Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Becoming a foster parent had popped in and out of my mind for a long time. We talked about it often at home. His view was always "Too hard". How can you work out what it's going to be like?

What I've discovered is that fostering is really no harder than just about any other aspect of modern life.  But it's a lot more rewarding than almost anything.

What happened to us was this.

A leaflet came through the door from a local college asking if people could take a foreign student. We had a spare bedroom.

The income looked useful, it was something you could easily back out of (the summer students are only here for 6 weeks), and it might turn out to be very interesting.

The money was useful, though it wasn't life-changing. We did back out in the end because it turned out to be VERY interesting.

Foreign students are here to learn English, or get English A levels so they can go to an English University. They all came from well-to-do families, because it's not cheap to educate and pay for accommodation your teenager in England. 

We had about a dozen students over a period of about 3 years. Some were great. Most were all over the place.

There was the Finnish boy who wouldn't come out of this room and refused to speak. The college couldn't help.

A Brazilian boy who disappeared for days on end, smoked 40 a day and punched a hole in the bedroom dry wall, we never found out why. We were on our own.

A 19 year-old girl from Europe (I have to be careful of privacy) who got pregnant and couldn't tell her strictly Catholic father, so we had to help her get an abortion. And sort her out afterwards. By ourselves.

Then a Russian girl 18, a very head-turning young woman. Her dad, she said, was on the run from the Mafia but made his money out of a "casino which has rooms above to rent by the hour". He liked to go hunting. With a machine gun. She used to spend all her spare time in bed with her laptop. Sometimes she'd take a bath with her laptop.  She complained every day that her parents wouldn't give her enough money, but she always seemed flush. One day a young Russian man visited her. He told us he was in business on the internet, we never really got our heads round what was going on, but I have a sneaking feeling I know. One night she came downstairs and said her younger brother had just died in a house fire, the mother had got drunk and gone to sleep and the boy had set fire to a pair of his father's trousers. Naturally we wondered if she was catastrophising.

So we Googled an international news station, and there it was, the fire and everything she said.  We nursed her through endless all-night phone calls, then got her onto the first flight home.

At some point about this time, I said to him; "You know what; fostering is probably no harder than this".

So a few days later I Googled "fostering" in my area and Blue Sky came up top of the list. I phoned them and asked for some info about it. Six months later we told the college we were no longer able to take students. We'd been accepted.

Fostering is no harder than real life, actually. Except in real life you don't have the backup of a big organisation whose responsibility is to support you all the way. 

The allowance is about 3 times better, and the emotional rewards are about 10 times better.

That's how we got into it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


The grind of shopping is best done alone. I'm talking about essentials, not retail therapy, which is best with soul mates. The daily shopping for essentials is much more difficult with children, even more so with foster children, generally. You spend half the time explaining why you can't spend vast amounts on things they suddenly see and want.

Seems as though round every shelf corner, at the end of every aisle, especially near the queue for the till, is stuff stacked at child's eye level and packaged at children, and priced just within their reach.

That's the retail industry. They are so unbelievably clever at pressing people's buttons, especially children's buttons. All we parents want to do is sweep through the supermarket or dart along the high street and get home, unpack and get on the outside of a cup of tea.

No chance.

"Can I have some sweets? Can I have a toy?"

There are a thousand ways to say "No" and none of them do the trick. They fail because around the next aisle, at child's eye level, is something else packaged, priced and stacked exactly for them.

It's not the child's fault. They are in no way whatsoever to blame. We parents are out buying stuff, their logic is "How come the grown-ups can go on a buying spree and we can't?" I have tried explaining to one of my foster children that I am not doing retail therapy, I'm buying essentials.

"Oh yeah right." came the reply, as he looked at the trolley "Prima magazine, chocolate digestives, a bottle of wine, like you'd die without those yeah?"

"Er fair enough..but..."

"Grapes, muffins, moisturiser..."

I've mentioned this foster child before, the one who's going to be a lawyer unless he's careful.

"Well you like grapes and muffins."

"Yeah but my point is; you're not just buying stuff we need. You're buying stuff that's fun for you as well. So why I can't I buy stuff that's fun for me?"

"Because I'm not made of money"

"How much money do you have in the world?"

"Not enough to buy everything you and I want"

"I only want a bag of Tangfastics"

It's not the child's fault. They never want to go shopping anyway, why would they? I never wanted to trawl around the shops with my mum when I was little, it was boring. Scary too for some reason. I would have wanted to trawl round the shops with someone else's mum even less.

Foster children often seem to have a very poor understanding of the value of money, maybe the adults in the home they were brought up in had the same problem. Foster children may not have been gently tutored in the difficult skill of going round the shops and behaving yourself. 

But also, in my mind on many shopping trips, is the simple fact that children who are taken into care have had a rough time of one sort or another. So then you find yourself asking yourself "Should I cave in out of basic kindness and agree to the spot purchase I'm being battered into submission to buy?" 

To be honest, I cave in sometimes. More often than I did with my own children, though they tended not to hassle so much or so fervently. Or so cunningly. When I give in, of course, and the child has the peace offering - a bag of sweets or a knick-knack - it's usually not enough. Scenting blood they will pitch for the headphones/GTA5*/puppy/flying lessons.

The solution to this particular fostering problem is easy, of course. Don't take them on the shopping trip. Not always possible, but by far the best thing.

Second best is trade-off: "If you don't ask for anything in the supermarket you can have an extra half hour before bedtime tonight". 

Doesn't always work. Because round every shelf corner, at the end of every aisle, especially near the queue for the till, is stuff stacked at child's eye level and packaged at children, and priced just within their reach.

Just like the Prima, chocolate digestives and moisturiser that take the curse off shopping for us adults.

*Grand Theft Auto 5, I'm told.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


We argue at home about how to foster sometimes, the pair of us. Not often and not with daggers drawn. We argued about how to bring up our own children too. Isn't that normal parenting?

Normal parenting goes on all around us. We first see normal parenting from the moment we open our eyes after birth. We see it everywhere, not just in real life but as a theme in films and TV, books and plays.

In fostering your roles are less familiar, the ground is less well trodden. There are plenty of similarities with normal parenting, but plenty of stuff that's unique to fostering. We argued about how to bring up our own children, but found a way through every time, and ended up agreeing that most of our attitudes to parenting could be traced back to how we were parented. We were desperate for things to turn out alright for our own children, so the debates were sometimes passionate, although no crockery was lost or injured in the process.

I got talking to another foster carer at a recent Blue Sky event for children. She has a teenage foster child, a girl, who is leaving school and looking for work.

The girl has wanted to be a hairdresser for some time and the carer told me they have managed to get her a six week trial at a local salon, starting soon. She's excited about it, but very nervous. The foster carer I mean, not the girl.

The girl isn't fantastically academic, has had spates of trouble at school on and off all her life. She doesn't quite look the part yet, the carer said. She didn't mean this in an unkind way, just meant that the girl wasn't 100% the dash that hairdressers aim for; trim outline, crisp personality, bubbly and warm. Not straight away at any rate.

We agreed that fostered children are often so used to failure that they sometimes almost bring it on themselves to comply with their own life-script.

Foster children have often been given the role of being a nuisance, someone who gets things wrong. They've often been regarded within their family as a big reason why the family is struggling.

They end up playing a role to fail, maybe even make others fail too.

The foster carer, a lovely woman, is worried that the girl will be given jobs like sweeping up hair and making coffee all day and will end up bored and feeling irrelevant, or make a hash of things and be asked to leave. Or both.

The foster carer told me she's terrified this will happen. She knows the girl, she's familiar with her life-script. 

But we agreed, this kind of parental worrying happens with all our children; we just want them to succeed.

But then there's the scissors thing.

The scissors thing is that before the girl came to this foster carer she was in a foster home where there was an incident in which she threatened to self-harm and that led to a big discussion involving two social workers and a psychotherapist plus the carers about whether she should be allowed to keep the scissors in her room she used to trim her own hair and nails. The girl's scissors weren't removed and she didn't self-harm. There's been no repeat, but the episode is on her record.

The foster carer disagrees with her husband about the hairdressers job. He thinks it's too risky because failure will knock the girl back. The carer thinks the girl should take the chance and get some experience. She and her husband have totally opposing views. They disagree about it. Often. You might think this is an unpleasant situation for the pair of them.

It's the opposite. It's actually great because the reason they argue is that they both are desperate for things to turn out alright for the child. This is to do with the skills and scope of normal parenting.

The scissors thing, and whether a foster chid who may or may not have had a scissors thing should be going into hairdressing...this is part of the the skills and scope of foster parenting.

I'll try and let you know how it turns out.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Watched the end of a marathon race on TV. Interesting. 26 miles plus 365 yards. The extra 365 yards were tacked on when the Olympics were held in London and the King said that the finish line should be in front of his box, so they extended the distance by 365 yards to suit him. And it's stuck. Those extra 365 yards for no good reason must jar with all those athletes, after 26 miles, the original distance from Marathon to Athens.

I think I speak for all foster carers in saying that school holidays are interesting too. The summer break can be fantastic, but a bit of a marathon. Then schools add an extra day. Inset Day, for no good reason. And it's stuck.

My experience in fostering is, when the children are at home all day, there's no point trying to get much done around the house. You can't cook anything special; younger foster children get jealous if you're lavishing your affection on stuffing mushrooms. Can't even hoover sometimes.

Easter holidays are okay. The weather is starting to break, you can get to the park. 

Christmas holidays depend on the individual foster child. It's a difficult time for a child in care, they want to be home and part of their real family, but if that can't happen, we carers have a wonderful opportunity to bring some magic into their life. 

Half term can be a hoot. I let them enjoy the first few days of freedom (lie-ins, cereal in their bedroom, chicken McNuggets for lunch). Then I start teasing the event. The event, usually on the Thursday or Friday, is nothing more than a trip to a soft-play centre or even the failsafe zoo.

The summer holiday is too long of course, but the length of the break from school helps in a way. Often the foster child gets into a daily pattern, a leisure routine. If you're lucky they become a bit self-sufficient - you can get a few jobs done, then play.

But don't get me started on Baker Days. Or Inset Days as they're now called. They're a joke. An insult to everyone's intelligence and an injury to working parents and foster carers. If parents can be fined for taking their children out of school for an affordable holiday, it's about time some bloody-minded parent sued the government for taking the school out of the child.

Especially when the first day of the new school year is an Inset Day. After a six week summer break.

Six weeks paid holiday and teachers can't get together on the Friday before the new school term? Give up one day of watering the runner beans and watching Escape To The Country?

You wonder if some teachers think teaching would be easier without the kids.

Plenty of sensible teachers are against Inset Days, not only teachers with school-aged children of their own. Striking teachers would do their case a big service by voluntarily scrapping Inset Days.

"Inset" stands for In Service Training.  Aren't teachers "In service" during school holidays? Also; I know it's a silly thought, but teachers never strike during school holidays or on Inset Days...

The thing is that summer holiday is a special time in fostering, but it's a marathon. You don't need the extra 365 yards.

Sunday, August 03, 2014


In the past, if my memory is correct, almost everything that got done at work was done with two vague hopes; one, that it was worth doing, and two, that it got done properly. Then you moved on to the next thing. There wasn't much target and measurement at work or at least nowhere near as much as today. Not at work. School however was all about target and measurement. We number-stamped children as they prepared to leave school for work, a child was maybe "Two A Levels, a B and a D" or "One O Level, metalwork grade four".

Today there's a wealth of data about work (and play) that gets crunched into results and presented in all sorts of ways. Graphs and pie charts may be a bit old hat but every time someone fires up the power point you know you're in for some graphically digitised numbers. 

Numbers are safe, they're a closed shop. If the numbers say that; 

"In 1914 the average life expectancy was 45. By 2014 the figure had risen to 78"

It's game over. No argument. Modern adults can expect to live 70% longer than 100 years ago. Fact.

The thing is; some things are easy to measure, other things are next-to-impossible. Or are they? There was a survey out this week that asked people how long it took them in a relationship to say:"I love you". The results were that the Welsh were quickest: 68 days on average. The English were the slowest: 120 days.

It seems that measurements nowadays can even be taken about something that's as elusive and private as love.

As a foster carer I'd love to know the numbers about whether fostering works. Why do I want to know the numbers? I'd just like to drop it into conversation with myself, with my family and friends, with foster children where appropriate. I'd like the real parents to know that it's proven to help their children, whether they like it or not. I'd like courts and judges and local authorities to know that what we do is concrete, verified, rubber stamped, quality controlled, trade-marked, bona fide. A scientific fact. 

If 8 out of 10 cats can be found to prefer Whiskas why can't foster parents have a similar factoid to run with?

It's possible that having data about what techniques and approaches work best in fostering compared to things that have mixed success will help us be better foster carers.

There are some numbers out there about fostering: the number of children living with foster carers (50,900 at March 2013). Their gender, age and ethnicity. What other type of care is being given (6,000 are in secure units).

But does fostering work? Does it improve the chances of a child becoming a rounded individual? Does it improve society as a whole?

I seem to remember this being touched on at several Blue Sky training sessions and support meetings. Disappointingly, all that's known about whether fostering works is that many foster children don't escape the clutches of their early problems and end up in trouble in their later lives. We foster carers are re-assured that this is no reflection on what we do, it's down to the extent of the negatives that were absorbed before the child was offered help and protection. 

Plenty of fostered children end up okay, stay clear of trouble and do alright for themselves. 

I want to know if fostering helped the child and how it helped and how much it helped. Surely some attempt can be made to get those facts. 

You see I'm certain that fostering plays a big part in bettering everything around us. Fostering benefits the child, benefits their families, benefits society. Fostering benefits foster parents. 

But we don't have any numbers to go on. I know numbers aren't everything. I know they can be misleading even. For example, the numbers about life expectancy don't demonstrate that adults can expect to live any longer than they did 100 years ago, they actually show that about half of babies born a hundred years ago died during childhood. But the general message of optimism is still there.

Maybe the measurements and conclusions about fostering are out there but I've not stumbled on them.  

Or, more likely, the outcomes of fostering remain one of the few key human matters relatively untouched by target and measurement. Maybe a bit of an elephant in the room. Or maybe there's a fear that the numbers will suggest that fostering is hardly more than a holding operation rather than a healing one. A halfway house before the child goes on to even more troubled ways. But I don't believe they'd find that.

For example, once there was a little boy who was fostered and things turned out alright for him, to the extent that he's on his way to becoming the most important person who ever lived. Everyone has heard of him, half the world cannot speak his name without blessing his memory. Everything he said and did is famous and celebrated beyond imagination.

Yet, unless I'm very much mistaken, hardly a soul knows that the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a foster child.