Thursday, February 06, 2020

DEALING WITH THE PARENTS

One of the things in fostering that doesn't get the focus it needs is how to deal with the parents of your foster child.

I think it gets a lower profile than it deserves because, as a Foster Carer, your main point of contact with professionals is your own social worker(s), and they don't usually - don't ever in my experience - show up at Contact, so the parents kind of shrink in their minds compared to how they balloon in ours.

Everything about Contact is challenging for every Foster Carer. Well, almost everything; I had one lad stay with us who had been removed from his Foster Carer due to what turned out to be a false allegation by a third party - but it had to be checked out. Maybe the harmony of that Contact was down to the fact that the contact was not with a real parent, but with a Foster Carer, and she knew how to make it work.

I'm afraid the average parent of the average child taken into care is about as competent at making Contact work as they were competent at parenting in general, and since it was deemed necessary to remove the child, that means their parenting skills are below par.

The child is usually winding herself up well before the Contact. It hangs over them often starting the day before. The poor kids must suffer all sorts of different emotions; excitement and hope, fear and pain of loss.

Us Foster Carers don't get the full picture of the problems in the family, not because they are denied us but because a lot of the bad things are kept from everybody. 

Something else which adds to the problem is that the parents are given little or no guidance in how to behave with their children at Contact. This is an oversight which is connected to one of society's great mistakes; the belief that parenting is a cakewalk. I often hear, from parents whose parenting is clearly bad, and whose lives have often gone badly wrong;

"Well my parents never got training'. And I turned out alright."


So. How to deal with them?

First thing is to try putting yourself in their shoes. No matter how thick-skinned one might be - or appear to be - a parent must be badly wounded by the charge of bad parenting. Then they discover they're going to have to say 'hello' to someone who has an official rating as a good parent. Well you're not likely to warm to that idea are you? So not surprisingly the parents often start out hoping that you're fallible (which of course we are!)

So try not to be late is one good tip. Another is to try to get their clothing right, because parents are always ready to ask 'Where's his coat?' If you dress them in an item of clothing which you bought for them that might rub a parent up the wrong way.

If they ask "How's he been?", well no two ways about it that's a tricky one. I had a parent who kept notes that I said things such as "He's had his ups and downs" and "On the whole pretty good, although he was in a bit of a state yesterday" so that she could petition for the child to be returned because he was no happier with me than with her. It didn't happen - of course - but it served to remind that they sometimes hope you fail.

It can be pretty soul-destroying watching a parent with their child. Normally Contact is held behind closed doors, but one I took a child to was between him and his dad. The dad was a huge man, 6 foot 7 and sturdy. The Contact was held outdoors, weather permitting, in a kind of stockade that looked a bit like a prisoner of war camp.

I could sit in my car and watch the whole thing. The stockade was equipped with various all-weather playthings; a sit-upon train engine, a football, that sort of thing. When the sun was out there'd be some toy boxes with dolls and model aeroplanes.

I would watch the two of them come out of the door of the Contact building into the stockade. They'd immediately move apart. Then typically this would happen; the child would walk desolately to one end of the stockade and start kicking the football against the bars. The father would stroll, hands-in-pocket over to the other end towards one of the toy boxes. He'd kneel down and start fishing around, then he'd hold one of the toys up, say a plane. Then he'd start to 'fly' it, zooming it ponderously around his head. He was playing.

I got to wondering what his childhood had been like, if he had one to speak of.

They never bonded in any way these two sad lads. They sometimes spoke to each other in short bursts across a distance, I don't know what was said, I suspect nothing nourishing for either.

I've no reason to suspect that the quality of the contact between looked-after-children and their real parents is generally any better.

But that particular insight led me to realise that although the real parents of looked-after children often have something to improve on, they too are often victims themselves. As such it's best to treat them with professional courtesy and respect.

But don't expect to get much of the same back in return.

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