Friday, March 24, 2017

FOSTERING FEELGOOD



Something we're not very good at in this world is giving ourselves a boost.

There are so many terrible things happening around us it almost seems selfish to make ourselves feel good.

But I worked with a kind man way back, I always remember once somebody saying to him;

"Have you had a good day?"

and he replied;

"Of course. No point having a bad day."

So here I sit at the kitchen table, I've got no more worries than anyone else, probably no fewer either and if I wanted to I could drum up no end of problems I have to tackle and end up working my way down to feeling thoroughly glum.

Instead I'm going to cheer myself right up.

This blog is about fostering, so;

Here are my some of my top hundred golden moments in fostering.

Watching a 15 year old boy who'd never known his dad, following my other half around the house and imitating all his little blokey mannerisms. It was devotional.

The way a girl who was desperate for a hamburger after having a panic attack at midnight and we found a place still open and drove there and got her one, the way she said, from the back of the car; "Fank you", and really really meant it. (And it worked, the fast food medicine).

Seeing the blissful look on a girl's face when we took her back to her real mum. The place was in absolute chaos, no offence it was a tip. But it was her tip, her mum was there, sitting on the sofa putting Swarfega on the boil of a one-eyed cat. The look on her face was because she was HOME. Never seen anyone so overcome with peace.

Every time you get one home. It hurts; you'll never see them again. But it's the job. A great job.

The young mum and her baby, the mum was frightened of everybody especially any mother-figure, I met her real mum once, I could tell straight away why. After a few weeks she started venturing out of her room and sitting next to me at the kitchen table in the mornings; we'd chat over tea and biscuits. One day, after her social worker had visited her, the social worker said to me "She told me she didn't know before that there are kind people in the world, and now she wants to be one." I actually cried. Good tears.

The morning I took a troubled lad aged 10 up to the meadows near our house. There's a spot where you can't see a single sign of civilisation. He spread his arms wide and started spinning round and round with a silly grin shouting "I'm Freeeeeee!!! Freeeeeeeeeeeee!!!"

One Christmas morning a child who had never had a Christmas (so we were told :"Too expensive") looked up from unwrapping everything that had been on Santa's list and said, in all seriousness: "I'm dreaming, right? PLEASE don't wake me up."

A difficult child who had been with us for respite and needed another weekend with us to give his carers a well-deserved break. The look on his face when I opened the front door, he was deeply relieved. He'd been taken somewhere he knew, so no surprises or unfamiliarity. There was something else. He saw that we wanted him back, we welcomed him (knowing he would be a handful). He was tasting acceptance, maybe something even sweeter.

The boy who asked if he could try to fix our broken downstairs toilet.  He had an hour in there with the toolbox, can't remember if he made it better or worse, but I did the whole workman thing, gave him a radio (tuned to Radio Two, like all workmen), even made him a cup of builders' tea.

Every time; the first time they ever choose to use the word 'mum'.

Sitting up all night one night, squatting on the floor with my back against the wall, next to the half-open bedroom door of a little fellow who'd only just arrived and was getting night terrors. Every ten or twenty minutes he'd say quietly; "You still there?" and I'd just go; "Still here darling." I checked myself in the mirror later that day, expecting to look a wreck, but actually not bad. Maybe fostering keeps you young, maybe it doesn't. Makes you feel fine.

Could go on.

I don't normally go back and read my posts much, but I reckon I'll return to this one from time to time, not to puff myself up but because fostering can knock you around a bit too, and it's important to remember the glorious moments.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

THE PEANUT BUTTER KNIFE



You learn something new every day in fostering.

That's if you have enough of your wits about you, what with putting into practice all the little things you've already taught yourself. Not to mention if you've got enough energy left to keep your eyes and ears peeled and your brain in gear.

The small matter of the peanut butter knife it was, yesterday, that pulled me up sharp and got me thinking.

The peanut butter knife issue.

See, at the moment in our house everyone is able to make themselves a slice of toast whenever they want as long as it's not just before mealtime. Children, especially foster children, love the sense of grown-up-ness from being able to make themselves a cooked snack.

They learn where the small plates are stored, how to raid the bread bin, how to put the slice of bread into the toaster and how to slide down the lever that lowers the bread and gets the toaster grills warming up.

You teach them about the dangers of electricity and heat, not to poke around in a recently hot toaster, not to mess with plugs.

They learn where the marmite and peanut butter is kept (we aren't a jam household and I've always had my doubts about Nutella).

They learn time management; if you get the bread toasting first of all you get 2 minutes to get out a plate, the Flora, the spread, and the knife for the spreading.

These are all bog standard toast-making things.

But what hit me hard yesterday is that there's a bunch of little things which we all do in our house when it comes to toast that are specific to us, they've evolved in our house, and which are so second-nature to us we don't think to point them out. Then when we do point them out, we suddenly seem petty and a tad OCD.

For example; the Flora isn't always in the fridge. Sometimes it gets put in the larder. There's no rhyme or reason to this, except possibly when a person puts the Flora away after making peanut butter toast it's easier to put the Flora back in the larder along with the jar of peanut butter.

The point about the Flora is that it's a family quirk; if it's not in the fridge it's in the larder. But if you're new to our home, it could cause a problem.

Then there's the almost-empty jar problem. When the marmite or peanut butter jar is almost empty we try to remember to leave it out on the kitchen work surface so whoever is going shopping next knows we are out of whatever it is. The empty jar shouldn't go back in the larder because the next person wanting some will have the annoying job of scraping around the contours of the glass.

Ideally, whoever uses up the last of a jar washes it out and inverts it on the draining board so it's ready for the recycling wheelie. Bill and I both try to do this and hope our example rubs off.

Then there's the crumbs. When you make toast there are crumbs. Ideally they should be swept off the work surface into the palm of your hand and chucked in the bin, not wiped into the J cloth. And definitely not left for someone else to discover.

Then there's the peanut butter/marmite knife. Try as you might you can't get the knife completely clean by wiping it on the toast, so it's got a smear. It needs to be run under a tap, dried and put back in the drawer, or maybe put in the cutlery compartment in the dishwasher. It doesn't need to be licked clean. Nor does it need to be left out on the work surface. But, by the time a young mind has got itself a slice of toast all done and dusted it's easy to walk off and leave the crumbs and the smeary knife.

Then there's the plate, which after the toast has been eaten needs to be brought out into the kitchen and dealt with. Not dumped in the sink.

That's merely the making of a slice of toast. A simple enough business. But then again it's anything but simple.

I bet every household has their own variation on the toast thing, and indeed all life's other family activities such as bathroom/toilet practices, use of other people's stuff, whether it's ok to take batteries out of the backup remote to put in the X Box controller...

etc etc etc etc etc etc.......

Difficult enough for a child who has lived all her life in the same household. Nightmare for the new arrival, and funnily enough, a problem for them that gets more difficult before it gets easier.

What do we carers do about this one?

I guess we manage our expectations, stay patient and understanding. While at the same time remembering that it's ok to have our own house rules and practices, and try to teach them as time goes by. And stay flexible and open to new ideas;

After all, it was a foster child who pointed out to me that there's no point cutting a piece of toast in two;

"It just makes more crumbs"

Saturday, March 11, 2017

FOSTERING AN OLDER CHILD


NO-ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION

I have to keep this one short, because it's just an inkling.

Our new placement, Glenn, has been with us a couple of weeks and is settling in.

And then again he isn't.

And the ways in which he isn't settling in leads me to an unsettling thought.

In fostering, usually, the child finds it difficult to fit into the foster family and that's no surprise, what with what they've been through.

One of their fears is that the break-up of their real family was their fault. It's heartbreaking when you find out, for example, that a six-year-old child whose family fell to pieces thinks that it was his fault because he didn't keep himself clean enough.

The above case actually happened with us; the poor boy blurted out that he'd tried everything he could to make the family work; washed his hands 'til they were red before every meal, cleaned his teeth for five minutes after every meal, washed his face and combed his hair with water, you name it. But still the arguments, the drinking, the different people in his mother's bed.

All his fault for not keeping himself tidy enough.

Back to Glenn. He has depression, but it's low-level and manageable, if it wasn't he'd be in specialist care. He is an older foster child, more fully-formed than the average, stronger, less likely to be accepting of new ways of thinking and being.

We (other half and me) are learning his ways and sit up in bed most nights discussing what to do to help.

We know we have to be on our toes with Glenn because we are learning the little things that unsettle him.

We are wondering how much he requires unsettledness.

It's difficult asking him abut himself. Fostered children often clam up when you ask anything about their past or the way they feel. They can make you feel like you're the Spanish Inquisition.

The thing that's in our mind is that maybe, just maybe, in Glenn's case, he did contribute somehow to the deterioration of things in his real home.

Having your own children is not plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination, especially nowadays in that we don't have extended families round the corner, mums have to go out to work, childminding can be expensive, and childhood seems to end around the time children reach double figures, or sooner.

I imagine the burden of bringing up children is sometimes a nail in the coffin of some people's attempts at happy families. After all it's the hardest job and the one with most responsibility that any of us ever do, and yet it's the one thing nobody gets trained or taught how to do.

The job at hand for us right now is to be alert to Glenn trying to unconsciously re-create the home life he was used to, one of trouble and strife.

So we've got two things in our mind now that Glenn is here;

One; did he play a part in the breakdown of his real family?

Two; is he unconsciously trying to lead us towards similar chaos?

And Three, three things, (God I'm starting the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python), the Third thing is; Do we let him be or try to turn him round?

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

SUPERMARKET SURPRISES


Fostering is great, but anything that offers opportunity comes with challenges.

For me, and most other carers I speak to, the biggest bane is the thing called Contact. Which can take many forms.

Contact (If you're a reader who doesn't foster) is an arrangement whereby the real parents (or 'significant others') of children in care are given contact with the children. It's the law, a law passed by politicians who meant well, but frankly didn't know what they were doing, not with this one. Contact does way more damage than good, in almost all cases.

The reason I'm writing about it (again) is that I met a carer who is with his local authority and we talked and compared thoughts.

He and his wife look after a family of three sisters; the eldest has just moved into secure accommodation, the middle one being prepared for the same thing, the youngest only just old enough for secondary school.

They bump along fine. The children all have their emotional problems from their experiences before they were removed, but their foster parents - who have two children of their own - have been working hard and are making progress with them.

The hardest part of their job, and he was quick to get there, is Contact. And not only the robotically designated Contacts (once a week, for an hour, generally), which is disruptive enough, but the apparently accidental contacts.

It's happened to me with previous children. You decide to do a supermarket run and the children have to tag along. Boring enough for them, but then you push the trolley round the corner of the pasta shelves and BOOM, there she is.

Mum.

As I remember in this case, she would be standing there with just a basket because she's just only shopping for herself these days, and she sees what she thinks is a stranger playing happy families with her children and, so she thinks, getting paid a fortune to do it, and she gets the knife out.

She didn't know it, the particular mum I have in mind, because she didn't have any mindfulness, it never occurred to her to examine her own thinking.

If anyone had quizzed her afterwards as to why she left us all feeling bad, she would have replied that she was only being a good mother and trying to do the best for her children.

But the chance meetings, in the street or the supermarket, between foster children and their real relatives is always an emotional disaster. Even if it's no more than a wave across a busy road.

When you think about it, a wave across a busy road can be even worse because the only thing most foster children want to do is get back to the parents they are in denial over.

So by the time we get home after the encounter there are a lot of pieces to pick up and mend.

For me, establishing where the real family live and what their haunts are is really useful.

You can get information either from the social workers, or (carefully) from the children yourself. For example, most people use the same supermarket, so if you find out that the children know their way around the local Aldi, don't take them to Aldi. Go to Sainsburys or Lidl. If their family has a dog you can ask where it gets walked and avoid.

Where it gets really tricky is when real parents want to 'check up' on their children.

This is discouraged by the authorities, often its an offence for parents to even park their car outside school and watch you collect them. And thankfully it's very rare. But it's something we professional foster carer make ourselves aware of. I rely heavily on our social workers to alert us if any such possibility exists, and the proper procedures.

It's only happened to me once, it wasn't any problem, the mum just wanted to watch. She sat discreetly in her car with a baseball cap on and sunglasses. And y'know what, my heart went out to her.

It's what I'd want to do.

But wouldn't, because for me, and all foster parents, the children come first.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

LANGUAGE BARRIERS


In fostering we frequently encounter language barriers with our foster children, well, not barriers really, maybe just speed bumps.

Not because they don't speak English - although come to think of it I once accepted three Afghan brothers who'd hitch-hiked across Europe and made it to Dover in the back of a lorry, they didn't have a word of English.

But no, the problem comes with the new English spoken by da kids.

I first ran into this when the word 'Wicked' arrived. It was used by kids to mean something being good in a devilish way, in other words the exact opposite of its dictionary definition. Around the same time the kids started using 'Gay' differently from how I had learned to use it - as an acceptable term for homosexual. They would say something or somebody was "Well gay", and I had to respond with slight confusion, which was part of the game. Hearing them describe a flashy sports car as "Well gay" left me bemused. I still don't know for sure what their use of the term means, not with any precision.

The game being played is to stake out ownership of a portion of the English language which not only belongs to them but is denied their elders. When I ask for an explanation of their different usage of words they roll their eyes as if I'm a dinosaur who not only doesn't speak the modern way, but probably NEVER ENCOUNTERED THE CONCEPT THEY ARE USING THE WORD FOR.

Apparently in California there was a species of teenage girl whose language was totally impenetrable. They didn't merely hi-jack existing words, they made words up and changed sentence construction. Something wasn't 'Bad' it was "Grodie'. If it was very bad it was "Grodie to the max."

The discussion about the mysterious uses of the 'N' word is very important, because it has so many unpleasant connotations. So much unpleasantness that the word is under new ownership where it is a sign of mutual respect and brother/sisterhood for the very section of humanity it once was used to abuse.

The language barrier between us foster parents and our foster children isn't a big deal, but it's there.

I'm sort of fighting back actually.

I've started using words differently from their technical meaning. Preferably biggish words, words that get used formally. Extended vocabulary.

The one that's catching on around the house is "Intangible".

I had been reading the report which preceded our new placement, Glen. His ambitions, to be a rock star and a film star were described by a social worker as "Intangible". And seeing his hopes and dreams, which I want to respect, even maybe encourage, get a slight dissing ('Diss" is another bit of teenspeak), made me mutter the word under my breathe a few times and not long afterwards my Blue Sky social worker asked me how Glen was shaping and I just replied;

"INTANGIBLE!"

And she smiled, not knowing scientifically what I meant but getting my meaning; brilliant.

So now anything that is brilliant, mesmerising, delicious or otherwise welcome gets called "Intangible". By me. And it's catching on.

Try it yourself. Give it a bit of extra emphasis on the "IN".

Glen's depressed.

Depression, I have read, can benefit from the person focusing on the future and the positive things they intend to do, so that even if those things don't happen some solid good comes from them being thought about at the time of thinking.

So 'Intangible' is the right word, because Glen's positive daydreams are tangible while they're in his head, and therefore the opposite of the dictionary definition.

INTANGIBLE!!!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

TREADING ON EGGSHELLS

Beginning to see how very very hard it is for families who have someone who has mental health issues.

For one thing, everyone else gets neglected. Bill (my other half) and I talk about nothing else. We seem to think that somewhere, hidden away in all young Glen's pain, is a solution to his huge sadness. And if we can only find the problem he'll be on the way to peace.

Glen came to us a week ago, a teenage man with depression. Mild to middling probably, and very passive.

I've been reading everything I can on what can go wrong with a young person's state of mind.

Psychiatrists are just like any other bunch of professionals, they want to promote the idea that the latest thinking is the best and if you're not up with it you're yesterday's shrink.

So; once there was dementia praecox, then there was manic depression, now there's 'Bi-Polar disorder' and it looks like they're moving on again so that the trailblazers can lord it over the left-behinders whose thinking is old hat.

It's the same with Sigmund Freud (Above - although the sketch looks more like David Baddiel to me); I bought Freud's "Interpretation Of Dreams" and found it brilliant, only to discover that every other Californian 'practitioner' with a surefire quick-fix "How to Mend an Angry Child" ($9.99 hurry, only a few in stock) begins their book by saying "Of course, now that Freud has been disproved..."

Actually all Freud said is: "Many problems are bound up in people's childhood when their development through the stages was thrown off course. There's not a lot you can do, but getting them talking about themselves seems to help." This seems about the mark whatever the diagnosis, talking + medication.

I reckon half the pop-psychiatrists with their "5 Stages To a Happy Teenager" haven't read a word of Sigmund, I was quite taken with him. Plus I feel proud of myself for sticking at it.

Like I was saying, we talk about it disproportionately. But then; a) Glen is new and new placements always hog your attention don't they? b) he is vulnerable, needs help and support and it has to be right.

That last point is the hard one, getting everything 'right'. We seem to be treading on eggshells all the time worrying about whether to say something and if so what. What should the exact wording be?

For example, one piece of advice we've been given in no uncertain terms is that this is our house and our rules apply.

Glen is always getting up and walking off and leaving his empty teacup, orange peel and crisp packet dotted around where he sat. He seems to be settling in okay and getting tuned into us, so the time has come to risk saying; "Glen, in this house we clear up after ourselves."

But then we tie ourselves in knots saying to each other;

We tolerated this behaviour for the first week because we didn't want to tip him over, now it'll look as though he was getting special consideration because...he's vulnerable.

Then again, is he 'vulnerable'? or 'depressed'? or 'dealing with mental health issues'?

Is he 'upset'? or 'going through a bad time'?

We know we're in it for the long haul, young people his age in foster care are probably in care until they reach adulthood, and these days that can mean age 21. Maybe beyond.

I suppose if I was someone advising me I'd say; 'Take the long view. Instead of worrying about his mind in the present, start planning where it would be good for him to be in three months.'

Good trick imagining you're your own counsellor.

Which reminds me I need to find a way of finding out what his counsellor is doing with him, but I know in advance that's not allowed.

And I'm scrupulous not to ask Glen when I pick him up from the Centre, even though I'm aching to ask.

The other children, our own and our other 2 placements, are fine by the way, lest I forget.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

MENTAL HEALTH AND FOSTERING


We've been awaiting a new placement since Romeo went back to his disorganised mother.

We worried about him for some time, his mum is all over the place, but it's so what he wanted. He's a tough nut, he'll be ok.

The phone rang.

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

The child isn't a child actually, he's older than that. Mind you, most foster children are somehow older than their years. However this young fellow shaves.

His story is this;

He's the offspring of what used to be called a mixed marriage. I believe the current preferred term is British African. A child could be British Indian or British Asian and so on, I imagine there are any number of variants. I remember my grand-dad used to be against what he called mixed marriages. He was a kind man, he said "It's not fair on the children". That was back in the sixties, and I knew what he meant. Things, you would think, have changed, but apparently not enough; the child isn't sure who he is. He found it hard to make friends round his way. He feels he doesn't belong.

I remember thirty years ago visiting a special unit for disturbed teenagers and was struck by the high percentage of youngsters who were as described above.

Our new boy, I'm going to call him Glen, is one such.

Glen has depression.

That simple fact was clear from the information we were emailed about him before I said yes.

We've worked with plenty of children who found the circumstances of going into care upsetting. Many others had complicated feelings which were more entrenched since they'd experienced difficulties in their real home over a period of time.

Glen is the first foster child we've had who deserved the diagnosis that he is more than sad and upset, he's depressed.

As a society we are afraid of mental illness as if it means danger, or maybe is contagious. A lot of people still think there's shame attached, not just to the person who has the illness, but to those around them who might have been part of the cause. Parents of children with mental illness suffer a lot of unnecessary guilt and suspicion, as if they don't have enough on their plate.

Are we worried that Glen might represent any kind of danger? No.

We went through his profile with a fine tooth comb with our social worker. Glen has no anger issues, quite the reverse; he has difficulty exerting himself in any way, perhaps because he has very low self esteem.

He does not appear to be a danger even to himself; there has been no self-harm. Definitely no talk of taking his own life.

He stays in his room as much as possible, so to begin with we're letting him eat up there. He ventures out when the family are all at school and at work, and so long as it's just me. I keep off his case, don't barrage him with questions and stuff. I try not to put my foot in it. He gets more comfortable each day.

My job is to keep him on his medication; mild, but always under review, and to get him to therapy twice a week; one is a one-on-one with his counsellor, the second session is group. We'll get him into education if and when it's right for him.

I've been Googling like crazy (sorry, I'll re-phrase that - see how easy it is to put your foot in it...)

Try again;

I've been Googling day and night; all the latest thinking about mental illness in young people. The apparent increase, especially in teenage men, is shocking. Whatever the reasons, even if one of those reasons is that we are only just learning to identify those who are affected, it's soon going to be as big an issue as the surge in dementias among our older citizens.

Centuries ago the human race was almost wiped out by diseases of the body. Nowadays we are so much better at tackling what used to be called plagues.

In a century's time we might be on top of the causes and proper treatments of the mental illnesses that are now starting to overwhelm our young.

The thing I'm starting to believe is that while most physical ailments fit into a neat category, with an equally neat prescribed treatment; the fact is that I think every mental illness is as unique as the person. And as if that's not complicating things enough; I believe the illness changes not just from day to day, but almost in the blink of an eye. I'm talking about more than mere mood swings here.

What to do then, for Glen and other looked after-children like him?

I don't know. Keep up the love. Be patient and understanding. Look after my own happiness (being at home all day with no-one to talk to but someone whose take on reality is askew can be a bit gruelling).

Look after my family's happiness.