Tuesday, August 20, 2019

"CAN I GET A DOG?"

Eldest foster child is away having a sleepover with a mate - who also happens to be a looked-after child.

House considerably quieter. It's not that he's loud it's that often the presence of foster children in your home means you're always slightly more alert than when you're alone or with your own brood.

Actually, I'll tell you something interesting, quite revealing...

When I say he's not loud I really mean it. He keeps himself to himself. Getting information out of him is like getting blood from a stone. He's the king of the one-word answer, a maestro of the time-honoured teenage one-answer-fits-all; "Dunno" or "Maybe".

eg; the "conversation" just before he left for his friend's house went;

Me: "What time are you leaving?"

Him: "Dunno."

Me; "What are you and Charlie going to get up to?"

Him "Dunno."

Me; "Is it just you and Charlie for the sleepover?"

Him: Dunno. Maybe."

Scintillating stuff!

However, last night he sent me a text message;

"Can I get a dog?"

I texted back; "I don't think dad's up for it."

Cut a very long story short, we spent the evening locked in text conversation. We swapped thoughts about getting him a dog, doing better with his maths, which teachers he likes best and why, what Charlie's family are like, how come Charlie is fostered, what he had to eat for tea - they went out -, what the restaurant was like, what he thought of the film they were watching while he was texting me, and much much more.

A total of 108 texts from him!!! This is a comparative encyclopaedia (remember those?) of information on him.

But it was more than that. The information was gold dust, but the mutual affection was platinum.

The texts were grammatically sound and spellchecker had done its job, which I took to be respectful of him. There were a few text shortcuts I had to look up (eg OOF - meaning "I'm relieved") and never a full stop at the end, which I understand is a signal of intimacy, a conversational trick to welcome a reply.

Our chat got to the stage where my phone pinged every 30 seconds.

It felt SO good, I felt like his mum and his best friend rolled into one.

He was missing me!

It's fashionable among older people to sneer at kids always on their phones. I bet if some long-faced goat had seen my foster lad texting away he'd have had a boring moan about whatever happened to conversation.

Maybe the kids way is better.

If it hadn't been for his mobile phone our relationship wouldn't have risen to a new level.

It was absolutely glorious, with only one minor fly in the ointment...

He doesn't merely want a dog, oh no.

He wants a husky. Yep, a HUSKY. Requiring a garden the size of Wales plus two to four walkies a day, of up to eight miles.

My plan, as usual on the "Can I have a dog/snake/monkey?" request* is to allow it to be forgotten until the next time.

But neither of us will forget that text chat, it was beyond heart-warming for both of us.

Another fantastic fostering moment.



*BTW  So far in fostering I've been asked; "Can I have a..."
...goldfish, tropical aquarium, formicarium (ant house), newt, terrapin, piranha, tarantula, giant centipede, hamster, gerbil, mouse, rabbit, budgerigar, parrot, cockatoo, kestrel(!), dog, cat, Maine giant cat, rhesus monkey, python, anaconda and a two-foot lizard called a blue-tongued skink.

Makes you wonder if maybe Noah was merely a Foster Carer who didn't know how to say no.



Monday, August 12, 2019

'WHY ARE YOU SO NICE?"

"Why are you so nice?"

The above question remains a memorable moment from my early days in fostering. It's up there  among the reasons why I've stayed fostered and keep on doing it.

His name was Kevin.

He didn't like his name, he told me that.

I asked him what he'd like to be called and he said "Jamie".

So I called him Jamie. How hard is that?

Jamie was very compliant the first few days. Then, when he was confident that we would love and respect him even if he let it all out, he had a meltdown. Nothing big; tears at bedtime, toys out of the pram. It was a Thursday night.

I remember with chilling clarity this dear little boy saying to me...

(Look, as the Secret Foster Carer I must ensure no child - or anyone who knows them - can ever identify the child should they happen upon this blog, but if this child ever reads this he might possibly recognise himself and so I apologise to him now and hope he understands that his courage and courtesy is worth passing on).

He said to me...

"If you were away from your mummy and you thought that something terrible was going to happen to her then you'd be frightened."

He was seven years old.

Jamie (Kevin) had learned that his job in the world was to find ways to protect his mum. Aged seven. Go imagine.

If you try to remember your life when you were seven years old, I bet that (like mine) yours wasn't perfect, but compared to having to...what? Stand in the way of men ten times your size? Find tricks to lessen impending violence? Keep your mum from doing another needle? Help her stagger upstairs and get into bed? Talk her out of jumping?

What did he mean? I asked but he was too anxious to tell me.

I reported all to my Blue Sky Social Worker and she and I pieced together that Thursday nights (it had been a Thursday) was a big night in Jamie's house, people had money. Thursday was what they called 'Payday' - when the benefits (as was) were paid out. Thursday night in Jamie's home was probably pub, pick-up, takeaway... back to her place...all the trimmings.. all sorts of goings on.

I tried to talk to Jamie about his home life, and keep him informed that his mum was straightening out. And it slowly dawned on me what he meant about me being 'Nice'.

It wasn't any big thing such as getting an overview on his case and developing a programme of targets and markers aimed at reconciling him with his significant others. That's the job, BTW, right there. That's the scientific role of the Foster Carer.

It wasn't even that I tried to provide a warm loving environment, and re-channelling information about his situation, re-defining his world in such a way as to ease his troubled mind - although that's the humanity of being a foster mum, right there.

It was just that I looked up with a smile when he came into the kitchen. I never said a word if he was late for the table. I cut off his crusts without ever banging on that they were good for him. I tidied his bedroom when he wasn't around and never mentioned the apple core under his bed.

I don't want to be seen to judge other parents, but I've seen a lot of parenting going on.

And blimey, don't some parents go on? On and on;

If I had a pound for every time I heard a lazy mum or dad look round from their chats with each other at the school railings and shout "Oi! Be careful!" because their child is running I could upgrade our Peugeot.

When I say 'lazy' I mean they don't take the trouble to understand what information the child can take on board and process what they say so that it doesn't come across as constant rebuke.

That is the world of the average child - whether they're in care or not. An unending chorus from adults of what NOT to do and what they have most recently done WRONG.

You see it over and over again when you take a foster child to Contact and their real parent claps eyes on them. Nine times out of ten their first remark is telling, here are a few genuine ones I remember;

"Look at your hair, forgotten how to use a comb?"

"Stop that disgusting sniffing, where's your handkerchief?"

"Come straight here. Now! Stop wandering everywhere."

"Charming. No nice hug for your mum then?"

Parents will say that they mean well, but I've always thought that defence is a cop-out.

All they have to do is show they care, really care. Show it so the child feels appreciated.

When Jamie's mother barked at him to get down from the foot-high wall which lined the stairs leading up to his Contact Centre I saw his spirits fall. 

When we left, just him and me, I said to him;

"You've got fantastic balance. See if you can walk down the little walk."

So he did. Got to the  bottom without falling off, and jumped down the six inches to the ground with aplomb.

Job done. Great job too, is fostering.







Sunday, August 04, 2019

THE PROBLEM HIERARCHY

It was a red letter day in the Secret Foster Carer's kitchen this morning!

Something I have been working on for about 30 years finally fell into place; to perfection. Absolute perfection. A perfection that can only be reached with non-human affairs.

Human relationships never seem to fall exactly into place - especially within a family.

And that can go double within a fostering family.

Let's not beat about the bush; family affairs are very... how shall I put it? Let's try "uneven". You never know when you wake up every morning who is going to be up and who is going to be down, or why the downs are downs and what if anything can be done.

I have a friend who tragically lost a son. It was a while ago now, and she and her husband and remaining children are making the best of it. I drop in for a cup of something every so often and we talk. We talk all over the place, but almost always find a moment to talk about their loss.

Last time I was there she explained how her wider family (her parents, brothers and sisters) were having trouble with something, a syndrome that my friend heard about from her counsellor (she sees someone once a week, finds it very helpful).

The thing her family were having trouble with is called the Problem Hierarchy.

The Problem Hierarchy works like this; within a family group,  even if the members are scattered around the home, even if separated  by work or school or because they live apart, they are aware of their own personal selves and their own feelings, especially their fears and problems. More to the point they are aware of how their own personal problems square up against those of the other members of the group. Because humans are social animals we crave company, especially company which offers us sympathy and support. We learn from an early age that a great way of getting what we need is to let people who are close to us know that we have problems.  This understanding comes to us at a very early age when we discover that skinning a knee gets lots of sympathy.

I've been to Blue Sky training sessions where we discussed how it's a good idea to reward a child who has played happily by herself by approaching her and showing interest, otherwise the child will learn that the only way they get your attention is by initiating a problem and getting upset.

My friend told me that her family were becoming uneasy because there was no way any of them could go to her with their problems because the loss of a child is so high up the Problem Hierarchy they fear they would appear thoughtless.

All this leads me to how the Problem Hierarchy affects us in fostering.

It's simple; it's highly unlikely that anyone else under your roof will have day-to-day problems that outweigh those of any foster child in your care. So you have to manage things accordingly.  Perhaps the foster child is aware of this and takes comfort in knowing that they have the broadest back, and that nothing that is going to be discussed at the table will match what they're dealing with.

The permutations are endless, and as with most things in fostering the Carer simply has to be on her toes all the time. There are moments to let the foster child have centre stage, and moments to ask the foster child to advise your own husband on what he should do about the neighbour who works noisily on his car until eleven o'clock at night.

As I said earlier, human relations never fall exactly into place. You can measure a child's height, but their emotional disposition is not only impossible to gauge, but it can change dramatically. A foster child can be 9 foot tall one minute and 3 inches tall seconds later. Only there's no easy way of knowing their emotional size at any given moment especially as you haven't seen them develop from day one, a factor which helps spot the feelings within your own brood.

Problem Hierarchy is another giddy challenge for the Foster Carer, another reason why this job is so fascinating.

But back to my big news. What was the achievement of a lifetime in my kitchen this morning?

Well, I finally managed something I have been accidentally working towards ever since I first had a kitchen to call my own. What happened was;

On my supermarket run this morning I had bought some fresh ground coffee (one of my foster children's nurse is visiting later and she prefers proper coffee to instant, and I enjoy a hit of fresh caffeine now and then too.

When I got home I needed an airtight Tupperware container to put the coffee in and store in the fridge.

I went to the back of the cupboard where my Tupperware lurks, and there it was; piled and ready to reveal to me my shining achievement. Which is that...

...my collection of assorted containers and lids (about 20 pieces in all) consisted of NOTHING but unmatchables.

Yep, every single container had lost its matching lid, and every single lid had lost its matching container.

I closed the foil coffee pack with a peg and as I put it in the fridge reflected on two of my human frailties. One; I will probably NEVER throw out the 20 useless pieces because a small voice tells me that maybe their partners will somehow turn up (stupid). Two; I felt a curious satisfaction that a measurable perfection in the world of objects, that could never be achieved in any human affairs, had at least come into my life this morning, namely that my Tupperware collection was 100% useless.

Not 50%, or even 90%. It was a watertight absolute.

And, thought I'm convinced there are no absolutes in human interaction, and in fostering you'll never play a perfect game, but I'm pretty much 100% certain that in fostering you're part of a perfect game.



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

THERE'S A BIT OF SECRET FOSTERING IN ALL FOSTERING

One thing that's always struck me in fostering is that the poor dears who come to us for care often open up about their lives; but not always to their Foster Carers.

We find out in roundabout ways that they have talked to their Physics teacher, or maybe they've opened up to your nephew at a family barbecue.

I know it's pathetic of me but every time it happens I feel a tiny bit jilted. My logical brain tells me that a troubled child would surely seek out the person who cares for them, shelters, feeds and protects them.

I have to remind myself that my own children didn't reveal much of their fears and frailties. My friends said it was the same with their children. I put it down to some sort of natural order of things.

This happened once;

A foster child called Ricky had been with us for six months. He was a lad who spent most of his time being silent, some might say sullen but I found him simply in need of an arm round his shoulder. Every so often he'd let off steam and you just had to facilitate. In other words just stay away, let the child expel their negative feelings. The emotion doesn't last very long and they're at peace for days and weeks, sometimes months  afterwards.

I wanted to try to get to the bottom of his sadness and anger. I hoped I could help him. Fix things.  But Ricky was an absolutely closed book.

Well, towards me he was.

But he clicked with...his hairdresser!

This hairdresser is the same one I use. One day Ricky told me that the haircuts I gave him were not up to much, so I booked him into the place I go to and his hair was cut by Trish who is a nice person, very trendy. She wears black, has various piercings, a few bits of body art, and has a girlfriend.

Ricky opened up to Mandy to such an extent that Trish felt she should chat with me about it the next time I was in her chair. I should say at this point that Trish is such a good friend that she's part of my network. That said, I wouldn't tell her anything about my placements that would compromise their privacy. But if a foster child of mine confides to a third party I'm right to hear what transpired so I can assess whether to build it into my fostering.

So. Ricky told Trish that he was a bit gay. Well; "maybe".

Of course I could see straight away he was never likely to tell me that. Or probably never tell anyone, at least not for a while, except luckily my hairdresser.

Obviously once I discovered this my feelings for him went to a new high; this was a foster child who needed all the support I could muster. But I couldn't reveal what Trish had fed back to me.

I raised it with my Blue Sky Social Worker and we agreed that if Trish had become someone Ricky could trust and wanted to talk with we should allow it to happen; but that it would be confined to professional encounters (only when Ricky is getting his hair cut. Trish is a £30 per cut hairdresser, but it was worth every penny to book Ricky in for a 'trim' once a fortnight.

The end result was a relatively happy lad.

Who had excellent hair.

And a Foster Carer who was also happy that the job was getting done one way or another.

Listen; if you're thinking about trying fostering. Do it.

The good you will do is second to none; especially when you learn how to mange things from the background.







Friday, July 19, 2019

WHY FOSTERING IS LIKE THE INTERNET

I used to go to Sunday school when I was little and found out after a couple of years why my parents - who doubted the God thing themselves  - sent me. I'll save that bit to last, it's quite juicy.

Only, I remember exactly where I was when I too began to doubt the whole God thing. I was in church. At Sunday School.

A guest vicar got up to give us a sermon and he started it like this:

"Hello children. I'm sure you all have bicycles. Well in a way, Jesus is like a bicycle..."

And on he went. And on.

And on.

His thing of liking something to something it clearly is very unlike began the thought in me that maybe it's down to me to come up with a code to live by, and St Peter can fact-check me at the gates. And basically that's how I get by.

The guest vicar also turned me off poor metaphors. But there are some I like, such as this one:

"Fostering is a bit like the internet."

As in;

Sometimes you try to log onto the internet and can't get a connection. Or else it's painfully slow.

So you restart. 

No better.

You switch off and leave it for a minute.

No better.

You go to Settings and check your connection. You re-select your wi-fi code. You check your phone and it's not connected either. You turn off your router and turn it on again. Your phone is back on wi-fi but the PC ain't. Hmmm. You go back into settings and try...anything.

Then...suddenly...for no apparent reason...it's working again!!!

You don't know which fix fixed it or even if it was none of them...who cares? It's FIXED, so on you go!

Same with fostering.

Your foster child has a thing about not saying please or thank you. It's no big deal but it might serve them well to fix it. So you try mentioning it. You try asking for the magic words. You try to get them to practice saying "Can I ...please". You offer quaint shortcuts "You could say "Ta" instead of "Thank you". 

You keep at it. Then one day, out of the blue, you put an apple of the sofa arm next to where they're engrossed in Fortnite and say "That'll hold you until teatime", and  as you're leaving the room you hear something. Something that came from the child. What was it?

Some sort of grunt. It wasn't a word as such; if it was a word it was spelled something like "Gnu".

It was a tiny, grudging, embryonic, barely viable...

"Thank you"

You don't know why, when, how, or even if your efforts have been successful. All that matters is that the child has come on. Just like with the internet, you simply breathe a small sigh of satisfaction and get on with things. 

Like I often say to myself "Ain't fostering grand!"

ps Why did my God-doubting parents send me to Sunday School? Well, one fine Sunday the School decided we'd all go for a walk, so we paired up and crocodile-marched down the road, round the corner and straight past my house. My parents bedroom faced the street and as I looked up I noticed that their bedroom curtains were drawn shut. This could only mean that my mum had gone down with one of her 48 hour migraines. The other explanation was unthinkable.
When I returned home I found my mum in the kitchen singing along to a Jim Reeves number on the radio. I asked her how she was, she replied something like;

"Fantastic! Never felt better!"

Aaagggh! To discover your doubt about God AND that your parents are nothing more or less than human flesh and blood, all thanks to Sunday School, is a big journey.

Maybe Jesus IS like a bicycle..?

pps, I never told my parents about the Sunday School trip past our house, that would have been wrong.




Sunday, July 14, 2019

POCKET MONEY AGONIES SOLVED

Does anyone think they get paid enough for their work? I bet not. Somewhere in the darkest recesses of all our minds is the sweet notion that we are worth more.

I bet that Jeff Bezos thinks that the family members who invested a few thousand dollars in his Amazon start-up don't really deserve to be worth billions of (his) money in return, and that he (Jeff) should actually be even richer. And at the other end of that chain I bet everyone who works for Jeff thinks they're being short-changed.

I get fed up with people in public services oozing; "Look, don't over-ask for things, don't you know we're overworked, under resourced, unappreciated and under-paid."

Not all of them, but too many. Too many health and education workers. 

The only professionals in public service who don't do this one seem to me to be Social Workers. Oh and the police. Even though those two professions probably have a better case than most.

Mind, working out how much someone should be paid is a minefield. Who'd be an employer working out the value of someone's efforts?

Actually, all of us Foster Carers are stuck with this exact dilemma, namely how much money to 'pay' someone.

I'm talking pocket money.

Our eldest foster child has been campaigning that his pocket money should be upped. His manifesto is rich in sporadic detail. He's persevering too.

He's aged 15 and gets £10 a week, regardless of whether he does anything around the house. People who've never managed a teenager will scoff that I'm lax, but he's 15 okay? 15 is the arch-age of teenhood. Give him a job and he turns into the Incredible Sulk and you get a job so badly done it takes twice the time to rectify it that it would take you to knock it off yourself.

So, yeah...he gets £10 and one of the main challenges is what would it get upped to if I upped it? £10 is a nice round sum.  £10 actually sounds like it's worth more than £10. 

£11? - stupid fiddly number. £12.50? - give me a break, I'd be asking him for change and you can't do that. So obviously £10 naturally goes up to...£15, which is a 50% rise.

See, pocket money has to be more than inflation linked, more than cost of living linked; it has to also be age-appropriate linked.

One mite who came to us told me she got 10p pocket money per week, which I found shocking because there's literally NOTHING she could buy unless she saved for weeks. I figure it was a ruse by the parent to get out of being asked for things in shops. Rotten.

My 15yr old cites the pocket monies allegedly paid to his friends, linking this to our shame at being stingy by comparison and causing him embarrassment that besides being in fostering he's also in poverty. He makes the case that we are out of touch with the real world, in which a trip to Cineworld can consume 2 weeks-worth of income if you include Pick'nMix, Coke and Taco Bell.

I don't think many families manage the heat of how best to award pocket money. It's even more pyrotechnical in fostering.

It ought to be a reward and remuneration for things well done. Otherwise we're teaching our children you can get something for nothing. The majority of children in care come from homes needing benefits, don't get me wrong - our benefit system is something we should all be proud of. But it can be perceived as unearned income. Then their Foster Carers give them pocket money for nothing, it must seem like their life on benefit has begun! There's something here that could be better.

So I've had this idea, right. And when I tell it to you you'll think the same as everyone else I've told it to. It's brilliant.

Parents STOP giving their children pocket money. Instead they give a fixed amount to the child's school. Every Friday afternoon each pupil gets a pay packet which reflects their attendance, behaviour and academic performance. 

Child puts in a good week; get's a decent reward. Like how life should be and (kind of) is.

My scheme would improve school and home life.

Great idea innit?

I recommend this Bill to the House.





Tuesday, July 09, 2019

DWIM

Being a Foster Carer keeps you up with the times.

You have to know your Brendan Urie from your Shawn Mendes, and your Game of Thrones from your Lucifer. In contrast you cannot let on that you like Love Island and have a good idea of who is doing what with whoever because that belongs to them and they don't want you in on that sort of private stuff.

Children have always had their own languages designed to exclude us adults.

Not long ago the kick was that something 'wicked' was the opposite of wicked. Prior to that the California kids came up with their own language; they would say something was "Grody to the max", meaning it was as disgusting as could be.

I've long noticed that children in care are more comforable having text-chats with me than actually talking, and while I persist with actual conversation it's good to get a meaningful dialogue any which way you can.

However. Yesterday I got a text message asking to be picked up from school as there was a problem with the bus. The problem probably had to do with an argument with some fellow pupils who used the same bus. These little conflicts run hot and cold but when they're hot they're hot so I was prepared to pick up. I suggested the foot of the footbridge outside the school, the reply was;

"YH"

I had a guess this meant "Yeah"

So I replied "Your reasonable. The argument will fix itself by Monday"

Reply:

"JK"

Now I'm in trouble. I feel a need to reply instantly, but to what? Aaaagh! I Google "JK". Get directed to a plethora of forums ridiculing me for not knowing what "JK" means. 

I reply: "Sorry, what?"

Reply:

"MK"

Turns out "MK" means "Hmmmm...okay". This time Google informed me it's a phrase derived from a character in South Park (TV cartoon) who underlines his indecision by saying in response to any suggestion by any other character "Mmmmmkay" (one word).

I SWEAR I found it easier to learn Darin (the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan). I've mentioned this before; what happened was we were asked to look after 3 young Afghan brothers who had smuggled themselves all the way to Dover. I said yes and had to track down a Halal butcher (20 miles away) and start learning their language because the boy's English was non-existent.

I get the kid's needs for their own language. They don't own very much, yet they're nearly adults - they need to own some things.

I have my own language, oh yeah.

A good example is a word I would spell like this:

"Eeeaavviah".

I don't say it with any emphasis, I kind of let it out the side of my mouth when  I'm on my way out of the room.

Try it. Say it out loud, see what it might mean.

It's my way of beginning to say to a foster child that they are loved. 

DWYM?

(Do you know what I mean?)