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.


Monday, June 07, 2021

SWEET SORROWS IN FOSTERING

 Here in our house we're heading towards that day in fostering which is simultaneously heart-wrenching and heart-raising.

Our little one is being lined up to go home.

If ever there was an experience that fits the phrase 'bitter sweet' this is it.

It's happened in our house plenty of times, you'd think we'd have got used to it, but no chance.

First, there's the child's emotions to help and support. As their foster mum, my thing begins after the news is broken to them. It's always been the child's Social Worker who explains what's going to happen and answer any questions. Usually the child accepts the news unemotionally then potters off to brood.

What a maelstrom of emotions for them...

Deep down they long to go home, always. But the fears - sometimes real, sometimes unfounded - are swirling around in their mind. Fear of recrimination, fears that the unhappinesses they remember in full technicolour awaits them.

And always they carry the  sadness that their life up to this point has been so rotten that they feel marked for misery, so why bother to try?

It's normal for the child who has learned that they are headed home to kick off once the social worker says goodbye and drives away.

This is what happened yesterday, a Sunday.

The child had got the news on Friday and had seemed unmoved. Saturday came and went. I didn't raise the subject except to say a couple of times cheerily "We'll really miss you." 

It's a treading on eggshells thing. You'd like to sit down with the child and talk endlessly, but that's only do-able with the older ones. Little ones don't really do conversation, and don't grasp the multi-layered thing of their internalised emotions. So they can boil up a bit.

Sunday morning we were woken early by the TV downstairs. It was blaring. Sounded like a raucous cartoon with yelling and violence. I guessed straight away that little one was making several statements. 

I put on my dressing gown and went downstairs quietly so as to assess, hopefully get a glimpse of the scene in the living room before deciding how to play it.

Maybe the act of moving slowly and methodically gave me a chance to think. First off I realised I was annoyed for being woken at dawn on a Sunday, so the job there was to throw that feeling out, it would only make matters worse.

By the time I got down into the hallway I'd got my act together and pitched in with a watered down version of a technique I learned in a training session about self-harming. We were taught not to get angsty. Be matter of fact. You peer into a child's bedroom and there they are with a pair of sissors and blood streaming from a forearm (shocking image, never happened to me yet, touch wood). The advice was you should say - gently - "Oh dear, poor you. Stay there and I'll get some paper towels and help you clean up." The amazing bit; you DON'T snatch the sissors away. You show them you trust them.

So. I put my head around the door. Child was expecting me and was rolling around, squirming in front of the big TV which had that mad Spongebob doing their thing.

And I said something like;

"Oooh! Spongebob! Love it! I'm going to get a cuppa tea and watch with you. Want breakfast yet? Bit early for a bacon sandwich but it's never too early for Weetabix."

Child stopped writhing around. There was a moment of still. Then child said "Can I have sugar on it?"

I went:

"I'm gonna have a cheeky spoon of honey in my tea, so yeah you can have sugar on it and it'll be our little secret."

He went; "Yea!"

I went into the kitchen and a thought occurred to me, one I've had before many times, it won't go away.

It's a stupid thought, it goes like this;

"Should the foster mum or dad start to distance themselves from the child who is due to leave in order to help the child with the transfer to a home which might have a bit less warmth and emotional comfort than we try to offer in our foster home?"

I always shoo the thought out, noble as its intent might be. It would be plain wrong, not sure I've got it in me anyway. 

You look out for them with as much affection and kindness as you can, from the moment they come through the front door to the moment you watch them lug their bags up the garden path and into the car. A child you've grown close to, almost as close as your own children, is going, and you wll probably never see them again, never know how they go in life.

So you fill up a bit, part sorrow, part hapiness for them and yourself - a job done. 

Then you go upstairs, strip their bed and get it ready and waiting.

And begin hoping that next time your phone goes the words on the screen are;

"Blue Sky"

And a voice says;

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


Saturday, May 29, 2021

LIFE/WORK BALANCE

It's nearly June right now. Anyone who visits our house around this time of year could be forgiven for thinking I'm the lousiest homemaker in the world (I'm down there with the worst of them, but June is standout unkempt in our house). The hedge needs trimming, the grass is up past the ankles. The windows are foggy, the larder is half-empty, the shower head needs de-limescaling.

It was a lad called Sacha taught me the value of letting the house to go to seed at the right time.

Sacha had been with us for six or seven weeks when his school broke up for the summer holiday. A few days earlier Sacha had announced his intention to become a tennis pro and wanted to get going fast, no time to lose. 

It seemed like a healthy way to spend a summer so I bought him the racquet he wanted, the right trainers and a tube of new balls. I booked him a lesson from a tennis teacher.

Sacha literally ran out of the school building and hassled me all the way to the park.

I sat on the grass and watched him get more and more frustrated. He was no Roger Federer. That evening he anounced he was through with tennis, he was going to become a pro gamer, so he needed a pro headset.

I explained he'd done his holiday money on the racquet, he'd have to save his pocket money, we calculated it would take to the end of the summer holiday.

The next day he was in a mood.

I told him how great it was to have him home, how much fun it is when he's around (foster children need to hear that and often).

Meanwhile I was trying to come up with a scheme to occupy him. See, in my book, schools don't prepare kids for a sudden and dramatic change in their lives which is extended holidays. Week after week, month after month they sit where they are told, listen and look at whatever they're told to, told where to go, what to do and at what time. Then suddenly…they have to make up their own day, their own week - for six weeks on end. With no training or pre-preparation.

Sacha was so fuddled by being in charge of his own days he'd gone at it with too much enthusiasm. But now he was starting to cool it.

I stocked the fridge with Fanta, the larder with crisps and told him to help himself, don't overdo it please. I put him in charge of the TV remote.

I told him again and again how nice it was to have him around all day, and he relaxed. But I guessed his state of peace wouldn't last.

About 72 hours later the wail went up;

"I'm bored!"

I replied;

"You know that new headset you want for your games…"

"Yes…"

"You remember it'll take to the end of the summer holiday to save enough pocket money for it?"

"Yes…"

"How'd you like to earn enough to buy it by the end of..this week!"

Put like that, it was a no-brainer.

I'd drawn up a list of jobs which included how much he'd earn for each one.

I'd had to rustle up quite a few jobs that didn't really need doing to get him up to the savings he needed for that headset.

Sacha got his headset. I had got to help him stagger the jobs and have free time in between.

Sacha stayed for nearly three years. He never noticed the onset of household degredation that set in in the weeks before he broke up for summer, but I'd learned. I needed enough things that needed doing for him to learn that crucial lesson; how to structure life between work and play, and earn what he needed.

Better than learning to play the tuba or climb plastic rock faces.

Cheaper for me too.





Saturday, May 22, 2021

A THOUSAND AND ONE REASONS TO FOSTER

 Our Blue Sky social worker has been extra-brilliant recently. At the time of writing the world is still reeling under the pandemic. The media are chockfull of items about vaccines, social distancing, masks, fresh air, handwashing…I could go on but you know yourself. There's precius little time for anything else on the news and in the papers.

A lot of important things are not getting the attention they deserve.

And that includes fostering. So allow me 30 seconds to do my bit?

Fostering Fortnight is currently under way. It's a campaign to bring fostering to the front of people's thinking, especially people who would make great foster parents. Fostering Fortnight is run by the charity 'Fostering Network'. They are there for anyone with any dealings with fostering. Right now they are asking to get the right sort of people to consider entering fostering post-lockdown. According to the FN we need an extra 8,600 carers to cope with the needs of children who need care.

I've written before about the ins and outs of getting into fostering, in a nutshell you need to be old enough, have a spare room, and pass a thorough but curiously enjoyable approval process. Seriously, that's about it; if that profile fits you, Blue Sky is a good place to start. Have a look around the Blue Sky site you're on now. Or call them on 0800 035 6498; that's what I did. 

The pandemic has been a massive challenge, and at the time of writing we're not yet in the clear. Covid has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, innumerable crippling illnesses, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath the surface in ALL of us is the hidden mental toll of the fears and anxieties, the stir-crazy of lockdown, the lonliness, the boredom..I could go on. All of us need to keep an eye on our hearts and minds amid so much stress.

Getting into fostering has massive benefits. Obviously the first to benefit is the child. But those doing the fostering benefit too. I can honestly say it's far and away the best thing I've ever done. I only wish I'd done it sooner. The joy of watching a sad child grow cheery, the overwhelming pride when they ask if they can call you 'mum' (not all of them do, of course, but when it happens…boy what a day!). There are a thousand rewards and they're all I think, pretty obvious.

But there's one benefit that doesn't appear on most people's radar.

You can get your own social worker who cares..for YOU.

Yep. A trained, qualified, practising social worker whose job is to nurse you through all your fostering, even help and guide you in dealing with the strain of fostering during a pandemic.

Our Blue Sky social worker is marvellous, they all are. Ours is practically family. She has visited us, where possible, throughout the pandemic. Even if she couldn't come into our home we would go for a socially distanced walk or sit freezing in the garden with our masks on. She stays for 2 to 3 hours making sure WE are okay. Of course she cares about the child, but the way fostering works if you're with an agency is that the child is assigned a local authority social worker who prioritises the child. Leaving the way clear for your own social worker to focus mainly on you.

It's not just visits. We get regular phone calls, Whats App chats and emails. See, they know fostering can be tough at times.

And when the going gets tough, blimey do they don't half get going.

There are a thousand good reasons to start fostering.

A thousand and one if you count having your own social worker.









Wednesday, May 12, 2021

THE IMPORTANCE OF PESTLE AND MORTAR

 Food is always so important to looked-after kids. I always get around to asking them about their history of food and how it worked (or didn't) in the home they'd been removed from. But it's best to make these enquiries without them thinking you're prying.

Food is everything to them. One of my current lot goes furtively to the fridge after I've done a supermarket run to admire the full shelves. 

A girl who stayed with us way back told us that no food had ever been cooked in their house. Unbelievable as it sounds, their oven had never been used. She had sometimes, for breakfast, warmed up last night's leftover KFC, still in it's carton, in their microwave. That was the extent of their food preparation.

I remember winning that girl round one lunchtime by laying out a full kitchen table with food; bowls of hot beans, sausages, sandwiches, crisps, nuts, fruit, salad, breakfast cereal…just about everything from the larder. I'll never forget her face as she said; "I didn't know there was that much food in the world". It had been my way of telling her she would not want while she was in our home. I'm not saying it made her happier exactly, that would have run deeper. But she became a little less anxious.

I try to take care to make food some sort of celebration. We don't say grace, but I sometimes jazz the food up - one day I made fresh pasta sauce with cooked-down tomatoes and onion, but the verdict was that my 2 hour effort wasn't nearly as nice as Dolmio.

The kitchen is a special place in most homes, but definitely in a foster home, let me tell you something slightly interesting.

I own a pestle and mortar. 

(I did say "slightly interesting")

It's a big one, and rather fancy. You can't help but notice it. The reason it's slightly interesting is this: it's useful for fostering.

I've only used it for cooking once, when a peppered steak recipe I was doing as a special request called for so much cracked pepper I thought it would take all afternoon using the pepper mill.

It turned out the pestle and mortar was useless, or maybe I wasn't any good at it. Or maybe the batteries had run out. 

It now sits on the breakfast bar in the kitchen where it is a) an ornament b) a bowl for random things such as keys we don't know what to, paper clips, fuses etc.

It's third use is the big one. It's a conversation piece. See, new foster children always ask:

"Wassatt?"

I explain, and we get talking about food in their home, and they never realise I'm doing research.

I tell them I never use it and they ask why I've got one.

I tell them the story; some friends of ours were visiting and we started joking about posh TV chefs and their pestle and mortars. We ended up wondering which was which, whether the bit you bash with is the pestle or the mortar. The whole thing became a bit of a joke among us, such that for one wedding anniversary they bought us a really naff pestle and mortar.

Without them or us having the slightest inkling what a useful kitchen gadget it would turn out to be.

For fostering. 

Definitely not for cooking.



Friday, May 07, 2021

ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW AROUND THE CORNER

 When you begin in fostering, especially the first night of your first foster child in your home, it's a little piece of your life you never forget.

My first foster child was a respite case, he stayed two nights and was gone. Ran me ragged Tyrone did, but that was mainly because I hadn't any experience. It was all new and a bit hair-raising. No getting away from it; you only truly know what fostering is like once you're doing it. 

I learned more in that 48 hours than any other experience I've had.

Our second foster child was a longer stay; Stacey was due to be with us until his family were sorted and that was expected to be months rather than weeks. The second child was SO much easier than the first, because I'd learned so much from the first one.

First up; I'd learned fostering is no massive big deal. Meaning the responsibilities are real, but don't let them get out of hand in your head.

One does one's best for the child but one isn't a miracle worker, the very best you can do for many is help them feel safe and secure, feed them and try to help them feel their own bedroom is their own.

If you want to therapise them to feel happier or whatever, good luck. I've done a good lot of it in my time, I think with some success, but it has to be right for the child, and no-one has a magic wand that scares away terrible memories or eliminates fear and sadness.

As for anger, they sometimes boil over and when they do the only way to put out the fire is with patenience.

So, this second foster child, the one that nailed fostering for me:

Stacey was a nine year-old boy who looked about six. Shy, petrified and without an ounce of self-esteem. His parents were a mother who was his real mother and a real narcissist and a father who almost certainly wasn't his real father. The man seemed to believe the boy was some sort of insult to the image he had of himself as the only man the mother could ever have admired, so the child was on the recieving end of a harsh tongue and worse, treatment which the father used to feel made him the man of the house.

Stacey came down for our evening meal with everyone but on day two he began crying at the table and couldn't eat; I figured maybe family mealtime was a trigger, so day three I gave him his meal in the living room so he could eat alone and watch cartoons. He ate up, so that became the routine until he settled in.

It's not what we foster carers are advised to do, right there. Social Workers tell us the foster child should be at the table with the family, and that's the best thing ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But in fostering you have to be flexible and use your gut sometimes. 

The longer a child stays the better you get to know them, obviously.  And the better you know them the more they trust you and the more you can help them. Stacey, for example, saw himself as a loser in life. So I set out to teach him he could win. 

I played a card game with him called Palmonism. It's the one where you put out all the cards face down and players take it in turns to turn over two. If the cards match the player gets to keep them. 

It's a great game for letting the child win and experience success - and victory over an adult.

Bedtime was preceded by a "Stacey Story". This was a ten minute story which I made up as I went along in which the hero was Stacey. Stacey saved the day every time. Sometimes he climbed up a tree to rescue a kitten when the fire-fighters' ladder wouldn't reach. Another time he rescued a little girl whose airbed had been swept out on a river by emptying a wheelie bin and using it as a boat. Often the heroism was more low-key such as the time he volunteered to go without a sausage for tea because silly mum had dropped some on the floor and there weren't enough to go round. Stacey came to the rescue, agreeing to have a chocolate roll on the plate his chips and making everyone smile by pouring ketchup in it and pretending it was a sausage.

Sure, you grow into fostering. But you must never think you know all there is to know, because just when you think you've seen it all, along comes the next child...