Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Sometimes we foster carers find ourselves wondering about the mental health of people we come into contact with.

I've become more aware of mental health problems since I started fostering, that's not to say I know what to do when the problem's in front of me.

It's a situation where you're very grateful for your Blue Sky support.

If someone's physically ill they go to the doctor, everyone knows that, and how to describe their problem. Mental health has a lot of catching up to do.

They've made a start. Not long ago people were simply "mad" or other unkind terms I won't repeat. Back then if you were a mental health professional, you might use the scientific term "lunacy", which wasn't really very scientific because it was based on the idea that mental health was connected to the moon.

If you're a modern mental health professional reading this please forgive my ignorant use of words that you might want to challenge; I may say "illness" where you have decided on "issues", or "suffering" where you've come up with "dealing with". I know words are important in psychology, but I'm not up to speed.

Nowadays unusual behaviour can be diagnosed as neurotic, schizophrenic, psychopathic, sociopathic. You can have a Narcissism complex, an Oedipus complex, an Electra complex. The dictionary of mental health is growing like the box set of your favourite show; hard to keep up.

"A" Is for: Aspergers, Alzhiemers, Autism, Anorexia, Agoraphobia, Alcoholism...

Psychologists have tangy names for mental health problems, crisp handles. 'Oppositional Defiance Disorder' is a case in point, it sometimes seems made-up specially for many children in care. It annoys me it spells 'ODD', I'd have credited psychology with a better sense of fun. Mind, I think it's maybe a teensie admission to each other that they can't take their diagnosis much further than that the person's behaviour is...well...odd.

Psychologists, if they were honest, would have to admit they can confidently tell you the name of what's wrong. But they only have a running shot at the cause and cure.

It's like you go downstairs one morning and there's a giant octopus in your kitchen. Experts come round. They spend an hour once a week in there with the octopus. Then they come out with reassuring smiles and notebooks and say; "Good news, we have established what it is. It's probably not an octopus. We think it's most likely a particular type of squid, called Architauthis hartingii, also known as Larsson's Squid". 

You stand there waiting for them to tell you how it turned up in your kitchen and more to the point how to get rid of it. But they are packing up, because they've done the only bit they can definitely do, which is tell you the name for it, either a Greek/Latin word, or in honour of the expert. "The client has Archiauthis/Larsson's Syndrome". 

Most physical illnesses have a singe cause. If you catch a cold from a stranger on the bus you both have exactly the same virus. It may affect you slightly differently, but it's the same germ. Yet you can get two brothers from the same chaotic family, both brought up the same who have wildly differing mental health problems. Or maybe one is fine and the other in pain. Or maybe both are fine.

Just because you have the same parents and live in the same house doesn't mean your experience has been the same, or that the chemical make-up of your brain is the same. I suppose every mentally ill person in the world has an utterly unique mental illness, all of their own.

Psychologists can suggest a 'treatment', which is not the same as a cure. It usually means that they can try to manage the illness, hold the condition in check, maybe provide a bit of relief. But it will still be in there, in the person's system. They might suggest a couple of ideas about technique, but in the case of fostering you find that nothing beats the patience and kindness you've been using all along. They might prescribe some pills, which often seem to have a short-term benefit, but things often go back to before, as if the mental condition says to itself "Ah, I'm up against one of yer common old diazepam's here, I know how to beat that little squirt"

The other thing about mental health is this. If you have a physical health problem you know about it, and you know the best thing is to go get help. With mental health issues nine times out of ten people don't know they've got a problem or deny they've got a problem, and refuse to see a professional about it. Not only do they refuse professional help, the system of providing them with help is skewed so that it's easy for them to avoid help. Basically they don't have to get help if they don't want it, which would be fine if they are the only person who is affected by their condition. But they're not. Often they are making other people unhappy, or even ill.

I feel sorry for psychologists, they're the bailiffs of the medical world; nobody wants to see them.

They've got an almost impossible job and they do it with great hearts and minds, but that's that's all it is: a job. They clock in, see clients, have lunch with colleagues, see a couple more clients, pack up and go home at 5.30pm. Relax and watch Star Trek with a glass of red.

People who foster sometimes find that they are living the working life of the psychologist full on in their own home all day every day, every evening, every night.

Someone once said "It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men." He said it 100 years ago, before we foster carers had to start trying to repair broken children.

Monday, December 29, 2014


The thing that irks me most about other people's attitudes to fostering is the sly remark "They're only doing it for the money".

You suspect it more than you actually hear it, and it's one of those lazy prejudices which certain people keep in the same place as their "prisoners have it too easy" and "immigrants are only over here for the benefit".

I'm sure plenty of parents trot out the "foster carers only do it for the money" when their children are taken into care. I know for a fact some parents knock it into their children BEFORE they are taken into care, along with lots of other myths, just to make our difficult job impossible, if they can.

But is it a myth? Do we do it "for the money"?

I watched a tennis documentary about Wimbledon last time it was around, there was a player from the 1960s called Rod Laver. He is the only one they say was better then Federer, if you know what I'm on about.

Laver played when there was no money in tennis and players were 'Gentlemen'. He won everything in sight, but the gentlemen of Wimbledon didn't like it, partly because he was Australian, partly because hang on... he accepts the odd cheque for turning out at tennis events. Nothing eye-watering, just enough to help ends meet, how else is he supposed to fly to London and stay for a month in digs?

They banned him. See, he "only did it for the money". Charles Robert McKinley Jr a New York stockbroker won it the next year. Much more like it.

Can you think of a more important job than fostering? 

Seriously, when I ask people the question "Can you think of any more important job than fostering?" they often blurt "Brain surgeon". Good call I say, brain surgeons are trying to fix a brain that needs fixing. They go "I s'pose you do that in a way" and I go "Yep we do, only minus an ever-present back-up team of twenty experts and a million pounds worth of medical technology, oh and by the way the salary of the brain surgeon peaks out at about £450,000 a year.

Double seriously; seriously, can anyone think of a more important job than fostering? The doctors and nurses who volunteered to go to West Africa and treat Ebola are pretty high in the reckoning. But even they are getting paid.

So why are there people who want to act like the chinless wonders of Wimbledon and look down their noses at the fact that we have bills to pay?

I have a view on why they do it. It's because otherwise they'd have to say something like "God bless those foster carers, they do amazing stuff, without them we'd all be up you-know-which creek without a paddle. I couldn't do it"

It's the last bit that sticks in some people's throat.

People like to think they could do anything better than the people who do it. Teaching, social work, running the country. They can kid each other down the pub they could pick a better team than the Man U manager, they tell each other at the school railings they could run the playgroup better than that stupid woman.

But they cough up short of kidding themselves they could foster, because they know that part of the reason it's maybe the most important job, is that at times it's the most difficult job. Blimey these are often people who can't even parent their own children.

Rather than take their hat off to what we do, they look for a knock, and out comes; "They only do it for the money".

The other thing some people trot out among themselves is that 'there's good money in fostering'. None of them have a clue what the allowance is. For me Blue Sky generally allow £54 per night a child is in your home, £108 for two children, and so on. Half the allowance payment is expenses, half is yours. It's a weird fact that I didn't know what the allowance was until my first payment went into the bank. I didn't want to ask Blue Sky what the payments were for fear they'd think I was...

"Only in it for the money".

Stupid. What, is fostering meant to be a hobby?

I tried a hobby before I had children, I collected novelty tins for a while, would you believe. I thought it must be rewarding, lots of people have hobbies. I still don't know what the rewards of hobbies are.

Fostering is not a hobby. It has many genuine rewards. Including a well-earned income.

It's a profession. 

Monday, December 22, 2014


There are lots of little things in fostering that mount up. Tiny things, minute details.

Take for example, going upstairs to check they're okay.

Every evening many if not most foster children retreat to their room. Sometimes they like to spend most of the weekend in there. It can be a battle to get some of them downstairs, one worth winning, but not if it means hostility.

They come downstairs to eat then scoot back upstairs.

Never used to be the case with my children because the telly was in the living room and so were the parents and the fire.  Nowadays the internet beats all, and try as we might, by a certain age they have their phone and and even if they don't there's bigger reasons why they want to go back to their room.

First off, it's theirs. Maybe the first time they've had a bit of turf that belongs to them. Bliss.

Second, it takes a long time before they feel comfortable and confident about their foster carer's family to want to hang around us when we're doing our family stuff.

Third. And this is the one. For most of the poor mites, all their lives they've be exiled upstairs to get them out of the way. They were shunted upstairs so their needs could be ignored; needs such as engagement, support, intimacy, kindness; those things. Being in their own room meant they were out of harm's way. It was lonely but it was the safest place to avoid stuff.

So. It might seem like a nothing thing, but what I've learned to do, after they've gone upstairs is to leave it a bit then go up and see if they're okay. I expect if you're a foster parent too, you do it too, but it's worth stressing how much it's appreciated.

It comes naturally really, so much so that we scarcely notice we're doing it.

I noticed the importance of this little thing when a foster child had a couple of days off school with a nasty sore throat. I put him back to bed, boofed his pillows, opened his window a tad and made to leave.

"Will you keep coming up to see if I'm alright?" he whispered.

They hear your feet on the stairs through the door. Foster children usually have heightened senses, they can hear anything. I often wonder what feet on the stairs meant at their own home.

I knock, obviously.

I ask if they're okay, if they need anything, a bag of crisps or a cup of apple juice.

The answer's usually 'Yes". I bring them up a snacky titbit.

Then maybe they tell me a medical thing. A pain somewhere. Not just a sore throat, a sore knee. A slight headache. A small cut where they fell over.

Buckets of sympathy.

The art here is to ask next time you go up; "How's the knee/head/cut?"

We have to turn on the care, plus the professional awareness in case there is a health issue, but usually it's a case of a parallel need; the need for someone who cares enough to ask and show concern.

A bit later you go up again.

"You okay?"

"I hate someone at school"

"When's my next contact?"

"When am I going home?"

You can't fix these thing, but you can listen and sympathise.

It means the world to looked after children, and it can lead to them wanting to come down and watch X Factor or Match of the Day or just stewing around in your company. This is quite a thing if it happens.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


There's a young woman coming into care who needs a home.

She won't want to come into care, she'll want to stay where she is and look after her family, because she has become the head of the house.

Her mum has learning difficulties and has had too many children mainly because she is persuaded to the pub five or six nights a week and back to someone else's place. Dad is not on the scene. The mum's eldest, the young woman coming into care, gets up every morning and sorts out her brothers and sisters while the mum sleeps off the previous night's excesses.

She handles the laundry cycle, shops and cooks the evening meal, hoovers and dusts.

She supports the younger siblings, re-assures them about bed-wetting and why school is a good idea. She can't fix the dodgy boiler, but knows to call social services and they arrange a plumber.  She is basically a surrogate mother to the youngest of the brood, a boy who is 20 months. She Googles everything she needs to know about his needs. 

She's ten years old.


Social services are going in to bring the children into care tomorrow, they put out a discreet heads-up to potential foster homes, I agreed to consider her, but it would mean a  new school for her or a very long school run, so I'm out of the picture.

Social services have had the family on their radar for a while. The decision to intervene is always a nightmare for them. How can you decide the moment has arrived to break up a family for their own good?

It comes down to likelihood of harm, as I understand it. Christmas is coming, a harrowing time for many chaotic families, their last one was a shocker.

And a kid who most families would consider is not old enough to walk to school alone should not be having to stay up until midnight to sort mum out when she staggers in not always alone.

Of course, this is a complicated case, because the child cares about the mum, and the other kids. 

But the mum is doing drink and drugs way too much and there are men coming round and things that are unknown.

The children are coming into care, rightly.

Anyone want to look after a child who is possibly more capable, more generous, intelligent and loving than a great many adults I know?

She'll have 'issues', no doubt.

Fostering really is Forrest Gump's box of chocolates.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Don't we all love it when there's an item on the radio or TV news about something we know something about?

Doesn't happen a lot, so most of the time we're in the hands of the presenter asking an expert to explain what's what.

Yesterday I had Five Live on and up came the subject of fostering.

The male presenter introduced the item by saying "It's reported that more and more foster carers are suffering from 'compassion fatigue'. There are estimates that up to 40,000 foster carers report symptoms. It can lead to children in care being moved from one foster placement to another. One child was moved 70 times in a year"

The female presenter said that foster carers are giving up and leaving.

Then they introduced the experts. A woman from a fostering agency (not Blue Sky), and a woman who had been in care herself. Someone else, I think, another woman, but I couldn't tell from the introduction if she was a foster carer or had previously been one or wasn't even a carer at all.

There were the usuals about how 'fostering is an incredibly difficult job blah blah' and 'surely there's something wrong if a child is moved 70 times in a year blah' I heard the female presenter ask 'surely if foster carers are going to give up fostering, weren't they tested for that before they became foster carers?'

Buried in amongst the pussyfooting around fostering in general was the handle for the item, the new thing of "Compassion Fatigue".

The programme never really nailed what "Compassion Fatigue " is supposed to be. Is it when you run out of kindness, or is it when you have heard so many stories of the terrible things children are subjected to that you can't take any more?

The presenters were distracted by the statistic about one child being moved 70 times in one year. I must admit to shouting at the radio at that point. If true it means the child averaged a new placement home every four or five days, for a whole year. If that is the fact of the matter, that case isn't anything to do with compassion fatigue, it's likely to be a child who has some serious behavioural problems. I bet the totting up included emergency placements, which are legitimate short-term solutions lasting a day or two, nothing to do with anything except logistics. Awful for the child nonetheless, but not to be included in an eye-watering count-up to bolster the shock factor of a statistic about foster carers calling time.

The interview was starting to hop around all over the place. Were the right people coming into fostering? What is the impact on the child of being fostered generally? What help is given to foster carers when there's a problem with the placement?

The conversation drifted around until time was up and everyone thanked everyone and the presenters played a jingle, and introduced the next item.

Sitting in the kitchen, I actually felt a bit abused.

Nothing serious, maybe just miffed really. A few million listeners had picked up the idea that we can't really cope, let children down too often, haven't the hide to stomach the back-stories of our children, and worst of all, run out of kindness.

Most of all, I think, I was disappointed but not surprised that a couple of ordinary young BBC bods, nice enough youngsters I'm quite sure, lacked the hearts and minds to get anywhere close to grasping what our job is like, and that the 'experts' let us down too, awed by their moment in the spotlight they'd struggled to provide the slick compact answers to the presenters slick compact questions which often sounded like they were being read off a script.

Should we care about being under-represented by our public service broadcaster?

Nah. I reckon practically everybody who hears something on the radio about something they know a bit about ends up thinking the programme got their facts wrong.

We've got to get on with fostering.

I haven't got a thick skin about the things that have happened to children in care. I am getting a thick hide about what anyone outside fostering wants to think about fostering.

It's the child in your home who matters.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


We foster parents get loss of support and quality advice. I've benefitted enormously from it. There's one thing that eludes me. We are told a lot about the importance of 'attachment' for children in care. I've struggled to pin down exactly what attachment is.

On the subject of quality advice, parents generally are given lots of rubbish advice right left and centre by all and sundry from well-meaning relatives to complete strangers in the street.

People with no actual qualifications in child development are all over you with tips the minute you go out the front door with the pushchair. It's a signal for people to come up, coo, and pass on some "wisdom".

The daftest tip I ever got was from a man on the pavement who, when I said that my 3 month-old didn't ever want to go to sleep at nightime;

"Drop of Drambuie in the last bottle. Works a treat."

Still don't know whether to laugh or cry, that the bloke was so specific about the brand of liquor. Obviously it's an appalling idea.

Worst example of ignorance: 6am on a Sunday morning, I took the same babe out for a pushchair walk to give my other half a peaceful lie-in. A retired army colonel bent over the pushchair and did some mild cooing.

"Out for a nice bracer eh?" he said.

"Actually he's been keeping us up all night so I'm taking him for a nice jiggly push chair ride, bounce him up and down the kerbs."

I thought everyone knew that some babies find a rickety-rockety ride soothing.

"Madam you are a disgrace!" he barked. "If there were a policeman nearby I would report you!" and with that he strode off.

The old fool thought I was trying to even the score with my baby!

I actually had a T shirt printed out with "NO MORE ADVICE" on it.

When you foster you get the opposite; damn good advice.

Take this one, from a child psychologist:

"We've never had a disturbed child tell us that his problem was that he was loved too much"

I've been thinking about that gem a lot recently, because I've upped my game in that regard.

When I started fostering I wasn't sure what part 'love' played in the whole thing. The reason is simple, it's because love remains the most mysterious thing on earth. Everyone knows it exists but no-one can get a handle on what it is.

I say 'everyone', I suppose there are people who never felt parental love. Many of those poor souls end up being fostered. Many people never have children and never feel the gigantic love that a parent should feel for their young.

I guess plenty of people also miss out on the gut-wrenching love that's out there when you fall hook line and sinker in love with somebody.

Poor souls. But even they can't dispute that love is real and a massive force for good, except in rare and extreme circumstances.

The reason it's high in my mind at the moment is that a foster child said a few weeks ago;

"I didn't know that foster parents could love you."

And you know what? Nor did I.

What I mean is; I didn't know whether you were supposed to love, or not supposed to love, or whether you were on your own to make it up as you go along.

We are, however, advised that we should offer 'attachment' from the moment a foster chid arrives in our home, even if they are only going to be staying a few days.

I now know what 'attachment' means. It means the type of love a foster parent brings to their placements. You are not going to end up loving a foster child as much as your own children - they'd be rightly affronted if you did. But there's something called 'unconditional love', and I think we need to go to about 50% of the unconditional love we give our own children.

A genuine smile first thing in the morning and when picking them up from school. The benefit of the doubt if they come home with a bar of chocolate even though they didn't have any money. A blanket on the sofa when they've got a cold, plus their choice of TV. Genuine interest in their day. Praise. Kindness. Protectiveness.

We can love them while keeping to all the important safety guidelines about physical contact and intimacy, they are set in stone.

It's an easier concept than 'attachment', which doesn't really sing does it?

Can you imagine John and Yoko wailing "Attachment's All You Need"?

Friday, December 12, 2014


I had an interesting one yesterday. I picked up our youngest from school and a dad said to me as he walked past the car "I think you've got a bit of a soft tyre" I went round to the passenger side and sure enough the rear tyre looked like I felt, a bit flat.

Hmmm. What to do?

When you have a foster child in your car you tend to feel extra responsibility. A small voice shrieks a headline:


My stress level rose to 60 on a scale of 100. Calm though.

But then I always remember the best bit of advice anyone at Blue Sky ever gave me which was "Use your common sense". If it was a flat tyre it would have gone right down to the rim, instead it just bulged slightly at the ground.

I wondered about calling the AA. But I wasn't sure that I could leave the car where it was for however long they'd take to arrive. And anyway I had another child to pick up from the other side of town in about an hour and a bit.

The question was; "Is it a slow puncture or does it just need a bit more air?"

Bear in mind I've heard the phrase "slow puncture" dozens of times without ever really knowing what it is except it's less serious than a nail sticking out but more serious than a tyre that hasn't been puffed up recently.

There's a garage about a mile away with an air machine, it's only about half a mile from home.

I decided to crawl there. Extra-carefully. Foster child on board.

Big but quiet roundabout. Foster child getting interested in the possibility that a flat tyre might mean no school tomorrow. I'm keeping the conversation going while concentrating double hard on the road. Foster carers know this type of driving, where you often miss what's said to you because you're waiting your turn to go out onto a roundabout and that's more important than chit chat. However the child ignites if you miss a question, so I'm on my toes alright.

Stress: 70/100. Calm outside. Not quite so calm inside.

A steady drive along a straight road and onto the garage forecourt and up to the machine.

The air machine takes twenty pence pieces. I have one. Only one. There's a chance there are more down the back of the seat, but let's hope one will do. I unscrew the dust cap, put in a twenty piece and try to stick the nozzle onto the tyre valve. Nothing. No air.

I check the instructions on the machine. You are supposed to press the nozzle onto the valve BEFORE you insert your twenty pence. 

I'm screwed.

Stress level 80/100. Calm on the outside, oh yes.

I decide to drive cautiously home. Accidentally leave the dust cap on the forecourt. Rat run off the main road and onto adjoining housing estate, manage to get onto our drive. 

Get onto the phone to AA. Press wrong option on automated switchboard "If you require further advice on how to position your broken down car press 1 now" because I'm also on the landline to the after-school club to tell them to hold the other child as I may be late. They don't pick up.

Phone Blue Sky as I have a meeting at their office first thing tomorrow and I don't want them not knowing I have a problem, people may be saved a journey if they are alerted before close of business tonight. The Blue Sky switchboard offer to run upstairs and pass on the message, but the phone link goes dead before I get confirmation.

The AA advise they can make the car good by switching the soft tyre for the spare but I need to get it to the garage for a tyre check pronto as a spare is not as good as a real one.

Now on the landline with one ear to the after-school club and on my mobile with the other ear to the local garage. 

Stress 90/100. But still exuding calm on the outside. Inside; kicking the cat.

AA arrive. Changeover will take 10 minutes. Garage confirms booking for 9.00am tomorrow. Blue Sky email back message received. After school club not confirmed. After school ends at 4.30pm, no way can I get there until 4.45pm. Have to hope they hold child.

Stress 85/100. Winning.

Jump in car. Cannot do more than 50 on a spare says AA man. Decide to get smart and take the back way across town, miss the big build up on the main road.

Aaargh! Roadworks on the back way! Solid tail-to-tail.

Stress back to 90/100. Still outwardly calm and in control.

Take wrong turning, but still manage to pull into after school club only 15 minutes late to discover they had no problem waiting for me, but do have a problem answering the phone as it's in an office and they are in the hall.

Job done. Stress declining by the second. Home.

Other half comes home, stress now apparently down to normal domestic level: 15/100.

Other half too tired to pay much attention to my stressful hour, so I end up giving him both barrels of my pent-upness in the privacy of the kitchen. We then made up and that was that.

I tell you this purely as self-help therapy, plus a reminder to self that one of the great things about marriage (or a partnership) is you can take it out on the other half, and still be friends.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014


Someone once said that men are just boys with money. If true it means that boys are just men without money.

There's a big point here, I think, because the main problem in dealing with children is insisting they are different from us adults. And paying no attention to how they are the same.

You see it all the time. Everyone seems more interested in our differences than our common qualities.

It's an attitude that leads to misunderstandings, conflicts. Fights, court cases. Wars. Holocausts.

Blimey. Calm down dear, calm down.

Many adults are confused about bringing up children. They don't understand their needs, don't know what to do for the best. It's not only a problem in chaotic families.

I was in the supermarket yesterday. Waitrose actually. It's the chain that thinks it's the Harrods of the "pile 'em high, sell it cheap" brigade. It's nothing special now that Lidl does lobster, but you get ladies in twin suits and pearls who want their shopping packed by someone else, that sort of customer.

It was about 9.15am, I was getting milk and some bits for the school Fayre, the aisles were quiet. I came across a young mum and her matching 3 year old daughter. The mother was pushing a trolley, mobile in her hand, the child was lingering on foot. I say 'matching', they both wore identical bonnets with turned-up brims at the front. Paddington meets Little Miss Muffet.

The bond between them ended there. Neither had a clue who the other was. Totally understandable in the child,  but in the mummy?

Mummy: "We discussed this when we came in. Either you ride in the trolley or you walk. You decided to walk, but it was on condition you had to keep up. Mummy has a tight agenda this morning. Now come along."

The child had very, very red cheeks. Teeth coming, probably. Painful. Maybe a cold. Whatever, the poor child was clearly in discomfort. She looked up at me as walked past and I swear her face said "Can you help me out here?" Her mummy was using adult negotiation, guess what, she had the upper hand. She was loudly savouring an argument she was going to win. Flaunting to passers-by to that her child tended to be impossible, and mummy, though understandably exasperated was fair but firm.

"So what's it going to be? Do you want to walk or shall I put you in the trolley? You have your options.And put that Lenor back please. Put it back. Did you hear?"

Bloody hell.

Look, I expect the mum was harassed, tired, maybe had other issues. But standing next to her she came across as clueless. She was 3 years old once. Each of us can remember being 3yrs if we put our minds to it. When you are 3 shopping is a frightening yet tedious ordeal. When we were 3yrs we would always choose to walk rather than be pushed around strapped into a metal chair. Adults can, and do, walk faster than our legs will go, and ignore us while they tick things off their list. Scary. Is mummy going to lose me? 

When we were 3yrs we understood certain words but not others.We had a limited vocabulary. We didn't know what "discussed" means. We sure didn't know what "agenda" means (I swear the mum used that exact word).

Mummy should have made the decision to put her child in the trolley seat. Buy a pack of grapes, open them, give child a grape every time mummy puts something in the trolley. Turn the trolley round so the child is facing front and can pretend being the driver, if they want. Sing "The Wheels On The Bus". Say "Wheeeee!" when they swing round a corner. Go "Peep peep" and pretend to "bump" into a counter "Ooops!" Pretend that Father Christmas might be in the shop. Make sure the Calpol dosage is up to scratch. 

Get you and your child in and out of that miserable supermarket and back to the security of the child's home asap.

I wanted to say something to the mum, but obviously didn't. I said something to a man once on the beach who was swearing at his little boy and shaking him, and got a mouthful.  That was many years ago, my effort didn't do any good.

I wanted to say that mummy should try to remember being 3 rather than try to force her daughter to hurry up and get to 28.

I hope I'm not coming across as one of those people who think they know best about everything, I'm generally off the pace. I once ordered my supermarket shopping on the internet and clicked for 1 grape instead of 1 pound of grapes. They delivered 1 grape, in a paper bag.

But when you foster it really sharpens your mind about parenting, you turn it over in your mind all the time. We can't summon up the experience of say a 14 year-old foster child, and what she's been through. But we all know what it's like to be 14. Unless you're aged 13, in which case if you are reading this you're very welcome.

As I got to the end of the aisle, my back to these two, I heard the child start to cry. I heard mum sticking to her executive approach  "That's not appropriate under the circumstances. You have to learn that..."

Like I said, bloody hell.

How are people going to understand and care for people who are different from them if they can't understand and care for the people that they used to be?

Monday, December 08, 2014


Some things make you mad out of proportion. Some things don't make you as mad as you should be.

I don't know what's the way to feel about this one:

We looked after a twelve year-old child for the weekend. A good lad, well behaved, polite, smart, a decent individual. No-one would guess the horrible stuff he's had to push through. But to look at him, people would assume he's Asian. In fact his mother is from Bangkok, his father, who bought the mother, as some men do, is white British. They are separated, he wants nothing to do with his child. She is a loner, has a drugs problem but works, allegedly in the sex industry and though she loves her son, social services were rightly worried about the risk to him from her 'boyfriend' who may or may not have also been her pimp...

Saturday morning after breakfast we drove to a nice posh Cathedral City to do some Christmas shopping. We parked and walked up the high street. Bill and the child walked side by side on the narrow pavement in front of me, I was holding hands with another of our brood.

After about 100 yards I noticed a young man pushing a pushchair towards us. He had a young woman at his side, they both had a fag on. He had his sleeves rolled up in spite of the chill, and his tattoos looked older than him. He was trying to put on what he thought was a manly swagger to take the curse off what he saw as a demeaning role. As they closed on Bill and the boy I noticed him fix the boy with a glare and curl his thin lips into a sneer. The boy and Bill were chatting and neither spotted it. As they drew level the young man's eyes widened and he practically bared his teeth in a snarl, it was scary. 

It happened again, twice for sure as we walked along, maybe more times than that, I didn't want to be caught trying to catch people out.

Part of me began to look forward to one aspect of the weekend that was going to be an eye-opener for me. I'm white and live in a country where the majority still think it's a white country. I suppose a part of me feels that too, but I'm making the effort, and it keeps you young, to have up-to-date views.

I was in for a weekend where a member of my family was going to let me know a bit about how racism feels.

In short two types of people were worst. Youths and old people.

All weekend I watched the general folk I'd watched for the last thirty years, who'd  all behaved like decent people around me. I saw stuff I'd never seen, wouldn't have  anticipated.

Young people, especially 18-24 year old men tried hard to make sure the child registered their general disapproval. Two teenage girls staring at hair products in Boots turned and almost bumped into us. They began to make the 'sorry' noise but one noticed the boy and made a tiny "Ew!" noise instead, the one you make if you get something on your shoe. 

But, tragically, older people were the pits. Not all, of course, I'm talking a tiny minority, but a damn lot, a lot more than I'd have guessed. A fifty-ish man in a stripy apron behind the glass counter in a cheese shop made us wait for an age while he pretended to casually adjust the price tags on his cheddars before he mumbled, without looking up "Can I help you?" His snide little pantomime seemed aimed at me for bringing the child into his shop. He put our Scotch eggs into a bag and plonked them with an exaggerated slap on the glass lid. I asked "Do we pay you?" and he sighed and he made a gesture towards the door where there was a till. Then he looked over my shoulder towards the next customer, who had no foreign associates with her, smiled his warmest smile, and said in his smarmiest voice "Can I help you madam?" 

That's the trouble, really. There are millions of low-level cowardly racists in Britain, mostly from what I saw, older people. Men and women. 

Women kept giving us this glance, they look at the child, then look at me, then the child, then pull a thinking face as if they were wondering 'What's she doing with him? Mixed marriages never work'.

They don't think they're racist. They think they're being loyal to their own family, nation and race. It's their crusade, see, to discourage the flood of foreigners who are coming over here and threatening the livelihood of the grandchildren they never see much of, but have high hopes for. It's their little homage to their dead parents and grandparents who passed down simple home truths about foreigners and why Britain is best.

The City was a bit backward in many ways to be honest. Low on ethnic people, so we sort of stood out. Maybe it was low on culture and kindness too, yet the worst example came when we were back in our own patch and drove to the garden centre to buy a Christmas tree. We chose one and a chummy fifty-ish man in a green coat said he'd net it up and wheel it round the front for us to collect. When he arrived he noticed our children for the first time, and was caught completely off guard. He looked at the boy and blurted the first thing that came into his head; "What's the matter with you?"

Yep. He asked the boy "What's the matter with you?" 

The boy's gone back to his lovely carer. 

I'm left wondering what to do or think about the whole business. I know what I want to do, I want to go back to the garden centre and say to the man "What's the matter with you?' 

Luckily I've my weekly report to write, by which time my anger will soften.

You couldn't buy an experience like I had over the weekend, all thanks to fostering.

I'm a bit bigger and better for it, all in all. 

I just hope the boy can cope, we didn't discuss it with him, he seemed either oblivious or well-used to it. My hope is he grows up tolerant, even if he has a slight thing about cheese shops, garden centres and fifty-ish men.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


We didn't foster until our own children were old enough to join in the experience.

Sometimes I wish I'd fostered before we had our own children.

Fostering has made me a better parent, no doubt about it.

I don't think I was a bad parent to my own children. Then again who does? In fostering you meet up with people who are close to being jailed for their parenting, and yep, they are all absolutely certain they are great parents.

I think most of us base our parenting on what happened to us when we were children, so we do most of our parenting like our parents did, maybe we change a couple of things we thought could be done better.

Even if our parents were brilliant parents 20 years ago, the world has changed so much that our parent's way of parenting belongs in a museum. How would my dad have dealt with modern issues like the mobile phone and the internet? My dad didn't even know about drugs, he only knew that three pints were your limit. Even that isn't true any more.

He cared for us, full stop. But all the little details, they're changing all the time. And so am I as I learn.

Here's what I'm talking about in one example; the issue of eating before mealtimes.

I never allowed my children to eat before mealtimes. I'm talking not even a custard cream an hour before fish fingers and chips. This was a rule, as rigid as no 'F' word and writing birthday 'Thank You' letters to aunties.

Thanks to fostering I now know this was a stupid rule, and I deeply regret that I inflicted it on my children, I don't do it any more.

I've tried to explain to my own children, when they see one of our foster children snag a few grapes just as the food is going on the table, that it's not because our foster children are more special or loved, it's just that I've learned. I've got better at this parenting lark. I've apologised to my own children for being so rigid and authoritarian about food.

I've learned about myself; that the whole meal issue was more about me and me being in control than meeting their needs.

I had an insecure need for my simple little serve-up of sausages or pasta bake to have them cleaning their plates and begging for more, as if my supermarket heat-ups were something special.

Well, thanks to fostering, that's all gone. It's impossible to overstate how important food is to children.

It's like air.

You wouldn't say to someone who was drowning "Just you wait for air, it's not due to be served for half an hour"

I'm not exaggerating the importance of food. I've learned it means everything especially to foster children. It means more than the taste pleasure. It means life. It means being sustained. It means someone is sustaining you. Someone loves you. Imagine.

You won't believe this but it's totally true. One of our foster children, who was with us last Christmas is looking forward to another Christmas with us. The child is more excited by the memory of food food food all day than presents. I promise this is true, I find it hard to comprehend. The child remembers snacks being out on the coffee table, a bowl of nuts, sausage rolls served for no reason, a Terry's chocolate orange in the stocking. Dates. Crisps. Pickled onions. Then there's Christmas dinner. The child remembers vividly there wasn't enough room on the family table for all the dishes of help-yourself food. Sprouts with chestnuts, glazed carrots, roast and mashed potato. Gravy and cranberry sauce. Pigs in blankets. Oh God, the child marvelled at pigs in blankets, and counted them, divided them by how many of us there were and worked out that four of them were hers. She ended up eating seven.

The above child is a perfect weight, in case you're wondering. And totally more mesmerised by Christmas food than her electronic Christmas presents and general gifts under the tree.

It's not the eating of food. It's the availability of food that's important. Not just available for them in their room so they can choose when to eat, or available in the fridge - I tell my children they can help themselves as long as they ask. The crucial ingredient is the parent physically providing the food. The statement of love and protection and care when the parent says "Here's a snack to hold you till dinner time" and places a plate of something at their elbow. The bringing and giving of the food, and how it speaks of care and security.

I had a child who was permanently unhappy at first. He'd shape up when X Factor was on. Then I discovered if I placed a bowl of popcorn on one side of him and a bag of crisps on the other side, he'd relax and be contented.

My social workers tell me that eating times in the homes of children coming into care generally don't exist in the way they do in most homes. Children who don't know anything except that they need food don't know when it's coming and they know that sometimes it doesn't.

I can't tell you some of the horror stories I've had to listen to about food and food deprivation. If you foster I bet you have a few of your own.

But when a foster chid comes to me in the kitchen and plaintively says "Can I get a bag of Hula Hoops",  I no longer reply "No because your previously-frozen pack of BOGOF Chicken Kievs with oven chips and own-brand beans is on its way and... you don't want to spoil your dinner"

No, because the nutrition they need is our understanding and support.

If I could turn back the clock I'd let my own children have food when they needed it.

Maybe the nation's obesity problem is linked to all this, but that's not my problem.

Monday, December 01, 2014


Every time I have trouble getting a foster child to go to school in the morning it turns out the problem lies in the playground.

It never ceases to amaze me that our Education system spends 100% of it's time on what goes on in the classroom.

Teachers, Heads, Ofsted, the Department of Education, everybody who thinks they know about "Education" is fixated that their responsibility to our children begins and ends at the classroom door, that the only thing that matters is book learning.

Actually, our Education system spends 110% of it's time on classroom stuff, because they send our children away each day with homework, which is ALWAYS academic...tables, grammar and all the old stuff.

20% of the time that children are in the care of teachers there is no care going on. Negligence to the point of potential criminality. Seriously.

The playground is where every child learns all the big lessons they carry with them for the rest of their lives. And where is the supervision, the support, the play-leading? 

Where are the trained carers of the nation's children? Are they out in the cold, teaching their clients, especially the ones with needs? Or are they in the staff room chinwagging into frothy coffee? Maybe they're using the break to set up the next lesson, I'm not disputing that teachers have to work hard. What I am saying is that schools are oblivious to the lessons being learned out on the asphalt. 

There's a great book called "Lord Of The Flies" about what happens when children are left to their own devices without adult help and support. They turn on each other and become murderous.

Every playground, every break and lunchtime, right across the land, is a miniature Lord Of The Flies. Every day. Especially for foster children.

Kids stand around not sure what to do. Factions develop. Kids get left out. Name calling happens. Over in the shed are their bikes and scooters, not allowed. Do not go in the puddles. Stay off the wet grass. The tree is not for climbing. One primary school I know has a £10,000 climbing apparatus, no child is allowed on it because they need to be supervised, so it stands empty. A couple of untrained volunteer parent helpers in fluorescent bibs blow whistles at any child who is doing something extravagantly dangerous such as trying to climb on the roof. The playground surface is etched with fading hopscotch or netball courts, unused. There's masses of bigger boys experimenting with being big by running belligerently past smaller boys and gangs of girls testing their own social standing by gossiping about other girls and probably being mean.

The helpers never blow their whistle when they notice a child who is frightened or confused. They don't pick up on the child who is being teased for being overweight, or wearing uncool trainers.

Foster children often struggle socially more than most. Their social skills can be badly damaged by their experiences. They're more likely to find it hard to join in, merge with a group of friends. They're are more prone to standing around alone. They often have heightened sensitivities, and can be crushed by name-calling.

My foster children come home from school and generally need an hour of TLC to get over each day's little traumas.

Children who go home and cry aren't upset because they only got a six in spelling, it's always because of the social stuff; other kids. In the playground. Not just the playground, the corridors, the unsupervised classroom waiting for the next teacher.

When the ultimate tragedy happens and a child takes their life, the national spotlight falls on bullying for a few days. Does anyone link the bullying to the unsupervised segments of the child's day? Never. Yet it's a no-brainer. One day the parent of a victim will challenge the school on the legality of their policy of leaving hundreds of children to their own devices for an hour and a half every day. If a teacher needs years of training to work a classroom of thirty, how come volunteer helpers need no training to run a playground of hundreds?

I want to say to educationalists that you wouldn't last ten minutes in fostering like this. We don't clock off for a moment when the chid is in our home, our responsibility.  We actually don't want to, not only because we care that the child is happy and well all the time, but because it would be all the harder to pick up where we left off, which is something teachers should think about when they wonder why it's hard to get classes to concentrate.

When I was at secondary school we had a young Australian trainee teacher who used to join in playtimes, hang around chatting to us, kicked a football with the lads. The only teacher I remember who wasn't part of the "Them And Us' philosophy. One lunchtime we asked him why. He said;

"I came into teaching because I like kids, not because I like teachers"


Friday, November 28, 2014


I had a fantastic fostering experience recently, I had to let the dust settle on it before mentioning it here.

I met a foster child who had been with us years before, and I hadn't seen or heard anything about the child for all that time.

He was a boy then, he's a young man now.

I was at a fostering function, there were three hundred people there, foster children and foster parents. One of our foster children was with us as part of the function, so our attention was very much on our child all the time; you want new experiences to be as good for them as possible so you're on your toes all the time making sure they aren't fazed by anything, checking that they've understood how a buffet works, that sort of thing. You get a little glow when you see them talking to children they've never met before, because social interaction can be a big hurdle for children in care.

Then we bumped into a foster couple we hadn't seen for years, pure chance. We knew them because we'd both cared for the same boy in our time. The boy had spells with them, and two spells with us. Then things had gone a bit sour for him and he needed more round-the-clock care than fostering could give him, so he was moved to a special live-in centre. Expensive for the state, but our system in this country is better than most people think.

So we got chatting to the other foster couple and almost the first thing they said was "Darcy's here". They said it in that whisper that people use when they are passing on some big information.

It was big information too, because Darcy had been hard work for all of us, but here we were with an opportunity to see how he was going along.

My stand-out memories of him were of a boy who had every reason to be at odds with the world. He loved fast cars, so every chance we had I used to drive him to a little race circuit and watch the cars go round.

Round and round. Round and round and round and round. 

Hours on end.

You do a lot of things with foster children that are borderline tedious but immensely valuable to the child because often they've never had anyone show any interest in their interests.

I remember that Darcy was very average at football but he and I played it in our garden sometime for hours. Him versus me. Him kicking into a goal that was almost as wide as our lawn, me kicking into one so small Rooney would have had a problem. Darcy won every match something like 10-3. In each game it was a silent rule that he had to score first, then second, then third. Only when he was three up could I risk scoring without him getting crestfallen. 

I remember taking him up to a meadow for a walk, and at one point where there was no sign of civilisation, throwing his arms wide and his head back and smiling a smile I will never forget, a smile of some kind of almost primitive contentment.  He was momentarily free of every vestige of the twenty-first century. There was nothing about the twenty-first century that hadn't caused him grief and pain.

He had anger, and frustration, he was pretty mixed up. But your heart went out to him. You desperately wanted him to be okay.

So there I stood at this function, one eye on my foster child, the other roaming the room for Darcy.

And there he was. Sitting at a table with his current carers. Looking straight at me.

Sorry, but I'm writing these words with a blurry screen, blurred because my eyes are a bit teary. With happiness, thinking about it.

Darcy had his elbows on the table, his black hoodie down, he was looking at me waiting for me to see him. 

He wanted me to see him, he was confident I would be happy to see him, confident I would be pleased with how he was growing up. No question about it, that was his mindset, and deservedly so.

He was at the function to accept a big award for his progress and performance.

He was proud. Full of self-actualisation, and that's the name of the game.

I went over, careful to talk and behave like you do to a young man, not like you do to the boy you remember.

"Darcy, nice to see you" says I.

"Nice to see you" he replied, glancing away, suddenly a bit shy.

"Congratulations on your award"

"Yeah" he shrugged, like everyone does, not knowing how to take praise.

I said "We've still got that fox" (He'd been fond of staying up to watch for a fox that came through our back garden every night).

He went back to little boy "Really!" 

I wanted to say "Everyone says you're doing really well, and on the mend and putting all your awful past behind you and turning into a well-rounded young man, who still gets sad and even angry, but it going to turn out fine, great even"

But I didn't. Couldn't. Too graphic. So I said "The food's not bad is it?"

I think he wanted to say something meaningful too, but we both knew pretty much what the other was thinking so it wasn't necessary. Instead he replied "Yeah I've been up twice"

So I said "Going up again?" and he chuckled and said "Yeah" and with that he got up.

And up and up and up.

The little boy who had been so very very vulnerable and frightened and confused  and was so happy to be distracted from his troubles by watching racing cars and playing garden footy, spotting the fox and enjoying the meadow, he looked down at me and said in a voice that came from his boots:

"Nice to see you" and moved off back to the buffet.

Great moment, I think for both of us. His other other foster carers told us later they'd had the same exchange with him. I keep wondering whether I can allow myself to congratulate myself for any part in his development, because in fostering you need all the self-belief you can garner.

But the honest truth is I feel so much relief that he's surviving well, there's no room for much else.

A week later I still feel relieved he's not gone down the drain. I have some pride about it all, but it's mainly that I'm part of a system which cares for young people who a hundred years ago would have been doomed and hardly anyone gave a damn, certainly not the state.

Like I said, a fantastic experience.

If you foster I hope you get moments like that from time to time.

If you don't foster, I wonder if you have any idea what you're missing...