Tuesday, February 11, 2014


"If I tell you something do you promise not to tell anyone?"

Anyone who fosters knows those words well.

The guidelines for us carers are very clear. We must never agree to keep a secret told us by a looked-after child, because the child may reveal something that the carer is bound to report. 

What's more, there is one thing even more dangerous than agreeing to keep the offer of a secret, and that's going hunting for one.

The temptation is always to try to get the child to disclose whatever is on their mind. You think to yourself: "It must be important, if only to the child, and if they trust me above any other adult at this moment, then my bond with them is valuable to their chances of dealing with being in care. They need an adult they can rely on, someone they can trust. They've chosen me!"

The temptation is very strong.

You have to resist, resist, resist. If you make any contract you can't keep, you're on thin ice with looked-after children.

Your natural human curiosity looms large. In every walk of life; marriage, family, work, Eastenders, you name it, there is no more show-stopping question than "Do you want to know a secret?"

I had a teenage boy placed with us for several weeks, he'd been removed from his foster carer. An allegation had come to light that he'd made an inappropriate advance to a visiting underaged girl, a relative of the carer. The carer was distraught, she was a fantastic woman, been fostering for ten years, gold standard. She told me on the phone she'd dropped her guard for what seemed like a moment, and allowed them to play together, alone, in another part of the house from where the adults were; she could not say what had gone on. Could not say one way or another if she even knew whether they'd closed the door behind them. The police had been called in. The boy could end up with a lifelong demerit against his name on some register or list or another which every employer, every organisation which works with children would have to be aware of. Nightmare.

When you get the phone call asking if you would take a child, Blue Sky tell you everything you need to know to make your mind up. They even tell you what are the things they can't tell you because they themselves don't know. In this case, they couldn't tell us whether the boy represented any risk, because the inquiry into the allegations had only just begun, and would take several weeks. They never, ever, withhold anything they know that a carer needs to know. 

Likewise, the carer passes on to Blue Sky everything they discover that may be significant; which is actually a relief for carers because trained professionals end up with the responsibility of deciding what to do with the information. It's a two way street. No secrets.

The boy went back to his carer, no charges were made. In the whole time he was with us he never mentioned his predicament once, not at all. He was charming, kind, helpful round the house, a credit to himself and his wonderful carer. Countless times when he was drinking tea with me or de-fragmenting my laptop on the kitchen table for me, I sensed he wanted to talk. I wanted to help him, if only by listening.

Looking back I don't know how I resisted asking him what had happened. Well, actually, I think I do. If I had asked; "What happened that got you into this mess?" I would have had to preface it by saying "Before you answer, I must make it clear that anything you tell me may have to be written down and passed on to the appropriate bodies". 

That's a conversation killer alright.

Did it cross my mind to say to him; "Look, I know how difficult this must be for you, sometimes the best thing when we're upset or frightened is to talk. Just between us and these four walls." 

Yes, of course. I'm a foster carer, I care. I'm a human being too, with a need to reach other people, especially vulnerable ones. Listening is a great way to heal.

Plus, to be brutally honest with myself, I'm nosey. I crave all the details of other people's lives, especially the interesting bits, the hot gossip, the salacious titbits.

But when it comes to foster children; Resist, resist, resist.

If they blurt out something that you may have to pass on, what I have done in the past is say something like "Thank you for sharing that, as your foster carer it's my job to let my social worker know about what you've said, but don't worry, you haven't done anything wrong, in fact by talking about it you have helped put things right, so please talk to me again if you need to, and remember that all the people who want to help you and everyone you care about will be able to do that better thanks to you."

Although it always comes out sounding a bit like the Terms and Conditions pages of a contract, when really what you want to do is go "You poor little guy, gimme a hug!"

Come to think of it, "Terms and Conditions" is good way of looking at it, after all T+C and TLC are side by side in the fostering dictionary of abbreviations.

Having said all that, secrecy has it's merits sometimes...

Secret Foster Carer


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