Yeah, but what about your own kids?

Find a big mirror. Stand in front of it. Trace the image of yourself . If you look like this, you’ve probably done it wrong.

“He’s drawn a picture of himself. On my mirror. It’s full size, like as big as he is. And he’s done it with my lipsticks, and they’re ruined. You owe me new ones!”

Our birth kids, or ‘the kids’ as we tend to call them, were 5 and 7 when we started the Assessment Process to become Foster Carers.

We’re not totally stupid, and did consider what impact our decisions would have on them.

They had also been interviewed, on our sofa in the posh lounge, by our Assessing Social Worker.

Our son, aged 5, had explained that he thought it might be fun to have a foster brother or sister and that he could play with them. He thought it might be ok to share toys.

Our daughter explained that she knew there might be tricky moments with a foster kid but we, her parents, had said that if anything ever got broken or stolen, we would replace it without any quibbling.

Well, that time had come.

The drawing on the mirror was not malicious.

It was just the work of a kid who’d seen himself in a mirror and thought he’d draw himself.

He’d used the nearest thing to hand, some lipsticks!

I reached for my wallet.

Make-up isn’t really my area, but I knew there was a Superdrug 10 minutes away.

‘Superdrug!  Are you messing?’

My daughter, by now a teenager, and a teenager in a Northern City, took great great pride in her appearance.

‘The lipsticks were Mac, £20.00 each and they’re all ruined’

So, it cost us £60.00, but ultimately, very little harm was done.

There are two types of lipstick. Affordable ones and stupidly expensive ones. This information was not covered in our foster training.

This incident aside, no one loved that little boy quite like our birth daughter.

Our kids, now 16 and 19, can’t really remember when we didn’t foster.

There have certainly been some stressful moments, fraught days, and even prolonged periods, lasting weeks, when there’s been significant tension in the house.

Our kids have never felt threatened by a foster kid, generally because they’re bigger and they’re confident. As the adult, you need to ensure everyone gets the time and attention they need. One positive side effect of fostering is you have to be home for the foster kid. This means you’re also home for your own kids.

Fostering has always worked best when the foster kid has been the youngest, generally two or three years younger. The pecking order is clear, and kids generally understand that.

I think the kids we’ve fostered have benefitted massively from having older siblings, even if they’re not related.

Our son escorted a new foster kid into his Primary school.

The newly arrived six year old was enrolled in the same school as our two, which made the practicalities and logistics really quite straightforward.

What we didn’t learn until much much later, was that our son and his pals had organised a little rota to go and check on him in the ‘Infant Yard’.

I found this photo on a smashed old phone. The big kid is our birth son. The little kid is fostered. He’d arrived a couple of days before.

‘If anyone had touched him, we’d have sorted it’.

Big brothers are allowed to wind you up, but will often step in if anyone else tries it.

Our birth kids have been invariably protective of the children we’ve fostered.

They understand that not every one has the benefits brought by the accident of birth, and that sharing your privilege is a good thing.

This is an important value to our family.

I think our birth kids have been vital in helping our foster kids learn some of the most vital lessons in life.

We fostered a ten year old who was very angry. He would bang doors, stamp, swear and be really rather unpleasant.  When he was in such a mood, we’d learnt the best thing to do was to keep out of the way. There was no reasoning with him and an adult presence would only enrage him.

Kids in a tree. This is our daughter hugging a foster kid, whilst our birth son works out how they’re going to get down.

One day he was in such a frame of mind.

He stamped upstairs to go to the bathroom.

Our birth son, by now at Secondary School, was significantly bigger and not easily intimidated.

When in a mood, this foster kid was no respecter of adults, particularly us.  I’m a big man, but he’d happily tell me to f*ck off if he was cross.

However, as our birth son came out of the bathroom, the foster kid took a step back and let him past, in a deferential manner.

This was a golden moment to us.

The foster kid had learnt to regulate himself.

He’d been indifferent to any reward or any consequence when the red mist descended.

However, he really looked up to his big brother with a degree of awe and respect.

He wouldn’t disrespect him, even when he was in the foulest of moods.

He also knew if he pushed past his big brother he was likely to be pushed back.

To all intents and purposes, they were functioning just like two regular, ordinary, relatively normal brothers.

Here’s a Foster kid and our birth son on a camping trip in Wales. These two were quite capable of winding each other up. But they also created a bond that needed no words or explanation.

It must be difficult  to watch a 4 year old foster kid call your Mum or Dad a C*nt and that he’s going to f*ck them up.

However as our birth kids have matured, I think they know they’ve already done some fantastic things in their lives. They’ve stepped in as family for kids who don’t have one.

If they had not liked fostering, we’d have stopped in an instant.

Looking after kids is a family affair and we’re all involved.

Form F: Hello. I want to know everything about you.

“Hello, my name’s Pam. Put the kettle on and let’s have a chat. I want to know everything about you. Leave nothing out”.

Pam liked a plain Hob Nob, no chocolate, no nuts, no caramel base, just plain, nothing fancy.

Pam, our Assessing Social Worker, was nosey for a living.

She poked around our house advising on what was potentially dangerous and making predictions about what would almost certainly be broken should we be allowed to foster.

‘I can just imagine a four year old with ADHD sending these ornament flying’ she said, almost gleefully. These ornaments were in fact Napoleonic figurines, but any balance of power was yet to be established and my wife had advised me to ‘be as quiet as possible’.

Pam was impressed with our house.

These are 54 mm Napoleonic figurines. We also have about 500 25mm Napoleonics on display around the picture rail in the hall. No foster child has ever deliberately harmed any of them.

‘It’s a home. It’s warm. It’s clean, You’ve got a spare room. Any child will feel safe here and be safe here.’

Pam wanted a variety of smoke detectors to be dotted about the house, and had meticulously toured our modest garden looking for ponds, and any other ‘bodies of potentially hazardous water’.

We needed to put a lock on our bathroom cabinet and make sure all cleaning products were out of harm’s way.

House inspection over, Pam settled down at our kitchen table.

‘We need to fill out a Form F.  It’s not really a Form, more of a book actually.  A book about you. I’ll then advise a Panel of people as to whether I think you can foster’.

Pam really did want to know all about us.

Her first questions were about our upbringing and our families.

My Mum and Dad moved into a house in 1975, and they still live there.

If I visit my Mum and Dad’s I sleep in the same bedroom I had when I was in Infant School.

The wallpaper is different and the radiator now works, but a lot is still the same.

They still have a VHS video recorder in the ‘posh lounge’.

My parents, inspired by Which?, owned a Betamax C5 originally. They still refer to their VHS as ‘new’. They are getting to grips with ‘Catch up’ as we speak.

Our kids have played hide and seek in the same cupboards as I did when I was their age.

Our kids climb the very same trees I used to climb in the 1970s.

I’m from a very very stable background, teetering perhaps, on boring.

‘So why do you want to foster?’ asked Pam

‘Altruism’, I answered. ‘I just think it’s a good thing to do. I’ve always known stability and I want to share it.  I believe helping other people is good’.

Pam nodded and wrote it all down.

There is no right reason to foster, but you do need to have a reason.

You may have been in care, have worked in education, have grown up in a family that fosters, or you may have very little experience of the Care System.

You may be motivated by faith and have a history of charitable good works. Or you may not.

The main thing is, you need to have thought about it.

You need to have thought about how you’ll practically fit looking after a kid into your life.  There are numerous practical and emotional considerations.

Could you get a kid to a Primary School in the morning?

Could you cope with a kid who is so traumatised that they’ll wet the bed again and again again?

How might you react to a four year old getting in your face and telling you to F*ck off?

How would you react if he did the same to your wife?

You cannot possibly be prepared for every scenario.

Fostering is an enormous test of character.

You won’t really know how you’ll react until it happens.

And ‘it’ will happen, probably at 4.00am, when you’re exhausted.

If you google ‘Form F’ you get this particularly inspiring image.

In my experience, and there’s some research about this, most foster carers have an acute sense of justice. We are flexible in our approach to problem solving and are generally very relational. We are all ever so slightly crazy, but in a good way.

Pam wanted to know we were safe, we’d do our best, we’d listen to advice, we weren’t stupid, and we weren’t naïve.

I think Pam visited us about 8 times in total.

She liked her tea with milk, no sugar, and was partial to a hobnob, plain, no chocolate or anything fancy.

Our Form F was eventually packed with information.

Pam learnt that we had gay, deaf and BAME relatives.

She knew we’d never been married and had no serious previous partners.

She raised an eyebrow when we told her we’d already paid off our mortgage, but was happy to tick the ‘financially stable’ box.

She interviewed our kids to make sure they had at least some idea of what was going on.

She had references from employers, friends and relatives.

She knew we had clean criminal records, didn’t smoke, and she didn’t seem too bothered that my Medical said my BMI was one point off ‘obese’.

There were only a few things left to do.

One of them was to go on a Skills to Foster Course.

‘What’s one of them I said?’

‘Well, I’ve booked you in to the next one, so you’ll soon find out’ said Pam.

I like to think I got on pretty well with Pam.

Other than my wife, I think she knows more about me than anyone else.

Don’t foster for the money or the biscuits!

We went to a ‘Foster Information Session’ run by the Council. You could eat as many Custard Creams as you liked.

I’m only here because of my wife!

She suggested we go to a Council Event about fostering.

As a typical middle aged man, I was prone to taking the path of least resistance, and thought ‘why not’.

I’d been on worse nights out.

The event was run in a local Community Centre.

There was tea, coffee and as many Custard Creams as you could eat.

I wouldn’t say the evening began particularly well.

A Social Worker was giving us a lecture about how you become a Foster Carer.

As an enormous extrovert, and invariably one of the loudest in any room, I was quick to put my hand up.

‘What’s a LAC?’, ‘What’s an I.V.? What do you mean by ‘Panel’?

These were just some of the terms that had confused me within the first five minutes.

The Social Worker was surprisingly patient as she explained that we would be caring for Looked After Children (L.A.C.) but would need an Initial Visit (I.V.) before we went through an assessment process and hopefully, eventually, be ‘approved to foster’ by an Independent Panel of people (Panel!).

The next guest speaker was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, but did even less to encourage me to foster.

She was a single woman of an indeterminate age, and probably exactly how I imagined a foster carer to be. That is to say, she was nothing like me.

She explained that she was particularly tired today.

She’d spent the early hours of the morning looking for a 14 year old in her care who had done a runner. With the help of the Police, she’d tracked him down, coaxed him back into her car and taken him home.

She’d then had to call upon the Police for a second time because the 16 year old she was fostering had invited her boyfriend over.

As a convicted drug dealer, this boyfriend was banned from her home and had to be ejected.

I was very glad someone was looking after these teenagers, but I was probably more glad that it wasn’t me.

We had a nice life.

I was a teacher, my wife worked for the Council, and our two kids were doing well in Primary School.

We had two Guinea Pigs, a compost bin, and a pebble dashed, extended, semi-detached home.

Did we really want to risk all that by inviting the unknown into our home?

The third speaker of the evening was a ‘Care experienced young adult’ or ‘Ex-LAC’ or, as she introduced herself, Lucy.

I’m guessing she was about 20.

She changed my mind.

She stared at her audience, who were all significantly older than her.

‘If I told you, that you had to come to stay at my house for reasons that I’m not going to fully explain, would you come?’

‘If I said, that you had to leave everything you knew, all your stuff, all your family, all your friends, all the smells, all the noises behind, would you come?’

‘Even if your home was dangerous and chaotic, would you gladly go and live with complete strangers, with their funny ways in their funny home? Would you?’

‘When you’re a kid in care, especially when you’re very young, like Primary age, you don’t understand what’s best for you, you’re just scared.  Could you make a scared kid feel safe?’

Sometimes, if we go on holiday it takes me time to adjust to new surroundings.

The first day at a new job can be the hardest day, and we are glad to get through it and get home.

When kids go for sleepovers with their friends or family they sometimes feel homesick or anxious.

I’m an extrovert, but even I like to be on my sofa, in my home with my own TV remote, on my own.

My wife and I spent the next few days considering the pros of cons of fostering.

We decided to apply.

In my experience you get much better biscuits when you are about to ‘go to Panel’. It’s not as scary as it seems. My wife’s top tip was ‘try not to be too funny’.

We knew it would take about 6 months to be assessed and approved to foster.

It was possible that the Council’s Social Workers would decide we weren’t suitable to foster.

It was also possible that during this time we’d decide that fostering wasn’t for us and withdraw our application.

In fact, we were approved to foster ‘one child between the ages of 0-18, with a preference for an under 5’.

And that’s when the adventure really began.

Fostering a baby

I expect you’ve got a baby photo

Don’t be fooled! This was as friendly as me and my brother ever got in the 1970s. Now that we are grown ups, we chat regularly on the phone, laugh about the past and plot the future. He supports QPR.

Here’s one of me in the arms of my mother, staring at my big brother. I was born in the upstairs bedroom of the house where this photo was taken.

We moved when I was 5, and my Mum and Dad still Iive in the ‘new house’. 

When I return, I still sleep in the bedroom I had when I was at Primary School, although my parents did redecorate sometime in the 1990s.

We’ve only ever fostered one baby, but he did stay twice.

We had him more or less as an ‘emergency’, for reasons I was never quite sure about.

Although we were more set up for school aged children, we did our best.

We fed him, we kept him warm and safe, we changed his nappy, and we sung nonsensical songs to him.

He gurgled and grinned back at us, just as babies are supposed to do.

Our birth kids, particularly our 7 year old daughter, thought he was very cute.

He didn’t sleep well, by which I mean we were lucky to get even an hour of peace either in the day or in the night.  We didn’t know why.

Perhaps it was health issues, or perhaps his body was full of adrenaline, somehow aware that his future was so uncertain and precarious.  Perhaps he was just a poor sleeper.

After a few days, the Social Worker told us she’d found a more permanent arrangement.

I was instructed to drop the baby off at a local Nursery.

I remember learning about Moses being cast adrift in the Nile as a kid in Sunday School. To me at the time, it was just a story and a colouring-in sheet. I am rubbish at colouring in and have no interest in keeping within the lines.

This was a simple enough task, but I did find it very emotional, believing I was unlikely ever to see this child again. The image that came to my mind was a colouring in sheet I must have done when I was 3 or 4. It was of Moses’ mother pushing her infant son into the Nile, nestled in a basket of bulrushes. I hoped and prayed that this little kid would be safe.

That night we got the best night’s sleep we’d had for some time and then carried on with our lives.

A few days later, I arrived back home from work to find a Social Worker looking sheepish in our kitchen.  My wife was cooing over a baby, the same baby I’d dropped off a few days before.

The Social Worker had arranged with my wife for the baby to stay just one more night, as an absolute last resort emergency.

In 1982 I sent this photo of my Mum into a ‘Glamorous Teacher’ competition in The Eagle Comic. I won! My Mum got some chocolates and flowers delivered to the school where she worked. She had no idea I’d done this. I won £5. Viewed through modern sensibilities, this whole concept now seems problematic.

I asked for some further explanation.

‘The baby was due to be picked up by his Mum, but she had never turned up. We can’t find her or contact her.  We knew you still had a cot and the bottles.  It’s 7.00pm and there really is nowhere else.’

Although usually phlegmatic, I was cross.

Who was this feckless mother? What was she up to when she should have been looking after her helpless child? Who would deliberately abandon their child in such a way?

I voiced my thoughts.

The Social Worker, quite rightly, explained such details were confidential.

However, we were told that the Mum had only recently became a teenager and was in care herself.

I know, if it had been possible, we’d have found room for that young Mum and the baby to stay in our home.

This story is 10 years old, and we’ve no idea what happened to that baby.

I do know, that for a few days at least, he was safe.

Building self-esteem: ‘Phil, Phil, look at me!’

It’s not unusual for a kid to want attention.

This painting has an uncanny resemblance to my birth daughter and adopted son. It was painted by my old friend Sonya Vine. She’s never met either of them.

It’s not unusual for any of us to want to impress.

Who doesn’t want praise and affirmation?

If you’ve had a traumatic start to life you might not know what to do with praise.

The narrative goes something like this:-

My Mum and Dad didn’t love me enough to want me or to keep me safe. 

They chose alcohol or drugs or a violent partner over me.

Therefore, I must be unworthy of love.

Therefore, when someone shows me love, it doesn’t make sense.

I will reject their love.

The life expectancy of a pair of swimming goggles in the hands of a child can be measured in minutes.

I used to spend Saturday mornings perusing the local car boot sales with a nine year old foster kid.

He was generally interested in anything with buttons, particularly old phones or bits of laptops.

On one occasion, in a departure from routine, he spotted a pair of swimming goggles.

He’d been swimming before.

We’d taken him and he’d gone regularly with his school.

He was by no means proficient, but he was quite good at standing by the shallow end, and particularly enjoyed getting crisps from the vending machine.

I am not aware of any research that’s been conducted into why a Vending Machine is so incredibly exciting to the human mind. I’m pretty sure there’s a PhD waiting to happen. I’m happy to help with the project.

For some reason, these goggles caught his imagination, and after a brief haggle, a deal was struck, and the goggles became his.

Like most small kids, he put the goggles on straightaway, and wore them all the way home.

My wife was not surprised to be confronted by a nine year old fully dressed but wearing swimming goggles when we reached home.

Foster carers learn not to be surprised by anything.

What did surprise both of us was his sudden enthusiasm for swimming.

In our city, Foster Carers get free access to local sport centres.

I’m not sure exactly how often we went, but it felt like a lot.

We followed the same routine each time.

Walk to the pool, find the same changing cubicles as yesterday, get changed, find the same locker as yesterday, lock our clothes away, find clothes we’d dropped, reopen the locker, relock the locker, head to the pool, stand on the edge of the pool, consider if it was deep or cold or if there were sharks.

And most importantly, put on the goggles.

On the first few trips, we didn’t even get wet.

Foster carers learn to be patient.

But gradually, after a few weeks, we started to paddle, then graduated to wading, and eventually we were ready to put our head under the water.

The goggles, a bargain at 50 pence, suddenly came into their own.

As we explored every inch of the three foot deep shallow end, his confidence grew.

Clinging on to my back, we tentatively began to head to deeper waters.

Within a few months, we were undeniably moving through water, perhaps in a close approximation of ‘swimming’.

Our feet were still on the bottom, but foster carers learn not to be too pedantic about such details.

Then, one day, he climbed out onto the side.

‘Kids in care want the same as everyone else. They just go about getting it using alternative strategies’. Wise words from one of our Social Workers.

He slid back in.

He repeated this several more times.

And then it happened

‘Phil, Phil, look at me!’

The kid jumped in.

‘Well done’ I said.

We’d learnt not to be too effusive with our praise.

He sniffed it out immediately if it was said without conviction or sincerity.

He invariably reacted angrily or even violently if you actually meant it.

We had seen him destroy artwork, schoolwork, phones, presents and anything else that suggested he was worthy of praise.

But this was still a golden golden moment.

By drawing attention to his progress, he was showing pride in himself. The narrative of self loathing was being undone, one swimming trip at a time.

Who can foster? ‘Only special people foster. Are we special’?’

Instant Family is both hilarious and hard hitting. For us it felt like great entertainment but also a fly on the wall documentary.

If you haven’t seen Instant Family on Netflix, I’d recommend it.

It’s based on true events, has great actors, a great script and a great storyline.

In short, a couple decide to foster and adopt. Set in the USA, we didn’t recognise everything as being in our experience, but a lot rung true.

There are loads of kids in care

There are not enough adopters and foster carers

The process to become a foster carer is long and intrusive, and a series of Social Workers will want to know all about you. 

You’ll get training but all the sessions in the world can’t fully prepare you for the arrival of a child, or children.

The three foster kids in the film will be recognisable to lots of Foster Carers and Adopters.

It’s quite handy to be able to fix stuff.

Mealtimes may be chaotic.

If you have a partner, your relationship will be tested.

A small kid, or possibly a large one, will probably tell you that they hate you.  At that moment, they will mean it, but it’s probably not actually aimed at you, but an absent adult.

You need to get used to being embarrassed in public and stared at.

You’ll probably cry a bit and laugh a lot.

Or vice versa.

Your wider family might think you’re out of your minds but will also be your greatest source of help and comfort.

Foster kids will almost certainly push your buttons.

Our foster kid’s Boobbuttons were not quite as symmetrical as this, but you get the idea

We once fostered a ‘Button Specialist’.

On one occasion, I discovered our house was covered in ‘buttons’.

They had been drawn on the walls on either side of all our eternal doors, and looked a little bit like ‘boobs’.

‘Gosh’ I said, loudly, ‘Look at these interesting things.  I wonder what they are and I wonder how they get here?.’

‘I know’, said our four year old foster kid proudly.

‘I did them’.

‘What are they?’ I asked.

I was curious, and knew there would be a reason. I knew getting angry at this graffiti would be pointless and probably lead to a meltdown.

‘They are Security Buttons’.

The little boy pressed the button on the wall in our hall, and pulled me into our lounge. He then pressed the button on the inside wall of the lounge, making a small ‘beep’ noise with his mouth.

‘Now we are safe. No one can get us.’ He said confidently.

Realising that the ‘boobs buttons’ created some sort of force field, I had a go too.

‘Wow, that’s a clever system’ I said.

‘You know though, in our house we have a big front door with two locks and a chain. And I am here too. You are safe here.’

The little kid just very slowly shook his head.

‘No, the bad people can come through doors. Nothing can stop them’.

There’s a lot of detective work in fostering. 

I concluded this little boy had experienced violence, intimidation and destruction.  His ‘boob button system’ was a strategy for feeling safe, and who doesn’t want to feel safe.

We didn’t particularly want ‘boob buttons’ all over our house, so I bought a real doorbell and hid it in the flowerbed outside our front door.

‘Look at this. It’s a special button that puts a force field over our whole house. When we come home, we can press this and we will be safe. Only you and I know about it’.

Security system doorbells are available from the internet and from shops. I don’t know how to wire doorbells, but I do know how to use my imagination.

That little boy pressed that doorbell safety button whenever he needed to feel safe.

A few days later I painted over the boob/buttons.

Eventually, he stopped using the doorbell safety button.

I wouldn’t say he felt safe, but he certainly was beginning to feel safer.

If you want to know more about fostering or adoption, contact me or your Council.

Welcoming a new kid: Me: “Hello. My name is Phil” Small kid: “Hello Alan”.

This was an opening exchange with a four year old, who we fostered for just a weekend.

A little boy called me Alan the whole time he was with us. I didn’t mind. I’ve been called worse.

The little boy had been in care all his life. Whilst his regular Foster Carer was having a minor cataract operation, it had been arranged for him to spend the weekend with us.

We were new to fostering, but had tried to give the first few minutes of a child arriving some thought.

As a general principle, your feelings will be nowhere near as tense as those of the child. Imagine the anxiety of staying with strangers for an indefinite period of time? It would be difficult for an adult, never mind a child.

At six foot and slightly overweight, I know I can appear intimidating, so I had crouched down to greet our guest.

Our birth kids have done more than they could ever know to make foster kids feel welcome and safe.

I was somewhat taken aback to be called Alan, but I pressed on.

“What would you like us to call you?”

As a Foster Carer, you’re looking for any body language or facial signals that will give you insight into the character or experience of this little child. No eye contact is quite normal. Starring without blinking is just as likely.

What can you ask and do to make a difficult day better? Without being too intense, we tried a few opening questions.

“This is our house. Is it like where you live?”

“In our house, there are four people and you. How many people live in your house?“

We introduced our birth children, who were both in Junior School at the time.

“Shall we show you around the house?”.

We have learnt not to assume anything.

You have very little idea what this child knows and what they may have experienced.

You may know their age and know, for example, what a typical four year old can and cannot do.

You may have to forget all your preconceived ideas.

“This is the room where you will be sleeping. This is your duvet and this is your pillow. I hope it’s comfy for you. You can leave your things in here and they will be safe. Do you want to unpack yourself or would you like some help?”

“This is the bathroom. This is the toilet. This is how you flush the toilet. This is the toilet paper.”

We once fostered a kid who thought bedtime meant lying on the sofa under his coat. He appeared to have never seen a bath and wanted nothing to do with the whole idea of washing. 

All the time we were looking for clues of comprehension. Is this all familiar to the child or brand new? There’s a fine line between explaining and patronising.

In our experience, the bathroom and the kitchen are likely to be the cause of most confusion and interest.

“In our house we usually eat around the table.  Is there a place where you would like to sit?”

Some foster kids have had to fend for themselves from an early age. We’ve learnt to go with what works, certainly at the beginning. If a kid likes pizza, feed them pizza. The fruit and veg can come later.

“These are the cupboards where we keep the food and this is the fridge.  In this house, there is always enough to eat.  Is there anything you recognise, that you know you like?”

We once set a place at the table for a 3 year old. We’d bought him a Peppa Pig fork and spoon, Peppa Pig plate and a Peppa Pig cup. We felt very proud of ourselves, as we offered him spaghetti bolognese.

It soon became clear, he’d never used a fork or a spoon, had never sat a table, had no knowledge of Italian or any other cooked food, and had survived by eating discarded takeaways and milk. He’d never seen a TV either and was oblivious to pigs and to pepper.

I’m not sure if that’s extreme, but, as a rule, assume nothing.

That three year old also hated having his back to an open room. He needed to have his back to the wall so he could scan for danger.

As Foster Carers, we have learnt that you cannot plan for everything, as you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. I know that we do our best to keep kids safe and that by watching, by asking and by learning we have done our best.

Often we’ve never discovered why a child behaves in a certain way.

However, once her cataracts had been sorted  I did ask the four old’s regular Foster Carer why he might have called me ‘Alan’.

“Oh that’s easy that is. He had a Social worker called Alan. He was white like you. He must think all white men are called Alan.”

When a new kid arrives, assume nothing and don’t be shocked. Keep them safe, and then learn how to help them thrive.

Big respect to all Foster Carers, regardless of name, colour or creed.

What do you know about the kids: What’s your favourite Hula Hoop flavour, and other things to ask a kid

How much do you know about the kids you’re going to foster before they arrive? Sometimes a lot, sometimes not much.

A 10 year old, we will call him Peter, said goodbye to his Mum one morning and wandered off to Primary school.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t have an opinion on Hula Hoops.

He was in Year 5.

Unbeknown to Peter, at about 11.00am, his Mum fell seriously ill and was rushed to hospital.

The hospital began to treat her.  Although stable, it was clear that she would not be returning home anytime soon. 

I don’t know how, but the hospital staff knew she had a son, and presumably following some sort of protocol, they rang Children’s Services.

A Social Worker answered the phone and took down the details that were available.

With no real warning, Children’s Services had gained another ‘case’, and another kid was in care.

A Social Worker tracked the child down in the school system, and confirmed that he was ‘present’ and safe in his Primary School.  Children’s Services had until the end of the school day to find somewhere safe for Peter to stay.  There were no records of any family or friends who could step in.

Another Social Worker began ringing various Foster Carers who had a spare room that night.

I don’t know how many were phoned before the Social Worker rang us, but it was about 1.30pm and I’m fairly sure she’d have been getting desperate.

‘Hello. Could you take a 10 year old boy tonight? We think he’s Russian. We have no other information at this moment’.

It wasn’t much to go on but we said ‘yes’.

As Foster Carers we knew that there would be one other piece of information implicit in the Social Worker’s call.

This 10 year old boy would have nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, another Social Worker went to the Primary School, presented her badge, signed in and saw the headteacher to explain what she knew, and find out what he knew.

At 2.30 the school bell rang to signal the end of the day.

The school erupted into movement in the way that schools do.

However, rather than going home as usual, Peter was steered into the headteacher’s office.

I don’t know the exact words used, but someone tried to explain that his Mum was ill, that he couldn’t go home, and that he was going into foster care.

No promises could be made that his Mum would get better, that he could see her, or that he would definitely go home soon.

The Social Worker drove Peter the 30 minutes to our house.

The Social Worker had never met us. I have no idea how she managed 30 minutes of chit chat with a 10 year old in those circumstances.

At 3.30 a car pulled up outside our house.

My wife and I had agreed that she would chat to the Social Worker and I would chat to the boy.

Wearing the uniform he had left his house in, a somewhat bewildered 10 year old wandered into our home.

‘Priviet’ I announced proudly.  YouTube told me that this was the Russian for ‘hello’.

“Why are you speaking Russian?” said Peter. “I am from by The Black Sea.”

This was not exactly the response I’d imagined, so I moved to Plan B.

“Do you like Green, Blue or Red Hula Hoops?”

When a new Foster Kid arrives, try to be as normal as possible. Try not to overload them with information or questions.

This question captured his attention and his imagination.

Who hasn’t got an opinion on crisp flavours?

This led to a good natured but heated debate about the various merits of various potato snacks.

Our own kids joined in with the conversation.

We soon discovered Peter was a big football fan and FIFA on the Xbox was an easy and welcome distraction.

My wife shot out to the shop to get some basic toiletries, pyjamas and other bits and pieces that a ten year old might need.

Peter’s first day in care was not good, but it was less crap than it could have been.

Peter lived with us for 6 months.

Eventually, his Mum got well enough for him to return home.

If you would like to find out about Fostering, contact me or your Local Authority

Transitioning a foster kid to adoption: Have you seen Little Orphan Annie? Well, it’s nothing like that

‘I’d love to foster, but I couldn’t because I’d become too attached. I just couldn’t let them go’.

There are many hellos and goodbyes in fostering, and if it doesn’t impact you emotionally, I can only suggest you must be doing it wrong.

Yeah yeah, we all love the songs and the happy ending (sorry about the Spoiler) but the chances of you getting an all singing all dancing cute kid are fairly remote.

We’d had a four year old for a little over a year. Social Workers, Solicitors and a Judge had all decided he could never return home to his Birth Parents. As I understand it, this is not a decision that’s made lightly. This little kid, who’d only just started Primary School, had no idea that there was not a suitable blood relation or family friend who could look after him.  He was entirely in the Care of the State.

A Social Worker visited our house to decide what the plan was.

According to her notes, and she’d never met the little fellow before, he was ‘nonverbal and non-ambulatory’. She sat in our lounge asking us about him. 

Suddenly, the door flew open, the subject of our discussion raced in, climbed onto the sofa, did a star jump and shouted ‘look at me’.

It was clear that what was written and what was reality were far removed from one another.

After more chatting and note taking, she told us ‘I think you’ve made him adoptable’.

I don’t think we’ve ever been prouder.

This Social Worker explained that she would begin the process of finding a forever family for him.

Family is the privilege everyone should be able to take for granted. The little kid is holding my Mum and Dad’s hands whilst in a day trip to a theme park. He learnt to trust them pretty quickly.

I believe there are more children wanting to be adopted than there are potential adopters.  It’s a brutal situation.

In a ‘Supply/Demand Market’, cute kids with few health concerns get adopted first. Often featured in our culture, think Stuart Little, Queen’s Gambit and Little Orphan Annie, the reality is even more distressing.

Aged four, our little man was deemed ‘just about adoptable’.

The Social Worker rang us a few weeks later saying she thought she’d found a suitable family.

This family had been through the rigorous process of being ‘assessed’.

Many heterosexual adopters have tried to conceive naturally, been unsuccessful, sought treatment such as IVF, been unsuccessful, and then come to adoption as a ‘last resort’. Some adopters are single and some are gay. They all have their lives turned inside out as The Social Care System decides whether they’re suitable to adopt a child and become a parent.

Infertility is indiscriminate and pays little attention to class, colour or creed.

The adoption process is not for the faint hearted.

I was to meet the potential adopters in an impersonal Council Office to chat about their prospective son, who lived with us, who was already four, who’d already experienced so much, but whom they’d  never met.

It’s very very hard to describe a kid in these circumstances. 

The adopting family sent us photos and video messages of themselves.

We showed them to our foster child and tried to explain that these were to be his new Mummy and his new Daddy.

A transition schedule was arranged.

The new Mum and Dad would come to our house for a few hours each day, take the little man on day trips, introduce him to their house and their family and gradually move his belongings, and him, from ours to theirs.

A couple of a Birth kids and a foster kid up a tree. We have always fostered as a family.

It was a Tuesday morning when he finally left.

A Social Worker took him and his last bag of stuff.

‘Goodbye’ we said, as we closed the front door, trying to downplay the trauma of a final ‘goodbye’.

Once we knew he had gone, my wife and I and our two birth children burst into tears.

It was like a funeral and a birth all at the same.

Tears are the price we pay for love, and I think we did love him, even though he was only ever ours temporarily.

Some adopters keep in touch with the foster carers, but as foster carers you have no right to insist on this.

We know this little boy is happy and safe.

We know we did the best we could.

If you’re interested in finding out about fostering or adoption, contact me or your Council

Triggers and Why we don’t listen to Fleetwood Mac.

We don’t listen to Fleetwood Mac in our house.

I quite like Fleetwood Mac, especially their early stuff.

Well, to be more specific, we don’t listen to their multi million selling album Rumours, and we have to make every effort to avoid ‘I don’t want to know’ from ever coming up on the radio, whether it be in the kitchen or in the car.

It’s not that we don’t like Fleetwood Mac, we do, especially the early stuff with Peter Green.

It’s the visceral, terrifying reaction this great British Blues Band provokes in our little man.

We discovered this purely by chance.

I don’t hold the Radio 2 DJ Ken Bruce responsible, but it was during his mid morning slot that ‘I don’t want to know’ came out of the car stereo.

‘No, no, no, no!’ screamed our seven year old.

He sat bolt upright in the car as soon as the first unmistakable beats were played.

As he screamed, he stared straight ahead, his whole body clenched in a rigid spasm.

I tuned off the radio, pulled over and parked up.

He was shaking.  I was shaking.

He made it very clear that he didn’t want to hear that song and he didn’t want to talk about why he didn’t want to hear that song.

He’s never discussed it since, and we’ve not considered it necessary to broach the subject.

We can only assume that the song was the soundtrack, possibly the ringtone, to an episode in his past that was so traumatic that it must be avoided at all costs.

Sometimes, it’s worth helping such a child investigate their past.

Sometimes, it’s not.

In fostering and adoption, helping a child come to terms with their past is known as ‘life story work’. You probably find that songs, theme tunes, photos, TV programmes and even smells evoke strong emotions in you.

These emotions can help you heal, and help you understand your past, even if they bring a tear to your eye.

No matter how hot the day, the gentlemen in our family wore a shirt and tie. I spent the 1970s wearing this red tracksuit. Family is a collection of shared memories, many of which conflict.

You can probably link the emotion to a time, a place or a person.

However, if you were taken into care in your early, formative years, it’s perfectly possible that emotional triggers come without context. It’s just frightening and it’s incomprehensible.

And there’s no one to ask.

Family history is a shared set of half truths, seen from a variety of perspectives, all of which are a little bit wrong. Parents, grandparents, siblings and extended family all contribute.

Many kids in care experience a massive dislocation with their past, and have no ‘family memory’.

This Little Man struggles in January.

It’s not a fun month for many of us.

The excitement of Christmas and the New Year are over.

The days are short, the weather is miserable and it’s a long time until Spring.

The misery of January is interrupted only by the dizzy excitement of the FA Cup and the use of the ‘orange’ football. Under pitch heating often denies us even this simple pleasure.

But for him, it was a time of intense distress, and I mean that in a ‘Foster Carer’s Scale’ not a ‘Regular Parent’s Scale’. I mean a long sequence of disrupted nights, apparently mindless violence and destruction. I mean ‘far away eyes’ where you just can’t reach him. We’d been trained to look for the reason behind the behaviour, which is quite difficult when you are drained and beginning to suffer from Secondary Trauma, which is a sort of PTSD-lite! In a rare, calm moment, we realised that he’d experienced a particularly difficult ‘transition’ in a January a few years previously.

He didn’t know why, but he was terrified.

The coming down of the Christmas tree, the short days and the bad weather all reminded him of a terrifying time and deep deep down, he thought his life was going to be tipped upside down again.

We had no solutions but at least we had a reason. We figured if we could just keep going, one day at a time, we’d get away from January and maybe it would get easier, and it did.

We went from the brink of breakdown to a much more manageable and even enjoyable household.

We are now on our 8th January. Each one gets a little bit easier, and at least we know what to expect.

If you’re a foster carer or an adopter I hope you learn to spot those triggers and learn to manage them.