Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Fostering and 'snooping'

WHEN Blue Sky asked me to become the new Secret Foster Carer, one of the things that worried me was that I’d say things that would come out wrong and that I’d end up making myself sound like a bad carer or parent. 

THE thing I want to talk a bit about here could easily be misconstrued, because it’s in the news a lot, and is universally deemed a bad thing. It’s SNOOPING. 

THE sneaky stuff that journalists  do, or governments, might be right or might be wrong, they are trying to get stories or control. As parents, we just want to know our kids are okay.

AS a parent, you can never be sure exactly what your children are thinking. Well, I’m speaking for myself here, maybe some parents do. Or kid themselves they do. Children say things, behave a certain way, or go round with a look on their face.

SO you ask outright, what’s up?

IT'S hard to pick the right moment to ask what’s up. I have a friend who fosters who says she sets aside 15 minutes every day to sit her children down and have a chat one-to-one. She says that sometimes it’s a straightforward catch-up, occasionally it’s a heart to heart. It’s not something I do, or have tried, because it strikes me as being a bit forced and anyway I don’t think “meetings” have a place in families, except when there’s an actual crisis.

PLUS it could easily turn into a bit of a pressure for the children, having to report to the kitchen after school every day. I prefer to rely on my antenna. Stay on my toes to pick up clues. Watch and listen, without them knowing, so they don’t feel like they’re being scrutinised.

THEN there’s the simple fact that I’m not organised enough to have a schedule which is built around a daily face-to-face.

THERE’S no point asking “Are you okay?” or “Is there something on your mind?”. You might as well ask them what the weather will be like at the weekend or how much baking powder goes into an 8 inch chocolate cake. They don’t know.

I went to a useful training session which touched on emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is how good you are at understanding the different moods people have. Basically, we learned that a person gets some information, which may have come from outside or inside their brain, the information gives them a feeling, the feeling turns into an emotion which turns into behaviour. 

SO for example, supposing you see a little old lady in the street with one of those whicker shopping baskets on wheels and it reminds you of your dead nan. Sometimes you consciously think to yourself “That reminds me of nan” Sometimes you don’t even know your brain has made the connection. What might happen next is that you get a feeling which might be really warm and lovely (if all or most of your memories of your nan are wonderful) or else the feeling might be uncomfortable or bleak (if nan was one of those people who couldn’t do affection, or maybe you feel a bit angry or negative that she died).

SUDDENLY you feel either happy or sad. Or a bit of both. Then when your child asks for some sweets, you find yourself either buying them more sweets than normal, or snapping that they shouldn’t always be asking for sweets.

THE main thing is that it’s hard to read ourselves, let alone someone else. If adults who have been trained in emotional intelligence can’t work out why they are feeling up or down, how can we expect children to? Hard enough with your own children, never mind about foster children, whose past is largely a mystery.

I find that if you stay on your toes they’ll give you information about themselves which helps you make a picture of what’s going on for them. I like to watch mine when they are playing, whether it’s on their own, with others in the house, or with friends in the playground or at parties. 

IF they use a phone to speak to a friend or a family member, you hear a side to them that they never show you otherwise, and with foster children, if they are going through a rough time it’s more likely to be friends and family that’s upsetting them, but they don’t want you to interfere.

THEN sometimes, this happens, well to me anyway.

THEY are sitting in the back of the car, and they just open right up to each other. Or they are playing in the front room and you walk past the half open door. Your own child and your foster child start a conversation.  So you are basically snooping, no two ways about it. 

THERE are limits to snooping. As a foster carer you have to speak with your social worker if you have worries about what they are up to in private on their phone or laptop before you steam in and do a secret check on their history or their messaging. If they advise you to do what a responsible parent would do in order to protect a child in the home, then that’s what you do, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

I’M talking about picking up clues to how your child is getting on from moments when they’re not aware you’re switched on. 

BILL has told me down our years together that he can always tell when I’m a bit stressy because I start humming a weird song called “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”. I learned it at Primary School when we were taught it from a BBC radio programme called Singing Together with William Appleby. 

BILL knows I’m on edge so he acts accordingly; he either keeps out of my way, gives me a cuddle or tells me to put a sock in it depending on how he feels.

WE all do a bit of snooping, or maybe it’s just staying alert, and if our heart’s in the right place it’s a good thing, and it works.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fostering - The Night Shift

THERE’S  not many of us getting a decent night’s sleep at the moment in our house, and it’s hard to work out what to do. One of our foster children, a boy, takes ages to get to sleep so he doesn’t want to go to bed when it’s his time, because he’s going to be lying awake for two hours or more. I was talking about this with another mum outside school this morning. I said that getting a child into bed is one thing, but there’s nothing you can do to make them go to sleep. She disagreed.

SHE reckoned that if you get them in bed, lights out, and tell them they have to lie there and be quiet and close their eyes and be still, they’ll be asleep sooner rather than later.

SHE’S a doctor, this mum, very nice lady I like her a lot. She’s funny, and she looks after her children really well. But she’s never fostered, so I just smiled and said something like “I’ll try that, thanks”.

WHEN our own children were little they got the idea that downstairs was off limits once they’d been put to bed, but if they had a real problem they could call down to us.  My social worker says that many fostered children have been allowed to stay up until the adults went to bed, however young they were. Apparently this is usually done because the parents can’t be bothered with the hard work of supervising bedtime, so they let the children potter around the house until they are asleep standing up. 

ONCE in bed though, the children often have all sorts of horrible thoughts about their past, on top of which they’re in a strange home, and they’ve got no reason to think we are going to be any different from the adults they’ve been used to.  I suppose it takes a long time to develop trust in new adults.

WE go to bed about 10.30, Bill and I. Sometimes he stays up if he’s not tired. I go up on tiptoe, but there’s almost always something going on upstairs. Nothing to worry about, just someone awake and quite keen to let you know they’re awake too. But it means you are going to bed and there’s someone you are responsible for, still awake.

THAT puts you into a light sleep, if any sleep at all. 

SO suddenly you’re awake and you don’t know what woke you up, or what time it is. It feels like about midnight. If Bill is asleep I try to let him sleep on, but I can hear somebody either out of bed or making enough tiny noises to give that impression. So I creep across the pitch black bedroom and put on my dressing gown. Open the bedroom door, and there is someone standing by their own bedroom door, looking sad; “I’m thirsty”. 

SO you fetch a drink from downstairs, say a gentle goodnight and creep back to bed.

THEN you are awake again, this time about four. Somebody is going to the bathroom. This is good, it shows they feel at home. You stay awake to listen and make sure they get back to their room.  

I have found foster children to be light sleepers. I have found that it’s infectious, and you end up with a houseful of light sleepers.

ANYWAY, I’ve reached the age where you tend to be awake before six, and can’t go back to sleep.
OF course, because they don’t sleep well, they can be a handful on a school morning, complaining they don’t want to get up, and are too tired. I honestly find that making a joke of the whole thing works best. I say to them “What is it with being a child? They make you go to bed when you’re wide awake, and get up when you’re fast asleep” 

I’LL be honest, I’m napping in the day, in the front room, nodding off watching This Morning and waking up with A Place In The Sun on. It helps.

THEY, on the other hand, nod off in the car, any journey over about 15 minutes.  It helps too.

BUT the best tip I was given , to stay ahead in fostering, if they’ve had a rough day, and given you a bit of a rough day too, is to stand at their bedroom door when they are asleep, and see how being asleep reveals their angelic, peaceful side. Every child, fast asleep, looks like butter wouldn’t melt.

Happy Fostering

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Friends & Fostering

I’VE made two firm friends since I started fostering, both of whom are also foster carers. Before I fostered I had not made any real friends since my schooldays, to be honest. Once you get onto the merry-go-round of dating and having a family there doesn’t seem to be much of a place for making friends. I was close to a number of other young mums when my first baby came along, and I made a few new acquaintances at the school railings too, but they were flash in the pan.

I’M still in regular contact with several lifelong friends from school (Facebook!), and my new fostering friendships have a similarly good feeling about them. Basically, we share all our experiences in fostering which is more than just very enjoyable – it helps, big time.

HERE’S a classic example. 


IT’S always a big day when a new child arrives. You’ve gone through the process - the call from Blue Sky’s placement team outlining the child’s situation, the email with all their background and their likes and dislikes, you hoover the spare bedroom, get it looking neat but homely, put on a nice outfit (neat but homely again!) then sit looking out of the front window, waiting.

THE car pulls up, the social worker gets out, and you get your first glimpse of the new member of your family. They always look so vulnerable and frightened, your heart goes out to them. 

THEN you usually have a meeting of about an hour or so going through more background stuff, showing them their room and the bathroom, and explaining a few rules.

THEN the social worker leaves! And it’s just you, your family, and this young stranger. You eat tea together, usually very quietly, and watch a bit of TV together, always a bit awkward for example if Eastenders is on and there’s a shouting match, or the news comes on and there’s an unpleasant story. Then they go to bed. It all goes quiet.

THEN for some reason you just get desperate to TELL SOMEONE.

YOU can’t call Blue Sky’s Out Of Hours service, that’s for emergencies.

YOU can’t phone any old friend because you can’t discuss your fostering placement outside fostering out of respect for the child’s privacy.

SO I phone a fostering friend, and basically have a good long natter. When the shoe is on the other foot, and they call me, I know how much good it does them to offload all the grief they’ve built up inside, hearing about what’s happened to the child that’s ended them up in fostering. Every story is totally, totally unique, and it’s more gripping than Eastenders, and more relevant than the news. It’s your own real life. 

THE watchword is confidentiality, and Blue Sky know the value of the carer network, they often quietly say to carers “You get on well with x don’t you, why not meet up for coffee?”

SHARING the ups and downs of fostering with someone who also fosters is priceless. No offence to all the professionals I’ve met in fostering (let me see, that would be social workers, health and safety, local authority officials, nurses, guardians, teachers, solicitors, policemen and women, doctors, maybe others too many mention!), but it’s only when you are with a friend who also fosters that you feel you are with someone who’s been there and got the T shirt.

HAVING said that, it’s horses for courses, and I know a few Blue Sky foster carers who keep themselves to themselves, there’s even one who I call the mystery carer because I only ever met this person once at my First Aid training session (which is compulsory, every three years), and she told me it would probably be the only time we’d meet (ie every 3 years!) because she liked a low profile, and didn’t like talking about fostering.

SO each to their own. 

I personally would talk about nothing else but fostering if I could, as long as walls don’t have ears. 

BYE for today, and happy fostering.

The Secret Foster Carer

Tuesday, November 05, 2013


I think a lot of us go into fostering thinking that the most important thing is helping a child or children who needs help. I know I did.

HELPING is the most important thing. But it’s not the main thing. And I realise that what I just said doesn’t make sense.  I remember having to explain to my children the difference between big and tall, that a giraffe was the tallest but an elephant was the biggest, and that’s what I’m talking about.  The most important thing is helping the child, and knowing how to help and when not to help, and what the rights and wrongs of fostering are (which is where training comes in).

HOWEVER, it’s not the thing that fills your mind and your time all day long, and that’s how I’d define the “main thing”. No, the main thing about fostering is all the little things. The little jobs.

WHATEVER your family set-up was before you start fostering, it’s familiar to every family member, and there’s a routine. You all know each other, and everybody’s personalities and quirks. Their likes and dislikes, who needs reminding about what and how best to do it. 

FOR example, before fostering, we always had a regular routine on Sundays. Mum and dad go back to bed with a cup of tea and the children would come in with us and watch TV or generally play, then I’d get up and lay the kitchen table for a family breakfast which used to be quite late but then our son started Sunday morning football so we adjusted, and everybody sorted themselves out, and I’d get on with a few jobs because the next thing would be lunchtime, and we had a roast which went on the table at 2.00pm.  After that everyone would either sit and watch TV or finish homework, then when Songs of Praise came on I’d start getting people thinking about the morning, and clothes and satchels and so on.  We were always ready to adjust the routine, but everyone liked knowing how the day ahead looked.


THEN someone from outside your family joins your family.  Blue Sky get you as much information as they can about the child. They also get information about you and your family to the child in advance, which is a useful thing. 

BUT no matter how much planning and forethought there is, nothing prevents you having to examine all over again your family routine, and how to draw the child into it, and, most time consuming of all, how to adjust the millions of little jobs that make up your day. Jobs like staying on top of the bathroom (you’re got to explain it all to someone new), going round the supermarket picking out the usual favourites (what flavour crisps?) getting the usual arguments about not wanting to help with the washing up, who chooses what TV programmes, and the ever-present test of your good temper, bedtime routine.

WHEN I was first approved, and found myself waiting for the phone to ring, I tried to imagine myself doing counselling work with a child, talking and listening about their problems, as if that’s what fostering is about. It happens, of course. But most of the time fostering is all about making endless little judgements about how to help them feel welcome and at ease, and a part of your family.

THAT’S the main thing, for me anyway.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Working with social workers

I’M writing today’s blog drinking a mug of tea, but it’s not my “Best Mum In The World” mug. That mug has been put away out of sight. It was my Social Worker’s idea to hide it.

LET me have a word about what I think about Social Workers. They are a fact of life in fostering. You get a Social Worker attached to you by Blue Sky. They work for Blue Sky and their job is to look after you, help you foster as best you can. They’re always on the end of the phone or email, and they visit as often as is right, usually at least once a month for “Supervision” although I like to call it “Catch Up”. They want to hear about your problems, and there’s nothing better than having a good old whinge knowing the person listening is actually interested and sympathetic. But  if there are things going really well, you must remember to tell them about those as well.
IF a child comes to you for fostering, the child has a Social Worker of their own, which the child’s local Social services provide. That Social Worker’s job is to look after the child’s interests. If the child has a problem at school, or isn’t eating well, the first thing you do is let the child’s Social Worker know. Then you tell your Blue Sky Social Worker. Often the two of them will try to sort the problem out together.
NO shortage of backup then.
TO be really honest, when I started fostering, my first thought was “Oh Good! Loads of backup. Phew!”  But for some reason, probably human nature, I got a bit angsty with being in the spotlight. I got defensive about things I was advised I could do better, and then got frustrated that the things I was suggested didn’t have instant results. To be really, really honest, that was the time we talked about whether we had what it takes.
I’M so glad we stuck at it and worked out all those worries, because fostering is as hard as it’s rewarding.
WHAT we’ve identified, “Bill” and I, is that foster children often struggle with being told anything if it feels like authority. And so do we, Bill and I, to a lesser extent. This probably goes back to our time at school, and in my case working at a place where I had an unpleasant supervisor for many years. Being in any kind of situation where somebody is judging me, or telling me what to do makes me uneasy about old experiences.  I went to a very useful training session about this, it’s called “Triggers”. Sometimes you get a feeling  for no apparent reason, it’s been “triggered” by something deep down. A song in the radio might remind you of an old love affair, or someone looking at you over the top of their glasses might remind you of a horrible person. The thing is you often aren’t aware of it.
WHEN my Blue Sky Social Worker comes round we’ve agreed to call it “Catch Up” because the word “Supervision” doesn’t go down well with me.
IT’S also the reason my “Best Mum In The World” mug is hidden away. My foster child, first or second day after arriving with a lot of anger, said “My mum’s got a mug with that on it.” I mentioned this to my Social Worker, who suggested I try keeping it out of sight. The child’s mum had not given the love a mum should, if I can put it like that.
DID it help the child? Probably, a bit. But it’s one of those things you don’t discuss with the child, because talking about home life is usually a trigger in itself. It was worth doing just in case.
SO on the whole, having your own Social Worker is gold. You get someone who is a family priest one minute, then an IT specialist, then a psychiatrist, a lawyer, a doctor, and educationalist. The list goes on.
AND a friend too, in fact, one of my ex’s (ex-Social Workers) came round for coffee last time she was passing. She wanted to know how things are going for us because she’s interested, and, without wishing to get gushy, she cares.