Thursday, August 05, 2021

REVELATIONS

 One of the joys in the first few weeks of a new child arriving is that you get a drip-feed of revealing information from them about themselves and their past history. The revelations help form your way to foster them.

It's not so easy with younger ones. They don't have the mental apparatus to share significant experiences, so you have to watch and listen. With older teenagers it's easier. They talk - once they start to trust you.

Our new placement Joe is a charmer. He's incredibly polite and considerate, so much so that I'm wondering if he has something else going on elsewhere and is storing up favour in case the something else breaks.

I hope that doesn't sound cynical, it's based on hard-won experience and there's no way he'd guess I have that small but real concern in the back of my mind.

I'm now 90% sure the smoke I smelled on him when I picked him up from a late train wasn't tobacco.

Joe has means. He buys classy clothes and train fares are no problem for him. He owns recording and editing equipment for his music which doesn't come cheap. 

My worry is based on an excellent training session I had with a Blue Sky expert on drug use among today's teens. The session was entitled "County Lines".  I hadn't heard of County Lines before. If you have and know all about it forgive me banging on, but a caring concern is in my mind now so I'm going over it again.

"County Lines" is a term for a technique used by drug dealing gangs to escape arrest and prosecution. It works like this; they recruit independent minded teenagers by using older teenagers (16 to18 years old) to dress cool and hang around  outside school gates getting to know the younger (14 to 16 years old) teenagers. They want the loners, the losers; the ones who'll feel emboldened by a cool older dude befriending them. They give them 'free' stuff. Not illegal stuf; maybe an expensive pair of trainers. Then they tell them they can earn good money to pay them back for the 'free' stuff by doing a delivery job for them. 

The delivery involves them crossing a county boundary carrying a package.

The package contains drugs. The reason the youngsters are sent across county lines has to do with the way English police forces are organised. They are set up along county lines. If a crime is committed that has crossed county lines the police paperwork becomes disproportionate and the investigation stagnates. Even if it doesn't, the 'criminal' is a bewildered teenager who doesn't know anything.

So, armed with this training, have I any other reason to harbour a small concern that Joe is behaving less like a foster child and more like the guest from Heaven? 

Yes.

We were chatting about our respective family histories, I mentioned that I had a distant relative who is  'known to the police' as they say.

Joe trumped me; his dad's in prison.

For drug dealing.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

PRIVATE PHOBIAS

 Fostering really is Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. We've had all sorts, which has been great; but when we began fostering we hoped for teenagers because we felt we'd be able to manage them best.


So here we are now with two teenagers in the house, the one we used to call eldest who is now no longer the eldest, and Joe who who  has been with us for 3 weeks, and is due to leave us in about 15 weeks.

What happened yesterday is a nice story of why teenagers can be great foster children.

What happened was this;

It was the middle of the night. Nearer daybreak than sunset. Noise had woken me up, it had only been a little noise and the reason it woke me up was because it wasn't one of the usual little noises of the night that you get used to (a little gurgle of the waterworks or the far off yap of an urban fox). It was the sound of someone moving about downstairs.

I lay there for a bit straining my ears for it to repeat but it didn't.

Nevertheless I'd heard it. So I put on my dressing gown and crept down the stairs. There was light coming from the living room, the door was half open. But it wasn't the light from a lamp, it flickered. The TV was on. But the sound was off.

Either someone had left it on with the sound down or someone was watching but not listening. I peered round the door only to see Joe wrapped up in some movie or other and wearing a pair of wireless Air Buds. After a few seconds he sensed my presence, snatched up the remote and paused the film.

"Hello" he said quietly, adding; "I haven't woken you up have I?"

I asked him if he was okay. He said he was fine but he couldn't sleep...

He told me he couldn't sleep ever, at least not in the conventional sense of going to bed when it's late then sleeping until it's about time to get up. He had never been able to sleep normally.

Joe had been with us for three weeks now, and he's only just revealing that he has something worse than insomnia, he has a phobia about beds, he's practically allergic to bedrooms.

But here's the amazing thing: he has been awake through the night every night since he came here, but we didn't know; he didn't want to bother us with his problem. So when we'd go to bed he would say he's just going to stay up for a little bit…then he stays up through the night. If he does sleep it's more like a nap with his feet up on our sofa. He often watches TV, but has connected it up to his Air Buds so we don't get woken up. The noise that woke me was him creeping into the kitchen for a snack.

I came to suspect there might be some dark reasons for his problem with bedrooms, so I decided to let him tell me about it if he wanted to, or keep it private if that's what he preferred. Might be best if I don't know, and best that he doesn't revisit seriously nightmarish memories.

The other possible scenario might be that he himself doesn't have any clear recollection of anything that might have caused this aversion.

The big positive all of this is that Joe has developed strategies for dealing with his problems, which include not wanting to inconvenience or trouble anybody else.

He is a fine young man, a credit to his generation, we can only hope that he develops better and better strategies in the future for dealing with his past and his present.

And if there' s any justice in life, and there often is in fostering, he will.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

NEVER BEEN CALLED "MUM" THIS QUICK

 Been a gap in my blog posting because a new child has arrived.

He's actually a dream placement (oh yes, they're out there, most times you only hear about the challenges).

He's 17 years old coming up 18. His being fostered is being wound down, tapered off. Won't be long before he's out in the world fending for himself.

He's sturdy physically and emotionally. Carries himself with dignity, wit and warmth. 

Our fostering of him is almost hands-off, that's how they want it; let him experience all the sense of independence available so that he's as ready as possible for adulthood.

Here's a little story that'll give you an idea of this fine guy; his name's Joe.

Joe goes out most nights, tells us where he's going and what he's planning. Whether he tells us everything or not…you know what teenagers are about, you must do. You were one once. Remember?

He takes the train each evening and catches the last one back. Our house is a bit too far for a walk home from the station so I pick him up. 

The first time I collected him it was about 10.45. I parked in the station car park. It's next to one of those pubs you get near railway stations, a bit of hurley burley about it. I wound up my windows and clicked the button to lock all the doors.

When his train pulled in he appeared and strode across the car park towards me with a nonchalent wave and a friendly grin.

As he reached the car I unlocked the doors and he opened the passenger door. Three lads were spilling out of the pub and ragging each other in a friendly/confrontational way, calling each other names in that jokey/ironic way they've heard grown men do. The language was colourful but harmless. 

They were going past the car and Joe had the door open.

"Guys," he said in a friendly voice - I could hear the smile - "I got me mum in the car 'ere".

The lads fell silent. They carried on walking. About ten yards beyond us one of them shouted an expletive, just to save face.

Joe got in. "Kids!" he sighed. Then he said;

"Mind if I wind down the window?"

I agreed. But I could still smell the smoke on his parker.

I'm not clued up enough to know what he'd been smoking. If he'd been twelve it would have been an issue for me, I'd bring it up with my Blue Sky Social Worker at our next supervision session.

Joe told me that being mixed race had many benefits. He hopes to go into the music business, he spends a lot of time creating digital music. 

I tell him that however and wherever he goes along in life, I'll always be in his fan club.




Monday, July 12, 2021

TO FEED A FOSTER CHILD

 Food is right up there in the minds of most foster children.

Funny, I must mention this to Blue Sky; to my knowledge we've not yet had a training session on cooking for looked-after kids.

When a young body's growing it gets hungry and in many chaotic homes mealtimes are…let's say unpredictable.

In our house we're the opposite; weekday breakfast is 7.30am, tea's at 5.30pm. Weekends are more relaxed but I keep on top of everyone's food needs. I'm always asking "Sandwich?".

A full tummy, or the prospect of one, is incredibly comforting for kids in care.

One of ours at the moment is going through a challenging phase; questioning this, poo-pooing that. It's ok, not abusive, in fact it's done with a twinkle in the eye; there's a lot of affection in it.

When I dish up he looks down at his plate and says;

"What's this? We had it night before last!"

He will be referring to his plate of fishfingers and fries with baked beans and a side of lettuce, cucumber and tomato.

And referring back to four nights prior when it had been oven baked fish in breadcrumbs, boiled spuds and green beans.

So here's what happened tonight…I love it.

A week before he'd found a recipe book in the kitchen, a book I'd been given as a Christmas present (aren't they all?) last year. A Nigel Slater full offancy dan small portion vegetarian dishes, often using types of pasta I've never heard of.

Our kid flipped it open and started going;

"Wow! Look at this!" and "This looks fantastic!"

I festered for about a week.

Then I wen to Waitrose and bought Romano peppers, puy lentils, Gorganzola, basil, parsley, a red chilli..blah blah.

Oh, by the way as you read this, I know you're ahead of me and you know exactly where this is going..

Two hours I slaved. 

Well, not slaved. More like shaved;shaved garlic and ginger. I diced and skinned, I whizzed and blended, I roasted and marintated.

About 5.00pm (30 minutes to teatime) I texted him; "Tea at 5.30pm. A Nigel Slater recipe. I've made a red pepper and green lentil melange with feta cheese, marinated red onion and a home made pesto of fresh basil, parsley, walnuts and olive oil"

Then I added (as you would have done);

"Or you can have a Cornish pasty."

Cornered, he came back:

"I'll take it"

He came downstairs and looked at the plate. It did not look as irresistible as the platefuls do in recipe books.

He had the pick though; melange or pasty.

I knew what he was thinking. It was nice he didn't want to hurt my feelings.

I said:

'It's not your sort of thing after a hard day is it?"

We had a fantastic 10 minute exchange. He was hungry and wanted his usual tea-food, but for maybe the first time, was cautious about hurting me:

"The thing is kinda alright. But why'dya put peas in it?"

I aplogised.

Short stort long; he let me order him a Dominos pizza. There were no hard feelings.

In fact it was a great thing, he saw I'd tried and was okay that food-wise he'd over-reached.

In fostering you're growing all the time.

Fostering is more nutritious than mere food.




Friday, July 09, 2021

THE ART OF REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY

One of my happiest memories in fostering is a tale of reverse psychology. At least I think it's reverse psychology, the colleague who worked it on me was a dab hand and the trick is to make sure the other party isn't aware of it.

I'd used reverse psychology with our own children with modest success, I think they tumbled pretty quick. Getting them to drink water was a long battle. I tried calling it "Sky juice" or even "Chateau faucet", no dice. Then I hit on "Please do not drink water as drinking water helps you run faster and you'll be able to beat me in a race and I can't have that."

That one worked, for a while.

In fostering, it can be a magic wand.

"I bet you can't run upstairs and clean your teeth and be in the car for the school run before I count to ten". That sort of low-level thing. Works EVERY time. They love the challenge, love the game. What's more I make sure they always win, and winning is so rare for most kids in care they lap it up. They probably tumble too, but carry on the charade because the kick they get is so pleasant.

I never thought I'd fall for reverse psychology myself. One of my happiest memories, though, is of falling for it hook, line and sinker..I think. Maybe. I still don't know. See what you think. 

We'd had a call from Blue Sky asking; "Would we be willing to take a child who…?"

We said yes, and the boy arrived.

Poor lad, he'd been through absolute hell. I can't and won't give you any details because you don't need the pictures in your head. It was truly horrific, a criminal matter. Literally.

Two long weeks into the most challenging placement we'd ever had, we weren't exactly at the end of our tether but the pressure was on. Blue Sky sent troops of social workers to us, even one of their head honchos paid a visit to check we were ok and bolster our resolve.

I've never given up on any child, but on rare ocassions each and every foster carer is entitled to consider passing a child on, perhaps to a home that doesn't have a housefull of others as we do, in which case you'd be doing it for the child's benefit, and that thought can sugar the pill.

So I can't be certain that we weren't wondering if the lad was too much.

Then we got a phone call from the courts. They needed a psychological assesment of the lad so they were sending a top man to visit us.

And boy, was he ever a top man.

He gave me his card on the doorstep which had his qualifications on it. I've kept it down the years as a souvenir. He had 14 letters after his name. He was billed as a "Chartered Psychologist". He explained;

"There are psychiatrists and psychologists, then one step up from them you have your Clinical Psychologists, I'm sure you fostering folk have heard of them."

I nodded.

"Well," he said "Most of us Chartered Psychologists like to think we're one step up from your Clinical Psychologists. So I'd better be on my toes."

Blimey. 

He had two private sessions with the lad. Then he sat me down at our kitchen table for a chat. His verdict was very saddening;

"In simple terms the lad has little or no chance of repair from the damage that's been done from birth".

To allow me to take this in he glanced away over my shoulder at the kitchen dresser behind me where we accumulate various bits of flotsam and jetsam; string, cotton reels and old books. Then he said;

"It's like when a boxer takes so much punishment there's no way he should still be standing. I don't know if you ever saw Mohammed Ali fight George Foreman?"

I replied yes, it was a dim and distant memory. Actually I remembered it well. I happen to enjoy boxing. I know it's not a proper reflection of me, and if they banned it I wouldn't miss it, but while it's around I can't resist it.

"Well," he continued "This lad has been punched out, literally and metaphorically all his life. Just like Ali was that night, taking punch after punch after punch. No-one can take punches for that long and stay standing."

"So," I said "Are you saying that the child will need to be Mohammed Ali to survive?"

"No." said this clever man. "I'm afraid I think the poor lad has little or no chance. You can try if you want, good luck. I would expect he's going to end up in a unit."

"No," he continued "I'm saying that his foster parents will need to be Mohammed Ali for them to survive."

We took the job on. Somehow we stuck by the lad, it was a long haul, but worth it. Oh so worth it. He ended up doing pretty fine. He's not without his moments apparently, but on the whole he's…well…whole.

It was a few days after the psychologist's visit and his words were still rattling in my head. Telling me I stood no chance with the lad? He doesn't know me. I see myself as an; "I've started so I'll finish type of person". I happened to be sitting in the seat he'd sat in, and, deep in thought glanced up at the kitchen dresser. Suddenly for the first time in years, I actually took notice of the books gathering dust there.  A couple of Nigel Slater's alongside a Weight Watchers, a few cheap novels…

…and a biography of Mohammed Ali.

Not only that, but hanging on the back of our kitchen door was a bunch of shopping bags, one of which my other half bought in Sports Direct with a picture on it of Mohammed Ali standing triumphantly over a fallen opponent. The image had lost it's meaning down the years, but now I suddenly saw it afresh. And a massive penny dropped.

This Chartered Psychologist saw that part of his job was to motovate us into giving the lad our best shot, and figured the way to do it might be to summon the spirit of a man who happends to be a bit of a hero in our house.

Telling us the lad stood no chance and that we'd have to be Mohammed Ali to succeed, well…who wouldn't come out at the bell for another round?

Was I had?

Probably yes. But in the nicest, kindest professional way.

And I'm so grateful for it.

So, I hope, is the lad. Which is what matters most.




Saturday, July 03, 2021

ON BEING GIVEN 'ADVICE'

 A reader writes;

"Maybe you can direct me to the posts if you've written about this before, but do you have any advice for dealing with well-meaning family and friends who have concerns(read: fears) about my family's interest in fostering ? For example, teenage boys seem to make people really nervous ("aren't you afraid they will steal, lie, do drugs, abuse your bio kids??") Husband and I aren't stupid about risks involved, and the precautions necessary to protect family and property, but I struggle to reassure others in our circle. We tend to see teenagers as children (albeit with certain, often serious difficulties) just as much in need of homes as younger kids, but to society at large, teenagers,and foster teens in particular seem to be very threatening. Anon."

Oh dear Anon, I've always kept unasked-for advice from 'well-meaning' others at arm's length. The advice is often ill-informed and usually gloomy. I don't know why people have such affection for what they call 'The Worst Case Scenario".

Everyone sees themselves as well-meaning. Most people judge themselves by their motives, but we should really judge ourselves by our actions and their consequences.

I even try not to give advice myself, simply tell stories of how fostering can be and let people draw their own conclusions.

But I'll break that habit at the end of this peice, and give some advice directly to those people who wade in with their well-meaning advice and see if they find it helpful.

If push came to shove I'd advise you to sign up to foster (you seem just the type), and tell your family and friends that if it doesn't work out you'll opt out of the profession. 

But you might ask them what they're basing their advice on;

Actual personal experience of fostering? Doesn't sound like it. 

Verifiable statistics? Concrete information? Solid facts? 

Or maybe they're dependent on those good old fall-back canteen culture wisdoms such as "It's a well-known fact" or "Ask anybody, they'll say the same".

Then there's the Chinese Whispers syndrome where someone knows someone whose friend was friends with a man whose wife's sister-in law tried fostering and "it was a nighmare". I've heard that one a few times.

They like to add that suchlike information is "straight from the horse's mouth".

Oh and there's also "They don't warn you in advance because they need all the fosterers they can get."

Look, I've had plenty of teenagers come to us for fostering, I cherish the memories of every single one of them. Teenagers were the age-group we went into fostering to care for. 

You can tell your friends and family this; a foster mum (me) told you personally that before fostering she'd taken in foreign students. All of them middle class, with affluent parents, solid homes, academic success and real prospects in life. I bet you a pound to a penny your friends and family would be alright with them eh? Give them a mo to check their stereotype handbook…and yes…foreign students, they'll be good as gold.

Well let me tell you they'd be wrong there too. Those little minxes; stole from us, got pregnant, got brought home in police cars, smashed a hole in a bedroom wall, threw up on their bedroom floor…I could go on.

None of the teenagers I've fostered did any of that. 

Not one.

Of course they have their problems.You are clear you're conscious of that and consequently halfway to dealing with whatever the issues. Tackling the problems of our foster kids, that's the nub of the job, right there. The Von Trapp children you do not get when you foster, who wants them anyway?

I'm truly shocked that people are coming at you with what sounds like unsubstantiated drivel about stealing, lying, drugs and abuse. Jees, you wouldn't be allowed to spurt such prejudice and negative stereotyping about any other group in society.

Give those family and friends the link to this piece and ask them to read the next paragraph out loud to themselves looking in the mirror, because it's how they should start talking to themselves;

"I can go on telling myself I care for a friend or family member who wants to foster til I'm blue in the mouth but to stand in their way of caring for a child who is alone and frightened is  wrong. 

If I was a kid with no home and no family to care for me I'd be shocked that on top of what the world has done to me, my  foster parents have to listen to others telling them I'm maybe a thief, a liar, a druggie, an abuser.  

Instead, from now on, I'll tell my family and friends who want to foster to go for it, wish them good luck, and ask them if there's anything I can do to help, encourage and support them."






Tuesday, June 29, 2021

A REALLY LONG WEEKEND...

 Been a hectic few days here since my last post, we had a respite placement.

A respite child is one you look after for a short, fixed period of days to give his long-term foster parents a break. They literally had a break, went to Wales for a few days. They needed time away from fostering, and I learned they needed a little time away from their lives too.

When I talk about the highs and lows of fostering I often forget that we're doing it alongside the highs and lows of everything else in life.

I'll tell you what I know about them - and what I can publish, because their anonymity is as important as that of every child I talk about.

They are a couple, he's on his second marriage, she's never been in anything of a serious relationship so they both got a bit of baggage of different sorts.

He drives for a living and has started to struggle with the pressures put on him by his job and his employer such as the time expectations, the traffic, customers being obnoxious and the sheer lonliness of having no-one but your own company unless you count Radio Two and Ken Bruce…

His first marriage had ended in him letting her have everything; the kids, the home, the car and most of his earnings until the kids grew up. Apparently he's simply Mr Nice and wanted them to be ok.

She had some sort of office job before fostering; I gather she felt it was a career rather than a job if you know what I mean. Then she got the chop from out of the blue. They spat her out like she was a bit of gristle. She went in one Monday and they were waiting for her, asked for her badge and told her that her stuff was by the door. She went to collect it in tears and noticed her desk was already gone. Why do some employers kick people when they're down? She didn't even get to say goodbye to people who'd become her sole social network. Lonliness takes many guises, hers was a big one.

They met on the internet.

How do I now all this? Because Blue Sky got me to go into their office to meet her with the child to check out if the respite placement would work ok. How that for leaving no stone unturned?

She and I had coffee and while the child was causing mayhem around the office we talked about everything.

The child, Craig, was ten years old and sturdy. His dad, she told me, was six foot eight and treated with respect by the four cops it usually took to go and deal with him when he got lit up.

Blimey.

Craig was, shall we say, hyper-energetic. But I took a shine to him because his mischief was harmless and he had a twinkle in his eyes that often betrays a sense of humour; and laughing at the same thing is the equivilant to the hug you often want to give a child in care but can't, especially during a pandemic.

Long story short; I agreed to take Craig for five days and four nights. When Craig discovered I had met him and liked him enough to want him in our home for nearly a week he felt wanted, and that cut a lot of ice. That said; he was hard work; never rested, hardly slept, always on the go. He'd go through drawers, pull things out of cupboards, chase a fly round the house…you had to have eyes in the back of your head and endless energy. We watched a DVD of Home Alone one evening, it's a good one with foster kids, it's got the lot, even Christmas, which they love. He watched it about ten times before they came to take him back to his foster home.

As he left I said two things to myself;

1) "Go well young fella, and best of luck to your fantastic foster mum and dad"

and

2) "Phew!"

Job well done. Spare bedroom spare again.

C'mon Blue Sky ring again with;

"Would you be willing to take a child who…"