Wednesday, May 18, 2022

HOME ALONE

In fostering you can't help but become wondrous at the mysteries of the mind, especially the mind of a child. The mind of a child who's been to hell and back is something to behold. And if you're going to do any good for a crumpled kid you have to get curious about what goes on between their ears.

Digging down while respecting the child's privacy is always fascinating and almost always useful. It's become a thing I've learned to really love down the years

Triggers are big in fostering. They're the little token symbols that remind children in care about upsetting things they've been through. 

You recieve a child into your home who is ok most of the time, but then suddenly gets upset. From nowhere. Something made them angry… but what?

Sometimes it's easy to interpret;

I've mentioned before the foster mum whose child kicked off when she'd noticed she'd forgotten to put out the wheelie bin to be emptied. The look on her face - a frown - was enough to trigger memories of what might happen when a parent had a grim look on their face.

I had a child who got upset when I opened a ring-pull can of baked beans because it triggered memories of her dad opening cans of beer and what happened next.

By the way I'm not a psychologist. But then, most psychologists aren't foster parents…

We were watching Home Alone with little Saul, who's been with us a few months now and we're all knitting together well. He knows us and we know him. But in fostering you're endlessly uncovering new layers and Saul is no more or less complex than the average child who has endured a bad time at their real home followed by the intense disruption of being removed and taken to live with strangers.

So there we were watching Home Alone two Saturday evenings ago. It was cosy in the living room, Saul sat on the end of the sofa with a duvet over his legs in case he nodded off. He doesn't sleep all that well during the night and sometimes is exhausted before his bedtime. There was popcorn (the new microwaveable stuff is fantastic BTW) and Fanta or diet coke. 

This had become our routine Saturday night treat.

We'd roared with laughter every time the heroic Kevin toughed out being left behind and put on a brave face.

Then, right at the end something strange happened, which we barely noticed at the time. 

Remember the bit at the end when Kevin's mum gets home ahead of everybody else and discovers Kevin who's beaten off the burglars? She looks down at Kevin and says;

"Oh Kevin. I'm so sorry."

Well, at that moment Saul let out a stifled wail and pulled the duvet over his head. I had a little tear in one eye as it's a tender moment and I figured Saul had been touched by the reconciliation.

You hardly notice quirky things like that at the time and even if you do you have no reason to attach any significance to them.

When it came to bedtime Saul was a bit difficult. He didn't want to go upstairs and when he did there was an argument about teeth-cleaning which turned into a bit of a scene. Ten minutes after I finally got him settled and went downstairs I heard crying from his bedroom. Long story short I squatted on the floor outside his bedroom door for what seemed like an age until he dropped off. 

The following Saturday I fished out Back To The Future and set everything up. It was either Michael Fox or Shrek. I don't know about anybody else but I find a lot of the animations haven't aged quite as well as children's films with real people. Anyway, it helps the evening jog along if it's a film we can all enjoy at different levels. Surprisingly Mamma Mia has proved popular with foster children of all makes and sizes. I waffle.

Saul didn't appear when called. Shouted down from his bedroom he didn't want to watch a film. Shouted he didn't care if there was popcorn. I went up to see what the problem was.

He said that films made him unhappy.  "All films" he said.

Me; "All films? Why?"

Saul; "Because they all end with all the family together and everybody laughing and hugging and that…"

"Jeez" I thought to myself "I've never looked at them like that before".

He was right. A child who's yet to have any kind of happy ending to any episode or adventure is going to feel bad. Envious at best. Aggrieved and angry at worst.

"And in Home Alone" he said "At the ending of it. When Kevin's mummy says sorry…"

I waited. I hadn't expected what he said next;

"Well mummy's don't say sorry. Ever. Never ever ever!"

Talked to our Blue Sky social worker about it. Saul was often left alone and used to be terrified of being alone. Whenever whoever was supposed to be looking after him returned he was even more terrified because…well I have to leave that as three dots.

We wondered about telling Saul about how Macauley Caulken is these days.

Not only that, I've decided that Home Alone is not the best movie for kids in care, it's not the first time a foster child has found it a bit thought provoking.








Thursday, May 12, 2022

FOSTER PARENTS V REAL PARENTS

 One of the non-stop issues/problems in fostering is when the child in your care starts to think about the calibre of their real parents. and the quality of life in their real home.

They don't ask straight out in my experience. They sort of hint that they're starting to see things for themselves.

But the question starts to arise once they notice - if they ever do, because some don't - that the parenting of a foster parent is not just different, it's necessarily better. I hope that doesn't sound like a boast, it's not. The very central foundation of fostering is that children who are getting seriously bad experiences in their real home are removed and placed in a family where they will get better experiences.

This episode comes to mind.

He was a bright 13 year old called Roque. British himself, of South American/UK extract. Mum English, dad Brazilian.

He'd been with us for about 3 weeks when he had his first little wobbly; normal.

It arose from us telling him he could not go across town on the coming Saturday night to hang out with some friends and make his own way home, he said he didn't need a ride home. "Didn't need a ride" meant he wanted to be out until about 2.00am. How did we know? The dossier we had on him from Blue Sky.

We said no.

"No!?" he came back.

Obviously we dug in, there was no question he could do whateverwanted as he'd been previously allowed  to do under the flakey regime his parents had for him. They had let him go out, do what wanted to do. Not because they had developed keenly held views about freedom of choice or independence (which they claimed when Social Services aksed them about Roque doing as he pleased); truth was they didn't care.

He stood his ground, arguing he would be fine, he did it all the time, he knew how to look after himself…and so on.

So when we put our foot down, there was a standoff. He made to go for the front door. What do you do? We'd been advised by Blue Sky that if he left our home against our wishes we had the option to call the police - for his own safety. Then we would call Blue Sky's Out Of Office people (there's always someone on hand).

We told him that.

He shouted "Are you seriously going to waste police time with picking up some young guy who just wants to see his friends? Are you mad?"

I replied "Yes. Er..yes to the first bit. But no, we're not mad."

He yelled; "Why? Just tell me why FFS!!!"

I told him. It was because we cared. We cared that he shoudn't be out roaming the streets or hanging around all-night fast food takeaway joints begging fags or worse off late night revellers.We woud worry about him all night until he came home."

I'm not going to pretend that words like that have any instant effect, they tend not to. But many looked-after children have the skill to appear incandescent with frustration but beneath their tears and wailing, they're taking everything in.

On this occasion (and I've had plenty of this one) Roque had a dilemma; he needed to comply with us, he could see that, but he needed his dignity. We agreed that if he acceeded to our wishes he would earn himself a takeaway, did he want a Big Mac or pizza? Or Chinese? We woud have to go out and fetch it, this was in the days before Deliveroo and co.

My husband, I told him, was partial to fish and chips.

Thank the Lord for fast food, thank the Lord (whoever she is) for the technique of offering up distraction with the added clout of giving the child a sense of control.

On this particular evening it worked. Only by a hair's breadth, but it worked.

His first stipulation was anything but fish and chips. This gave him a hands down victory over his foster dad who had been firm about Roque not going into town.

Short story short we all sat down to a Chinese. 

Sweet and sour. Which about sums the episode up, except the epilogue;

Roque took the last of his Chinese up to his bedroom where he digested his treat along with the evening.

Half an hour later he appeared back in the kitchen.

"Can I have a coke?"

I didn't ask him to say please, there's a time and a place for everything.. I just said "Sure. Afraid we've only got Diet."

He went to the fridge and as he fished out a can he said one word, but I swear he said it differently to his normal throwaway, he said;

"Thanks."

A few days later I asked him if he knew how his mum was. She'd been taken to hospital with injuries, which was how come the police and then Social Services had got involved. We knew he was keeping up a text message relationship with her.

He said she was fine. He was worried about her, children in care worry immensely about their parents no matter what their treatment had been like.

Long story short (I'll unpack the detail another time) Roque began to wonder about his mum and dad and the way he and his sibs were either invisible or, if visible, in line for a rucking. He began bonding with my other half, loved staying up watching Match of the Day with him once he found peace in being denied his previous version of a late night Saturday.

Then he came out with this;

"I'm thinking of asking if I can stay here even if they say it's ok for me to go back to my mum's. Only, can she come and visit so she can… well…y'know...see what it can be like?"




Thursday, April 28, 2022

FOSTERING - THE ULTIMATE ROLLER COASTER

 Eldest foster child is gearing up to get a driving licence…

I sat next to a foster mum at a Blue Sky support session a while back and got an inside track on this one.

A few years ago her foster child hit 17 and immediately applied for a driving licence.

He came home from his first lesson and said the instructor had advised him to ask his parents if he could go out on the road in the family car with one of them to practice.

She had mentioned it to her Social Worker, but at the time no-one could trace any experience of a foster child learning to drive so it was agreed to proceed step by step for the sake of the child's continuing independence. They got him insured, put L plates on their little Peugeot and both mum and dad enjoyed reversing round quiet suburban corners and the rest.

The lad had been with them a long time, had come from a very chaotic home and could never go back. He had been a challenge at first, knew how to throw a tantrum, knew how to throw a lot of things, but never hurt anyone. The foster parents had worked hard on him and he'd worked hard too. He'd learned to 'self-regulate'. To keep his anger inside, to process and digest it. Whatever inner turmoil he had, it no longer showed.

Until…

He came downstairs one bright Saturday morning and asked;

"Is there a quiet open road near here where I can practice driving in top gear? My instructor has let me get up to about 40 mph, and says I'm fine, I just need to get a bit more experience."

Foster dad volunteered.

And came home a wreck..

Here's what happened:

They set off along a country B road that for the first few miles is flat, wide and deserted. It's a route that was built years ago between two towns that once had thriving traffic but a new by-pass made the road almost redundant. Also, it's a tricky drive at the other end because it climbs steeply for about five miles, then descends even more steeply with a dozen nasty hairpin bends. 

But dad had decided they wouldn't go that far, they'd turn round at the foot of the climb and return.

All went well on the flat, although the lad seemed a bit pre-occupied with the small tail of cars that built up behind.

He started to comment on them, things like "It's a BMW behind us. I bet he wants to overtake."

That was when he started to speed up.

He didn't want to be overtaken.

So dad said - quietly;

"Maybe you're going a bit too fast"

And the meltdown began. The first meltdown he'd had for years.

The lad replied;

"I'm not going too fast! You drive too slow! I'm going at the right speed!"

Dad saw a layby ahead and said;

"Okay let's pull into the layby and turn around"

The lad fumed;

"I am NOT slowing down with a BMW behind me!!!"

Dad was torn between wanting to avoid confrontation and denting the lad's confidence, but didn't want to risk danger; however before he could come up with anything they had flown past the layby.

It was the last layby before the climb. No turnings off, no stopping. 5 miles of steep climb followed by 5 miles of death-defying descent.

Dad was faced with the ride of his life.

At the wheel he had a furious Oppositionally Defiant 17 year-old foster lad and no dual controls.

Speaking of control, when they broke the experience down with their Social Worker it became clear that the lad had always craved control - as so many children coming into care do - but suddenly achieved total control at the worst possible moment.

He wanted his foster dad to be proud of him so he didn't want the humiliation of being overtaken or being told what to do.

The climb upwards, the dad said, was pretty scary what with the blind hairpin bends, but the road was so steep he couldn't get into 5th gear so they barely got up to 40mph.

Then they reached the top…

Remember; no layby no turnings off. A single lane road zig-zagging through a forest with massive tree trunks right up to the tarmac and bend after bend after bend. A line of cars queing up in his mirror, headed by the dreaded BMW.

The descent was so incredibly steep the needle began pushing 60mph!

Dad said it was the most difficult episode he'd ever faced in fostering. There was NOTHING he could do but hold on, but nevertheless he tried one last time, he said;

"Small point but generally you could begin braking a little earlier ahead of the bends…"

Which was the proverbial red rag.

"I AM BRAKING AT EXACTLY THE RIGHT MOMENT  ACCORDING TO THE FRIGGING HIGHWAY CODE!!!"

Maybe he was if he'd been on the flat. But he wasn't. He was driving - nay he was freefalling - down one of those sheer mountain passes they use for car chases in Bond films.

The kind of chase that ends up with the villains going off a cliff...

He was going too fast, braking too late and having to oversteer and over-compensate round the 180 degree bends with trucks and tractors belting up the other way.

Dad's heart was pounding, but the had to keep his nerve, stay calm.

When they got to the flat dad pursuaded the lad to pull over and said;

"Well done. If it's aright with you I'd like to drive us back."

And they swapped.

When they got home the lad was as if nothing had happened.

Dad had to lie down in a darkened room.

So.

Forewarned is forearmed.

So for our kid, neither me nor his foster dad are going to be taking him out to practice, we're going to say that the insurance costs are prohibitive and it would be cheaper to get extra lessons and anyway it's difficult learning to drive in two different cars. All of which is sound thinking, and quite true.

Thanks goodness I bumped into that Carer.

Better than bumping into a tree...




Friday, April 22, 2022

"ELEMENTARY MY DEAR FOSTER PARENT"

 Whenever a new child comes we get a dossier on what's known about them. But the information is a molehill compared to the mountain that you quickly pick up about them.

Take Saul, with us for a wee while now. Social Services are beavering on getting him back home and things are on track there.

But he's been under our roof for a few weeks now and we're getting to know him in the round.

For example; like many children coming into Care, he doesn't like going downstairs in front of people. You can easily guess what that's about. 

He doesn't like green food but loves anything brown. Normal. I camouflage his greens hidden in soups and pasta sauces.

He doesn't like school, that's normal. He likes watches. That's... unusual.

See, fostering is made up of a bunch of skills, most of which we pick up en route, though the training helps. However I've never been on a training session to develop sleuthing skills, but it makes a big difference if you can put 2 and 2 together and get 4.

I wear a watch as does my other half, younger people tend not to. Saul keeps on about our watches, he wants to know what make they are and how they work. Likes to listen to the slight noise they make, and asks if he can twiddle the little wheel to re-set the hands. 

I mentioned his fixation to our Blue Sky Social Worker a while ago and she was equally nonplussed.

But she went away and discussed it with colleagues, partly because Social Workers have to be the ultimate Sherlock Holmes. They enjoy unravelling a mystery behaviour in a child. They like to try to get to the bottom of things.

Of course I've asked Saul why he loves watches but he simply says "I just do." The fact is maybe he himself DOESN'T KNOW.

Anyway. 

So earlier this week our SW came by and we had our usual 2 hours natter at the kitchen table. One of the many great things about fostering is that you get regular visits from a trained professional whose job is to make sure you're ok. Brilliant. Only this time she came up with a really left-field possible explanation for Saul's watch thing. You ready for this?

Saul's real dad is not on the scene, but he gets talked about a lot because the man in Saul's mum's life hates Saul's real dad but Saul's real dad is Saul's hero, at least Saul likes him more than his mum's boyfriend (which knowing what I know is not surprising).

Saul's real dad is no angel in reality, he's got various convictions, has various ongoing 'habits' and has no known whereabouts. However…

Due to his lifestyle he has had heart problems such that he's been fitted with a pace maker.

It's called a Watchman and that's how Saul's father was referred to in his home throughout Saul's early years. Saul's mum and her boyfriends talked about the mysterious and almost Batman-like character as "The Watchman".  Saul would get Christmas and birthday presents from this man and might just have come to idolise a man who barely existed but was nevertheless his "Dad". The Watchman.

Have they got this one right?

Probably/possibly.

Social Workers are not only among the kindest professionals you could meet.

They are also among the sharpest.





Tuesday, April 12, 2022

SO FAR SO GOOD

 Saul came through his first Contact with us not too badly, really.

There are so many worries about these darned Contacts I get almost as stressed as the children.

No hang on, that's rubbish; the stuff going on for them is beyond belief. I guess what I'm saying is I share a bit of that stress for them.

I got to see Saul's mother for the first time. 

You can never put a lid on your curiosity about the real parents. You can justify your nosiness by saying it'll help you foster them better if you have a bead on the chaotic home they were removed from…

But actually it's mostly human inquisitiveness.

I'd taken Saul in and left him with the supervisor.

First thing I noticed was that she came out of her car - a nice SUV - with a lot of self-confidence. A swagger almost, y'know… the slam of the door, the click of the remote over her shoulder, the heave on her nice shoulder bag after she'd flipped the car keys into it. I imagine she might have been pretty stressed up too about being in a location where she is the designated 'mother who has had a child removed'. That can't sit well. 

Or maybe she's re-constructed the whole scenario so that she and her family are victims of a dysfunctional/corrupt system, in which case her swagger is real if misplaced.

She must have worked out that I was the foster mum, sitting in my car watching. She didn't give me any eyeball, no acknowledgement. She stalked across the car park and into the Contact Centre.

But I'd taken her in. Or so I believe. I'm not any student of human nature but some things stand for themselves;

First off, she was tall. And had high hair. With colours in it. Highlights and a bit of blue.

Quite slender, well angular really. She moved awkwardly, her gait was awkward. Unbalanced by her big heels. 

Male parents of kids in care are comparitively free from these kinds of observations; their hair is nondescript as are their clothes. They tend to show up with a lost look about them.

She was dressed to impress. A fur gillet over a bronze roll neck. Tight leggings/pants that fed down into expensive boots. Nice bag.

Then there's the face.

She had a look I've seen on so many parents of children taken into care. 

A set look.  A grimness, I sensed she felt they'd been treated unfairly, and was giving that off in her face.

Some anger, embarrasment and the irritation of inconvenience.

Now, one gets all that. 

But here's the thing; parents going into Contact with a bad mood is no good for the kids.

Saul was escorted out by the supervisor after an hour, the mother had been required to wait until we'd vamoosed. I presume this is done because of past difficult interactions between the various parties.

On the way back he chomped on his sweets and I got him to tell me what he knew about Kung Fu Panda, which was a blatant piece of distraction, giving him a chance to boss the conversation.

I doubt he'd had as much fun throughout the preceding hour.







Tuesday, April 05, 2022

CONTACT

 So Saul has been with us just over a week.

He's still in that 'honeymoon' period of being polite and co-operative, but that will change, mainly because his next Contact is pencilled in for two days time. 'Contact' for anyone new to fostering is a requirement. It's written in to law that children in care must meet with significant others at least once a woeek. Those who made the law had the very best intentions of maintaining the bond between the child and her family with a view to easing the process of reconciliation. Unfortunately it often has an upsetting influence on the child. 

We're anticipating difficulties as the child has been removed from his parents home, then in short order removed from the home of his aunt. Saul is confused and probably racked with guilt. It's amazing how often children in care think the problems that caused the break-up of their home are all their fault. So Saul has got himself some kind of double jeopardy.

He's pencilled in to see his mother. I'll be taking him to the Contact which will happen at a specially designated Contact Centre, where the 60 minute Contact will be supervised by a professional. In the past I haven't been given any direct feedback on how the Contacts went, but I know notes are taken.

Must be difficult for the parent or whichever relative is having Contact with the chid having someone never mind observing but maybe making notes. I guess it's all for the best, but the tension must be high at times.

I've talked before about how I try to clear the child's mind when we get into the car to drive home after Contact. I use a shameless tactic of distraction, namely asking the child to look out for a petrol station which has a shop. I let the child know that in the shop they can spend £1 on anything they want. This fills their mind with 2 things;

1. What sort of sweets they can buy for £1.

2. Can they negotiate the sum upwards from £1.

It's blatant, I know. It's sugar and chocolate, I know.

But hey, who said adults had the sole rights to comfort eating?

And Saul, like many children coming into care, is big on food.

He's got his bowl of fruit in his room, everything in it belongs to him. He knows what times are breakfast, lunch and tea and that a bag of crisps or an energy bar between meals can be done. He knows we never pile his plate high for him, but allow him to choose his own vegetables and set his own portion sizes.

I know his favourite meals now, I also know nothing gives him more peace than a bowl of microwaved popcorn in front of one of the many fantastic animated movies they do these days.

I'm just hoping to goodness that the sweet thing after Contact helps, because he's due his first meltdown anytime soon and at the very least the sweet thing will keep it from happening in the car.

Which you don't want...

Sunday, March 27, 2022

KINSHIP FOSTERING

 We've got a new arrival.

A young person caught in the middle of what newspapers used to call a 'tug of love'.

If only there was a bit more love involved it wouldn't be so heartbreaking.

Here's the story; I have to be sensible about what I say because the privacy and in particular the identities of those involved is paramount.

The child was removed from the real home because major risks had come to light and it was ruled the child was in danger. The adults in the home were drug-dependent alcoholics whose mental health was not only poor, but declining. They resisted medication and counselling, arguing there was nothing wrong with them it was everybody else that was at fault.

Both parents came from families that had chequered records. Both sets of grandparents had criminal pasts, had abused alcohol and been violent.

The child's father had a sister who was more on the straight and narrow even though she'd been through the wringer as a child just like her brother.

When it was announced that the child was being taken into care the sister stepped forward and offered to look after the child.

It's often called Kinship Fostering.

Kinship fostering can have many advantages over bog-standard fostering such as the fact the child knows their new home, the carer knows the child, and it's easier for the child to stay in contact with their real home.

For the volunteer carer there's a crash course in fostering and a fast-tracked approval system which is just as thorough as the normal one. As with all children in foster care, the local authority retains parental responsibility.

But it didn't work out in this case, mainly due to one of the big stumbling blocks to kinship fostering, namely family rivalries.

Blimey, family rivalries are commonplace enough and not confined to families with deprived backgrounds. Ask Buckinham Palace about family rivalries.

The child's social worker told us they did everything they could to fend off the inevitable accusations;

"What makes you lot think she's any better than us?"

"I could tell you things about them that would make your blood go cold."

The warring parties threatened to regress into the exchanges they were familiar with from their childhoods. An arguement would kick off followed by insults and accusations which result in pushing and shoving which ends in a slap then a punch. The result could be a rolling brawl.

Can't risk that happening with an innocent child in the middle.

So the child is with us, until further notice.

It's a placement made trickier by the fact that they've witheld details about us from the child's family, just to be on the safe side. Our social worker hasn't spelled out exactly what their concerns are but it's clear to me that the two embittered families might bury the hatchet and join forces against us professional foster carers;

"What makes them think thjey're any better than us?"

"Bet we could find out things about them that would make your blood…"