Saturday, April 30, 2016


My mum died yesterday.

It was eighteen months coming, so no surprise, but obviously it still aches.

I got a call from the Care Home at 2.50am, peacefully, in her sleep.

I waited until dawn and started telephoning relatives. I was still in my dressing gown at the kitchen table when looked-after child A suddenly appeared. Just as I was saying to a cousin into the phone; "Sad news I'm afraid, mum passed away this morning..."

I saw the expression on the child's face. It fell. He stopped in his tracks.

I finished the call and found him. He'd shot off into the living room. Didn't quite know how to behave towards me. It was mutual, I was stuck for words.

Hanging over both of us was the question of how tender we should be with each other over a death in the foster parent's family.

Another fostering thing. Another one of those ones where the best you can hope for is not getting it too wrong.

Obviously it all depends on what the child's relationship is with the deceased; in this case he had asked to call her "Gran" because neither of his grans were in his life and it must have felt nice to him. But he'd only met her a few times, so it wasn't a deep thing.

Also it depends on the carer's relationship with the foster child. In this instance, due to my natural sentimentality, I put out a greater degree of attachment (warmth, dammit)  than the child is able to reciprocate yet, but we're going in the right direction. 

Then there's the unanswerable questions from children of what is death, what happens to the dead...when am I going to die and how? I go with the Heaven thing for as long as possible and even though it's a big one to swallow I go on saying "You never know, we might all end up together again as angels".

Because, well, you never know.

I said to him:

"I think you just heard me saying, my mum died this morning."

"Yeah" came the reply, followed by "But I didn't really know her well enough to feel anything."

Which was probably on the button.

The stupid in me hoped he'd say something kindly, the fact that he didn't was almost certainly down to his not having a handle on the moment; I didn't have a handle on it myself.

It was just something else to try to manage when there was plenty else going on in my head.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Most children have lots of ups and downs with friendships, adults less so.

Children change schools and classes, maybe move to new neighbourhoods, lots of transitions.

One of the things that happens to us when adulthood finally arrives is that we know who we like and who likes us. We know why, instinctively. As grown-ups we don't waste so much time experimenting with different sorts. We experience less rejection, less need to sidestep others; we know who loves us in the friends way, and who we love back.

But for children it's  really hard work. If they are lucky they attend the same primary school throughout and get comfortable among a set of about 30 contemporaries. They might be lucky and belong to a family who has permanent family friends and they strike friendships with mum or dad's friend's children. Then there's relatives; cousins and the like, and neighbouring children.

Ordinary kids get a lot of exposure to other children and lots of chances to make friends. And enemies, come to think of it, which is all part of it. They get to learn what works and what doesn't, which sort of person they click with and which sort to give a wide berth to.

Children who come into care have often had so much on their minds they've had to neglect learning how to be friends. It's always struck me how far short of the norm foster children fall with the friendship skills, but it's not surprising.

The chaos which is common in their home can give a hard edge to their personalities which ordinary children often find difficult to work with.

Looked-after children have often lived in homes where the relationships were abrasive rather than connective, hardly surprising they don't click with anybody outside their family.

Their family was unlikely to be extended: grandparents, uncles and aunts, visited rarely if ever, depriving the children of learning experiences.

They get filled with anger and a need to control, so if they do fall into a group of same-age youngsters at the skatepark or the playing field they go for confrontation and control and that doesn't win friends.

So what's the foster parent to do?

I don't think we can do much, sad to say. 

Social skills are almost musical. Most of us know how to create some kind of melody with the people we are attached to, it's definitely not a science, there's no formula for how to make friends. You cannot teach it.

And the longer they go being outsiders and loners, the harder it gets. They get noticed by other pupils in the playground mooching around on their own, and get singled out for comments and derision, which they don't need or deserve.

We do what we can, don't we?

We invite their classmates to tea after school. Maybe we set up cinema visits or tenpin bowling. 

I've found looked-after children having more success with internet friends than face-to-face people, which leads me to a nice quick story.

My looked-after-child B had never had a 'bestie'. Then, just before Christmas child B hit it off with a kid in Seattle. I don't know the American kid's full story but it seems likely that American kid has had to deal with some stuff too.

Looked-after child B has grown and grown in this relationship with American kid. I listen to their chat (we've got all the controls in place, our iPads are twinned with all the other PCs in the house, but best of all; looked-after WANTS us to know what's going on. Plus, we can SEE the American kid; kid is who kid claims to be and deffo not some smutty adult).

So. Here's the thing. After a long, long period of coaxing, encouraging, hoping and praying that looked-after- kid B will hook a friend, this happened:

We pulled away on the school run heading for home today at 3.20 and I got this;

"I don't know what to do. Karl has asked me to go to the skatepark,  but Libby has asked me to play with her at the playground."

Wanted advice about which friend OF TWO to play with.

I can't find words to express how much this meant for the child, and for me and the rest of our family.

This fostering thing, it can be a best friend you'll ever have once you learn how to love it, because it loves you straight back.

Monday, April 18, 2016


What's the time right now? The time on your device while you're reading these words?

Thanks for doing so, by the way.

But. Without looking, what's the time?

About ten to something? Coming up to half past?

I ask because I've noticed that timekeeping is an issue for looked-after children.

I bet you were within 5 minutes of the time of day, maybe even closer.

People who are brought up in relatively non-chaotic homes have a good relationship with time-of-day.

For most children it's a simple guide to the rhythm of a normal day. Woken at a certain time, school run, school routine, school run home, free time, teatime, homework, bedtime.

Routine at home is so good for children; logical things like dinner at six, bedtime at nine, Tuesday bath nights, Friday night takeaway. Security in knowing what's coming next and when.

Not for looked-afters. It's new. It takes work to set up routine, and routine starts with times.

But they often have no idea about time.

For example I've got my head around the simple fact that there's no point saying to a new foster child that the time is "twenty five past" and we agreed to leave at half past so they have five minutes before getting in the car.

I might as well speak Greek.

Took me a long while to cotton this, by the way. I first became aware of it when I stumbled on the simple fact that chaotic families don't live by the clock like the rest of us. So their children teach themselves some kind of measure of the day and night from their devices. Which are always set to a digital twenty-four hour clock.

So; some looked after children can deal with a "time" of 08.43, but are thrown if you tell them it's "Nearly a quarter to". I've re-trained myself to say "seven-fifty" instead of "ten to eight", which hasn't been easy.

Time is an abstract concept for many people, but especially looked after-children.

Ask a looked-after child to estimate a minute, something you can do to pass the time at traffic lights. Even if they know it's 60 seconds, and they've heard about the "One-crocodile-two-crocodile" technique, they'll be miles out.

I never say things such as "I'll bring you your toast in five minutes", because it's Greek. 

I just say: "Your toast is coming",  and I keep up the commentary, "I've just put it in the toaster" then; "I'm buttering". And I tend to say "It's time to start thinking about going to bed when I say it's nearly time for bed." 

It has broader impacts for looked-after children than being five minutes late for everything.

A sense of time helps a growing child begin to form a picture of the shape of their future life. Just as a day has 24 hours and each hour is connected to the last hour and the next one, a happy life has a form and a shape made up of a person's progress through childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, middle-age, old age.

One of the deals we try to strike to get our children to buckle down at school depends on their capacity to see the connection between performing to the best of their ability at school and achieving a better life. If they have poor understanding of how time progresses they will find the connection with present and future all Greek to them. All they can grasp is the concept of right now, consecutive events seem random rather than ordered, just as their life used to be.

One of the first things we did in fostering was to change the face of our  kitchen clock, it displayed Roman numerals for heaven's sake.

Which definitely was Greek, if you see what I mean.

PS. I don't tell jokes, but this one I always remember by Groucho Marx:

"Time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana"

Thursday, April 14, 2016


I sometimes tell myself off for thinking too much about fostering.

It's a time consuming vocation, there's always something to be done whether it's sort out school clothes or remember not to get cheese and onion crisps or coming up with a trick to get more of the apple eaten than three token bites.

It consumes our minds though, as much as our time. 

It's often the first thought I have on waking, the last thought before I nod off. 

But what am I actually thinking about?

Am I going round congratulating myself for doing a mighty job? No. That only happens when people tell me that's what I'm doing, and even then my mind doesn't dwell.

Am I diligently monitoring the improvements in each foster child's mood and behaviour? Only fleetingly - I haven't time in my head to wallow in indulgences.

No, I'm planning. Assessing where the child has got to, devising new soft targets and making up little strategies to take them one step further towards their goals.

Take the constant need to improve self-esteem.

Low self esteem seems to be one of the most common problems for children in care. I don't know if it's universal, but I've never had a kid who was confident enough, never mind over-confident. Mind, this might apply to all children, with the possible exception of the nation's allegedly top end offspring.  I lie awake trying to find things they are good at, and ways of getting them to see their strengths. 

I had a little boy once, he was very shy and timid, one day he saw me sweeping the patio. When I put the broom down he prowled around it. I was temped to say "Shall I show you how to use a broom?" or "Would you like a go?"

Instead I said "Phew, hard work. And I'm not much good with a broom. I wish I had someone here who could help." And I went inside and put the kettle on. When I came out with a cuppa he was finishing off. Actually, he'd finished, but he wanted me to see his technique. He wasn't just sweeping the dust off the slabs, oh no.

He was sweeping and tapping. He'd go sweep sweep tap tap. Getting any bits that had collected in the bristles out and down into his pile of dust.

He said "My uncle is a roadsweeper, he taught me how to sweep. He says that I could be a professional."

Now, I love this memory because it has a thousand layers of things for me to remember to help me do the job better.

It means that he knew he has it in him to achieve and that he had been well parented somewhere along the line, and it had positive outcomes.

No, you can't over-think your fostering. Just try to make sure you find time for all the other things you need to think about.

Monday, April 11, 2016


The post "WHO FOSTERS" received a comment from a young mum (I assume young, she said her children are 4 and 11). The post was signed "Ari" - and by the way I'm also assuming Ari is a mum, but there's no reason why not a dad, it would be old-fashioned  to conclude a gentle caring soul is most likely a woman.

Anyhoo I'll go with Ari being a young mum  just to save myself from writing she/he all the time.

She's thinking about becoming a foster parent. We've all been there, thinking about becoming a foster parent. Her quandary is that fostering might jeopardise her own children's childhood.

So I'd like to talk to her in this post, but invite other comments from other foster parents and for that matter non-foster parents, to help her.

It's a somewhat lonely place, thinking about fostering. Let's help Ari.

The first thing I did was think about my own children's specific personalities. Every child is different (and how).  Each of mine had individual traits unique to them, some went in the positive column some in the negative column. Ari, you might do the same. Anything standout in the negative column would be the thing to focus on, asking yourself if your child's present and future happiness might be threatened by the arrival of a foster child. Some children are more vulnerable than others, but Ari;  I doubt yours have any enduring problems as you've come this far. In fact my guess is your children are pretty solid, you're a highly competent parent, and that's something you'd like to share with other children.

Next thing; Blue Sky met our children. It was agreed that maybe certain foster children might not be right for our family during our start-up period. Ari have you had any assurances along those lines?

Of course we had concerns for our children, but, without sounding cold, if fostering starts to cause problems for the foster parent's family, the plug gets pulled. No-one is expected to sacrifice their family's wellbeing.

We even had to rationalise an irrational fear; that one of our children would suddenly confront us, not now but in ten or twenty years time and say something like; "You ruined my life by fostering!"

Once we started to edge towards giving it a go we talked to all our wider family (as did Blue Sky), but specifically we talked to our children. A lot. Achieving approval to foster takes several months and we would bring it up at the table or watching TV or driving around. They started to feel on board and develop an interest in the idea. We talked about whether they'd feel jealous or intruded, and whether they'd enjoy feeling pride in helping children less lucky than themselves.

So; we tried to bring our own insights into our children into the thinking, we tried to give them a sense of ownership, and leave them in no doubt that there was a way out if anyone found it too much.

Ari, I wonder how your own two children engage with each other? Your eldest is 11 and your second is 4. Eldest will need to be pretty accommodating to adjust their games and interaction to knit with youngest. Accommodating is good. Soon eldest will start to strike out into an independent life and youngest will experience shades of only child syndrome, which has it's plusses as well as minuses. You'll know their emotional intelligence inside out.

You always get a good profile of the foster child you're being offered and time to chew it over, thinking about the fit. You can, and should, if you think a proposed child is wrong for you, say No.

All that said, I think you should proceed with the approval process. It's seriously useful as a tool for being the best parent you can be, never mind about the pride in qualifying. We underwent our first approval process in 1985 but didn't begin to actually foster for several years. Why? Because the day we got the letter saying we were approved was the very same day I found out we were expecting our first child and we decided to put fostering on hold until our own family were ready.

Those are my thoughts Ari.

Anyone else?

Friday, April 08, 2016


Romeo has been with a few months now. Quick update.

He's becoming part of the family, except for a very large part of him that isn't and probably never will be, namely the part of him that is his real family.

Getting this balance is one of the big features of fostering, I find.

With your own children it doesn't exist. They are yours, nobody else's. They spend a weekend with grandparents or friends but it's totally temporary. Even children in  families where the parents have split up have greater constancy. 

The permanent uncertainty about where they live, who they live with and even worse; what kind of allegiance to show to their real parents and their foster parents festers away in them even if they don't identify the dilemma in themselves.

They notice it maybe when they try to work out what to call their foster carer;

So Romeo (not his real name) has been calling me by the same name that my partner calls me, a fairly straightforward forename which is shortened out of convenience and informality. I won't give my real name  but for example if it were "Deborah" it would be shortened further than just "Debbie", further than "Debs" to something unique and personal like "Debbles". 

Romeo has called me "Debbles" since he heard me being called that, which everyone agrees demonstrates he wants to be somehow part of the family, which is great.


Unlike his real mother, I attend his school things such as class assemblies and parents evenings. I wait inside the playground and talk to other mums. Romeo was invited by another boy in his class to a party and I heard the other boy say "Have you asked your mum?"

"Your mum".

It might sound like not a lot, but if you stop and think about it it must be a huge deal in the mind of the child. What did he reply?

"She's not my mum".   No. They never do, not in my experience.  Partly a bit of shame, not wanting to be different.  Mostly, I think, they don't want the job of explaining something they don't understand or like or want to have to go into details about. It might get round the class, then the playground, then the whole school.

So he said "Not yet".

Foster children are often what they call "Enhanced". They might have better-than-average hearing for example. They often have greater powers of perception.

Romeo twigged I'd heard the exchange, so in the car, alone with me, he clarified:

"I'm going to call you mum sometimes".

I said that was fine. I knew it would be confined to moments when school friends were in earshot. But I was wrong.

A few days later his social worker came for their monthly. We were sat around the kitchen table, I'd made tea for myself and the social worker, he was allowed a Fanta as having to meet all his various responsibilities as a foster child (social worker meetings, nurse visits, endless eye and teeth checks) is gruelling so I give them a treat. Then, out of the blue he said:

"Mum, can I have a biscuit?"


So I'm now Debbles to him when there's real family around, and Mum when it's school friends, social workers or other foster children.

He worked all that out himself.

I hope he doesn't call me Mum at our next Contact with his real mother because that will cause you-know-what to hit the fan. But if he does, it will be very meaningful on his part and something for everyone to think about.

He's doing better at school than he was, we're going to find him a football team to play for assuming he's still with us next September. 

But, unfortunately his estranged father has found out he's in care and wants to meet up, no-one is sure exactly why, which is unsettling.

To be continued.

Monday, April 04, 2016


From time to time I  meet with people who are thinking about fostering.

Blue Sky arranges get togethers for  couples and singles who are prowling around fostering, it's a big step, and a good one if it's the right one for you.

They sometimes invite some of their carers to mingle with the prospectives, they tell us to tell it like it is.

When I started fostering I got something wrong about the people who foster.

For some reason I expected foster parents to be drawn from a small and spectacular section of society. People of comfortable means who had time and wealth to spare in order to cascade their good fortune down to those who needed help.

I remember my first meeting with other prospective foster carers and how normal everyone was. There were about thirty of us.

A woman whose husband drove a minicab, she'd  been forced to give up work because of her hip.

An ex-teacher who found the modern demands too much and her partner, an ex-footballer.

A woman who had never worked, she called herself a housewife, and was nuts about doing something special with what she knew, which was running a house.

A young couple. A gay couple. A single divorcee. 

A soldier who'd been in the army I guess since he left school and looked about 35.

We all had one thing in common namely we weren't sure if we could do it.

I never found out exactly how many of the thirty grasped the nettle, I know quite a few did because I bumped into them again at support meetings. They had changed from being outsiders looking in to members of a proud community.

Not that foster carers go round patting each other on the back, there's work to be done. We help each other as much as any expert can. Maybe more. Only if you actually foster do you really know what fostering is all about.

We swap phone numbers and end up with a book of new friends. 

It's no exaggeration to say that most of by best friends now are fellow carers and they are much, much more than the type of friend people make with their work colleagues, mainly because fostering is different from any other type of work. It's your whole life, taking place in your home. It's full-on emotion. It's ups and downs, you don't do fostering you live fostering.

Monday mornings are a regular time for phone calls; we've got through the weekend, done the school run. The house is quiet if in dire need of a hoovering.

But before the housework comes a cup of tea and a catch-up. 

How are the children doing? What's the latest on their parents? 

How are you doing? Are you going to have a quick nap after the hoovering?

What I'm saying is something I've said before to people who are thinking about fostering;

If you have time to think about it you have time to make the phone call.

There's a child out there who needs you to make that call.