Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Every time I take a shower and wash my hair, I shampoo first then reach for the conditioner. Every time I reach for the conditioner I start singing the same song. I'm not going to say what the song is, it's embarrassing. But when I say that I start singing the song every time I reach for the conditioner, I really do mean every time.

It starts when I say to myself "Now, where's the bottle of conditioner". The singing starts when the word "conditioner" comes into my head.

All the while I'm waiting for the conditioner to work, about 3 minutes, I'm singing/humming the song. Is it a habit or a tic? 

I've been thinking about this ever since I overheard our foster child talking to a friend on FaceTime. It was a Saturday morning. He said that he had to log off and be out for an hour because we were all going on the supermarket run. What he actually said was:

"We always go on a big supermarket run on Saturday morning"

We do. It's been our routine for years. Park in the same spot in the car park. Get a trolley. Shopping list clipped onto the handle. Veg first as it's the first thing just inside the door. Meat. Sauces. Pasta. Pizza. Then the household stuff; toilet rolls, washing liquid, batteries. Then bread and milk, always a long way from the entrance. Same old stuff. No surprises.

When the list is all ticked off, it's time for the treat. A pastry from behind the counter. A muffin. Or a gingerbread man. Not to be eaten until we are in the car.

The thing is, he's only been with us a short while, and yet he said:

"We always go on a big supermarket run on Saturday morning"

It was the way he said "Always"

I got the feeling he liked the routine. And not just the pastry.

The Saturday routine is important to us. Maybe more important than we realise. 

I had a friend years ago who was a Jewish woman. We talked and she joked about not being supposed to operate machinery on the Sabbath and how her food had to be exactly prepared, but there were ways round it if you had no choice.

I once asked her if I could become Jewish and she replied;

"Honey we're not recruiting"

She also wondered how we gentiles managed. She said that there were so many rules and guidelines about what she could and should be doing, that she had to make fewer decisions for herself. I said that sounded a bit restrictive. She replied;

"It's the business of constantly making decisions that sends people mad."

Looked-after children have usually had no routines, a fact summed up by the classic definition of the dysfunctional family; "Chaotic".

The children never know what's going to happen next.

So when they come into care we get things organised. At first there's a bit of resistance, but pretty quickly the patterns kick in, regular things happening at the usual time of day, consistency in everything.

Comfort in routine. We all do it, if you stop and think.

But as for my singing in the shower. At best it's a habit at worst it's a tic. At very worst Demis Roussos could probably sue.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


The two of us have been sitting up in bed talking. Talking about all sorts, mostly nothingy things such as whether the lawn mower has had it, what with Homebase doing 15% off this week. Normal married talk, but in our case we spend more time talking about the foster children than anything else.

I say "children" rather than "child" because although we have only one at this precise moment in time, all the children who have stayed with us are our foster children and always will be.

It's like that tear-jerking moment at the very end of Goodbye Mr Chips where the old Mr Chips is fading away in his bed and he hears two teachers talking about him. One says "He never had any children" and Mr Chips whispers with a smile in his rheumy eyes "You're quite wrong you know, I've had thousands of children. All boys..."

I didn't like the Martin Clunes version or the Peter O'Toole one, because I saw the original when I was quite little, and it had such an impact on me sentimentally, I now realise.

Helping children get going in life is a fantastic thing to do.

This morning we woke quite early and it's a good time to prop up in bed with a cup of tea and have a hushed conversation. You can't really put your heads together in the evening because foster children are superb at eavesdropping and you're usually too tired to get the brain in gear.

This morning I couldn't wait to tell Bill about the latest research in repeated punishable behaviour. 

I can't believe I wrote that last sentence. It doesn't sound like it came from me, but the research is fascinating. And for me, like all human beings, there are few more satisfying things than telling someone else something you know and they don't.

I had phoned Blue Sky the day before when the house was quiet to ask our social worker about a new thing that the child had started doing. A new game the child had invented and wanted to play every evening in which the child pretended to be himself, but not himself, and we had to be "mummy and daddy" (he doesn't call us "mummy" and "daddy" in real life), and he would test our patience. He would "pretend" to misbehave. All the while he is in control of everything, directing us how to respond. Except where the game gets to the point where in a normal situation the parents would say; "Stop being rude/disobedient/messy/swinging on the door etc" In the game, we have to be tolerant and understanding. And occasionally, just occasionally, gently tell him off.

I wanted to know whether we should allow the game to happen as the child wanted it or whether the child really wanted us to intervene and behave like normal parents would if a child misbehaved, namely to say "stop misbehaving" every time.

I got some advice. The social worker told me the exact same thing was happening with another Blue Sky placement. The advice was fascinating to say the least, so much so that I Googled and found myself engrossed in an American research paper on why people are drawn to repeating behaviour that's going to get them into trouble. 

See, it turns out we ALL do it. Even animals!

They had done experiments with mice.

I know, I know...poor mice but hey ho.

They trained some mice to know that if they went into one of the little hutches in their cages they would be "punished". Then they put some new little hutches in the cages, which the mice learned they could go into and not be "punished". Result: the mice repeatedly returned to the hutch where they were "punished". They preferred it.

Why? The experts said that living things prefer the expected to the unexpected, even if the expected is not as pleasant as the unexpected. Not only that, here's the bit that's hard to get your head around: living things develop a way of finding negative relationships rewarding. The psychologists don't know whether it's a defence thing, or a habit thing, but they call it something like "the positive outcomes of negative experiences".

They go on to cite the fact that women who were physically assaulted as children are more likely to experience violence against them as adults. Some men who were physically assaulted as children end up in prison because they act violently towards others for no apparent reason, and when deprived of the opportunity to beat someone up, beat themselves up.

The big thing I wanted to tell Bill is that yesterday morning, getting ready for school, the child had started all the usual things to delay getting ready. Refusing to put on school shoes, refusing to go clean teeth, all the while being grumpy and a bit rude. Up until yesterday I'd had no luck using my calm but firm voice and saying; "Stop messing about, don't talk to me like that, do as you're told!" What had always happened when I did was that he'd throw a mini-tantrum, so I reverted to just banging away being nice, repeating the requests, ignoring the catty remarks.

Yesterday I sensed something was afoot, what with this misbehaviour game. So I suddenly put on my stern face (not particularly scary; on a scale of one to ten it's about a four), and said in a quiet but firm sergeant major tone "Cut! It! Out!"

Yep. Out it was cut. A brief stare at the floor was followed by completely good behaviour. First time ever with this one; no backchat, no tongue poke. Not even a grumpy face.

Jobs done, we're in the car pulling off the drive for school run and I risked a quick quiet "Well done back there" To which I just about heard a whispered "Shut up".

One of the things we find rewarding about fostering is the little baby steps of progress they make all the while they're with you. They want their lives to improve like we all do.

What was the Blue Sky advice on how to deal with the game? 

"Carry on doing what you're doing, sounds like you're doing a great job"

I guess the "positive outcomes of positive experiences" hasn't got a research paper going on it, as it's a case of the flipping obvious.

But if they do ever want to research it, they won't need mice, just a roomful of foster carers.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


I heard a joke a long time ago and it sticks in my mind.

A tourist was lost in country lanes. He pulled up next to a farmer who was leaning on a gate. "Excuse me sir" said the tourist, "What's the best way to get to the village?" The farmer thinks carefully and replies "Well...the best way to get to the not to start from here"

New foster carers are also unsure if they're starting out in fostering at the right point in their lives.

Blue Sky sometimes ask established foster carers along to meet people who are thinking about becoming foster carers. I've done a couple of stints. I find it a bit daunting, trying to get the balance right between explaining all the pros and cons. We need more foster carers, that's one of today's holy truths, but nobody's going to press gang anybody into service.

The prospective foster carers all remind me of myself before I got started; interested, uncertain, hopeful,'s normal that people don't know if the time is right for them to start fostering.


It's such an important and personal question, it never gets asked at the meetings, because no-one can advise on this but yourself. The fact is, as per the "joke", there's no perfect place to start. In my experience every foster carer finds their family is right behind them, if a trifle concerned in case the job is huge. The job is huge, hugely demanding, hugely rewarding. Blue Sky are there for you, and you'll feel your family willing you to pull it off. They take pride in saying "My mum's a foster carer". Believe me, they really big you up. Quite rightly.


See the above answer with knobs on. Do you want to make a difference? Do you want your life to suddenly grow another massive new dimension? Do you want to look out of the window in the morning and welcome another day in which you are making the world a better place? I remember when I started I was worried that I didn't know enough, and that my own life had seen so many ups and downs how could a mere civilian like me help and advise a young person to straighten out their life if mine is still higgledy-piggledy? I used to worry one minute that I was too old, the next minute that I wasn't old enough. If Blue Sky think you're ready, you're ready. Leave it to them.


It takes time, from the day of your first phone call or email to a local authority or agency to say you're interested, to the day when you open your door to your first child. They need to get to know you and your life. They send a trained social worker round to meet you, find out about yourself, your life, your lifestyle, your family and friends. They visit about once a month for several months. Sounds intrusive, but they do it kindly and respectfully. Think about it: there are certain people you wouldn't want fostering, it's a very responsible position. Like I said earlier, if Blue Sky think you're good enough, you're good enough. They steer the process. Six months. Plenty of think time. If someone gets round to thinking it's not for them, then they can just lower the boom, no harm done, no problem.


I can only ever say, in answer to this important question, this;

One of my sons is a good sportsman and a coach once told him "Sport doesn't build character, it finds it out" Fostering is a bit like that. People find they have depths and resources they didn't know they had. Slowly they discover a strong reliable person living inside them who's always been there but never had a chance to flourish. One of my best friends is someone I met through fostering. I'll call her Angela. This is what happened the night their first foster child arrived.

The child was aged ten, she had been neglected in her real home, to the extent that she used to wander the streets of the city until the early hours and no-one cared. The social worker brought the child to their house. All seemed fine for the first couple of hours. Then, suddenly, at about nine o'clock that night, she just ran out of the front door and raced off down the road. Angela was upstairs. Her partner, a lovely bloke, he'd been approved as a carer too, I'll call him Alan, saw it happen and went out to see her fifty yards away and heading off. He called upstairs "She's done a runner, I'll go follow." And with that he was gone, leaving his mobile on the table.

Angela called Blue Sky, who are available 24/7, and they advised her to hang tough. If Alan lost her, they'd call the police. As long as he was with her, all is well. Good decision. 

So Angela sits and waits. No news is good news. No Alan means Alan is with her. But where? 

Long story short, the pair of them came back together about one in the morning, the girl went to bed. They phoned Blue Sky and reported in. Alan told Angela what had happened. 

The girl needed to walk, so he walked with her. She told him to go away, he told her he wanted to stay with her because he cared. She marched on, through the night, past buzzing pubs and chip shops occasionally acknowledging furtive adults huddled in shop doorways, with Alan following a few strides in her wake. He asked if he could phone Angela from a call box to say everything was fine, the girl said no, she'd run away if he did that. So he stayed, walked and eventually they talked. He thought about grabbing her by the arm but wondered what that would look like to passers-by. He thought about waving down a passing police car, but what would that do to the trust he was building with the girl? He walked and walked and walked, all the while aware that Angela would be climbing the walls. The streets emptied, the roads grew quiet. She walked on. Alan stayed with her, walking, walking. In the end, at about the time when the girl would normally risk going back to her real home, one o'clock in the morning, he started to steer the walking back to her new home. Four hours he walked, never challenging her, or recriminating, or questioning the walking. She had to do it. After four hours she began to learn that from now on she finally had someone in her life who believed she mattered.

The girl is still with them, years on. As long as she lives this girl will never forget the first time someone cared enough to want to really make sure she was safe. To (literally) go the extra mile.  Alan will never forget the time he had a chance to do something no trained specialist or university-bred expert could do better. Show someone a good heart. Alan works in a garage, Angela is unemployed. If you asked them they'd say they were ordinary normal people. But that night they had a chance to be extra-special and they stepped up. What's more it came naturally from within.

I can't find words to express how proud I am to have people like them as my friends and how rich their lives are for what they have given and gained from that night, and the whole fostering caboodle.


See above. You may find you don't always notice them at the time, because there's always dinner to cook and missing socks to find. But when you give yourself time to think, the great moments sing almost as loud as your wedding day, the birth of your first, the first time someone said "I love you' or "You've got the job". Good times don't happen often enough in life, but they happen more often in fostering than in ordinary life.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


I'm not one for book learning. I like reading certain things for pleasure, but to be honest I got bored at school and anything academic still leaves me cold. The thing that made school bearable for me was that my friends were there, and I loved the sound of the bell that meant Playtime.

As they grew up I took my children to school. They never really wanted to go. My eldest found school very trying, and in the end I offered the chance of home education, but it was turned down because of the social side of school. Playtime.

Often when I'm walking the dog a bigger dog will bound over and knock my dog over. The owner usually apologises for this by telling me "He's just playing"

It wasn't until I started fostering that I began to understand what Play is. I thought it was enjoyable because it was nothing. The playground was candy floss the classroom was meat and potatoes. The more I learn the more I realise it's the other way round. The things children learn in the playground are far more life-changing than the stuff on the blackboard.

How am I learning? If I'm someone who's got a built-in resistance to being lectured at? 

For a start, the Blue Sky training sessions aren't school. They're friendly, short and sweet. You don't take notes, there are no exams or tests. There's a lot of laughter, coffee and biscuits, followed by sandwiches. Try the crayfish and rocket on white.

The training session on "Play" was typical. All balloons and games. The whole morning was a bit like pass the parcel. As the layers came off you got closer to the little gift on offer. Although we were merely playing games, I noticed myself getting anxious to do well. Not show myself up. I was paired with another carer for one game and we sort of bonded for the rest of the session being similar types. We chatted when it was coffee time and swapped phone numbers. I remember how much the fitter men and women enjoyed the physical games such as heading balloons into the air or lying face down on their tummies trying to blow ping-pong balls at each other. The quieter carers seemed less competitive, but it wasn't difficult to spot more subtle skills aimed at rewards such as keeping their pride intact. Interesting session. I'd forgotten how big "Play" used to be for me when I was a child.

Then there are supervision visits. Once a month (more if you want or need it) your Blue Sky social worker pays you a visit. Once again, these sessions are friendly and informal, a cup of coffee and chat round the kitchen table. They ask about you, how you are, how the family is doing, then the chat gets onto the child.  The social worker, who remember has trained for years to do the job, doesn't lecture you what to do. They give a different angle sometimes. Every so often they chuck in a nugget.

Example. One of my foster children, who has since left, used to be locked in a tiny bedroom by mum, and when dad was in charge the child lay low for fear of being hit. One morning during half-term, my social worker paid a visit and offered to look after the child while I nipped to the shops.

The next time the social worker visited me the child was at school. We chatted about anything and everything, then she casually said "The play I had with X was very interesting. Wanted me to watch a game played with tiny soldiers and big toy monsters. One of the soldiers had been captured and held prisoner by the monsters in a tiny cage. The other soldiers kept trying to rescue the prisoner, but every time the monsters won. After we had this same game over and over I said what would be great next time was for the soldiers to win and the monsters be defeated and the prisoner escape. X did it, but as it was all new the game was bit quick and flat. You might want to keep a quiet eye on the game and see if there are some more happy endings."

My social worker had cottoned that the child's "game" was acting out the whole universe of X's life, in which the big bad uglies did what they liked to their prisoner and the little soldiers (I guess they represented the human race) couldn't do anything about it. The point being that by playing the child could start to see more rewarding possibilities in life by exploring them in a game of soldiers.

The thing I could do, my social worker suggested, was to get involved in the game and keep encouraging the idea that good can beat bad, that big does'nt have to beat small and that right is better than wrong.

Play tells experts what the problems are, and can help by encouraging more hopeful results. 

However I'm no expert on play. For example I can't explain why men who love football get incredibly pompous about the importance of loyalty, devotion and roots when I innocently suggest they switch the team they support. Men who've had five children by three different women.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


I saw a film once where one of the characters said something that has stayed with me all my life. I must have been young, it really hit me. I can't remember anything else about the film, but I can still picture the character who was holding someone in their arms and trying to comfort them. The person being cuddled was very upset about something. The line was;

"Remember honey, none of us can ever go home"

However young I was I think I got a whiff of what the line meant. I think it meant that as we grow up we tend to build a chocolate box picture of "home". We imagine it as being even more loving, joyful, warm and safe than it actually was. So we can never go back, because it was never really there. 
We have a foster child with us who is getting ready to go home, which is massive, and the whole thing about "home" is in my mind a lot.

I learned a sound lesson a while back.

A couple of years ago we had a teenage child staying with us, her family were in real chaos. Her father was in prison for crimes against his family, her mother had learning difficulties and was physically disabled, and had never cooked a meal in her life. The girl's  sister had just been prosecuted for theft and had become pregnant. There were all sorts of angry people drifting in and out of the house, which was a tip, not to mention the menagerie of animals running loose, none of which were house-trained. Everyone was at everyone's throats all the time. 

We offered the teenager the best we could: a calm peaceful home, with adults who were fair and consistent, three good meals a day, a clean bed, privacy and a kind ear whenever she wanted to talk; talk and cry.

And you know what? All she wanted to do was get back to what seemed to us was the hell hole which was her home.

I remember one Friday night she packed a bag and announced she was going to the station and going home. We had to gently remind her the deal was she could go home every other weekend as long as she stuck to her half of the deal which was to attend school and do the work. God that sounds harsh, but her Social Worker was a really good guy who was working hard to help her. The teenager's parting words as she went back upstairs to unpack are also etched in my mind forever, she said;

"Great! I'm stuck here with strangers while everybody else is at home playing happy families"

In her heart her home was a happy family.

I took her home for good when the time came. I saw her sink into the knackered sofa in front of the six foot TV which had Jeremy Kyle on with sub-titles. She moved a large tub of Sudocrem on the coffee table to make room for an ashtray. A one-eyed cat jumped onto her lap. And they both started purring.

She was home.

I remember another line from a film which has stuck in my mind, from Ghandi. It was during a meeting between Ghandi and the ruling British generals where he was asking them to leave India. One of the generals says;

"But if we leave, Mr Ghandi, there will be chaos"

And Ghandi replies;

"Perhaps. But it will be our chaos"

Which says it all really. A big part of fostering is respecting people's rights to make their own lives as chaotic as they need to, as long as it doesn't mean making other people's lives more chaotic than they want.

Friday, May 02, 2014


I'm still finding one of the big things in fostering a bit of a headache, it's this: I'm never sure exactly what to say about foster children's real parents, when they bring the subject up.

The children and young people who turn up on your doorstep, usually standing just behind the social workers who bring them to your house, are all very very different but at the same time have one big thing in common, namely that their home life has collapsed.

The reasons behind the collapse are unique to each case. The children are placed in Care for two main reasons; Neglect and Abuse, which take many forms. There can be other reasons but nine times out of ten you're finding room in your life for a child who has a justifiable grievance about the way their parents behaved towards them. This is the thing; they have a solid case for being highly judgemental about their real mother and father.

The thing is, it seems they don't know what to think and feel about their mother and father. So they usually clam up. They act very protectively about their past, as if it's the one thing that truly belongs to them and no-one else, which is a great big truth when you think about it.

It's true for all of us I suppose. Our past is something we have shaped and coloured with our own preferences. I remember being about 30 years old before it dawned on me that my own childhood wasn't as rosy as I'd always told myself it was. When I became aware of the cracks and blemishes in my upbringing I oversteered and ended up seeing myself as some kind of victim. I hope I've got a proper perspective on it now, at last.

Looked-after children have the same problem, only it's much bigger. They find themselves removed from their parents, which means that someone thinks that someone has done something very wrong. They'll get told often enough that it's not their fault, and they might get told the facts of their case. The facts. Facts are good because there's no opinion, although it's tricky telling a small child "facts" because the "facts" often involve complicated things like family court or drug dependency.

I don't ask about their home life, but once they get to know you, they start dropping little things into conversations, as if they are testing their own concept of their real parents.

That's when I really find things tricky. Because whilst you have to stay loyal to the decision that they are cared for, you have to be very careful not to go too far and diss the child's real parents, because no matter how hellish their lives were, they love them, and want to be loved by them.

All foster carers know exactly what I'm on about. It's something we often talk about when we get together at Blue Sky team meetings, usually during the coffee breaks. 

The more I think about it the harder it gets. I've tried making a distinction between doing something bad and being a bad person so that I might say to a child it was wrong to put a padlock on the child's bedroom door and lock them in all day, but at the same time their mummy probably wasn't herself when she did it, she was very upset. An expert might say this approach is wrong because I'm using "conjecture" that the mum was a victim too, which I am, but if I diss the child's mum he might resent me, and that would make life difficult in my home, and while the expert is sitting at home after work quietly watching telly I'm trying to persuade a frightened angry child to come out of our bathroom.

I've also tried blissful ignorance where you say "That must have been not very nice for you, but I wasn't there so I don't know why that happened".

Then there are the probings about their future, which can be subtle such as keeping their suitcase packed or a blunt "When am I going home?"

The real answer might be "Not until your mother stops with the drugs and sleeping around and your father stops beating up your mother and anybody else in the room, and they start loving each other and looking after themselves and even more importantly learn to look after you properly". Don't think for one minute I haven't been sorely tempted to blurt it out. But it would be unprofessional. The proper reply is to begin explaining the legal and procedural process, which they usually find so boring and confusing they lose interest.

We had one child stay with us who wrote a letter home. He showed it to us but he never sent it. It said to his mother that he'd found out what a mother should be like, and that she had been rubbish. 

So maybe, deep down, they know the truth, even the truth about why their foster carer is caring enough to take care about how she talks about the child's real parents; being non-judgemental and respectful.

Hope so.