Sunday, January 27, 2013

What do your foster children call you?

Yes, I know they call you all the names under the sun sometimes, but I'm talking about the familial name they use for you. 

And while on the subject of names, what do you call them, and how do you say it?

Interestingly, research shows that "Daddy" is the most common first word spoken by British children followed closely by "Mummy", those two words being the first words for 25% of all children.The word they must hear most often is their own name, yet that appears never to be a first word. Babies don't know they exist, have no concept of themselves.

Girls learn to speak earlier than boys. A worrying 4% of children get to the age of three without uttering a word.

One in six children have problems talking.

Understandably, fostered children, like all other children, yourself and myself included come to that, have only one mummy, only one daddy. Doesn't matter how good or bad your mum and dad are, they are the only people we can call mum and dad. To call anybody else mum and dad would be a crime against the universe.

But, as one carer was saying at a Blue Sky team meeting recently, children usually don't want their school friends to know they are in care. So they are careful not to call you "Sue" or "Mike", which they do around the house.

The first time you find yourself called "Mummy" or "Daddy" is often at the school railings or outside the dance class or on the touchline. And you have to act as if nothing had happened.

Whenever it's happened to me, I confess I always get a good feeling. Partly because it's a lovely sound, but also because it can be a sign they are becoming more comfortable with their difficult situation.

From that point it's interesting to listen out for the use of "Mum" and "Dad" popping up in the home.

As to the other question; what do you call your fostered children, I think it's very important to treat their name with utmost respect. Their name was chosen for them by their real mum and dad, and during their baby days and infancy, it was their mum and dad who used the name all the time. 

They probably had other names for the child too. "YOU!" is a very common one. So is a sarcastic use of their surname with the words "MISTER" or "MISS" tacked on the front.

"TROUBLE" and "PRINCESS" are others. "PICKLE" and "SLEEPYHEAD" sound like charming little phrases, but would you want to be called "CRUMBLY" or "WOBBLY-CHINS", even with affection?

If we drop our guard, we can accidentally use a name their real mum or dad used, maybe in anger, maybe during a nasty scene, and if that ain't a trigger for a wobbly I don't know what is.

I try to use their full first name, or their preferred version of it, pronounced correctly, and never to shout it.

Like I said, that's what I try to do.

The Secret Foster Carer

Monday, January 21, 2013


I'm feeling a bit anarchic at the moment, maybe it's the snow.

Who invented this "pocket money" thing anyway? I don't think my parents generation picked up a weekly half-crown every Saturday for no reason; there just wasn't the money in the house.

Is it a good idea? 

I can see that the idea of encouraging a child who might have previously had precious little to call their own to budget their cash, save and invest, is a good idea. 

If the entire economic world has failed to manage the same thing, why should we expect them to?

This is how it works, from the looked-after child's point of view; "Every week my foster carers give me a set amount of cash. The amount goes up as I get older. I don't have to work for it, I do a half-baked job of the washing up every so often, or leave the wheelie bin in the wrong place. My foster carers threaten to keep it back if I hack them off about anything, but it's my money. It's the law."

Is that not about right?

Where else in life do you get money for nothing? OK, some people will answer: benefits. I'm not down on the principle of benefits here, just saying that in the wrong mind, pocket money is just the same. Looked-after children frequently come from families where the benefits system was enthusiastically and skillfully played. We take them out of that environment (for other reasons) and put a tenner in their hands every week, unearned and somewhat unaccountable. Duh?

And often their approach to spending is tragic. We had one child, a teenager, every Saturday she would take her ten pounds and troll with me down to the One Stop. I always expected her to buy a bag of crisps or something. She would buy anything and everything she could right up to her ten pounds almost as if she wanted to get a monkey off her back. The monkey of thinking about being sensible with money.

Another younger child would come with us on the Saturday supermarket run, and insist on buying the first thing he saw that was inside his five pound pocket money; one week a huge tin of Quality Street at £4.99. Another time a bag of barbecue coal. 

If we're doing our job, namely getting children who have had difficult times ready to do battle in the world, maybe we need to make their pocket money thing function like earnings. They should earn it. How? Depends on what we need them to improve. I find that looked after children often hate going to school, hate going to bed.  Yeah, a big battle here, but the right one?

If we're going to get them ready for the world, and hopefully a world of employment, the principle of earning your cash is one of the biggest lessons we can get across.

We could get imaginative too. Four weeks without a wobbly,  six weeks without a crafty fag behind the garage, two months and no "F" word... bonus! Here's your smartphone (or whatever).

A foster carer I talked to about this called it bribery. I call it reward.

It's just the way the functioning world functions, and we're aiming to get them functioning, aren't we?

The Secret Foster Carer

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Horsemeat Burgers and Fostering.

Whatever you think about the news that bits of horses have turned up in supermarket burgers, the issue throws up (apologies, no pun intended) big questions for foster carers.

Because food is almost always a huge deal for the child, sometimes the biggest thing in their life.They may have been half-starved, fed nothing but takeaways, learned only to eat with their hands. 

Bear in mind though, any child can have issues about eating. I did, at junior school. I tried to be ill every Friday, because to appease all religions they served cheese pie, which made me gag.

It's not just children who are obsessed with eating; look at all the cookery books and TV shows about food.

When a new child arrives in your home, one of the things you usually get good information about is their food likes and dislikes. Rarely are we surprised.

You could almost go by a colour chart. 

Anything brown is fine (burgers, sausages, chocolate, gravy). Beige/marigold is also good: chips, crisps, anything in batter. Yellow is also okay; custard, bananas, sweetcorn, melon. Pizza (brown bits on a yellow bed on a beige crust) seems to tick every box. Reddish-brown baked beans are fine.

Anything green is bad (except grapes). Cabbage, broccoli, lettuce...most vegetables in fact. Try the pepper test sometime. Red and yellow peppers taste the same as green ones, but slice them all  into a spag boll sauce and nine times out of ten the red and yellow ones are scoffed down, the green ones end up going in the bin.

So we do battle several times a day to get a "balanced diet" into them. 

We know that the foods they like are rich in protein and carbohydrates, salt and sugar. And the ones they dislike contain the vitamins and fibre they need.

One of the questions we regularly get as foster carers is "How's the child eating?"  My usual reply is "Improving" Why? Because I find if you stick at it gently, their preferences slowly change course. It's a long haul.

But getting back to horsemeat in burgers. For me, the concern is not what sort of animal is in the burger, but which bit of the animal. Whether it's true or not, we all suspect that some burgers and sausages contain "trimmings" - the flesh and organs that butchers can't put out on the shelves for sale. We also suspect that some factory farmed livestock are fed to get them right for the market, not the human stomach, I've heard stories about things like hormones, fattening agents and generic antibiotics.

Do I give my looked-after children the full lowdown on all this? No. Hell no.

Why? Dammit they've suffered enough to be allowed to enjoy one of their only true comforting pleasures.

I'll stick to my tactic of well whizzed home made vegetable soup (comes out beige you see).

And anyway, I told my eldest about my views on processed meat and he came back after a Google session to announce that tests showed that even some organically grown fruit and vegetables contained traces of lead (from passing cars) nitrates (possibly from contaminated rainfall) and bacteria presumably from the hands of the people who grew them.

Hope I haven't put you off your next meal. Foster carers deserve to enjoy the pleasure and comfort of eating too.

The Secret Foster Carer

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Many thanks to those readers who posted about Contact.

To those who are considering becoming foster carers, or are completing the process I'd like to say this:

Fostering is, simply, one of the best things you can ever do. And you're not alone in the job; there's a network of support available not just from your agency or local authority, but other foster carers. I hope the blog reinforces that sense. Blue Sky have encouraged me to be open, honest and insightful, which appears to work. 

Carers concerns about improving Contact is exactly that, a desire to make it work better than it does in many instances. Blue Sky's management team are on the case. My own social worker is brilliant, resolute and foot-perfect about the need to put the child first. It's up to us to make sure our records are thorough and insightful. 

Guess what? A couple of weeks ago a judge accepted a communication from myself and my partner in which we spelled out not just what was wrong with a particular Contact, but what should happen instead, and why.

Blow me down, if he didn't simply rubber stamp our whole proposal, describing our letter as "compelling". Since then, Contact has been 100% better.

The lesson is, for us, to be confident enough to say what we think Contact should be like. Be "pro-active". Try not to merely complain, but construct a plan, based on what your child needs. 

This confidence in our knowledge of what's best for our looked-after child should apply to every aspect of the child's life, not just with Contact.

Years ago, when we started fostering, we had a teenager who had problems going to school. I phoned the school and asked for a meeting. It was scheduled for 10.00. I arrived, with the child at 9.55. The senior school officer showed up at 10.07, and her colleague at 10.20. Even though I had called the meeting, the teachers assumed control, and one of the first problems they threw at us was the child's poor punctuality. I still wish I'd pointed out the irony.

The child needed 5 GCSEs to get into a college to study animal welfare. I asked if the child's timetable could be tailored to those 5 subjects, allowing her to concentrate on what she needed and sideline the rest of the curriculum. The response was that tailoring a child's timetable to suit their needs was against school policy.

Cut a long story short, we worked with the child's social workers, and found another school for the child.

Okay, the child never reached college, but the child, I believe, felt that someone was working for her, had her problems to heart, and her future in mind. 

But my partner and I learned a lot; to try to work out what's best for the child, and try to make it happen.

Much better than simply telling the social workers that the child trashed her bed, used foul language in front of the family, acted like a pain in the you-know-what.

Coming back to Contact, I keep wondering if foster carers, working with their agencies and local authorities, could approach the authorities to review the issue. Get a message to judges, courts and committees to listen to foster carers about how a child's Contact could work better, for the child, and the foster home. Be a bit more flexible. The concept of aiming to get a looked-after child back home remains the priority, but the device of imposing a rigid programme of Contact could be improved on.

The Secret Foster Carer

Monday, January 07, 2013


Contact seems the biggest common fostering issue, for carers.

If you're reading this and not yet a foster carer, "Contact" is the term for a meeting between a looked-after child and their "significant others". You, the foster carer, are usually responsible for getting the child to the appointed place - there are Contact Centres all over the country nowadays - and then responsible for helping the child deal with the emotion of it all.

The fact is we foster carers ferry our looked-after children to meet up with the very people who have usually given those children many of their problems.

It's stipulated that Contact is best with "Well motivated parents who are willing to change".

Any foster carer want to tell me they meet many parents like that? Most parents motivation and attitude is poor, but does that change anything?

Parents of looked-after children have probably had to endure their own neglect and abuse as children, probably at the hands of parents who had to endure neglect and abuse as children, and so on and so on. They have my every sympathy. But the rot has to stop.

Do looked-after children need to be sure their significant others are safe? Yes.

Do they want to go home, most of them, regardless of the chaos? Yes.

Do they benefit from the one-size-fits-all Contact of weekly meetings starting immediately they come into care, taking place in a strange building with an invigilator taking notes while parents and children feign happy families over boxes of used toys and old books? No. Sorry, big No.

Doesn't matter where Contact happens, it could be better in almost all cases.

I remember taking a lad aged 10 to his Contact. Every time we went he was heartbreakingly hopeful that this time his mummy would light up on seeing him, would sweep him up in her arms, celebrate him.

I remember the first time; she pulled up in a four wheel drive and scuttled over to caress, not him, but the babe-in-arms of her 5 children, who was brought by another foster carer. She cooed and fussed over the sleeping baby, and told the lad to stop being a nuisance and to go over to her car and get the baby stuff from the boot. He sat on the tailgate crying.

In this case, the Local Authority Social Workers told us that the mother's agenda was that the lad was the reason why the family had problems. He was the eldest, and she reckoned her problems began when he was born, so obviously everything is his fault. On top of that the mother made sure he distrusted his foster carers as much as she resented us.

That mindset is bad, very bad.

However the same Social Worker, as stipulated by a court, was ensuring the child was put in front of this woman once a week where the poor child's feelings of guilt and worthlessness were topped up to the brim.

Here is my own view (and my view alone - I am not speaking for anyone else here); Contact happens as it does, frequently to the detriment of the looked-after child and the child's foster home, in order to follow official procedures which are automatically set to "Return Child Home As Quick As Possible".

And this means, the Law thinks, "They Have To Meet Up All The Time Or They'll Forget Each Other".

Dammit the country's elite were deliberately separated from their birth families for a whole term at a time. Wasn't David Cameron sent away to some boarding school or another aged 7, then Eton, and did it do him any harm?

Actually, don't answer that. But you see my point.

Each child is different, each family even more different. Surely each Contact schedule should be tailored accordingly.

Plenty of good professionals have deep reservations about Contact, but fear the system. Plenty of judges care about children, but have to enforce a Law skewed towards rushing  these dysfunctional families back together. The Secretary of State for Education is on record slating the courts for getting this wrong.

Foster carers have a duty to the child to help their Social Worker help their agency or authority improve Contact.

The thing nobody but us foster carers experience is when the child's emotional progress is set back and the essential peace and quiet of the foster carer's home upset in the aftermath of Contact.

  • If the idea is to cultivate well motivated parents who are willing to change, we need to teach the parents what to do.
  • The Contact supervisor  has to be therapeutic, not merely an invigilator.
  • Each Contact for each child has to be a separate stage of a planned programme of development for the child and the family, something that is agreed by all concerned including the foster carers and monitored and measured.

One child who came to us needed to have Contact straight away - the next day; it happened. The child had daily phone calls, and Contact roughly three times a week, and it worked because it was right for him.

Most other children who've come to us need a cooling off period, during which they can get their head a bit straight and the parents can be assessed and advised. And the foster carers can asses the child and their needs.

When foster carers volunteer to do Parent and Child care, you get an interesting promotion. Parent and Child fostering involves having a mother (or sometimes father, sometimes both) in your home for 12 weeks with their infant (usually a baby). The foster carer's role is primarily to draw up an assessment on the parents ability to look after the infant independently.

Surely this is an ideal template for the responsibilities all foster carers can be trusted with in relation to all types of placement?

  • Foster Carers should be consulted by all parties, especially the courts, on the way to construct Contact for the benefit of their looked-after child. 

The Secret Foster Carer