Saturday, June 28, 2014


We're going to be looking after someone's dog for a fortnight this summer, as her owners have had no luck with kennels.

I've checked with Blue Sky that this is ok, we had to take the dog to a vet for a "psychological profile". The dog was certified sane, which cost us £30. Obviously you don't want a dodgy dog around foster children.

The dog will stay with us for a night next week, then the whole weekend a fortnight later, so everyone can get used to each other before the family go on holiday. We're getting a running commentary on the dog's likes and dislikes, what various woofs and whimpers mean, how often it likes to go to the toilet, and what sort of walks it likes.

Contrast this with how it can be when a looked-after child arrives. Sometimes the phone rings and it's "Would you consider taking a child who needs a bed tonight, she would be with you in about 3 hours time, she's 11 and is at a police station, if they can't find a foster home for her she may have to sleep in the cell..."

One time I said "Yes", put the phone down, and in the whirl I realised I didn't even ask the child's name.

It's not always like that of course, most times you get plenty of background information, food preferences, and a character profile. Blue Sky always try to provide the child with a dossier on the family they are being taken to; photos and information about the family and the house.

I find myself getting almost confused with anticipation when a new arrival is imminent. If the appointed time is 4 o'clock then from midday I'm usually going round the house double-checking little things like making sure the bedside light in their bedroom glows the right amount (they naturally like some light through the night), and that all the bleach is locked away (Health and Safety). I kill time by doing one last hoover and putting the ingredients for the evening meal in saucepans (it's usually pasta - quick and easy plus it's on most children's list of ok food).

You never forget Day One with each and every child; they seem so dreadfully, dreadfully vulnerable. No matter how challenging they turn out to be, on that first day in your home their shellshock and fear manifests as shy humility, and you just want to give them a massive cuddle. You don't of course. You keep yourself neutral and functional. You show them round the house. Funny showing someone round your house, you feel like a bellhop in a seaside hotel:

"This is the bathroom. This is how the lock works. Towels are for everybody's use. You can hang your toothbrush next to ours after you unpack"

You're more than a concierge though, you're in detective mode too; discreetly looking for clues as to everything you need to know to help. Their possessions are a starter.

Unless the child is too small, I leave them to unpack by themselves. Two reasons. One: It gives me ten minutes alone with my social worker who is always there on arrival day. Just for a few last details and thoughts. Two: I always find their little bag of possessions utterly heartbreaking. Blue Sky has a fantastic policy that no child should carry their life in a bin bag. If there's no suitcase or holdall at the child's home, Blue Sky will shift heaven and earth to get one from somewhere, and I have to take my hat off to whoever came up with this deeply caring little detail.

There's usually a soft toy. Battered and rueful looking, like it's owner, and it tugs at the heart.

Sometimes there's no toy at all.

That's even harder on the heart.

But it's your first big clue as to how it might have been for her, and the type of job that lies ahead.

And in case it crosses your mind, yes. The dog will be arriving with a bag of possessions, and yes, its favourite toy will be among them.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


I'm sitting on the sofa it's about 7.00pm  and I'm watching "Fostering and Me with Lorraine Pascale" on BBC2.

Lorraine is a model and now a TV chef, and seems amazingly at peace with herself.

Lorraine was taken into care at birth, fostered for 18 months, then adopted by a family that splintered. Lorraine stayed with the adopting mother even though the mother was declining fast, and Lorraine was taken back into fostering.

Just watched the bit where Lorraine hears one of her ex-foster mums tell her that she told Lorraine, who was aged about 8 that she, Lorraine didn't have problems, it was her mum who had problems, and how much it helped Lorraine to know it wasn't her fault.

Lorraine is tracing her roots. Blimey, most of us are interested in our ancestry, hence all the websites, but it's one thing finding out your uncle was a villain, it's another thing altogether to find out, aged forty-something about the pain in your own life. Lorraine said she couldn't remember anything much even from when she was seven and eight, I wonder if they block it out?

I'm watching and typing. Now Lorraine is reading for the first time, her own fostering notes. She's just read the notes where her mother considered throwing her under the wheels of a passing lorry. The notes said the mother tried to strangle Lorraine and hit her, and could only keep from hitting her by locking her in a bedroom. Lorraine is getting up from the chair and leaving the room, clearly in distress.

Now we're with Lorraine in the home of a foster carer talking about fostering.

Lorraine asks the foster mum:

"What's the hardest thing about being a foster carer?"

"You're constantly trying to build the elusive trust"

That's a good answer I think, I must remember that.

Lorraine asks a fostered chid:

"What do you remember about your first night in your foster home?"

"I don't remember much, I wasn't happy at all. But now I am. It's really nice to feel that warmth and that love"

Lorraine is talking about looked after children never thinking they are good enough.

Yet she herself has gone on, become successful and confident, and, one hopes, happy.

Brilliant programme, well done BBC and Lorraine Pascale!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


When someone plucks up what it takes to apply to be a foster carer, they've probably ticked off the main boxes already. 

Spare bedroom, willingness to share the family home with a looked-after child, enthusiasm, and... A SENSE OF HUMOUR.

How do you know if you have a sense of humour? Everyone thinks they have, but this is the kind of sense of humour I'm talking about.

We had a teenager staying with us, he didn't get on at school. He didn't get on with the teachers or the other kids, didn't get on with the whole idea of studying. So he spent plenty of days at home,  which was fine. He got under my feet a bit but on the whole he was good company; it can be nice to have someone else in the house weekdays, sometimes I've got a bit lonesome, only Ken Bruce as an alternative to Escape To The Country.

He had very low self-esteem. Didn't think he was up to much. No good at football or computer games, not much of a spark with people. We started looking for something he could be good at, but you have to be careful, kids know if you're bigging them up because they need a boost rather than because they are actually good at something.

So, when he said one morning, out of the blue; "Can I cook dinner tonight?" I said yes, obviously. He asked what he should cook. I told him Bill loved stew. We Googled "Irish Stew" and off I went to the supermarket to get the ingredients, namely some braising steak and carrots. Potatoes we had, gravy powder we always have, for some reason looked-after kids love gravy. Flour and flavourings were already in the larder.

I got back and decided to let him get on with it. How can you spoil an Irish Stew? I kept a discreet watching brief, but got on with housework, and with about an hour to go before dinner time the stew was in the oven and cooking. It smelt fine, and the debris piled up in the sink plus the spilt four and gravy powder and carrot peelings on the floor proved he'd done everything the recipe called for (recipes never discuss how much of a mess the recipe will cause do they?)

As I was putting all the various condiments back in the larder, I just happened to notice a tub of Allinsons Instant Bread Yeast Granules was out among the other ingredients, its top off.


The recipe was still up on the laptop. 

Among the usual requirements; "2tbs yeast extract"

Yeast extract. Meaning; Bovril. Marmite. An Oxo cube.

Not bread-making yeast. The stuff that makes pastry rise. Balloon up. The stuff a lot of people can't really tolerate in their system at all. 

1 teaspoonful of bread yeast makes a 2lb loaf. He must have put 2 tablespoonfuls in!!!!

Now here's my dilemma:

I either level with the boy and risk blowing his self-esteem out of the water. Or keep the mistake to myself and risk blowing up our intestines.

I tasted a mouthful of the stew while he was watching telly. It tasted not too bad. I laid the table. Bill came home and asked what smelled nice. I told him it was a stew, made by our foster son.

Do I tell Bill? Yes, I did. After all, it's his digestive system. 

He was brilliant. Got it in one. Worth the risk for us. What about the boy, suppose it upset his tummy?

We sat down to eat. The boy just watched with pride as we took our first bites. Bill went way over the top; started wolfing it down saying it was the most delicious thing he'd ever tasted. The boy tried a mouthful and mysteriously said he didn't really like it, so he had a bag of prawn crisps. I split the difference, ate a small plateful and murmured "very nice".

Bill even had seconds.

That night at bedtime we lay there listening to the usual occasional tummy gurgle, not knowing what to expect next.  Suddenly I got the giggles. Bill started sniggering too. We had to suppress the noise of our hysterics, which made us laugh even more. Pretty soon we were gasping for breathe, doubled up in bed, wiping away tears.

The next morning we were both a bit nervous. I passed Bill on the landing, and we both burst out laughing again. The bathroom saw quite a bit of action that morning, but nothing serious.

Fostering is full of really quite surreal moments, if you are a foster carer yourself, you'll know exactly what I mean. You can either hit the panic button or laugh.

Laughter is the best medicine. 

Pepto Bismol is also highly recommended.

Friday, June 13, 2014


They try to keep siblings together when children come into Care. They, in this case, refers to the local authority, who are the people who make the decision that children should be taken into Care.

One of my fostering friends has had 3 brothers aged 5-10 with her for the last 2 years. 

I say "fostering friends", we met through fostering and nothing bonds like being a fellow foster parent, really nothing comes close.

She has just told me that the youngest has been taken away and put with another foster family. And life is so much better and happier for them all. Her included.

I can see that keeping the children together in fostering is the logical thing to do in theory. Being removed from the family home is pretty traumatic, being taken to the home of complete strangers is pretty traumatic. The thinking goes "Hey if we keep the children together at least they'll have the company of someone they know." Maybe it works well in some cases, it's just that I've never heard of it working well in real life.

Most children who find themselves being taken into Care are being removed from failing families, and part of that failing is lack of love. In its place is often plenty of hostility and conflict. The thing is that siblings don't need any encouragement to be at each others throats. Even the most delightfully happy family, surely, has tales of the children squabbling, fighting even. The way families are set up, with one or two adults and a big age gap between the adults and several kids of different ages and stages of development is bound to cause rivalries, resentments and jealousies between the kids.

Siblings can get into a routine of conflict with each other. Disagreements leading to hostility, even violence, can become the absolute norm. The minute they see each other, or something belonging to each other, they see red.

It was so with my kids, it's actually just plain normal. I remember watching a David Attenborough about a pride of lions. The cubs wanted to play with the dad, and he just lay in the sun while they climbed on him, nipped his tail and scratched his nose. Then he got fed up and roared. The cubs ran away, but not far. They started to squabble and play-fight with each other. The fighting got out of hand, there was screaming and wailing, and the dad had to get up and sort it. Then the cubs were happy again, they'd got dad's attention back.

When siblings come into Care they are deeply entrenched in their sibling rivalry. The dynamic between them is tried and trusted, they are comfortable with it, for all the pain it causes them. The people who aren't comfortable are the foster parents. 

Just because the siblings are able to act out a part of their lives before they came into Care doesn't make it right or useful. Keeping them together can be a green light to them to carry on with bad habits, maybe sink even lower as they take out the anger they feel about being in Care on each other.

We foster carers are well used to getting on with what we're asked to do. Part of the rich reward lies in seeing progress. You have to keep a keen eye open, and listen out for kind words from your social worker, who sees the progress more obviously than yourself because their visits are spaced out.

But it would help a lot if, instead of local authorities assuming it's best for the children to stay together unless there's a compelling argument, they assume it's best for them to go to separate homes unless there's a compelling argument.

Sunday, June 08, 2014


We foster carers are used to being advised by the Blue Sky team that looked after children are big on what they call "control". 

Is there anyone alive who hasn't been accused in the heat of the moment by someone they're arguing with of being a "control freak"? I doubt it. I have. So has my other half, oh yes...

Who wants to be out of control? A speeding bus with a bomb and Sandra Bullock on board maybe, or else there's no action movie, but apart from that, being out of control is a nightmare.

Of course there's a difference between being not in control (of a situation) and being out of control (of yourself). I'm talking about the first one. 

Children want control but not total control. They want just the right amount. Enough to feel safe. But not so much that they are in charge of everything. Only megalomaniacs want total control.

The challenge for everyone in charge of children is to find a way to give them the right amount of control. As with so many things in fostering, this is important with your own children, but even more important with foster children.

Foster children probably had zero control over anything before they came into care.  Their parents probably had no control over anything either. Except their kids. They couldn't control the benefits office, the police, their landlord, their debt collectors, their drinking, you name it. One of the most common traits of chaotic parents is that they are scarily authoritarian over their children, as if they boss the poor mites around to make up for their absence of control in everything else. No negotiation with their children. No discussion to find out what the child is thinking or needing. You hear it all the time; "Do as you're told" or "I'm not asking I'm telling".  

Last Sunday morning we went to the park; myself, Bill, and youngest looked-after child. We took a football and a cricket bat and ball and bicycled down the cycle path. Child wanted to be in front all the way. Got there and child ordered us to sit on a bench and watch while he went on the swings and climbing frame, so we did. After about 5 minutes the child came back and said he wanted to play cricket. We set up to play, but before a ball was bowled he told us that after cricket he wanted to play chase, followed by football. 

I bowled the first ball. The little chap missed it and stomped off, got on his bike and cycled away. Towards the gate. Beyond which was a quiet pedestrian road. If he went through the gate he'd be in sight long enough for us to catch up to him, but the big control thing was whether he went through the gate.

We were both tempted to give chase. But then he'd have us in the palm of his hand. So we went and sat back on the bench, watching him out of the corner of our eye all the time. If he'd gone through the gate we'd have been off after him like our tail was on fire. But, as we reckoned, he didn't go through the gate. He actually didn't want that much control. 

We watched him acting casual, sitting on his bike beside the gate. Then he started cycling slowly around the perimeter of the park, leading eventually back to us. All the time we acted like we were confident in his ability to make good decisions; which we were.

Halfway back to us he got off his bike, then in re-mounting he "fell" off, and lay on the ground. We trotted over, full of sympathy. He had controlled us over to where he lay, but returned overall control because we were now in charge of his welfare.


He had enjoyed the right amount, then gave it back.

When you acquire a puppy the dog whisperers tell you to make sure it knows who's in control. The big argument in politics is whether we control ourselves or Europe does. Control is everywhere. 

Especially in the brain-teasing, exhausting, but always brilliant world of fostering.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014


It's really odd how people like to have a go at certain professions.

Never their own. Oh no. Their own profession, they say, is misunderstood, sometimes. That's if anybody ever notices them. 

But professions ranging from the police to plumbers get it in the neck routinely. It's lazy of us all, but there's something people seem to enjoy about slagging off people who do a different job from them.

So teachers and social workers are fair game too and these are the two main professions affecting us as foster carers. 

I remember standing outside the gates of one school, the children were a few minutes late coming out, and a dad I didn't know turned to me and said "You'd think they could afford to buy a decent watch on their salaries, then they'd know when it's 3.15 and time for them to go home, that's when they're not having their thirteen weeks holiday a year."

I was astonished with his basic assumption that as a fellow parent I would obviously share his obnoxious views. On this occasion I'm proud to say I replied "Actually I've been a teacher myself and it's not like that at all." He was very apologetic. It was as though he didn't really mean it or even believe it, it was just a conversation opener; that teachers are rubbish and fair game.

It's the same with social workers, especially when there's a big tragedy involving a child. Then everyone from the newspapers down agrees: "The social workers missed it, aren't they useless". The commonly held belief is that social workers are either ripping children from happy families to keep themselves in a job, or missing cases of serious neglect and abuse because they aren't any good at spotting the obvious signs.

I blame that "Rogue Traders" programme. It's got us thinking that whenever no-one's looking, everyone lights a fag and pees in the customer's water tank.

As a foster carer you have to be really, really on your guard for prejudices against teachers and social workers. Once you  start to listen to other parents slating the school it's a slippery slope, especially since your foster child depends on having his or her needs calmly and objectively outlined to the school. And without social workers there'd be no fostering, simple as that. In fact, I dread to imagine a Britain without social workers, it would be the land Charles Dickens wrote about with Poor Houses, children up chimneys and miserable orphanages. 

Not all teachers and social workers are perfect. Not all foster carers are perfect either. On the whole I've found Blue Sky highly professional at the tricky task of helping foster carers interact with teachers and local authority social workers when issues come up. You need someone businesslike on your side in fostering, which is why I'm glad I'm with an agency.

So, since this business of defining other people's professions is subject to totally black-and-white soundbite judgement, I'm happy to smile along with the following.

Footballers are overpaid dopes.
Lawyers are overpaid ambulance chasers.
Politicians are out of touch, and since they are not overpaid, they all have their hand in the till.
Plumbers are overpaid chain smokers. And incontinent.
Butchers put their thumb on the scales.
Postmen have houses full of undelivered mail.
The Police will let you off if your dad is a gangster.

And for the record; teachers and social workers are doing a difficult job, and doing it magnificently.

And so are foster carers.