Our social worker telephoned today with some bad news. It might not seem like much to non foster carers, but we found out that our regular respite carers are retiring. My heart sank into my boots. Respite is what has kept our current placement going – that and a ton of perseverance (or just plain stubbornness) on our part.
So far the children in placement with us have had three different sets of respite carers in just over six years. Its a big ask for them to learn to trust new people each time, but so far the experience has been hugely beneficial for everyone involved. Each new set of carers bring different skills, different values and different lifestyles, but they all add something to the children’s development and makeup.
When my husband and I decided we could commit to keeping the children long term, we met with social workers and psychologists to discuss what this might mean for us all. It was a huge decision for us, and one which we took at the same time as knowing we had to move 300 miles away for my husband’s new job. Taking the children with us to have an entirely fresh start just seemed right.
One of the first things the social worker said to us at the meeting was, ‘Long term fostering is the same as adoption, I hope you realise that?’ She followed this with, ‘And that means you can’t have any more respite….ever.’
As I absorbed this information and tried to arrange my thoughts into some kind of order, the attending psychologist added her opinion – ‘Yes, research has shown that respite is a disruptive influence for children in care. They need to feel they are a part of your family, and being sent away from home doesn’t sit well with that.’
Both the social worker and the psychologist then sat and stared at me silently for a while…..a long while. I often wondered if they practised this silent staring together, because they used it repeatedly at meetings. The worst occasion was when they tried, in a two pronged attack, to emotionally blackmail my husband and I into adopting the children. It didn’t work then, and it didn’t work this time, but it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, like a selfish, inadequate failure.
What I wanted to say was something dynamic and attention grabbing, like – ‘We’ve had respite for the last two years. We haven’t used it very often and we’ve made sure it was an exciting, fun and positive experience each time. The children love going to their respite carers – the rules are easier, the boundaries are looser, they get spoilt. It’s a bit like going to stay with a doting grandparent. We get a rest, the children see it as a holiday – it’s a win-win situation.’
Instead of which, I found myself fighting back tears, and blurting out – ‘They haven’t got any easier you know,’.
I was met with unfriendly looks. And more silence.
‘I mean, they’re still extremely challenging children to care for,’ I carried on. ‘We will need the occasional break, just to recharge our batteries.’
The social worker shook her head, raised her eyebrows and said, ‘If you feel that you can’t cope then I’m afraid we’ll have to review the future of the placement.’
‘I can cope,’ I snapped back, ‘If I have respite. Surely the odd bit of time away from us (we were allocated around 14 nights a year in total at this point) is better than them having to up sticks and live somewhere else entirely.’
‘It just won’t work in the long term,’ the social worker replied, ‘At least, we as a local authority don’t believe it will.’
I could feel the tears brimming in my eyes again, my cheeks reddening as I contemplated having to say goodbye to these children. The feeling of loss, even this tiny foretaste of it, was devastating.
The silence had descended again, and I could feel the weight of everybody’s stares on me like a physical pressure. I had to be brutally and completely honest.
‘I can’t continue the placement without respite,’ I said, slowly, picking each word carefully, trying to avoid a knee-jerk blurt which I would later regret. ‘I know, in my heart, that I would not withstand the stress, and things would end badly.’ The social worker was regarding me with a frown, her pen poised above her notepad. ‘I don’t want to get to that point, where the children have to leave in some kind of chaotic meltdown.’
‘I get the feeling the children are being labelled,’ the psychologist now said, as if I hadn’t just spoken some of the hardest words I had ever uttered. ‘And I don’t know if that’s helpful. I mean, which particular behaviours do you find so difficult?’
Now I was angry. The red mist descended.
‘Well, there’s the hypervigilance. The constant surveillance, the following me around the house, the eavesdropping, the intrusion into my personal space. There’s the highly sexualised behvaiours, the suggestive comments, the explicit approaches, to myself, my husband, our daughter and our friends and family. There’s the shoplifting, the stealing and the lying. There’s the issues with over eating, the issues with toileting, the controlling behaviours, the tantrums and the defiance…….’ I stopped to draw breath.
‘I don’t see any of these behaviours when I’m with the children,’ the social worker said, ‘They’re no trouble at all.’
‘Well, with respect, you see them once a month and you take them out to McDonald’s for half an hour,’ I replied, ‘Not much time to start showing any challenging behaviour.’
Another awkward silence fell. The social worker finally broke it.
‘If you really mean what you’ve said, then I need to take this information back to my manager and we’ll have to make a decision about whether or not to move the children,’ she started tidying her notes and pen into her bag. I felt sick, anxiety and anger battling for control inside me.
‘When will you be able to tell us?’ I asked, nervously. ‘We are moving house in around six weeks’ time. I’ve just heard that the children have places at the local school – everything is kind of in place for their new life.’
‘We’ll let you know, as soon as we can,’ the social worker replied. ‘I mean, if the placement’s ending anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether that happens after the move or before it.’
I was momentarily flabbergasted into silence. This woman’s lack of empathy was breathtaking.
‘So, you want us to tell the children they’re moving house with us, potentially move them half way across the country and then – then – after settling into the new house and the new school, they might be told they’re not staying?’
‘I don’t think it matters where they are when they’re told,’ she responded, pulling on her coat and standing up.
I felt I had nothing more to say to this woman. How could I communicate with someone who believed that uprooting children from their home (for a second traumatic time) wouldn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things.
They made us wait for three months. We decided to stop thinking and worrying about it. We moved house, the children started school, we began to put our roots down.
Occasionally the subject would resurface in conversation between my husband and I.
‘I’ll take them to court,’ he would say, ‘I don’t know how we’ll afford it, but I’ll do it. Or I’ll go to the papers.’
Eventually the children’s social worker visited us, sat down and explained that, after much discussion, the local authority had decided we could have respite. She said it as if she was offering us the crown jewels, or as if we were a special case. I thanked her politely for letting us know, and in my head I called her some unpleasant names.
Six years on, and we’ve been lucky enough to meet some fantastic respite carers – people willing to meet the challenges of children with attachment disorders, eating disorders, gender identity issues and sexualised behaviours.
Now we have to go on a search for the next set of respite carers. It’s going to be hard for the children to learn to rub along with new people – again. But, hard as it may be, each new relationship they begin and build with caring, understanding people helps them to change their negative world view and expectations. Another set of people to learn to trust – yes, but another set of people who don’t abuse and neglect them in the way their parents did.
Respite helps us to rise to the challenge of caring for the children long term. It allows us time with our own child. It is often a time of reflection, sometimes a chance to let our hair down. It is a precious thing, and something every foster carer should have access to.