Wednesday, September 22, 2021

DE-ESCALATION AND ICE CREAM

 Middle foster child came downstairs in a strop or as my nan used to put it 'with a right cob on'.

He used to be eldest foster child but since the arrival of short-term 17 year old Ged, he's now the middle one.

I heard that PG Wodehouse started a short story with the sentence;

"It is not difficult to discern the difference between a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance."

For 'Scotsman" read "Foster Child".

Some of them, they bring a special skill set to the important matter of appearing p****d off, it's practically an art form. Or more like a stage act, in fact.

An episode is often first flagged up by a louder than usual slamming of their bedroom door followed by unusually heavy footsteps coming down the stairs.

You say to yourself; "Here we go…"

You are supposed to look concerned and say;

"Everything alright?" or "What's up? You OK?"

And so you do. They don't just WANT you to inquire, they NEED you to. It's the beginning of the dance which will probably end in them getting ice cream, or a nod that they can stay up late and watch Netflix on Friday night. Or both.

Nobody knows the trouble they've seen, and their lifelong experiences in their bio home has taught them a wealth of survival techniques. They will have watched parents, older household members and family members playing the problem hierachy game and learned the benefits that can be squeezed from things being all wrong.

The problem hierarchy game is where people compete to be the one most under duress.

Of course; many things in foster children's lives ARE all wrong; they had a tough time, their parents parenting was questionable at best, their education chequered. Now they live in a strange house full of of strangers.. and however much we foster parents try, it's wrong.

But they don't present us with these very real wrongs.

When they want a bit of TLC or a metaphorical cuddle it goes a bit like it did with middle child.

He came stomping into the kitchen and made for the larder.

"Oh Jeez! No Salt and Vinegar!"

Then he's off;

"Why are we always out of Salt and Vinegar? It's not that hard is it? To buy crisps? I mean, you guys act like you're all so clever and you've got two cars and wooo you're foster parents, but even a Zombie hamster could get crisps right."

I try to say nothing.

"I mean…crisps! How hard is that?"

I shrug as if to say 'Yeah we're pretty useless…' He goes on;

"I mean, it's like the other day when Jason came round and you gave us chips with the burgers and everyone knows it's fries with burgers, chips go with fish! I was like SO embarrassed. Is that why you get the food all wrong round here. One minute you're trying to make me obese the next you're starving me!"

Jason is his friend who sometimes comes round and they chill. It's uplifting hearing their laughter and mock gee-up banter.

Me;

"How was Jason today?"

"Jeez how should I know? He's an idiot. I don't care how he is. If he wants to hang out with Ben Willis' bunch of wallies that's his doom sorted and so what? He was the embarrasment. Not me.""

So we gradually got to the nitty gritty; he and his friend had had a bit of a tizz. 

Apparently over politics. Well, to be precise over whether Boris Johnson is a ****** or not.

They'd fallen out digitally (messages).

It hurts rotten when you're young and finding your way with friendships. We all made plenty of mistakes and thought it was the end of the world.

Children and young people in care are sometimes more clumsy socially than their peers and a bit more desperate to build relationships. 

There's not much we can do there, they are usually best off sorting these spats out themselves, all part of life.

But it's one reason why there's usually a tub of emergency ice-cream in the fridge.

I remember a Blue Sky training session on de-escalation. The trainer said that offering a pleasant distraction, such as going on a bike ride could help the child's anger. One carer was against the idea saying;

"I'm not going to reward bad behaviour by giving them something nice!"

He had missed the point on this one, de-escalation is about distraction, and anyway; kindness is not a 'reward', it should be ever-present. Is sticking a sticking plaster on a wound a 'reward'? 

Bottom line, ice cream works. 

Monday, September 06, 2021

BONDING BETWEEN FOSTER CHILDREN

 It's always an upheaval when a foster child leaves. The house is quieter, there's less work to be done and those that are left behind in the home have to re-configure.

Ged is gearing up to fly the nest; he'll be 18 soon and is hungry to put his childhood behind him and stretch his wings. There are so many positives, but you still have to keep an eye out for impending difficulties.

And there is a big one. See, our youngest foster child adores Ged. 

Ged, to him, is everything that I and my other half aren't. Ged is cool, he's a geezer. He knows what today's music is about, he can talk for ever about gaming.

Youngest wants Ged to be his dad - he doesn't say so but it's written all over him. He wants to go with Ged, but hasn't said so. When Ged goes it'll leave a big hole in his heart, and that's in part a healthy, normal and profound thing.

But. 

Youngest has experienced endless abandonment in his short life before care. His real father came and went, other 'fathers' came and went. Then his mother overdosed and has never fully recovered. He was fostered initially alongside his sibs (4) but it all got too much for the foster parents and the little mite who came to us was deemed the main fly in the ointment. And boy was he a handful at first.

We set square on keeping him with us partly because of the fear that if we abandoned him back into the system it could be the last straw. Anyway, we haven't yet given up on a child and one gets possesive about a 100% record in anything - mind this is a good obsession.

Blue Sky worked with us shoulder-to-shoulder to help him find a bit of peace; Oppositional Defiance Disorder is a gruelling house guest. But you get what you pay for in fostering, and though the emotional cost to us was steep to begin with, it began paying for itself within a couple of months.

I'm not claiming he's a saint, but he's come on in leaps and bounds, and Ged's arrival gave him the role model he's always craved.

My job in the next few weeks before Ged goes is to talk to my BS social worker about how to play it. Do I ask Ged if he can stay in touch for the sake of the youngest? Do I talk to youngest about it, try to get as much understanding of the coming event as I can? Do I make plans such as a farewell dinner for Ged or play it like it's no big deal?

The probability is that it's going to be tricky - sticky even - and we'll all have to react to however it impacts youngest. 

Oh, and remember to enjoy all the enjoyables such as helping a fine young man enter the world, and appreciating that youngest has learned to attach to a parent figure. Maybe he'll transfer that bonding to us? That would be nice…

But in fostering you never hold your breath..


Thursday, August 26, 2021

THE SHAPE OF A FOSTERING FAMILY

 Perhaps the most impacting thing about fostering is the effect it has on the shape of your household.

I'm talking about the shapes the people in your home make between themselves; round the table or sitting in the living room. Time was when people's living room had all the seating facing the fire, the source of warmth and comfort. Then along came the TV and the furniture was re-organised to face the new source of warmth and comfort. Everyone knew where they sat, everyone together.

The thing here is that 'devices' (phones, tablets, laptops) have superceded the TV, and our technology is now a solitary exercise.

Before we started fostering we had a 'normal' home, in the sense that we had a fixed cast list. There was mum, dad, and three children, year in year out. The five of us.

Of course, thinking back, the arrival of each of our three wonderful kids caused a massive change in the shape!

But once we decided "three will do", home life was a matter of us five knocking around each other, breakfast/lunch/tea… outings…family TV... 

 You form a circle, same faces, same lovely people. Same dynamic.

Then, you start fostering. And an unknown squib is thrown into the works. A child who's almost always had a horrible time and needs - and I mean REALLY NEEDS - loving attention.

The home isn't the same circle anymore. When the new child arrives the shape is more more like a figure of 8, with us in one circle of the 8 and the arrival in the other. But the two are joined at the hip and the foster parents have to turn the 8 into an 0.

Take, for example, Sammy. A ten year-old girl who arrived at our house complete with a warning that her father was apoplectic that his two daughters had been taken into care; not because he was concerned about their welfare so much as his self-image as the ultimate perfect male was challenged.

Sammy had lived under a cruel regime since her mother ran away.

I always feel sorry for those men who dress as super heroes to get camera attention about their grievance that the system obstructs fathers from having a just access to their kids. We haven't seen the Fathers For Justice men for a while; they used to stand around on top of famous buildings in their baggy Batman costumes having been advised by their PR people that the costumes would get them space in the newspapers. But I always wondered if really thought of themselves as supermen, and what kind of parenting that mindset would cause.

Sammy's father was probably a narcissist.

Sammy arrived on a freezing afternoon in mid-December. It had been decided that there were risks for her that were different from the risks faced by her older sister, so the sister was allowed to stay with the father, unless things changed.

Sammy was sore about that. No matter how awful home life is, 99% of children in care want to go back.

In the early days Sammy would join us for meals, sit in silence, then scoot back to her room and shut herself in.

We went to work to try to make her feel at home with us, and luckily, Plan A was a fair success, but I'm not sure you could do it nowadays.

What brough her down was the TV. She loved Jerry Springer (today's kids had the same affection for Jeremy Kyle). She would sit in the living room by herself and watch. Once we knew she liked losing herself in the small screen we expanded our watching - family films complete with popcorn, crisps and Fanta. We'd sit together and she began to relax with us, join in conversations about the movie.

It was only a week or two before she would call out from the landing "You wanna watch Jerry Sringer in a minute?" And so I did.

Sammy stayed with us for four months. Not long, but long enough for our family to morph into a six.

We were told her father had been counselled and had agreed to a Social Worker visit once a week to make sure he was sticking to a new self.

Ans, since taking up fostering, our household has a new self too.




Friday, August 20, 2021

WHAT WOULD GARY LINEKER DO?

There's been a swathe of friendly arguments in our house about Gary Lineker. For those who don't know he was once a brilliant footballer who's re-invented himself as a brilliant broadcaster/entertainer/pundit/social conscience. Well, that's my view. Others in the house think he's re-invented himself as a big-eared millionaire woke.

I annoy the enemy by musing, when faced with a moral choice such as tea or coffee; "What would Gary Lineker do?"

Also in our house we are faced with a proper moral dilemma at the moment.

We have a lad in care with us, I'm calling him Ged, who's not been with us a couple of months and is due to leave fostering soon.

A child of one's own is a child one has tried to guide into adulthood through the years. You hope that you know them and know their needs and how best they might fly the nest. When a young person arrives into your care almost complete and rounded off…there's little you can do to help prepare them, compared to what you want to do.

It's a great big world out there; sometimes cruel and brutal, sometimes sweet as a nut. 

But here's the thing; with one's own children the cord is never cut. They are your children 'til you're no more and amen to that, because they know it and take comfort that they always have you and maybe even your spare bed to fall back on.

My dear old dad, now departed, was never happier than when (with me by now in my forties) he was able to make me a snack of his trade mark cream cracker sandwiches with cheese and Branston or being able to give me a lift somewhere. I loved it too.

You're never alone with a parent or two still breathing.

Children nowadays no longer pack their bags and head off into the blue yonder at 18, if they ever did. What with the cost of buying a home, the state of employment, National Debt at eye watering size - the spin is that the country's swanning it, but doest it feel like it? Then there's the dire zero contracts. 

A huge number of UK children haven't left home.

It's grand that they have that option, despite the occasional frustrations for all concerned.

Ged doesn't have any such safety net.

His dad's a self-confessed no goodster and his mother's with a man who insists her children stay away.

His brothers and sisters, all younger, are scattered through fostering.

My God, you'd think he'd be petrified of that many-headed serpent we call the future.

Seemingly not a bit of it. 

Ged has been tossed in the wind so much of his life it's next to nothing to him to face being tossed around all by himself. He's exhilarated by the prospect of not having to be home by 11.00pm.

He doesn't seem worried that he might end up without a home to be home to by 11.00pm.

So, naturally, I do his worrying for him - with plenty of assists by Blue Sky. Their worrying takes the form of practical support and guidance in what his entitlements and fallbacks will be when he reaches his 18th birthday.

There have been changes in the status of young people in Care when they reach 18. In a nutshell - as I understand it - children in Care are no longer fostered, but can stay on with their foster family until they are 21 under a sort of supported lodgings scheme. I quote;

"These arrangements are known as Staying Put in England, When I’m Ready in Wales and Continuing Care in Scotland. In addition to this, Northern Ireland has its own arrangement for caring for a young person aged 18+ called Going the Extra Mile."

I guess that in many a household where there's a teenager heading for their 18th birthday there are some heavy discussions. In our case with Ged, we've been tooled up by Blue Sky as to the many ways it could work if Ged wanted to stay on.

The thing is he doesn't. He wants to spread his wings. And to be fair, he's hardly going to have time to bond with us and feel like he has a family to fall back on; his placement with us was tailored to preparing him for the world and he knows it and is keen.

How will he manage? Ah, well this is where it gets doubly interesting

Ged believes, and social services say it might be true, that he will come into a bit of money when he's 18. Or maybe when he's 21. He's keeping this information close to his chest and I don't ask about it, it's his business.

The story he's hinted at to various Social Workers and other confidants during his years in care is that someone, probably his untrustworthy father, has put aside some probably ill-gotten gains as a sort of dodgy trust fund for him. Possibly to say sorry for being a rubbish dad.

Do I believe it? I haven't enough to go on. Our Social Worker says that Ged is street-smart enough to know between a concrete promise and hot air, so the chances are it's better than a maybe. The sum is believed to be a solid five-figure amount.

Even if it's true, will it be enough for life out there? What with rent, bills, the inevitable motor bike, not to mention the raves

So, here's where we're heading with him. He's a fine guy. We're intending to tell him that if things go badly there's lots of help available, including this;

He's got my mobile number and he knows not only where we live, but where HE lives if he needs us.

With us.

I didn't have to ask myself; "What would Gary Lineker do?" (Although I reckon he'd do what we're planning to do).

And I won't be asking that question out loud on the matter of Ged, too jokey.

Mind, I may have asked myself; "What would the professional, caring foster mum do?"





Monday, August 16, 2021

TEENAGERS

 I've been asked for thoughts about fostering teenagers. I'm no expert, but it is a block around which I have been a good many times, and loved (almost) every minute. So here's a few random ones;

* Put up with the fact that they are teenagers. One good way of doing this is to go back over what you were like when you were a teenager. Try to remember the angst, the fears, the frustrations of being treated like an adult when it comes to things like paying full price for a bus ride but being treated like a child with things like being denied a driving licence or a bottle of beer, even though the state says you're old enough to join the army. 

* Don't pretend you understand them even if you do. The only thing a fostered teenager has complete ownership over is who they are, and they don't want you peeking into their soul, it's theirs. If this means acting ignorant of their favourite music and not knowing one Marvel superhero from another, so be it. PS; don't say their music is great either. They'll switch genres in a trice. You're not supposed to like it; stick to telling them how much you like Abba. 

*  There will always be something to worry about with them. We foster carers are lucky because unlike ordinary parents we have specialist advice to go to, namely our Social Worker. Don't ring them up for any old thing, but Blue Sky provides supervision sessions and they're the place to talk over any suspicions about drugs or romantic enterprises or eating concerns.

* Their room will be a mess. It's their mess. They won't mind you clearing away anything mouldy or hazardous, but they'll know to within an inch exactly where their three-day-old socks are; one is under the bed, the other is behind the wardrobe.

* They live their lives by a different clock to the rest of the world. Their day starts at 11.00am or later, and extends to 2.00am at night. It's not any form of defiance, it's to do with circadian rhythms or somesuch. It's a biological fact, as is the biological fact that they will make enough noise sometimes to wake you up. Get earplugs.

* They do not need to eat their vegetables. Their digestive system appears to be able to create all the neccessary vitamins out of a packet of Walkers salt and vinegar. Alternatively, GIVE them an apple, to keep as theirs. Most often, but not always, ownership of the apple means they no longer see it as a threat to their independent choice of food, and it becomes edible. Don't say "Here's an apple for you", instead put a small bowl of fruit in their room; an apple, a banana and an orange. They'll eat them except the orange. Oranges need peeling which is a faff. Also; by refusing the orange they remain in control (they think).

* They won't talk, unless you get them onto a subject they're comfortable with, one they'll know more than you about. They'll possibly know more about fleecing the benefit system, or the best tips for sofa surfing, or how to get off a charge of shoplifting. For many teenagers in care they witnessed at home these matters as representing the badge of adulthood, and they'll open up if they can sound like 'grown-ups'. And indeed, in these respects they are more grown-up than most adults.

*They'll never forget you. Even though they'll hardly say a sentimental thing to your face, many years later they'll  call at your door to say thanks, either metaphorically or literally.  One foster mum I know had this exact thing happen and still fills up when she tells people about it.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

REVELATIONS

 One of the joys in the first few weeks of a new child arriving is that you get a drip-feed of revealing information from them about themselves and their past history. The revelations help form your way to foster them.

It's not so easy with younger ones. They don't have the mental apparatus to share significant experiences, so you have to watch and listen. With older teenagers it's easier. They talk - once they start to trust you.

Our new placement Ged is a charmer. He's incredibly polite and considerate, so much so that I'm wondering if he has something else going on elsewhere and is storing up favour in case the something else breaks.

I hope that doesn't sound cynical, it's based on hard-won experience and there's no way he'd guess I have that small but real concern in the back of my mind.

I'm now 90% sure the smoke I smelled on him when I picked him up from a late train wasn't tobacco.

Ged has means. He buys classy clothes and train fares are no problem for him. He owns recording and editing equipment for his music which doesn't come cheap. 

My worry is based on an excellent training session I had with a Blue Sky expert on drug use among today's teens. The session was entitled "County Lines".  I hadn't heard of County Lines before. If you have and know all about it forgive me banging on, but a caring concern is in my mind now so I'm going over it again.

"County Lines" is a term for a technique used by drug dealing gangs to escape arrest and prosecution. It works like this; they recruit independent minded teenagers by using older teenagers (16 to18 years old) to dress cool and hang around  outside school gates getting to know the younger (14 to 16 years old) teenagers. They want the loners, the losers; the ones who'll feel emboldened by a cool older dude befriending them. They give them 'free' stuff. Not illegal stuf; maybe an expensive pair of trainers. Then they tell them they can earn good money to pay them back for the 'free' stuff by doing a delivery job for them. 

The delivery involves them crossing a county boundary carrying a package.

The package contains drugs. The reason the youngsters are sent across county lines has to do with the way English police forces are organised. They are set up along county lines. If a crime is committed that has crossed county lines the police paperwork becomes disproportionate and the investigation stagnates. Even if it doesn't, the 'criminal' is a bewildered teenager who doesn't know anything.

So, armed with this training, have I any other reason to harbour a small concern that Ged is behaving less like a foster child and more like the guest from Heaven? 

Yes.

We were chatting about our respective family histories, I mentioned that I had a distant relative who is  'known to the police' as they say.

Ged trumped me; his dad's in prison.

For drug dealing.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

PRIVATE PHOBIAS

 Fostering really is Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. We've had all sorts, which has been great; but when we began fostering we hoped for teenagers because we felt we'd be able to manage them best.


So here we are now with two teenagers in the house, the one we used to call eldest who is now no longer the eldest, and Joe who who  has been with us for 3 weeks, and is due to leave us in about 15 weeks.

What happened yesterday is a nice story of why teenagers can be great foster children.

What happened was this;

It was the middle of the night. Nearer daybreak than sunset. Noise had woken me up, it had only been a little noise and the reason it woke me up was because it wasn't one of the usual little noises of the night that you get used to (a little gurgle of the waterworks or the far off yap of an urban fox). It was the sound of someone moving about downstairs.

I lay there for a bit straining my ears for it to repeat but it didn't.

Nevertheless I'd heard it. So I put on my dressing gown and crept down the stairs. There was light coming from the living room, the door was half open. But it wasn't the light from a lamp, it flickered. The TV was on. But the sound was off.

Either someone had left it on with the sound down or someone was watching but not listening. I peered round the door only to see Joe wrapped up in some movie or other and wearing a pair of wireless Air Buds. After a few seconds he sensed my presence, snatched up the remote and paused the film.

"Hello" he said quietly, adding; "I haven't woken you up have I?"

I asked him if he was okay. He said he was fine but he couldn't sleep...

He told me he couldn't sleep ever, at least not in the conventional sense of going to bed when it's late then sleeping until it's about time to get up. He had never been able to sleep normally.

Joe had been with us for three weeks now, and he's only just revealing that he has something worse than insomnia, he has a phobia about beds, he's practically allergic to bedrooms.

But here's the amazing thing: he has been awake through the night every night since he came here, but we didn't know; he didn't want to bother us with his problem. So when we'd go to bed he would say he's just going to stay up for a little bit…then he stays up through the night. If he does sleep it's more like a nap with his feet up on our sofa. He often watches TV, but has connected it up to his Air Buds so we don't get woken up. The noise that woke me was him creeping into the kitchen for a snack.

I came to suspect there might be some dark reasons for his problem with bedrooms, so I decided to let him tell me about it if he wanted to, or keep it private if that's what he preferred. Might be best if I don't know, and best that he doesn't revisit seriously nightmarish memories.

The other possible scenario might be that he himself doesn't have any clear recollection of anything that might have caused this aversion.

The big positive all of this is that Joe has developed strategies for dealing with his problems, which include not wanting to inconvenience or trouble anybody else.

He is a fine young man, a credit to his generation, we can only hope that he develops better and better strategies in the future for dealing with his past and his present.

And if there' s any justice in life, and there often is in fostering, he will.