Thursday, October 29, 2015


School holidays are no holiday for the foster parent.

They're no holiday for any parent, but I find them harder work than with my own children, and not just physically.

With my own children it was easier to get a balance between the 3 ways of spending a block of days when there's no school; those three seem to be;

  • them having me-time  
  • doing things as a family  
  • them doing things with friends. 
With my own children some mornings they needed to just chill out around the house, get up later than on school days, veg in front of a screen or do some mssging. 
One or two afternoons I'd pile them into the car and we'd do something as a family, something ten-pin-bowling-ish. Or stay in and bake brownies.
Other times they'd hook up with friends at our house or at the friend's house. 


Maybe it's not universal, but the children I've looked after seem okay on the first two, but struggle on the last one, the hooking up with friends. 

We foster parents are well aware that looked-after children need help in lots of ways depending on the child and their backgrounds. Things like feeding them better than they've been used to, getting them sleeping better, looking after their teeth and hair, bathing regularly, getting their academic progress on track. 

Helping them find some peace and self-esteem is huge too, but harder to mentor, harder to measure.

The big thing that seems widespread and really, really hard to nail is their friendships. Their ability to socialise is often sad to watch. I find this aspect of our job is highlighted during school holidays. 

Looked-after children are often short of a good solid friendship group. They struggle to keep a "Bestie". I wonder why, and what we in fostering can do to help?


As to the question why are they poor at friendships; maybe their role models weren't much good with other people. Their parents and wider family may have been chaotic so those role models won't have helped the child learn about how to interact positively.
There may have been antagonism among siblings, which is where children do a lot of learning about interaction. 

Transfer that bad start at home to the playground.  Most children bring a reasoned interest in other children and the beginnings of an ability to give and take. The troubled child brings different basics, and can end up a loner. Worse still, can end up doing the things that were done to them; pick on vulnerable ones or get in squabbles. 

Schools report this as anti-social stuff, and it can set in as their personality, maybe for life.

As to the question of what we in fostering can do to help; I think we're somewhat on our own here. What I mean by that is that all the other important areas of child development such as nutrition, physical and academic progress, attachment (to significant adults) and emotional development are comparatively well researched and understood. 


The matter of making and maintaining good friendhip groups is one of the most crucial aspects of childhood, it brings a sense of safety (in numbers) it teaches co-operation which is great for later family responsibilites not to mention workplace success. 

Yet what do we know about it, and how to mentor it?

By comparison to the other important things very little.

Here's an example of how important we all think friends are; the first ever so-called help book was written in 1936, is one of the top 100 sellers, and it was;

"How To Win Friends and Influence People". 

Turns out everyone wants to learn how to make friends. The book makes a stab at it, but it's for adults. And it's 80 years ago.

But it seems to remain the main bible of making friends; c'mon you psychologists out there, time for an update surely?

There is stuff out there; Google 'how to help children make friends' and you get some decent starter material eg

There are things you can try, but I end up feeling so sad for my looked-afters who seem destined to be a bit lonelier than most.

I've got pals I see quite often, sometimes they come to the house and we go through eavh others lives. We're all more interested in each other's goings on than our own. Maybe that's the best we can do, along with making sure, wherever possible that our house is as peaceful and co-operative as posssible, and that the business of getting along with others is demonstrated, and kind of rubs off.

Funny, in fostering even having a pal around for a cuppa and getting their news becomes part of the job.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


One of the biggest changes in my time in fostering came in less than a year ago. 

It didn't get as much attention as it deserves, probably because it's good news and as we all know, it's bad news that makes the headlines.

The change was simple. Before 2014 children in England could be looked after only until they were 18.  

Today they can stay until they are 21.

If you think about it, it was a remarkable and slightly surprising change in the law, especially in the current economic climate with a government hellbent on saving every tuppence.

It's called "Staying Put' and the changes are largely due to a well organised campaign by the Fostering Network. 

I'm not entirely sure I understand the exact new status of a looked after child aged 18-21 and their foster parents, the new law says this;

A "staying put arrangement" is an arrangement under which -
          a) A person who is a former relevant child by virtue of sections 23c (1) (b) and
          b) a person (a "former foster parent")who was the former relevant child's local authority foster parent immediately before the former relevant child ceased to be looked after by the authority.

continue to live together after the former relevant child has ceased to be looked after.

I'm not much on the wordiness of legislation. It seems to be saying that when your foster child reaches age 18 they are no longer a foster child but they can stay put with you if both parties agree. 

The next clause is easier to grasp;

Support provided to the former foster parent under subsection (3) (b) must include financial support.

Apparently the "Staying Put" arrangement came about because a series of pilots showed how well it worked. Mind you, they could have saved money on the pilots; all they had to do was to ask foster parents.

Nobody is ready for the big bad world aged 18. 

Middle-class, well educated, emotionally sturdy children from solid backgrounds would fall flat on their face if you pushed them out onto the pavement with a suitcase. 

Where the hell would they go? What would they do?

Close your eyes for a second and imagine it's you.

You'd probably knock on a mates front door and beg a sofa for the night, ask at the One Stop if there are any jobs going before joining the benefits queue and finding out you're not entitled to much now you 're grown-up.

Maybe you've got money in your pocket - Blue Sky has a practice of making sure their looked after children have some savings which come their way when their time in fostering is over.

Let's say you've got a couple of hundred quid; it's not going to last long especially now you're legally old enough for the pub...

It's ten times worse for looked-after children who've got fractured backgrounds and might be a lot less world-wise and connected than you would have been.

We had a lad stay with us before the change in the law, he was approaching 18. Nice lad, really lovely; a pleasure to have around. Troubled though; couldn't bear to go to bed, stayed up until dawn on the quiet. Spent his spare time in the park with some pals, we didn't know exactly who they were or what they did all day, but his hoodie used to smell of smoke and it wasn't Benson and Hedges, if you know what I mean.

He was a case in point this lad, because he had an inheritance that had been put in a trust fund for him. He was going to pick up a five figure sum every few years until he was age about 30. Not bad, and we all expressed our relief to the social worker when she told us about it. She said;

"Actually, it worries us. He's grown-up physically and mentally, but like many looked-after children he never had a proper childhood and we expect he might use everything he's got to experience one".


He'll buy man-toys; things like a motor bike and a keyboard synthesyser. He'll take some mates to Ibiza. He'll have sleep-overs where the party food and drink will be a bit more adult than cake and squash and the games a bit earthier than Blind Man's Buff*

He'll have spent his pocket money by the end of Saturday, as it were. Psychologically he'll be getting rid of it because having cash is a burden to looked-after children; a personal responsibility they don't want. They rather be proper children and have someone hold their hand. Ask persmission to buy something.

He's doing okay as far as I've heard, I'm glad to say, but thinking about him brings back the worry, it's a shame the change came to late for him.

Anyway, my point is this, especially if you're thinking about taking up fostering; it seems to be an area which governments respect and tend to support. Not always, but certainly on some big issues, and long may that be the case.

*Probably not called that anymore, probably should be called "Visually Impaired Person's Buff"
Not that anyone plays it these days unless there's an XBox version with zombies.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Part of the problem foster parents have to overcome is that foster children often look like any other child.

When you start in fostering you half expect them to arrive at your house with a black eye and torn clothes, crying and underfed. But 99% of any damage is often internal, hidden from the naked eye.

Many times they arrive at your house looking like the friends of your children arriving for a sleepover; no different from any other child.

I often wonder what they would look like if they had the awfulness of their history and emotions on the outside so we could see them.


We had a child come to us whose parenting, if you could call it that, triggered terrors and traumas you would never guess were going on inside her.

It wasn't so much that the parents did terrible things, more that they did nothing; as if their 8 year-old daughter was a 30 year-old lodger.

They were so ignorant of a child's world they treated her as if she was an annoying adult. We had a Blue Sky training session that touched on this syndrome it's called Homunculus (or something like that). One example of it is when parents punish children for bedwetting because the child has been told it's wrong, so the child is simply breaking the rules.

The child had a bad record at school, so the school passed on her. So she had no school to go to, and no home. A house, yes. A home, no.

Sometimes the adults would leave her alone all night.

It may not sound too bad; being left to your own devices, but left her deep scars. Coming home from school to an empty house that might stay empty for the next few days. Going to the fridge to feed yourself, remembering that you once opened the fridge without asking and got knocked about. That sort of memory never goes away, and is scary in itself without discovering there's nothing in the fridge except half a bottle of Rose and some rancid sausages.


One evening after she came to us she was upstairs in bed and we were watching a TV drama that had a lot of shouting. We quietly closed the living room door so she wouldn't hear. A bit later when the adverts came on I went to make a cup of tea and there she was curled up on the floor outside the living room door. It turned out she had been barred from the living room if the adults were at home. The door was ALWAYS closed to her. Her ears were so attuned to the muffled noise of a TV when the living room door is shut that when we did it she got scared and crept down to be as close to us as she could without getting into trouble.

Most nights the adults would go out, either to the pub or to friends houses or up to the common and either come home very late the worse for wear, or not come back at all. She was alone in the house which was spooky enough without all the memories and triggers.

So she'd go walkabout. Go and hang around the High Street takeaways.

If either of us went out for the evening, leaving the other one to look after her, obviously, she would be a nervous wreck until they returned.

Of course, we knew something about this when she came to us because the information you get about a placement is pretty comprehensive. The information doesn' t tell you what to do about it; you have to work things out with your social worker. Then it's over to you.

We worked out never to shut the living room door if we were inside it. We learned to always have a full fridge.

For a time, we stopped going out. Both of us stayed in, until she had the confidence we weren't going to leave her by herself.

All our close friends and relatives who we trusted with aspects of her story said the same thing;

"You wouldn't think any of it; to look at her".

When I was at school we studied a play called Cyrano. The hero looks a mess in the play; tatty clothes and beaten-up face. An aristocratic lady tells him to smarten himself up. He replies; "Madam, I wear my elegance on my interior"

Some people are dishevelled on the outside and sparkling on the inside. Foster children are so often the other way round.

image kindly provided by Jenny Drew Something:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


The best way out of a problem is often to talk about it. That's official; psychiatry has been called 'The Talking Cure' from day one.

But not everybody is able to, especially young children.

I remember my eldest, when he was barely three, I took him to a park where there was a climbing frame. Only a little one, but it was huge to him. He started cautiously and it took him a while, but he made it to the top. When he got there he found another boy sitting up there who immediately threw him off. It was shocking for me, but utterly traumatising for my son.

He screamed and sobbed; he'd been injured, he'd been terrified, he'd been dealt a massive injustice, he'd been humiliated. 

The problem was he was too young to articulate his feelings, too young to find the words which would have helped him share the horror, which in turn would have helped heal it.

I shall never forget holding him and watching his furious frustration as he tried to find a way to express his pain.

The child who pushed him off the frame, it turned out, had learning difficulties. My son was oblivious to that concept too, not that it would have helped any. The only thing that would have helped him was being able to talk about it.

I was reminded of how important talking is to the curing process when I happened to switch on "Desert Island Discs" on my way back from the school run. It was so rivetting I sat in my car outside the house and listened until the end.

The castaway was a man called Lemn Sissay. He had been a foster child. His story was so upsetting I heard the presenter, Kirsty Young, too shocked for words at one point. 

His mother came to this country on some kind of education scheme and got pregnant. She was pursuaded to hand over her baby. Lemn was taken in by a 'deeply religious' couple who then had 3 children of their own. When he was 12 they decided to get rid of him to concentrate on their own children. Plus, Lemn was starting to do terrible things, they thought. For example taking a biscuit from the jar without asking. They thought he had the soul of the devil, and told him he was Satan's child. Literally. They didn't even say goodbye to him, just that they wanted never to see him again.

So he ended up in Care homes, branded as unGodlike.

Anyway, here's the thing. I have never heard a more articulate person. His way with words was breathtaking; he could take you into himself so you knew what he was feeling so easily it was fantastic and unsettling.

For example, he said this about tracing his mother and meeting her for the first time:

'It wasn't good, for either of us. I realise now why it was so hard for her, because she remembers the man who was my father, of course, and those memories are mixed and painful. And then suddenly a young man stands in front of her who is her child, and normally a parent watches their child grow from next to nothing into some form of representation of the union between mother and father. If the child is a male he has characteristics of the father, and suddenly, for her, standing there in front of her is the man who made happen the biggest thing in her life, in many ways the worst thing.'

I've written that up from memory, not very well to be honest; you can podcast the episode or try;

The thing is, Lemn Sissay's eloquence, I think, also gave him great powers of perception. You'd need to be a forensic psychologist to get to the heart of why his mother found it so hard meeting him, and he did.

He's fortunate to have such a way with words; his chosen profession is writing. I think his ability to communicate saved his bacon.

You'd need great powers of self-control to deal with yet another rejection by yet another someone who is supposed to love and care for you. And to excuse and forgive her.

One of my current foster children is just beginning to talk. I don't mean just learning to speak, I mean learning how comforting it can be to talk about feelings and past events. You can almost watch the child grow stronger and more self-reliant as they yak about how it is to be them.

Can you encourage it? I think you have to learn to listen and not jump in with advice or recollections of your own. I remember years ago I was on a counselling course and the tutor said that the best response when someone says something significant is to nod silently and look interested. If you have to say anything at all, say "And then what did you do?"

Thanks for listening.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


We've had a spare bedroom since one of our placements went home. It's ready for a new occupant, bed made up, changed sheets - obviously.  I've hung the wall mirror back up; previous child said it was spooky. 

Every time the phone rings I run to it, it could be the Blue Sky placement team with;

'Would you consider taking a child who...?'

In all my years I can't remember anything in life  giving me quite the same buzz. That's what it is; a tingling. My heart literally quickens. I go up the stairs two at a time, brush my teeth in the middle of the day, knock over my cup of tea.

There's a tiny bit of trepidation in there too; you hope you can cope but what if you can't? Somewhere out there is the most impossible placement in the history of fostering, suppose you get given Everest to climb? Oh well, I tell myself, you start climbing.

Actually we're guessing that maybe the child's social workers are hoping the bed stays vacant for a bit longer; the plan to return the child was well worked out and a conversation was had along the lines of;

"We can't ask you to keep his bed available in case it falls through, but if it breaks down again obviously we'll call you straight away to see what your situation is"

But the bed is there for the first child who needs it.

For us at the moment part of the business of matching is complicated because it's a matter of trying to match our family with an unseen child plus two other foster children. Complicated.

'Matching' is the art of finding a suitable child for a suitable family. 

Much is written and said about the impact of fostering on one's own children, but what about the impact of a new foster child on other foster children?

Instinctively one would guess it wouldn't make much difference to them because it's someone else arriving who is in the same boat as them, but of course the fact is it can throw them.

Why? Lots of reasons, all depends on the individual child. And that's the key phrase; individual.

Foster children have nothing in common. Their stories are all so profound and unique. Someone told me once that two dogs are easier than one because they look after each other, but the trouble is the two dogs have a more distant relationship with their owner. 

You can't assume that a new foster child will gel with other foster children on the basis of a mutual predicament, at least not at first. 

I'd liken it to the vegetarian syndrome. I've noticed that whenever two people discover that they are both vegetarians they have a fleeting celebration of their shared preference, then begin a competition to prove that they are more vegetarian than the other.

A similar thing happens in group counselling if it's not moderated carefully; people compete as to who has the most jaw-dropping set of problems.

I've found that one's long-term foster children have an insecurity that they might be out-fostered. You can imagine their fear; that someone will arrive whose circumstances are worst of all and that child will get prioirty. They even wonder if the fact that you're looking to take a new child means you're not happy with the children you've got.

I've kept the family up to speed that a new child might arrive any day, and that when it happens I might be a bit distracted until the child settles in. I've tried to give everyone a bit of ownership of the situation; asking their advice about what it's like when you arrive at our house as a foster child (that was a VERY revealing kitchen conversation), and asking if any of our rules or practices could be improved (again; VERY revealing).

For example, I learned from them that if they want to ask for anything and they genuinely think it's a fair thing to ask for they ask dad, but if they think it's a big ask, they ask mum. This is because dad likes to say yes, but mum doesn't mind saying no. So their thinking is they don't want to get dad into the no habit by asking things that he'll have to say no to.

I also learned that keeping the kitchen clock ten minutes fast so people are fooled into leaving for school at ten past eight even though it appears to be twenty past is considered a feeble trick, but they don't want it set to the right time because they enjoy the charade that they've caused us to be late in revenge  for making them get out of their warm beds.

They ageed that my thing of buying and wrapping a small but appropriate gift for the new arrival (the child's background information usually includes interests and likes) is excellent and must be continued.

I got their drift; starting from now they will all get a tiny pressie when the new arrival arrives.

Come on phone!

Ring, damn you!

Sunday, October 11, 2015


If you're a foster parent, maybe you shouldn't try too hard to make Christmas perfect this year.

It was terribly sad that 1700 people have lost their jobs with the closure of that steel plant at Redcar,

Reason Christmas is in my mind is that the TV interviewed lots of local people about the Redcar closure; the men all talked about staging protests and marches. The women talked about something else;

"Christmas is coming". It made me realise how huge Christmas is, how hugely we want it to be perfect.

You have to feel for families who are strapped for cash at Christmas; it's so expensive. And you want your children to get as good as everyone else.

You have to feel for every family who are heading towards Christmas with some bits missing. It might be that the thing that's missing is a wage. Or maybe something worse.

It's a time when parents try to create heaven on earth for the family, especially for their children. A big build-up, then a few days of sheer bliss. Takes the curse off all the little miseries and disappointments of everyday life. The fears and worries are balanced with the prospect of something magical.

For many families there is something arguably even worse than unemployment at Christmas; the family has been broken up and fanned out across the county. The children taken into Care.

And one of them is in your home.

Year after year I struggle to get across to anyone who hasn't fostered how harrowing Christmas can be for children in Care. 

It's the same every year; massive hopes of perfection, massive run-up, school Nativity, carol services, carol singers at the door, Jim Carrey films on at 2.30 in the afternoon, trembling excitement at bedtime on Christmas Eve.

As a foster parent, looking after your foster child through Christmas is complicated by your duty of looking after your family.

It's an Almighty challenge. Every foster child is different, and never more unique than over Christmas in your home. The specifics of their family - the one which is broken up - and their personal problems are magnified by the effort you're putting into getting it right for your family - the one which is together.

You hope they pick up some good vibrations from your efforts:

Your thoughfulness and effort about gifts and food. Your improvisation to cope with Uncle Tony''s Boxing Day forgetfulness,  and Auntie Lorraine's urge to sing after (allegedly) only her second white wine. Juggling invitations so the two cousins who refuse to talk to each other get an invite they can accept. Sorting out all the step-parent complications.

You lie awake one night, around December 28th, with the New Year hoo-hah still ahead and realise that maybe for your foster child the most rewarding thing about Christmas with your family is that your family isn't perfect either.

I remember a social worker telling me that more children have to be taken into Care during school holidays than in term time, because that's when the parents find it hardest to cope. I've also been told that there are more family bust-ups over Christmas than any other time. 

I love Christmas, I love going the extra mile for the foster children. 

But. Here it comes...


Monday, October 05, 2015



This month is the Fostering Network's annual campaign to honour the children of foster carers and the part they play in fostering.

We carers know that our children are probably fostering's greatest unsung heroes and we should all take a moment to reflect on how much they contribute to everything we do.

That's not to say the presence of one's own children is make or break, plenty of childless carers do a fantastic job. 

If you are or were once a child whose parents fostered, this is for you:


All the countless little things that your parents had to think about consciously with their first-born child were easier with their second, and therefore easier with a foster child. You helped them discover their parenting.

The presence of you in the house means your house is ready-made for children.  Not only that, thanks to you being around the foster child isn't in the line of sight every waking minute; children like to drop off the radar in the house from time to time. You got the home into shape for children, and keep it there.


The above are comparatively minor reasons why we honour you.

Your biggest contributions are all the tolerances and sacrifices you make. As parents we try to be vigilant, supportive and rewarding in case fostering gets to you, because we know you are often reluctant to come on out and say "Hey mum, I've got a bit of a problem".

The family home we all made together should be a sanctuary for you.  It's home to your most precious posessions, hopefully, your family members. The people you grew up with, linked by blood and genes and a whole lifetime of memories.

You should feel 100% safe. That front door closes out the sometimes big bad world. Inside our four walls the family's rhythm is as comforting as a mother's heartbeat in the womb. The harmony of everybody's routine coming-and-going is re-assuring because everyone knows everyone intimately. There are seldom any big surprises. Each family member knows their own place and space and everybody else's. Bliss.


Enter a new child. Somebody else's child. Not a newborn baby, most likely, but a child. A child who is far from fully formed, but with plenty of character and personality already, and maybe their own views about certain things. Maybe some mistaken views, some misguided ones.

The dynamic changes. You have to make adjustments, give up a little space and time so there's the right role for the newcomer, someone who your parents will have to work that little bit harder with, give that bit more attention to at first, and maybe concentrate on a lot on a permanent basis.


We carers know how to put the hoover nozzle together, but it's you who knows the router's quirks. You know to walk back one stop and get on the bus before everyone else so you can get upstairs at the back and keep away from the annoying kid. You know the X Men franchise has lost its mojo and protect the foster child from being taken to see the latest one at half-term.
More than that you sit side-by-side with them in the back of the car having a matter-of-fact discussion about what neglect and abuse is like, in ways which carers and social workers can't quite match, sometimes.


You drag your feet at bedtime, but don't kick up a stink. You don't want to get going on a school morning, but you make it on time (just). You don't want green veg on your plate but have valuable knowledge that long-stem brocolli is preferable the floret type. You know all the bad words, but use them appropriately.
All these examples of your excellent role modelling beat the living daylights out of the carer trying to coach these things into a foster child.
You help our fostering by helping the foster children by setting good examples. Then again, you aren't perfect and nor are we. And when the family slips we try to help each other in the constructive positive ways that the foster child might be new to. It all adds up.


Any foster carer will tell you that when you have a foster child in the home, everything else shrinks a little in importance. The way in which you, our wonderful children deal with this is by stepping up to the plate with your own perceptions and suggestions for the fostering. By giving you shared ownership over some decisions and practices we hope you grow and strengthen.


Do you feel jealous of your mum and dad giving so much to a complete stranger? I think the answer is Yes, much of the time, in a small way. Ocassionally Yes in a big way.  Every fostering family has their own way of dealing with this. I tell my chidren that no matter what it looks like, I could not love a foster child - somebody else's child - as much as I love them. The job of fostering is to get the child back to their own home, and while they're with us I'll give them every love except the love that exists between a real parent and child. An inexpressably powerful yet intangible force for good. I'm not Meryl Streep, I can't fake something so huge, so real.
I honestly don't know if I'd develop that love for a long-term placement or an adopted child, I'm pretty sure the relationship would deepen, and I accept it's possible, but it's not for regular fostering and I try to make sure my children know.
Foster children don't want our love anyway, they want the love of their real parents.

You may have to deal with fears for your parents. Fears they are in over their heads sometimes. Fears that fostering is draining them. You feel these fears because fostering is demanding and you want everything to be right for your parents. So, you decide, if fostering is what they want to do, you'll swing behind them and do your bit.


And because you keep quiet half the time, about the challenges you face being childen in a family which fosters, you don't always get the recognition you deserve. I know how hard it must be for you because I've met hundreds of foster carers and you know what? I don't think I've met one who was a child in a family that fostered.
Maybe that tells us something about how much you have to deal with.

Maybe you're going to break the mould and be the first of a long family line who all go into fostering, what a dynasty!

Maybe you'll use the skills and depths that you're acquiring in other ways. Whatever you do good luck.

And thank you for everything you've done for your fellow man before you were old enough to vote. 

Maybe even before you were old enough to go to the shops on your own.

Thank you.