I'm still finding one of the big things in fostering a bit of a headache, it's this: I'm never sure exactly what to say about foster children's real parents, when they bring the subject up.
The children and young people who turn up on your doorstep, usually standing just behind the social workers who bring them to your house, are all very very different but at the same time have one big thing in common, namely that their home life has collapsed.
The reasons behind the collapse are unique to each case. The children are placed in Care for two main reasons; Neglect and Abuse, which take many forms. There can be other reasons but nine times out of ten you're finding room in your life for a child who has a justifiable grievance about the way their parents behaved towards them. This is the thing; they have a solid case for being highly judgemental about their real mother and father.
The thing is, it seems they don't know what to think and feel about their mother and father. So they usually clam up. They act very protectively about their past, as if it's the one thing that truly belongs to them and no-one else, which is a great big truth when you think about it.
It's true for all of us I suppose. Our past is something we have shaped and coloured with our own preferences. I remember being about 30 years old before it dawned on me that my own childhood wasn't as rosy as I'd always told myself it was. When I became aware of the cracks and blemishes in my upbringing I oversteered and ended up seeing myself as some kind of victim. I hope I've got a proper perspective on it now, at last.
Looked-after children have the same problem, only it's much bigger. They find themselves removed from their parents, which means that someone thinks that someone has done something very wrong. They'll get told often enough that it's not their fault, and they might get told the facts of their case. The facts. Facts are good because there's no opinion, although it's tricky telling a small child "facts" because the "facts" often involve complicated things like family court or drug dependency.
I don't ask about their home life, but once they get to know you, they start dropping little things into conversations, as if they are testing their own concept of their real parents.
That's when I really find things tricky. Because whilst you have to stay loyal to the decision that they are cared for, you have to be very careful not to go too far and diss the child's real parents, because no matter how hellish their lives were, they love them, and want to be loved by them.
All foster carers know exactly what I'm on about. It's something we often talk about when we get together at Blue Sky team meetings, usually during the coffee breaks.
The more I think about it the harder it gets. I've tried making a distinction between doing something bad and being a bad person so that I might say to a child it was wrong to put a padlock on the child's bedroom door and lock them in all day, but at the same time their mummy probably wasn't herself when she did it, she was very upset. An expert might say this approach is wrong because I'm using "conjecture" that the mum was a victim too, which I am, but if I diss the child's mum he might resent me, and that would make life difficult in my home, and while the expert is sitting at home after work quietly watching telly I'm trying to persuade a frightened angry child to come out of our bathroom.
I've also tried blissful ignorance where you say "That must have been not very nice for you, but I wasn't there so I don't know why that happened".
Then there are the probings about their future, which can be subtle such as keeping their suitcase packed or a blunt "When am I going home?"
The real answer might be "Not until your mother stops with the drugs and sleeping around and your father stops beating up your mother and anybody else in the room, and they start loving each other and looking after themselves and even more importantly learn to look after you properly". Don't think for one minute I haven't been sorely tempted to blurt it out. But it would be unprofessional. The proper reply is to begin explaining the legal and procedural process, which they usually find so boring and confusing they lose interest.
We had one child stay with us who wrote a letter home. He showed it to us but he never sent it. It said to his mother that he'd found out what a mother should be like, and that she had been rubbish.
So maybe, deep down, they know the truth, even the truth about why their foster carer is caring enough to take care about how she talks about the child's real parents; being non-judgemental and respectful.