Sunday, November 20, 2022

THE INSPECTOR CALLS

 When caring for a youngster with a standout issue it's easy to forget the whole person.

I've found that fostering a young man who is transitioning is demanding, but not so demanding as I would have imagined prior to taking it on.

The whole business is inspiring and enlightening.

The biggest downside is, and I'm being absolutley honest here; the mountain of paperwordk and bureaucratic hokum that stands in the way.

I KNOW that people create fake identities to commit scams, I KNOW that false passports are worth their weight in heroin. I know safeguards have to be in place against those crimes.

But I'm getting the impression that big organisations such as the NHS wish transitioning would go away. Many in doctoring resist the idea of a person having the right to be who THEY want to be. Many in the medical profession would prefer to stick to the system devised back when we lived in caves with the midwife having a peek down below within seconds of a person being born and making the decision for them that they'll be stuck with for life; "It's a girl!" 

Hey, it worked  just fine for thousands of years!

Did it though? Did it?

Our kid is great, he's just fantastic.

In fostering there are countless ways and means for the foster parents to get onside with the child. We have to remember we'll never replace the real parents in the chid's life, we don't want that anyway. But we have the obligation to act as a full-on suurrogate parent and that can lead us to hope, somewhere in our heart, that they regard us as proper stand-in 'mum' and/or 'dad'. They don't. Ever. At least not fully. It's a physical impossibility.

But. If we stay alert there are loads of ways into their heart. Reference; the skateboarding ad for John Lewis.

In the case of our tranitionsing boy, it's his very tranitioning that's bringing us close.

Teenagers don't chat much except to each other. They keep their own council from their own parents, never mind foster parents. But our lad enjoys frequent unschduled natters, mainly with me. 

And it's his transitoning that's the glue that bonds us. He is quietly made up that not only do I get it, I'm right there fighting for him every inch of the way.

However my fantastic Blue Sky social worker shows up for our regular supervision sessions and reminds me there's more to everybody than one issue, even if that issue is huge.

So I'm asked about his diet, his sleeping and his friends. We talk about his general moods and school life. We   duscuss his favourite bands, what TV he watches, how much time he's on his phone, and how we monitor his social life to ensure his safety without imposing unwanted  intrusion.

After each session I'm refreshed, and go looking for opportunities to broaden my lovely chats with him into other areas - being carful not to seem to be snooping.

Earlier this week we were talking about his thoughts on surgery. He wears a special piece of clothing across his chest which is obviously uncomfortable, and was a right problem during the hottest days of summer. As we chatted he was messaging somebody on his phone. When he finished and put his phone down I asked;

"How your phone holding up? They don't last forever."

He naturally warmed to this subject, in  no small part because he could sense the slenderest of chances he might end up with a Galaxy Supernova or whatever the latest gung ho phone is called.

As we discussed the various problems with his current phone I dropped the subject of Twitter in, by asking if  he thought Elon Musk would be good for it. He replied that he didn't know, or care. Reason being that he didn't bother with Twitter any more, Twitter is for old people. Nor did he bother with Facebook; same reason.

I was nosing around using the tectic those black and white TV detectives used to quiz people. Act like you're only vaguely interested but keep the conversation connected to what you need to discover.

I told him I guessed that Instagram was behind the times as well. I was correct.

Next bit; how to ask what social media he uses? One way or another I got out of him that What's App is still fairly cool ( I suspect because it's encrypted at both ends), but that the new kid on the block is Mastodon (I think that's the name). It's not only new and growing, it's got a number of features that Twitter doesn't. For one it's not owned by anybody. Second you can pick groups that are properly moderated, and inevitably it starts to build a picture of your likes and dislikes and starts recommending groups you might like. Lastly, and most importantly, he said, it's not stuffed with naff ads. To pay for the servers some groups ask for small donations.

I got the lowdown I needed as his carer, plus we bonded as two equals discussing an issue. An issue other than transitioning. A discussion which left him feeling empowered and appreciated because he was the authority.

I didn't do what Colombo used to do which was to head for the door then turn and go;

"Oh, there was just one little thing…"




Tuesday, November 15, 2022

FOOD PROBLEM SOLVING

 The reason food is a big deal for children coming into care is pretty simple.

After the basics of air and water, food is the next most important thing.

Children of all shapes and sizes are brought into care for all manner of reasons, but there are some common factors.

We had a girl stay with us, her father was starting a ten-year prison sentence for what he did to the girl's older sister. The father and the mother were both profoundly deaf and had learning difficulties. Social workers discovered that they had a cooker in the kitchen with four hobs, an oven and an overhead grill, which had never been used, not once in 10 years. They only ate take-away, which they sometimes re-heated in the microwave.

We had another girl, a mother and baby (it's now called parent and child). This girl was a sofa-surfer. Thrown out by her mother on her 16th birthday (her child benefit was stopped so she was no use to the mother). She had only ever been served deep fried food. The mother had a deep fat fryer in the kitchen and everything - every single meal - was dropped into this vat of oil for 5 minutes. Since being chucked out of her own home the girl had come to rely on what she called 'ding meals'. A ding meal is a readymade meal or a pasty or a suasage roll, cooked in the microwave.

An eight-year-old boy was expected to cater for himself, so he lived on biscuits and crisps. But he'd creep downstairs early in the morning if his mother had used takeaways the night before because she always left the boxes and wrappers scattered around when she went to bed, and he might find some leftover chips or a half eaten burger. Pizza crusts were his favourite food.

And on I could go.

The only chid we ever had who was used to a proper diet was a lad who had been in foster care for several years. There'd been some sort of incident at his foster home, caused by a jealous relative of the carer, meaning he had to come stay with us while it was investigated. His carer was a wonderful ex-army officer, who knew how to serve up meat and two veg.

So the job is to wean them off bad practice, and feed their body and soul.

You have to work out ways to get them to like three cooked sit-down meals at weekends and a pre-packed lunch or school meal on weekdays, bookended by a sit-down breakfast and tea.

Luckily, the first few weeks after they arrive is the traditional 'honeymoon' period where they lack the confidence and trust in our response to rebel.

I find pasta and Dolmio a godsend, to them it's almost a fast food. I serve home-made pizza and bear the inevitable unfavourable comparisons to Dominos. My pizza's have hidden vegetables beneath the cheese. Sausages and chips work well, the vegetable needs to be baked beans, but you can try sweetcorn or a wee side salad.

I never dish up their plate for them. I put the food on the table in bowls and they're free to spoon whichever ingredients they want onto their plate. This goes down really well.All foster chidren, and I do mean all, love a bit of control.

My proudest trick is to put a bowl of fruit in their room and tell them it's theirs. The banana and handful of grapes go first then the apple. I don't put an orange in any more; they often don't know what it is or how to eat it.

Do I ever serve them rubbish? Of course! That what weekends are for. Depending on the age of the child, fish and chips or sausage and chips is the regular Friday night treat, and if Saturday night is a Disney animation it's Dominos.

Sunday lunch is Sunday lunch. A roast, green beans and carrots and of course roast potatoes. As long as there's a bucket of Bisto gravy it gets eaten, especially as it's the one meal where I serve a dessert. Nothing fancier than a big spoonful of vanilla or cholcolate ice cream, and there's never EVER any threat of "Finish your main plate or there's no pudding."

Snacks between meals need thought. I keep cans of diet coke at the back of the top shelf in the fridge, and they're for earned treats and emergencies. There are also crisps and biscuits, but I try to steer them onto rice cakes and a banana. The snack urge is most prevalent on coming home from school. I get my retaliation in first "Tea is at  half past five, would you like me to make you something to hold you?" If I get a yes, it's marmite or peanut butter toast.

At weekends they'll often try for a biscuit or crisps out of sheer boredom, I find that keeping them busy helps with those hunger pains.

If the foster mum or dad gets the battle of wits right, the child feels a) a new confidence that food is not being controlled by someone unreliable or sudden b) their sugar and carb intakes level out c) their growing bodies breathe a sigh of relief.

One thing worth adding; the fostering food bill is on the up. What with the economic situation we're all facing we're using up every scrap of food. Leftover meals and mysterious soups are regulars on our menu and we're hunting the best deals for takeaways, while also reducing the number of them. One last thing; we're cutting down on meat. We've found that by varying the pasta shapes and sauces it can be served three or four times a week. My current lot prefer green pesto to Dolmio, and are happy with spaghetti and grated cheese plus an egg stirred in so long as you announce its "Spaghetti Carbonara".

And let them skip washing-up duties, especially if it's 'spaghetti carbonara'. No-one wants to wash up a cheese grater clogged full of cheddar.

Next time; budgeting Christmas in fostering.


Friday, November 11, 2022

THAT JOHN LEWIS CHRISTMAS AD

 Congratulations to the big shops that decided to hold back on the usual Christmas ads featuring vast banquets of luxury food. 

Not all did, and the ones that went the traditional way have ended up with egg on their face. Or maybe egg nog.

This Christmas is going to be an exercise in careful budgeting for millions.

We had a tight Christmas one year a while back. Other half had worked for a firm for a year on a promise of a share in the big payday they were planning. It didn't happen. We ended up raiding the coin pot in the kitchen to do our Christmas supermarket run.

Plus, we decided against stockings for the kids. But one lunchtime I weakened and went to one of our high street charity shops to see if I could get some decent knick-knacks for 50p. True story; guess who was in the same shop with the same idea; aforementioned other half.

So well done the likes of Tesco, toning down the notion of a ten-day blow-out and hang the expense.

Especially well done to John Lewis.

Now, I don't shop much in John Lewis. I find it a bit upmarket for my needs in there; all fancy linens and glassware. Not the stuff of foster homes. But they've absolutely nailed it with their fostering-themed Christmas ad.

I won't spoil it. But I cried out loud even before I'd seen it when I read a review of the thing.

It's about putting kindness above everything else at Christmas. 

It's 90 seconds long, and the first minute is a mystery. You wonder; "Why is this middle aged bloke doing what he's doing, out in the street, 'til it gets dark?"

Then you get the answer. 

It's a proper tear-jerker, a credit to the job of work they're applauding.

Us fostering bods.

Also a credit to John Lewis, who've led the way in Christmas ads for decades.

This one's their best.

Almost enought to tempt me to nip into a JL and pick up a couple of champagne flutes to toast their health. But not quite, not yet, not 'til the boat comes in.

Meantime everyone in fostering; the colleagues, the carers and the kids, we wish John Lewis a Happy Christmas.



Monday, October 31, 2022

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

Forgive me, I'm having a bit of a rant.

 Transitioning from female to male is challenging enough, our newest and eldest foster child is doing it, and he (he chooses to identify as 'he') is a hero. His heroism includes his courage in the face of politicians and newspapers who are whipping up protest about the process, all for their personal gain.

Twas ever thus…

I'm forever shaking my head about pople who know less than nothing (by which I mean the things that they think they know are untrue), and enjoy using them to stop other people, who they've never met, doing what they choose to do with their own lives.

They keep banging on that they're "Only trying to help"

At one Blue Sky training session we talked about people's behaviour towards others. We heard about a psychologist called Eric Berne who'd spent much of his time researching why people behave towards others in ways they themselves don't understand. 

He called his book "Transactional Analysis". It sold 3000 copies. A few years later he tweaked the writing and called it "Games People Play" and it sold 300,000 copies.

That's what you call a good psychologist.

His basic belief is that people spend most of their time trying to get the better of others. It sounds rotten of us, but he points out that way back in history early men and women needed to be top dog to get the mate they wanted. So there'd be lots of squabbling and fighting going on.

Now that we're civilised we have to find other ways to feel we've bested someone, but the behaviour is just as persistent as when we lived in caves.

What Eric Berne did was to identify different ways in which people go about besting others, and put them into categories. You'll recognise people you know in a minute.

Might even spot yourself…

One category - and I had a colleague who did this all the time - is called "Why Don't You? Yes but.."

What she would do is tell colleagues about a problem she had and ask for their help/advice. But she always had an answer for why none of the suggestions could work. Example;

Her: "I'm going to struggle to get in for 9.30 tomorrow. My car has to go in for new brakes and the garage doesn't open until 9.00"

Us: "Could you leave your car outside the garage and put the keys through the letter box?"

Her; "Yes, but there's no parking in the street"

Us: "Could you drop your car off at the garage tonight on your way home?"

Her; "Yes but I don't finish here until 5.00 and the garage closes at 4.30"

It would go until we ran out of ideas, then we'd say;

Us: "Gosh, you really do have a problem."

And she'd smile a triumphant grin and say;

Her; "Yes!" and go happily on her way, having bested us.

Eric Berne identified about a dozen common strategies that people use day in, day out, to feel on top.

Others include "Wooden Leg". In Wooden Leg the person habitually says to their family, friends and colleagues "What do you expect from someone with a wooden leg/unhappy childhood/dependent mother/eating disorder etc". Sometimes children in care play this one.

The game that's being played by politicians and press who are making capital denouncing trans people is called "I'm Only Trying To Help You".

In this game the player pretends they're being helpful while they're actually doing the opposite. They know deep down that if they persist in giving bad 'help' the victim's situation will deteriorate and they'll need more 'help'. Appearing 'helpful' makes the player look good and caring. The more 'help' the victim needs the worse their situation becomes.

If and when a trans person comes a cropper 'helpers' can single that person out and claim it as a victory for those who tried to 'help' and weren't heeded.

Oh and by the way

The Game played by good foster carers is called "Busman's Holiday". An example of Busman's Holiday is the ear-nose and throat doctor who spends his two week holiday doing voluntary work in a Rwandan hospital. He returns to work more refreshed and with better stories than if he'd hung out on a beach in the Maldives.

We're friends with a couple who have several holidays a year. They're always playing golf, spending the weekend in the Cotswolds, throwing dinner parties. And are, to be honest, a bit lost in life, and miserable. I don't go any further than our front gate any more, I've nothing to 'get away from'.

I'm happy with my lot.

I foster.




Saturday, October 22, 2022

GO FIGURE

 Yes, there is quite a bit of paperwork involved in fostering.

And yes, fostering folk have to attend quite a lot of training sessions.

Home visits by social workers, though always enjoyable, are nevertheless time-consuming and demanding. When I say 'demanding' I guess I mean you have to keep your concentration up for the entire 2 or 3 hours. Yup, they don't show up for a five minute cup of tea,

I'm flagging this up mainly for anyone thinking of becoming a foster parent. 

Fostering is a fantastic vocation; there's nothing like it - but you have to be realistic about it. Fostering is hard graft, and fostering folk need to be at the top of their game 24/7.

Then there is the child.

Or in our case, children (we have multiple placements at this time).

Don't be under any illusions, children who are taken into care and need a foster home have all got harrowing stories, and are almost all affected by the things that have happened around them before they were removed from their real parents.

If it weren't for the intervention of social services who knows how screwed up the children might become, or how much of a drain on others and society in general.

And yet…

Today I visited a neighbour and shared a cup of tea, He's aged 89 and almost blind, plus his left knee is permanently painful and gives out without warning so he's borderline housebound. He lost his wife some nine or ten years ago. 

He doesn't care much for talking about himself, he prefers talking about his children and grandchildren and the world in general. This is always a sign of a well arranged mind.

And he is more than just well organised mentally; he's not merely bright he's loving and kind, generous to a T, and always ultra-courteous.

In fact, I don't think I've ever known a more exemplary person.

But today I found out more about his early years which left me agog as to how he turned out to be such a fine man, a pillar of society, a wonderful husband and father. A model human being.

His childhood was a catalogue of neglect and abuse.

When he was a small boy the war was on. His mother had left his father, who he never met, and was shacked up with a waster; a savage drinker and flake. 

She was a two-bit actress, touring the UK with a flea-circus theatre troupe putting on tacky plays up and down the country. Her partner was a musician who was attached to the cortege largely to facilitate a supply of booze. This bloke and my friend's mother lived life zig-zagging the country in a haze of fantasy in which they were glorious stars of the stage. They would dress up in stage clothes to go out the shop and pick up fags and gin and lord it over the provincial oiks. 

Madness.

My neighbour/friend from his earliest age had to tag along. Throughout the war he never went to school, or was in any place long enough to make one single friend. He'd be on a stern warning not to talk to anyone or reveal anything of his life. The travelling actors would perform at night, then go back to their digs and drink and delude themselves they were stars and that Hollywood was about to beckon. They'd sleep away the daytime, and he'd be kicked out into the street to wander around and entertain himself. Whether he was in Rochdale or Glasgow, Southport or Chatham, he'd skulk around trying not to look like catnip for the truant-catcher (yes, they existed!). He was on a big warning not to alert the authorities about his circumstances.

His tale gets worse.

Over our second cup of tea he told me about the other half of his life as a child, the half that was even worse than his solitary life on the road.

His mother was always trying to dump him and go off.

When she got fed up with his presence she'd put the word out around town to find a family who'd take a boy in. There were plenty of takers back then. She'd pay them a small fee for 'looking after' her child so she could swan around the country unencumbered. And the people who took him in could treat him however they liked.

He was never sent to school because of the danger that the authorities might wonder who he was and that the game would be up. Instead the families put him to work.

Aged eight his day job was to scour the beach looking for driftwood to fuel the family fire. His evening work included walking right across town to make the payment for the family's pools coupon.

He found himself derided by the family's real children for being a skiver and a waste of food.

Not that there was much food; provisions were rationed and he generally ate leftovers, of which sometimes there were none.

His mother abandoned him six times in this way. He might be an old man now, but he remembers each abandonment with heart-rending clarity.

On one occasion she left him with a family she'd stayed with for just one night - the night before - and he didn't see her again for a whole year.

My tea got cold and went off, his story was so compelling.

And when he was done telling it, he apologised for hogging the conversation and asked me if I wanted a piece of cake then asked me how my curious family were doing. What's more, he really wanted to know. He's frail now, but still generous and kind, and caring about everyone, even people he's not met.

I told him that if he had been a child living now he'd have been taken into care like a shot.

And yet; would he have been a better person for it? How could he be a better person? He's close to perfection.

I guess if there's a point to my thinking about him a lot this evening it's that fostering helps kids, but if the basic building blocks of a decent human being are in there all you have to do is gently fan the flame.

Almost every kid we've had come and stay under our roof has been a hero one way or another.

But the question of what makes a person entire is beyond me, so I decided a while back not to spend too much time trying to understand the matter when there are potatoes to peel and beds to change.

Spuds and duvets; the grit of fostering. Yet something else is afoot and amen to whatever it is.




Saturday, October 08, 2022

MIND YOUR LANGUAGE

 Ok so the complexities of fostering a transitioning child.

Try this one.

Before you do, can I make one thing crystal clear. I love this work to bits and am uplifted each and every day by the fun and joy of helping these kids on their way.

So;

He wanted a lift to school, which he didn't need as he has a bus pass, but he gets nervous if the bus driver says or does anything with him he might interpret wrong, as he's highly sensitive about being misconcieved as female. Doesn't want to hear 'Luv' or 'Darlin', things people say innocently but unthinkingly.

No problem, I drive him in.

Happy to enjoy his company.

Only this particular morning he's fuming. We set off and he's straight into his anger;

"Why did you call me 'her' just now?"

Me; "What? I never did!"

"You friggin' did! I hate it when you do that. Don't you realise what I'm going through?"

"What are you on about? I never called you 'her'"

"Yes you did. I heard you. You said to dad 'I'm going to take Tyler down to school and then go on to Tesco and get her some tea."

"I never said that!"

"Yes you did. I heard you. You didn't know I was in the hall. So yeah, you still think I'm a girl."

OK I could spin the argument out as long as it took, but it boiled down to this;

I'd said to my other half, standing in the kitchen;

"I'll take Tyler to school and then go to Tesco and get us some tea."

Say it to yourself.

If the 's' sounds of 'us' and 'some' fuse together, like they can do when we speak, it could easily sound like "get her some tea."

I had to fight my corner all the way to the school gates.

I argued that I've never had to go to the supermarket for one individual family member so the words "he" or "she" have never featured; only "us".

No dice Chicago.

All I could do was implore that I only, ever, totally, saw him and see him as who he knows he is.

He got out of the car crying quietly.

I sent him a text from the fruit aisle saying sorry I got upset.

I got a reply over by the wine section saying he was sorry too. 

Come tea time all forgotten, that is, no further argument.

Going to be watching and listening for other difficulties.

And going to be careful with words in future. 

No, going to be ultra-careful.

If a job's worth doing it's worth doing well.

There's no job more worth doing than fostering.


Tuesday, October 04, 2022

IT'S THE MOST COMPLICATED TIME OF THEY YEAR...

 In fostering it's never too early to start thinking about Christmas.

It's eleven weeks away, but Sky have already got their Christmas Movies channel up and running.

We fostering folk have to start thinking about how it's going to work for us because, unless you have the same children as the Christmas before, every Christmas is very different.

And Blue Sky have kicked the conversation off with their Carers, asking if the looked-after children have talked about it to them, and if they haven't we should maybe start getting some information. We could try asking questions such as;

"What was your last Christmas like?"

Unless you know otherwise it's best not to ask questions such as;

"What did you get for Christmas last year?", because some children got nothing. Unbelievably, one child we had for a Christmas had never recieved a present in their life, and parroted what they had heard as the reason, namely that Christmas is "Too expensive."

So, first off, you have to tread warily.

The information you need is all about understanding their expectations. For children who have regular contact with their parents/significant others we fosterers have to gather clues as to who they want to spend Christmas with, and for how long. 

Often you get situations where the child's real parents live separately, and you find their preference determined by which of their parents new partners they dislike the least.

The chidren don't get to make the final decisions, because the Social Workers may know more than they do about the domestic scenarios at their home.

I've mentioned it before, but it's more true now than ever; households that are vulnerable to chaos are more likely to have a breakdown over Christmas than at any other time of the year. Families are jammed together, there's booze aplenty and old tensions re-surface.

The children must not get caught in the crossfire.

Then there are other factors, such as the importance that your own family has the Christmas they want too.

Which can mean all sorts of complications, because if you come from a big family the business of who goes to who's for Christmas dinner is often ridiculously over-important to some family members.

Other complications; do you spend the same amount on presents for your foster child as you spent on your own when they were the same age? After all, the foster children will get presents from their own family too (hopefully).

Then there's the simple fact that some families are toning down the whole Christmas hoo-hah, sometimes because it IS too expensive, or else it's just a load of work for next-to-nothing. 

Then there's this; we live in a wonderfully diverse country.

At my first Blue Sky Christmas lunch there we all were sat at long tables. 

I got talking to the young couple oppisite, who I'd pulled crackers with. We'd put on those silly paper hats and told each other the feeble jokes. There was wine, but they didn't touch it. 

I asked them how they'd spend Christmas day and they replied:

"Well, we're Muslim. If we don't have a placement it'll be just another Tuesday in our house. But if we have a placement and they are going to be with us on Christmas Day, and Christmas matters to them, we're going to do all the traditions and trimming. Decorations, tree, presents, turkey."

"Flippin' heck!" I said, "You're going the whole hog?!"

"No." they laughed, "We're Muslim, we will draw the line at hog…"