through themselves.

I heard about a child who came home from school crying, ran upstairs to their bedroom, and lay on the bed sobbing. Mum asked what was up. The child said they'd been told by a teacher  that these were the happiest days of their life.

Then along comes Social Media: another way to screw up. Or is it? I wonder whether fostering is missing a trick.

I watch my looked after children, with all their jaw-dropping problems, unbelievable courage, totally unique life stories; each and every one of them completely hooked on their phones.

They walk around holding it, checking the screen every few seconds. They tap away at the tiny keyboard all day, probably half the night too. They don't give themselves a single free moment. I try to get them to come to the table without the phone; but sometimes you have to be flexible to avoid a scene. They sit watching Harry Potter and send/receive 100 texts before we even see the Half Blood Prince.They take it into the loo with them, they sit in the car tapping away. They never, ever speak into it. They conduct 99% of their life by written word.

Not GR8 written words tho.

Our children are evolving into people who communicate totally differently from all previous humans. There's nothing we can do about it.

I had a teenage girl stay who was almost mute by choice. "What would you like for breakfast?" "Arrdunno" "Would you like a ride to school?" "Fyerlike". Never off her phone messaging service.

One day I texted her during morning break."How did you do in the test?"

"Not bad. Some of the questions were ok, but I struggled a bit with the last section."

"Was that the stuff you missed when your placement went wrong"

"Basically yeah. They say I can re-sit if I want, but it's one of the courses I want to drop anyway."

I think today's children communicate better by text and messaging and the rest of the social media than they do face-to-face. 

Especially foster children. 

Nothing new about this, I'm told that relationship councillors often get partners to sit back to back to talk so they can't see each others faces. My partner and I find it easier to resolve a difference on the phone.

I wonder what the response would be if we proposed Contact should be electronic? Why not? If they communicate better with their significant others by written word, whether it's a series of texts or a closed messaging service, once a week, the transcript provided to social services is it's meant to be a supervised session.

The things that trigger anger and other negative emotions in a child are visual and audio signals, especially the faces and voices of people they associate with bad times. 

Texting would work really well for a lot of Contacts., not all, obviously. And there'd need to be appropriate safeguards. 

The Secret Foster Carer

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Think Time

Children are forever asking questions where we have to stop and think carefully how to answer. 

We have just had 7 days abroad, we took one of our foster children, the holiday was timed to coincide with the other two having a joint spell away from us.

I'm sitting at the table on an apartment balcony killing half an hour while partner traipses to the Supermercado for bread and milk, playing poker dice with the child, like you do, but don't tell social services, they'd have to pretend they'd disapprove.

Then she says "Why do you love me?"

Get out of that without moving then, as they used to say in the playground when they had you in a headlock.

Thing is, I can't ever remember saying "I love you" to the child. Not that I don't, in some way or other, it's just that it's a sixty-four thousand dollar phrase and you keep it under lock and key.

I remember saying "Lots of love" more than once at bedtime, at the end of the ritual
"Night night"
"Night night"
"See you in the..."
"Lots of love"
And if you got "Lots of love" back, you felt you were making good progress with their attachment and emotional intelligence.

As for answering the question "Why do you love me?", blimey, what do you say?

"Well," I said "Because you are a great kid, and kind and funny and generous."

Okay you can see what I'm doing here, I expect the child can too. I'm flanneling.

"And, you know, when you get to know somebody, who lives in your house and kind of becomes part of the family, well you get a really good type of feeling going where you put up with the other person's bad times. So I put up with yours and you put up with mine."

She could sense I was trying to get somewhere.

"It's called unconditional love."

"Un,,, what love?"

"Unconditional love. It's when you care about someone and understand they are human and you care about them no matter what."

Short pause then she said;

"Your throw."

When you have to show passports with a fostered child you get given a letter by Social Services stating that the child is in your care. The woman at the airline gate at Gatwick wasn't up to much. She made a thing about it. 

"Yes, I noticed the names on the passport were different."

Bully for you.

"So who are you then darling, are you a foster child?"

WHAT! In a queue of a hundred people this uniformed twerp is showboating her Sherlock Holmes? 


"Are these people your foster carers?"

The child looked down like she'd been rumbled for being a lesser person; and mumbled "Don't know..."

Then the woman says "Don't worry darling, all you have to do is say Yes I'm their foster child okay?"

Then she looks up at us and says "It's difficult for us, you know, you get grandparents with different names, even parents on their second marriages and that."

I smiled while mentally writing a letter to the airline. I understand the value of vigilance against children being trafficked. It looks to me the airlines go through the motions to satisfy some guideline or other, regardless of the pain it causes the child. The child didn't answer, looked shaken, the letter could have been easily forged. The woman didn't apply any nous, she banked we were kosher, she just wanted a bit of interest and interaction in her otherwise mind-numbing job. It didn't cross her tiny mind her crassness would knot up a child's insides.

But maybe it was that little unpleasant episode, or another similar moment of awkwardness (fostered children are exposed to so many moments when they are made to feel different by bozo jobsworths) that made her feel loved by us. Or want to be loved by us.

She is loved by us, even though I've never said it, although the day may come when it's right to say it. Right for her, not us, right for her.

If I do write a letter it'll be to ask how much good their watching out for children with different surnames has achieved. How many kidnaps they've intercepted. Compared to how many children they've upset. 

The Secret Foster Carer

Saturday, August 10, 2013

When They Go Home

Two went yesterday.

It's always a strange time in the house, depending on the circumstances.

It's six in the morning I'm writing this, just been downstairs to make a cup of tea. Their bedroom door is half open, the beds made, silent and empty.

A fostering friend had a ten year old boy who was severely emotionally damaged. A very angry mixed up child, physically huge for his age. He'd had four placements break down.  It was her first placement, and she and her partner were learning as they fostered. They tried everything, but the downward spiral was speeding up. The boy stayed with me a couple of times to give my friend respite. It was clear that the boy needed lots of help, and his helpers would soon need protection. He was removed from my friend and is now in residential care. My friend is now doing a great job with another placement, she's a great carer. But my point is that when the boy left she didn't know what to feel.

Blue Sky's chief psychotherapist is adamant that we carers begin offering attachment from the day a child arrives, even if they may not be with you for long. I agree, and all the good carers I know try to do the same. He refuses to call us "Foster Carers", he says we are "Foster Parents" because the child needs a parent. I don't always agree with everything the "psyches" say - I've never met one who's ever fostered - but as far as this bit of advice goes; spot on.

My friend felt guilt at feeling relieved, she felt discomfort that maybe she failed. She struggled to feel proud of the good she had done, the unending care she had poured into the child. She and her partner came round to our house a few times in the aftermath and we talked about the boy most of the time. They used to go to see him in his high security residential unit. My partner and I felt they had formed an attachment with the boy, even if they couldn't define it themselves.

How can you not form an attachment with a child who has suffered enough to be taken  into care? 

I have to stop myself from trying to find out how each and every single one of the children who've been with us are doing.  Most social workers are the same. You can ring up the social worker of a child who was with you years back and they grill you for every bit of news about the child.  One child we had spoke to me about a previous social worker in great glowing terms, so I rang her up and told her, and she almost cried with a mix of joy and relief. She'd been the worker who had taken the child from her real parents. She remembered having to prise the child's fingers from around the banister to carry her into her car.

The two who are gone, no-one had to have to prise any fingers from around any banister. They were prepared and proud. Blue Sky, the children, their social workers, and us the foster parents, laid out the programme from day one, all boxes ticked. Forward planning done; fallbacks in case of future problems all agreed.

But emotions don't have tick boxes do they?

These two were only with us for six months, and here I am marking their departure with the same sign of respect I used when our flesh and blood children left home: their bedroom door exactly half open. Not closed, not wide open, exactly half.

Is that because I care about them as if they were my own? Or is it because my own children have got their room available again if they want to come and stay?

It's a strange time in the house when they go.

It's a strange time in the heart too.

The Secret Foster Carer

Monday, August 05, 2013

Rough and Tumble

Play is so important to all of us. We are never happier than when we're off the clock and having a laugh, browsing the internet, watching some rubbish telly, or best of all joshing with friends. The cut and thrust of the gabbling is not just about laughter, it's about strengthening important bonds, even the slightly competitive edge to the yak is good for camaraderie.

This is ten times more true for children. And twenty times truer for fostered children.

I went to a fantastic Blue Sky training session recently, on Play.

The instructor made us play games, and the thing I noticed was how important it got for me not to screw up when it was my turn to pass the balloon from between my knees to the carer on my left. Oh yes, everyone was laughing, and I enjoyed my moment in the spotlight when the room was looking at my efforts, but I even got a few nerves as my turn got close. At the end of the day we all bustled off smiling. But I'd been reminded how important "play" is when you're little.

In fact, there's no such thing as "play". It's learning for life. Learning self-esteem, social skills, dealing with ups and downs, finding out about other people.

I used to feel a bit unusual in that I know I learned far more in the playground than the classroom. Now I'm sure it's true for almost everyone.

With your own children it's a straightforward business, playing with them. Rough and tumble games, when they're small, are fantastic. The tactile element  is a bonding thing, letting them experiment with their strength and agility is great for self-esteem, especially if you let them win the right amount of times. There's a lot of laughter and excitement. Later on this develops into a quest for triumphs such as cycling without stabilisers, swimming, and the other sports. You may care to know I can strike a football, toe down, with both feet. I understand several millionaires in the Premier League still can't do that yet, har har.

It's not quite so straightforward when you foster. You have to abide by very sensible guidelines concerning physical contact with other people's children, quite rightly. It's not unlike the things teachers are trained in, except teachers don't get challenged to a play-wrestle very often.

Each time any type of contact-play comes up you do a quick check; what's the age-appropriateness of the game? What kind of contact will be involved? Is it danger-free? 

Obviously, a child will get to be too old or big for rough and tumble, but you can always back out anytime  saying "You're a bit too old/grown-up/big/heavy/strong/quick for me these days". Or "Not with my back/shoulder/wrist/knee".

You try hard not to betray to the child that you are avoiding any activity that could, in a bad old world, end up as being misinterpreted as inappropriate. And this is one reason why we keep our written records.

In the meantime if everything is right, I stick to games we played and perfected with our children that are also safe. Running away and being chased is great, so long as the "tag" is just a tap on the back.

The all time favourite is "Rhino Derby". You go down on all fours, as does your opponent. You put your heads down so your upper backs are pressing against each other. And push. You keep your head well out of the way. There's an element of rough and tumble, but it's safe, as long as you concentrate and stay alert to any dangers. It's got (safe) contact, competitiveness, and if you play "Best of three" you are out and defeated 2-1 with no danger of bruises, pulled muscles or a build up of anxiety.

Unlike the rough and tumble of adulthood if you're a foster carer, which usually sees us posting a lower score than we wanted, with a well bruised ego.

And as for freedom from anxiety, if that's what you're after, stick to gardening.

The Secret Foster Carer

Friday, August 02, 2013



I know a man whose son hasn't spoken to him for 15 years, must be awful.

Especially as the son lives with them.

He's a nice man, as far as I can tell, he's the sort who'll always toot and wave as he drives past. He's the man who flits around at parties with a bottle of red in one hand and white in the other, refreshing people's glasses. Then he disappears into the kitchen to help keep the sink moving.

He's not the sort who wants to stop and talk.

However I found myself cornered with him back at a Jubilee Street Party of 2012, asked about his children, and it came out.

The boy is 19. He elected not to speak to his father from the age of 4. There are other aspects to his mental health issues, but he is one of those people who can conceal their condition. What I'm saying is you'd never guess.

The dad is filled with guilt that maybe it was something he said or did, or maybe his son just doesn't want to be here, wasn't asked in the first place, and blames his dad.

Guilt can be a terrible burden.


Mind you, guilt doesn't seem to be a problem for the parents of children who are taken into care. They don't seem to bother with it. Either they are oblivious of guilt, or they are too busy making everyone else feel guilty, in my experience.

This is their world:

The children are guilty, of making life impossible. According to such parents, everything was fine until the children came along. The eldest child gets the brunt of this. The parent works really hard to make sure the child knows it's all their fault.

Social workers are guilty; they were inept and invisible when the problems were obvious, then suddenly they take the kids away for no reason except to keep themselves in work.

The benefits system is guilty, incompetent at best, at worst it conspires to rob them of their just desserts.

The police are bent, courts are biased. Their partners are all short tempered and untrustworthy, their wider family are all wierdos, their friends are dodgepots.

The government is guilty of letting all them foreigners in, that's why they can't get a job.

Actually they couldn't work anyway because they've got an undiagnosed illness or injury or disability. Doctors are useless.

As for foster carers, they think they are so goody-two shoes, well they aren't. They don't know how to bring up children properly, look at the state of the kids when they turn up to contact. Foster carers are failed parents you see, trying to make up for their mistakes with their own children. They're only in it for the money.


The real parents of foster children are free from the burden of guilt because they are protected by something quite delicious, namely victim syndrome. They believe that if it wasn't for everybody else, and by that I mean everybody on planet earth, they would be flying along. Everybody else is criminally incompetent or corrupt in the extreme, and everybody else is the guilty party. They are a hapless Victim.

I know a family of a looked-after child, about a dozen people in all, who are involved in a bizarre competition with each other, to be the biggest victim. They are in constant contact by text to stake their claim. One boasts underage pregnancy, another is a rape victim, another is texting from Accident and Emergency. Another believes her boyfriend has designs on her underage daughter. Another has had three failed suicide attempts this year. Another has had her children unfairly taken into care...

They share their updated victim status with each other the minute they have another feather in their cap, even though none of their family seems to offer sympathy or help.


I hope I don't sound bitter. In my defence, I know I can be a bit like them. We all do denial, and try to shift blame from time to time.

But I think the parents hunger to be blameless is the biggest common problem in fostering, because it means they won't change. And if we foster carers work our socks off, and get the golden call, that the children and their parents are ready to be re-united, we often fear for the worst, because we have little or no reason to believe the same mistakes won't be made again, if only to prove they did nothing wrong in the first place.

Meanwhile the poor man with the 19 year old son, goes about his business, with a quiet nobility.

He'd be a good foster parent.

The Secret Foster Carer