Sunday, September 23, 2012


What is the status of a foster child? In your family, I mean.

We open the front door and a complete stranger crosses the threshold, often with little more than a carrier bag of tatt and a precious cuddly toy. Their baggage, and plenty of it, is in their poor little heart.

Look at it from their point of view; they've joined a strange family. But who are they to this family? As time goes by they want to know. They eventually ask. We want to tell them...but we don't ever know, exactly.

We know their status in law, and so does the law, it's been developed by legislation and case law over decades.

We foster carers are left to design and build their status in our family, and the reward for us lies in growing it, level by level.

I'm thinking of getting a tattoo, a small one somewhere that only shows when you're in your swimming costume. I'm going to have my partner's initials, and below them, the initials of my children. Do I add the initials of our foster children? One is a permanent placement. I'm thinking of adding the permanent's letters, but underneath my own children's.

I'll leave it.

But if we wonder about their status in the family, think how much they do. They are forever fishing to find out where they rank.

Children get peace from certainty. My children have asked me "Who would win, a tiger or a shark?" or "Who is the most important person, a policeman or a soldier?"  They just want structure.

Our fostered children have asked me:

"Who do you like best, me or the cat?" and "If I died how sad would you be?"

I once said over tea, half-jokingly, to underline how much I love my children, that I'd take a bullet for any of them, even if it meant they'd get just one day more on this earth. Jokey metaphor, meant as a light throwaway, to end a tricky "love" conversation. Instead of being out of the woods, I was up to my neck.

The looked-after child took hold of the idea and put it through the mincer. And as always, we had to try to answer questions as honestly (and kindly) as we can:

"Would you take a bullet for your children to get them another one minute?"

"Would your oldest take a bullet for your youngest?"

"Would your mummy and daddy have taken a bullet for you?"

The big question went unasked. They didn't say it; "Would you take a bullet for me?" I don't know either the real answer, or the one I'd have given them.

Many good foster carers I've listened to talk about foster children raising the "love" question. And it's such a complicated thing. I know how much I love my partner, my own children, my parents, my sibs, my lifelong friends.  Couldn't put it into words ever, and thankfully, none of them really press the question.

Except foster children, who often press and inquire. And always watch and listen.

Hey, it can get even more complicated. Took a young looked-after and her best friend to the beach during this year's short summer. The friend's mum wondered about the tide and the current. I told her I'd checked it all out and we were good. She said "Only you understand, how precious one's own child is..." And I thought; "Jeez, is she asking me who I'd save first if it came down to it, out there in the waves, her own real child or my looked-after child?". Obviously she wasn't - too lovely a mum to think that way for a moment - but it popped into my mind.

Then I spent some time, too much actually, wondering.

And by the way, a tiger would beat a shark on land, and a shark would win in water.

And who is more important, a policeman or a soldier?


A foster carer, so she is. Or at least, right up there.

The Secret Foster Carer


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