Friday, April 26, 2013

SUICIDE WATCH. That's the prison name for it. 

I find myself today on Suicide Watch, maybe you too if you saw on the news about the two families whose sons had both committed suicide aged 17. They lived nearby each other  but weren't friends or anything. They just had the one thing in common. They'd both been pulled up separately by the police, who classed them as adults.
One of the lads had been caught drink driving. The other had 50p worth of cannabis on him.
Because the police treated them as adult offenders, they didn't inform the parents. So the parents didn't know their child needed help.
One of the boys shot himself. The other went down the High Street and bought some cord, to hang himself in the woods. He left a note for his parents, saying sorry for being a disappointment. His mum was standing on the steps of the High Court sobbing that he was actually their pride and joy.
Both families were at the High Court to hear the ruling changed so that from today, children are children until they are 18. As far as the police are concerned.
I'm tempted to get sidetracked by the whole question of when does a child become an adult.
But it's more useful to remember that we're all on a kind of suicide watch, not just as foster parents, or even just as parents. We're all on suicide watch, for everyone around us. And for ourselves.
I don't wish to intrude on the private grief of those families by going into what the boys must have felt in the days and hours before they took their lives. 
Despair and loneliness, in different measure, affects so many people, from the weather-beaten lady behind the till where you buy your milk, to members of the Royal family.
And there are many ways of ending a life besides killing yourself. 
One can choose to bloat, smoke, drink or inject yourself, or all four.
Or be a bitter pain, a drain, a cause of misery to others.
All because the world hasn't dealt them the cards they're hoping for.
"Not my fault I'm a mess/addict/alcoholic/repeat offender."
The thing is, although we're all in the same boat if we're not careful, if you check the boat's long passenger list you can expect to see the names of plenty of looked-after children.
If there's any person who has a right to feel despair and loneliness it's a fostered child.
Which is why I'm on suicide watch today, as are you, if you're looking after a child today.
Maybe not looking out for a rope or a gun, thank God. But for signs that they wonder if it's worth bothering.
And myself? How do I answer the question "Is it worth bothering?".
When you hear them humming a tune to themselves, and you can stand down from suicide watch for a while, having helped them in every way you could.
Really worth bothering, staying alive, staying on top, when you can do that.
Thank you, fostering.
And I do hope the families of those two boys can somehow, someday, find some peace.

The Secret Foster Carer

Friday, April 19, 2013

What letter does your surname begin with, the one you had when you were at school?

Funny question.

When you become a foster carer you get even more interested in all the things that make a difference to how a child turns out.

The argument about nature versus nurture still goes on, but a new book I'm reading at the moment about babies brains says that it's widely thought nowadays there's a third thing which may be the biggest factor in personality, they're calling it temperament.

The thinking is we're born with a personality that's separate from the genes and chromosomes that determine our hair colour and the shape of our nose.

Parents with two or more children are usually surprised at the differences between them. Even identical twins have different personalities. Psychologists used to insist this is down to the fact that even children born into the same family have different upbringings. The fashionable argument was that the eldest child has a very different upbringing from the youngest, simply because the eldest starts life with no other children around. New research concludes that idea may be a bit overstated, mainly because the old research depended on the fact that rich families had fewer children, poor families had lots of children, so the research done on the fifth sixth and seventh child was skewed because they all came from a small specific group in society.

Oh, look, to be honest, I'm afraid I think the fact is that the experts and researchers and doctors and child psychologists have learned a great deal over the last 100 years, but you know that Chinese saying about even a thousand mile journey starts with the first step? That's how far they've come. Taken the first step.

I have a friend who's a bit of a Buddhist, she believes we're all born with bits of the people we used to be in past lives inside us. When one of our sons was born a midwife told us that lots of midwives reckon they can tell just after the birth if a baby has been here before.

Who knows?

This is the thing, when you're parenting away like billyo. Who knows the effects of rigid boundaries versus relaxed, of competitive activities versus cooperative ones.

We were sitting around the table arguing about Margaret Thatcher this week, it occurred to me she was a rare thing, a Prime Minister whose name began with a letter towards the end of the alphabet. I Googled it and it turns out that I'm more right than I thought; the vast majority of our PM's name's start with A, B or C, since 1900 anyway. Cameron, Brown, Blair, Atlee (who started the NHS), Balfour, Asquith, Churchill. Even many who who don't begin with AB or C are up there: Eden, Douglas-Home. 
It's wierd. Or is it?

Maybe being a boy who's name was read out first in the class register every day made them feel important.

So, if little things like that can make such a massive difference, what chance have we foster carers got of getting everything right?

The Secret Foster Carer

Saturday, April 13, 2013

You know that moment at the end of a meal, where you're all sat around the table with empty plates. Somebody (and it used to be me) will start stacking the plates. Scraping any major leftovers onto the top plate. 

Then the pile of plates gets carried to the sink for the washing up. Only, not any more. Not in our house anyway. Maybe not in yours any more after I explain.

We've got a child who's not had the experience of table meals, so the child comes to table dining with a fresh eye. Child occasionally helps with the washing up. I start stacking the plates and the child says: "What are you doing it like that for? All you're doing is getting ketchup and gravy all over the bottom of all the plates, so that's twice the washing up."

Child is right.

You feel like you're in the presence of one of those beings from another planet who's landed here and is astonished by some of the illogical things we do.

Another: we require out children to wear clean underwear every day. And we change their pyjamas every week. Child goes: "I wear my underpants for 12 hours all day and have to put on new ones next day, but I wear my pyjama bottoms all night and only change them once a week. It doesn't make sense."

It doesn't.

Then, from a position of strength, the same child moves on to bigger things. Such as bedtime.

"Why do I have to go to bed at eight o'clock if I never go to sleep for hours? It's boring and a waste of time. I get cross, then everyone gets cross. Why can't I go to bed when I'm tired and ready for sleep?"

Me: "Everyone in the world who is your age goes to bed at this time. When I was your age I had to go to bed at this time, the bedroom light was turned off and I had to wait until I went to sleep."

Child: "You didn't have all the things that have happened to me happen to you, so you didn't get frightened when you're just lying there for hours thinking about your life and worrying that it all might happen again. That's why I like to be doing things until I'm really tired and don't have any time to think about things."

A great thing, a sharp mind. But, as this child has discovered, a sharp mind can turn against you. 

Child is now allowed to stay up, in the bedroom, in PJ's and dressing gown, playing, reading, drawing until feeling tired enough to sleep, then child gets into bed and turns out light. No problem; child has a fresh eye and a sharp mind every morning bright and early. 

One of the mistakes I made when I started fostering was to believe you should start every new child off with a full set of normal rules and boundaries, right from the word go. Now, what we do in our house, is to stick to all the safety things, but get to know the child, and  start work on a one-thing-at-a-time basis. And stay flexible and approachable about things that may seem like small beer to us, but worry the bejasus out of them.

We've ended up with just two absolute rules:

1) When visitors leave, wave until they are out of sight.
2) Do everything I ask.

The Secret Foster Carer

PS In case you wonder why I haven't got around to one of them new-fangled dishwashers? We bought one, but it's been chucked. Reason? I like to get everything done in the kitchen before I can sit down and relax properly, and I found myself drumming my fingers impatiently waiting the half hour for the dishwasher to finish the cycle so I could put the crockery and cutlery away, then relax. 

Like I say, it's a great thing a sharp mind, but it can turn against you.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Who are the families of the children we foster? What are they like? 

Many seem to belong to the "precarious proletariat".

I looked this up, sat at my kitchen table in my dressing gown  at 5.05am on a Saturday morning, with my second cup of tea, the first cup supped while doing kitchen jobs; sweeping the floor, emptying the bin. If you know where my other slipper is, only bare feet on wet patio with a slimy bag; I wonder if the Duchess of Cambridge knows what it's like?

"Precarious Proletariat" is, as of this week, the recognised seventh class of people in the UK, out of seven.

If your politics are rightish, they're workshy scroungers with dubious moral compass.

If you're a lefty, they're the victims of a global conspiracy to crush the labour market.

I like to think that we foster carers rise above the theorising, because we have a real job to do. And each child that comes to us is a unique refugee from some crisis family or other. 

We rarely need to look beyond the one consistent fact; that the child wasn't getting a good enough experience at home. Not enough love, care, kindness, help, support. Maybe not enough food, blankets, warmth, medicine.

The one that always knocks me over is their lack of education. I don't mean Education with a capital E, as in schooling. I mean the personal things you need to get by in life like washing your hands, tending a cut, cleaning your teeth.

Then there's the wider world and the things you need to know about it. 

It's often the case that fostered children are not so much blissfully ignorant of how the world works, they're full of unbelievable misinformation.

Couple of real examples, both from mature teenagers;

"My friend, right, she used to put coffee in her bum, stops you going to the toilet."

"If you eat ice cream when you're pregnant your baby will be born blue."

They are often fully armed with similar nonsense about what Social Services do, who foster carers are, what their rights are, what the police are like, why teachers are against them. 

They have sometimes, it seems, been given a deliberate set of views that encourage them to fear and resent the world.

And they inform you of these "facts" with such conviction that you have to count to ten then go something like "I see...I'm not sure that's quite right."

The question is; why have they been given this nonsensical view of the world? Is it that, for some parents, being a member of the precarious proletariat means you have to spin up a fantastic parallel world for yourself to explain life's travails?

Or do some parents toss out these gob-sized randoms of bent wisdom to entertain themselves? Or to get their children to admire their vast command of the dark side of the universe?

Whatever, I guess part of my childhood was spent among the precarious proletariat, although things may have been different in the sixties. I don't remember being told any codswallop.

I don't remember being taught to fear or resent the world.

And, for the record, I think some of the precarious proletariat make solid foster carers. 

The Secret Foster Carer.

PS. Like yourself, I will never be able to work out the coffee enema remark. What I mean is, I still can't decide what's the most extraordinary bit about it. For the record, I replied "She doesn't still do that does she?" and got the reply "No. Obviously".

And in case you're wondering, the ice cream thing came up because the child's mother smoked 80 a day during a pregnancy, and batted away any concerns by conjuring up loads of make-believe dangers during pregnancy so she could disclaim "If you believe all them stories you couldn't do nothing for nine months."

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Not Giving a Stuff What Other People Think

"It's not my child, I'm his  foster carer." 

How many times do we wish we could tell the people in supermarkets or on the bus, that the child who's just told us to F off is not the by-product of our lifetime endeavour.

Bit like that car sticker you see on battered Fiestas "My Other Car Is A Porsche", you want to say "My real children are polite, kind and well behaved."

I was at a recent Blue Sky support meeting, where Carers get together with staff and chew the fat, kick a few issues around, drink lots of coffee. One Carer asked if we could have ID cards to show people. She'd had a child get out of hand on a long train trip, and felt all eyes on her. I suspect she was worried that someone was going to shop the child, or even her. Blue Sky reminded us all that they can and will supply people to help with potentially difficult situations rather than ID cards. Shame really, I quite fancied whipping out a little leather case with an important looking card in it and going "Stand back! Official Foster Carer coming through." 

On the other hand, Blue Sky's strategy is probably the one.

We took our clutch to a restaurant for Easter Monday lunch. It was fun, no really, it was. 

First up, one child  had a problem with the fact it hadn't been planned out and discussed and agreed way in advance. This child gets regular flashbacks of being removed from home. She remembers one minute life as "normal" then a sudden and totally unexpected pandemonium of shouting, screaming, crying, fighting. Police and other people ordering each family member here and there, siblings being guided, escorted, and in the end more or less dragged into cars. 

So for this child, if you let your concentration slip, an otherwise pleasant spontaneous surprise "I know! Let's go out for lunch!" is all it takes to trigger. So we straightened things by going through the plan in detail, especially how we would "All come home, here, to this house, together. And when we get home we'll all watch a DVD, together."

One other child, the teenager, spent an hour getting ready, like it was going to be a trip to Stringfellows.

We drove to a little country restaurant in a farmers barn.

Unfortunately, we were the only people there who weren't a pensionable couple. 

Long story short; by the time we were onto puddings I had to pretend to go to the loo just for a stress busting breather. Eldest of our clutch had been outside and came back reeking of smoke to answer the mobile phone and sit at table having a shouting match at some acquaintance courtesy of O2 , while middle got stuck into a war game on the tablet which had to be played at max volume because other child was talking so loudly into mobile phone that the war-gamer couldn't hear the sound of bombs and machine guns properly. Youngest started to cry.

Right across the restaurant, one could tell, every table was discussing us.

I quite expected the waitress to add something to the bill.

Got home, and they were all bubbling with their day out. The one with flashback problems cornered me and politely asked for 24 hours notice in future, due to how surprises unsettle. Great self-awareness; tick. The secret smoker owned up just before bedtime and as a penance I got my new rule of "mobile phones off when out" agreed to; tick.

Foster Carers resolved to try not to give a stuff what other people think; tick.

The Secret Foster Carer