Thursday, January 28, 2016


I went to a very interesting Blue Sky training session a while back.

It was about the role of the dad in fostering.

When you show up at the average training session or support group meeting, the ratio is usually about three quarters women, but for this one they specifically invited the men in the fostering house (assuming there is one, it's no way mandatory to have a partner).

We fixed a baby-sitter and turned up as a couple, there were a few others did the same.

The men were an interesting mix, from a biker to a quite suave looking chap who drove a Jag, and some interesting stuff came about being a foster dad.

The first thing that came across is how seriously they take the job, which they want to do well. But they find themselves sidelined to a certain extent because their partner is usually the designated 'Primary Carer', the men are mostly out all day and busy  at weekends, and don't get to attend the meetings much or even be around very often when the social workers call.

Blue Sky held this meeting at 7.30pm rather than the usual 10.00am.

Yes there were a few moans; what's the point of a meeting if you can't have a gripe? It was small stuff, inconveniences mostly. For example they agreed they like their bathroom time and had to remember to put the dressing gown on to go across the landing for a 1.30am tinkle, and whatever you do lock the door. Blue Sky covered the safety issues too, which they all seemed up to speed on.

The meeting got more interesting as it went on, the dads relaxed about opening up. 

One by one they started sharing about the terrible times the children in their care had endured. It became clear how moved and touched these blokes all were, how much they'd learned about how bad life can be for some children. They talked about the children's behaviour and the strategies they did to help.

One dad said;

"He's fourteen, doesn't talk much, doesn't open up. But we got him a bike. Nothing fancy, what they used to call a bone-shaker. Then we realised he'd have to have someone with him to make sure he didn't drive it under a bus.
Now, I've got a bike in the garage, but I've not been on it for years, our own kids went through the bike stage ten years ago. So one afternoon I come home, tea nearly cooked and he's waiting togged out in his helmet saying;

'Can we go for a ride? Can we?'

"Well, continues the dad, "I can't disappoint can I, so next thing we're off towards the fields. He's in the lead, in the lowest of the three gears, pedalling like it's the Tour de France. On and on. Under the dual carriageway, down the bridle path, little legs fizzing away. In the end I have to stop and call him back. The look on his sweaty face! We were gone nearly an hour and had to eat our tea alone just the two of us at the table."

Then the dad said;

"Funny thing was, I loved every minute of it; forgotten what fun a bike is, and it was great exercise. I slept that night"

I said to my other half on the way home it's funny how men try not to connect with their soft side. He and I agreed the dad had been exhilarated by the feeling he'd been a super-dad. He half-hoped someone would say so, and it fell to the session leader who re-enforced the importance of having a solid loving father-figure to all children in care.

And what was that look on the boys sweaty face?

I bet it was a look that said; "So this is what it's like to have a dad".

The partner in fostering is often an unsung hero. Our SW always asks how we both are and it reminds me to praise him and ask how he's doing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


"Learned Helplessness" is an interesting one.

It used to be something which children developed if the parents didn't nurture independence. Children who leave home and don't know that you need to bleach a toilet or that fried bread needs oil or butter in the pan or it ends up toast (me, both).

Nowadays it's widespread.

I heard that a recently retired international footballer had to phone his wife at her hairdressers to ask her how to make a cup of tea.

It's not just the others, it's all of us.

There's an ad on the radio for Halfords (I think) which says you can bring your car in for a Winter Healthcheck . The payoff is that you get a "Free screenwash top-up". We don't even know how to fill the bottle ourselves.

I find there's a danger I have to be alert to in my fostering, which is not to wrap them in too much cottonwool. They are vulnerable and during the first few weeks they are in your care you try to make them feel welcome, at home, cared for and looked after.

I had a child who famously said to a social worker when it was time to put on shoes and do up laces;

"I have a Butler and I'm not afraid to use her"


It had actually come to that. I was so determined the child should feel peace I'd turned  cosseting into an Olympic sport.

But it's better than the alternative by which the child grows up fast and big but out of kilter because they had to look after themselves from a tender age.

The question I ask myself a lot is: "Should I do this for them or tell them to do it themselves?"

If we're not careful, we foster parents end up thinking we get lots of things wrong. I have met plenty of us who are worrying about this that and the other. Sometimes I think that fostering is about choosing to do the least wrong thing, because every course of action has its downside.

"Learned helplessness" is one thing the foster parent never suffers from. We are out there, doing it, learning as we go, dealing with any mistakes we think we make. In learned helplessness the victim is stuck unable to act because someone has always done it for them. That never happens in fostering. We have to act. We have to make a decision and see it through, there's no-one else.

One of the many things I don't quite get right is that I tend to do it for them rather than tell them to do it themselves, because I want them to know there are people who care.

I don't care if they can't make a cup of tea so long as they know someone cared enough to make it for them, and that they are appreciated, someone cares.

I remember a psychologist saying "No child has ever come to any of us and said 'The problem I have is that I'm loved too much'."

If I ever have a tattoo it will be those words.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Romeo has been with us six weeks. 

Certain patterns and traits are becoming obvious, and it's interesting to link them to his past.

Food is important, you find this so often with foster children don't you? Of course food is important to all of us, but it's different for children with chaotic backgrounds. Sometimes they were told "No tea for you" because of some real or imagined misbehaviour when the real reason was that people couldn't be bothered or the money had run out. Or spent on something else.

Plus, to be completely nutritious food has to be served with a bit of love and respect. The portions arranged attractively on the plate. Food fads such as nothing touching must be respected.

I don't go as far as saying Grace, but I notice myself respecting the food and the company, and hope it rubs off.

Romeo didn't know how to lay a table. Not because he'd never been given it as a job - he was given plenty of jobs such as helping mum up the stairs to bed some nights. He didn't know about laying the table because people didn't sit at table in his house, ever. "Lap food" was the order of the day, every day. Takeaway or "Ding-Meals" (microwave). Nothing for breakfast, maybe everyone bar Romeo was too hungover or didn't get up until lunchtime.

He's filling out, he was a bit thin when he came, unlike mum, who I've now 'met' twice at Contact. She won't look me in the eye. I don't want her to feel I judge her harshly, I really really hope I don't, I really hope I don't come across judgemental, but a piece of me is getting protective of Romeo and feels like saying; "You be careful with him for the next hour, he's my foster child" but obviously I never would. It's a positive feeling to experience though, it means I'm starting an attachment to the child, and I honestly believe they can sense it when you do, and it's a first step towards them finding some attachment to their foster family.

I've bought him some new clothes. BIG TIP IF YOU'RE NEW TO FOSTERING: for Contact I dress him in the clothes he brought with him when he arrived. Same with haircuts; he needs one but he wants it shaved above the ears, and it'll be a few weeks before I know his mum well enough to mention it to her, which is how I do it. Having your child taken away is traumatic enough without the foster mum kitting them out in their idea of trendy or buying them a salon cut.

Yes, he shows anger sometimes. I try not to rise to the bait, but if I have the argument it blows over quick and he seems very peaceful afterwards, more so than me! Almost like he needs two minutes of raised voices. Maybe he's used to it and kind of needs it. 

He also shows new things like full-on politenesses. When he says; "Thank you" it comes out as "I'm grateful for the bag of crisps you've just brought me". In other words it's not the meaningless burp that so many parents insist their children say from the age of about 18 months in the hope onlookers will applaud the well-brought-up child. Sorry, I got a bit het up; I just hate the question "What do you say?" when a tiny tot begs something. 

While I'm on my pet hates of parenting what the heck does "Be careful" mean? It's all I hear on the walk to school and in the playground. It's meaningless compared to specifics such as "Try to run around the puddles" or "Do stay on the pavement" It's as useful to the child as "This product may contain nuts" on a packet of nuts. Even the negative "Don't run in the puddles" or "Don't run into the road" is better than the lazy "Be careful". 

Rant over.

Romeo also shows signs of being comfortable around the house, fetched himself some juice. It's a type of respect for our respect for his maturity.

He's not afraid of telling the X Box off. I've reminded him that at least two of the words he uses are really not for teacher's ears, or his foster mum's, and that I wish he'd hold them back when the other children are around, but heck they've heard them before and we've talked about it. Romeo's language is what he was taught, you can't un-teach linguistics, only expand vocabulary.

What's next? Just more of the same really.

I find in fostering that as long as you're not too tired you notice they pass little milestones every day and that's the joy of it isn't it?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Our most recent arrival, Romeo, has been with us about a month.

So honeymoon over.

The 'Honeymoon', if you're new to fostering, is the period of the first few weeks during which the child is comparatively co-operative, polite and even-tempered. The professionals use the term 'compliant'; it's more than that in my book.

Cynics use the phrase 'familiarity breeds contempt'. In my book, that one couldn't be further from the truth.

In fostering familiarity (and it's exactly that - think about if: family=familiarity) breeds the opposite of contempt. But love has a funny way of showing itself in foster children.

Once they are confident you can be trusted they push your boundaries. They need to know how far you'll stretch, and what happens when you snap.

It's the Big Cahuna of fostering.

How far do you stretch?

I took Romeo to his first Contact since he came into care. Normally they go weekly to meet a significant family member, starting week one, but Romeo only has his mum, and she's been in serious rehab after overdosing.

Don't get me started on Contact. It's a government-devised law, part of the Children's Act. It means well, but hell, everybody says they mean well and this device needs flexibility. It ain't got any, so foster parents the length and breadth of the land have their job wrinkled by this dictat that we take the children to meet the people who fell short with running a family once a week and we have to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Romeo had spruced himself up and was excited/anxious all the way there. The Contact was happening at a Contact Centre. A Contact supervisor would be present.

I got my first glimpse of his mum, not the frailty I'd imagined, quite a sturdy-looking person, some sort of blue in her hair, tattoo peeping over her collar. 

I sat and waited for an hour. The Contact had been scheduled to happen during school hours so I didn't have to worry about finding a sitter for my other charges.

Afterwards Romeo came out and walked towards me looking untouched by the experience. I got him into the back seat and strapped onto his booster.

I said;

"I've put your favourite on the seat". A banana.  He's discovered he likes bananas. They aren't his absolute favourite, that would be Orange Fanta, but you don't want to throw petrol on a fire.

Golden Rule of Contact for me? DO NOT ASK HOW IT WENT.  Contact is too painful, too punishing, too tender to have it's complex intimacies invaded by a stranger (which, for a few hours after Contact, is what the foster parent is reduced to being; a stranger).

In fact, Contact often reduces the foster parent, in the foster child's eyes, to being less than a stranger; you are part of the dark forces that are swirling around them; an embodiment of their troubles. Maybe they sometimes think you are to blame.

So we drive off in silence. I try my distractions;

"Spag Boll tonight" ( A big favourite)

Reply: "Don't care"

"It's only two o'clock. You ought to go back to school really, but I think we'll call it a day. So when we get home you can have the X Box to yourself"

"I hate the X Box!"

A banana is chucked, with controlled force, against the back of the front passenger seat. Harmless enough, but when you're driving you have to be on red alert. 

A bunch of rude words later the poor lad is squirming in his seat. Writhing, almost, the crossed seat belts suddenly seeming more like a straight jacket than a safety thing. Not hysterical, just wound right up. Then he retched.

"Gonna be sick!" I find a safe place and pull over. He's been sick once before, so I always take two plastic carrier bags (5p each), an old towel and a kitchen roll stashed in the door compartment.

His car sickness is caused by everything in his life, although as we all know, children who are prone to car sickness are especially troubled by being in the back seat.

My other children will be getting home in just over an hour, I can't stay in this lay-by much longer, I've just noticed it's actually a bus stop, and the bus will kick up a stink if I'm parked here when it turns up.

Foster children should always be transported in the rear of the foster parents car. It's more than a bit of advice, it's kind of a rule; Blue Sky are keen on it.

However; there are mitigating circumstances and safety is the key one. 

"I think" says I, "We'd better get you into the front seat".

It was as if I'd waved a magic wand. He was going in the front seat!

He. Romeo Tovares, age eight, of no permanent abode, without father or family unless you count a mother who may have behaved God knows how in front of him at Contact twenty minutes ago. 

He; someone who the universe had decided could not matter less...was going... to sit in the FRONT SEAT.


We drove home in silence, but a dignified one. I knew what he was thinking, beside's hoping that lots of adults would notice this eight year-old man sitting up front. He was thinking that if he behaved himself he might get to sit in the front seat more often.

And I was thinking; watch out for more bouts of car sickness in case they are a ruse to sit in the front seat. But, while some foster children can turn on real tears like they said Shirley Temple was able to, you can't fake being actually sick. 

But mostly I was relieved to get the journey home done safely, and calm some of Romeo's angst. Until next time...

Thursday, January 07, 2016


Fostering isn't only about looking after other people's children until they are able to do it themselves.

It brings other things into your life when people find out what you do.

Early in the holiday period a member of my family asked me for help. He isn't someone I'd describe as close, but he's visited our house a couple of times - for family gatherings - since we started fostering. He's middle-aged, single, and has lived with his mum all his life. She's just been taken into care after being ill for a year.

He sounded quite distraught on the phone and said "I'm in a bad way". He said he was frightened to talk to anybody else, even his doctor. I invited him over.

We took him to hospital as one of his physical symptoms was chest pains. When he came out we got him to our GP who gave him some valium. Even took him to a Chinese doctor, who was very helpful too.

Christmas Day came, there was no way he should spend it alone in his mum's bungalow, so he came over. Ended up coming over every day until New Year. We told the children that "Uncle Brian has had a hard time lately and needs cheering up, it's what Christmas is all about".

On Christmas Day the phone rang; we do rounds of calls to people who are too dear to send Christmas cards to, but this wasn't one of those, this was Helga, an old friend who lives in London. She was Christmassing in France with her French partner and their seven year old son. She wanted someone to talk to about something, didn't want her family or friends to know.

Her partner has been having an affair and she's had enough. Been going on for at least two years, she'd suspected almost straight away. Who needs to overnight in Leeds when the meeting ended at five? Why does he really need two mobile phones, one of which is fingerprint protected for "classified business communiques"?

Anyway, it's come to a head and they're splitting. She was in bits and needed to cry down the phone to someone. She'd visited us a few times and seen a bit of what goes into fostering.

So I let her talk and weep, no problem; except I've got a family Christmas to organise for a foster family including Romeo, the new arrival.

Plus there's Uncle Brian on the sofa, party hat on the side of his head, who mustn't forget to take his valium.

I've noticed this a lot about fostering. It's down to the word "Carer". Friends and family figure that you're a caring sort and maybe even think that you enjoy helping other people. I've had parents come up to me in the playground and tell me their problems. I try not to give advice, they just want to talk to someone who's discreet and...cares.

I'm no different from who I was before fostering, I'm not qualified in any kind of counselling or Samaritan-type work. I've attended some enjoyable training sessions at Blue Sky, but frankly I doubt I'm much cop at it, except they often come back for more.

The important thing, I remember from training, is not to say much, but listen, and show you're listening.

I think there are more people looking for this kind of help in our society than ever before.

And, just like we assume that someone in a track suit is fit and that a taxi driver will know how to give directions, plenty of folk guess that someone who fosters is a better bet for a kindly ear than most.

I just hope they don't think we've got a magic wand.

Mind, Uncle Brian is on the mend, and Helga's giving her man another chance.

And the foster children? They saw with their own eyes they weren't the only ones with problems, that its healthy to care about family and friends, that giving is more enjoyable than getting, and that giving takes many forms.

Who do I offload on?

My Blue Sky social worker is due her visit in a couple of days, there will be many boilings of the kettle.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016


A reader, Nathalie, has asked a great question having read "The Paradox Of Fostering". Normally I reply to comments  beneath the post, but this needs a more detailed reply. She wrote;

"This post was interesting to me, because I feel quite challenged by the notion that a foster parent such as yourself would 'put up with' behaviour like 'getting snipes about being useless, bad language when no-one else is about and snubs'. I understand why the child might act that out, especially when you point out that they are transferring what they know of family to the equivalent family roles in the foster home, however I'm interested in how you respond to that as a carer?

I would want to be (calm, but) very firm and say that speaking to a woman like that is not acceptable behaviour, so that they are unequivocally clear on the issue - that they may not even be conscious of. 

I wouldn't want my kids seeing me let that slide.

What is the bluesky guidance on this?" 

Thanks Nathalie, very important, let's talk about it.

When there's a conflict between foster parent and foster child there's a secondary and all-important conflict going on simultaneously in the foster parent's mind;

Control versus de-escalation.

I imagine it might be possible to exert oneself with calm but firm command, but in my experience if a foster child is prepared to cross the line they've crossed it plenty before, and have been subjected to plenty worse than a calm but firm explanation of why it's unacceptable; to no effect.

I'm more interested in de-escalation than coming across as the boss. The foster parent needs to retain authority, but not at the risk of provoking worse behaviour or alienating the child. If you de-escalate professionally you have retained and enhanced a better form of authority. 

Zero tolerance in fostering, unless you get the Von Trapp children, is a non-starter. You expect some mild difficult behaviours, as with most children. Some things you just turn a deaf ear to. Teachers call it 'selective hearing'. Otherwise you spend all your time pulling them up. In time the unwanted behaviours fall away, if you've kept on the right terms with the child.

Yes, there are lines that can't be crossed, but the reality is, as in war, there's a big expanse of no-man's-land and no actual line drawn in the middle, and foster children are good at positioning most challenging behaviours in this grey area. I worked in a youth club in a rough part of town many years ago, one of the other volunteers was a police officer, a desk sergeant, lovely bloke - used to turn up in his uniform. 

With the very best of intentions he decided to draw up a list of bad words which were unacceptable and those that could be used. It was running to three pages of A4 when he gave up, partly when it was pointed out that "Blimey!" - which he had on the 'Acceptable' list - is short for "God blind me". As for "Burke", also on his 'Acceptable' list, I'm afraid I can't tell you what that means...all grey areas.

If a child said to me "You're useless!' because there were mushroom bits in the Bolognese sauce, and I was frazzled or going through a patch of low-self esteem I could hear it as an insult to myself, and I might be tempted to make an issue of it. 

But I try to remember why the child feels rude or angry. I try to reply "Sorry, I forgot how mushrooms make you sick, let's take the bits out". I've even been known to reply; "That's me, Miss Useless 2016". Then I try for a smile with "Defending champion actually". Then; "Unbeaten in uselessness since the "Most Useless Person Europe 1998. I came second". Makes me smile anyway. 


Then change the subject with; "Do we want a lolly or ice cream for pudding?"

So, I'm afraid, good luck with being unequivocally clear on what's acceptable with a child who's been through hell. At least for the first few years.

I try to hear what the child is really saying, which is:  "I'm frightened" "I'm lonely" "Nobody loves me".

My line in the sand is drawn where it helps the child most, not where it suits my pride or self-image.

If my own children, or younger impressionable foster children witness challenging behaviour I help out the upset child first, then talk it through with the others afterwards. I talked to my children about fostering in advance and I keep talking. They are part of my team. They get it. Does it work 100%? No! We once ended up with an unofficial door slamming competition after one new child brought the door slam into our house. I joined in for a bit, it was mildly therapeutic. After I withdrew from the competition they carried on for a bit and it petered out.

This is my way, other brands are available. Yes, in the past I have sometimes put my foot down hard, but it neither ended the child's anger that caused the behaviour or made me feel better about myself or improved relations with the child. 

But; everyone in fostering is different. We all bring our own backgrounds and baggage to the job, and I respect other approaches, even if I don't agree with them always, and bite my tongue at support meetings.

Blue Sky's position, as I see it, and I'm not an official Blue Sky spokesperson, I only know my own thoughts, is the same as local authority social workers and Independent Review officers I've met; 

Don't allow yourself to feel abused, don't allow yourself to be put in the slightest danger (unlikely), in the worst possible instance (very rare) use the restraining technique's we are trained in.  These extremes are simply extreme; extremely unlikely.

The rest of the behaviours, which are stock-in-trade for many fostering situations; mild grumpiness, sulks and deliberately snippy 'pleases' and 'thank yous'; are water off a duck's back.

The best advice anyone at Blue Sky has ever given me, which I'll freely pass on here is; use common sense.

Your own common sense that is, not mine or anyone else's.

Common sense is, after all, the most evenly distributed commodity on earth. Everyone thinks they have the right amount.

Saturday, January 02, 2016


One of the carers who posts very welcome comments, Mooglet, has been wondering about how we deal with the problem of real parents who come up short with Christmas and birthday presents.

An interesting one, thanks Mooglet.

I think fostering feels this quandary most sharply at Christmas and birthdays, but it's probably an issue for the child all the year round. We try to give them the normal generosities parents offer children, not just appropriate gifts but appropriate loving care; and they put two and two together and realise their previous experiences weren't good.

I guess we foster parents have to look at each individual case to decide how to explain it and help them with their feelings.

Maybe the real parents don't know they are coming up short, maybe they didn't get much in the way of presents or love themselves.  Our social workers can help by giving us whatever background information they can.

Maybe the parents have financial dilemmas. I can't remember if I've ever looked after a child whose real parents had independent incomes, and, while the government give winter fuel payments and a cold weather payment, people on benefit don't generally get any extra for Christmas; it might not get spent properly anyway.

I remember a child who came to us once, just before Christmas, a teenager. She was going home for Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

We bought her Christmas presents and a stocking-full of nick-knacks, all carefully wrapped.  She said she wanted to open them in front of us on Christmas Eve just before we drove her home.

She said that the previous Christmas she'd been given a Lidl carrier bag with half a dozen unwrapped Lidl things in it; biscuits, a chocolate santa. A 99p deodorant spray. That sort of thing.

She wept with each unwrapping. Gosh, I'm filling up remembering. Her big present was a mobile phone; we'd discussed it with her social worker and it was what she craved. On top of that we did our best to buy her things that matched her aspirations, such as grown-up cosmetics, false eyelashes. We put some thought in.

By the way; her previous Christmas - the Lidl carrier bag - that was from her foster carer. Not a Blue Sky carer I have to say, but a foster carer nevertheless.

The girl said she didn't want to take the presents home and unwrap them on Christmas Day because it would embarrass her mum, so she had awareness.

The concern here is how we foster parents help our foster children deal with the differences between our parenting and the parenting they had before they came into care.

I've always tried to stick to the facts and avoid opinion and try not to seem to criticise the parents; that's the advice we get at Blue Sky. But however you present the facts the obvious implication is that their parents could have been more generous, more loving, more caring.

They can work out for themselves that I do what I think is right, and that I probably think that what their parents did was wrong.

A harsh truth indeed, for some. But it's their truth, I don't upfront it.

Anyway what are we foster parents going to do or say to soften the blow? I'm damned if I'll give up lavishing my own children and family with their usual happy junk in order to protect my foster children from knowing what they've been missing.

Thanks again for the subject Mooglet. Does that seem about the size of it to you too?