“The mother of the four children has been charged with neglect. It is believed she left them unsupervised to go shopping. The children were all under five.”
We were on our way home from the cinema, and were listening to the radio. I was anticipating the football scores but had tuned in a fraction early, and instead of Sports Report, we got The News at 5 o’clock. There had been terrible house fire in which some children had died.
“What does ‘neglect’ mean?”
We’d learnt never to waste a car journey. I did my best to explain what ‘neglect’ meant.
I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going, but in these circumstances we’d learnt to always let the child lead. We have always tried to answer any questions as fully and frankly as possible. We’ve also learnt that we have to go at the child’s pace and go at the child’s timetable.
“Did my birth parents neglect me?”
“Yes. I think they did.”
“So my parents neglected me, and the Social Workers came and they took me away, and they brought me to you?”
There then followed what I can only call a ‘pregnant pause’.
“If the Social Workers hadn’t have come to get me, what would have happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“When I’m older can we ask the Social Workers what happened to me?”
“Yes, we can. When you’re older we can ask the Social Workers to find out more. If you want, we can try to find your birth parents.”
“That would be weird. What would I say? It’s been years.”
“When I was younger, before I lived with you, the front door was green.”
“I wonder what’s for tea?”
The conversation about the past and discussion about the future ended as abruptly as it had begun. I have no idea if there’s a ‘good way’ of processing your journey into Care. I’m not really sure if the way we handle it is the best way.
I do know that we have absolutely no warning as to when these conversations will crop up, and how long they’ll last.
I do know, that I’m glad we’re around for when they happen.
“Fostering teenagers is brilliant. Once you’ve got a few ground rules sorted, they’re really fun to be around. Of an evening, we get the foot spa out, do our nails, muck about with make up and have a pamper night. We watch Love Island and chat.”
One of my best foster friends is a specialist with teenagers, particularly girls. Regardless of however much they roll their eyes, pout, swear, slam the door and strop off, she has an incredible soft spot for them. She sees the gold inside them, and eventually they learn that she is for them, not against them.
When we got approved to foster we were able to stipulate that we wanted to foster children younger than our own. At the time, that meant Infant aged children or younger. We fostered a baby for a few days, and whilst he never swore or broke anything, he did need changing, feeding, winding, bathing and taking to regular contact. For us, with jobs and two children of our own, this proved too much.
A four year old needed significant help with toileting, washing, dressing and any interaction with anyone who wasn’t us. With some help and some patience, he soon mastered all these skills, with the possible exception of the last one. The fear of the stranger still lingers ten years on.
We’ve cared for a few Primary aged children and teenagers.
One ten year old boy was remarkably proficient in all areas, except for weeing into the toilet bowl. He loved all sports and had excellent eye/hand coordination particularly when he played table tennis or swing-ball. But he seemed to think ‘near the toilet’ was good enough when he first arrived. Using ‘natural consequences’ this was a relatively easy issue to address.
Kids go into care at a variety of ages and for a variety of reasons. They might have experienced sexual and physical abuse. They might have experienced neglect. They may have known bereavement. If they’re of Junior or Secondary School age, they may have vivid memories of what they’ve experienced, and if they trust you, be able to explain some of this. This can take years and years and may still never fully happen.
If they’re too young to consciously remember, they’ll still remember. A traumatised baby will not behave like a baby who has been cared for and nurtured. A five year old can be endearingly naive but also have seen and experienced things no one should ever have to witness. A teenager may appear aggressive, surly, destructive and intent on their own demise. What I have to remember is that if I had been through what they’d been through, I’d be exactly the same, or at least pretty similar.
Fundamentally, kids who have been through trauma want exactly the same as everyone else, regardless of their age.
They want to be safe and feel safe, even if their definition of ‘safety’ looks like absolute chaos to us.
One of the first children we cared for was nearly four years old when he arrived.
On his second day with us he dutifully held my hand as we headed off to the local park.
It seemed like a fairly ordinary yet potentially fun activity. I tend to think out loud and I wittered on about the size of the park, the swings in the park, parks I’d visited, and began to sing Blur‘s Parklife, even though I didn’t know the words.
The kid offered no opinion on parks when asked. In fact, he was yet to utter a word. Unperturbed, I led him across the final road. This kid was not the first person to ignore my wittering and I thought nothing of it.
As we left the pavement and walked on the grass, he stopped, pointed, and muttered something barely audible.
I looked to see what had caught his attention. I assumed there’d be something remarkable. Perhaps someone was flying a kite, or there was a funfair. I scanned the scene but could see nothing of any particular interest.
It was just a park, a nice park, but just a park, like loads of other parks.
I followed his eye line and outstretched arm.
The little boy was pointing at a tree.
“It’s a tree.” I touched the tree. I rubbed the bark.
Tentatively he held out his hand and rubbed the rough bark just as I had done.
It was fairly evident that he’d never seen a tree before, and certainly never touched one.
We spent 20 minutes with that tree. We stared at it, we walked around it, we looked up at its height and we felt its bark.
We learnt the word ‘tree’ and then we learnt ‘leaf’ and ‘twig’.
We spent many wonderful hours exploring that park.
We worked out, purely by observation, that he’d never experienced the wonder of television, knew nothing of swimming pools, cinemas, shops, ball pools, or bath time. Quite what he’d been doing for the years before he came to live with us remained a mystery, but we guessed that his world had been very very small.
Over the 15 months he lived with us, we introduced him to all that normal stuff.
We also showed him a world where there was always enough to eat, you’d always be warm, and where people would not hurt you.
Sometimes fostering is about doing the most simple of things.
Maybe we’ll travel further abroad when we’re older.
But for now, there’s a whole new world at the end of our street, and it’s just waiting to be discovered.
We have The Full Package, including all the kids stuff, Sky Atlantic, Cinema and Sport.
I think we found a way of hiding ‘the grown up channels’, and have Sky Shield to help protect us from any more of that sort of mischief.
But apart from that, there’s nothing we can’t watch.
We have BT sports, for the Champions League, Bundesliga and some sort of erotic tickling that happens in a cage.
I think it’s called UFC or MMA.
We have Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Disney+.
My iPad and phone has the Sky Sports Go App and the BT Sports App.
I also use my devices to watch the cricket when it’s on Channel 4.
We briefly had what is known locally as a ‘Jaarg Box’, a small device that ‘legitimately’ allowed us to access every TV network in the world.
We decided that whilst not technically illegal, this couldn’t possibly be right so we ditched it.
The picture quality was generally crap too.
All this means, that for just several hundred pounds per month, I can go anywhere I want, and still watch sport.
All sport, and any sport.
To some people, particularly if you’re Middle Class and weren’t allowed to watch Grange Hill as a kid, this will seem extravagantly indulgent and reflect some sort of moral failing on our part.
In Fostering and Adoption, it’s called ‘self care’, and the quicker you find out what works for you the better.
My wife likes reading Maeve Binchy books.
Hiding in the toilet to watch 10 minutes of Test Cricket, or even the IPL, can mean the difference between ‘keeping it together’ and walking away.
Be under absolutely no illusion that caring for traumatised children is easy. You will be tested and challenged and provoked. You will meet what appears to be the most illogical of behaviours as a child destroys their possessions, hurts them self or hurts you. This destruction may be verbal or physical, but is almost certainly inevitable.
You have to find a way of looking after yourself .
If you do not, you will at best give up, or at worst retaliate.
Whether it’s TV, reading, making and drinking a cup of tea or eating a large piece of chocolate cake, you need to find what calms you down, restores your soul, and refills your tank. Other metaphors are available. I’d avoid alcohol or anything else deemed ‘recreational’.
And rather like a super fast charger, you need to find something that works quickly. Trauma does not work 9-5, Monday to Friday with 20 days of annual leave.
You have to learn to grab minutes or seconds of ‘self care’ whenever they present themselves.
I have learnt to regulate my heart rate when my adrenaline is sky high. In my imagination, I visit historical battlefields and reenact The Battle of a Waterloo. Imagining a violent battle has become a displacement activity for the violence we have occasionally experienced in our home.
This might not work for you, but please find something that does.
I also try to remember that I didn’t cause the trauma.
Secondary Trauma, PTSD and generally exhaustion are real.
Pretty much every single statistic you read about Looked after Children is miserable and depressing.
According to Google there are 107,163 Looked after Children in the UK.
That’s a few thousand more than last year.
They’d fill every seat at Wembley and still thousands would be left standing outside.
These kids are more likely to be boys than girls, more likely to be teenagers than little, and disproportionately more likely to be black than white. More importantly none of them have chosen to be in care and I have never met any who wanted to be in care.
The kids don’t go into care, they are sent.
Statistically, a Looked after Child is much more likely to have a Special Educational Need than the rest of us.
A Looked after Child is more likely to be excluded from school, either temporarily or permanently, than the rest of us.
Looked after Children are less likely to pass Maths and English GCSE than the rest of us. I don’t know about Latin. I couldn’t find any statistics but I’m guessing the number is low.
Looked after Children are less likely to do A-Levels, less likely to get good grades, but more likely to complete a prison sentence than graduate with a degree.
Looked after Children invariably leave care at a much younger age than the rest of us leave our family home.
It’s not that they actually choose to leave care, more that ‘Care’ leaves them.
Looked after Children grow up to become something called ‘Care Experienced Adults’.
A disproportionate number of our prison population are Care Experienced.
The people you see sleeping in the street, in doorways and on benches, are more likely to have been in care than not.
Physical health, mental health and life expectancy statistics are all equally grim.
If this all seems a bit anecdotal and emotive for you, please feel free to google some statistics.
If you get confused over Causation and Correlation, have a little think about why the data outcomes are so poor. If you think I’m ‘stigmatising’, have a word with http://www.gov.uk.
Here’s the Good News.
Although I have a very creditable grade in Maths O’Level, I’ve always preferred an anecdote to a statistic.
My personal story beats your theory, your thesis and your theology.
So what about our boy?
We can’t pretend that statistics aren’t real, but we can be the exception.
He’s ‘care experienced’.
He’s lived in several homes.
If he were to play ‘ACEs’ bingo, he’d beat me and I’m pretty sure he’d beat you. He’s a World Champion in sh*t starts at life.
But for the last 8 years, he’s only lived with us.
He calls our house his home, and he calls our family his family.
He knows he’ll be living with us for as long as he wants. It may well be that he’ll choose our Care Home. Now wouldn’t that be an irony.
We don’t think he will go to University but we are putting ideas for careers into his brain. Something to do with phones, or nails, or cooking or childcare are all in the mix.
We are saving money to one day help him get a place of his own.
We’ve planted trees and plants and explained that when he’s older they’ll be bigger than him. We talk very casually and very normally about a future that includes him.
We’ve discussed what his kids, should he have any, will call me. Will I be their Granddad or will they call me ‘Phil’ like he does. Who knows and who cares, but these chats tell us that he knows his future is as secure as anyone else’s.
Our boy will be ok.
Whilst there’s breath in our bodies, our boy will be ok.
My wife and I were not surprised that The Little Man didn’t want to go to a new school.
Anything new, anything different, anything out of the ordinary would set his ‘Lizard Brain’ into overdrive.
We’d learnt his preferred response to ‘anything new’ if he was in public was ‘to freeze’ or ‘to flop’.
If a stranger spoke to him, for example in a shop, he’d simply stare until they went away.
It’s quite effective, even if it appears a bit rude.
If the stranger continued to probe, he’d put his hooded anorak over his head.
If he was with us, in our home, he’d fight.
‘Fighting’ could involve biting, kicking, swearing and smashing stuff up.
‘Throwing things’ was pretty popular too.
He had never resorted to ‘flight’.
‘Flight’ would mean he’d be on his own and he was too scared for that.
My wife and I began to hatch a little plan about how we’d handle the first day of term at his new school.
We’d worry about the second day later. There was little point in getting ahead of ourselves!
The first part of the plan had been to casually introduce familiarity.
We’d taken him to his new school for an open day. We’d shown him the school website. We had engaged in as much of the school’s transition activities as possible.
His new school was a couple of miles away and we drove that way a few times over the summer. We didn’t say we were visiting his new school, rather the pub opposite. We popped in for coke and crisps. We played on the slide. We hoped that the area would appear less threatening. We hoped that we would make his ‘first day journey’ less terrifying.
We hardly mentioned school at all over the summer holiday.
We knew there’d be questions we couldn’t answer, and we knew that would add to the anxiety.
We bought school uniform and equipment via the internet.
We had decided that his new school bag would in fact be his brother’s old school bag.
We’d negotiated with his school, that contrary to some regulations, he’d be packing a variety of fidget toys and favourite phone cases.
The Little Man knew this was happening but we made as little a deal out of it as possible.
We hid our own fears and anxieties.
We only discussed what we’d do in whispered tones when he was busy watching YouTube clips with his headphones on.
He had some trust in us.
He didn’t need to know that we didn’t know everything, although he probably had his suspicions.
On the ‘big day’, we divided the tasks.
We decided I’d be responsible for getting him ‘there’ on the first morning.
If that went successfully, I’d be responsible for bringing him ‘back’.
We knew he’d respond best if only one person was in charge.
We knew we’d respond best if only one of us had to make the decisions.
Everyone else’s task was to keep out of the way.
We kept everything as low key and as unemotional as possible.
As our birth kids and my wife left the house on that September morning, we avoided any overt show of emotion or goodbyes.
We did not take a ‘first day photo’ on the ‘first day’.
With just the two of us in the house, we got dressed, we ate breakfast, and we watched Paw Patrol.
“We are going now. You can sit in the front or in the back of the car. It’s your choice.”
I knew that giving him some autonomy may help calm him.
“I’m not going”.
His response was the one I’d dreaded but I didn’t let my face show it.
I got the car keys, opened the front door and turned the alarm on.
I left the house and got in the car.
My face was still impassive.
As the 30 second beep countdown urged us to leave the house, he appeared at the front door, walked to the car and got in beside me.
“Please be in charge of the radio”.
He chose the familiarity of Radio 2.
Astute readers will have noticed that whilst our house alarm was on, our front door was still open.
This was a risk I was willing to take.
The seven minute journey to school passed without incident.
I chose not to speak.
I let Chris Evans and Coldplay fill the silence.
On arrival, there was another minor stand off.
He didn’t want to get out of the car, so I just got out and walked away.
I was pretty sure he’d follow me and I was right.
As we reached his classroom door I handed him my phone.
“I will meet you here when school ends. You can give me my phone back then”.
A few hours later I met him at the appointed time and place.
He returned my phone with a nod.
When he wasn’t looking, I took the SIM card out of my ‘back up phone’ and slid it back into the phone that he’d been minding for me all day.
Sun cream, swimming goggles and phones chargers were being piled up on the kitchen table.
Flip flops, buckets and spades, and a snapped body board had made their annual migration from the shed to the hallway.
The Little Man had been to the phone shop four times, and was keen to go again.
We’d learnt that repeated demands to visit Dr Mobile, a 10 minute walk away, was a clear sign of stress.
Four trips, with another on the horizon, suggested we were peaking at ‘maximum anxiety’.
Whilst my wife and our birth kids made preparations for a week at a well known seaside caravan park, I patiently made the journey to look at phone cases again, and again, and again, and again.
The Little Man loved the seaside.
He loved the sea, and the slot machines, and the shows, and the battered sausages.
But he didn’t like change.
In the world of fostering and adoption, change of any type is known as a ‘transition’.
Any transition, or change from the routine and ‘norm’, even to do something nice, can lead to deregulation and absolute chaos.
Adults are also likely to be somewhat on edge and this can be picked up by a kid and magnified.
I’m yet to meet a Foster Carer or Adopter who hasn’t thought that the whole ‘holiday experience’ is not worth the bother.
We firmly believe our kids deserve the same experiences as every other kid, and this means leaving where you live and visiting somewhere else.
We’ve been on holiday all over the UK, and when legally possible, taken foster kids to Spain and France.
We’ve learnt to do what works and swerve what doesn’t.
We explain roughly where we’re going and what we will be doing.
We avoid giving too many details, as this can be held as evidence against us if plans change.
The Little Man, like so many others who have experienced significant trauma, can rarely be described as ‘flexible’.
If we say we’re going to the beach, then that’s what he expects to do.
No mitigating factors still be accepted if the advertised plan changes.
We take familiar things with us.
France is known for its Haute Cuisine but we still pack several parks of noodles from Poundland.
We load iPads with favourite programmes.
We pack as many teddies, phone cases, and other familiar toys as are desired.
We walk a fine line between trying to broaden horizons and doing what works.
Caravan parks are generally very similar. The familiarity brings a sense of calm. We’ve found that booking a similar caravan, whether in Yorkshire, Wales or Brittany makes everything that little bit easier.
We often go on holiday with friends who are also Foster Carers or Adopters.
It’s great to be with people who have the same expectations as we do.
It’s great to be with people whose eyes are full of sympathy rather than judgement, whilst you’re managing a meltdown in the queue at a Pay and Display Car Park.
Our expectations may be modest by some standards.
We eat out, but generally avoid your Michelin Star Restaurants, and anything else that may be referred to as ‘fine dining’.
We preferr ‘Eat all you can buffets’ or Burger King.
Buffets provide you with a legitimate reason to wander about and the service tends to be quicker.
At Burger King you also get a free hat.
I also think there’s a beauty in simplicity.
We are unlikely to go white water rafting or exploring the Serengeti anytime soon.
We will not be contributing to the wealth of The Casino owners in Vegas.
The Great Barrier Reef will have to cope without my family poking about it’s nether regions.
However, we have built a system of sea defences and sand castles that briefly defied the waves of The North Sea before being washed away.
We have spent a very pleasant hour looking for lost coins under the slot machines in Rhyl, and then a further hour reinvesting our hard found cash in the Penny Falls, providing a cost neutral activity.
We have spent an entire afternoon exploring a solitary rock pool just south of Filey, armed only with a bucket, spade and a net sellotaped on to a piece of bamboo.
Our best find was a ‘hermit crab’.
I explained to the Little Man that such crabs have no shell of their own.
They have to find an empty shell.
They adapt and squish their body shape to fit inside.
Then, they are safe.
He looked at me and I looked at him and we had one of those golden moments.
He’s not one for metaphors, but we both knew what the other was thinking.