Monday, December 28, 2015


In the last post I was going on about what Christmas is like in fostering.

One thing I deliberately didn't mention was our new arrival; Romeo. It's been his first Christmas with us, he only arrived a couple of weeks ago.

He's settling in. That is to say he knows where everything is, our basic routines and a bit about what each of us are like as people.

We are getting to know him, and matching the experiences we know he's been through with the behaviours.


The two basics to start with.  His eating is below standard; refuses to drink water or vegetables. He likes junk food available at all times, in his room, playing the PC. He doesn't always eat it, takes a bite then lets it sit at his elbow. Comfort of knowing he'll not go hungry. At school lunchtime he leaves some of his packed lunch in the box so he's got food available all day at school.
He sleeps okay once he's gone to sleep, but kicks against bedtime. Normal child in this respect, except he rejects bedtime stories: "stupid", gets out of bed and kneels at the top of the stairs making the smallest of noises in order to be detected (wants to know we won't get cross with him for being out of bed). Probably more to this than fear of dark and being alone. We wait for clues. We think he wants to stay vigilant to re-assure there's no rough stuff going off downstairs.


By 'compliance' I mean responding to reasonable requests to do things no child wants to do such as pause the PC and help lay a table or go clean teeth before school. He now trusts me enough to dispute the request;

"Wait. I'm nearly at a new level".

"I brushed last night and I haven't had any sweets".


Not shy any more, except of the other children in the house. They are all older and he's learned from the playground there's no mileage in trying it on with a bigger child; you'll get your comeuppance in ways which our other children wouldn't dream, but he's not yet secure that he can trust them. With his foster parents, different story, and a common one; he's transferred his own family to us; the 'dad' is frightening, the 'mum' must be challenged, so I'm getting snipes about being useless, bad language when no-one else is about and snubs.


His mother is out of hospital. He is worried sick she's going to die. They had a conversation on the phone before she was released.  She sounded drowsy but bolshie with me. Then I handed the phone to Romeo and he didn't get a word in, just "Yeah", "Yeah"and "Nah". The absence of "I love you" or anything close when the call was ending was pointed. "Bye" sufficed.

The dad is not on the scene.  Romeo has two older stepbrothers of his father's who are with their mother, and a stepsister by his real mother who is with the father (not Romeo's father) and this guy's current girlfriend and their two children plus her son from a previous relationship.


His social worker has done a great job piecing together how things were for him, and we foster parents owe them for that because the more we know about their past the easier to understand how they are and what we need to do. Romeo was more neglect than abuse. His dad was in and out of his life; he used Romeo's mum's social housing as a convenience; a bed when he wanted, food and presumably other necessities and niceties. They fell out a lot over substances; she wanted to escape, he wanted to bulk up. The dad was physically absent, the mum was emotionally absent. Romeo looked after himself as so many kids like him have to, and knew when to keep out of other people's way, but had the normal urge to engage and seek support and affection, which was non-existent.

So that's where his anger will most likely be; when he is treated with kindness.

You get used to the fostering paradox; the kinder you are the more unkind they can be. Your kindness reminds them of a birthright they never got at home.

I have sometimes had more peaceable relations with some foster children when I was out of steam and reduced to giving them no more than the basics and precious little TLC.  It goes against the grain though and I'd rather risk a hissy fit for being nice.

Contact with the mother is planned. I'm not looking forward to the first school morning either, but then there's this;


He was sat playing Minecraft on Christmas afternoon. He was gently humming.


Monday, December 14, 2015


Christmas and fostering.

We could be here all day on this one.

The more Christmases I foster the more hard work it becomes because you learn stuff and build it in next year and end up with a bunch of practices the size of Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

And there's absolutely no guarantee it makes much difference; but you try, you try. Every year it throws up the same mystery for me and I suspect many people in fostering.

Can I get something off my chest? I get cross with all the TV cooks making endless fancy Christmas recipes of indulgent stuff with home-made sponge bases and cuts of meat you never see in Sainsburys which they tell you to 'ask your butcher to prepare for you'.

The media generally portrays idyllic family gatherings. You get the feeling you're the only household not hosting 27 laughing back-slapping souls; glamorous sons with noble wives who've flown in from Durban, granddaughters down from Oxford. Cheerful children, twinkling grandparents.


The first thing is to set your fostering sights realistically; foster children are likely to appear greedy and ungrateful. They are neither, of course. Their materialism is no different from anyone's they just lack finesse in going after the goods. And they don't know how to be gracious, not surprisingly.

They might moan about certain aspects of your idea of Christmas, maybe even try to make out that they had a better time before coming into care. In some ways of course, they did; they weren't from a broken up home back then and they often got everything they wanted and more ( I find chaotic parents often compensate for lack of care with expensive treats).

They might get grumpy about your own family traditions. You might want to play Buckaroo on the table at midday because you always do; they'll not get into that will they? Their Christmas traditions might have been that everyone was under the table by midday.

The build-up to Christmas Day is just as fraught. Foster children miss their real home and their real mum and dad more at Christmas than any other time of the year, the Contacts beforehand are tense, the present-swapping is so poignant, the phone calls to family, if allowed, are difficult. They have a wobbly about something trivial, but the real reason is because of what being in care at Christmas does to their insides.

The days after  Christmas can be rubbish for them as well; that dead period between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve; toys all played out, weather bad but not actual snow, TV dreadful.

So what's the fostering mystery? It's this;

Every year you know it's going to be a mighty slog, fraught with pitfalls and dramas. But every year you long for it, plan for it, lie awake daydreaming of the best Christmas ever. You shop til you drop, you cook and cover the house with decorations, you go the extra mile to get their presents dead right, you wrap them beautifully and hesitate what to write on the tag ("From Mum and dad"? "Merry Christmas, love...."?  "xxx"?).

You slog through Christmas embracing all the emotional carnage, remembering it wasn't  much easier before you fostered.

Now you are fostering it's a fantastic stretch of days; you're all together under one roof (you can hyper-foster), you are giving them toys, fancy food, affection and warmth. 

Yes there are tears sometimes. But Christmas gives us a chance to do such intense fostering that maybe we should wish it could be Christmas every day.

I know this is true because we've had children stay for more than one Christmas and it's amazing how they remember each detail from the past year and ask if it's going to be the same again:

"Will there be pork pie for breakfast again? Yeeeeugh!"

"Can I put the star on the tree again?"

"The dancing Father Christmas goes on the other end of the mantlepiece!"

Of course, plenty of foster parents and foster children are non-Christian; so when I say Merry Christmas at the end of this post I mean it in every language and in every faith as an expression of goodwill and affection;

Merry Fostering Christmas!


Wednesday, December 09, 2015


Romeo is settling in well, has slept through the night since the first night hiccup. We keep seeing little flashes of life in his previous home coming out in his behaviour. I heard him say to the dog when no-one was around;

"Listen mister. You do exactly what I say when I say. Or else. And you know what 'Or else' means".


When you get a new arrival there are quite a few practical things to get done.

Stuff like signing the child up with your own doctor, booking trips to the opticians and dentist. The local authority sends a nurse to give the child a check-up.

I don't know if these things throw the child or make them feel cared for, I hope the latter, not that anyone likes going to the dentist.

The child's school has to be notified, obviously. A PEP has to be arranged. A PEP is a Personal Education Plan for the child. The Plan is constructed to meet the child's needs. It starts with a meeting either at the carer's house or the school. It's attended by; yourself, the school, your Blue Sky social worker and the child's social worker. Sometimes the local authority sends an additional officer with special knowledge of education. 

It always does my heart good to see so many people gathering with one aim in mind; to help a lost child. These are the sort of things our country should be proud of.

Everyone involved tries to keep the child at the same school if possible, but the school's office need to know someone else will be picking the child up from school, plus a new address and phone number. New email address too.

Whinge alert: Don't schools send out loads of emails with attachments where the attachment could have fitted in the body of the email and saved a pfaff?

All the mechanical business can divert your attention from the main job, which is getting to know the new arrival so you can make things better for them.

Sleep patterns. Play skills. Clothing whims. Bathroom habits. Conversational levels. 

It's a whirlwind forty-eight hours.

A big part of getting to know them is food preferences. 

Romeo, like most foster children, likes red food; pasta, pizza, baked beans, tomato sauce (on everything). Anything red, except tomatoes. 

Absolutely no salad stuff.

So; I can slip carrot and red lentil and tomato soup past him when he's not on vegetable alert by calling it 'Superman Soup', but to begin I feed them just whatever they can and want to eat. I have heard carers say they like to start as they mean to go on, but I'm not one for forcing a child who's just been wrenched from their family eat a plate of cabbage.

I ask his favourite food;  McDonalds, and we will have a McDonalds, maybe at the weekend, why not? All things in moderation. 

Food is huge for looked-after children. They are often underweight even in this day and age. I give Romeo a snack the minute he gets in from school; a cheese sandwich with a few crisps on the side and...three cherry tomatoes. No fork. Eating with fingers increases the chances of food being eaten by 50%, don't ask me why. I put a dollop of mayo on the plate and said; "Goes well with the cherry toms".

First day he left the tomatoes until last, but the business of dipping them in the mayo lifted the whole thing; he ate them. Yesterday he ate the (five!) toms first.

If you told a stranger that the biggest thing in Romeo's first two days was that he ate 5 cherry tomatoes they'd think you had low expectations.

These are the tiny, almost microscopic improvements in a child's chances that make this fostering game the thing it is; a continuous challenge to enhance every tiny aspect of their lives.

Oh yeah; maybe one day Romeo will go to Oxford or play football for England, but right now I'm as proud as you like that he's eating a salad vegetable albeit disguised as party finger-food.

Is Romeo sad or angry about what the world has done to him?

Not outwardly. Children the world over don't know when they are getting a raw deal, they think that whatever is going on around them, however awful, is the norm.

Inwardly though, he's incubating stuff, of course. 

One of the many mistakes I made when I started fostering was to assume the child would be eternally  grateful for a calm, fair household and return the goodwill with interest. 

I knew to logically expect some behaviour, but my heart kept hold of this idea that they'd never bring it out on me; not me, not lovely earth-mother saviour ever-loving ever-patient me.

Romeo will need to get some things off his chest. In the meantime I'm enjoying the calm before the you-know-what and seeing moments of a child at some kind of peace.

An eight year-old who has discovered tomatoes.

Monday, December 07, 2015


A new foster child has arrived, and knocks on our bedroom door at 1.45am first night.

First night is always huge in fostering for all parties.

The child is pretty much an unknown quantity; you have their notes plus titbits of information their social worker can offload, but there's a lot to learn. 

Of course, from the child's point of view their foster parents are an unknown quantity too. Blue Sky prepare a child-friendly profile of the parents and their home which the child gets to read before arrival, which is a great idea. In our case they almost always show most interest in our dog.

It's a big moment when the social workers leave and it's just you, your family and your new placement. For the child, waking up in a strange house must be unthinkably baffling and scary, especially at 1.45am.

I'd assured him at bedtime that if he woke up and was frightened to get up, put on the dressing gown I'd given him and knock on our door. I'd shown him how to knock (three gentle ones; you don't want the whole house to wake up). 

I sleep nearest the door anyway, and first night I'm always in a very light sleep. My husband always stirs and stays half-awake until I'm back.  I put on my dressing gown and silently opened the door.

"Hello" I said, "You alright?"

He was standing there looking so sad, rubbing his eyes with a small fist.

"I had..." he said.

"I had..."

I waited for him to get it out.

"I had a horrible dream".

The middle of the night is where you become a professional foster parent. A lot of the time you're just a full-time parent, doing whatever you'd do if the chid was your own. But the middle of the night is a particular time.

Why? Because if it's your own child you make room in your bed for them. Obviously in fostering that's not an option. 

"Oh dear," I said "That's not very nice for you".

Looking at him I could see that although he was awake he was ready to go back to sleep, so I put a hand on his shoulder and guided him round to face his bedroom door.  I went in ahead of him and straightened his duvet, discretely checking that the bed was dry.

As he clambered in I noticed he'd drunk the beaker of apple juice I'd given him, and I was tempted to fetch him another one out of consideration; you want a new child to feel well cared for. On the other hand you don't want to trigger a bout of bedwetting. I settled for;

"Can I get you anything?"

Silence. He probably wanted me to get him his mum, get him a peaceful life, get the world off his back.

I said;

"You're a good boy Romeo, well done for knocking on my door".

I took his clothes off the chair in his room, put the chair outside the door and said;

"I'll stay here until you're sleepy again".

I sat there for about five or ten minutes listening to him breathe, my thoughts running all over the place, like they do when you've got time to yourself and you're forced to do nothing.

I find myself thinking;

"This fostering lark. What would I be doing without it? Why didn't I get into it sooner? Why doesn't everybody do it? Don't they realise what they're missing?"

I got up and began to tip-toe back to bed, but a voice came;

"I'm not asleep".

I think the staff of life is to be useful, to be needed, to be wanted. 

And to do something important to the best of your ability. I didn't want the boy to get the habit of wanting me to stay every night until he nodded off. So I said;

"I'm still here. I was going downstairs to make a cup of tea and come back and drink it while you're falling asleep".


When I got back with a cup of (weak) tea I whisper;

"I'm back"

I could feel the sense of re-assurance in his little voice, he simply went;


Now, I've fostered long enough to know that this first few days and nights, the bit they call the honeymoon period has two characteristics;

One; butter wouldn't melt. But the moment will arrive when they relax and trust you. And probably tell you to bog off.

Two; it's a rapid first-strike in repair.

Repair from all the trauma they've undergone. So I try to get everything right as rain; every kindness, every comfort, every detail. It's a long road, but it begins the first night they are in fostering. You go the extra mile and more.

I couldn't keep it up, but during this getting-to-know period I think it's crucial.

So I sit and sip, trying to synchronise my breathing with his and slow it down. Then I try the almost silent yawn trick. 

Funny how you can tell, even sat outside the bedroom, when a child has gone to sleep.

I creep back to bed, reminding myself I'd have made a good burglar.

But on the whole, fostering is much more rewarding.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


New arrivals (Romeo arrived yesterday, see "HE'S ARRIVED") are very quiet at their first teatime up at the table.

Not surprising, must be scary. 

I have a thing where I don't load their plates for them, especially if it's a new child. I lay empty plates and put the food in the middle for them to help themselves. Having control over what's on your plate is a relief for looked-after children; if they don't like mushroom bits in their pasta sauce we can carefully dollop the sauce onto the pasta making sure there are no mushroom bits on the plate. If onions make you sick you don't want to have to look at and smell a little heap of onion on the side of your plate while you're trying to enjoy the rest. And I don't insist on clean plates either, I remember the tyranny of that Dickensian notion from school. Green veg I hide in soups, they don't know they're getting their five a day in my house.

So there we are at the table: me, husband, our children, other people's children and a newcomer.

I'm sitting beside him and trying to get a handle on him. You make quick judgements; does he seem like a talker? Is he desperately shy? Is he ashamed he's in care? 

One big thing is where he fits into the new family dynamic.

He's youngest and smallest, plus he's the newest; he'd be bottom of the pecking order then?

Nope. We have a dog. Romeo's one step up from the dog, so he's not at the bottom. It's amazing how relieved and emboldened looked-after children feel that there is a family member who's more dependent on others, someone less privileged than himself (eg dog not allowed to sit up at table).

Romeo's table 'manners' are good. He says "Fank you" at the right places, and knows how to work a fork.

I've never had anyone who didn't know how to use a fork, but fellow foster carers have told me about children who've only had takeaways on the floor, so no cutlery or plates to wash up, no table top to wipe.

I had one who'd never been taught what a toothbrush is.

Silence. Awkward silence. The adults don't want to raise topics the newcomer might find difficult or excluded from so the usual pleasantries are out. 

In this case, thank God for football. My eldest says; 

"So Romeo, mum says you like football? Who's your team?"

Romeo perks slightly. His shoulders go up a little. The faintest possible smile happens;

"Man U"

Interesting fact; most looked-after children who support a team say "Man U", I think I get why.

"Man U?" says my husband "They're a great team"

My eldest isn't having that;

"They're not at the moment dad"

Dad turns to Romeo and whispers so everyone can hear;

"Ask him who he supports"

Romeo thinks, then trusts Bill that the question is going to work for him, so he says:

"Who do you support?"


Laughter. Romeo wins a small win, my eldest is used to Portsmouth being ridiculed, it's good for his character. I get all this even though I don't quite get why men fall back on talking football all the time, but it came in handy at the table.

After the meal comes the tricky thing of staggered bedtimes. Do we send Romeo up first which might make him feel like the baby? Yes. The youngest is the youngest, you can't pretend otherwise, it's not fair on the older ones who are right to expect to go up last.

I settle him down and tell him, as I always do, that if he wakes in the night and is frightened to put on the dressing gown I've given him and come knock on our door.

I always wonder if I'm instilling in them the idea of waking up frightened, but they don't always wake up.

But he did, at 1.45am...