Thursday, March 27, 2014


I often ask people how they met their partner. It's always an interesting story, if only because it almost always turns out to be a one-in-a-million chance meeting.

In my case, I missed a train. The train guard was whistling as I crossed the bridge from the ticket office. I might have made it if I'd run like crazy, but I decided to get the next one. If I'd been about 50 yards closer I'd have got on that train, and if I'd done that, we'd never have met.

It's not just love and marriage that's a game of chance. Shortly after we got married we found out that we may not be able to have children of our own, so we applied to become foster carers. One Sunday lunchtime we went for a drink and came home. The pubs shut at 2.00pm in those days. We turned on the TV and the best thing on was The Sound Of Music. So we...made our own entertainment. One Friday morning a couple of months later a letter arrived saying we'd been accepted as foster carers, would we like to come down to the office and look at the files of youngsters who need a home (remember this was decades ago, fostering is a lot more sophisticated now). But I had a doctor's appointment same day, as I had my suspicions which turned out to be true, and the result was our first child. All because some unknown BBC scheduler had put the Sound Of Music on that Sunday afternoon. We're certain that was the one, if you know what I mean.

Earlier today I'd dropped into the supermarket and was standing in quite a long queue for the basket only cases. A till opened up, but before the next person in the queue could move in a woman came from nowhere and plonked her basket on the counter, her back to the queue. A queue jumper! The assistant hadn't noticed so she just started serving the woman. Everyone in the queue looked at each other, wondering what to say.

I started chatting to the woman in front of me. I don't often chat to the queue in the supermarket, but this was something to talk about.

As we gassed it just came out somehow that I'm in fostering. I'd joked about some of the food in my basket. She'd asked about my children and I'd said that one of them has some rather inexplicable food fads, and I said that such things were all part of the joy of fostering. Normally I don't mention fostering, as it can either bring the conversation to a halt or take it in all sorts of directions, but I was enjoying talking to this stranger, she didn't know me from Adam.

But the woman asked a number of interesting questions, then it was her turn to go to the till. 

When I finished paying, the woman was waiting by the door.

"I've been thinking about fostering myself but..."

She was worried that she was too old, and that she'd had all sorts of ups and downs in her life.

I reassured her there is no upper age limit in fostering. Anyone can apply; singles, marrieds, people in civil partnerships, any and every ethnicity and nationality, any background.

As for having had troubles in your past; that's no bad thing. How can you understand a child's troubles if you've floated through life on a bed of roses?

And fostering is anything but a bed of roses, I made that clear. But she was still interested. I told her how the allowance is paid, and how the allowance is in effect not subject to income tax, and how it doesn't usually affect other income even benefits (to the best of my knowledge).

I told her that she could either apply to her local social services or contact an agency, which was what I'd done (Blue Sky, obviously). I told her a bit about why I preferred an agency to social services (for example Blue Sky have an accountancy firm who'll look after the money side of things for you, for a fee somewhere between "token" and "small").

I gave her Blue Sky's number and told her they'd answer any questions better than me. She said she'd call when she got home.

So. If she becomes a foster carer, and our chat was the gentle shove she needed, it's all thanks to the woman who jumped the queue.


Whenever our eldest is driving us mad, we look at each other and burst into a song. A Sound Of Music Song, any of them seem to do the trick.

Because our eldest is one in a million, in soooo many ways.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


From time to time I need reminding of the importance of food in fostering. It's up there with love and safety.

Every day I have to make lunch boxes. Standing in the playground before school, a mum said to me "I was pleased yesterday was an Inset Day. I like having my daughter around the house. Plus, I didn't have to do a lunchbox. I hate doing the lunchbox".

The tyranny of the lunchbox.

Most parents who do lunch boxes rather than school meals will sympathise. Every day you have to come up with a little menu of snacky bits that compliment each other and meet nutritional requirements. Most of all the lunchbox is a message from parent to child about how much they know and love them.

I have nightmare visions of a teacher peering into the lunchbox of one of our children and reporting me to Jamie Oliver. 

But I want to share the last 15 minutes of this afternoon with you, because it was good for me and maybe it'll be useful to you, if you're a carer.

I cleared out the lunch boxes as soon as we got back from the school run, and for the first time ever, the looked after child had eaten every single thing. I commented favourably and the reply was "Huh?"

The menu had been: a cheese sandwich and 5 grapes in a small tupperware tub. An apple (small) and a bag of salt and vinegar Hula Hoops.

Until yesterday, the only main item the child would eat was a mini-sausage roll. But last night, due to operational difficulties, I was out of mini-sausage rolls. 

So straight away I'm over-compensating.

What I did was this: I spread margarine on two slices of small Hovis 50/50, right up to the crust. I shaved two slices of (mild) cheddar and placed them exactly right, one each side of the halfway mark on the bread. I laid the other slice on top of the one with the cheese. Then I trimmed the crusts off. Then I cut the remaining square of sandwich into four triangles. 

I placed them in the small tupperware box, which usually had the sausage roll in it. 

The sandwich looked unloved. A sausage roll can stand alone, defiant. Sandwiches look set to curl and go dry. So I yanked off a square of cling film, put the triangles in the middle and carefully folded the cling film around the sandwich.

And for the first time ever, the lunchbox was totally emptied. 

So I asked why. Got a grunt. I mentioned it over dinner, got a shrug.

Know what? I honestly suspect the child got the care that went into the box and sent something back to me. I do think that, I really do.

Okay, to be honest, I really hope that's what happened.

But I'm all across the looked-after lunchbox like a demon, so I am.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


I can't see myself fostering for more than about ten years. I wonder if anyone should be doing the same job, whatever it is, for more than than ten years.

Funny word "Career". On the one hand it's something you achieve by carefully going up a ladder one rung at a time. On the other hand it's something you achieve by going downhill out of control at breakneck speed because the brakes have failed.

Being a parent is the only job for life. I was down at the finish of the London Marathon once, my other half was running. It was very early, I wanted to get a place right on the barriers by the finishing line. Standing beside me was a small wiry man with a creased face. We started chatting. He said he was here to see "My boy finish the marathon." He was a Northerner.  I asked him about being a father, he said "I've watched every game of football my boy has played, every game of cricket. Never missed my boy play."

I had to ask him; "What age is your boy now?"

"Sixty three."

That's parenting; it's unique like that. Well human parenting is. When I watch David Attenborough I'm always amazed that most animal parents don't bother much with their offspring after they go off.

I met a police officer when I did voluntary youth work, he used to turn up at the club in uniform smiling and serve behind the refreshment bar. His thing was that kids should come to see coppers as being on their side. He told me he hoped to get out of the force by the time he was forty, because when you're a copper you can end up despairing for the human race. Suspecting everyone.

I met a teacher who said people should do ten years on the outside before going into teaching.  Then teach for ten years then get out. She said any teacher who tells you they've had thirty years experience in teaching hasn't. They've had one years experience thirty times over.

My brain tells me ten years of fostering will be enough.

Sometimes I find myself in the company of acquaintances, people about my age who I've met a few times, and everybody seems dead keen on swanking about their lifestyle. If someone says they went on a spa weekend recently someone else will top them that they had a weekend in Normandy. 

If I'm totally honest, there are times when I'd swap fostering for a shallow life, where I could concentrate on Pilates, my wardrobe and botox. 

I picture myself waking up on the boat moored in some Mediterranean harbour and slip over the side for a wake-me-up dip as the sun starts to go from orange to white. Then mosey along to a cafe for granola and a presse orange. I fantasise about being what my dad used to call a "Waste of food".

So, yes, fostering is hard graft and there are times when you need a clear picture that it's not the rest of your life.

But I've met several people who've left fostering, and you know what? They aren't doing cartwheels.  They are all over you with questions about the kids and how you're dealing with them. They tell you about their times, maybe how one or two of their looked-after children are staying in touch.

I can't picture myself picking up the phone and saying I'm getting out of fostering, although the day will come.

Fostering isn't the rest of your life. When you're fostering it's most of your life. It may turn out, when you look back, to be one of the best things of your life.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Bringing up children you do everything you can. But sometimes there aren't enough hours in the day, and you let some little things slide, harmless things that barely matter. I find myself doing just a few more of the little things with my fostering than my own children, probably for good reason.

It was twenty to nine last Saturday morning and the child had to be at a church hall 5 miles away in school uniform, smart as possible, for the inter-school choir competition by nine o'clock and the last job is to put on shoes. Found the shoes in the back room where they'd been kicked off in a hurry after school on Friday afternoon but here's the thing, I notice the shoes are scuffed, quite badly.

Look, to be honest the shoes have been scuffing up for weeks, I give them the occasional buff, but slightly scuffy shoes are generally ok for normal school. However child is front row of the choir. What if we only get bronze, would have been silver but for the child in the front row having scuffed shoes.

When I was eight years old my school held a fancy dress day. My mum dressed me as Cinderella-Before-The-Ball. Patched skirt and frayed top. I heard one mum say to another mum it was a shame that I didn't have fancy dress, but obviously we couldn't afford it.

If it had been my own child I'd have taken them to the choir competition with scuffed shoes and if anybody had said anything they'd have me to deal with.

But fostering is different. Don't let them get singled out for anything.

Could we find the shoe polish? We remembered that our eldest had asked for it last weekend to touch up a pair of shoes he was going out in, which meant it could be anywhere.

In the end I painted over the scuff marks with the dregs of a bottle of India Ink that had lurked at the back of the kitchen drawers for 20 years, God knows what it was doing there.

Anyway the child's shoes had been kicked off in a hurry on Friday afternoon because when we got home from school the child had complained of a sore foot.

I'd sympathised and said I'd have a look at it, nine times out of ten the sympathy is all that is required. This time the child was adamant. Splinter. Right on the ball of the foot.

I couldn't see anything. Child persisted.

A splinter's a thing with your own children. There's always anguish when you say you're going to get... A NEEDLE. Sowing needle obviously. But hang on, this is a looked-after child. Am I allowed to remove a splinter? I prevaricated and wiped the foot with a clean wet cloth. Still couldn't see a splinter. Child held ground. Splinter.

Should one call the doctor's surgery and be told you can bring the child in Tuesday after Christmas?

Or take them to the hospital and imagine the Daily Mail headline:


I remember the second-best bit of advice* any Blue Sky person has ever given us: "If in doubt check the Handbook, if still in doubt use your common sense".

I fish out the magnifying glass from my late mother's sowing basket, and yes, I can see something just under the skin. Looks strangely like an eyelash. Long story short, a scratch with a needle (sterilised with a 5 second burn off the gas ring, then a wipe with antibacterial cream from the first aid kit), a tweak with some tweezers and out from a furrow of pink foot skin comes, well, an eyelash. Or at least, a bit of hair that's about eyelash size.

I've heard about this, never come across it in real life. A sliver of hair nestles into the folds of skin on the sole of the foot and skin grows over it. 

More cream on the foot. Lollie for being brave.

New rules in the house. Slippers at all times, no bare feet except when getting into bed. Feet to be scrubbed at bathtime.

Point is I'd have done most of this for my own children. Except maybe heat-sterilising the needle - I got that tip from a training session where we learned how young people self-tattoo, you don't want the details. Well you probably do, okay another time.

Each little thing I did from the scuffed shoes to the slipper rule was ever so slightly (i.e. about 5%) more carefully thought out and done; because they are somebody else's children, and just like you're always that extra bit careful with somebody else's car, you're that extra bit careful with somebody else's children.


* The very best bit of advice was given to me by a Blue Sky person - a fellow foster carer - the day we started; "You're going to need a lot of love."

Monday, March 10, 2014


When I was a child I hated routine. For example, every Sunday evening when Songs of Praise came on at 6.00pm it was time for me to go and finish the weekend homework, then put my school uniform out for the morning. My radio alarm went off at 7.30am every morning and  I'd lie there listening to the Radio One news, then at just before 7.35am Tony Blackburn would play whatever was number one in the chart. I'd get up to catch the 8.20am train to school. And so the week went on, with one thing following another in the same order that it did the week before.

There were times when I felt trapped by the predictability of my life as a child. Imprisoned even.

But looking back, one thing I didn't feel was the sheer terror of not knowing what was round the corner.

Knowing what's going to happen next is a great comfort.  Knowing bath night is Sunday and Wednesday. Bedtime on school nights is 9.00pm, lights out 9.30pm. Knowing that on Monday night tea is always at 5.30pm and it's sausages, Tuesday it's Spag Boll. The lunchbox contains the expected. Breakfast is cereal* or toast, take your pick, except at weekends when it's bacon.

Thing is that routine doesn't mean stagnation. Pocket money rises, bedtimes get later, trust deepens, personal responsibility increases.

But every day, there is routine.

This really came home to me when we had a troubled child who had never had any routines. He was old enough to tell the time of day, but had no idea about clocks and telling the time. Our main clock is our kitchen clock, one of those large fake church clocks which runs off an AA battery and has Roman style numerals. The child couldn't get his head around half past this or ten to that.

I'd wake him up in the morning and say he had to be downstairs in a quarter of an hour. After breakfast I'd say "You've got ten minutes to clean your teeth and put on your shoes, we need to be in the car at twenty past eight."

I might have been speaking Greek.

One Saturday morning in Poundland I bought a little plastic digital clock, and gave it to him. He cottoned on that there are 24 hours in a day, and 60 minutes make an hour. He started carrying this little clock everywhere he went around the house. He sat with it propped next to him watching TV or playing a computer game, it went into the garden when he played a bit of wallsie with himself, and obviously it went to bed with him.

It became his guardian, his blue blanket.

We realised he'd been living in a void, where everything that happened to him came from nowhere, he had no way of knowing that something was going to happen in half an hour so he could prepare mentally. No way of structuring his activities or his mind because he had no idea where he was in the day.

We put post-it notes over the Roman numerals on the kitchen clock with numbers on them, so that IX became 9.

When we said  "Be downstairs  ready to put your shoes on in 8 minutes", he'd be there. Or at least, if he wasn't, he knew how late he was being. In the car he'd monitor the dashboard clock and notice ""8.34. Yesterday we were back at the traffic lights at 8.34. We're going to be early." He even used to monitor commuters , such as a student we'd see walking along the dual carriageway every day "He's normally past the tree by now, he's late this morning."

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think to myself "It's about 2.15am" and I check the bedside clock, and guess what, it's 2.15am. Maybe I've got the internal clock thing too bad. Or maybe I love the reassurance of knowing what the time it, and how long I've got before the next thing I have to do has to be done. Either way, helping looked-after children appreciate routines and understand the time can be a big thing.

* Funny thing: my laptop tends to correct things for me, and the first time I typed "Breakfast is cereal", the laptop typed "Breakfast is feral". Which it sometimes is, spooky.

Friday, March 07, 2014


From a purely selfish point of view, foster carers can be grateful for all the turbulence in the lives of almost everybody today. So many children in schools nowadays turn up with things going on in their family's life.

When I was a child at school there were no fellow pupils in fostering, unless it was kept secret. That's a possibility of course.

We had only a very small number of pupils who we thought were different. There was one ethnic boy at my junior school who I remember being on his own a lot in the playground, but he was a good footballer and that stood him in good stead. And in my secondary school, a girl who walked stiffly because she had callipers, who seemed just to be another girl. But at both schools, there was an awareness among pupils of their differentness. The ratio of differentness was about 300 to 1. Although I never saw any bad things, we all knew that they knew that we knew they were different.

These were the days when almost every child sat up straight, faced the front and had two parents living together under the same roof. Father worked 9 to 5, and mother kept house. Almost every child was white, able-bodied, known by a name the teacher was familiar with, and brought up in a culture the teacher knew and understood.

Nowadays a huge percentage of the average class have issues.  Many have single-parent issues. Others have step-parent issues. Or foster carer issues - I'll come back to that. The modern class has Muslims and Hindus with different needs from the spiritual to the culinary. There are pupils with borderline Aspergers, and others with mosaic Attention Deficit Disorder or low level Oppositional Defiance Disorder. 

The mother of one child I know was formerly her father. True. And so what?

The ageing teacher dreams of her retirement cottage, but hankers for the day when the only mild disruptions in class came from a small number of pupils who were simply "troublemakers".

Teachers are individuals too. Some are bright young things, pioneering away with modern methods, happy to be the children's friend; "Call me Dave". Some are weary after a lifetime of work which began in front of the blackboard, and is ending with a white board thing connected to a computer, which plays up a lot. Some are from different countries, different backgrounds, different lifestyles. 

The class teacher at one of our foster children's first school had herself been in foster care from the age of one. His next teacher was working through a very acrimonious divorce.

Thinking back to when I was at school, if it had come out that a pupil was in foster care the child would have been known to every pupil for that fact alone. But today, with so many people in the average school carrying all manner of issues, a child who is in foster care is, frankly, no more standout than about 50% of the pupils. In fact, one almost feels sorry for the kids with no story.

Looking back, teachers could have done more for the different pupils when I was at school. I'm guessing there was none of the training in diversity that's in place now.

Today the rainbow of differentness among pupils is absolutely fantastic. I don't wish trouble on anybody, far from it. However it helps us foster carers that there's so much going on in everybody's lives.

It eases our job because although being in foster care is a huge issue for the child, one we carers are always hyper-alert to, it's got a lower profile than ever,  and that's a good thing from our foster child's point of view, because they want to be known for who they are and what they think and say and do, not the things that the world has done to them which is no fault of their own.

Some people worry that all the turbulence in people's lives is taking us down a path towards some kind of madness. I am one of those people. But at this moment in time, the hurly-burly works in favour of fostering, and if you're in fostering you'll know how you need every card the world deals you that boosts your hand.