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.



Friday, October 05, 2018

WISE SOCIAL WORKERS

Eldest foster child is going through a tough time.

He's part of our family now, it hurts to see him sad. It's his real family that's the problem.

No matter how embedded a foster child becomes in his or her foster home, their real family's circumstances loom over them like a dark cloud threatening a downpour.

All foster children have one single big thing in common; the fact that they've been taken into care. When we go to Blue Sky family events the youngsters often feel comfortable with each other because they know that none of the other children is going to express innocent but piercing surprise that they are not living with their own mum and or dad. They are 'normal' for a day.

Being in care is the only thing foster children have in common. One of the biggest lessons I've learned in fostering is how unique is every foster child. More unique, if that's possible, than children who have not been taken into care.

How could that not be the case? After all, what little we know about the human mind tells us that any traumatic event will have all sorts of influence on a person's persona. A child in care has been through so much BEFORE being taken into care and then is taken into care on top of everything. 

It's the reason I'm forgiving if they get upset, which doesn't happen with every child by any means, and it's rare compared to what you might expect, but if they overheat sometimes how can you blame them?

Eldest doesn't get het up any more, not ever. He has reached an age where he digests his troubles; this is what solid people who stay on top of things do.

Not to stray into current affairs but by way of illustration it's what our beleaguered Prime Minister is managing to do, and what that US judge didn't do. A phrase I've heard which covers this skill is 'self-regulation'. I've also heard it described as 'getting on with it'.

What's going on with eldest is this;

He's adjusting to the fact that he probably will never go home. 

Can you imagine? Adjusting to the fact you may never go home?

Who told him? Who had the unenviable job of sitting him down and explaining this to him, now that he's old enough to understand?

Nobody. This wonderful amazing kid worked it out for himself.

Oh, he picked up things from me when he was younger, for sure. But I was never empowered to tell him his real family were effectively no more, because that would have been a judgement I wasn't entitled to make. Nor was anyone, because nobody has a crystal ball, and you have to deal in facts with foster children - and while it was unlikely he'd go home, it was never totally off the cards.

But like all foster children he's done a whole load of thinking. The longer they are in care the more time they have to watch an alternative family in action. They see a different approach to parenting. They experience a different type of care. They see new role models. 

In the case of eldest he benefitted enormously from going to secondary school. In junior school he was taught mainly by one teacher all day long, so his sample group of adult models was limited. At secondary school he has twenty different teachers which has given him the opportunity to see that adults are different. He discovered that some adults he likes, some he doesn't. Some he can depend on, others less reliable - and he's totally entitled to those judgements.

Once that penny dropped he began taking a serious look at his real family. 

He seems to have worked out for himself that they are highly unlikely ever to find themselves able to look after him.

If you don't yet foster you might guess that all is now rosy for him, he's in a family where he is looked after properly and can begin to motor away from his past. But we foster parents learn fast about the massive and enduring pull we all feel towards our own parents, our own family, our own home.

Look;  indifferent as my childhood was, if ever I'm driving near to the house I was brought up in I detour past it to have a look. My foot comes off the gas as we get near and I cruise past at a hallowed pace like a  pilgrim at a shrine...

This thing runs very, very deep. 

Reconciling oneself with the awful reality of closure on the family unit that used to be your entire universe takes the strength of ten men and women. He's got it.

He's started pushing boundaries; adult ones.

He's started asking permission to go to the One Stop at times of night that are too late. Started asking if he can go straight to a friend's house after school and stay late. Sometimes he asks if he can do a sleepover on a school night. 

At first glance he's just being a rebellious teenager, but my Blue Sky social worker helped me out with her trademark  stonking insight and advice;

She asked if he heated up when told "No". He doesn't. She said that he was following the usual paths to independence but that in his case it might be complicated because he had suffered so much pain from being part of a mixed-up family that ended painfully that whilst he likes his foster family, respects us - maybe even loves us a bit in his own way - he's protecting himself by not chucking his lot in with us hook line and sinker. 

Not just yet anyway. He's looking after his feelings.

Wow. I got that the minute she spelled it out. We had a dog once we all loved but she grew arthritic  and one day we had to take her to the vets. And that was that for me with dog's, I didn't want to risk the pain and sadness of those last days again.

My job now is to help him learn that trusting a family unit with all one's heart can be a great thing, and at the same time make sure he understands it's not the only thing. We are all free to shape our lives to suit our deepest selves.

He's come a long way, thanks to fostering.

Actually, I've come a long way myself. Also thanks to fostering.

Maybe it's time to think about another dog...






Sunday, September 30, 2018

FOSTERING BOO-BOO

Egad, the shops are filling up with Christmas stuff and we're still barely into Autumn.

Barely Autumn and yet I've already made my first Christmas blooper.

It wasn't a howler, more like an oversight.

I wasn't concentrating at the time.

What happened was this;

Last Saturday I did an early-morning big shop at the supermarket. A long list. I ended up at the till with a full trolley and started loading the conveyor belt with a week's worth of staples. The belt ended up groaning with boring stuff, almost nothing to raise anyone's spirits.

The aisle next to where I was queueing had a sign hanging above it saying "Seasonal". Christmas stuff. Stacked on the very end of the aisle was the usual 'impulse buy' bits and pieces you don't need but often pick up because having spent fifty quid on dull basics, we shoppers are suckers for a pocket-money sized treat.

So I nipped over and picked up a handful of chocolate Father Christmases. One for each youngster.

What could possibly be goofy about that...? Read on.

I drove home with my head full of how to structure another Saturday. A recent bike ride had gone down well especially as we ended up at a Taco drive-though.

When I got home I unpacked and put everything away, a part of shopping I've come to find tedious, even with the kettle whistling and a cup of tea in sight. It's irritating having to find the right little home for all the over-priced and over-packaged supermarket stuff. I KNOW that cheese shouldn't go in the fridge, but I'm more concerned about bacteria than flavour. Ditto eggs. Does chorizo go in the meat compartment? Will botulism break out if I'm wrong? Decisions, decisions...my mind was still elsewhere, not quite in the moment.

When I came to the chocolate Father Christmases I stood them in a line on the breakfast bar like a police identity parade where everyone could see them when they came downstairs.

Sure enough there were fake-indignant  cries of "For goodness sake!" and "What the heck...?". But the treats disappeared one by one.

About an hour after the last Father Christmas vanished there came a commotion from the tech spot. Our 'Tech Spot' is a small annexe-type room off the living room where there's a TV for PC games and a family laptop. People can use their phones in there.

A dispute had arisen, nothing special but it had our newest foster child at the centre of it and she was winding herself up. So I did my usual and tried distractions.

But Ryder didn't flich, she didn't care whether she got a bowl of vanilla or chocolate ice cream, didn't care whether we cycled to the park or to McDonalds. She was fighting back tears. So I ended up saying;

"Come on dear, everything's alright. Let's go up to your room and you can come down when you feel better."

She took a bit of persuading but went upstairs crying her poor little eyes out.

I kept my ears peeled downstairs and after ten minutes it was quiet in her room so I went upstairs, slowly and quietly. When I got to her door I asked if she was okay.

Turned out she wasn't. She started talking through the half-open door.

She wanted to know when she was going home. She wanted to go home. Why couldn't she go home? Nobody tells her anything. Is she going to be here for ever? 

Then my gaffe came to light. She said;

"Can I go home for Christmas?"

See what I'd done, dammit? My 'harmless' little serendipity gift for everyone had triggered her. 

Ryder had taken her chocolate Father Christmas and started thinking. Then fretting and ruminating about her situation. Her feelings turned into negative emotions then negative behaviour.

Christmas is a testing time for chaotic families. More children have to be taken into care during the period between Christmas Day and New Year than any other week of the year. 

Christmas for families who foster can be brilliant if you plan it out, talk to everyone and keep talking.

I hadn't got round to planning Christmas and preparing Christmas in the minds of my foster children, but I went and stuck it into their minds without proper preparation.

I took Ryder for a drive in the car and she recovered herself enough for me to talk her through Christmas; that I would help her buy presents for whoever she wanted to give gifts to, I would arrange for her to see whoever she could see in the days immediately before Christmas. I'd get her Christmas cards to send. I'd need her to help me decorate the tree. She could draw up her list of presents she'd like "Santa" to bring her for Christmas because she would (barring a miracle) be waking up in our house on Christmas morning. I would try to arrange for her to be able to have a phone call with anyone she wanted to on Christmas morning.

And looking beyond Christmas, she would be allowed to stay up on New Year's Eve until midnight so she'd be awake at the right time to make her resolution and make her secret three New Year Wishes.

Foster children probably make the self-same New Year Wishes the world over.  Sometimes they come true.

Me, I've got one more New Year resolution to add to my shortlist.

To concentrate...