Tuesday, April 16, 2019

INDEPENDENCE

One of the most interesting dimension of fostering is helping children find independence.

A child's journey from needing everything done for them to being able to do everything for themselves is a big part of parenting and maybe an even bigger part of fostering.

Only it's a different journey for the foster child. And for the foster parents.

Take Bethany, an eight year-old girl who arrived at our house with boxes of stuff. She had too many possessions to fit into her bedroom, we had to store overflow stuff in the garage. Among the stuff were no cuddly toys, in fact no toys at all. It was all fashion clothes, party shoes and adult possessions such as fancy hair appliances, stereo music players, and so on. She even had two phones.

She came down to tea on her first full day with us dressed for dinner at the Ritz, but to be fair to her she didn't own a T shirt or a pair of jeans.

The overwhelming thing about Bethany was her sadness. She had the heaviest heart I've ever come across. Never laughed, never even smiled.

She was overweight, had hardly been to school, and despite an outer worldliness that belied her tender years, the inner eight-year old Bethany was still an infant.

It took us a while to get to the bottom of her story. You have to do the digging in order to work out how best to help the child. Our Blue Sky Social Worker and I put our heads together. Bethany's Local Authority Social Worker provided as much background as she could and we sussed out the rest.

Bethany's mum was a person I'd describe as 'hard'. I met her for the first time when I took Bethany to have Contact with her. As Bethany and I walked across the car park of the  Contact Centre the mum leaped out of her huge shiny 4x4 and roared;

"Where's her coat? She'll freeze!"

I would also describe the mum as 'domineering'. As she led Bethany inside and I turned to go back to my car to wait, I heard her bark at Bethany; 

"Step it up sister I haven't got all day for this..."

'Insensitive' too then.

Back home with us Bethany began to drip-feed us with insights into her life so far. We knew that she had two younger brothers who were in care elsewhere. We knew that the mother held down some sort of management/buying role with a high street fashion chain which explained their extravagant social housing home - one of those ones with more flat screen TVs than books. 

By the way, in my fostering time I've seen some pretty dire privately owned homes, and some pretty high-end social homes.

As each day went by we picked up more details about Bethany's childhood, and know what? It turned out there had been no childhood. 

Bethany had been recruited by the mother to carry out free child-minding, probably from the age of 3 or 4. She had never been played with, never had friends round for a tea party, never made a sandcastle or been to a pantomime or the circus. Her childhood to date had been one of surrogate parenting, housekeeping, cooking, cleaning and general servitude. 

Something occurred to me at the time and I raised it with my Social Worker during our investigations. I said to her;

"Y'know what keeps nagging at me?" I asked, "Bethany's childhood isn't so very different from my grandmothers, except nan wasn't showered with gifts."

The reply put me in my place;

"That was then and this is now. Having a proper childhood is a human right. Beth didn't merely pitch in with the jobs which is what your gran did, Beth was a modern-day slave and the gifts were shop freebies and no substitute for love and care."

She was spot on. 

So. The fostering job with Bethany was to let her go into reverse and have a childhood BEFORE we set her on the road from childhood to independence. 

She stayed with us for eight months, during which time the mother was deemed by the professionals to be a 'functioning sociopath' (hard, domineering and insensitive). The professionals decided that she would struggle to show true love and care, but could be negotiated with to abide by a set of parenting guidelines which would be periodically checked. If she stuck to them Bethany and the boys could go home and stay. The mum could continue to bank the various benefits which augmented her salary and - very important to her - keep up appearances (imagine her shame if colleagues found out her kids had been removed).

The parenting guidelines were aimed at avoiding the neglect that the children had been exposed to while the mother pursued her lifestyle. Examples include not being left alone at home for a whole weekend while the mother went on a romantic soiree to Dieppe and the children being allowed an education and contact with other children. There were a couple of other outlawed activities I won't trouble you with but which almost landed the mother in Crown Court as well as the Family Court.

To the best of my knowledge the intervention worked for the children. I told Social Services that if Bethany ever went into care again to call me first and that hasn't happened.

What did we do during her time with us? We gave her a childhood, as best we could. I taught her to swim, my other half taught her to ride a bike. At Christmas she played along with the Santa thing.

We also respected her urge to grow up. She saw in the New Year at our house and made a roomful of adults roar with laughter when she drew "Gone With The Wind" in charades and put on a memorable performance.

I suppose it's obvious that I miss Bethany. But then I miss all of them.

I guess I found my independence in the usual way, but in fostering I found something even better.

Inter-dependence.






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