Friday, February 28, 2014


One key corner of fostering is respite care. It's a good route in for people starting in fostering because you only have the young person for a short period while the real carers have a break. Helps you start to get used to having a looked- after young person in the house.

When we had a downstairs bedroom we were on the Blue Sky list to look after a young person with a disability, if it came up.

It never happened, and the downstairs bedroom is now a dining room, so it's unlikely. Sometimes I wondered how I'd be with someone young who used a wheelchair, or someone who needed help dressing or maybe even help when eating.

I wondered if I'd find it difficult or harrowing. I like to think I'd have been okay.

Something happened to me an hour ago which made me wish I could still do it. It was so amazing I want to tell somebody, and, as the house is empty at the moment, it's going to be you reading this blog, thanks for that by the way.

I went down the high street for the opening of a new charity shop, I know a lady who does voluntary work there. It's a good charity, which encourages disabled people to help there, arranging shelves, serving at the till and what have you.

I started chatting to a young man who was seated waiting for the ribbon to be cut. I say young man he was probably a teenager. He had a pair of metal crutches (awful word, are they still called that?) under his chair. He spoke with some difficulty, but all I had to do was wait while he got his sentences out.

He told me he worked for another of the charity's other shops in a nearby town.

He told me he enjoyed sorting the new stuff that came in from donors.

I asked him if he was allowed to buy anything he saw that he liked the look of.

"Well" he replied "I suppose so. But. The thing is."

There was a pause. Then he said something I will remember all my life.

He said:

"I've got everything I need."

Saturday, February 22, 2014


I wonder what we talked about in bed before we fostered?

I'm thinking about the half hour sitting up with a cup of tea on a Saturday or Sunday morning, if you're lucky, before everything gets going.

We used to talk about our children, work, what our plans were for the day. The garden, we talked about the garden quite a bit. And jobs that wanted doing around the house. Then we'd talk about tea, and what we needed at the supermarket.

Since our first placement, apart from the times we've had nobody staying, we talk about almost nothing else but our fostering.

Why? Well if you foster, you'll know why. It's partly because you want everything to turn out well, in other words because you care. It's partly because there's so much to get right, you don't want to miss anything, you share every detail to make sure you're both up to date.

But to be honest, it's mostly because fostering is just so very very interesting.

I feel a bit guilty saying it. I don't know why the guilt, perhaps I feel as though you should be careful saying that you somehow enjoy something that's so serious. Something where there has been so much pain. All the little nitty gritty nuggety details of other people's lives. The warts and all disclosures of how a child's family came off the rails, and what you can do to help get them back on the rails. Should we allow ourselves to indulge our fascination? Are we rubber-necking at the scene of someone else's domestic car crash?

Look, I'm not enjoying it in a ghoulish way. One big reason we want to get into the child's life is to make it better, if we can. And we have to know what's going on and what went before, how the experiences have affected the child, and how to help with those things.

Something happened to us, well to me actually, a couple of weeks ago and I've been licking my wounds ever since. I said "us" because I shared it first chance I had. Fostering doesn't half mean sharing, hence the sitting up in bed with a cup of tea talking - whispering actually - about nothing else.

What happened was this. I asked our eldest child for a bit of advice about computer games, as a foster child is spending a lot of time on them, and as carers we need to keep up. My eldest asked what the game was, and I explained how the game worked. I already knew what you had to do to win, how the game frustrated your efforts, what the tools are, what the prizes are. I explained how players can team up. I even knew the identities of the other players that the foster child is playing with and against.

I'm up on all this because Blue Sky are big on IT training for internet safety. Plus my social worker talks it through during every supervision visit. Plus I write it up in the weekly record we have to keep. The internet offers huge opportunities for disadvantaged young people to learn technical skills, improve self-esteem and communication, and simply to lose themselves in another world. But it also comes with it's dangers, I don't need to repeat those we all know what they are.

So anyway, I appear to impress my eldest with my knowledge of this particular game. Not so.  Eldest asks "And what's my favourite game at the moment?" 


"And what did I play nothing else but for the three months up until Christmas? And what level did I get to in the end? And why did I pack it up? And who did I mostly play with?"

Although it hurt, eldest had a helluva good point.

The professional interest I was taking in fostering was seeming to eclipse the natural interest I had in my own children.

Of course, the reason in this case is that in truth computer games bore me silly, but I'm obliged to know everything about a foster placement's internet activity. With my own children I can afford a greater degree of trust; I don't want to police them. I do my checking discreetly.

But I missed some things, I missed that my children need to have it made clear to them they are the most important children to us, and I missed noticing myself getting more and more absorbed by fostering. 

Self-awareness is a truly great thing. It's all about knowing who you are, why you think what you think and do what you do. It's about being honest. With yourself. About yourself.

I hear that Blue Sky are offering training in mindfulness.

That's what I'm talking about!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Fostering is hard graft, gritty drama, some people call it a roller coaster. The roller coaster has it's highs and lows and so does fostering.

Today we had one of the highs. And lows.

The phone rang just before lunchtime, Blue Sky. Can we take a parent and child? An emergency. Mother and toddler need a bed same night.  

A parent and child is a specialist fostering job. If someone becomes an approved foster carer they have access to additional training before they take it on. It's a combination of supporting the child and supporting and assessing the parent.

Blue Sky explain on the phone the key details of the case.

I can't pass much of that on; the parent was a mum with a toddler. They had been in a foster home, but the placement had "broken down", meaning relations between the mum and the carers had reached a point where they couldn't be mended.

The phone call is a ten minute job. Blue Sky aren't offering you the placement, initially they are asking if you might say yes. 

We say yes in principle. From that moment you find yourself on a sort of a high. You get a big buzz about your life. The unknowns, the mystery, the risks, the potential for positives; love and healing. Negatives; failure and sadness. 

Who might the mother be? What sort of a person? How has her life come to this? Can we help?

What happened in this instance is that a local authority needed a foster home, fast. They contact everyone who might help, which if it's located anywhere across the south of England means Blue Sky gets a call.

After the initial phone call to ask if we are interested, we get the email with the full details.

We sit at the kitchen table reading up on the case. The local authority sends Blue Sky files of information such as the notes of the social worker who has been working on the case. It's always a fascinating read. The real-life story of someone who needs your help. You get other documents too. Sometimes a risk assessment which lays out anything and everything that might be a concern. One thing caught our eye.

The mum was described as being generally placid, but had been agitated sometimes on the phone. 

We sat and talked about this for a good few minutes. We could have talked about it all day, but when someone needs a bed the same night you haven't the luxury of time, you have to go with your gut. Maybe take a risk and extend a helping hand, to heck with minor worries.

We spotted a quote saying that it would be best if the mum and child were placed in a home that wasn't close to the place where the mum's mum lived, because there was tension there. From what we could deduce, the mum lived not far from us, so this might be an issue. But we had said yes, so now it was up to others to decide.

We spoke to the rest of our family, including the foster children. They were all excited about the possibility of even more hurly burly. We decided that we should have a quick shift around of beds, sort out towels and stock up on pot noodles and get the food processor out. We've got a big regular cot, but the toddler might need a cot bed, which we don't have at present, but which they might have, we'll only know that if the placement is confirmed. Plus we are short a stair gate; we let the last one go with the last toddler we had because they needed one at the toddler's new home, and we never asked for it back. But Tescos is open 24 hours, they do everything. Sorted.

You usually get a couple of hours between confirmation and arrival, even with an emergency placement. Enough to prepare the house.

Wait. We have friends coming for the weekend. Should we put them off? No. Why should we? 

We are all on tenterhooks, really alive with the whole situation. A bit trepidatious, but mostly invigorated, full of hope and expectation. 

There's no emotion like it, in my experience. It's a mix of giving birth, going on a blind date, first day in a new job, Christmas. Okay, and climbing into your seat on the roller coaster.

I'm not saying it's the best thing in the world, but it's one of my favourite buzzes, at this point in my life.

The phone rings about an hour after the first call. Is it a yes? 

It's a no. Problem with our location.  The mother's mum lives too close to us, she may bump into them accidentally and that could be bad.

No problem. Blue Sky thank us for being up for it. 

We say anytime. Until the next time. 

We delete the files about the case. Tell our household it's business as usual tonight.

I have an afterglow, I've had some elation and a small loss.

A high and a low.

And I'm right back in the line for another ride on the roller coaster.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I've not been fostering very long, a few years, but already I'm getting an awareness about certain traits in children which might mean they are in care. It tempts me to wonder if I could spot a looked-after child at a distance. I can't do that, wouldn't even try. But the TV show Sherlock encourages one to sharpen our powers of observation. Mind you, unlike him, we carers are guarded with our observations.

Fostering has elements of Sherlock about it. Looked-after children don't tell you what they need very often. They usually don't know what's eating them. We have to spot signs and interpret.

I'm at the stage of sometimes being able to say with hindsight, once I know a child is in care "Yes, poor mite, I've noticed those signs before." By contrast one of Blue Sky's child psychotherapists is so perceptive, he could probably tell from a handful of photographs I reckon, using experience and intuition and applying it to faces and body language.

I can spot a family out in the street and deduce that one day the children may end up in care, but you don't have to be Sherlock with that one.

What I'm saying is that there are signs.  Characteristics. They definitely don't apply to all foster children, but they are worth talking about among ourselves, because we can't have too much information.

Blue Sky put on events and social things mainly during school holidays. It's something to do which is cheaper than Legoland plus they get a chance to feel "normal" because all the other children there are also in care.

You get to watch a flock of fostered children playing football or disco dancing, and generally getting along with one another. It was at one of these days my social worker, who was at the same event, pointed something out to me.

"Have you noticed" she said "There are more children here wearing spectacles than average?"

When you take a new child, you have to register them with  GP, a dentist and an optician. They have to have a checkup on their teeth, and an eye test. And further checks every 6 months. Ordinary children aren't required to have regular checks on teeth and eyes. Elementary my dear Watson.

My other half reckons that fostered children probably spent too much time indoors and that affects good eyesight. He also thinks they often don't get fed well and poor nutrition can damage eyesight. 

I think the reason is that there are plenty of non-foster children who haven't had their eyes tested, and if they did they'd be told they'd need specs.

There are other clues. A few looked-after children don't seem very confident on their feet. They seem to fall over more easily than most children. They look slightly awkward when they are on the move, as though emotional pain affects balance. 

Then there is the look on their face. A look that sometimes seems to say "I wonder what terrible thing is going to happen next?" It's in the eyes, when they are thinking, standing alone looking at the ground.

There's something else, I stumbled on last week.

I was in the playground of our local junior school and the children were coming out. When you do the school run regularly you get to know the other adults who share the duty. They all stand in the same place every day. There's the railings gangs, who don't venture onto school property. There's the pockets of mums who have become pals through their children. A couple of dads who pair off with other mums, you wonder if there's a bit of mild flirting going on.

On this particular day there was a new "mum". She had a foam football tucked under her arm. She didn't strike up with any of the adults, her eyes were fixed on the school door. Her child came out. She smiled a big smile, dropped the ball in front of her and kicked it over to him. He went up on his toes, grinned and kicked it back to her. She kept this up, laughing at her own inept skills until the other child she was waiting for came out. 

I recognised the children, I already knew they are in care. Technically I shouldn't, but a slip of the system, a well-meaning teacher.

I didn't recognise the "mum" though. A friend of the family? Their social worker? Their real mum?

So I went over and said "Manchester United could do with you guys I reckon".

We chatted quietly while the children played with the ball, and I waited for mine to emerge.

I told her I had been allowed to know the children were in care. She told me she was a respite carer, giving the regular carer a week away. She was one of us.

She was also the only adult out of a hundred who engaged with her children rather than engage with other adults. Played with them. 

I'm working up a theory that another clue that a child might be in care is that the carers are offering that bit extra that the children deserve.

Then my child came out and I reminded myself to drop down to my haunches and greet him at his eye level and say "Hiya! Y'alright? Good day?"

And do our little joke: "D'ya learn anything today?"

"Yeah but not enough, they want me to go back again tomorrow"

Boom boom.

Not much of a joke I know, but we engaged, and I stood up and watched all the other parents gassing with each other occasionally telling their children to stop doing whatever they were doing.

The respite carer was guiding her charges out of the gates, they were all chattering enthusiastically.

Now, I'm not saying foster carers are better parents than ordinary ones. And I know that if you're a respite carer you're only in the role for a weekend or a week, it's temporary by definition so it's easier to keep up the joy. The woman told me so herself.

But nevertheless, maybe you can spot a looked after child by the quality of the looking-after. Because a carer looks and acts like a good parent, and then a bit more. 

Looks a bit tired too, sometimes. Haggard even, on a bad day. But happy in their work.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


"If I tell you something do you promise not to tell anyone?"

Anyone who fosters knows those words well.

The guidelines for us carers are very clear. We must never agree to keep a secret told us by a looked-after child, because the child may reveal something that the carer is bound to report. 

What's more, there is one thing even more dangerous than agreeing to keep the offer of a secret, and that's going hunting for one.

The temptation is always to try to get the child to disclose whatever is on their mind. You think to yourself: "It must be important, if only to the child, and if they trust me above any other adult at this moment, then my bond with them is valuable to their chances of dealing with being in care. They need an adult they can rely on, someone they can trust. They've chosen me!"

The temptation is very strong.

You have to resist, resist, resist. If you make any contract you can't keep, you're on thin ice with looked-after children.

Your natural human curiosity looms large. In every walk of life; marriage, family, work, Eastenders, you name it, there is no more show-stopping question than "Do you want to know a secret?"

I had a teenage boy placed with us for several weeks, he'd been removed from his foster carer. An allegation had come to light that he'd made an inappropriate advance to a visiting underaged girl, a relative of the carer. The carer was distraught, she was a fantastic woman, been fostering for ten years, gold standard. She told me on the phone she'd dropped her guard for what seemed like a moment, and allowed them to play together, alone, in another part of the house from where the adults were; she could not say what had gone on. Could not say one way or another if she even knew whether they'd closed the door behind them. The police had been called in. The boy could end up with a lifelong demerit against his name on some register or list or another which every employer, every organisation which works with children would have to be aware of. Nightmare.

When you get the phone call asking if you would take a child, Blue Sky tell you everything you need to know to make your mind up. They even tell you what are the things they can't tell you because they themselves don't know. In this case, they couldn't tell us whether the boy represented any risk, because the inquiry into the allegations had only just begun, and would take several weeks. They never, ever, withhold anything they know that a carer needs to know. 

Likewise, the carer passes on to Blue Sky everything they discover that may be significant; which is actually a relief for carers because trained professionals end up with the responsibility of deciding what to do with the information. It's a two way street. No secrets.

The boy went back to his carer, no charges were made. In the whole time he was with us he never mentioned his predicament once, not at all. He was charming, kind, helpful round the house, a credit to himself and his wonderful carer. Countless times when he was drinking tea with me or de-fragmenting my laptop on the kitchen table for me, I sensed he wanted to talk. I wanted to help him, if only by listening.

Looking back I don't know how I resisted asking him what had happened. Well, actually, I think I do. If I had asked; "What happened that got you into this mess?" I would have had to preface it by saying "Before you answer, I must make it clear that anything you tell me may have to be written down and passed on to the appropriate bodies". 

That's a conversation killer alright.

Did it cross my mind to say to him; "Look, I know how difficult this must be for you, sometimes the best thing when we're upset or frightened is to talk. Just between us and these four walls." 

Yes, of course. I'm a foster carer, I care. I'm a human being too, with a need to reach other people, especially vulnerable ones. Listening is a great way to heal.

Plus, to be brutally honest with myself, I'm nosey. I crave all the details of other people's lives, especially the interesting bits, the hot gossip, the salacious titbits.

But when it comes to foster children; Resist, resist, resist.

If they blurt out something that you may have to pass on, what I have done in the past is say something like "Thank you for sharing that, as your foster carer it's my job to let my social worker know about what you've said, but don't worry, you haven't done anything wrong, in fact by talking about it you have helped put things right, so please talk to me again if you need to, and remember that all the people who want to help you and everyone you care about will be able to do that better thanks to you."

Although it always comes out sounding a bit like the Terms and Conditions pages of a contract, when really what you want to do is go "You poor little guy, gimme a hug!"

Come to think of it, "Terms and Conditions" is good way of looking at it, after all T+C and TLC are side by side in the fostering dictionary of abbreviations.

Having said all that, secrecy has it's merits sometimes...

Secret Foster Carer

Thursday, February 06, 2014

She Didn't Want A Child. Just A Baby.

I'm coming round to thinking that a common problem in society is girls who want a baby, but don't want children.

I had a young boy stay for a while who I had to take to contact, his pregnant mother had made it clear she was going to continue getting pregnant because she "wanted a girl". She already had a clutch of boys, the youngest of whom was a toddler. She gave birth to the baby, a boy, and social workers told us she pretty much blanked the other children, because she could only see herself as a mother of a baby -even if it was the "wrong" sex, as far as she was concerned.

For some people it's the other way around; newborn babies are a bit boring by comparison to infant children. They sleep, eat, cry, and make wetness; a lot of wetness. When my own children were babies I remember a massive sense of love and responsibility, as you'd expect. But I also rejoiced at every sign my baby was growing into a person.

That first smile of recognition (as opposed to wind). A look of understanding in their eyes that the thing coming towards them is their feed. A grab on your finger. The first turnover onto their tummy.

There aren't words to describe their first words.

So what is it with these girls who have a baby, then as soon as the baby begins to become an infant, they kind of put the little one aside and get pregnant again?

Is it that these girls believe deep down they can only cope with providing what amounts to simple (but crucial) needs; feeding, changing, sleeping? 

Is it that a baby is reminiscent of the soft toys or cuddly pets that were their childhood companions?

Maybe the reason is that little babies get lots of attention from friends and relatives, lots of visits from nice ladies in uniform. Newborn babies start to lose their native appeal for strangers at about 9 months old. Shame, just when they are becoming aware of people, some people start paying them less attention.

Is it that children are too complicated for them, requiring non-stop concentration and devotion in order to understand them. Children, especially infant children, need to be nurtured and policed all the while, for their own safety as much as to ensure they develop a good perspective on the world. You can't "put them down for a sleep" (I hate that phrase) while you go out for a smoke or have a game of internet bingo or whatever, no matter how great your need to inhabit your own head for 10 minutes.

Infant children need their parents switched onto them every second they are awake, and yes it's exhausting, but it's also brilliant, better than anything, and I mean anything on earth, isn't it?

Maybe this deficient approach to mothering is a reflection of their own mothers. Present day society has largely dispensed with having at least one pair of grandparents on hand to help with support and advice. Shame, but maybe it could work to the advantage of babies whose grandparents were hopelessly inadequate.

Is it that these girls don't like people. Perhaps they have good reason to be wary of humans. A baby can't hurt or humiliate them. Perhaps it's a negative type of appeal; they love babies not because they are babies, but because they aren't full-on people.

Tragically, I suspect a big reason is that their infant children disappoint them. The child isn't the doting, eternally grateful, permanently photogenic social kingpin they expect. So, they say to themselves "Let's try again. Maybe we'll be lucky next time".

What's to be done?

Ideally it's that old Tony Blair (remember him?) mantra of Education, Education, Education. Everybody should be learning all the time, only for some people learning is imperative. Pilots can't rely on what comes naturally to land a plane. Some mums need help. Education. Training. Support.

In reality the solutions seem to lie in intervention, assessment, and if necessary a Care Order.

But will the girl who has just had her infant taken away be supported so she doesn't do the thing she has always done, namely have another baby?

Well, my social worker tells me there's a procedure available which prevents pregnancy for 3 years.

But I suppose everyone is scared of the controversy which would blow up if they started pursuading girls to use it.

In the end there's not enough cash in the bank for proper support and education, and not enough courage to grasp the nettle of promoting industrial contraception.

So it's left to you-know-who to do a job, whether it's trying to help a mother be a mother of her baby, or foster a child who has known little love and devotion and is showing he hallmarks of attachment deficit.

It's left to You. Assuming you are a foster carer.

Or Soon-To-Be-You, if you're thinking to sign up.