About three months ago we had to hire someone to come in and clean the house on a Monday. I hope that doesn't make us sound posh, but fostering allows us to do it. The house is a tip after the weekend, and I've got school runs and a supermarket shop to do. It's fantastic to come back to a sparkling house and get on with the fostering phone calls and stuff.
When I told a friend we had hired a cleaner she gave me a warning, she said;
"Don't leave any money lying around, it's not fair on them"
Her words come back to me when I think about fostering.
We don't leave valuables lying around. We don't have anything fancy in our house, but to a child who has less than nothing even the most trivial bauble might seem like halfway to their first X Box.
We've known couples who always have a wedge knocking around their house, two or three hundred in readies on the mantlepiece. A flash watch for him. Bracelets and rings for her. And him, sometimes. If they went into fostering their social worker would advise them.
Let me nail one thing now, before I go any further. I've only once, and then it's only maybe, had one thing stolen from me by a foster child. I'll come to that.
But I know most carers are very alive to this worry and it's something every carer should think about.
My take is that you should assume every child hasn't a crime in them until you get wind otherwise. I know a carer who has put mortice locks on every internal door in the house. She and I agree to differ on this; I say it gives out the wrong signal to a foster child coming into the home. But if it makes her feel safe, fair play.
If carers want extra insurance they can get it, Blue Sky will advise. We don't bother.
The vast majority of the poor young people who are taken into care have far bigger things on their mind than swiping a fiver.
The age of the child is the first thing to weigh up. The younger they are the less likely to pocket anything worth bothering about. Until a foster child is of a certain age you're going to be accompanying them everywhere all the time, so if they do find a £1 coin under the sofa and decide to hold onto it for the feeling of power it gives them, so what? How are they going to spend it anyway?
If they give you the £1 they found under young sofa, the fact is you don't know who it really belongs to. They guess that's the case, and hope they'll be told "Well; finders keepers, as you have been honest you'd better keep it". Obviously you have to assess if this is a child who will revert to honesty if you reward them, or go the other way.
Every time they see a coin or a note in the home and leave it alone they've grown a bit.
One of the joys of fostering is being a playmaker in these milestone moments along a child's journey towards some kind of better life than they might have had. We enjoy this feeling in our house, except sometimes when we can't find our purse or wallet. But they always turn up.
Older foster children are another kettle of fish. Blue Sky have so far been as good as you could expect with background information if a child has any kind of history of light-fingeredness.
Our approach is to make our own judgement about the child from day one, and if there's the slightest concern they may swipe a carelessly placed £5 note, we tighten up.
But. We think the most important thing is this; to make your house a family home. Where trust is everything. We have had teenagers aplenty stay for days, weeks and months, and every time we make it clear to them that we offer family life for them while they're here. They're family. And family is family. And so far, so good.
What happened the one time I think we (might) have had something nicked?
Okay. It was a Friday afternoon, about 4.00pm. Bill called and said he was running late and we agreed to a Friday takeaway. Pizza. We keep the menus near the phone, we'd phone an order when they opened at 6.00. I remember thinking I should put the cash on the phone table, ready for when the delivery arrived, lodge it under the china bowl we keep keys in. Then I got on with emptying lunch boxes and checking book bags for all the flipping school enablement forms you have to fill in nowadays. It was a normal Friday hurley burley afternoon, a housefull of giddy children. I remember going over in my mind that I had around £40 in notes and coins in my purse, enough for pizza and wedges for all. But Bill would have some cash too, so we were covered and I didn't go into the detail.
Bill called again and said he was on track and fancied fish and chips which he could pick up on his way home, which worked, so job done. We ate and everyone settled into their groove (iPad, X Box, Have I Got News For You) and eldest, aged 16, went out to a Youth Club event which I picked her up from at 10.30pm. She was a young lady who was low on self-esteem, a bit oversize, not very outgoing, and not too good at turning herself out well. How was she going to make a good evening out of it? We could only hope for the best for her. She came home in silence.
Saturday morning came and I was setting off for the early morning supermarket run. I checked my purse and found a £10 note, a fiver and a couple of pounds in coins. I was expecting a £10 note in there and a £20 on the phone table, and five or eight pounds in coins.
I went to the phone table. Nothing. Where was the £20?
I made a cup of tea and went through everything. Did I place a £20 note by the phone for a pizza that never got ordered? Which someone nicked? £20 would barely cover the order.
Or. Did I never place the note, and screwed up my estimate of how much cash I had in the purse?
We talked about it between Bill and me, and aired the idea of leaving some money in a specific place and seeing if it vanished. We never did it. I'm so glad we never did it.
If I was on the rack I'd probably say I think it's most likely the teenager picked up the £20 note I put down as a starter for the pizza as she was going out. Too much temptation. Not fair on her. If she'd asked me for £20 to blow on 7Up and crisps for everybody in the YC, or maybe sneak out and score a very Big Mac order of fries with everything and share it round to make her look grand, I'd maybe have given her it.
We asked casually over Sunday lunch if anyone had any idea about a missing £20, and it was horrible, the awkwardness. So Bill and I put it down to a good learning experience for us.
Then we turned the tables and wondered what it must be like for foster children coming into a home where they might think their foster carers' act like they aren't to be trusted.
This would be a life far worse than having £20 nicked.
It's a life where you've already had every vestige of dignity nicked, and on top of your loneliness and being stuck in a strange place with strange people, they're locking away the cutlery and making you think they think you're a thief.
We now keep the same policy of being sensible about money that we've had since our own chidren were small. There's a pot in the kitchen for brown coins and fives and tens, you might find some twenty pence pieces in there, and once in a while a fifty pence or even a pound.
Sometimes there's a fiver or even a tenner left on the kitchen table for some reason.
We don't have anything locked away that would make a foster child feel we thought they were a crook. We don't have anything left laying around that we care about so much it would choke us if a child took it to a Cash for Stuff shop.
Bill has a watch that has sentimental value, it's always on his wrist anyway.
I went on a weekend course once where one of the training officers was a Buddhist. He talked about possessions and said "The only thing anyone could steal from me that would matter is my peace of mind".
Good advice for us carers.
But for children taken into care, their peace of mind has already been stolen. The thief is away with it.
It's up to us to replace like with like.
Or "New for old", as the insurers say.