Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Foster children have a lot to deal with in life, more than the average child obviously.

Most foster parents who have brought up children of their own will have experience of bringing up average children. Average in terms of their damage. So it follows that most foster children will be carrying baggage that is new to us.

This is why we get regular home visits from our Blue Sky social worker. They are there to help and support us, the foster parents. Obviously they care about the child too, but the child has their own social worker, who prioritises the child, and also visits us at home regularly.

Plus we can attend get-togethers with other foster carers to swap stories about what we do, then there are the training sessions too.

It happens that from time to time a child needs a bit extra, and that's when an organisation called CAMHS is brought on board to help with your fostering. They don't do home visits, at least I've never had one, you take your child along to their place.

CAMHS stands for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services, which sounds a bit heavy, but they are uttely delightful and brilliant in what they do.

Their building has a bright and breezy reception area. One feature is that there's a photo on the wall of every single person who works in the building, from the senior psychologists to the lady on the front desk, with their name and job description written under their photo. 

The thing is that each photo is of that person when they were a child, aged about 7. It's a brilliant ice-breaker, plus a massive reminder that the main tool everyone brings to working with children is the simple fact that we were one once.

When it's your turn the CAMHS person comes and collects you and takes you into a private room.

The CAMHS person gives off loads of good practice all the while you're with them. They speak to you and the child using language the child can digest, and does all sorts of things to make the child feel comfortable, such as explaining what's in the room and why. They take the same eye level as the child. Last time I took a child he sat on a beanbag on the floor, and the CAMHS person dropped down onto the floor too. Then out came a plastic box with toys and things that the CAMHS person had put together from what she had learned about the child from notes - a plastic football for example.

Amazingly, well for me it was amazing, there was a pack of chewing gum in the box.

"Chewing gum is great for getting people thinking" she said "And it's also good for when people feel angry or sad." Brilliant. I'm buying shares in Wrigleys.

After an initial session they tend to see the child alone, so you sit in reception for an hour. Often there are older children waiting their turn who don't have adults with them.

When the hour is over you have a few words with the CAMHS person, with the child present, if they believe there's anything that needs to be told to you out of the child's hearing they phone you later or next day when the child's at school.

I leave it to the CAMHS person to explain to the child why the child is at CAMHS, they know how to do that.

I always give the child a little treat afterwards telling them that going to CAMHS is useful and quite good fun, but at the same time it's a job for them, and their friends have spent the hour playing on their X Box so to square things they get a box of Celebrations or their favourite for tea or something, just to acknowledge their effort.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is; does it work?

The answer is yes. Big time. Alright, sometimes the child is troubled immediately afterwards if they've found themselves talking about what troubles them, this we expect.

But the talking, talking to someone who understands talking, and who listens intently, and gives off nothing but kind, strong and deep caring has a profound benefit to the child.

The child always gets a sense that they finally, definitely matter. That their happiness and wellbeing is important to important people and important organisations.

It works for us carers too. The CAMHS people always include help and advice for us, plus, whether it's their job or not, they make you feel better about what you're doing with the child, because we can easily start to doubt ourselves when it feels like we're not making headway.

CAMHS doesn't seem to be a lifetime thing for children, maybe they do have to see some children every week for months or years, it hasn't happened to any child of mine. The times I've been involved with them they did an assessment hour, then 3 sessions once a week, then they tell you what's what and tell you that you know where they are if you need them again.

I know plenty of adults who would benefit from talking to a professional mental health care worker, but as has been pointed out to me - and I really rate this observation - those who most need help are those who are convinced they don't, most of those who think they might need help probably don't.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Jargon alert. There's a new phrase that affects foster carers.

'Emotional Labour'

I heard it on a Five Live interview this afternoon, talking about the work and pay for people who do general caring. The interview centred on the new buzz-phrase; 'emotional labour'.

When I first heard them say the phrase I guessed she meant that when you are caring you use up emotional labour in the same way that people digging roads use physical labour and people who are trying to find the Hose-Bigson particle use brain labour.


According to the interview, 'emotional labour' is where you work in a job that gives you positive emotions about your work. If your work makes you feel good some employers will try to pay you less.

There's a lot of this sort of squeezing about,  zero hour contracts for example. If loads of people apply for one job the employer can run the pay down to the floor. I once drove to work in my new (second hand) mini which my parents bought me because they wanted to and the financial director saw me park it outside the building and ordered I got a pay cut because he said if I could afford a mini they were paying me too much. True.

People who get a good feeling from their work should never be shorn of money because they love what they do.

It simply will not happen in fostering, that much I do know for sure.

How does it work for people in other caring professions? Take nurses for example, they may help make someone better and get a good feeling. They also have to deal with someone dying on their watch. It cuts both ways. But they remain badly paid, as do many teachers, in my book.

We foster carers are appropriately compensated for our work - it's not called 'pay' or 'a salary' because HMRC recognise we are a special case.

Every foster child is different. The 'emotional labour' is unique. The remuneration is based on a general rate, although there are special circumstances that can result in an increase in the money you recieve.

I had one wonderful child stay with us for about 8 weeks if I remember. I say 'if I remember" because it was a bit of a roller coaster, it was hard work and yet we all made some progress. A week later we had a new placement, a wonderful boy who actually added more to our family than was there before he came. Which is something that happens a lot in fostering.

The one thing your employer will never, ever do in fostering, whether it's an agency or a local authourity, is to say to you "Your foster child makes you feel fantastic, so that's going to mean a cut in your allowance." Not never, no day no how.

In fostering, 'Emotional Labour' can take a long walk off a short pier.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


I was just in the act of replying to someone who posted a comment on the blog, the person is gearing up to start fostering, about to do "Skills To Foster".

It took me back to when I was there.

When you apply to become a foster carer you have to build a portfolio which is basically a file containing information about all the things that you've done in your life that are likely to be some kind of help in fostering. If I remember right, the file is called "Skills To Foster".

I think most people don't realise how much skill they have acquired.

Suppose you've had children or neices and nephews of your own, that's an obvious place to start. You might write a bit about how you tackled the 'parenting' job with them. You may have had brothers and sisters who you shared your childhood with, memories about dealing with issues with them, it's all relevant. Your social worker helps and guides you, and encourages you to write up how you dealt with the difficult things, which always happen, that's life. There's no glossing over the fact that life is no bowl of cherries all the time.

Maybe you had sleepovers for your children. Helped out at their school. Maybe you were a babysitter for a neighbour when you were in your teens. Maybe you or your partner helped run a junior football team one of your children played for. Maybe you used to attend a Youth Club where you ended up running the coffee bar. 

You might have to track down the family you babysat for and get them to write a letter saying you did the job well. Perhaps your old Youth Club leader can pen a few lines about how you were responsible and trustworthy, and knew how to deal with some of the streetwise kids.

Before you know it, you have a portfolio. You probably think it's not much, but if it keeps you on track it's one of the most important books ever written, because it will result in loads of children having a better chance in life thanks to you and the book you've put together.

On a purely personal note, I asked a mum of a disabled child who I helped get a place in an activity group to write me a note.

The mum sent me two sides of A4 about how much my little effort meant to her and the child, and how valuable his experience was in the group. The first time I read it I cried, and because I was alone in the house I made big crying noises because it was honestly the first time in my life I realised I could make a difference, in fact I already had, without knowing it. I'd never previously got more than a "Cheers then see you next week" from the mum, I guess because we're British.

My point is this; if you're in any doubt, come fostering. I guarantee you will have the chance to feel better about everything.

Good luck to the potential carer, and thanks for reminding me of my early days.

Good luck to you too, if fostering is in your mind.

Monday, February 16, 2015


This post isn't so much about fostering as about parenting and the pitfalls.

All the hoo hah about Fifty Shades reminds me of a very funny moment in the playground about 2 years ago.

The school were having a Cowboy and Indians day, where pupils could come in dressed up.

I didn't bother with mine because the whole dressing up thing is fine for mums with time on their hands, and the staff love it, or seem to as they always dress up. But I mean, Cowboys and Indians? In this day and age? Guns in the playground?

Anyway, one mum I often chat to while waiting for the 8.50am whistle was there with her two boys aged about 8 and 10, running around in cowboy hats going "Bang!" at the Native Americans. Her eldest looked particuarly authentic, with knotted hanky round his neck (Health and Safety?) a tin star on his waitcoat and a pair of small plastic handcuffs hanging from his waist.

The mum is just divorced, a hairdresser recently moved here to be nearer her parents.

We were chatting. She said she'd bought a few cowboy knick-knacks from Poundland, her boys liked cowboys and indians. We were watching the play when she suddenly froze. "Julian!" she hissed towards eldest. "Come here!!!"

He walked over tail between his legs, one hand behind his back.

"Give me those!" she snapped.

"What mum?"

"You know exactly what I mean, give them to me NOW!"

Julian's hand came round from behind his back. He was holding a pair of real solid steel hancuffs, glinting in the low morning sun. Mum whipped them off him and stuffed them into her bag.

Slightly befuddled she glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed.

"Bit embarrassing" she whispered. "Now I'm wondering what else he's seen in my bedside cabinet"

There was, as they say, no answer to that.

There is a moral in there somewhere for parents, and a chuckle.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


There was a fuss in the news recently because a parent whose child didn't show up for a classmate's birthday party was sent an invoice for, I think, the cost of a ticket for some adventure park or something.

Then another fuss because a well-off family issued invitations to children for their child's birthday which requested a gift of around ten pounds rather than actual birthday presents because the child would rather have a tablet and a desk than a bucketload of junk.

At the risk of sounding like a Bah Humbug Scrooge, I'm a bit against birthday parties for children. I know that most of the children have a good time, or at least I hope they do.

But the headaches, the heartaches. If you foster you see the downsides so starkly. 

If and when a foster child has a birthday while they're staying with you there's every chance they've attended a birthday party of a classmate while they have been with you. You're stuck. If you took your foster child to another child's party it's an unwritten rule that you return the effort and stage a birthday party and invite the child who invited your child.

More often, foster chidren aren't invited to other children's parties for a bunch of reasons. Then again, sometimes they are invited precisely because they are foster children by well-meaning parents who are only trying to do their bit.

We have an interesting thing going on at the moment. Our foster child has recieved an invite from another child to their birthday party, and he can't quite work out why. He never plays with the child, hardly knew his name even though they're in the same year. I know the reason for the invite. I believe the child who invited my child is also fostered. I don't know for certain, nor should I. Nor do I know if it's a factor. If it is a factor I don't know if it's the child or the child's foster carer behind it.

The foster child only barely wants their own party, because what they really want is to be back home where dad would buy them a massive toy out of his benefit money and take everyone including his surreal girlfriend (but not including his real wife) to MacDonalds.

Birthdays, like Christmas, can be a poignant time for foster children.

Children's birthday parties have got a bit out of hand. You find your child has an itinerary that would have taxed the late Princess Margaret, known for her ability to party:

2.00pm Meet at 23 Acacia Avenue.
2.30pm To the Odeon for "Toy Story 8"
4.30pm To Nandos for tea (Please advise any dietary concerns).
5.30pm Back to Acacia Avenue for cake and games. And Beppo the clown.
6.30pm Lear Jet to Antigua for Punch and Judy face painting and amateur magician sowing bee on Bouncy Castles with ponyback Karaoke. 

Ok the last bit, not yet maybe, but you get my drift.

Parents feel obliged to put them on, as if social services will come round and investigate if they don't.

Gone are the days when the selected 6 guests turn up and play pin the tail on the donkey, pass the parcel, blow out some candles and eat crustless peanut butter sandwiches and crisps then go home with a piece of cake wrapped in a paper napkin.

What to bring or give as a present? You don't want to look cheap and let your child be the only one who brought a bag of sweets. Or the swankpot who's given something that cost fifteen quid.

Don't get me started on the goodie bag. 

Then there's the "Thank You" letters or cards.

But all the above is nothing compared to the kid who is left off the invite list.

Devastating. But mum and dad stipulated the number at six, based on cost and size of living room, not the size of the child's true circle of friends, which is foggy anyway. One or more children who might have attended don't get an invitation.

All the dubious joy and happiness of the six is a molehill compared to the kid who's dissed. 

Kids are smart if not ethically rounded. Some play the game and use their party invites for power and punishment, oh yes. Just like adults maybe, but adults can cope better.

There was one parent who once invited the whole class, to get around the uninvited child problem. Didn't work, needed a tazer for control. I can laugh about it because that parent was me.

So, having learned, we say to our foster children "You can either have a nice present and a party, or an even nicer present". 

No foster child has ever taken the party option. Not yet.

Sunday, February 08, 2015


One of my fostering friends has a young boy staying with her at the moment, obviously I have to be very discreet talking about specifics.

I can tell you this, and it's the thing I want to tell you.

For good reasons, he doesn't have Contact with anybody.

Guess what? Everything's great. Or, at least, much better than it would be if he'd had to be piled into a car and stuck in front of the people whose problems caused the whole breakdown in the first place.

My friend says that it's like he's having a holiday. 

Most people go on holiday to get away from it all, especially work. An unhappy family is a job of work alright.

Suppose you were told you were getting a month off work and going away to stay somewhere and chill.

But that every Tuesday at 4.00pm you were going to have to pitch up and sit in the same room as the useless boss who had a down on you plus the colleagues who were in turn; emotionally damaged, vindictive and bullying. The agenda would be about everything that had gone wrong at work.

Imagine your emotional ups and downs.

But the law (I've looked it up, it's an actual Law that children taken into care have Contact once a week, so they don't grow away from their family) says that from the first week in care they have the dreaded Contact.

I am told that sometimes Contact works well. It's possible it does. Mostly it's traumatic for all concerned, including the poor old foster family.

The ripples go out in every direction; after Contact the child is disruptive at home and at school, the foster family are on edge, the child's family is undoubtedly done a disservice, the social workers job load is doubled, the state pays for it all in every way.

The Law about Contact must have been made with the best of intentions, but made by people who don't foster or work in social services.

By the way, part of the reason for no Contact as far as this child goes is that the mother is being assessed. Her mental health is in question. My fostering friend has never met her, but has been told what she's like. Apparently she has an almost supernatural talent to turn it on. By that I mean appear absolutely charming happy and well. She can ooze perfect motherliness whenever she wants to.

She will tickle a social worker with insightful remarks about children such as "He's been telling his teacher that he gets locked in the cupboard? Oh dearie dear, aren't the little mites full of the loveliest imaginations! If he gets himself told off, and like all the darlings he can be a scamp, well, the fact is he's so embarrased he goes and hides, sometimes under the table, sometimes in the broom cupboard. I suppose if you wanted to blame someone else you'd say you were made to hide..."

The woman seems to be able to behave like the best of us at our very best when she wants to.

Then when it's only her children around she switches on her other side, which is as evil as her good side is delightful.

There's one last mystery about this child's particular story, which actually you'd probably guess, even though it's a mystery. The child knows his mother has hurt all the family, in lots of ways. So what does he think of her?

He is frightened of her. Dislikes her. Maybe hates her even, at times.

And loves her. Craves for her to love him.

He isn't half enjoying his holiday from her though.

Thursday, February 05, 2015


It's 5.00am

Been awake since 4.00am. Crept down and made a cup of tea. Sitting at the kitchen table.

Sleeping is hit and miss at the moment.

One of our foster children has night terrors.

Blast from the past for me; my youngest child was so scared of the dark the only way he could cope was if there was somebody with him, so we slept in the spare room together, he and I. Until he was twelve. Tried to wean him off it, but he'd be so frightened, and after all he's my child.

Ah but it's not so simple with a foster child when they get night terrors.

For one thing you don't know the child's history with sleeping. With your own you know what sort of sleepers they were from day one. Each child has its quirks. Some babes fight it, while my eldest used to nod off whenever the 'Neighbours' theme came on.

But the main difference with fostering is the foster parent has to observe all the guidelines, which Blue Sky help you understand. They're sound principles and they make the business of pacifying and calming a panicky child in the middle of the night a job of work, but hey, that's what makes us professionals.

With my own son's night terrors it was simple; we'd climb into the double bed in the spare room, he'd snuggle up next to me and that was all it took.

Can't do that with a foster child.

Putting him to bed is not too bad; landing light on obviously, nightlight in his room (we've found these fantastic battery operated 'candles'), his door three quarters open, and - most important of all - we stay upstairs. We potter, making enough noise so he knows he's not alone. Takes us 20-30 minutes, but if it eats into Eastenders no problem, that's what the Catchup button's for.

It's when the terrors take him in the dead of night you have to be on your toes.

Tiny stuttering little whimpers with each out-breathe. Once they start I've got about five minutes before he opens his eyes, and when he's awake the nightmare becomes night terrors.

Whatever his awful dream was, when he's awake it appears to him to be real. He doesn't know where he is or where the monsters are hiding. 

I put on my dressing gown and do it right up. I slip out of the bedroom leaving the door half open. I go to his door and have a look. Sometimes he's lying under the duvet with just his head showing, one time he was kneeling up, eyes open, apparently able to 'see' things that clearly weren't there.

My Blue Sky social worker advised me on the things you can and can't do. You don't go into a foster child's bedroom unless they are in danger. It's a common sense safety thing, but it makes night-time fostering a bit more complicated. His bedroom is the box room, the smallness helps his sense of security. There's no wardrobe for anything to lurk in.

He sleeps with his head nearest the door, which means I could rest my hand on his head to wake him up if I had to, but he wakes if I gently say his name a few times.


Then again; "Lewis it's alright, Lewis. Lewis darling, it's alright."

The dreadful whimpering gives way to silent rapid breathing with little gasps as he tries to work out what's going on.

"It's alright Lewis it was a bad dream."

Then I do the same spiel I have been coached in.

I say "You're Lewis, lovely Lewis Wilson. I'm Briony your foster mum who's looking after you for a while until you go back to mummy and daddy. You're in your own bedroom in our home, and everything is alright. Everything's alright. You're a good boy Lewis, you just had a funny dream. It wasn't real Lewis, whatever happened in your dream was just a dream. Everbody has funny dreams sometimes."

As I'm telling him these comforting facts I sit down with my back against the door frame. This is to let him know I'm not going anywhere, and also to bring my presence down to his ear-level.

Sometimes he slips back to sleep quickly. Last night he told me a little of his nightmare, which I've just made notes about, because his social worker is interested in his mind.

Once he's asleep again, sometimes I go back to bed. If it's nearer morning than midnight I make that cup of tea.

Mind, I've got to get up off the floor first; has anyone else noticed that gravity is on the increase?

And I sit at the kitchen table, happy as Larry - whoever he was - and that's the God's own truth. I've never felt more useful.

And, provided it's a school day, I shall snaffle a glorious afternoon nap without a hint of guilt.

In fact it's the professional thing to do.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


I find that people don't ask "What's fostering like?"

If they find out you foster they tend to ask about the child you are looking after, and you tell them what you can, which isn't a lot, out of respect for their privacy. I keep it positive too, which helps remind me of the things that are going well.

But it's a good question; "What's fostering like?"

In one way it's a bit like an arranged marriage. Let me explain.

I was up early on Saturday, I had the downstairs hoovered and the kitchen spruced by half past eight so I sat down with a cup of tea, no-one else was about, I turned the telly on.

"The Six Wives of Henry VIII" was starting on BBC2. The one with Keith Michell.

I watched about an hour of it, then people started coming downstairs and bacon sandwiches were the order of the morning, so I half-watched the final hour.

There was a moment in the programme that reminded me of fostering. Well, one aspect of fostering. I Googled it to get the full story.

Henry had got through three or four wives, and he was back to needing a foreign one, for the good of the Crown. Plus he needed a son and heir. His new wife would get a leg up in the world . So the arranged marriage would work for the country and for both parties, provided they made it work.

There were a couple of candidates, but he'd never met them. He tried to get as much information about them as possible to make his choice. He ended up sending a painter to do a portrait of each of them so he could pick.

The women, on the other hand, were told all about the King they were being put up to marry. They were told he was a handsome gentleman, firm but fair. Quite a catch.

Henry picked Anne of Cleves, and for a lark, when she arrived he disguised himself as a fat old servant with a gammy leg and a dopey brain. But when he saw Anne he was astonished that she was nothing like her portrait. She was equally astonished that the "servant" turned out to be her fat dopey King with a gammy leg.

But they were committed and the marriage happened, with both parties having to learn all about the other starting from scratch, but under the same roof. So they settled down to try to make it work, knowing it was going to be temporary.

The answer to the question "What's fostering like?" is entirely dependent on the placement you're enjoying at any given time. But, like Anne and Henry, the placement usually turns out to be very different from the situation you'd imagine before it happens. The child looks, speaks and acts like a complicated 3D individual whose characteristics can't be captured on a dossier. She's not the person you deduce from the files you are given before they arrive. 

What's more, from the child's point of view, you are nothing like they imagined either.

But there you are, together, under one roof. An arranged family, for the good of the Crown and both parties.

So you close the front door behind them, and settle down to try to make it work, knowing it's going to be temporary.