What training is there? ‘I’ve got skills, they’re multiplying’

When you become a Foster Carer you go on a course called Skills to Foster.

It can last two or three days and is often held in some sort of inhospitable Council Building.

‘I’ve got skills, they’re multiplying’ I decided to entertain my wife by singing this at every opportunity. All foster carers go on a Skills to Foster course.

We had found childcare for our Primary aged children and it felt like we were going on an adventure, perhaps even a hot date!

I’m a massive extrovert.

I’m invariably the loudest in the room.

My wife held my hand as we sat in a circle of strangers. This was not so much a loving gesture, more a recognised control mechanism. I knew a gentle squeeze meant ‘Perhaps you should consider talking less’. It’s a simple system and it works for us.

Our course was made up of an eclectic mix of potential foster carers. If you did not know the context, you would have no idea what we had in common.

There were three couples, and a handful of single women.

I’ve only ever met one single, male Foster Carer.

We represented a range of ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds.

I’m guessing we were mostly middle aged or older.

The course was run by Social Workers and Pete.

Pete was a Foster Carer. He’d been a taxi driver and had had numerous contracts driving children in care or children with additional needs to and from schools. He’d enjoyed being with the young people so much, that he and his wife decided to foster.

The Social Workers spoke the most, but Pete’s interjections showed a dry sense of humour, a deep understanding of kids, and a relentless desire to help people. We all liked Pete.

I was concerned that the course would be a bit like school.

I’m not very good at sitting on a chair and listening to presentations or monologues.

I start mucking about. This is somewhat ironic, because I’m a teacher.

I’ll let someone else decide if I’m a good teacher, but I’m pretty sure I’m not a boring one.

If one of my classes is settled and working, I’m the one who causes a disruption.

In some lessons, I think I should be the one who is asked to leave the room and take some time out.

The course was much better than school and I still think back to what I learnt.

We were encouraged to think, to reflect and to empathise.

If your house were burning down, what one thing would you take? Your pet, your photos, something of sentimental value? For me, it would be my Grandfather’s ring, that I will one day bequeath to my son.

I think my Grandfather had this ring made in World War 2. It has his initials on it. One day, it will be my son’s. I am available as a ‘hand model’.

But what if the fire were so intense that I had to leave the ring behind too?

I’d be devastated. It’s irreplaceable.

How did you get your name? My middle name is the same as my Grandfather’s. My son also has this name, even though he was born 25 years after my Grandfather died. I have explained this to my son.

These questions and discussions helped us consider issues of identity, and issues of loss.

How would it feel to lose everything? Absolutely everything.

How would it feel to not know your own history, to be navigating life without a grown up who was totally and utterly on your side?

I know who I am and where I’m from. If I want to know more, I ring my brother or my Mum.

For kids in care, identity and family history are far more fragile.

I’m white, I’m male, I’m 6 foot tall, I’m heterosexual and I went to University, twice.

There are examples of people who look like me on the TV, in the government, and more or less  in any profession you care to mention.

Our Council provided as many Time Out bars as you could eat on our Skills to Foster Course. We also learnt a lot about identity, empathy and how to handle loss.

I have rarely had to fear for my safety, and expect to be treated reasonably and courteously by anyone in authority.

It’s hard to be aware of the privileges you enjoy, unless you think long and hard.

The activity that has stuck longest in my mind is when I had to pretend I was 15, black and a lesbian.

If this were my identity, could I kiss my partner in public?

Could I get on a bus and go anywhere in the city where we lived?

How would I be received if I joined a new school or applied for a job?

Others on the course had to pretend to be disabled, suffering from depression, be a different ethnicity or background.

We also had to consider how it would be if we were a child in the Care System.

The film ‘Instant Family’ gives some good insights into how difficult it is for kids in care to maintain a relationships.

There are no definite right or wrong answers to these questions.

It’s amazing what some humans can overcome, and achieve.

But we don’t all have the same starting point.

The child in care is more disadvantaged than most.

You can’t learn all you need to know on a Three Day Course.

But it’s a good place to start.

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

Our journey to fostering

When men turn 40, it’s traditional to have a midlife crisis. I decided to become a foster carer. More accurately, my wife suggested we explore the possibility of becoming a foster family.

Humans flourish, but only in the right circumstances.

Our birth children were 5 and 7, and although I am biased, they are really rather fantastic kids, being academic, sporty and fairly sociable.

 My job as a secondary school teacher was demanding but going well.  My wife was a solicitor.  We lived in a semi detached house with pebble dash and a compost heap.  Perhaps we were in danger of becoming a little ordinary.

At first glance the risks seemed to outweigh any benefits.

Would we have room in our house and hearts for an extra child?

How would our kids be affected?  More importantly, would my wife still have time for me?

My wife took us along to an Information Event run by The Council. I’d been on worst dates!

We heard stories from a foster carer, and a young adult who had grown up in foster homes.  Their stories had us in  both tears and laughter.

Many adults who have grown up in care struggle in later life.

Many of our homeless , our prison population, and those suffering from mental health issues were once in care. This information offended my sense of justice. It was not enough to feel pity, I had to show compassion, and take action. As Christians, we were also strongly motivated by our faith and God’s obvious heart for the ‘orphan’.

Our own situation also influenced me.  My own children had begun to go on sleep overs.

I’m sure your kids have done the same or will do so in the future.  I remember my son, then aged five, showing a little bit of anxiety about spending a night at his best friend’s house.

I sought to reassure him. 

My son knew what he would be having for tea, he knew where the toilet was, he was taking his own duvet and pillow, his own bag of power rangers and a bag of sweets.  He knew what he’d be watching on TV, and he knew his Dad would be picking him up in the morning.

And yet, still he was nervous.

I began to wonder.  What would it be like for a five year old, or younger, to be taken to a stranger’s house and left there, perhaps forever?

 I knew we could keep a child safe.  We could provide food, a warm bed and some sort of reassurance.  This is the essence of fostering.

My wife rang the Council and registered our interest to become foster carers.

Six months later, we were approved as Foster Carers for Liverpool City Council.

A foster kid wrote this message on my iPad. Outstanding literacy and a lovely, precious sentiment.

10 years on and we have fostered 8 separate children.

We have had children for four hours, a week, six months , and one we decided to adopt.

We just fell in love with him, and he fell in love with us. He’s not the most articulate child and can have trouble accessing and expressing his feelings in a socially acceptable way.  However, one day when he had been with us a while he was being ominously quiet.  I found him in our lounge surrounded by shattered glass wielding a permanent felt tip pen.  He had taken a framed family photo from the mantle piece, punched the glass out, and added a picture of himself.  I’m not a psychologist, but it was fairly obvious what he was trying to say.

We adopted that little man a few months later. Although Hollywood would have you believe otherwise, adoption is not the end of the story and does not solve the problem of trauma. As a 13 year old, he is still fearful of unknown adults and still struggles when a routine changes. But he has a family now, a whole network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who can help him navigate life. For him, statistically, the future is far brighter as an adopted child than as a ‘Foster Placement’.

Fostering is never even dull. This kid loved going to The Asda Cafe. He used the Free Refill Fizzy Drinks Machine to make potions! Then we’d go home. An afternoon of creative fun for £1.00.

Fostering is difficult, but the rewards outweigh the problems, and its value is unquantifiable.  Occasionally I encounter men of my age who talk about wanting a new challenge.  They run back to back marathons, climb Kilimanjaro, or become Vegans.  Meanwhile, I am trying to convince a kid that 3.00am is a bad time to play tennis, and  that not every adult is dangerous.  It’s probably not as glamorous as running a FTSE company, but my wife thinks it’s sexy and I get to spend a lot more time on the swings at the park.  Clearly, I am the real winner, and so are the kids who we look after.

We get significant support from the Council’s  Social Workers but have also become associated with a National Charity called Home for Good.

Home for Good’s mission is to find a safe home for every one of the 80,000 children in care, whether it be fostering or adoption. They also do a great job supporting those of us who foster and adopt, by running local support groups and providing resources.

Fostering isn’t for every one, but everyone should consider it before they decide it’s not for them.

If you’d like to find out more, contact Home for Good or your Local Council about fostering.