Wednesday, July 21, 2021

NEVER BEEN CALLED "MUM" THIS QUICK

 Been a gap in my blog posting because a new child has arrived.

He's actually a dream placement (oh yes, they're out there, most times you only hear about the challenges).

He's 17 years old coming up 18. His being fostered is being wound down, tapered off. Won't be long before he's out in the world fending for himself.

He's sturdy physically and emotionally. Carries himself with dignity, wit and warmth. 

Our fostering of him is almost hands-off, that's how they want it; let him experience all the sense of independence available so that he's as ready as possible for adulthood.

Here's a little story that'll give you an idea of this fine guy; his name's Joe.

Joe goes out most nights, tells us where he's going and what he's planning. Whether he tells us everything or not…you know what teenagers are about, you must do. You were one once. Remember?

He takes the train each evening and catches the last one back. Our house is a bit too far for a walk home from the station so I pick him up. 

The first time I collected him it was about 10.45. I parked in the station car park. It's next to one of those pubs you get near railway stations, a bit of hurley burley about it. I wound up my windows and clicked the button to lock all the doors.

When his train pulled in he appeared and strode across the car park towards me with a nonchalent wave and a friendly grin.

As he reached the car I unlocked the doors and he opened the passenger door. Three lads were spilling out of the pub and ragging each other in a friendly/confrontational way, calling each other names in that jokey/ironic way they've heard grown men do. The language was colourful but harmless. 

They were going past the car and Joe had the door open.

"Guys," he said in a friendly voice - I could hear the smile - "I got me mum in the car 'ere".

The lads fell silent. They carried on walking. About ten yards beyond us one of them shouted an expletive, just to save face.

Joe got in. "Kids!" he sighed. Then he said;

"Mind if I wind down the window?"

I agreed. But I could still smell the smoke on his parker.

I'm not clued up enough to know what he'd been smoking. If he'd been twelve it would have been an issue for me, I'd bring it up with my Blue Sky Social Worker at our next supervision session.

Joe told me that being mixed race had many benefits. He hopes to go into the music business, he spends a lot of time creating digital music. 

I tell him that however and wherever he goes along in life, I'll always be in his fan club.




Monday, July 12, 2021

TO FEED A FOSTER CHILD

 Food is right up there in the minds of most foster children.

Funny, I must mention this to Blue Sky; to my knowledge we've not yet had a training session on cooking for looked-after kids.

When a young body's growing it gets hungry and in many chaotic homes mealtimes are…let's say unpredictable.

In our house we're the opposite; weekday breakfast is 7.30am, tea's at 5.30pm. Weekends are more relaxed but I keep on top of everyone's food needs. I'm always asking "Sandwich?".

A full tummy, or the prospect of one, is incredibly comforting for kids in care.

One of ours at the moment is going through a challenging phase; questioning this, poo-pooing that. It's ok, not abusive, in fact it's done with a twinkle in the eye; there's a lot of affection in it.

When I dish up he looks down at his plate and says;

"What's this? We had it night before last!"

He will be referring to his plate of fishfingers and fries with baked beans and a side of lettuce, cucumber and tomato.

And referring back to four nights prior when it had been oven baked fish in breadcrumbs, boiled spuds and green beans.

So here's what happened tonight…I love it.

A week before he'd found a recipe book in the kitchen, a book I'd been given as a Christmas present (aren't they all?) last year. A Nigel Slater full offancy dan small portion vegetarian dishes, often using types of pasta I've never heard of.

Our kid flipped it open and started going;

"Wow! Look at this!" and "This looks fantastic!"

I festered for about a week.

Then I wen to Waitrose and bought Romano peppers, puy lentils, Gorganzola, basil, parsley, a red chilli..blah blah.

Oh, by the way as you read this, I know you're ahead of me and you know exactly where this is going..

Two hours I slaved. 

Well, not slaved. More like shaved;shaved garlic and ginger. I diced and skinned, I whizzed and blended, I roasted and marintated.

About 5.00pm (30 minutes to teatime) I texted him; "Tea at 5.30pm. A Nigel Slater recipe. I've made a red pepper and green lentil melange with feta cheese, marinated red onion and a home made pesto of fresh basil, parsley, walnuts and olive oil"

Then I added (as you would have done);

"Or you can have a Cornish pasty."

Cornered, he came back:

"I'll take it"

He came downstairs and looked at the plate. It did not look as irresistible as the platefuls do in recipe books.

He had the pick though; melange or pasty.

I knew what he was thinking. It was nice he didn't want to hurt my feelings.

I said:

'It's not your sort of thing after a hard day is it?"

We had a fantastic 10 minute exchange. He was hungry and wanted his usual tea-food, but for maybe the first time, was cautious about hurting me:

"The thing is kinda alright. But why'dya put peas in it?"

I aplogised.

Short stort long; he let me order him a Dominos pizza. There were no hard feelings.

In fact it was a great thing, he saw I'd tried and was okay that food-wise he'd over-reached.

In fostering you're growing all the time.

Fostering is more nutritious than mere food.




Friday, July 09, 2021

THE ART OF REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY

One of my happiest memories in fostering is a tale of reverse psychology. At least I think it's reverse psychology, the colleague who worked it on me was a dab hand and the trick is to make sure the other party isn't aware of it.

I'd used reverse psychology with our own children with modest success, I think they tumbled pretty quick. Getting them to drink water was a long battle. I tried calling it "Sky juice" or even "Chateau faucet", no dice. Then I hit on "Please do not drink water as drinking water helps you run faster and you'll be able to beat me in a race and I can't have that."

That one worked, for a while.

In fostering, it can be a magic wand.

"I bet you can't run upstairs and clean your teeth and be in the car for the school run before I count to ten". That sort of low-level thing. Works EVERY time. They love the challenge, love the game. What's more I make sure they always win, and winning is so rare for most kids in care they lap it up. They probably tumble too, but carry on the charade because the kick they get is so pleasant.

I never thought I'd fall for reverse psychology myself. One of my happiest memories, though, is of falling for it hook, line and sinker..I think. Maybe. I still don't know. See what you think. 

We'd had a call from Blue Sky asking; "Would we be willing to take a child who…?"

We said yes, and the boy arrived.

Poor lad, he'd been through absolute hell. I can't and won't give you any details because you don't need the pictures in your head. It was truly horrific, a criminal matter. Literally.

Two long weeks into the most challenging placement we'd ever had, we weren't exactly at the end of our tether but the pressure was on. Blue Sky sent troops of social workers to us, even one of their head honchos paid a visit to check we were ok and bolster our resolve.

I've never given up on any child, but on rare ocassions each and every foster carer is entitled to consider passing a child on, perhaps to a home that doesn't have a housefull of others as we do, in which case you'd be doing it for the child's benefit, and that thought can sugar the pill.

So I can't be certain that we weren't wondering if the lad was too much.

Then we got a phone call from the courts. They needed a psychological assesment of the lad so they were sending a top man to visit us.

And boy, was he ever a top man.

He gave me his card on the doorstep which had his qualifications on it. I've kept it down the years as a souvenir. He had 14 letters after his name. He was billed as a "Chartered Psychologist". He explained;

"There are psychiatrists and psychologists, then one step up from them you have your Clinical Psychologists, I'm sure you fostering folk have heard of them."

I nodded.

"Well," he said "Most of us Chartered Psychologists like to think we're one step up from your Clinical Psychologists. So I'd better be on my toes."

Blimey. 

He had two private sessions with the lad. Then he sat me down at our kitchen table for a chat. His verdict was very saddening;

"In simple terms the lad has little or no chance of repair from the damage that's been done from birth".

To allow me to take this in he glanced away over my shoulder at the kitchen dresser behind me where we accumulate various bits of flotsam and jetsam; string, cotton reels and old books. Then he said;

"It's like when a boxer takes so much punishment there's no way he should still be standing. I don't know if you ever saw Mohammed Ali fight George Foreman?"

I replied yes, it was a dim and distant memory. Actually I remembered it well. I happen to enjoy boxing. I know it's not a proper reflection of me, and if they banned it I wouldn't miss it, but while it's around I can't resist it.

"Well," he continued "This lad has been punched out, literally and metaphorically all his life. Just like Ali was that night, taking punch after punch after punch. No-one can take punches for that long and stay standing."

"So," I said "Are you saying that the child will need to be Mohammed Ali to survive?"

"No." said this clever man. "I'm afraid I think the poor lad has little or no chance. You can try if you want, good luck. I would expect he's going to end up in a unit."

"No," he continued "I'm saying that his foster parents will need to be Mohammed Ali for them to survive."

We took the job on. Somehow we stuck by the lad, it was a long haul, but worth it. Oh so worth it. He ended up doing pretty fine. He's not without his moments apparently, but on the whole he's…well…whole.

It was a few days after the psychologist's visit and his words were still rattling in my head. Telling me I stood no chance with the lad? He doesn't know me. I see myself as an; "I've started so I'll finish type of person". I happened to be sitting in the seat he'd sat in, and, deep in thought glanced up at the kitchen dresser. Suddenly for the first time in years, I actually took notice of the books gathering dust there.  A couple of Nigel Slater's alongside a Weight Watchers, a few cheap novels…

…and a biography of Mohammed Ali.

Not only that, but hanging on the back of our kitchen door was a bunch of shopping bags, one of which my other half bought in Sports Direct with a picture on it of Mohammed Ali standing triumphantly over a fallen opponent. The image had lost it's meaning down the years, but now I suddenly saw it afresh. And a massive penny dropped.

This Chartered Psychologist saw that part of his job was to motovate us into giving the lad our best shot, and figured the way to do it might be to summon the spirit of a man who happends to be a bit of a hero in our house.

Telling us the lad stood no chance and that we'd have to be Mohammed Ali to succeed, well…who wouldn't come out at the bell for another round?

Was I had?

Probably yes. But in the nicest, kindest professional way.

And I'm so grateful for it.

So, I hope, is the lad. Which is what matters most.




Saturday, July 03, 2021

ON BEING GIVEN 'ADVICE'

 A reader writes;

"Maybe you can direct me to the posts if you've written about this before, but do you have any advice for dealing with well-meaning family and friends who have concerns(read: fears) about my family's interest in fostering ? For example, teenage boys seem to make people really nervous ("aren't you afraid they will steal, lie, do drugs, abuse your bio kids??") Husband and I aren't stupid about risks involved, and the precautions necessary to protect family and property, but I struggle to reassure others in our circle. We tend to see teenagers as children (albeit with certain, often serious difficulties) just as much in need of homes as younger kids, but to society at large, teenagers,and foster teens in particular seem to be very threatening. Anon."

Oh dear Anon, I've always kept unasked-for advice from 'well-meaning' others at arm's length. The advice is often ill-informed and usually gloomy. I don't know why people have such affection for what they call 'The Worst Case Scenario".

Everyone sees themselves as well-meaning. Most people judge themselves by their motives, but we should really judge ourselves by our actions and their consequences.

I even try not to give advice myself, simply tell stories of how fostering can be and let people draw their own conclusions.

But I'll break that habit at the end of this peice, and give some advice directly to those people who wade in with their well-meaning advice and see if they find it helpful.

If push came to shove I'd advise you to sign up to foster (you seem just the type), and tell your family and friends that if it doesn't work out you'll opt out of the profession. 

But you might ask them what they're basing their advice on;

Actual personal experience of fostering? Doesn't sound like it. 

Verifiable statistics? Concrete information? Solid facts? 

Or maybe they're dependent on those good old fall-back canteen culture wisdoms such as "It's a well-known fact" or "Ask anybody, they'll say the same".

Then there's the Chinese Whispers syndrome where someone knows someone whose friend was friends with a man whose wife's sister-in law tried fostering and "it was a nighmare". I've heard that one a few times.

They like to add that suchlike information is "straight from the horse's mouth".

Oh and there's also "They don't warn you in advance because they need all the fosterers they can get."

Look, I've had plenty of teenagers come to us for fostering, I cherish the memories of every single one of them. Teenagers were the age-group we went into fostering to care for. 

You can tell your friends and family this; a foster mum (me) told you personally that before fostering she'd taken in foreign students. All of them middle class, with affluent parents, solid homes, academic success and real prospects in life. I bet you a pound to a penny your friends and family would be alright with them eh? Give them a mo to check their stereotype handbook…and yes…foreign students, they'll be good as gold.

Well let me tell you they'd be wrong there too. Those little minxes; stole from us, got pregnant, got brought home in police cars, smashed a hole in a bedroom wall, threw up on their bedroom floor…I could go on.

None of the teenagers I've fostered did any of that. 

Not one.

Of course they have their problems.You are clear you're conscious of that and consequently halfway to dealing with whatever the issues. Tackling the problems of our foster kids, that's the nub of the job, right there. The Von Trapp children you do not get when you foster, who wants them anyway?

I'm truly shocked that people are coming at you with what sounds like unsubstantiated drivel about stealing, lying, drugs and abuse. Jees, you wouldn't be allowed to spurt such prejudice and negative stereotyping about any other group in society.

Give those family and friends the link to this piece and ask them to read the next paragraph out loud to themselves looking in the mirror, because it's how they should start talking to themselves;

"I can go on telling myself I care for a friend or family member who wants to foster til I'm blue in the mouth but to stand in their way of caring for a child who is alone and frightened is  wrong. 

If I was a kid with no home and no family to care for me I'd be shocked that on top of what the world has done to me, my  foster parents have to listen to others telling them I'm maybe a thief, a liar, a druggie, an abuser.  

Instead, from now on, I'll tell my family and friends who want to foster to go for it, wish them good luck, and ask them if there's anything I can do to help, encourage and support them."






Tuesday, June 29, 2021

A REALLY LONG WEEKEND...

 Been a hectic few days here since my last post, we had a respite placement.

A respite child is one you look after for a short, fixed period of days to give his long-term foster parents a break. They literally had a break, went to Wales for a few days. They needed time away from fostering, and I learned they needed a little time away from their lives too.

When I talk about the highs and lows of fostering I often forget that we're doing it alongside the highs and lows of everything else in life.

I'll tell you what I know about them - and what I can publish, because their anonymity is as important as that of every child I talk about.

They are a couple, he's on his second marriage, she's never been in anything of a serious relationship so they both got a bit of baggage of different sorts.

He drives for a living and has started to struggle with the pressures put on him by his job and his employer such as the time expectations, the traffic, customers being obnoxious and the sheer lonliness of having no-one but your own company unless you count Radio Two and Ken Bruce…

His first marriage had ended in him letting her have everything; the kids, the home, the car and most of his earnings until the kids grew up. Apparently he's simply Mr Nice and wanted them to be ok.

She had some sort of office job before fostering; I gather she felt it was a career rather than a job if you know what I mean. Then she got the chop from out of the blue. They spat her out like she was a bit of gristle. She went in one Monday and they were waiting for her, asked for her badge and told her that her stuff was by the door. She went to collect it in tears and noticed her desk was already gone. Why do some employers kick people when they're down? She didn't even get to say goodbye to people who'd become her sole social network. Lonliness takes many guises, hers was a big one.

They met on the internet.

How do I now all this? Because Blue Sky got me to go into their office to meet her with the child to check out if the respite placement would work ok. How that for leaving no stone unturned?

She and I had coffee and while the child was causing mayhem around the office we talked about everything.

The child, Craig, was ten years old and sturdy. His dad, she told me, was six foot eight and treated with respect by the four cops it usually took to go and deal with him when he got lit up.

Blimey.

Craig was, shall we say, hyper-energetic. But I took a shine to him because his mischief was harmless and he had a twinkle in his eyes that often betrays a sense of humour; and laughing at the same thing is the equivilant to the hug you often want to give a child in care but can't, especially during a pandemic.

Long story short; I agreed to take Craig for five days and four nights. When Craig discovered I had met him and liked him enough to want him in our home for nearly a week he felt wanted, and that cut a lot of ice. That said; he was hard work; never rested, hardly slept, always on the go. He'd go through drawers, pull things out of cupboards, chase a fly round the house…you had to have eyes in the back of your head and endless energy. We watched a DVD of Home Alone one evening, it's a good one with foster kids, it's got the lot, even Christmas, which they love. He watched it about ten times before they came to take him back to his foster home.

As he left I said two things to myself;

1) "Go well young fella, and best of luck to your fantastic foster mum and dad"

and

2) "Phew!"

Job well done. Spare bedroom spare again.

C'mon Blue Sky ring again with;

"Would you be willing to take a child who…"


Saturday, June 19, 2021

EVER BEEN STOOD UP?

The last couple of weeks we've had two calls asking us if we'd be willing to take a new child.

The spare bedroom is ready, spring-cleaned and with fresh neutral coloured bed linen. A bowl is ready for fruit. I always provide a bowl with an apple, bananas and an orange. The orange is decorative, It rarely gets eaten - peeling it is a faff - but I think the colour is warm and friendly.

Both times we said yes we would and both times we got a phone call after a few hours from Blue Sky's placement team to say the child was going elsewhere.

It's worth talking a bit about how the "Thanks but no thanks"  call impacts us fostering folk.

Blue Sky do it well. They usually cite a practical reason such as another home had better proximity to the child's school, or that they felt the child needed a bit more distance from the real home. Or maybe that the child needed one-on-one care, or a less busy home than ours.

But no matter how gently the message is delivered I'm always taken back to the time I was stood up on a first date. We'd agreed to meet outside the cinema at 7.00pm, the film started at 7.25. I got there early and stood in a shop doorway opposite to see if my date was lurking, I must have wanted a chance to gird myself. It got to 6.55pm and no sign. At exactly 7.00pm I crossed the road and started looking both ways. I think I realised the writing was on the wall somewhere between 5 and 10 past the hour.

Then the anxiety kicked in. I got nervous not just because I was being dissed, but because other cinema goers might realise I was being passed over.

I remember trying to look as if I wasn't waiting for a date that wasn't showing up.

I get reminded of this injury by lots of triggers. Sometimes standing still outside a cinema does it for me. I was watching Big Brother one time when Dustin Hoffman appeared, and that did it for me because the film we had planned to see was a Dustin Hoffman film.

And I get the same fleeting feeling of rejection or abandonment when we're passed over for fostering. I've talked to other foster parents who agree. They're often keen to talk to me about it because, like me, they try to put on a brave face at the news. They say they get all sorts of emotions such as "Maybe Blue Sky will get fed up putting me up for placements and being told no thanks". Crazy thought but we're only human.

Then there's the straightforward disappointment of never even getting to meet a child who you've got to know in your mind from the notes you are sent.

Whenever it happens our Blue Sky Social Worker is on the phone in a flash to re-enforce the message that we are great foster parents and the reasons for the 'no thanks' were practical and genuine.

So maybe I should just face the facts, get a grip. Or 'man up' as my other half puts it.

Right. I'm going to watch Meet The Fokkers one night this week and get over the Dustin Hoffman thing once and for all.




Friday, June 11, 2021

WAITING FOR YOUR NEXT CHILD

 People who are considering fostering, or perhaps just starting in fostering, could maybe use some idea of the situation I'm in right now, because you will be in the same boat one day, perhaps you're in it right now.

You've got a spare bedroom, it's available for a child.

You're waiting for the phone to ring…

Perhaps different authorities and agencies contact provisional foster homes using text or email, but Blue Sky has always phoned me person-to-person, I think that's because speed is of the essence. Everybody wants to get the child settled somewhere asap, but the process has to be got right; the right child in the right home. 

I keep my phone to hand all the time. If I'm driving and it rings I pull over somewhere safe as quick as I can. You get asked;

"Would you be willing to take a child who…"

What follows is a brief verbal outline of the child, in my experience paragraph, maybe two. I have always said yes (so far), but if the placement appears in any way especially tricky I call my other half, who also has always said yes (so far).

Then an email appears in your inbox from Blue Sky with more information. It's always a hugely eye-opening read. Your eyes are opened time and time again to the sad world many children have to endure.

The Social Workers and Blue Sky Placement Team work hard and fast to sift their options. Generally there's more than one foster home available and they have to weigh up which is best. That must be no easy task, what a responsibility.

Then your phone goes again, and it's either;

"Thank you so much for offering to help, but they were able to find a home nearer to the child's school (the reasons obviously vary). You're let down gently and take heart from the fact that your home will have another evening without the demands a new child naturally briings in.

Or;

"We'd like to take you up on your offer, the child can be brought to you this afternoon at four o'clock if that's convenient, and your Social Worker is aiming to get to your house for three o'clock to support the hand-over." Obviously the specifics vary from child to child, but that's the gist.

For me, and many Carers I've talked with, the next few hours are amazing, you feel so alive. I usually go back to the email with the child's notes because they sometimes contain clues to the child which will help. I think this is done deliberately to help ease things for the child. Things such as their favourite foods, fads, general likes and dislikes. If they've got a favourite band you can clue up on. I once was able to get a CD playing in the kitchen and the girl's face just lit up like I can't describe. Stuff like that. If I haven't got their favourite food in the larder and there's time I always make a dart to the supermarket….

…I'm getting excited thinking about it.

They say if a job's worth doing it's worth doing well. In my book there are very few jobs worth doing above fostering, and therefore fostering is worth doing to the very best of one's ability and then some more.

Of course, it helps if you love it.