Friday, August 31, 2012

When the phone rings and it's Blue Sky asking if you would take another child, you split into two people. The first person is (hopefully) the professional carer, who wants to get the information to make a good judgement on if it's a child you can help. The other person is the human being in you, who is naturally curious, even nosey, about the story behind the possible placement.

I always find myself intrigued about what happens to children we are offered who don't come to us. The reasons they don't come are varied; we might refuse them (sadly) because they may not fit our current home set-up, they may get offered a placement with somebody else before our acceptance is flagged up, sometimes they never end up in care at all (perhaps the local authority had needed to get a place ready in case things went wrong).

Here's a good example. The phone rang and Blue Sky said; 

BS: "Would you be prepared to take 3 siblings, all aged under eleven. "

Us: "Provisionally yes. What's the story?"

BS: "The parents are suspected of Munchhausen's By Proxy."

Us: " Er.. our son got the DVD out, wasn't it Monty Python?"

BS: "Yes, actually, Terry Gilliam maybe... but this is a recognised syndrome. Remember the child nanny who abducted a newborn baby from the maternity unit? She was due to look after it, but she kidnapped it to get attention for herself by creating a crisis around the baby. People with Munchhausen's draw attention to themselves by inventing or exaggerating personal problems.  People with Munchhausen's By Proxy draw attention to themselves by creating or exaggerating problems for people around them."

Us: "So what are the parents doing?"

BS: "Allegedly - the GP has made the referral - they are making their children ill, or inventing illnesses in their children, to get attention. Not just coughs and colds. They've taken the children to see the doctor saying they've got Spina Bifida and Cerebral Palsy and other diseases. The children are underweight, behind at school and anxious."

We said yes, but they never came to us. The Local Authority Social Services decided there wasn't enough evidence to take the children into care.

But this "Munchhausen's By Proxy" syndrome stays in my head.

In fostering, you see a great many parents who want and get attention because their children are "trouble".

They get sympathy from friends and family, and if things decline badly, they get sympathy and support from professionals. I'm not saying they deliberately cause problems in their children, merely that they discover that their children's bad points are more interesting than their good points.

Here's the thing.

I have to keep resisting the temptation to drift into a similar mode.

I reckon this applies to most of us in fostering.  We want to fix the problems our children may have, so we dwell on the rough stuff. Our social workers want to be useful, help the child and the carers.

For everybody, it's a simpler matter to dismantle a problem and try to build a way forward than to rock back on your chair and shoot the breeze about the hunky dory things in life.

Maybe it's a guilt thing. One wonderful carer once whispered to me (this is ABSOLUTELY TRUE):

"She's been brilliant the last fortnight. No trouble. It's like money for old rope...I feel awful!"

She felt awful. She'd done a fantastic job. And felt awful that the child was flying along, could hardly bear to admit it.

Would have been much more comfortable talking about problems.

The Secret Foster Carer

Monday, August 27, 2012

Propped up in bed typing this, 9.30pm. House quiet. Being a Bank Holiday we visited my mum today (100 mile round trip). Me, my partner and our current youngest fostered child to meet my mum for the first time. Seeing my own mum with a fostered child...

Fostering other people's troubled children, you don't get much chance to think about the minute-by-minute detail of your parenting.

So a lot of it is instinctive. But where does the instinct come from?

I remember loads of times, with my own kids, I'd react instinctively. I lost count of the number of times I found myself saying something to them - especially when they were being a pain - then thinking; "That was my own mum/dad talking just then, not me!"

The funny thing is, it's the bad bits of parenting I've inherited from my own childhood that I notice. Not the good bits. Perhaps this is because as children we can spot the moments when parents aren't being entirely fair, patient or kind. So when we reproduce those moments of exasperation we're not only cross with ourselves but find ourselves experiencing a reminder of the pain of being badly parented.

My dad was the youngest of eight, he ran away from home aged fourteen because he was bullied, and, probably, unloved. He ended up living in an older sister's house, about thirty miles from his home. He never went back. He never talked to us about the bullying, or his father's alcoholism and violence. I heard snippets after he died. 

When I was small, my father would occasionally be sudden. He'd get cross at small things  but you never knew when he was going to kick off. If I'm tired, or pre-occupied with some minor domestic crisis and a child has a wobbly, that's when I might react badly, and I'll hear my dad's rebukes coming out of my mouth.

So now I know, my dad's bad moments were quite predictable; they happened when he was a bit stressed or tired. Or maybe even a bit frightened.

He mellowed as he grew older, and he and I finished up very close.

We foster carers have all been round the block - not just in parenting, but in life. We've been parented, and most of us have been parents as well.

And I don't think I'm the only foster carer who would love it if our hard-earned experience were enough to do the job.

It's not, though. The thing I find many of us have to overcome (I know this is true for me), is pride. We all believe we did a mostly perfect job with our own children, just as our parents did with us. All we have to do is reproduce that level and we'll be fine. 

But fostering is a step up.

Blue Sky has teams of people whose job is to bring new ideas and insights to what we do. They have to find out who we are, what help we need, and how we can be the best we can be. And help us get beyond the ghosts that might make us keep repeating some of our parent's mistakes.

I must admit there are times when I fume inside when anyone offers me advice about fostering. How can anyone - especially someone who's never fostered - possibly know more than I know? Jeez it's going to be hard work for me to fit new ideas into an already complicated and well stocked brain. Then I think about my dad again, who started out from a bad place, but towards the end of his life he had become more thoughtful, calmer and generous.

My dad came on, he improved himself.

Improvement is what we want for our looked-after children.

Why shouldn't we want it for ourselves?

The Secret Foster Carer

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Prince Harry's problem photos is a news story that touches three big fostering things: Nudity, Mobile Phones and the News itself.


Nowadays, all parents have to be John Craven (the original children's news man). Up comes the six o'clock news; a child is murdered by a parent, figures show the number of children in care is rising, someone who worked in a children's home is arrested. 
So how do we explain why it's such a big deal that a man called Prince Harry has had his photo taken with no clothes on. I told mine this:

 "Harry has had a hard time. His mummy was killed in a car crash, and his daddy married another lady, who was his girlfriend all the time he was married to Harry's mummy. Harry's mummy was sad about this and had boyfriends too, which Harry probably knew about. Some cruel people have teased Harry that he's not even the son of his daddy. Harry's uncle and aunt have both had unhappy marriages, and his grandad keeps being taken to hospital. Harry is a brave soldier, but from time to time goes a bit off the rails, but he's getting better as he gets older."

I waited for someone to say "Shouldn't he have been taken into care then?" But they just shrugged and watched the next story about the man who was desperate to die...


For Carers, our upstairs landing becomes a No-Man's land. We and our children can no longer, ever, zip across from bedroom to bathroom half dressed. We have to ensure our looked-afters are fully dressed or wearing full PJ's and dressing gown on the landing, and get fully dressed before coming downstairs. But it gets more complicated: they get the flu and are off school. I used to tuck our own children up on the sofa downstairs with a blanket so they can watch cartoons. Is this okay? Try explaining to a 6 year old why girls have to wear a top and boys don't. A No-Man's land? More like a minefield.

I once spent four months going to bed dressed. The child had a tendency to leave the house, and my best chance of getting to the front gate in time was to be togged up and set for the off: track suit trousers, running socks, T shirt, training shoes unlaced and wide open at the bedside.


A few years ago the only technology us fosterers had to worry about was laptops, and life was a doddle. "No laptops in the bedroom". Easy. If in doubt turn off the router! Happy days. 
Now their mobile phones can get on the internet, their real parents are prone to topping it up, the message sites are cheap as chips, they can send and receive instant photos, even home made videos. At a support meeting one carer said "I put a bowl on the telephone table and made a rule that his phone should be there all night. It was. What I didn't know was he'd bought a second phone and would switch the Sim card to his secret one and use that all night!"

The Secret Foster Carer

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Ugly word "siblings", for something rather beautiful. 

That's not to say it can't turn ugly.

I didn't know that Tony and Ridley Scott were brothers. I'm afraid I didn't know anything about Tony, I'd only heard of Ridley. The older brother, the one who was knighted. Tony made Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, two of my favourite films, but he was always overshadowed by his brother, who came back with Gladiator. I understand they loved and respected each other enormously, but wonder if being brothers spurred them on professionally. Or held them back personally.

Sibling rivalry is part of our dark side.


I've found, to my astonishment, little rivalry between fostered children and our own. When I started fostering I expected all sorts of jealousies going in both directions. If anything it's brought my own children closer together. They've developed as people, engaged in the ongoing process of strategies to help behavior, and learned that some of the things they would have a moan about are very low-level miseries compared to what some other children have to deal with. 

I've talked to plenty of other foster carers, one or two have found problems, but nipped them in the bud, most  agree that it's barely an issue. 

We're not sure why though, to be honest. You'd think having a fostered child, particularly one with baggage, would blow a hole in any "normal" family.

Certainly at Blue Sky training sessions it's often flagged up as something to watch out for, and for sure you have to remember to find private quality time with your own flesh and blood.


It breaks your heart when your own children fight each other. We have to be judge and jury on who started it, who crossed the line first, which one is the guilty party. It's not just fights and squabbles, it's rivalries about bedtimes, food portions, going out, coming home. Almost everything any one of your own children is allowed to do is carefully measured by the others, and logged away for future reference.

They are jealous of each other's things, not just their toys and bedrooms, but their achievements.

What they want to achieve most of all is our undying, unconditional, bottomless love for them. They yearn for it so much that somewhere inside of them a part of them resents their brothers and sisters. 

Meanwhile we find ourselves with a love for them that's so huge it's painful. And it's shared out equally to all of them.


Fostered children, in my experience, have one huge thing in common. They want their natural parents to love them. No matter what they've experienced. No matter how much harm and pain and danger those parents might have inflicted, no matter whether it was ignorance or chilling, conscious unkindness.

You may have seen teenagers with those heartbreaking homemade tattoos of "Mum" and "Dad" on their knuckles. You can bet there's a disturbing story there, yet the child wants to make the most permanent declaration of love they can.

I'm not a psychiatrist, but it could be that our own children instinctively know that while our foster child may take up more of our time and get away with things our own children don't, they are in no way rivals for our love.

Foster children may want us to like them, respect them and admire their achievements (of course there are times when they want us to find them insufferable).

But they don't want us to replace their real mum and dad. They don't want to love us, or us to try to love them, like only their real mum and dad should.They know it, we know it. 

Above all our children know it.

The Secret Foster Carer

Friday, August 17, 2012

6.30am Friday morning August 17th. 

It's raining. It's rained about 6 out of every 7 days since the schools broke up. Thank you God, or the Jet stream, or whatever. Thank you sooooooo much.


If you're a foster carer you don't need anyone to remind you that school summer holidays run for six weeks. Like lots of carers I got a baptism on the challenge of the school summer holidays with my own children. But caring for looked after children during this marathon is different gravy, as they say up north.

You get behind in everything, you notice the fridge needs defrosting and cleaning. How come you notice? Because it's empty, so you can see the state it's in. You've been serving frozen food since the Olympics ended. Why? Ever tried doing a supermarket run with bored children?

8.10am Still raining.

...had to break from blogging as youngest woke up and needs me full-on. Watching Spongebob and typing this.

When your own children are young you can plug into a network of other parents with children the same age, who all know each other either because they're family, or friends, or schoolmates. You go places, the park or a beach, or just turn up at each other's homes. 

When you're looking after other people's children that network isn't there, which is why Blue sky try their socks off to give us an alternative plug-in. I've made use of their schedule of activities, and if you haven't yet you don't know what you're missing, it's a Godsend.

Obviously there are still days on end when you're on your own, and there's other things that have to be done besides entertaining and amusing bored children who are already getting spooked by "Back To School" commercials for backpack/stationary deals which make me very angry because it only cranks up the children's urge to make the most of their freedom.

9.11am Still raining. finishing this post as need to get to 9.50am Specsavers for appointment with child who only needs specs to watch TV...(how does that work?) The plan for this morning was to go swimming, but one child has covered upper torso in felt tip drawings which might be an issue in the pool. So to compensate for having to cancel swimming, allowed ice cream for breakfast.

Ice cream for breakfast. 

Very bad foster carer.

The Secret (Very Bad) Foster Carer

Monday, August 13, 2012


We Foster Carers are asked to be many things. Parents, tearoom psychologists, detectives, taxi drivers, teachers, chefs, film censors, fashion experts, lawyers.

For most of us, being female, the only experience of sport we can bring to fostering is our occasional use as punchbags.

The Olympic euphoria has resulted in David Cameron and Boris saying we need more sport in schools, and that seems to be a good idea, but for me it was a bit worrying to hear the Prime Minister add that we needed an end to the culture of "everyone's a winner". You hear this mantra trotted out ad nauseum every time anyone over on the right starts thinking about children and sport.

These are people who've never actually tried to get a child interested in sport from scratch, and who have never seen the Fast Show and laughed at "Competitive Dad".

I've found that looked after children often have low esteem, and poor hand-eye skills. They couldn't catch the proverbial cold. Not only that, they often can't really run and have no balance. They are weak and badly nourished, often have poor eyesight. Yet they expect to be able to play football like Wayne Rooney right from the get go. 

And it's our job to get them going.

So when they announce they want a game of football, or ping-pong or whatever, we have to bring a set of sports psychology skills into play that would challenge Sir Alex Ferguson. 


Praise every single thing they do.

Resist the urge to coach or advise.

Turn a blind eye to blatant cheating.

Encourage the belief they might be world class.

Let them win and support the belief that I've played my best game.


Up my game a bit. When they start to improve match their success with my best game.

Question the cheating.

Start talking about joining a training group or a team.

Introduce the idea that better diet and sleeping will enhance their chance of beating me and others.

Let them win.


They think I'm an incompetent buffoon, and I risk losing respect. But so what? The Foster Carer is an emotional rock, not Jose Maurinho or Seb Coe.


Every child I've worked with knows exactly what the above programme is all about. Looked after children are Gold Medalists at perceiving what's going on. They get the deal. They know you are helping and showing love by losing and dealing with defeat with dignity and self deprecation.


Is a foster child. So is Mario Ballotelli, who I'm told is the most dynamic footballer in the world. Somewhere, people who do what we do, got something right, and I doubt it started out by those foster carers demonstrating to Mo and Mario they were losers in life and sport too. 

Foster Carers are silver. The child is gold.


Friday, August 10, 2012

                            FOSTERING IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES
You never know what you're going to get next. 

The phone rings and it's Blue Sky.

"Hi, wondering, would you consider taking a child who needs a placement immediately?"

"Go on."

"Well, she's aged ten and at the moment she's at the police station, she can't go home because her mother can't cope any more. She was found wandering the streets at four o'clock this morning."

"The child?"

"No the mother. The child was at home looking after her younger sisters and brothers."

"The father?"

"Boyfriend. She was looking after him too, he is disabled and has learning difficulties. And a drugs scene."

"Anything else?"

"We're waiting for the paperwork from the local authority Social Worker, but they've told us she hasn't been in trouble with the police, although the family is known to Social Services, and she had problems at school. She is underweight for her age, but quite tall. She looks much older than ten."

"That it?"

"She's a big fan of One Direction."


"Tattoo of Harry on her shoulder. Obviously we don't know if she needs your home for one night, a few weeks or..."

"I know. Or the rest of our lives. Okay, the answer's yes. Put her in a car. What's she bringing?"

"That's wonderful, thank you. I think the plan is to go via her home and pack a bag but I get the impression she only has what she's standing in. I'll bring your Social Worker up to speed. We can work out a Safe Care plan when we know if there's been any abuse. There's certainly neglect. The police gave her eggs and bacon and she ate it with her fingers."

"I've got standby nightclothes no problem, I'll make up the bed and call my partner. Oh, what's her name?"

"Er...hang on, I wrote it down...somewhere. There's the other phone going..can I call you back?"


PS the above is a compendium of factual circumstances that have happened either in our experience or with other Foster Carers and children I've known, but is not any one particular child.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


When you start Fostering you're so focused on the job the danger is you neglect your own health and welfare. 

The children consistently have a thing about food, so you stock up on the "comfort" stuff, resolving you'll wean them onto fruit once they're settled. Suddenly it's chips with everything for tea. They want you to eat what they're eating, so it's no more fresh fish and side salads for you. 
You find yourself cooking eight sausages instead of the six you need, just in case, and end up sharing the extra with your partner. And snaffling the left-over chips. Ronald  McDonald is back in your life, as is the Pick N' Mix counter at the Multiplex for Toy Story Eleven. 

If you do get an evening with friends, you deserve it, so it's a big curry, a couple of bottles of red and the token one of white (for non-drinkers, yeah?).

Going for a long healthy walk over the weekend is out, unless you count the trip from the car park to the Multiplex via McDonalds. As for finding time for the gym...fat chance.

You start waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the job. You go around next day tired and with a headache. You send a shirty email to someone and regret it, and are rude to a Hindu who phones from Mumbai to sell you pet insurance.

I ballooned ten pounds, was on Jacobs Creek every night, and beta blockers, sometimes, in the day. I'm not proud of this, nor ashamed, actually: I've steadied the ship, but remain basically unfit - it still seems more important to get fostering right.

But actually, if you think about it, if this applies to you too, we're getting something important wrong. 

This was a topic at a recent Blue Sky training session, that we all have to take our own health and well being seriously.

The bottom line is that we HAVE to view ourselves as even more important than the children. Meaning; if we fail ourselves or our own families we'll not only screw ourselves up, but end up failing the children too.

I have genuinely found that the best way is to be honest with your Social Worker, your partner and yourself. Jeez, your Foster child is likely to be honest enough with you: mine said to me back then, out of the blue: "You've got a tummy. I don't mind it as much as your morning breathe."

Try to look after yourself as if you were your own Foster Child. This is the best bit of thinking I have ever come up with on my own, so I hope it's worth a second thought.

Mind, if, as a Foster Carer you find out how to drop 10 pounds, re-discover clear skin and generally ooze health like the annoying Perle de Lait women, please, please, tell me how.

Meantime, memo to Blue Sky: please stop putting out biscuits for every support meeting. 

The Secret Foster Carer

Thursday, August 02, 2012


I had an example of positive thinking by a Social Worker last year that is hard to beat.

It was an American (naturally) who came up with the concept; "The Power Of Positive Thinking" by Dr Norman Vincent Peale. Recently it's morphed into Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and other practices. I don't know about you, I think it's  a case of trying to see your glass as half- full rather than half-empty. It's damn hard for the Foster Carer when the you-know-what hits the fan, But anyway, here's what happened.


We'd had a teenage girl stay, she was always on about going home, one big problem was she fought like cat and dog with her sister. Eventually it was agreed she could go home for a sort of trial. Sounds like a doddle, having your foster child staying at her real home, but can I point out it was Christmas, and I agreed not to have even a glass of mulled wine in case we got a call to go collect her at 2.00am on Boxing Day.

Anyway, no call came. Until just after New Years Day, when her Social Worker rang. "Good news, generally speaking" he said. "There's a downside, but we have to take the positives. The  good news is she's bonded with her sister. They're best of pals. Do everything together. The not-so-brilliant news is that they are both at the police station, because one of the things they've been doing together is shoplifting."


Turned out they had been pinching cheap stuff they didn't need and couldn't sell (for example a rubber ball - these girls were not remotely sporty). So it was the buzz. And the camaraderie. Of course, shoplifting is wrong, no matter what the positives. However, the SW had a point. The girl went home for good.

Everyone needs to look on the bright side, Foster carers probably more than most. 

  • Congratulate yourself as well as the child whenever progress is made; whether it's table manners, maths homework, bed-wetting or whatever.
  • Soak it up when your Social Worker praises you and what you do. Don't do the British thing of "Oh it's nothing..." Instead say "Yeah, I did get that right didn't I?"
  • Go read a record from a while ago, and re-live what the child was like back then. Are they better? Well dammit, you did that. I know we are asked to destroy records after sending them in, and of course that's what I do. So from time to time I get my SW to print off a few and bring them round.
  • Remember, some people grow geraniums, some people restore dilapidated properties. Foster Carers are doing something much more difficult. And worthwhile.
The Secret Foster Carer