Wednesday, June 12, 2019

THE END IS NOT NIGH

Here's something I hadn't seen coming;

It happened because Ryder, our newest foster child, is shortly going home.

It's always an emotional time, obviously. But last night she was very brittle and not herself at all.

She was catty with my eldest foster child - with whom she's usually on top form. At teatime she was sullen, pushing the peas around her plate.

After tea there was an argument about the remote control and I had to ask her to go up to her room and come down when she'd cooled off. This usually takes 10 to 15 minutes.

She didn't come down.

I gave it half-an-hour and crept up. She was on her bed, her face buried in her pillow.

Dear me, she was sobbing those huge but almost noiseless sobs that come from deep in the heart.

I said softly;

"Ryder? Darling? Can I come in?"

She digested that it was me and that I was sympathetic and nodded.

It's always hard to find the right words to ask a foster child what's wrong because it could be one or several of innumerable things that are not only 'wrong' but also no fault of theirs and what's more there's often nothing they can do to put things right.

It turned out that the thing on her mind was huge, not her fault, and about which she can do next-to-nothing.

Before I tell you what it was it's worth remembering that she is due to go home anytime, and that she sees this as the beginning of a whole new and wonderful world for her and for all the people she cares about. She wants this new life to burst into bloom as she walks through her front door, and for this rejuvenated and wonderful life to last forever.

Got all that?

Good.

So. The reason she was all over the place was because she'd caught a trending news item on her phone in which a group of experts announced that human civilisation would end in 2050.

Just as things seemed on the up for the poor mite came the 'news' that - as far as she could deduce - the world was going to go pffft and disappear when she is aged 41.

In fostering you get asked by children to explain some pretty strange and often almost inexplicable things. Every time your first priority is to be truthful but to protect the child from unnecessary fear or anxiety.

News providers have no such framework of responsibilities.

Sometimes it's not the fault of the News. For example (true story alert); when I was little the TV News was filled with updates on a world statesman who was very old and at death's door. Each time a bulletin ended the newscaster would say;

"There will be another bulletin in an hour."

As this went on into the next day my youngest brother suddenly cracked under the pressure and through his tears he pleaded "If he's so ill, why do they keep putting another bullet in him?"

So, with that awful image of decades ago still fresh in my mind, I went to work.

I explained (largely from well-intentioned guesswork) that the scientists hadn't been predicting the end of the world, they had been saying that life would be a lot different by 2050. I reassured her that the air would be cleaner because cars would be better. I suggested we probably wouldn't be eating meat all the time so animals would be happier. I said that by 2050 maybe most known diseases would have been conquered and people might expect to live well beyond 100. I added that her generation were gearing up to be the best ever; if anyone is up to the job of fixing starvation and injustice it's people like Ryder and her friends.

Did it work? Er...

My predictions went down okay, but she still blubbed a bit, albeit with less despair.

What sealed the deal was;

"Tell you what. I bought a tub of lemon sorbet yesterday. Sorbet is kind of like ice cream but without the cream so it's better for you. But it's a grown-up taste. It's in the freezer. I need someone who knows what they're talking about to try some and tell me if the rest of the hungry hippos will like it or turn up their noses. We'll have to sneak downstairs and get a bowlful up into your room for a secret tasting session without anyone spotting what we're up to."

Ah, distraction. Still at Number One if this Foster Carer's Top Twenty.

Oh, and was I telling the truth about what I think about climate change?

Yes, I was telling an optimistic take on the truth as I see it. But crucially I was telling it in the way a damaged and vulnerable 10 year old needed to hear it.





Friday, May 31, 2019

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

So; Ryder, our most recent foster placement, is going home soon.

Knowing as I do certain details of how chaotic her family life was before social services intervened I'm concerned for her. But the professionals have done their homework and we Foster Carers trust their judgement. They're a fantastic army of trained and talented people who simply want everything to be okay for everybody.

Ryder is giddy at the prospect. She's begun packing, begun planning and rehearsing her departure from here and her arrival at her real home - she's even fussed about getting her hair right.

I've seen this plenty of timers before; children in care want nothing more or less than to get back to the life they know well. Even if it's a difficult life.

One phrase that remains in my mind was uttered by a teenager staying with us;

"So I'm stuck here in fostering while the rest of my lot are playing happy families?!"

"Happy families."

The last words you'd use to describe her lot would be "Happy families"'.

But then that's the likes of us looking from the outside.

The logical Foster Carer would find themselves lying in bed asking themselves; "Why would anyone want to leave my home which is sweetly run and a safe place to live to go back to a home which is all over the place?"

I got one answer to this question in a favourite movie of mine;

Some years ago I watched the film 'Ghandi'.

Ghandi wanted to persuade  the British to leave India. He had a meeting with British officials in which he said he wanted India to be returned to Indians.

However India was potentially very chaotic, so one of the English generals said;

"Mr Ghandi, if we return India to you there would be chaos."

So Ghandi replies;

"Perhaps. But it will be our chaos."

There you have it. It's their chaos.

They have more attachment to their chaos than a stranger's  orderliness (of course there are exceptions to this, but it does seem to be the general rule).

I'm currently sharing Ryder's excitement at the prospect of going hime. I indulge her daydreams that everything is going to be wonderful - but only when we are alone together. I have another foster child who isn't going home and I'm careful to avoid setting him thinking any more than is necessary.

At the same time as indulging Ryder's anticipations I'm trying to manage her expectations, saying things like;

"I expect everyone will be busy and rushing around when you get back." Meaning "Don't expect a throng at the front door with banners saying 'Welcome Home Ryder".

I say;

"Your mum's boyfriend has moved out, but is still allowed to see your mum." Meaning "There will still be plenty of tensions and the odd ruckus."

And so on.

Where I can say exactly what I mean, and manage my own expectations is when I say to her;

"We will miss you so much. We'll never forget you. We'll always be grateful to you for bringing so much to our family and our home."








Friday, May 24, 2019

LEARNING TO CARE

They say that having two dogs is easier than one, they play together and keep each other company. Whenever I hear that remark my thoughts turn to whether the same is true in fostering.

Here's what been happening between two of my current foster children;

The older one (by four years), male, is almost certainly never going to be able to go home.  How he feels about this depends on various things. He 'yo-yos'; sometimes he's cool about it and feels that life works out in the end, sometimes he not and feels life's unfair.

He has a really good foster-sibling relationship with Ryder (female) who is now 10. They like and respect each other, the more so as they are in the same boat. Foster children relax in the company of other children in care. It's one of the big plusses at Blue Sky's event days, I get to meet up with other foster parents and chat about fostering, and the children find themselves in the company of children NONE of whom will wonder about their circumstances because they all have the same key circumstance in common. For children in care being surrounded by nothing but other children in care is one of the few occasions when they can feel a measure of being the norm.

But as with any human dynamic, there can be tensions, and when I tell you what's going on right now you'll get it in one.

Eldest is never going home.

Ryder is. Soon!

Everything in starting to fall into place, a schedule is taking shape.

It happened quite quickly. Social services broke the big news a few days ago, Ryder's SW phoned me then came over and gave the youngster the news sat at the kitchen table with me making tea and all ears. Ryder was very un-bothered at first. Her point seemed to be "What took you so long?" But later she let her emotions out.

I can't begin to tell you what a mixed bag it is in your house when a foster child is preparing to go home. Of course one feels pleasure in the child's happiness, and pride in having done your job. But the child sometimes has concerns which the foster parent has to watch for and help with. There's a sadness that a child who has been family is leaving, hopefully for ever. It hurts, even though you know it's for the best.

The tensions are never higher than if you have a couple of foster children and one is going home and the other isn't.

Imagine.

I heard the following while driving them across town, eldest to the cinema, Ryder on her way shopping with me;

Ryder: "It must be s**t for you, man."
Eldest; "Not really. Who cares."
Ryder: "Seriously. You be okay?"
Eldest; "Dunno. I suppose."
Ryder;  "You did tell me you thought it was better you were here than what you had before."
Eldest; "Yeah. I guess."
Ryder; "I'll miss you mate."
Eldest: "Yeah? Go on then...why?"
Ryder: "You're cool mate."
Silence
Ryder; "Like, when I came here I couldn't believe that you wasn't the family. I thought how could a guy in care be so cool about being fostered? But you was. And that made it better for me."
Eldest: "Yeah. Like it's no big deal."
Ryder; "Yeah but if you'd been like; 'Oh s**t I hate being here and the world sucks' and that kind of stuff, I'd have probably flipped."
Eldest; "You did flip that time about the goldfish."
Ryder; "Yeah, but I chilled when you came downstairs, I was like; 'Oh I don't need him to see me wrecked."
Eldest; "You've never been wrecked. If they'd let you have a goldfish the goldfish would have been well wrecked."
Loud laughter.
Ryder; "Seriously, you be okay?"
Eldest; "Shut up man. I said yeah, alright."
Silence
Ryder; (talking to me) "Can me and him, like, stay in touch and that?"
Me;  "I'll see if something can be arranged. I'll talk to your social workers. I'm afraid they tend not to be keen for good reasons. You might have to pass messages via them."
Ryder; "What?"
Eldest; "Forget it!"
Me: "I think you'll be able to write to each other, that could be the best thing."

With that their conversation turned to which was the best superhero, with Eldest nominating Blade (clearly a specialist's selection), and Ryder going for Iron Man. I chipped in with Superman, and was roundly condemned for choosing an alien - apparently the new take on superheroes is that they have to be human.

I was tempted to come back with an ironically witty political-correctism  about discrimination, but I was still glowing with the moment; two children who had all the cares in the world, getting all the care I can give, and caring for each other.

If I've done nothing else for them I hope maybe I might have helped them learn to care.







Friday, May 17, 2019

TV DILEMMAS

For anyone reading this outside the UK; a TV host called Jeremy Kyle is (or should that be 'was') the UK's answer to Jerry Springer.

You know the sort of show, I expect TV has them the world over. Shows where real people perform their domestic disputes for audiences.

There's a reason I want to talk about this type of show on a blog about fostering, and the reason's this; teenagers in care seem to love the format.

Here in the UK the Jeremy Kyle Show went out about 9.30am, so to catch the first transmission youngsters had to be either on school holiday or off sick. 

BTW the reason I refer to Jeremy Kyle's programme in the past tense is because he's been taken off. A member of the public who went on the show died several days later, first reports say he took his life. It's alleged that during the show he'd failed a lie detector test related to his fidelity. The episode will never be aired.

Although we know few details at the time of writing, the press and large swathes of the British public are howling that they'd known all along that the show was a disgrace. Stories are emerging from people who previously worked behind the scenes on the show suggesting stuff such as that guests waiting in the wings were wound up to go on the offensive.

On a personal note, I'm pleased the show is finished, and feel sad and sorry for the family and friends of the deceased and for that matter each and every individual who was in any way damaged or diminished by the show. And that includes the one million viewers who frankly ought to have found their entertainment in something more noble. 

But I want to think about the part it played in the world of looked-after teenagers, because many of them found a connection.

Let me be clear that I never allowed younger children near it, only the young adults who came to us.

The two questions I ask myself over and over - and I don't yet have answers - are 1) Exactly why did they find it so irresistible and 2) Did it do them any harm watching?

Here's one foster child of mine; Tish. Tish is heavier than her age, she's 16 years old and 17 stone. Her family consists of one parent in prison for crimes against another family member and a second parent that can't fend for them-self.  Also present in her home was an elder sister who had been made pregnant by the parent now in prison.

When Tish arrived in our house she had a serious resistance to going to school (she said it was down to her being bullied because of her size) and spent her first few days with us at home all day while I and her Social Worker developed a plan to get her back to school.

She spent every morning watching Jeremy Kyle. In fact I began to think that a big reason for her resistance to school was that she had become fixated with the show.

Every morning was built around Jeremy Kyle. Tish would come downstairs 10 minutes before the show in her sleep outfit, hauling her duvet (there was  no-one else in the house), and settle on the sofa. I would offer her breakfast and schedule it to arrive as the show started. Then I would sit with her and we'd watch. Watching TV with foster children is a great bonding thing.

Tish would take control. She would pontificate on every aspect of every show and how she could spot the serious scallywags from the mere dodgepots. She would tell me what was wrong and what should be done. 

She was undeniably better informed about family chaos than me. I found many of her insights amazing, and her views on how to solve the problems sometimes quite sophisticated.

In the light of the reason why the show has been ditched not to mention its recurring misery I'm not prepared to even contemplate that it may have benefited Tish or any foster children in any way shape or form, because though young people in care need all the help they can get, and we Carers need all the help we can get to help them, some things are beyond the pale.

But the question remains; why was the Jeremy Kyle Show such compulsive viewing for them?

Some seemed to take comfort that many of the chaotic families on display were; "worse than my lot".

Others were drawn to being able to show their expertise in domestic conflicts. 

Maybe it made some feel they weren't so badly off as others.

One Social Worker advanced another theory; some teenagers find home comfort among the shouting and hostilities coming from the TV. For many of them such an atmosphere was reminiscent of their home life, and the fact is that almost every young person in care wants to go home again regardless of the chaos.

Did the Jeremy Kyle Show help or harm them? I definitely valued the way it opened up conversations about family life, so it was a good tool in that single respect. But I also definitely found it too disappointing for words.

I can say for sure I'm glad I won't have to wonder about it any more, now that it's been axed.

I can't speak for the millions who watched - it was the highest rated show on daytime TV, and it wasn't alone in focussing on people who are struggling; there are also 'shows' about topics such as people with bad debts, insurance fraudsters, a quasi-court for settling financial disputes.

You might have wondered about Tish and how we eventually got her going to school. It was a bit devious of me, but my SW thought it was for the best. 

I did what I usually do if a school-shy child spends a day at home; I make sure their day is a bit boring; "After all" I tell them "You've got a sore throat, we don't want you tiring yourself out on your phone, you need your energy to recover." 

In Tish's case I turned off the TV Cube, saying that we had a signal problem during the day...


Monday, May 13, 2019

WHEREVER I LAY MY HAT...

It doesn't matter how long you've been in fostering, you don't know it all.

Actually, I find the more I learn the more I realise I need to know.

When I started fostering I thought the experience I had in life and parenting would cover most things; and I did alright too, I think. But obviously, I'm probably doing a bit better now I'm armed with a whole load of knowledge and tricks of the trade.

But you're NEVER too old to learn, and I picked up a couple of revelations last weekend that I'm aching to share because they're absolute gems.

What happened was this; my eldest foster child had a sleepover. There would be four of them, and of an age where I wanted to provide them each with their own bed. Not easy as there would be the other family members in the house, but I managed it by putting up our youngest on sofa cushions in our bedroom and fishing a spare mattress down from the loft.

The spare mattress had to go on the floor.

When the guests arrived they congregated. On the mattress on the floor. A discussion started about who would sleep where. Everyone wanted to sleep on the mattress on the floor, even my own foster child who has his own bed in his own bedroom. Even he wanted to sleep on the mattress on the floor.

They must have drawn lots or something, but as the evening wore on the mattress on the floor was like some kind of a honeypot and they each took it in turns to 'chill' on it with their phone.

Next day, eldest foster child came to me and said;

"Can I have my mattress on the floor?"

I responded to type, something like;

"Don't be daft, you've got a lovely bed. Why would you want to sleep on the floor?"

"I just do...it's cool!"

Long story short, I let him. And it's been an absolute winner.

1. No bedside cabinet for things to fall off.
2. No space under the bed for stuff to collect and where the hoover can't reach.
3. No space under the bed for boogie monsters or spiders  to hide.
4. No long drop to fall if you worry about fidgeting off the bed during a funny dream.
The main thing;
5. It's cool. 

I can't exactly pinpoint this 'cool' thing about it. I know a mattress on the floor is vaguely 'studenty'. It's got a kind of hobo schtick, an air of unconventionality, makes him out to be a bit of a drifter (which in a small way foster children are).

Maybe that song sums it up; "Wherever I lay my hat that's my home.."

It has some drawbacks (small). Making and changing a bed that's further away is a slight drag.
Plus I started worrying that the mattress couldn't breathe, but it's going to be a doddle to flip every so often. Not only that, it's free from the build-up of fluff and dust that goes with the under-the-bed space.

We even talked about doing the same thing with our bed as I've got a bit of a back and surely it can only be good for the spine.

Anyway, later the same day came the second revelation from the same foster child. I asked him right out why he wanted to sleep on the mattress on the floor.

Be careful reading this next bit, it makes me fit to weep. He said;

"I used to be made to sleep in the floor when I was a disappointment. I want to push through it."

Here's to him.

And here's to fostering.




Tuesday, April 30, 2019

TIME TO FOSTER



I have to go back some to remember my early fostering days. It was a bit of a blur. I'm up to speed on what's what now, and what I know might be useful to people who are thinking about fostering.

Things have changed for the better. Fostering is now in better shape for the foster child and for the Foster Carer than ever before.

Would you believe that when I first got interested in fostering there was a shop in my high street with pictures in the shop window of children who needed a foster home. Can you credit that? I hardly can. But it was how some things were done then, I know.

Fostering has advanced in leaps and bounds.

What happens now is that prospective Foster Carers are more or less fostered themselves by their fostering agency. I can't say for sure if it's the same if you sign up with your local authority as I've only ever fostered with an agency. First you contact them and they make a quick decision on whether you might have what it takes. 

You get a visit from someone from the agency who basically runs the rule over you and your home. People shouldn't be put off by the idea of being given a checkout. It HAS to happen, that's surely  obvious. It would be a tragedy if a potentially wonderful Foster Carer who has the personality and wherewithal to help poor waifs and strays is put off by the idea of being assessed. I mean, look; if a child of yours had to go and stay at someone else's house for a while you'd want to know they'd been checked out right?

Always remember, the fostering agency (this goes for Blue Sky for sure) is on your side from the get go. Britain need more people in fostering, people from all walks of life, with all sorts of backgrounds, circumstances and personal histories.

Once you get that first green light, you're off on  a joyous journey through the approval process right up the the great day when you get your full approval rubber-stamped and find yourself in the heady heaven of waiting for your first foster child.

The approval process is not just painless, it's positively delightful. In a nutshell it consists mainly of someone visiting you at your home and listening to you as you go over your life. They are interested in who you are, who your family is and how your home works. I've done this process twice and both times I found myself really looking forward to each session.

Fostering needs people who have dealt with life's downs as well as the ups. Had a divorce? Got a tiny skeleton in the family closet? One of your own kids fallen foul of the law?
EVERYONE has a few things they think they'd better keep a low profile on. But your fostering visitor may ask you, with utmost sensitivity, to talk about them. Why? Because fostering is all about helping young people who are in crisis, and while it may not feel like it at the time, when we are handling the dramas and crises that sometimes pitches up in life, we are learning some of the skills we might need as a Foster Carer.

Can't get used to life in civvy street after a career in the armed forces? One of the very best Foster Carers I've met is an ex-squaddie, wow do his foster children respect him.

Worried about your age? I was privileged to meet a fantastic Foster Carer who was a widow aged 72. The most recent recruitment session I spoke at was attended by a couple in their young twenties.

Ethnicity and religion, gender preference are absolutely no issue at all. I understand why people are led to worry, thanks to the prejudices and unkindness of others, but there is NO room for any suchlike harshness in fostering, not an OUNCE. I promise.

I hope that if you are the one in a hundred who read the Secret Foster Carer and who is thinking of trying fostering, that toady is the day you make the call.

Please, please do.






Monday, April 22, 2019

BACK TO SCHOOL

Here's a tricky question which I get asked often;

"What's the best thing about fostering?"

The best thing changes day by day, sometimes by the hour, sometimes minute by minute.

Sometimes you get fantastic little moments that knock your socks off. They come and go, like the one that's just happened today.

But it's the big 'best things' that endure, such as the simple fact you're doing something that's just plain good. There aren't many walks of life where you get uncompromising respect. The Foster Carer can look in the mirror and give yourself a quick pat on the back. It's not WHY I do it, or any Foster Carer does it, but it's gratifying nevertheless.

The other deepest things are the times when you can be confident you've made a difference for a child. Actually that one takes the beating. Then there are the visits from your Blue Sky Social Worker which help you focus on the positives.

Those three strong emotional pleasures are shored up by practical plusses; fostering is a respected profession so we are supplied an allowance which more than covers the costs of looking after someone else's child. It can't be called a salary (for accounting reasons - after all we're fostering 24/7 so counting the hours we are asleep but on call you could argue it's a 168 hour week. If we were paid the minimum hourly wage we'd be on £71,722.56). The actual allowance is substantial and covers more than our costs, but it's not quite up there.

Then there's the endless parade of great moments like this;

Our middle foster child came downstairs with a few days of the school holiday left and said;

"When are you going to tidy my room?"

Don't you just love loaded questions? I watched a YouTube about it. Manipulators call it a 'presumptive call to action'. The question is not asking whether you're going to comply, but when.

I should have replied something like;

"Here's a bin bag, if you can fill it with rubbish from your room and whizz it down in less than 5 minutes you can have a ...."

"A what?"

"A surprise. Of your choice."

I've worked this bit of counter-spin before but on this occasion was taken unawares and replied badly;

"Er well I was going to wait until you were back at school before..."

Which wasn't clever. It raised the spectre of going back to school, and that's sure to lower the mood and sure enough foster child went into a shell. Nothing big, just a sulk. A sulk I know well, blimey I pull one myself (privately) from time to time, not that they ever do me any practical good. They klind of feel nice though, some sort of self-righteous indignation.

School holidays are as big a challenge in fostering as they are in any parenting. My strategy is to let them get bored for a few days, then start organising a few low-key things while talking up the one BIG thing that is scheduled for the final days before back to school. If I was rich it would be a huge party or taking a bunch over to see Panic! At the Disco. 

I usually settle for a sleepover. They go back on a Tuesday or sometimes a Wednesday, so a Saturday night sleepover means time to recover. Sleep-overs are actually "Stay-awake-overs". They try to be up and doing crisps and diet coke into the small hours. Who wouldn't?

So I lifted the mood by saying;

"Got the final guest list for the sleepover?"

And got the reply;

"Robin says he has to come."

So I said;

"Problem?"

"Robin's a pain."

"Oh surely not, Robin's alright."

"You would say that wouldn't you."

"Eh?"

"He Instagrammed that everyone says you're the best mum out of everyone's."

OK. Blimey. Foster child pulled a face which meant something like "So maybe you aren't so bad after all". And I said something like;

"Well being a mum is hard and I'm sure all your friend's mums are great."

But as I went about my jobs I reflected on another 'best thing about fostering' moment. I'm obviously not the best mum out of all of the mums, but; my foster child was proud I was his 'mum'.

And that's one heck of a best thing.

So back to school with all's well!