Wednesday, February 26, 2020

NEW SCHOOL

One of my foster children started a new school a few weeks ago. I have a shorter drive on the school run but I leave at the same time and make use of the spare moments. I still wait in the playground until they ring the bell in the morning.

None of the other parents talked to me at first, they all had their own little gatherings. I stood by myself and watched the children, mainly my own child, who at first stayed with me but quickly managed to break into one of the friendship groups which was a joy to see.

So the child would run off as soon as we arrived in the playground and I got to do some people watching. Little people watching.

The first thing I noticed is that the boys hog the centre ground, the girls stick to the edges. The boys zoom around more, the older ones acting like they're the oldest. A game of football takes up the very middle bit, I couldn't work out how they decided each time who was on which team, I think it was probably the same sides every day. Reassuringly there were two girls who played every day. If the other girls played anything at all it was skipping, and that didn't attract mixed-gender.

I always found my eyes wandering to the little lost souls. Always have, always will. Perhaps it reminds me of how it was to be me when I was a junior - I was moved schools and for the first year in the new school I was a loner in the playground.

Nowadays, sadly, it's more normal for a child to have a background issue than not. So called 'broken' homes' (horrid term) are commonplace, single parents abound. That in itself isn't necessarily a problem, but it's likely that there were problems at home surrounding the break-up, and there will still be complications.
Children themselves can be identified as having any number of difficulties ranging from the barely visible (but impairing) such as dyslexia or Aspergers. Some children carry support aids; one boy has hearing aids, others carry their inhaler. Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism aren't grounds for special education when they're diagnosed as being 'on the spectrum'. Other children are overweight, many have allergies.

Many children probably have background issues that haven't yet been identified. Watching children ay play is a great way to get insight.

The reason I mention this is because despite my many years in fostering, I still find it impossible to spot another child who is in foster care from those that aren't.  There are so many reasons why almost every child sticks out that the foster child is pretty much like all the others.

I now enjoy having a chat with the other parents.

School is one of the few places I'm not at pains to point out that I'm the child's foster parent. I often do tell people what I do, if it comes into the conversation, because fostering needs more Carers and people frequently reply that they are thinking about fostering so I give them Blue Sky's number.

The reason I don't bring it up at school is that if I  were to tell parents they might mention it to their children and if the child gets teased about it then it's in part my fault. I don't think I'm over-thinking with this one, you just have to be as considerate as possible of your foster child's right to privacy.

There's one other thing I spotted that's worth mentioning, to do with the parents. Most of us parents go through the school gates and stand on the tarmac playground. A handful of parents do not. For one parent there's a good reason, he has a dog on a lead. Another parent lights up an old-fashioned ciggy as soon as her child is gone - there's good and a bit of bad in that. But, for most of the parents that stay outside the railings, I suspect the reason is sad, a tad dark.

Many people had a rotten time at school. they hardly remember it but they found themselves labelled ' not very clever' or 'a nuisance' or 'badly behaved'. It stays with them, these unpleasant memories. They're the parents who never attend parent evenings, don't engage with their children's education; it hurts them to even think of the concept of school.

A lot of the parents of foster children are like this, I think.

Nothing much can be done, unless one day we make school a good time for all.

Won't happen in my lifetime, that much is certain… oh well..onwards and upwards.

My kid is happier at the new school!





















Thursday, February 20, 2020

COUNTY LINES

Sometimes the training sessions which Blue Sky put on are interesting in themselves, never mind how useful they are to your fostering.

The most recent one I attended ticked both boxes.

It was about something called County Lines, to do with drugs and - specifically - under-age people.

I had no idea how huge the business of selling drugs using kids has become.  If you haven't heard of County Lines hold on to your hat…

County Lines refers to the systems that drug dealers use to break out of their inner city lairs and push their drugs in smaller cities, towns and even villages. Their business model is so well designed, efficient and effective it makes you wish we could harness the dealers' intelligence and endeavour for common good. It works like this;

They use kids to sell to kids, they recruit the junior drug pushers* by coming out and looking for kids who are out of the house at twilight, especially hanging around places like skateparks. They look for the loners, preferably tall lads or girls who can pass for being older than they are. Little ones and those in groups are no good. They befriend the loner. The loner is made up that someone who is three or four years older than them, and who dresses cool, seems to like him or her.

Next time they meet up the pusher has a couple of bottles of beer and gives one to the victim. The time after that the pusher has some cigarettes and they share.

The next time it's a joint.

The next time they meet the pusher has bought them a pair of trainers like his own, £150 ones. He explains he has money because he does odd jobs for a bloke. He offers a job to the victim, all they have to do is take a parcel by train over to another town and deliver it to someone who'll be waiting in a fast food outlet.

If asked the pusher says the parcel contains sherbet. The victim will earn £100. They have to go towards the end of the day, when it's dark; they do everything at twilight. They do the job.

The delivery might entail crossing from one county into another. Drug gangs use this trick because it means crossing county lines, and when that happens it makes things harder for the police to tie everything together because our police forces are organised along county lines. When the jurisdiction of criminal activity is complicated the inquiries are much harder - records have to be shared manually, the question of which county any misdemeanour occurred is difficult, the red tape and protocols get in the way of proper policing.

The pusher keeps the victim supplied with whatever substances they are getting hooked on, and starts the victim recruiting more victims. The victim must get themselves a cell of customers who place regular orders. They are advised to go for kids who are disaffected, whose parents don't mind where they are after dark and possibly don't care. Maybe the parents don't mind their children being out because they can do some recreational drugs themselves.

Now the dealers start to make their real money. The victim has maybe one or two or three cells of half a dozen kids in each who they can use as customers and also to help  distribute the drugs. But the pushers have them where they want them because they tell them that the bill for all the drugs they've given them for personal use comes to several hundreds of pounds.

And if they don't start paying it off there'll be big trouble.

Now the victim is terrified, can't go to the police or tell anybody. They are not only working for free, they are handing over any profits made on the drugs they are selling to pay off their debts.

This next bit is particularly shocking; one other way they can pay off their debt is by agreeing to have sex with whoever the dealers choose.

If they can't pay they are in big danger because the dealers need to make sure their terror is real. Anytime you hear on the news of a kid stabbed or shot, there's a chance that it's connected to county lines.

Things have got so bad for some victims that they are taken into care and removed - hundreds of miles away - to where they can be given a new identity and can't be found by the dealers.

By any other name it's pyramid selling of the most appalling sort, and it's hugely important that Foster Carers know what to look out for since teenagers in care are perfect for recruitment.

I said 'teenagers' back there, I've just remembered that our excellent lecturer for this five star training session told us that County Lines is starting to recruit kids from junior schools...


* the pusher can be male or female  depending on who they are targeting….

Thursday, February 13, 2020

MAYBE ALL CHILDREN SHOULD GET THE BENEFITS OF FOSTERING

One of my foster children started a new school a few weeks ago. I have a shorter drive on the school run, tend to get there earlier, but I make use of the spare moments. I still wait in the playground until they ring the bell in the morning. 

None of the other parents talked to me at first, they all had their own little gatherings. I stood by myself and watched the children, mainly my own child, who at first stayed with me but quickly managed to break into one of the friendship groups which was a joy to see.

So my child would run off as soon as we arrived in the playground and I got to do some people watching. Little people watching.

The first thing I noticed is that the boys hog the centre ground, the girls stick to the edges. Sad that in this day and age of gender awareness old ideas are still alive in the playground.I don't want to bang on to teachers about something else they should do, they've got enough on their plate, but it would be good if we could even up the playing field from the earliest age. The boys zoom around more, the older ones acting like they're the oldest. A game of football takes up the very middle bit, I couldn't work out how they decided each time who was on which team, I think it was probably the same sides every day. Reassuringly there were two girls who played every day. If the other girls played anything at all it was skipping, and that didn't attract mixed-gender.

I always found my eyes wandering to the little lost souls. Always have, always will. Perhaps it reminds me of how it was to be me when I was a junior - I was moved schools aged eight and for the first year in the new school I was a loner in the playground.

Nowadays, sadly, it's more normal for a child to have a background issue than not. So called 'broken' homes' (horrid term) are commonplace, single parents abound. That in itself isn't necessarily a problem, but it's likely that there were problems at home surrounding the break-up, and there will still be complications. 
Children themselves can be identified as having any number of difficulties ranging from the barely visible (but impairing) such as dyslexia or Aspergers. Some children carry support aids; one boy in my foster child's playground has hearing aids, others carry their inhaler. Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism aren't grounds for special education when they're diagnosed as being 'on the spectrum'. Other children are overweight, many have allergies.

Many children probably have background issues that haven't yet been identified. Watching children at play is a great way to get insight. 

The reason I mention this is because despite my many years in fostering, I still find it next to impossible to spot another child who is in foster care from those that aren't.  There are so many reasons why almost every child sticks out that the foster child is pretty much like all the others.

I now enjoy having a chat with the other parents.

School is one of the few places I'm not at pains to point out that I'm the child's foster parent. I often do tell people what I do, if it comes into the conversation, because fostering needs more Carers and people frequently reply that they are thinking about fostering so I give them Blue Sky's number.

The reason I don't bring it up at school is that if I were to tell parents they might mention it to their children and if the child gets teased about it then it's in part my fault. I don't think I'm over-thinking with this one, you just have to be as considerate as possible of your foster child's right to privacy.

There's one other thing I spotted that's worth mentioning, to do with the parents. Most of us parents go through the school gates and stand on the tarmac playground. A handful of parents do not. For one parent there's a good reason; he has a dog on a lead. Another parent has a reason to stay outside the railings that's both good and bad; she lights up a cigarette (a real one) as soon as her child runs off.

I sometimes wonder if these parents, the ones who can't even bring themselves to visit the playground of their child's schools, are the ones who had bad times at school and pick up bad vibes just bringing their children to school. Awful for them, and not good for their children. 

My child is doing okay at the new school; has a friendship group at the moment. It's my child I worry about and care about, but when I see all the hundreds of little ones running around every morning I can't help wondering if they'd all benefit from the strength of support of social workers and the backup of Blue Sky and other professionals that enables us Foster Carers to do what we do.
















Thursday, February 06, 2020

DEALING WITH THE PARENTS

One of the things in fostering that doesn't get the focus it needs is how to deal with the parents of your foster child.

I think it gets a lower profile than it deserves because, as a Foster Carer, your main point of contact with professionals is your own social worker(s), and they don't usually - don't ever in my experience - show up at Contact, so the parents kind of shrink in their minds compared to how they balloon in ours.

Everything about Contact is challenging for every Foster Carer. Well, almost everything; I had one lad stay with us who had been removed from his Foster Carer due to what turned out to be a false allegation by a third party - but it had to be checked out. Maybe the harmony of that Contact was down to the fact that the contact was not with a real parent, but with a Foster Carer, and she knew how to make it work.

I'm afraid the average parent of the average child taken into care is about as competent at making Contact work as they were competent at parenting in general, and since it was deemed necessary to remove the child, that means their parenting skills are below par.

The child is usually winding herself up well before the Contact. It hangs over them often starting the day before. The poor kids must suffer all sorts of different emotions; excitement and hope, fear and pain of loss.

Us Foster Carers don't get the full picture of the problems in the family, not because they are denied us but because a lot of the bad things are kept from everybody. 

Something else which adds to the problem is that the parents are given little or no guidance in how to behave with their children at Contact. This is an oversight which is connected to one of society's great mistakes; the belief that parenting is a cakewalk. I often hear, from parents whose parenting is clearly bad, and whose lives have often gone badly wrong;

"Well my parents never got training'. And I turned out alright."


So. How to deal with them?

First thing is to try putting yourself in their shoes. No matter how thick-skinned one might be - or appear to be - a parent must be badly wounded by the charge of bad parenting. Then they discover they're going to have to say 'hello' to someone who has an official rating as a good parent. Well you're not likely to warm to that idea are you? So not surprisingly the parents often start out hoping that you're fallible (which of course we are!)

So try not to be late is one good tip. Another is to try to get their clothing right, because parents are always ready to ask 'Where's his coat?' If you dress them in an item of clothing which you bought for them that might rub a parent up the wrong way.

If they ask "How's he been?", well no two ways about it that's a tricky one. I had a parent who kept notes that I said things such as "He's had his ups and downs" and "On the whole pretty good, although he was in a bit of a state yesterday" so that she could petition for the child to be returned because he was no happier with me than with her. It didn't happen - of course - but it served to remind that they sometimes hope you fail.

It can be pretty soul-destroying watching a parent with their child. Normally Contact is held behind closed doors, but one I took a child to was between him and his dad. The dad was a huge man, 6 foot 7 and sturdy. The Contact was held outdoors, weather permitting, in a kind of stockade that looked a bit like a prisoner of war camp.

I could sit in my car and watch the whole thing. The stockade was equipped with various all-weather playthings; a sit-upon train engine, a football, that sort of thing. When the sun was out there'd be some toy boxes with dolls and model aeroplanes.

I would watch the two of them come out of the door of the Contact building into the stockade. They'd immediately move apart. Then typically this would happen; the child would walk desolately to one end of the stockade and start kicking the football against the bars. The father would stroll, hands-in-pocket over to the other end towards one of the toy boxes. He'd kneel down and start fishing around, then he'd hold one of the toys up, say a plane. Then he'd start to 'fly' it, zooming it ponderously around his head. He was playing.

I got to wondering what his childhood had been like, if he had one to speak of.

They never bonded in any way these two sad lads. They sometimes spoke to each other in short bursts across a distance, I don't know what was said, I suspect nothing nourishing for either.

I've no reason to suspect that the quality of the contact between looked-after-children and their real parents is generally any better.

But that particular insight led me to realise that although the real parents of looked-after children often have something to improve on, they too are often victims themselves. As such it's best to treat them with professional courtesy and respect.

But don't expect to get much of the same back in return.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

COLIN FOSTER, WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

Sad to learn from the news a couple of days ago that English youngsters in care are being taken in considerable numbers to homes in Scotland because they have the facilities.

The story was tucked away. I remember thinking that if it was something to do with cats or veterans it would be front page stuff, but kids

…well they don't have the vote, they don't have significant disposable income; so who cares. I'm not just blaming the news media, it's everybody. It seems to me like almost every adult has forgotten what it was like to be a child.

It's made me crosser and crosser the longer I parent, and the way fostering and me hit it off I'm going to end up parenting for the whole of my adult life.

So by the time I'm crumbling to bits I'll be mad as hell.

Look at the half-hearted way so many grown-ups try and fail to make any connection with children, if I had a pound for every time I heard;

"How old are you?" - like age is the defining issue right up front in the conversation.

Followed by;

"What do you want to do when you grow up?" - like as if the child isn't worth anything until it's an adult and can be further defined by their employment.

How come people are like this with kids? How come so many adults can't remember what it was like? (I've got a point here, let me have a rant, there's a bit of Piers Morgan in all of us).

I've been to stacks of Blue Sky training sessions with psychologists, I've read a bunch of books on how the mind works - or doesn't - from "Games People Play" by Eric Berne - 10/10 for fun, 8/10 for practical help to "Attachment" by Bowlby - 0/10 for fun, 11/10 for practical help. So I'm almost entitled to my opinion. Tell me if it's moonshine:

Most people romanticise they had a lovely childhood, but are in denial. In truth they spent their early days largely frightened, confused and pushed around by adults.

Everybody has 'triggers' - little things that bring on feelings they are hardly aware are inside them. 

Maybe…for many adults meeting children triggers dormant emotions they experienced during much of their childhood. They don't even know it happens to them, just that they get a bit thrown.

So they end up rejecting the trigger - the child. 

Anxious to move on they kill the conversation and get back to stuff with a adult - who doesn't trigger.

The point I mentioned earlier? 

It's that we need to care about children more. To be exact; the country needs more Foster Carers. 

If you're a Foster Carer like me, let people know it, and why you do it, and try to be ready to give people Blue Sky's number when they say to you (and it happens often) "I've been thinking about fostering…"

What does it take to be a Foster Carer? All sorts of things that often people don't realise they have.

I was a t school with a boy called Colin Foster. I always wondered if…nah, surely not.














Tuesday, January 21, 2020

HEAVENLY MATCH

School and fostering are sometimes uncomfortable partners in fostering.

Generally speaking most children don't want to go to school. I get that, but have to sit on it because it's our job as parents to get them there, and it's double our job as foster parents.

When I say 'I get that' I mean I get they don't want to go because I never wanted to go to school myself. Nor did any of my friends. The journey to school could be ok if you hooked up with friends and there'd always be some fun before registration. After that you think of nothing more than the next playtime, then lunchtime, then best of all the final bell and all of us pouring out into the street, free again.

I did alright at school too, got a few exam certificates. But it didn't feel like fair exchange. My own children dragged their feet every morning. Foster children find it even harder, and we sometimes find it impossible to get them there. 

Schools have their targets these days, and the easier it is to measure something the easier it is to set a lofty target and point to a number as the be all and end all of the argument.

More then once I've wanted to say to schools "Ok, you want him at your door at 8.30am every morning, how about you take your turn persuading him, see you at our house 7.00am tomorrow morning".

Getting our foster children to school can feel like you're driving a wedge between yourself and the child and that could damage the other work you need to do with them; establish trust and mutuality so you can help them move forward through a difficult time of their life.

I've made a good case plenty of times that children in care should have different attendance targets than standard pupils and I'm never convinced about the replies which include "it's important that when they are at school they are seen as no different from everyone else".

I've even been heard to say "It's more important that she keeps her act together than that she knows where Berlin is." I've even been heard to mutter "What's more important; that he doesn't become neurotic or that he can spell neurotic?"

My nadir with school and attendance was as follows;

A girl came to stay with us who justifiably had various issues, she was bullied and a bully for one.

I asked to see her head to discuss attendance, and an appointment was fixed for 9.00am. I took the girl.

We were shown to the office and sat outside, the clock struck 9.00. No head. At ten past nine she appeared and said that the school attendance officer had asked to attend the meeting and we should wait for her to arrive. She showed up at 9.25. We went into the head's office, the head sat herself at her desk, turned to the girl and said something like "The first thing we have to talk about is your problem with punctuality".

Leaving aside the fact that I had called the meeting, so should have been invited to set the agenda, or at least asked why I called the meeting, yeah…leaving that aside, where oh where on earth other than in a school head's office would someone get away with being twenty five minutes late and then chew off a person who was on time for punctuality issues.

I was so keen to get something out of the meeting that I didn't say a word, but at the bottom end of schools, that's what can happen (Ofsted failed them BTW).

Then at the other end of schools you can get this;

I was pushing a trolley round the supermarket and thought the woman browsing the veg with a teenage girl at her elbow looked familiar. She was, she was the Senco (Special Education Needs Coordinator) at one of the schools a foster child of mine had attended about six years ago. I said hello.

First thing she said to me? First question she asked? I'll tell you;

"How's Jake doing? What's his news? Is he still painting? Does he still like art?"

You know that teacher is in the right job, not surprising that school got an Excellent from Ofsted.

 So I guess school and fostering can be uncomfortable partners, it can also be a match made in heaven




Tuesday, January 07, 2020

AULD LANG SYNE

One of our fostering friends has just had a very interesting thing happen, she doesn't mind if I share it with sympathetic friends (that's you dear reader, by the way), she doesn't know I write a secret blog about fostering, but I'll make sure to be discreet.

She's an interesting recruit to fostering is Dawn. She's single, never married or had children of her own. She told me she was worried that being single and childless would stand against her when she applied to foster, but Blue Sky and local authorities take applicants on merit. Anyone who's interested should apply, no matter what your background is; they can only say no thanks at worst. It's true some people aren't suitable. I always remember hearing about the gentleman applicant who owned ten snakes, two tarantulas and had a bearded lizard running loose in his flat.

Dawn is very human, down to earth, quite well organised (she chose to box up her collection of porcelain figurines and store them safely in the attic before her first placement arrived).

I first got chatting to her at a Blue Sky support meeting one time, we had a few laughs - foster carers share a lot of dark (and light) humour - and swapped phone numbers.

I probably only see her half a dozen times a year at meetings and training sessions, although not long ago she and her new man, a lovely person called Terry, came round to ours for a curry. Long story short they ended up getting a cab home and coming back in the morning for their car. I hadn't laughed so much for a long time, all about fostering.

So Dawn texted me the morning after New Year's Eve and asked me to call her, so I did.

This is what she told me;

She and Terry (BTW he's been DBS-checked etc) are caring for a slightly frail and frightened 16 year old lad whose family has broken up badly. His dad is serving time for a repeat crime of no little violence. His mum is a chronic alcoholic and drug addict. The dad's crime was committed against the mum, the lad was in the house while it was happening.

Dawn told me the foster lad had contact meetings with his mum, usually at a MacDonalds, but that Dawn and Terry had never met her.

Now, Dawn and Terry love a family party. They don't go mad, but they both have large extended families plus friends who have boyfriends and girlfriends. So when they threw a New Year's party their house began to fill up from about 8.00pm and the guests all grouped up like guests do.

As for their foster lad; they'd discussed his attendance at the party with his Social Worker. It was agreed he should be able to circulate if he wanted to, maybe have a small bottle of beer, but he must feel free to retreat to his room if he needed to.

The place was throbbing by about 9.30pm, Dawn and Terry were making sure everyone was happy and also keeping tabs on their foster lad.

The lad was glowing! He moved easily around the party, hooked up with some of the guests who were about his generation, and seemed somehow at peace with everything.

About 11.00 Terry collared Dawn and asked her; "Is that woman one of yours?"

Dawn replied "I think I know who you mean. I thought she was one of yours."

They'd both noticed a youngish woman who seemed on her own. Terry had seen her smoke a roll-up in the garden - alone - and Dawn had noticed that she never held a glass of anything.

The woman looked a little nervous, had a piercing on her lip and some tattoos; no big deal, but none of the other guests did, at least not in the way she did.

Terry and Dawn agreed to keep a friendly eye on her.

At midnight it gets really interesting.

The countdown begins and everyone is crammed into the room with the TV. Everyone. Even the mystery loner. And the foster lad.

In fact the two of them are side by side. Then.. it's midnight! A New Year begins! Everyone's hugging in that vague hopeful way, the moment a strange combination of the celebration of life and a baptismal marking of the end of what's gone before and the beginning of new beginnings.

Then, suddenly, the foster lad is singing. Singing Auld Lang Syne. His arms crossed with the mystery woman. 

By this time Dawn and Terry have worked it out - or at least they think they have. They don't know for sure, and won't be sure even when they tell their Blue Sky Social Worker.

They're pretty sure the lad's mum did a quiet gatecrash and stayed sober just to be with her son on New Year's Eve. Probably feared that if she'd asked permission there'd be a bunch of paperwork and maybe a refusal. I doubt she'd have been told no, but scared people are cautious. So she and her son cooked up a scheme. Good for them. And good for Dawn and Terry for their vigilant but discreet monitoring.

Oh dear, now I've had to take my glasses off because some tears have gathered at the bottom of the frames.

How wonderful it can be when through all the muck and mire that life can pile on people, LOVE comes up trumps.

And how wonderful is fostering that it gives us carers so many extra moments of joy.