Thursday, November 29, 2018

CHRISTMAS AND FOSTERING


There's a multitude of experiences that make fostering one of the best things you can do.

There are a multitude of little moments;

There's the first moment a foster child calls you 'mum' or 'dad' (their real parents will always be their real parents, but sometimes they choose to call me mum and that's for them - and it makes me feel proud). There's the moment they refer to your house as 'home', the moment they slip their hand into yours without being asked when it's time to cross a road, the moment you first hear them chortle a carefree laugh.

A multitude of big moments;

Their first holiday with you, first trip to the corner shop alone...

Then there are the huge moments, such as when your Social Worker helps you see how much progress the child is making and what a great job you're doing.

But of all of the great times in fostering, nothing beats Christmas, in fact nothing comes close. IMHO.

Hey, Christmas in fostering is not seamless joy and harmony, but then Christmas isn't like that for anybody except the cardboard folk on the Christmas movie channels.

Looking back on my years of fostering the Christmases just get better and better. I'm going to enjoy telling you why, but I'm sure to shed a few sweet tears, because Christmas in fostering is very emotional.

There was the foster child who was going home for Christmas. She was 16 and the deal struck was she could go home on Christmas Eve and come back to us on the 27th. Christmas Eve is always a special day, but this one was doubly so.

We'd helped her buy presents for her family. Her budget was tight so we'd slipped her a little extra to buy the things she wanted for them.

Okay, just so you know, I'm filling up right now because I know what happens...

So it gets to about 4.00 o'clock on Christmas Eve afternoon and we're due to set off to drive her over to her home. She had her bag of presents from us to her which we expected her to take to open on Christmas morning, but no. She said she wanted to open them with us. So we got together around the kitchen table and she opened her smellies from the Body Shop, her new phone cover, her box of Quality Street and so on.

I knew why she wanted to open them with us; it was because she didn't expect the presents at her home to have the same currency (I'd built that into my calculations about what to buy for her). But it showed an emotional intelligence - a kindness - in her that we'd been working on.

Okay, so we climb into the car and it's getting well dark. And she's going home for Christmas.

I knew what she'd been through and what memories she had of her home (I won't detain you, trust me you don't want to know), yet here she was, absolutely made up to be going home.

Talk about the triumph of hope over experience, but it's something you see a lot of in fostering. The kids can be so inspirational in their desire to re-unite their family and make things alright again.

OK, I had to take a moment there and dab eyes, honest.

So now we're in the car and I put on a CD of Christmas songs my other half had recorded.

There was one I was itching to play for her, so I fast forwarded to it, and she loved it.

And she pressed replay over and over for the whole 50 minutes it took us to drive her home.

Driving Home For Christmas.

Driving Home.

Imagine her happiness.

We had another child one Christmas who had never had a Christmas - not for religious or high-minded reasons, but simply because the adults in the house were too disorganised, too swamped. I could add 'too self-absorbed' and 'too self-serving', but hey in the spirit of Christmas I won't. The thing is that this poor mite KNEW that everyone else was decorating trees, buying gifts, planning food, fretting over visits from aunties and all the other excitements.

For this kid, Christmas Day had been just another day. Another Tuesday.

Imagine.

He picked up the whole thing so fast it was obvious he knew what he'd been missing. And the joy he exuded throughout December was the best present I'd ever had. When we all agreed (as we do every year) that this particular Christmas had been "Our best Christmas ever", I resisted shooting him a glance but I will hope for ever that he took us to mean that his presence was the clincher. Because it was.

Many people in fostering will have a different kind of Christmas for any number of good reasons, and I feel sure they'll have a good Holiday, I hope they do and I wish it for them. Many will have their own celebrations at other times of the year which are no less joyous, maybe even more spiritual.

But for me Christmas -  with all its famous flaws of commercialism, expense and indulgence - offers us an abundance of profoundly pure feelings if we reach for them.

Perhaps the best feeling of all is to give our children the chance to enjoy themselves. Enjoy the build-up, the anticipation of great things to come. Gifts yes, but also happy people, people enjoying each other, people free from the yolk of hard work for a couple of nutty days of dressing well, seeing bowls of nuts and crisps put out straight after breakfast and serious cooking smells starting around 10.00am.

Christmas is about giving, but not the giving of socks. It's giving our kids memories of childhood Christmases which will stay with them all their lives. And that goes double or treble for our foster kids.

And when they're old and need a stick to get from the sofa to the Christmas table they'll help the child next to them pull a cracker and put on the paper hat and spend a moment transported back to happy Christmas memories when they were fostered.

Transported back to a happy place.

Driving Home.

For Christmas




Monday, November 26, 2018

BUGS AND FOSTERING HIGHS

Winter brings a curious high in fostering.

It's going on upstairs in our house today, started this morning.

One of our foster kids, Ryder, has a cold.

It's a proper cold too, not an exaggerated one - you know; the show-business coughing and blowing of the nose when there's nothing up there...

No, not this time, Ryder is proper poorly.

And very, VERY happy. In fact it's a joy to see and now that everyone else has gone to work and school, I'm looking forward to one of my favourite fostering situations.

Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't wish a cold or the flu on anybody. I'm now an enthusiastic flu jabber. And - touch wood - I don't seem to get colds since I started fostering, something to do with being too busy for the germs to come out.

But when your child gets a cold and has to have a couple of days off school, well I have to say it's blissful for loads of reasons.

For a start I enjoy playing nurse. I love making a fuss of my concerns for a little one who is under the weather. 

On top of that I get a better chance to have a few meaningful one-to-ones with them when I take them a bowl of porridge or tomato soup or whatever comfort food.

If they're old enough for me to leave them for 10 minutes to pop round to the corner shop I can take orders for a Dr Who magazine, and a tub of chocolate chip ice cream for when they finish their soup.

It's always touching the gravitas with which they take their medicine, whether its Calpol or some other Junior over-the-counter preparation. They treat the matter with due importance, knowing I've had to unlock the cabinet where we keep our aspirins etc - they know it's actual medicine and not a spoonful of sugar.

I'll be totally honest about this next reason I get a high from when they need nursing; giving them a deserved day off school makes them happy. Happy because a day off school, a day of being looked-after and cared for is delicious for them and I get to feel their delight. Not least they are relieved that their under-the-weather head cold has been perceived as the truth, that they have an honest (minor) illness and have earned a recovery period followed by a convalescence.

But the biggest reason the house glows when the house is part-hospital is this:

Many foster children have been starved of the kind of mothering (and fathering) kindness that children need to develop properly. All too often when they arrive at your house they are confused by normal parental love and  some foster children find them selves resisting it. They come round after a while, but new Foster Parents are often surprised by their inability to accept simple kindnesses.

The big reason the house is blissful when you're nursing a foster child is that they quickly come to accept and love your kindness because it's disguised as nursing. At first they're a bit taken aback that someone should put them first above all else. Often they have been marginalised in their home. Now here they are the centre of kindly attention. People in the house ask how they are feeling and what their needs are.

I usually send them back to bed and say that if they are feeling a bit better they can come down in their DG and watch TV under a duvet on the sofa. Actually I do a bit more than 'send them back to bed'. I help them upstairs and straighten their bed, plump the pillows then tuck them in. A gentle hand on the forehead to check if they're overheating is an affection they might have squirmed at on other occasions, but when it's nurse/patient they take it. Then I go downstairs and cook up my crowning medical poultice.

A HOT WATER BOTTLE.

Age cannot whither nor custom stale the infinite benefits of taking your foster child their first hot water bottle (not too hot obvos). It seals the deal, especially when you check on them at about mid-afternoon and say;

"Well I think you're not 100%, and they don't want people in school with anything contagious, so I think we'd better keep you home one more day". They struggle to suppress an exuberant; "YESSSSS!".

And you crown it by asking "Is your hottie still hot?"

And off you go for a re-fill, the pair of you high as a kite.

Happy as Larry, whoever he was.



Monday, November 12, 2018

GENDER ISSUES AND FOSTERING

One of the challenges for Foster Carers is when there's not much in our own personal experiences that are of much use in our fostering of today's children.

I've met a few carers who themselves had been fostered, that's a start.

But the world just keeps changing so fast, so very fast, that the things that my generation of kids had to worry about at home and at school and outside the chip shop (you know, all those places we used to hang out at), well those things don't seem to be so big with kids any more.

Especially not with children who have been taken from a home where they were considered at risk.

The big new thing at the moment wasn't even a thing at all in my day; gender.

When I say 'new', I'm not saying that gender issues weren't a problem 20 or 30 years ago; it's clear that a great many young people have always, down the years, faced agonising fears and uncertainties, but they had to face them alone. And deal with them under the threat that if their personal problems became common knowledge they might be subjected to ostracism at best, bullying and maybe violence at worst.

Very little of what we now know and respect in this day and age about gender was barely suspected a generation ago.

What I'm saying is this; as a Foster Carer, if and when I have to support a foster child who presents as being other than what is now called binary, I can't draw on any personal experience from my own childhood.  Nobody in my schooldays was perceived as being anything other than what people (sadly) called 'normal'. Mind, there was pernicious rumour-mongering from the sort of youths you'd expect aimed a few vulnerable pupils and even certain teachers, nasty.

Today it's a totally different outlook.

One of the foster mums at our most recent support meeting is looking after a child who came to her as a male but has announced that he wishes to identify as female. Aged 15.

She's MTF. Male to female.

We (the other Foster Carers and the Blue Sky Social Workers at the meeting) had a fascinating and revealing time discussing and learning about the placement.

The young person had given enormous thought over a great deal of time to her decision. That's the first thing, from the moment the person's decision is delivered and accepted as their decision it's incumbent on those who accept their decision to remember that it's HER and not HIS decision any longer.

Which takes some getting used to. The mum said that if and when she gets it wrong the child accepts it if the mum says a quick cheerful "Oops, sorry".

One thing that amazed the foster mum was the amount and quality of support available. The school got it in one - it turned out they already had another pupil in the same boat and a couple of as yet undecided. They've allocated a toilet as gender neutral, where they can change for PE and games. The school offers counselling. The child's local authority social worker came up with a list of groups and clubs for young people with similar profiles. They are all extremely well run by knowledgable professionals. Her Blue Sky SW brought books and video links on the subject and arranged for her and her partner to attend a series of training sessions run for parents with children who also have gender issues.

The child's friendship groups have been massively supportive, and all the other pupils at her school respect her courage and conviction, apparently it would be uncool not to!

The other thing to pass on is this; the child's foster mum says that she has never seen the child so happy, so contented, so footsure and fulfilled as she was from the very day she presented.

As ever, thanks for reading, and happy fostering!



Wednesday, October 31, 2018

SUPPORT MEETING 2

So, (see previous post) how did things pan out for Sue and Angie?

Before I tell it's important to reiterate that support meetings depend on the confidence of all attending. Foster parents need to be able to talk openly amongst each other about things happening in their fostering world and that means they don't want to have to worry that anyone might take something out of context or be misquoted. 

This doesn't mean that support meetings are any kind of secret society, just that people's privacy is given proper respect.

With this in mind I've taken the precaution of getting agreement to recount the outcome of Angie's request to go home with everyone who might be affected - except Angie. I'm ensuring her privacy is entirely protected by tweaking aspects of the episode so that the essentials are preserved but the identity of Angie, Sue and the foster family can never be perceived. 

It helps that everyone comes out of it so well; in fact I think it's inspirational.

Angie expressed a wish to leave her foster home, and it was discovered that her motive was that she wanted to look after her real mum who is what's often described as 'chaotic'. Painful for Sue (Angie's foster mother) but profoundly positive for Angie (and Sue) that Angie's fostering experience had been so positive and valuable that she wanted to try to do for her mum what Sue had done for her.

Once Sue cottoned onto this she lost all sense of rejection and began to appreciate her work with Angie.

The social workers felt that Angie was indeed grown up enough to help her mum in many ways, but it wouldn't be fair to cut her loose in the world. There's more to looking after an adult than cooking and cleaning; there's the labyrinth of the benefit system for a start - and plenty of other bureaucracies and paperwork to confuse the most willing teenager.

But things started moving, and it's funny how once something gets a bit of good momentum all sorts of things happen. First off Angie's older sister re-appeared on the scene and offered to move in with the mum and do her share, but said she'd value Angie's help. 
We foster carers had gathered around Sue to help her with the emotions and practicalities of what was going on. Then Angie's mum's social worker got together with the other social workers and they came up with a plan. 

Angie would stay with Sue (provided Angie agreed - by the time a 'child' is nearly 17 their views are of the highest importance), but would go to her mum's at weekends and some evenings to help.

The arrangement would be under constant review, with a view to allowing Angie to move back to her mum when the time is right.

End result; everyone happy.

More than merely 'happy', everyone was delighted and relieved.

It's not the first time we've had a round of applause at a support meeting, but it was the loudest and the longest for a long time.

Everyone had played a part in this great outcome. Sue, Angie, the other foster carers and the social workers.

At the risk of sounding like someone I'm not; I felt proud to be part of a system that puts so much expertise and good heart into helping broken lives. Proud to live in a country where this goes on day after day, usually unnoticed and unsung.

Proud to foster.

Friday, October 26, 2018

BLUE SKY SUPPORT 1

I popped into a Blue Sky support meeting a couple of weeks back and (as usual) something interesting came up.

These meetings are a chance for foster carers to get together and chew the fat of fostering. There are usually some social workers who join in, but it's mostly our platform. 

Sometimes foster carers need to have a therapeutic whinge. Other times they need to share triumphs and achievements. 

We laugh a lot.

A support meeting is a haven where we can kick off our shoes and compare notes with people who are doing the same thing as us. Brilliant.

What came up was interesting to say the least.

A fellow carer has been looking after a child who has announced she wants leave the carer. A placement breakdown, though rare, gets our sympathetic attention.

The carer feels wounded saddened and a bit shocked.

Look, this carer is fantastic. A wonderful woman with a huge heart and a partner who loves her rotten and is right at her side all the way except when he's out delivering, which is his job.

The 'child' is sixteen, nearly seventeen, and has had a chequered past.

She has been with the carer for four years.

When she arrived the girl was undernourished, timid, and despairing. She had started doing a bit of mild self-harming. The carer, let's call her Sue, could see light at the end of a tunnel and went to work.

Sue spent years foster-parented this young person, let's call the child Angie, through thick and thin.

Goodness knows it was a long haul, but one which brought results. Angie settled into a new school and began to get good termly reports. Her self-harming, thanks largely to all the training Sue attended, tapered off to nothing.

Angie built herself a good friendship group and eventually got a (not particularly good) boyfriend (in Sue's judgement, which was probably about spot on), but it gave young Angie's self-esteem a boost. She started volunteering at a local drop-in playgroup having decided she wanted to work with children. She was going in the right direction.

And then what happened was that Angie's mother got active in Angie's life and that threw Angie right out of kilter.

This sometimes happens in fostering. The 'real' parents tend to challenge things; the fostering system, the social workers, you name it. They've even been known to challenge their own children. They think they mean well, and at least they're reaching out to their children, but adults who have parented so badly that their children have to be removed are often poor at making judgements.

From what Sue told us Angie's real mum has been playing on Angie's heartstrings. Throwing a bunch of 'Woe is me' in Angie's direction. There probably are woes aplenty in her life, but none of them Angie's fault.

So this particular support meeting broke for coffee and when we came back we all went to work on Sue's situation; all of us in the room; all the foster parents and the Blue Sky social workers.

Long story short we ended up with the following;

Sue has been such a great foster mum to Angie that Angie (who hopes to work with children) wants to try her hand at being the same great foster mum that Sue was for her (Angie). To do that Angie needs a 'foster child' who was just as lost and helpless as Angie was when she came to Sue. 

And the problem 'foster child' Angie wants to foster is...her mum. 

Angie wants to move back in with her mum and care for her.

So, what did we all end up advising Sue to do? Well there were lots of suggestions, and obviously I thought that mine was the most sensible.

I attended the following support meeting a couple of days ago and Angie told us which of our nuggets of advice she'd gone with and what the end result is likely to be..

Sorry, not meaning to keep you hanging on, but I'll tell all in the next post.



Monday, October 22, 2018

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

There's always something new to think about when you've a foster child in your care.

The latest thing in our house is an ongoing one and it's not going to go away. Each day brings something new on the same tack. Our eldest foster child is starting out on the road to independence.

This afternoon he messaged me on his way home from school that he was going straight to a mate's house to chill.

That was all the message said. No mention of whether he wanted his tea left in the oven, or what time he planned to come home. Not surprising, because tea and coming home was the last thing on his mind. The only thing on his mind was the heady delight of being in charge of himself.

Being a teenager used to be easy as I remember back in the day.

The passing of time deceives us parents because 99% of teenagers have a torrid times and I dare say we all did too, but nostalgia softens the memories so we tend to get het up because the new generation of teenagers seem to be making a meal of it like we didn't.

Only we did. And the problem is that we have to try especially hard to remember in order to  connect with their turmoil.

So. Eldest messaged that he was going to a friend's house. What do I reply?

I want him to  explore and grow into the world (goodness knows he's seen enough already in his short life to have some idea that it can be fraught, so for one thing he's not naive).

But keeping our foster children safe is a major priority. To be honest ( a much overused phrase these days, but I mean it in this instance) I find that I'm mostly marginally more protective of my foster children than my own, which sounds a bit off; but thinking about it, it's about right.

Point one; it's NOT because my own my own children are less important to me, for goodness sake - as if I have to say so, but I will.

There's a bunch of reasons why I'm a bit more cautious with my foster children than my own. For one; the ultimate guardian of a foster child is the local authority that has brought them into care and entrusted us with them. So if one's going to err it's on the side of caution; I ask myself what the child's social worker might do or say. What you don't do is phone the local authority social worker up ten times a week and ask their views on X Y and Z. You use your common sense, but maybe err a bit on the side of caution.

Another reason is that you don't know your foster children as well as your own. Mind, even with your own they can surprise you, but the possibilities for unpredictable behaviours are greater for a child you don't know so well than for one you do. So you err on the side of extra caution.

And here's the thing; nine times out of ten they are pleased and relieved when you impose those cautions. Why? Well for one thing it gives them something to moan about. For another they often secretly didn't really want to have a sleepover on a school night (or whatever), but were trying it on. But mostly they are made to feel secure that someone cares enough to say no. A lot of children who come into care have been allowed to stay up as late as they want, wander the streets with abandon and hang out with whoever they want. The adults at home often can't be bothered to do even the most basic of parenting.

I texted eldest back and said tea was at 5.30. That's all I texted. I didn't get into an argument about permission. I knew that the mate's mum would be in the house, and she was a mum you could trust. I guessed he hadn't been invited to stay for tea, and I knew he'd be hungry.

He was in at 5.25. 

Result.

Now for a few more happy years of the same...




Monday, October 15, 2018

FAMILY TRADITIONS AND FOSTERING

Our eldest foster child, is now on his way to being one of the family - as much as he wishes to be. It's not a good idea to force the issue, actually you can't, they either sign up or keep their distance or most often find a place somewhere in between. Their preferred place in their foster family is their right.

What makes me think he's signing up? Good question.

You'll laugh, I suspect, it almost seems funny to me. The thing that happened was this;

We have a kitchen chair that goes at the end of our rectangular kitchen table. It's where the chair of the board would sit at a board meeting. This chair, which we bought at a charity shop years ago, has a higher back than the others, and crucially is the only chair round the kitchen table which has arms. My husband tends to sit in it and do paperwork and laptop stuff, and usually sits there for family meals. I sit in it too sometimes. The family associate us as some kind of head of the house in the big chair.

Our eldest foster child understands the status of the big kitchen chair. When he has friends visit he sits in it.

Ryder sits in it too, just to see what it feels like. She doesn't ask, you simply notice that she's taken a slice of toast over to the table and slid into the throne. Some Sunday lunches she asks if she can sit in "the King's seat". My other half and eldest foster child always agree. And we never josh her about it, no-one does. Our real kids and the other foster children all get it. Ryder is trying to experiment with authenticity. She wants to know she is a fully paid up member of the human race and the simple act of sitting in the King's kitchen chair allows her an insight into being authentic... an important experience for a child who has only experienced being sidelined all her life.

The "King's" kitchen chair is more than just the one with the highest back and a pair of arms. In addition it's the only one which has a cushion on it. It's an unusual cushion, flat and wide, not your bog standard plumped up thing. The fact is I can't remember how or why the chair ended up with the cushion. The other chairs don't have a cushion. It might be just that my other half sits in the big chair a lot and wanted a soft seat. It might be that the other chairs don't suit cushions because they'd keep sliding off; the King's chair has arms, and the support struts for the arms keep the cushion from sliding off.

Stick with me. Microscopic stuff is this, but in fostering God is in the details.

I decided to wash the cushion on the King's chair. It would be in the washing cycle for about 2 days. So I replaced it with another cushion.

I didn't tell anyone because who would think anyone would give a tuppeny heck about cushions.

Wrong.

Eldest foster child came downstairs next morning and got ready to traipse off to school. At the front door he hesitated. I asked "You alright?"

He said;

"Where's the cushion gone?"

I explained it was in the wash. It would be back by tomorrow.

"Good." he said, adding.

"It's a tradition in this house."

See?

A 'TRADITION'.

Blimey. He's not been here a couple of years but he's starting to feel ownership of our family's quirks, the little things that always happen in an okay household.

He gets some peace from those things that are the same every day; there's a comfort in things staying the same. We all feel it.

The cushion went back on the King's chair after a wash. Eldest foster child said nothing. But his world was as it used to be once more, and those of us who've never experienced the chaotic family life of the foster child will never know how much comfort there is in a cushion being where it should be.

And those of us who've never experienced the satisfaction of bringing peace and safety into the life of an innocent child who needs it, well you should try something..

Fostering.