Friday, November 28, 2014


I had a fantastic fostering experience recently, I had to let the dust settle on it before mentioning it here.

I met a foster child who had been with us years before, and I hadn't seen or heard anything about the child for all that time.

He was a boy then, he's a young man now.

I was at a fostering function, there were three hundred people there, foster children and foster parents. One of our foster children was with us as part of the function, so our attention was very much on our child all the time; you want new experiences to be as good for them as possible so you're on your toes all the time making sure they aren't fazed by anything, checking that they've understood how a buffet works, that sort of thing. You get a little glow when you see them talking to children they've never met before, because social interaction can be a big hurdle for children in care.

Then we bumped into a foster couple we hadn't seen for years, pure chance. We knew them because we'd both cared for the same boy in our time. The boy had spells with them, and two spells with us. Then things had gone a bit sour for him and he needed more round-the-clock care than fostering could give him, so he was moved to a special live-in centre. Expensive for the state, but our system in this country is better than most people think.

So we got chatting to the other foster couple and almost the first thing they said was "Darcy's here". They said it in that whisper that people use when they are passing on some big information.

It was big information too, because Darcy had been hard work for all of us, but here we were with an opportunity to see how he was going along.

My stand-out memories of him were of a boy who had every reason to be at odds with the world. He loved fast cars, so every chance we had I used to drive him to a little race circuit and watch the cars go round.

Round and round. Round and round and round and round. 

Hours on end.

You do a lot of things with foster children that are borderline tedious but immensely valuable to the child because often they've never had anyone show any interest in their interests.

I remember that Darcy was very average at football but he and I played it in our garden sometime for hours. Him versus me. Him kicking into a goal that was almost as wide as our lawn, me kicking into one so small Rooney would have had a problem. Darcy won every match something like 10-3. In each game it was a silent rule that he had to score first, then second, then third. Only when he was three up could I risk scoring without him getting crestfallen. 

I remember taking him up to a meadow for a walk, and at one point where there was no sign of civilisation, throwing his arms wide and his head back and smiling a smile I will never forget, a smile of some kind of almost primitive contentment.  He was momentarily free of every vestige of the twenty-first century. There was nothing about the twenty-first century that hadn't caused him grief and pain.

He had anger, and frustration, he was pretty mixed up. But your heart went out to him. You desperately wanted him to be okay.

So there I stood at this function, one eye on my foster child, the other roaming the room for Darcy.

And there he was. Sitting at a table with his current carers. Looking straight at me.

Sorry, but I'm writing these words with a blurry screen, blurred because my eyes are a bit teary. With happiness, thinking about it.

Darcy had his elbows on the table, his black hoodie down, he was looking at me waiting for me to see him. 

He wanted me to see him, he was confident I would be happy to see him, confident I would be pleased with how he was growing up. No question about it, that was his mindset, and deservedly so.

He was at the function to accept a big award for his progress and performance.

He was proud. Full of self-actualisation, and that's the name of the game.

I went over, careful to talk and behave like you do to a young man, not like you do to the boy you remember.

"Darcy, nice to see you" says I.

"Nice to see you" he replied, glancing away, suddenly a bit shy.

"Congratulations on your award"

"Yeah" he shrugged, like everyone does, not knowing how to take praise.

I said "We've still got that fox" (He'd been fond of staying up to watch for a fox that came through our back garden every night).

He went back to little boy "Really!" 

I wanted to say "Everyone says you're doing really well, and on the mend and putting all your awful past behind you and turning into a well-rounded young man, who still gets sad and even angry, but it going to turn out fine, great even"

But I didn't. Couldn't. Too graphic. So I said "The food's not bad is it?"

I think he wanted to say something meaningful too, but we both knew pretty much what the other was thinking so it wasn't necessary. Instead he replied "Yeah I've been up twice"

So I said "Going up again?" and he chuckled and said "Yeah" and with that he got up.

And up and up and up.

The little boy who had been so very very vulnerable and frightened and confused  and was so happy to be distracted from his troubles by watching racing cars and playing garden footy, spotting the fox and enjoying the meadow, he looked down at me and said in a voice that came from his boots:

"Nice to see you" and moved off back to the buffet.

Great moment, I think for both of us. His other other foster carers told us later they'd had the same exchange with him. I keep wondering whether I can allow myself to congratulate myself for any part in his development, because in fostering you need all the self-belief you can garner.

But the honest truth is I feel so much relief that he's surviving well, there's no room for much else.

A week later I still feel relieved he's not gone down the drain. I have some pride about it all, but it's mainly that I'm part of a system which cares for young people who a hundred years ago would have been doomed and hardly anyone gave a damn, certainly not the state.

Like I said, a fantastic experience.

If you foster I hope you get moments like that from time to time.

If you don't foster, I wonder if you have any idea what you're missing...

Saturday, November 22, 2014


I've always found the ancient saying "Even a thousand mile journey begins with the first step" annoying. Nowadays a thousand mile journey is about the equivalent of going to the Seychelles, and it would begin with a ride to the airport. Or some injections. 

With fostering, people give it a lot of thought before the watershed moment of getting in touch. Quite right, it's a big thing no mistake. But you can think about something too much. 

For me, looking back to when we were thinking about it, I remember one weird misconception: I somehow thought that if I took the plunge and made the phone call and said;  "Hello, I'm interested in fostering" something massive would change for ever, at that moment. I remember I actually felt nervous just thinking about making that phone call, so I put it off.
I've been trying to get a picture of why I put it off because it's a good thing to know everything about yourself but also because it might be of interest to anyone else who is in the same boat.
I have a feeling that I had a vague worry that I'd be rejected. We suffer lots of rejections in life, and often end up simply not taking the risk of being told "No thanks" for the umpteenth time. Well that particular worry was very ill-founded, the response down the phone was one of pure delight that I'd called. People who are involved in finding new foster carers, in my instance Blue Sky, are always, always delighted to get your call. 

Another mysterious worry was that some of the good things in my life would change or even disappear at that moment. I put it off because it felt like it would be a 'No going back on it' moment. Silly, but it's true, I think the negative part of my brain was telling me that the moment I made the call, the very instant I got in touch about fostering, my life would change, and like everyone I was a bit afraid of the unknown. I don't understand my own logic with this one because I knew that  nothing would actually happen at that moment, I suppose I was a bit afraid of making that first commitment, putting wheels in motion.

The other thing that was in my mind was that it was nice thinking about fostering, but would it be as nice to actually be in the real-life process of being checked out? I'd go from being someone bowling along merrily musing about fostering to someone weighed down with all sorts of massive burdens. A cheerful daydream would be replaced by harsh reality.

And the final thing was the worry about being checked out. Is our house alright? Will the wallpaper in the front room let us down?  Is the main road too near? Does it matter that my partner has three points on his licence? Will they like us? The woman who lives two doors down thinks our sons shouldn't skateboard on the pavement, are we bad parents? Is there a medical? Will they want to see out bank statements?

So for a while I kept putting the call off. I honestly can't remember what made me actually make the call, all I can remember is a huge sense of relief that I did, because instantly I handed the burden and the worry over to someone else. It became Blue Sky's job to sort me out for fostering. I literally sat back and enjoyed the ride. 

A Blue Sky man, all big grins and two sugars in his tea paid me a visit that lasted fifteen minutes and we chatted. There were no tricky questions. He got up to go and said something like "Yes, we're definitely interested in taking things along with you, we'll make a date for someone else to visit"
And a few days later I was getting know a social worker whose job was to accompany us through the process, hold our hand if you like. Our concerns about being checked out turned out to be almost daft, it was a friendly, respectful process.

I find myself often saying to myself and others that I wish I hadn't put it off, because now I know that getting in touch isn't the same as signing on the dotted line.

I'm not saying fostering is as much fun as two weeks in the Seychelles, but I'm quite certain that the first step is more enjoyable than injections.

Monday, November 17, 2014


I think the thing I find hardest to keep in mind is that the job is to get your foster children back to their real home.

It's what fostering is all about. Looking after someone else's child while the someone elses' of this world get their act together. Then when they are straightened out, ease their child back to them.

The thing that ought to make it easy to remember is that foster children want to go home. I mean they really, really want to go home. Big time. As a foster parent you try not to dwell on the fact that this young person, living in your house as family, desperately wants to leave.

They eat your hearty home cooked food, dip into the biscuit barrel without a please or thank you, do the washing up so badly it has to be done all over again, mess up the bathroom and hitch rides here there and everywhere arriving half-an-hour late at the pickup point with a scowl if we so much as hint we've been getting worried.

They hop off school, turn up at home smelling of smoke. Sometimes you're lucky if they turn up at home, sometimes you have to go and collect them at the local police station.

I'm on first names terms with the woman PC who run the desk at our nearest nick, true fact. Okay it was only the one of our many foster children who 'came to their attention', but I've left their phone number on my phone, you never know.

But back to my point; I need to keep reminding myself that I'm supposed to want them to go home.

When you've put yourself through the often harrowing ordeal of learning what the foster child's life was like at home before they came into care, it's going to be hard to trust they'll be okay.

Yet if you ever ask a foster child "Is there anything you want to ask?"

The answer is always "When am I going home?"

Isn't love amazing? It triumphs over the worst violation; parental neglect, abuse, cruelty, abandonment, assault.

The child's love for their parent even triumphs over the glaring fact that sometimes the parent has no love at all for the child.

Care is amazing too. There's more to caring for some poor mite than home cooked food and clean sheets. When you learn about their story you feel for them how could you not? They often sense this in you, that you are giving them more than a roof over their head. That you are giving them what all children deserve, a kind, strong parent who wants them to be okay, better than okay, who wants them to make it to the top of the world.

And when you feel for someone, that feeling is there for life, and you always want to know they're alright.

How do you work towards getting them to leave? You have to be clear what the plan is, that's where your social workers are crucial. Once you know, you find ways of letting the child know, using what they call age-and-stage appropriate  language and concepts. No point reading a Court Order verbatim to a five year old.

If foster carers want to spare themselves from worrying they better toughen up.

But it looks like that doesn't happen, not in my case. I want to feel for our foster children, I want to be hopeful yet sad when they go. I want to long to know how they are doing, but I don't take any steps to find out. 

Mainly because I'm getting busy with the next placement.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


When you foster, with Blue Sky anyway, you get invited to regular training sessions.

I was a bit reluctant at first, never liked school, and anyway, if I need training, I thought to myself, why did they hire me?

Other half stepped in and pointed out that in-service training is the norm almost everywhere nowadays. It's done to keep employees abreast of new ideas.

I liked that. Cutting edge stuff, hot from the press. New thinking. Box fresh.

Here's the thing. When you are at school you learn as much from your experiences in the playground as you do in the classroom. I know teachers disagree, but how do they know, they're never in the playground...

When you go to training there are nice long coffee breaks, and you pick up as many new techniques from other carers as from the actual session.

For example

Let Them Learn the Consequences of their Own Choices: 

One of my friends is a very relaxed foster carer. Never gets het up, it's all water off a duck's back. I mentioned to her I was having trouble getting mine to wear a coat to school as coats 'aren't cool'. She said that if they don't want to wear a coat, let 'em. If they get cold they get cold, no-one else to blame. I tried it and it worked 100%.

The Art of Changing the Subject

To be fair, they touched on this (the art of distraction) during a training session on de-escalation (taking the heat out of the moment). But over coffee we knitted the formal advice into a game plan, which is as follows; don't get sucked in when a foster child is trying it on, instead;

Carer:"Time for bed"

Child: "No!"

Carer: (Walking out and up the stairs) "Oh and I keep meaning to ask, what do you want for your birthday?"

Turning It Into A Game

Wrong way: Carer: "Put your shoes on it's time for school" (Wrong, because a) It's an order b) there's no 'please' - see below - and c) any use of the word 'school' is going to antagonise).

Right way: "Welcome to the House Olympics where the champion shoe-putter-onner Wayne is attempting to beat his own world record of 24.7 seconds for putting his shoes on and tying both laces. he's sitting on the stairs ready, the crowd goes quiet...and Go!"


They say punctuality is the politeness of Kings, but for the rest of us politeness is the politeness of fostering. I heard this brilliant story from a foster parent who was eleven years in the army, he's about seven feet tall, no-one would argue with him, but he is hot on politeness. Told us about the time he was sneaking back into base late one night and an RSM was waiting in ambush. "A very good evening to you Sergeant Smith," he said "I trust you had an enjoyable evening at the Dog and Duck? I wonder if you would be kind enough to come to my quarters after parade tomorrow please?" The RSM informed him that his 'punishment' was to babysit for him every time he and Mrs RSM wanted to go out to the Dog and Duck. It was while looking after the junior RSMs that fostering crossed his mind.

Once the penny drops that you should be as polite to children as you want them to be to you, you suddenly notice the rudeness of most adults towards their children. I reckon plenty of children get to the age of 18 and no-one older than them has ever said "Please".

Everywhere you go adults are ordering children to say "Please". Never asking.

Make 'Em Laugh

Laughing About It.

We laugh a lot at training. Or, to put it another way, aren't too serious about whatever it is. A lot of good carers turn the fun on at home. If child leaves their peas on the plate, lean across and eat a forkful, then keel over like you've been poisoned. A good funny game is where they get to act like you and you get to act like them, done with care always funny, and good for the soul (yours as well as the child's). 

Obviously if the moment is about something very real and dark to the child, it's time for your serious side. But playing the joker at the right times often gets the job done.

If the worst comes to it, tell a joke. We sometimes swap them over coffee, then tell our foster children. This one caused five minutes laughter then twenty minutes discussion:

"The first full sentence ever spoken by a human was 'I have no idea what you're talking about'."

Sunday, November 09, 2014


My marriage has never been in any serious trouble, at least not as far as I'm aware. One or two trips to the doldrums, no casualties though.

I put it like that because although you can get close to someone, you can't read their mind. You can't BE the other person, get into their skin.

If my partner in life has ever had big doubts they've come and gone. I'm 99.9% sure there aren't any doubts at this moment in time.

I mention marriage in relation to fostering because fostering has changed our marriage. 

Lots of things impact a marriage. I use the term 'marriage' to cover all types of long-term live-in partnerships, by the way.

  • Birth

Children are the number one influence on a marriage, it's fair to say that's a no brainer. They bring you together enormously, and push you apart a bit too. Suddenly there is someone in your house who your other half loves as much as you. You are not as important as you used to be, in your own house. You are not as important as you used to be to yourself even. You have someone in your life who is totally dependent on you, whose happiness is more important to you than your own.

  • Ructions
Marital differences of opinion range from minor to major. Normal. If the Queen hasn't thrown a rolling pin at Philip at some point or another I'm a monkey's uncle, but they soldier on, like we all do in our relationships. We have to find ways to soldier on, mend bridges, sometimes mainly for the children (see above).

  • Deaths
Finality is the ultimate body blow to us all, and it hits marriage hard. Each marriage has a minimum of four parent-figures looming over the partners, and they drop off their perches, dammit. And the marriage is beset. Death can snatch a child away; the hugest impact. A miscarriage is a death. Your children grow into adults, and in that sense you lose your children. Then there's serious illness, general health worries. The finality of life, when it deals us a blow, makes us re-assess our lives, and that impacts on marriage.

  • Growth and Personal Development
We don't stop growing when our body stops growing. Our personalities and our take on life undergo subtle changes down the years. I sometimes look at a photo we have on the wall of us on our wedding day, and as I look into my own eyes as they were those years ago I know I'm quite different from that wide-eyed young thing. In a good way, fingers crossed, but different for sure.

  • Fortune
I use the word 'fortune' in two ways; luck and money. They can stand alone, but can be joined at the hip. Luck plays a ridiculously large part in our lives. I've yet to meet a couple who haven't noticed that the odds against their ever meeting were a million-to-one. Someone asked Napoleon what he looked for in a man when appointing his generals and he replied "Ones who get lucky". Then there's money. Wealth doesn't mend a broken relationship, but hard times can strain a happy one. 

  • Fostering
Here's the thing: all of the above are rolled up in fostering, plus one big thing I haven't mentioned yet because it only applies to fostering. 
Fostering is all about children, obviously. 
There is also a finality about each foster child you take on, because the day will come when you say goodbye, for good. 
If you don't grow and develop when you foster something is seriously afoot, because you are sharing your life with someone whose troubles make your own look like anthills.
Fortune is the name of the game in fostering. Fostering is Forrest Gump's box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get next. And you receive a nice cheque every fortnight.

  • Professional Support
If your marriage gets rocky, you turn things over in your mind. Maybe talk to someone close, a friend. If it gets serious people sometimes turn to counselling, though I've not heard of any great outcomes from the Marriage Guidance fallback.
In fostering you have professional people all around you who are working with you on your fostering. The foster child is their priority, that's the golden rule for everybody. Their next priority is the foster parents, and if they are in a marriage or partnership of any kind, then the welfare of that relationship comes next.
They are aware of the pressures in your fostering before they become problems. Take for example a common issue, which is that the foster child shows a distinct preference for one foster parent over the other. It's so common it's almost universal, yet the reason for it is usually very specific with each child.
We had one child who worshipped my husband and was really dismissive of me. It hurt, but I didn't want to make a thing of it, for fear it made me look like I was needy. But our Blue Sky social worker saw it coming over the hill and rode it to a standstill. Spotted it from the weekly records we have to email in, which really help by the way. Our social worker asked about it first question every time she pitched up for our monthly meeting. Made me feel so much better, and better about my other half who hadn't really twigged it was getting on my wick.

The bottom line is this; fostering is all-round good for your marriage or partnership, I can just about offer that as a promise, based on the fact I've yet to meet a couple who are in fostering who say it's come between them. They usually say it's strengthened them, as it has for us.

Fostering is also good for you if you're single, if the woman carer I meet at Blue Sky events is typical.

Maybe it's good for her relationship with herself, there's a thought.

Maybe it's good for my relationship with me, come to think of it.

Cue another mug of tea, and chew on that one waiting for the family to wake up, it's 5.30am in the kitchen and I'm up and happy, and more awake than I've ever been in life.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


I heard that old chestnut again today "Life's not a sprint it's a marathon"

I don't agree. For one thing sprints are more interesting than marathons, and life is actually a succession of sprints.

Being a child is a rush from one year to the next. Love and marriage is a dash to the line.  The world of work is one starting gun after another, anyone who thinks the tape is strung out for when you're 65 has got another think coming.

Fostering is one burst of activity after another, mental and physical. It is definitely not a long plod.

A child needs a home for a while. It might be a night, a weekend, a week, a month. Maybe a bit more. It's a short-term thing compared to say, your own children. Actually, having a foster child in your home breaks down into even shorter sprints.

The pre-arrival.  You get a phone call asking if you'd consider a particular child, Blue Sky's placement team are brilliant, they give you all you need to know and help you make your judgement. And you can't kick it around for ever, a child needs you. You  have to decide 'Yes' or 'No' based on the info plus your gut. I feel very alive during this process, excited that I'm maybe lining up make a difference.

Then you get the nod and rush round the house tweaking. Quick trip to the supermarket for whatever their favourite meal is.

The arrival. It's a tension, no mistake. In a good way. Usually happens mid-afternoon in my experience, can be any time though. There's always a Blue Sky social worker present for the arrival. Which is brilliant especially for your first few. But then they leave and it's...

The first meal. I am always eternally grateful that the background information on a new arrival includes food fads. I've learned to let the child know in advance the food will go out on the table in bowls, they can pile their plate as they like. I think it's a pressure for them if you load up a plate and put it in front of them, choosing the foods and the portions for them, on day one. I've tried to put myself in their place, first evening meal with a family of strangers. Wondering who we all are, and what's going to happen in their lives. I can't do it. It must be horrendous for them.

First night. You make sure they understand how everything in the bathroom works. I always tell them they can knock on our bedroom door at any time if they are frightened or anything like that. They sometimes do. Dealing with their first night is another sprint.

That's about six sprints already.

Then, frankly, every day is a new event. You learn their foibles and funny ways.You have your first setback; you try to sprint through that alright, but the pace is often out of your control. You spot the things that the child needs help with. Then you can do one of two things; turn down your hearing apparatus and opt for the quiet life, or roll up your sleeves, give the help and enjoy the ride.

I'll be honest, I prefer the ride, but equally I know you need to step back from time to time and give yourself a breather.

Hey, a hairdo and a Friday night out with best friends is another little sprint.

I remember when it was a marathon.