Friday, December 20, 2013

Fostering and Holidays

IT'S midwinter, which means that any day now we’re going to start getting bombarded with holiday advertisements. They usually leave it until about the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Day, then suddenly TV commercials start popping up alongside all the ones for Sales and keep fit products. Lovely images of golden beaches, or a handsome loving couple sitting in an exotic restaurant on board a cruise liner.

HOLIDAYS are interesting things every time, but when you’re fostering they take on a huge new significance.

BEFORE fostering, the biggest significance of the holiday used to be when you had to decide whether you and your new partner are solid enough to go away together. If you met him after you booked a singles holiday with your pals should you invite him along? Is it practical? 

IF you decide to go on holiday together it’s seen as taking your relationship to a new level, almost like buying a ring. If your relationship has been a bit up and down, but the holiday is booked, your friends will say that the fortnight will be “make or break”.

HOLIDAYS, when you’re fostering, have the same sort of impact on your family and your placements.

FOR a start, it’s risky planning ahead, or at least, it’s complicated. Who hasn’t kept putting off booking their holiday because, quite simply, you don’t know how many of you it will be?

WHEN foster carers accept a new placement, the job is to begin forming an attachment-based relationship with a young person, whilst simultaneously working to prepare them for successfully going home.

AFTER a short while, I find, you get a bead on the child’s situation, and say to yourself, for example “There’s no way s/he is going to be able to go home for months, at least that’s how it seems to me, having got to know the family through turning up at Contact”. You run it past your social worker and they lay out all the processes such as reviews, or court proceedings or whatever. 

WE once had a teenager stay with us for three weeks, the reason being his permanent foster carers liked to go on holiday without him. 

SOUNDS harsh, but that seemed to be it in a nutshell. Actually his carers were very fond of him, and he liked and respected them. But he was a teenager, and a cottage in the south of France is no place for a streetwise young man to while away lazy days reading a book before strolling to the bistro. He was far too polite to say so, but the prospect of being shacked up with a middle-aged couple probably filled him with one of the big teenagers dread fears, namely boredom.

SO he shacked up with another middle-aged couple (ourselves), stayed out late every night, then stayed awake till dawn listening to music and nipping out the back for a rollup (approved by his SW – he was old enough and it was normal baccy) every hour or so. 

HE had a fascinating quirk. You know those big spiders that come out in the house during the night? Apparently they are looking for a drink, which is why sometimes they end up in the bath, if you have a dripping tap. This lad would spot a spider scurrying across the carpet, and put a drinking glass over it. Then he’d write a note about the incident, and place the note next to the glass prison, with an arrow pointing to it. He’d use block capitals to write things like:


ONE morning we came downstairs and there were three glasses on the floor each with a prisoner inside sitting awaiting their fate. I’m a bit arachnophobic, so Bill let them out in the garden.

IT told us a lot about how the lad perceived his life in care. The spiders were captive in a glass prison, their fate to be determined by someone else, reports written about them, judgements passed about them, suspicions harboured about possible wrongdoing.

THAT'S one of the many fascinating aspects of fostering, you get to be an amateur psychologist all day long, which is rich, but tiring.

ANOTHER reason why foster carers need their holiday.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fostering - The Importance of Being a 'Mum'

I mentioned to my own mum that I’m writing a Blog for Blue Sky about fostering. Mum says she gets cyber things like the internet and mobile phones, but, come on mum, if you’re reading this, you know it’s a bit of a mystery. 

I’M in a generation sandwich with technology. I have parents who don’t get it, and yet my kids think I don’t get it either.

MY kids tell me that not only is email dead, but Facebook is for losers, and as for Twitter, their generation never did it anyway. They are into the latest things whose names I’ve already forgotten, things which come as apps, which I don’t really get.

I remember when I was a teenager that anything about my world that my parents understood was no use to me because I wanted my own world. I hated it if my dad liked (or pretended he liked) bands I liked. If my mum approved of a new hair look I’d spent my pocket money on I was disappointed. I actually once went upstairs in a huff and ruffled up a style I’d spent ages on because my mum said it looked beautiful.

ANYWAY, I got the blog up on her PC for her, and she read some posts. She said some nice things, and a few criticisms like parents do. Parents criticise not because they don’t rate your efforts, but because they are desperate for you to be as good as you possibly could be at everything.

IF I was honest, I wanted mum to say “Wow, that’s fantastic, you’re a great blogger”. 

I wanted her to watch me write one, and be impressed. I even wanted her to say how amazing I am with computers, because computers are like magic to her. I’ll never forget the time she watched a fax come through on our fax machine, she almost ran out of the room spooked.

THING is, now that I’m a foster carer, bringing up children isn’t just a matter of being a mum, it’s my job. 

My vocation. I’m a professional mum. If you’re a foster carer the same applies to you. You’re a professional parent.

IF your child has a sore throat, you do a bit of mild medicalism; a spoonful of Calpol and feed them runny food. Then you get them to a doctor in case it’s tonsils or an infection, and let the professional take over.

OKAY a doctor trains for 7 years, whereas foster carers are assessed over 6-12 months, then do regular training sessions, but most of us have had our own kids, and that was a training session longer than seven years.

THE thing is that I was sitting next to my mum at her computer, watching her read my blogs, and I came over all childlike. I had a bit of what they call an epiphany. A moment. I learned something, something huge, that I now use with my fostering and I want to share. See if it makes sense to you.

WHAT it is is this; I wanted my mum’s endorsement of my blogs more than anything else. More than my husband, more than Blue Sky, more than anybody, I wanted MY MUM to say “Well done!”

NOW here’s the thing. When my own kids came out of school with a painting they’d done, I would gush how good it was. When they went to bed nicely I would tell them how good they were. When they played football or were in the school Nativity play I would tell them I was proud. 

THEIR reaction was always a warm glow at my engagement with their efforts.

SO far, so normal.

WHEN I started fostering, and a child did something clever on a skateboard or got a star for a piece of schoolwork I would do the obvious and act like I acted with my own kids, like it pleased me.

THERE was often a different reaction from the child. They might stop skateboarding and strop off indoors. I remember a nice painting being ripped up.

WHY? Because I was dumb enough to pretend to be their mum. It only reminded them that they’re being cared from away from their real mum. Maybe even reminded them that their own mum isn’t kind enough to watch them at play, or celebrate their successes. 

IF my mum had shown zero interest in my blogs, I’d have felt hollow inside. If I’d been told that another woman was going to stand in for my mum and be nice about my blog like a good mum should, I’d have been pretty poisonous about her efforts.

SO what I do now with this little corner of fostering, is to say to the looked after child, when they come and say they’ve broken their own record on Super Mario,  or they manage to eat some broccoli, or clean their teeth without being nagged is “Well done! We must remember to tell your mum at Contact”. Or something like that. Not every time, obviously, but often enough to make a subtle point.

I find you often get a peaceful reaction, as they envisage their real mum giving them a hug and saying how proud she is, and just for a moment, they have the mum of their dreams, literally, even if the reality a few days later, when they show mum their schoolwork, is a rude awakening.

PLUS I try to compliment their success by saying “Don’t let Bill have a go at that kerb trick with your skateboard he’ll break a leg” or having a go myself at Super Mario and crashing into the first cliff – not hard, that one.

Happy fostering.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Fostering - being non-judgmental

MY current looked-after child has been opening up about his life before coming into care, my social worker says it’s good for him to talk. She says the sort of things that have happened to him are all too common. The hard part for us is listening to the experiences he tells us about, it hurts to hear it. The even harder part is finding the right thing to say after he’s shared.

MY best friend who is also a foster carer, says her current child has similar stories to tell. It seems to be the case that the average parent whose children have to go into care hasn’t set out to be a bad parent, they just haven’t a clue about looking after children, and spend all their time trying to manage their own chaotic lives.

HE tells us things in bits and pieces, his social worker fills in the gaps, not by way of gossip, but because carers need to know as much as possible about the child in our care to do the job.

SO, this was a typical day for him (actually, this isn’t a typical day for him due to confidentiality reasons as I cannot share this, but the description below does reflect the typical day a looked after child may experience based on listening to others during our foster care support groups.

MUM gets up late and starts the day shouting at her own mum into a mobile that she’s getting a Court Order against “Dad” because he had it off with his girlfriend on the sofa last night while she was up the pub. According to Dad, he’s left mum six weeks ago because of her drugs. He says he’s been sleeping on a mate’s sofa. Mum likes to go to the pub most nights because she has a hard time looking after all the kids all day and she needs her “Me Time”.  Mum is incidentally, obese, pregnant, and was in care herself when she was a child. Dad is nearer seven feet tall than six and has been to prison for assault.

MUM hasn’t a job, nor has Dad. Dad needs money because he needs to go to all his teams home and away games, and that’s expensive.  His benefit doesn’t pay for his travel, beers, fags and other stuff, so there’s a big issue about how much of the child benefit he is entitled to.  Mum makes Dad do babysitting shifts so she can go out and she pays him. He brings fish and chips and beer and watches the big flat screen TV all evening. The children are locked in their bedrooms. The doors have had brackets and padlocks fitted. The doors were opened to push in sausage and chips in paper wrappers and they were told to be quiet. He leaves when Mum texts she’s on her way home.

AFTER midnight there’s a big argument on the phone, with Mum accusing Dad of everything from having his girlfriend show up even though she’s banned from the home, to pushing his fish and chip wrappers down the back of the sofa instead of clearing them away.

NEXT morning her eldest (now with us) has wet the bed again, and needs to learn he shouldn’t, so she removes all his toys from his bedroom, he can have them back when he goes a week dry. She opens his bedroom window and hangs the wet sheet on the sill to air, it doesn’t smell that much, if it’s not dry tonight he can sleep on the bare mattress. He has to learn. Mum probably thinks this sort of parenting is what everyone does, because it’s all she knew when she was little, and her friends agree with her, even help with more advice about how to control kids.

HER eldest goes out and stays out all day, she is worried sick. She calls her friends, then the Dad, her social worker then finally the police.  After her eldest comes home safe and everyone else has gone away she takes his confiscated toys into the garden and makes him watch as she smashes them all to pieces. He has to learn not to disappear. 

HAD enough yet?

THERE'S definitely more to come, and when it does we’ll continue to listen, trying to be neutral. By which I mean we don’t pass judgement on his parents while at the same time being sympathetic, which is the tricky balancing act. The thing is he doesn’t know his life was unusual and wrong, he assumes it’s normal, as all children do. Until they see what family life should be like.

OUR job as foster carers is to work towards the family getting back together, but every other carer I’ve talked to about this agrees that unless and until the parents get proper help with their parenting the cycle will just go on.

THE children? They all seem to want to go home, no matter what home was like, no matter what the parenting. They quietly plot and scheme ways they can get their parents to love and like them, it’s painful to see.

PAINFUL, and probably futile.

OUR own children have benefitted in many ways from our going into fostering. There have been problems, of course, but among the many benefits has been them learning, well, how lucky they are.

HAPPY Fostering