Friday, March 01, 2024

WHEN THEY GO HOME

 Middle foster child is getting ready to be returned home.

It ought to be a red-letter day for foster parents, because the job of fostering is, in a nutshell, helping the child's family come together again, with safety for all ensured.

It's always tinged though.

When the child is driven away from your home, posessions neatly packed in proper luggage, a few mementoes should be included. This one's going to get to keep a daft baseball cap formerly belonging to somebody who left it here after a gathering. The child likes to wear it backwards so the slogan faces forward; "I'm not arguing, just explaining why I'm right".

There'll also be a card from everyone in the house at the bottom of one of the bags so the child won't get it until they're unpacking. It'LL consist of a few words from each of us, a few memories of happy days here, and best wishes for the future.

I'm going to write a paragraph about the time he got separated from us in a giant Tesco. He'd wandered off, or maybe we'd wandered off. We hooked up again after no more than a minute, and always knew where he was because his mobile phone had a wee app that allowed us to track his location. When we found each other again we all laughed. We said "We were getting a bit worried about you!" to which he replied "I was getting a bit worried about YOU!"

Brilliant moment. I'll also write a line about how much we'll miss him, but hope things work out better than ever for his future.

I'll probably mist up when waving goodbye, always happy about the emotions in fostering. Part of my sadness at slight loss are triggered by an experience outside fostering; and I can't remember if I've ever mentioned this on the Secret Foster Carer blog. Our next-door neighbours lost a child who died. They were - and still are, many years on - distraught and in limbo about the loss. They are wonderful people and utterly heroic. In the months afterwards I spent as much time as I could sitting at their kitchen table drinking tea and listening. They were hugely grateful, especially the dad, who struggled with the loss more than his partner and their other children, or so it seemed. From time to time he asked how come I could be so helpful about their loss, and I said I could only guess that it came in part from getting in touch with the sensibilities of loving care you need in fostering, plus the experience of exposure to family difficulties.

Here's one big thing about it; their child had his own bedroom, and the bedroom is still exactly as it was when the child left home to go to the party from which he never returned. Discarded socks are still on the floor, the bed's unmade, the door kept half ajar, just as it was when a police officer knocked on their front door to bring them the worst imaginable news.

When a foster child leaves to go home, it's nowhere near the loss our neighbours are still suffering, but you still miss them, and have to deal with an element of loss. I find it helps to return their bedroom to neutral as soon as possible, get it ready for a new arrival. 

The departed child is high in your mind until the phone rings and Blue Sky's placement team say;

"Would you consider taking a child who…"

Heady stuff.

My partner and I had a rough day the other Sunday; eldest foster child was feeling low, our eldest real child is not in the best place, the elderly dog we're looking after to help out a family member is going downhill fast. My partner has two close family members both needing profound medical treatment. It's harrowing how sometimes in life things bundle up.

We sat in the living room early last Sunday morning drinking tea, and found ourselves going through all the foster children we've had placed with us.

We went through the full list, remembering each of them easily enough, only struggling about the order they arrived here. We managed all their names, and swapped reminiscences of each of them; funny moments, poignant ones. We really enjoyed remembering them - memories are always a bit rose-tinted - and found ourselves laughing and privately reminding ourselves that fostering is the best thing we've done. We shared our fears that one or two of them might be struggling now, just as so many ordinary young people are.

By the time we were ready to flip from tea to coffee, we were feeling 1000% better.

I've got a painful shoulder at the moment, it spasms now and then, probably caused by picking up and carrying our sturdiest grandchild for the last year or so. My GP says it'll mend itself but in the meantime offered to prescribe Diazepam to relax the muscles. 

I declined. Fostering relaxes me - not all the time - but when I really need it, it's there for me.


Sunday, February 25, 2024

UNEXPLAINED TRIUMPHS

 Youngest foster child has come through a bad patch.

School wasn't working as well as it might and the child was reluctant to get ready in the morning. I often ended up going out the front door, and sitting in the car to give a sense of inevitability that the school run will happen even though the child is stubbornly sitting on the bottom stair not putting on their shoes.

These stand-offs were tiring, but are by no means confined to fostering. Our eldest birth child was much the same, and he ended up at a decent university so we're philosophiocal about the diehards who think that 6 or 7 hours compulsory daily schooling five days a week is an absolute, or else the child will end up on the scrapheap.

One difference between fostering and ordinary parenting is that when a child is in care the local authority has ultimate responsibility; so school attendance is carefully monitored. They need to make sure the child isn't being dropped off at the school gates then doing a bunk and spending the day hanging around amusement arcades or the shopping mall.

Every so often had no option but to concede and let the child stay home.

"Yikes!" goes an imaginary voice in my head, belonging to someone who's never fostered; "That's illegal!"

It simply isn't. If a child in care goes into a meltdown we have to look after the child - and ourselves. Everyone connected with fostering knows and understands that if a child is physically unwell they are kept at home. Judging matters when the unwellness is emotional, and whether it's sufficient to have the child stay at home for that day, is part and parcel of some fostering placements. But, as ever you're never alone in fostering. At times (as rarely as possbile) the foster parent concedes. Any suchlike abscence is carefully recorded and discussed with social workers.

I would get occasional phone calls from a LA officer whose job is to keep a checklist of school attendance figures for their children in care. The officer is polite and understanding. 

The foster parent does their best every day, but there are limits.

The child's schooling remains a top topic of conversation whenever the child's Local Authority Social Worker, or my Blue Sky Social Worker pay a visit (usually once a month). They need to be reassured that I'm doing my best to get the child to school, but that I'm also protecting the child from real or imagined demons, and also protecting myself.

The child needed to be pursuaded to get in the car, there can never, ever be any physical ushering - I don't even buckle their seat belt for them, that's down to them once the child is old enough, and if I have to wait another 5 minutes for that to happen, so be it.

Schoolday mornings were uphill for a while.

However…

This has happened since they went back from the last school holidays;

The mornings are easier!

The question is, of course, how come?

One of the great pleasures in fostering is joining up the dots. Sometimes me and my SW will while away an hour trying to piece together the reason for an improved behaviour, or attitude, or trait.

So what's brought about the new broom? The child in question is something of a closed book. Children in care often prefer to keep things to themselves. So TBH your guess is as good as mine, here come the possibles:

1) The child has settled their differences with another pupil or pupils who were making life hard in the playground.

2) One or more of the child's teachers doubled down to help the child.

3) The child started enjoying the social side of school - becoming part of a group, making a best friend.

4) The child began to show ability in some of the curriculum and took pleasure from success.

5) I'd ensured that life at home on a schoolday was as boring as possible: ie no daytime TV, no computer games (turn the wi-fi off), requesting help with drying the dishes and doing some hoovering. I'd even sometimes find some maths exercises or English comprehension on my PC and get the child to do a bit of homework.

6) Sensible rewards (late night bedtime on Fridays etc) for achieving the target attendance figure set by the school as part of the personalised plan all children in care have with their school.

I suspect the child started looking at the positives of school; not wanting to miss out on the social scene, the hurley-burley. The ups and downs of playground life. I even got the impression that the child would miss our regular morning routine tug of war to get him going.

Plus, I think, the child felt cared for that people were trying their best for him; respecting the child and their individuality.

Child now gets up and goes off roughly 50% more cheerful.

Still takes child an age to get their shoes on though...







Tuesday, February 20, 2024

MOMENTS THAT MAKE YOUR HEART GO ZING

 Fostering can be a delight, it can also be a slog. I doubt I'm telling anyone anything they don't already know.

It's human nature to dwell on the things that could be better rather than the things that are going great, and that's good because there's always something that wants improving. If we fostering folk went around with our heads in the clouds there'd be little or no progress.

Once a month (in my case) I get a visit from my Blue Sky Social Worker. It's her job to help me keep at the top of my game. It's also her job to help me see where I'm getting things right.

On the whole, fostering's rewards easily outweigh the uphill stuff. I've been fostering for a lot longer than I care to remember, and honestly love it so much I aim to go on 'til I drop.

I've enjoyed having countless experiences of helping other people's children steady their boat. Then they go - they almost always go - and you're left wondering how much good you were for them.

A couple of days ago a letter arrived addressed to me. A brown envelope, handwritten in a spidery scrawl, and a huge first class stamp. It was among the usual pizza deals and garden clearance flyers, so it instantly seemed special.

I opened it straight away. The letter had been put in the envelope upside down, a clue it was from someone who was not used to sending letters. It was two sides of typed A4. No address from the sender, it started like this;

"I hope this letter finds you. I've spent a long time (literally years) meaning to write to you. Please don't be worried that I'm stalking you or anything like that, I'm simply desperate to thank you."

I'm reading this and hooked obviously. I sit down at our kitchen table, no-one else in the house. I sit and read the letter and couldn't help weeping. The letter is at my side at this moment, I'm filling up now, writing these words.

It was from a girl who came to me briefly for foster care. I remembered her, but at first not with any great clarity. It was a long time ago - give you an idea, her letter said she now has two adult children.

She was, as I remember, my third ever placement. She was one of two sisters who had been removed from their parents because the mother had become unstable through some sort of mushroom drugs, which she acquired through some sort of religious cult that had got their hooks into her. The father wasn't on the scene, but when he had been, he'd been violent, maybe guilty of even worse physical abuse than that.

The girl was 16, her sister 14. 

We had a pretty full household at the time, and it was agreed the sisters could share a bedroom on separate beds, as they had done at home, but that Blue Sky and the sisters' local authority would look for somewhere else to take them on a semi-permanent basis. 

The younger one was a ball of energy, loved our home and our dog, she loved the freedom of not sharing a dwelling with a person likely to go weird at any moment. Mind, like almost all foster children, she loved her mum and cared about her.

They got on pretty good, as did the sisters and myself.

The older sister, who sent me this cherished letter, was quieter. Remote even.

A few days after they arrived, late one evening as I remember, she opened up to me. The house was quiet and we were alone in the kitchen, sat at the table.

She told me that she was pregnant.

Not only that, she told me that she hadn't told a single soul up to that moment. She chose me, she said, because I was the first, and up to that point the only, person she'd ever met that she felt she could trust.

I decided to let her talk, and, slowly at first, she did. Then the floodgates opened and I got most of the story.

Not all of it mind; she kept one or two big details to herself.

Reading her letter a couple of decades later I managed to remember much about that evening. It was a huge responsibilty she'd put my way, but I'd learned more than enough in my short time as a foster parent to know the key things. 

Number One; The child is paramount. I had to do eveything I could to help the child deal with where she was at that moment in time, which I remember trying to do. And help her for every moment of every day she remained with me.

Number Two; I knew I wasn't alone in dealing with this. I knew that first thing the following morning I would call Blue Sky and get advice, help and support. 

Number Three; The child was anxious that no-one else should know, but obviously I had to to begin helping her understand her options, help her begin to trust people who are trained and experienced. She was resistant at first but I made inroads.

We have a loud clock in the kitchen and it ticked away, I seem to remember that she and I talked well into the night. She hinted we both knew who the father of her child was, and that the conception was far from consensual.

That was a major issue, but I was a foster parent and resolving issues like this one would have to go upstairs - if you know what I mean. Thank goodness there are structures and experts.

We chatted about her plans, she said abortion was an option as the preganancy was still early, but out of the question as her family were all deeply 'religious' and although she found them extremely difficult they frightened her. I told her I would act as her sounding board until we could arrange professional counsel. I'd said that for me, she was the most important person in all this; that she mattered.

We talked about adoption as another option. I also told her that to the best of my understanding if she chose to raise the child herself there would be incredible support from the state, the NHS, the local authority, and even if necessary the law.

Back to the letter, which is still sitting at my elbow. 

She wrote I'd told her she had a responsibilty to herself, that she was young and the world was her oyster. She wrote that I'd told her that she deserved to walk along a beach in Thailand at midnight with someone she truly loved. I told her she was important too.

She wrote that those inspirational words meant a lot.

As the kitchen clock ticked she grew more and more at peace knowing she wasn't alone, and probably never would be again. She'd plugged into a wonderful network; namely the amazing world of care.

Her letter ended with the bit that makes me most emotional. She wrote;

"I never told you this but I decided that if I had the baby but couldn't keep it I'd ask you to adopt it".

Pause at that point for me to dab at the eyes, we don't want moisture on a keyboard...

The girl is now a woman. She assured me she's free of the people who made her life miserable as a child. She has two adult children, the eldest of which (the one I might have been asked to adopt, but of course it doesn't work like that) is about to qualify as a sports coach.

She finished by saying that she'd like to know if I recieved her letter - she put an email address at the bottom.

I emailed her immediately saying how much her letter meant to me, and promised to write her a proper letter back if she was happy to send me an address, if not, I'd email.

Children who pass through our foster care are often touched and uplifted by what we try to do for them. It's rare - but not unique - to get such a heartfelt gesture, so when it happens you absolutley have to cherish it, and return to it. Her letter will always have a place in my heart, my next job is to find a safe place in the house to store it away so I can re-read it when the going gets tough.

Wish I had more letters like that and less flyers from the latest Indian restaurant...









Tuesday, February 13, 2024

FOSTERING CHILDREN AND ….DEATH

 A foster carer who often offers wisdom on this blog, "Mooglet" commented on "Home From Home" that sometimes their dog is first to spot when a foster child is sad or troubled.

So, so true.

Not that foster carers are oblivious to a child's moods, far from it. It's the kernel of what we do.

But we also have to cook dinner, keep the house tidy, do the shopping…

…get the car through its MOT, find someone competent to fix the gutter, keep an eye on mum who's not getting any younger. 

I could go on.

We fostering people have to fit our fostering in with everything else life demands.

The family dog has only two distractions; a) her next meal, and b) walkies.

The rest of the time our dog's antenna is operating 100%. Meanwhile we fostering folk are trying to stay alert to our children's needs and at the same time wondering if the faint smell of drains from the kitchen sink needs sorting.

So, yes - often our dog can be first to sense there's a child with an unhappiness.

But it works both ways.

Children in care often make their first connection in their new home with…the dog.

Which is why we have a particular challenge in our home right now which is this.

We have two dogs; "Friday" a champion 3 year old Golden Retriever, kind as any saint. And a 14 year-old Bichon Frize. The breed is a toy dog, if you like, but irresistibly cute. They have a habit of cocking their head from side to side when you talk to them as if they're weighing up what you're saying.

Her name's Bella.

She's starting to die.

I'll not disturb you with the upsetting details, but she needs hand-feeding and sleeps above my head on the pillow. She gets lost in the garden. The wonderful vet has said, quite rightly that their job is to keep life going until suffering becomes too much. But the day will dawn.

My other half and I have, yesterday and no doubt tomorrow talked about paliative care, euthenasia, cremation.

We're also talking about how to include our foster children in this process.

It's a thing we've had happen before. We got it wrong last time and want to learn from our mistakes.

The dog - another Golden retriever called "Nugget" was incapacitated and her day had come. 

But, to be brutally up front, we screwed up by saying nothing to our foster child at the time, so they came home from school and we sat the child down and said that Nugget had gone.

He was upset in many ways, most of all, it seemed, he said he wanted to say goodbye.

The same child is still with us, and seems to know the current situation is heading towards another kindness trip to the vet.

He's not a massive talker, but he said this, from nowhere;

"I know you think I hate Bella, but I love her really."

He knows. We'll let him have a chance to say goodbye.

It'll be painful for him but noble.

The thing is this. Death is a towering concept for everyone. 

When you're fostering and asked to introduce children belonging to other people to the concept of death, it's yet another facet of why this job is so important, and sometimes so beautiful.




Sunday, February 11, 2024

CHECK YOUR POCKETS FOR FISH

We had a really healthy argument in the house yesterday, between me and our middle foster child.

When you start in fostering you hope it's going to be roses all the way, and there are bouqets aplenty for sure, but there's no such thing as roses all the way in human affairs. Sometimes it's nettles and brambles, and the art of fostering is making sure it ends as roses. 

What the foster mum or dad needs to do is embrace the occassional hiccup and make good use of it.

What happened was this;

Middle foster child needed to have a piece of course work printed off to hand in. The document was a mock-up CV. The child is way too young to need a CV, but school is gearing them up for life in the outside world and I'm all for them learing how to write up their CV.

Child emailed it to my other half as my laptop has various security walls on it, so other half pinged it on to me. My laptop is the only device in the house that's linked to a working printer. The other two printers are either out of ink or don't work.

So my other half forwards it to me saying "Could you just quickly print this off?"

A piece of cake.

No. 

The email consisted of a link, not an attached document. 

I clicked on the link and it opened, but when I clicked "Print" a blank sheet of A4 came chuntering out of the printer.

The CV wasn't a Word doc, or a Pages doc, it was a PDF. I Googled how to  how to print a PDF, but none of the suggestions were sucessful.

So now I'm getting frustrated and annoyed partly that my afternoon was being hi-jacked, but mostly that I hate coming across as a dinosaur that doesn't understand modern technology. 

So I call downstairs to the other half who replies that I have to download the PDF. 

Like I said, my laptop has big-time security features, so now, stress levels going up, I want to know why middle foster child wrote the CV as a  PDF in the first place.

So I shouted upstairs to the child to come down and help me, forgetting that raised voices used to be a trigger for the child who had been happily practising guitar in the bedroom.

The child miffed off it was all my fault for having an Apple Mac when everyone else in the house had Windows.

By this point I'm in phase two meltdown. Who wouldn't be?

I'm fed up being used as a dog's body, the child could definitely show a bit of gratitude. My other half is keeping his head down as if it's nothing to do with him.  I'm sitting at my laptop tapping random keys in the hope of getting lucky.

And in the end I did get lucky! The CV printed off!

At least it tried to. But the CV document had a massive black border which was not only a pointless decoration, but used up all the remaining ink in the cartridge which is running down towards empty. So I shout to other half "How many copies do we need?" and he shouted; "Oh five should do it." 

So now I'm hunting high and low for a replacement cartridge knowing that if it's needed I'll have to do the whole alignment rigmarole, so now I'm properly the martyr.

So I shout up to middle foster child "You could at least come and help!"

To which he replied "Nothing to do with me."

Long story short; the whole saga was indeed, absolutly nothing to do with the child. My other half had heard from another parent that they had been asked to write their own CV, and anticipated that the child would find such a task difficult.

Think about it: imagine you're a child asked to write up their life thus far, and you're in care.

So. My other half took it on himself to write our middle foster child's CV for him, and when I read what he'd written I was touched. It was aglow with esteem for the child's many wonderful qualities.

Then, suddenly I was aghast that I'd been short with the child; my mistake totally.

So; a beautiful opportunity arose.

It was my chance to demonstrate what people should do when they mess up, namely they apologise.

And so I did. I didn't make a big deal of it, just called out I'd got it wrong in blaming the child for sending me a document to print that gave me a headache.

Child replied "Yeah, no problem", and meant it.

And was empowered to recieve what was perhaps his first ever heartfelt apology.

Later that afternoon he put his head round the living room door and announced he was going to the One Stop. And did I want anything "Like a creme egg or a Magnum or something?"

Our connection was better than ever before, I could hardly credit how such a ruck could end so well. 

Sometimes children in care obtain a mysterious peace from the resolution of suchlike m inor domestic conflicts.

I felt blessed. Lucky almost.

As my late uncle Paddy used to say to me;

"You're natural born lucky, so you are. If ever you fall in the water, check your pockets for fish."


Tuesday, January 30, 2024

HOME FROM HOME

 Anyone who's had a child of their own will know this one;

You're in a supermarket looking for the peanut butter which they re-locate to keep you browsing.

Suddenly you hear a baby crying.

You freeze. A shiver runs down your spine, your body tenses.

It triggers memories of a call to action from the past, when your little one needed you. You'd fly out of bed and run to their room, or drop the potato peeler and, drying your hands on your pants, run to the source of that urgent noise.

Yet on this occasion you're down by the milk, the baby is 3 aisles away and definitely not your problem. But. 

A child's crying is as big a hit to the emotional gut as you can get.

What happened today was this.

I collected youngest foster child from school. Child was quiet in the car, not theatrically needy, but thoughtful.

When we got home the child sloped off upstairs as normal, to change out of school clothes, but didn't come down as usual for a quick snack. I offer a "holding snack" between coming home and tea-time, after all it's 5 hours between school lunch and our 6.00 o'clock tea so it's only fair. And foster children often need to know there's food.

But the child didn't show up. 

I started tea.

Then.

The dread sound, from upstairs. A child sobbing.

Quietly at first, but it grew and grew. When it reached a certain point on the Richter Scale of sobbing I sussed it was a cry for help so I paused the microwave and went patiently upstairs. Never act urgent in fostering, be cool, learned that from an old fostering hand early doors.

Got to the child's bedroom door, it was shut. I said softly:

"Hello? You okay?"

There was a pause in the wailing. Then the wailing came back louder than before.

OK, this was a kid who wanted someone to care. So, as a foster mum, you care.

Long story short, I stood at the door and talked. Most of all I listened. The child had been awarded a badge for being pupil of the month. Or something like that, I haven't got the facts on this badge. It's a cheap badge which is stick-on rather than a sharp point.

I suspect the school chose the child partly to help encourage self-esteem and pride, but it backfired.

Out in the playground a bunch of other kids gave the child grief for being…

Wait for it…

A parentless loser. Someone who should go home (child is ethnic) and (I kid you not) someone who's never read Harry Potter.

In other words; the badge made him feel ten times worse. It triggered his memories and feelings about the many negatives in his whole life so far.

It was a moment that fostering spins on. 

OK so, first I asked if he wanted spag boll for tea or a Maccie D, which he deserved after a rough day.

The concept of sitting down with a Maccie D when everone else was spag boll appealed, but he didn't want any discussion about the badge thing.

But he'd been distracted, and was onto food. So I asked;

"Salt and Vinegar or Cheese and Onion?"

Always give them a choice, so they're in charge.

Poor dear kid, their home, the world, their school; is pain.

Not their foster home.







Friday, January 26, 2024

DO YOU GIVE YOURSELF "OASIS MOMENTS?"

In fostering you need little "oasis" moments.

One of mine happens around 10.00am weekdays.

I'm up a tad too early for my liking, we're a two-dog household at the moment, and the pair of them gang up to ask for breakfast earlier and earlier.

Our second dog is technically temporary, we're 'looking after her' while a relative sorts themselves out. Blue Sky always do a check-up on pets in foster homes. Our retriever underwent a cursory psychology check with our vet, but our second dog is hamster-size, 13 years old, half blind and toothless so she was waved through as safe. 

Mind, 4.45am isn't my idea of time to be up, my body clock goes a bit haywire. But that's when the dog's start asking to be let out, then breakfasted.

From that moment on, each morning, It's nose to the grindstone. There's always a few more jobs want doing. You know the sort of thing; a peanut butter knife left in the sink, crumbs on the work surface, a pedal bin needs a new bin-liner, a shopping list gets started; jobs jobs jobs.

Then everyone else is stirring, hangdog for another day at school. I have the radio on for time checks and try to jolly everyone awake, the best trick is to ask about last night's reality TV, or the latest FIFA football manager results etc.

Then… they're gone.  Silence; apart from the DJ still prattling that it's "Eight thirty seven, thirty seven minutes past the hour of eight o'clock and we're going on with Taylor Swift…"

I generally turn the radio off at this point, and crack on around the house, pulling beds and duvets into shape, collecting debris from bedrooms, quick hoover round.

Then; 5 hours after getting going, I get my oasis moment.

A cup of tea served strong with soya milk and no sugar.

Sweetened by nature's most natural sweetener; peace and quiet.

I sit sipping at the kitchen table, often fiddling with the shopping list. Sometimes wondering what people who don't foster - but could foster - do with their days.

My partner and I first got approval to foster back a few decades ago, shortly after marrying. Besides meeting each other, and having children of our own, fostering has become the biggest and the best thing we've ever done. When we're alone and together we talk about little else, always amazed by the satisfaction and pleasure it brings us.

Don't get me wrong, I don't sit there patting myself on the back, no. I find myself doing a spot-check on each child and coming up with strategies to help them feel better about this that or the other.

My uncle likes to bet on the horses every Saturday. He says that the joy is in trying to solve the puzzle of each race; some you win some you lose. Whatever the result, he says, you're always onto the next race, the next puzzle to solve.

I tell him that's how it is in fostering, the joy lies in solving the latest challenge.

It might be a pure fostering thing; such as a child whose older sibling is resentful of us (the child's foster parents) doing a better job than the child's real parents, or a child who feels 'different' at school. Or bog standard things such as whether a child needs new school shoes or can make do with the current pair until the end of term.

My "oasis' moment every weekday morning is more than a watering hole  in the desert with a couple of lonely palm trees, it's a thriving casbah, a carnival of the things that make life really worthwhile.

The things fostering gives us.