I've not been fostering very long, a few years, but already I'm getting an awareness about certain traits in children which might mean they are in care. It tempts me to wonder if I could spot a looked-after child at a distance. I can't do that, wouldn't even try. But the TV show Sherlock encourages one to sharpen our powers of observation. Mind you, unlike him, we carers are guarded with our observations.
Fostering has elements of Sherlock about it. Looked-after children don't tell you what they need very often. They usually don't know what's eating them. We have to spot signs and interpret.
I'm at the stage of sometimes being able to say with hindsight, once I know a child is in care "Yes, poor mite, I've noticed those signs before." By contrast one of Blue Sky's child psychotherapists is so perceptive, he could probably tell from a handful of photographs I reckon, using experience and intuition and applying it to faces and body language.
I can spot a family out in the street and deduce that one day the children may end up in care, but you don't have to be Sherlock with that one.
What I'm saying is that there are signs. Characteristics. They definitely don't apply to all foster children, but they are worth talking about among ourselves, because we can't have too much information.
Blue Sky put on events and social things mainly during school holidays. It's something to do which is cheaper than Legoland plus they get a chance to feel "normal" because all the other children there are also in care.
You get to watch a flock of fostered children playing football or disco dancing, and generally getting along with one another. It was at one of these days my social worker, who was at the same event, pointed something out to me.
"Have you noticed" she said "There are more children here wearing spectacles than average?"
When you take a new child, you have to register them with GP, a dentist and an optician. They have to have a checkup on their teeth, and an eye test. And further checks every 6 months. Ordinary children aren't required to have regular checks on teeth and eyes. Elementary my dear Watson.
My other half reckons that fostered children probably spent too much time indoors and that affects good eyesight. He also thinks they often don't get fed well and poor nutrition can damage eyesight.
I think the reason is that there are plenty of non-foster children who haven't had their eyes tested, and if they did they'd be told they'd need specs.
There are other clues. A few looked-after children don't seem very confident on their feet. They seem to fall over more easily than most children. They look slightly awkward when they are on the move, as though emotional pain affects balance.
Then there is the look on their face. A look that sometimes seems to say "I wonder what terrible thing is going to happen next?" It's in the eyes, when they are thinking, standing alone looking at the ground.
There's something else, I stumbled on last week.
I was in the playground of our local junior school and the children were coming out. When you do the school run regularly you get to know the other adults who share the duty. They all stand in the same place every day. There's the railings gangs, who don't venture onto school property. There's the pockets of mums who have become pals through their children. A couple of dads who pair off with other mums, you wonder if there's a bit of mild flirting going on.
On this particular day there was a new "mum". She had a foam football tucked under her arm. She didn't strike up with any of the adults, her eyes were fixed on the school door. Her child came out. She smiled a big smile, dropped the ball in front of her and kicked it over to him. He went up on his toes, grinned and kicked it back to her. She kept this up, laughing at her own inept skills until the other child she was waiting for came out.
I recognised the children, I already knew they are in care. Technically I shouldn't, but a slip of the system, a well-meaning teacher.
I didn't recognise the "mum" though. A friend of the family? Their social worker? Their real mum?
So I went over and said "Manchester United could do with you guys I reckon".
We chatted quietly while the children played with the ball, and I waited for mine to emerge.
I told her I had been allowed to know the children were in care. She told me she was a respite carer, giving the regular carer a week away. She was one of us.
She was also the only adult out of a hundred who engaged with her children rather than engage with other adults. Played with them.
I'm working up a theory that another clue that a child might be in care is that the carers are offering that bit extra that the children deserve.
Then my child came out and I reminded myself to drop down to my haunches and greet him at his eye level and say "Hiya! Y'alright? Good day?"
And do our little joke: "D'ya learn anything today?"
"Yeah but not enough, they want me to go back again tomorrow"
Not much of a joke I know, but we engaged, and I stood up and watched all the other parents gassing with each other occasionally telling their children to stop doing whatever they were doing.
The respite carer was guiding her charges out of the gates, they were all chattering enthusiastically.
Now, I'm not saying foster carers are better parents than ordinary ones. And I know that if you're a respite carer you're only in the role for a weekend or a week, it's temporary by definition so it's easier to keep up the joy. The woman told me so herself.
But nevertheless, maybe you can spot a looked after child by the quality of the looking-after. Because a carer looks and acts like a good parent, and then a bit more.
Looks a bit tired too, sometimes. Haggard even, on a bad day. But happy in their work.