Becoming Lily

‘That’s a lovely bracelet,’ I commented to my foster son Ted. He was sitting in the back of the car, twirling his disco bead creation around dramatically so that I could see it in my mirror.

‘I know, it’s beautiful,’ he agreed, grinning.

Ted had been out with a friend of ours to a jewellery making shop the day before and had come home proudly displaying this rainbow coloured bracelet. Not many ten year old boys would have chosen jewellery making as an activity but Ted was unusual, in many ways. His social worker insisted it was ‘just a phase’ but Ted had been interested in stereotypically feminine toys and clothes ever since he had come to live with us, aged two.

‘Do you know what it says?’ Ted now asked.

‘How do you mean?’ I was concentrating on a tricky junction in the road, trying to keep tabs on three lots of traffic coming from three different directions. My mind was only half, maybe a quarter on Ted.

‘The beads…..do you know what they say?’ Ted persisted.

‘Hmmm….not sure….’ I thought I’d seen my moment, was just about to swing out into the road when someone came haring down it in a white BMW. ‘Must be doing over 60,’ I muttered to myself, shaking my head.

‘Lily,’ said Ted, determined to get and keep my attention.

‘Right,’ the traffic had cleared and with a sigh of relief I pulled out and joined the main road. There was a long silence until finally something nagged at me and Ted’s words sunk in.

‘Lily?’ I queried, glancing at him in the mirror. He was staring hard at me.

‘Yeah…the beads, well some of the beads have letters on them and they say ‘Lily’.’

‘OK,’ I wasn’t sure where to go with this information. ‘Did you make it for someone else then?’ I didn’t think we knew anyone called Lily.

‘No.’

‘So, why did you make yourself a bracelet with Lily on it then?’

‘Because I want to change my name to Lily,’ said in a matter of fact tone.

‘OK….’ I was keeping my eyes on the road, but my mind was trying to process what Ted was saying, and trying to come up with some sensible responses. ‘But…if you change your name to Lily and say you’re meeting someone who doesn’t know you, and they are expecting a girl, and then you turn up….don’t you think it will be a bit confusing for them? And for everyone else actually.’

‘Well, no because I want to change into a girl,’ Ted explained.

While I was trying to compose my answer, Ted continued calmly. ‘I want to change into a girl, change my name to Lily, grow my hair, wear dresses and do all the things I’ve always wanted to do. As a girl.’

I gripped the wheel more tightly, my knuckles bleaching. ‘Get this right Grace’ I told myself. I took a deep breath.

‘How long do you think you’ve felt like this?’ I wondered.

‘For ever,’ was the answer. ‘Since I was born.’

‘Well, I am so glad you’ve told me,’ I felt a bubble of emotion rising up my throat and gulped it back down. I had to match his mood and stay calm and accepting. ‘Lily is a lovely name. If I had another daughter I think I would have liked to call her that.’

‘They’ll have to change my name on the register at school,’ Ted said, scrunching his face up with concentration as he ran through the changes which would have to be made. ‘And I’ll need a girl’s swimming costume and a skirt for school and you’ll have to get me a new passport and -‘

‘Hang on a minute sweetie,’ my head was threatening to implode with this new information and all the implications for the little boy sitting behind me. For him it was as straightforward as changing his name, growing his hair and wearing a skirt. For me it was a huge leap into the unknown.

‘Can you give me some time to get used to this?’ I eventually asked.

‘How long?’ the answer came back.

‘A year?’ I crossed my fingers on the wheel. ‘There’ll be a lot of things we need to think about and talk about before you can make such a big change.’

‘OK, a year,’ there was a pause. We exchanged a little glance in the mirror. ‘So, April 28th next year. That’s when you’ll get your wish. A daughter called Lily.’

 

 

 

 

Becoming Lily

Alfie opens up

Chapter 7Alfie Opens Up

 

‘Yay! Grace, look at me… look at me!’

‘No, Grace… I’m higher, look at me!’

Rose and Alfie’s voices were so excited and carefree, I stopped loading the washing machine and popped my head round the back door into the garden, for the fourth time in ten minutes. Their high spirits were infectious. The weather had finally taken a determined turn for the better and they were making the most of the sunshine by playing in the garden. When Amelia was little we had invested in a solid wooden slide and swings and when we started fostering, we added a large trampoline to the set up. Alfie and Rose loved the trampoline, Amelia and her friends colonised it most days after school, and when the children weren’t on it, our cat Gonzo used it as a bird watching command post. The birds, meanwhile, were happy to sit in the tree above and use the trampoline as their toilet.

Now as I looked, Alfie was perched on the trampoline’s side cushions, watching Rose ricochet around the netting like a rubber ball, cackling. I was touched to see him sitting patiently and waiting his turn, hands tucked under his chin.

‘Great jumping,’ I said, after waving to them both. ‘I’ll be out in a minute when I’ve got the washing on. Then you can both show me how good you are.’

‘OK, Grace,’ called Rose, her hair flying up above her head like a white flame as she rose and fell. Alfie smiled shyly at me. He didn’t speak, but he did raise his hand in the ghost of a wave.

Progress.

As I headed back to the kitchen, I smiled, thinking how normal and happy this whole scene was. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks. Just being outside, in the sunshine, with the promise of summer days ahead, and with the children occupied and content, this was close to normality.

After I had finished loading the washing and was making myself a quick cup of tea to take outside, I heard the children’s voices again. I smiled to myself – they sounded so delighted. Then I listened a bit more closely to what they were shouting.

‘Fuck head! Fuck head! Fuck head!’ I ran outside again, jumped over Gonzo in my desperation to get to the children and caught Rose mid-shout, her mouth open. In that second, Alfie, who had his back to me and therefore hadn’t seen me coming, joined in, laughing uproariously and bellowing, ‘Shit head! Shit––’

STOP!’ I shouted. It wasn’t a normal shout, it was one of those momentous shouts which comes from somewhere deep within your being. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to resort to such a shout – there is something primordial about them.

Rose and Alfie both stopped shouting and moving and stared at me, open-mouthed. Out of the very corner of my eye I saw a streaking silver blur, which was Gonzo leaving the building, sensing my fury.

‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ Somehow I de-escalated my voice to normal but still very angry.

‘Jumping,’ said Rose, matter of fact and nonchalant, smiling.

As Alfie looked down, his fingers went into his mouth. He was gone, I could tell. Too much stress here.

‘Yes, I know you were jumping,’ I hissed at Rose, ‘but who were you shouting to?’

‘Mans over there,’ Rose indicated the allotments on the other side of our garden fence, which was thankfully eight feet high.

‘And what were you shouting?’ I asked, hoping I might have misheard.

‘Fuck head ’n’ shit head,’ Rose smiled at me again angelically, twisting a strand of her hair around one finger.

‘That’s a horrible thing to say. Those are very rude words and you shouldn’t be using them. Ever,’ I told her.

‘Mummy say it. She say it all the time, every day,’ Rose continued, smiling at me.

‘Well, I don’t want to hear it again, do you understand? In this family we don’t use those words and we don’t shout at people we don’t know either.’

Rose shrugged at me, laughed and carried on bouncing. Alfie looked up but stared through me, his eyes blank and unseeing. Of course I didn’t dare peek over the fence to see if anyone was standing there, horrified. I just had to hope that nobody had heard the children, and that the language wouldn’t be repeated. For the next five minutes I cringed each time I heard footsteps on the pavement outside our house, dreading that it was someone about to knock on our door to complain.

My mood was a bit spoilt, but time passed, there were no angry visitors and so we stayed out in the garden for the rest of the afternoon. Rose pottered around in the sandpit, although she wouldn’t actually play with the buckets and spades unless I joined in too. Alfie was quietly placing toy cars in lines on the grass and making them drive around clumps of moss and stones.

As I stood watching him, and pondering how to bridge the emotional gap with this little boy, the slope in our lawn caught him unawares and he toppled and fell, tumbling over himself like a ball rolling downhill. Alfie was always falling over – it was something we expected since he was only two – but even so he seemed exceptionally clumsy. As I saw him go down, my instinct was to jump up and run to him. I stopped myself, remembering that he always turned away from my cuddles, seeming to find them more of a threat than a comfort.

Alfie wailed as he picked himself up. When he looked at his hands and saw they were muddy, this seemed to terrify him. He held them out from his body as if trying to disown them, and shut his eyes tight, while the tears trickled down his cheeks. Every maternal bone in my body was screaming at me to go and comfort him. I imagined how unnatural this scene would have looked to anybody watching – a tiny child, hurt and crying, in obvious need of help, and the apparently unfeeling adult sitting and watching.

Just then, Alfie opened his eyes, looked very hard at me and began stumbling back up the bank of the lawn. He kept his eyes on me, while sobbing, and walked slowly towards me.

‘Me hurt, Grace,’ he said softly, standing just out of reach, his hands still held out in front of him. It was as if he was testing me, sounding me out in my reaction. He shuffled a little closer. I felt like someone in the presence of a rare and extremely nervous wild animal. If I did the wrong thing or made a sudden movement I would scare him away but if I did the right thing he might actually start trusting me. I could feel the pressure of the moment like a huge weight on my shoulders and neck. Everything around me seemed to have dropped away – the garden, the sunshine, the birdsong overhead, just me and this little boy and the space between us, the space I was desperate to bridge. I held out my arms to him, slowly, as I had done many times before and this time, instead of turning away, he sank into them.

Three weeks is not a long time but three weeks of sharing a house with a small child who rejects your attempts to comfort him had seemed unending. I tried not to shake with relief, and held back the tears which pricked at the corners of my eyes. This had to be a calm moment, not an overwhelming one. ‘Don’t be a drama queen, Grace,’ I told myself. ‘This is about Alfie, not you. Keep your cool.’

We stayed like that for a long time. Alfie’s sobbing stopped and he began matching the slow, steady rhythm of my breathing.

‘Cuddles are so good, aren’t they?’ I whispered into his ear. ‘They make everything feel better, even bumps and bruises.’ Alfie gave a little nod and snuggled further into the crook of my neck. ‘Sometimes they can even make you feel better if you’re scared… or lonely… or sad too.’

I decided to press home my advantage and sow some seeds in his mind. ‘You know, if you ever feel sad or scared about anything, or if you just want a cuddle, I would love to give you one and so would Andy…’ Alfie didn’t say anything, but stayed where he was and I was sure he was listening. ‘I tell Amelia that cuddles are like medicine. They make you feel all better inside. That’s why she likes having them, and Rose and Andy and me, we all need cuddles.’

Alfie pulled away from my neck and looked at me. He gave me a tiny smile, and then snuggled back against me. This felt like a huge, proper landmark moment. I wanted to jump up and phone my mum, Andy, Neil, and all my friends but I had to stay there and stay still, for as long as Alfie needed me, even if it meant the house wasn’t cleaned and the tea wasn’t cooked. I got as comfortable as I could and just enjoyed the feeling of him being in my arms.

 

Alfie opens up

How fostering changes your parenting style

My husband and I were pretty laid back parents to our birth child. There were boundaries and expectations and rules, but we all tended to go with the flow to some extent. There was an inbuilt, unspoken trust and understanding which grew naturally between us as our daughter grew.

So there was me, thinking I had the parenting lark all sewn up. Show by example rather than being a dictator, always be emotionally available and open, explain things in a rational way, be slow to get angry, be physically demonstrative and close to your child, tell them you love them, fill their days with exciting challenges and new experiences.

Then we started fostering. All the assumptions I had made about what good parenting was went flying out of the window, along with a fair dose of smugness.

Show by example – this idea falls down flat on its face unless you are fostering a baby, who hasn’t had a chance to attach itself to someone abusive or neglectful or incapable. Alfie and Rose were aged 2 and 3 when they arrived in our house. After months of trying to ‘show by example’ – about everything from eating, to dressing, to sharing, to empathising about others and allowing people personal space – I gave up. Alfie and Rose’s parents had subjected them to unimaginable abuse and neglect. They had grown up in fear and chaos, with hunger and pain being used to control them. And here was me expecting them to stop stealing food, to think about others, not to shoplift, and not to inflict injury on people and pets. Just because I, and the rest of my family didn’t do it.

I found that, in order to get Rose and Alfie to behave in a way that was even partially acceptable, I had to state the obvious, each day. ‘When we go to the shop, you must not take things  that we have not paid for.’ ‘Do not put your hands into the bag of the person in front of us in the queue.’ ‘Don’t sit on the lap of anybody you don’t know.’ ‘Don’t offer anybody a massage – ever.’ ‘Don’t follow any other families or run off.’ ‘Stay close.’ The list of instructions grew with each week that the children spent with us. And while to me it seemed crazy, sometimes rude or patronising to have to give out these dictates, it worked…..sometimes.

Moving on to my wonderful idea of explaining things rationally. That’s fine when you’re speaking to a calm, confident child who is used to receiving helpful advice from adults. When you’re trying to discuss the reasons for not running across a road, stepping closer to the train line or moving towards a cliff edge but you’re faced with a chaotic, flailing child who has only ever been guided by fists and kicks – it’s a different story. Detailed explanations have to move aside for short, sharp orders. I had to become the kind of strict, dictatorial parent who barks at their children, watches their every move and tries to pre-empt disaster by keeping them close at all times. I couldn’t allow Rose the luxury of exploring – she would disappear, attaching herself to a family, a couple, a lone man – anyone who happened to be in our vicinity. I became, not over protective, because I was, after all, doing what she needed, but on constant high alert. My stress levels reached ever higher with each trip out to the park, the shops, a friend’s house.

Being slow to anger – I had never had a problem with this until I was, over night, given the charge of two extremely chaotic children. Most of the things which are bewitching and loveable about children were missing in Rose and Alfie. They lacked empathy. If they saw something they wanted, they took it. If someone was in their way, that person was pushed aside, kicked, stamped on, whatever it took to remove them from the equation. Both children displayed highly sexualised behaviour, towards each other, towards other children and towards nearly every adult, including myself and my husband. Rose took great delight in hurting our pets, nearly causing the death of one of our kittens. I discovered that I could get angry, very quickly, that seeing friends and family members and pets shocked, hurt and upset by Rose and Alfie made me furious. I found myself shouting at the children, on a fairly regular basis. I couldn’t speak to Rose for nearly a week after she threw our kitten down the stairs.

Of course, I had experienced anger before, in relation to our daughter, but the strength of our bond and the nurturing parenting she had received meant she and I would reconcile soon after an argument. She would understand the need to make amends and would want to win back my approval if she had done something wrong. The making up made us stronger.

All thoughts of trying to get Rose and Alfie to make amends, admit responsibility or say sorry disappeared into the ether within a few weeks of their arrival. If they were caught out stealing food, breaking toys or belongings, running off or hurting other children, their response was complete emotional shut down. Overwhelmed by confusion and shame, they would switch off to me and everyone around them, head in the sand, hoping desperately that we’d all go away. It took years for them to even be able to look at me when they were being told off.

Being physically demonstrative – an absolute no. Children who have been sexually and physically abused by their parents and who are suddenly uprooted and dropped into your household will not usually be receptive to touch, or certainly not in a healthy, safe way. In the first few weeks he lived with us, Alfie responded to any physical closeness by screaming. Rose responded by becoming hyper excited or inappropriate. We had to tread ever so slowly with both if them, and although it went against all my maternal instincts, I had to allow both children to come to me when they were ready, and not to rush them.

Likewise, telling Rose and Alfie that we loved them seemed to elicit strange reactions. Alfie clearly didn’t understand what we were talking about, while Rose took it to mean we wanted some kind of sexual contact with her. We had to find other ways to express our love, to become inventive.

New experiences and exciting adventures – yes, back in the early days we really did think that foster children would welcome such things. Wrong. Taking the children out of a home environment where, for the first time in their lives, they felt safe, and then expecting them to embrace the outside world was clearly a mistake. They were terrified, and expressed their fear in a raft of different ways. Rose would run off, disappear, beg for food from other people, steal things, and generally ramp up the chaotic behaviour. Alfie would become catatonic, standing frozen in one place, dissociating from what was happening around him. He lost control of his bowels and bladder and sobbed silently, wrapped around my legs, under my feet, hanging onto my arm as if it was a lifebelt.

I cringe when I cast my mind back over some of the times I’ve shouted, given ridiculous ultimatums, pushed my crazy expectations onto foster children who could never dream of meeting them. My naive younger self had her assumptions well and truly trounced by each new placement, every child bringing their individual needs and challenges which shook me out of my state of complacency. Which, ultimately, was a good thing.

Just lately I’ve been wishing I could go back to that younger self, just before we started fostering. I would have a lot of advice to dole out, a lot of warnings to give, as well as words of hope and joy.

But hey, I thought I knew it all, I don’t suppose I would have listened anyway.

 

How fostering changes your parenting style

Allegations of abuse – a foster carer’s worst nightmare

An allegation against a foster carer can often spell the end of a placement. Trust is lost, relationships destroyed and even if the allegation is retracted it can prove almost impossible to recover from such a blow. In our case, the parents of the children we were fostering accused us of having abused their children, Rose* and Alfie*. We were already under an enormous amount of pressure with the placement, and this felt like the final straw.

This is an excerpt from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Betrayal-Rose-Alfies-story-Book-ebook/dp/B0161GC0A4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453812044&sr=8-1&keywords=betrayal+grace+hunter

‘I think we should tell Grace what Jade and Tyler are saying,’ Neil cut in. He leaned slightly forward and looked at me across the table. Annie nodded.
‘Basically,’ Neil said, ‘they are claiming that if Alfie has been sexually abused, it must have happened while he has been living with you.’
I think my mouth fell open, but I can’t be sure. My mind went into overdrive but the main emotion was pure, unadulterated fury.
‘What?!’ I didn’t shout but I think everyone in the room stiffened in their chairs, sensing my anger.
‘Jade says that in their family they don’t use the word “willy”, they call it a “tommy”.’ Neil took a deep breath, ‘Now because Alfie has been saying “willy”, she reckons that means the abuse has happened in your care.’
I shook my head, rubbed my face with my hands. This meeting and my head were going somewhere nightmarish. I couldn’t bear to look anyone in the room in the eye. All I could think was ‘how dare they?’ After everything they had put Alfie through, Jade and Tyler were determined to try and wreak havoc with my family too. I started to extrapolate this information. I remembered horror stories about foster carers having their own birth children taken into care because of allegations made against them by kids in placement. This couldn’t be happening to me.
‘I can’t believe it…’ I found the strength to look up at Neil, who was still regarding me with a serious look. I couldn’t read any sympathy or understanding in his face, he just seemed to be assessing me. The heat in my cheeks told me I had gone bright red. Being falsely accused of child abuse would be bad enough at any time and in any place, but to have the accusation levelled at me in front of a panel of professional people, and for it to have come from the abusers themselves – this day just couldn’t get any worse. Shame and fury were washing over me in waves. I couldn’t articulate myself and I knew if I tried, I would either end up in tears or in a shouting match. Silently I sat in my chair, shaking my head still, my arms folded defensively across my chest.

Allegations of abuse – a foster carer’s worst nightmare

Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

From around the second week that she was living in our house, Rose began to unsettle me. It wasn’t just the hypervigilance and the constant monitoring of my movements – although that felt invasive enough. There was more to it. A sense of unease began to creep over me about how tactile Rose was and how….I couldn’t put my finger on it at first…but effectively it was how seductively she behaved towards me.

After a short period of extreme wariness when Rose first arrived, during which she wouldn’t approach me or my husband or allow us to do anything for her – remarkable at the age of three – Rose switched into limpet mode. She had to be within touching distance of me at all times. She would wait outside the toilet and the shower and the bedroom for me. If I left her in Andy, my husband’s care, Rose would wait at the window or the front door, peering through the glass, desperately searching for a first sight of my return. If I tried to hug our daughter or Andy, or Alfie, Rose’s brother, Rose would physically squeeze in between us and force us apart. She gave me no space at all to breathe or have a private conversation or just to sit and be.

Of course, with brilliant hindsight and experience and after doing much reading and attending every training course available, I can now recognise in Rose a child with a severe attachment disorder. But there was more to it than that.

We’d be having  a cuddle on the sofa, me and Rose, and I would be aware that she was constantly touching me, but not just holding my hand. It might start with that, then move on to stroking the palm of my hand. Then she would start stroking up and down my arms. I couldn’t quite work out why this made me feel uneasy, but it did. Looking back now, again with hindsight, it wasn’t something you would expect a three year old child to do to you. Rose would ask me if I wanted a massage. I would politely decline and then she would usually respond by stroking my thighs, while giggling to herself. It became an unnerving daily ritual, which I would try and nip in the bud. However this had to be done very gently and sensitively – she saw any such refusal as a huge rejection and would descend into a black mood. Rose was quite capable of not speaking to me for a couple of hours, staring silently at me from across the room, her eyes full of venom.

Andy wasn’t at home as much as me, but as Rose came to know him, he also became a target for these behaviours. Rose would wait for Andy outside the shower, and when he came out, she would ask him ‘Has it got bigger yet?’ indicating his groin area. She would also offer him massages, and the behaviour escalated to the point where she would regularly try to grope him between his legs, attempt to undo the fly on his trousers, and offer to ‘pull his penis’. If Andy sat down, Rose would immediately settle on his lap and then begin simulating sex.

It was hard to watch, hard to experience and even harder to try and protect out own daughter from these behaviours. We had no idea when she arrived in our house, but Rose had obviously been groomed from birth to be a sexual object, valued only in the way she could gratify the desires of the adults around her. For a period of around three years, we had to learn to manage the after effects of the grooming, every day. As time went on, and Rose finally accepted that we were never going to respond to her in a sexual way, the behaviours died down. They never went away, resurfacing on many occasions over the years which followed.

How do you learn to live safely and lovingly with a child for whom a hug, a look, a word, a song, a smell, a place, a touch can be a trigger? Step by step and day by day, and very carefully, slowly and respectfully is the answer.

We learnt to read the warning signs in Rose’s body language, the tone of her voice, her heightened responses to situations and people, even the way she laughed. Watching a three year old child turn on her seduction techniques towards adult friends and their children, our daughter and extended family members was pretty mind blowing. At times it was hard not to feel horrified by her behaviours, and mortified for the friends who were affected by them. We were lucky to be surrounded by people who showed only compassion and understanding.

We had to become hyper protective of Rose. She was extremely vulnerable, and her attachment disorder, combined with her experience of sexual abuse, meant she would cuddle up to complete strangers, hop on their laps and begin kissing them. I grew adept at hoisting her off surprised people on trains, in shopping centres, at the beach and even in the swimming pool with what I hoped was a carefree laugh.

We had to constantly, gently try and drum it into Rose that adults and children alike were not going to welcome her approaches, that there were other ways she could respond to people.

I had repeated conversations with Rose, during which she would insist she loved what her parents had done to her, that there was nothing wrong with it and it was all good fun. I would put my side of the conversation across, and Rose would just stare at me, or laugh, or tut in exasperation.

Time passed, and as I said, the behaviours died away, only recurring occasionally. We managed the blips when they happened, and happily the space between the blips became longer and longer.

The sexualised behaviour was the hardest element of the placement for me, and I still beat myself up about that. I found it almost impossible to divorce Rose’s experiences and behaviours from sex in general. My marriage suffered. I couldn’t bear Andy to touch me for a long period of time. In my head, everything to do with sex was just wrong, disgusting and abusive.

Our daughter’s relationship with Rose was forever damaged by the inappropriate approaches she made to her. A child can’t fathom or contextualise sexual abuse, so our daughter described what she felt towards Rose as a ‘yucky’ feeling, plus a large dose of anger. When she matured, our daughter had therapy which helped her turn her anger away from Rose and redirect it towards Rose’s parents.

Somehow, through the passage of time, the support and love of friends and family and sheer dogged stubborn determination not to give up, we made it. Our family had to do a lot of healing in order to make the placement work. I also had to accept that there were some things I couldn’t fix – ever. And I had to recognise that there were limits to my patience, forgiveness and generosity of spirit. Yes, I discovered I was not super human – which was very disappointing.

To read more about our experiences, please visit http://www.amazon.co.uk/Betrayal-Rose-Alfies-story-Book-ebook/dp/B0161GC0A4/ref=sr_1_1/276-4936042-1476156?ie=UTF8&qid=1452792847&sr=8-1&keywords=betrayal+grace+hunter

 

Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

It’s scarey For Esme, our foster daughter, to tell anyone she loves them. It requires a depth of trust that she doesn’t have access to. It requires her to make herself vulnerable, to lower the heavy armour she has built up over the years of her life.

Abusive, inconstant and cruel parenting forced her to start layering on this armour before she could speak. If you raise the barriers, you can’t be hurt – this is what she has taught herself. She was the oldest child in the family, so when she was born and first began toddling around, there was nobody to act as a buffer between her and her parents, no caring sibling, no protector. Her younger brother is far less damaged, because he had Esme to shield him, to some extent.

So Esme appears cold, distant and uninterested in people much of the time. It has taken me years to accept her need to push me away. I have cried and agonised on many evenings, at the end of a long day of trying to connect with this little girl and feeling that I have failed.

Just one of the many profound lessons that fostering has taught me is that children can’t be forced to accept love, and that I can’t expect children to fall in with my ideas about how to behave, and to express that huge thing – love.

So, I want to give Esme cuddles. She hates them. Still, at the school gates, she strains away from me, presents me with the back of her head for a kiss, won’t make eye contact. At bed time, after a book, she can’t handle a kiss so we manage an awkward hug and then we do the hand kiss. This is something Esme came up with a couple of years ago, and it has become more important and complex as time has passed. It started off with her kissing her palm and then putting her hand on my arm as she said goodnight. It then progressed to me kissing my palm and her allowing me to lay my palm against hers. A kiss without lips or intimacy. I guess it feels really safe but still feels like an expression of love. We now kiss both of our palms and press them against each other’s corresponding palms each night and at the same time, I try to hold her gaze for a few long seconds. It feels good. It’s a positive way to end each day, whatever has happened.

Occasionally now, when I have left Esme’s bedroom and am making my way down stairs so that I am well out of sight and almost out of earshot, Esme will call, ‘Love you!’ I think it’s directed towards me, so I call back ‘Love you too!’

A couple of nights ago as we did the hand kiss, Esme suddenly said, ‘I just can’t stop holding you.’ I was shocked into silence for a few seconds. She NEVER holds me. Never physically, because it feels too risky. Because even after living with us for several years, I think there’s a part of her which still fears that I will turn that hug into something else. After recovering myself, I said, ‘You can hold me any time, I’m always here for you.’ She responded with a smile.

Without claiming to be a mind reader, I like to think Esme hugs me and cuddles me in her head. A smile from her, with proper eye contact, is as good as a hold.

Some time soon I’m hoping the hugs will become easier for Esme, something she can accept and offer on an ad hoc basis like her brother. Until then, I will do as I was recently advised to by a friend on Twitter – smother from a distance.

 

Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

Esme & the kitten

This kitten was supposed to be mine. Trifle is stunningly beautiful, fluffy, her colouring a mix of smokey grey and peach. She has enormous paws and startling yellow eyes. She holds her own amongst children, other cats and the occasional visiting dog. She is feisty, courageous and playful, everything I ever wished for in a cat.

I just assumed that she would understand that she was mine, so I suppose I didn’t spell it out to her.

Trifle has lived with us for three months and is completely and absolutely besotted with Esme, our foster daughter. This won’t mean much to people who don’t know Esme, but to our family it is a constant daily surprise. Esme has a severe attachment disorder, suffers with PTSD and is in almost total emotional shutdown. This has been the case for the last six years. Esme finds touch of any sort tricky to handle, doesn’t enjoy eye contact and makes herself deliberately unbearable to be around – becoming noisy, rude and punchy. People are initially confused by her then they tend to withdraw from her. She is able to maintain this wonderful isolation which, in her head, keeps her safe. We have learnt to love her from a distance, to be inventive and creative and sneaky in demonstrating to her how much she means to us.

Then Trifle arrived. The love-bombing started quite soon. Esme would sit down at the table to read to me – something she hates doing – and Trifle would come and sit on the book. Then she would start tapping Esme’s hand, then she would put her front feet on Esme’s shoulder and start gently licking her cheek. Esme was initially annoyed. I was jealous – Trifle treated me like dirt, stalking past me and ignoring my affectionate approaches.

Reading time became a juggling act, with me trying to field Trifle’s attentions so that Esme could stumble through a couple of pages. Trifle was not to be distracted though – she always gravitated back to this little girl and almost forced herself upon her, even when Esme was pushing her away repeatedly and shouting in her face. It didn’t seem to matter. Trifle would reappear, purring and mewing to Esme, desperate to get onto her lap, to stare into here eyes and knead her legs.

Then things ramped up a bit – Trifle would try and sneak into Esme’s room at bedtime. My husband and I would do an 11pm sweep of the children’s rooms and find Trifle curled up around Esme’s head, purring into her pillow. She started waiting for Esme outside the toilet, calling for her to open the door, jumping onto her lap at mealtimes, trying to follow her down the road to school.

We were all flummoxed…..we still are. I think Trifle can somehow sense the need in Esme, and she is determined to fill it. As humans, we sometimes feel like giving up when this child throws our love and emotion back in our faces….when she turns away from our kisses, won’t return our hugs, appears cold and unfeeling. There’s only so much rejection we can take before our barriers have to come up, to protect our own sanity. Over the years that we have cared for Esme, I have tortured myself because my relationship with her has been so lacking in warmth and openness – from her side. I had resigned myself to it always being this way, and had accepted that this was all Esme could handle at the present time.

Now Trifle is having an un-looked for effect on Esme. Daily love bombing is wearing down her defences. As often as Esme pushes Trifle away, Trifle comes back, not appearing to take the rejection personally. Esme ignores Trifle – Trifle simply climbs a bit higher up her chest and nestles into her neck. Esme tries to push Trifle away – Trifle purrs louder than ever and closes her eyes in Zen happiness, refusing to be moved.

Finally, Esme has given up and given in. She sits down on the sofa to watch TV and Trifle immediately hops onto her lap, gazing lovingly into her eyes. Esme allows Trifle to sit at her feet while she cleans her teeth, chirping to her at reassuring intervals. Esme shyly tells me that she thinks Trifle loves her the most out of all the family, and I have to agree. The annoyance has gone, and there is a small kernel of pride inside Esme – an acknowledgement that she can inspire such devotion. And, amazingly, a growing acceptance of the love being showered on her, unconditionally, every day, by this kitten.

OK, she can’t see that my husband and I have been trying to shower her with love for the past six years, that we have wept and sighed and ranted and worried about her and over her for most of that time. That’s too much for Esme to handle or accept at the moment, but yesterday as I watched her gently holding Trifle on her lap, cradling her like a baby, I had real hope for the future.

I think we’ll get there, with Trifle showing Esme the way.

 

Esme & the kitten

The importance of keeping siblings together

‘If these children are not separated, they will inevitably end up in a sexual relationship with each other,’ the psychologist said, ‘I can guarantee it.’

I was flabbergasted, struck dumb momentarily. The children in question were aged four and five at this time. Rose and Alfie, brother and sister, had come to us as an emergency placement eighteen months before. The sexualised behaviour which they displayed towards each other and towards other children and adults was a real worry. Severe sexual abuse had been happening on a regular basis within their birth family home, and unsurprisingly, it had a knock on effect on the children’s relationships.

The psychologist who made this announcement had called me to a meeting with her colleagues and a barrage of social workers. I thought it was to list the support and services which were going to be offered to us and the children. How wrong I was.

‘But they’re so young,’ I said, my voice faltering under the gaze of the combined professionals present.

‘Yes, but they’ve already been groomed – hard wired really, to respond to each other in a sexual way,’ the psychologist replied, looking sympathetic.

‘But therapy, surely can change that…?’ I asked hopefully.

‘Not the hard wiring. We can re-educate the children and try to explain why its wrong to behave this way, but it will always be there, just under the surface, waiting for the right, or wrong moment to rear its head again.’

I thought about the incidents where I had walked in on Rose and Alfie and found them behaving inappropriately with each other. It had been hard to see, and even harder to talk about with the children. My vocabulary just wasn’t up to explaining what was wrong with their actions. They didn’t understand what I meant by ‘wrong’ or ‘not normal’ or ‘inappropriate’. I usually ended up by lamely telling them ‘In this family, we don’t behave like that.’ Which statement just seemed to confirm to Rose how weird we really were.

I was brought sharply back into the room by the realisation that the children’s social worker, new to the placement, was expressing her view. ‘You know Rose has passed the magic window of adoption opportunity now – she’s nearly six. Whereas Alfie is still four and he’s such a little charmer – he’s highly adoptable.’

I was trying to compute what the social worker was actually suggesting when it finally sank in – she was backing up the psychologist in pushing for separation. My heart started to beat a little faster in anticipation of an argument. I hate confrontation but when it comes to fighting a child’s corner, I can weigh in with the best of them.

‘Yes, we really have to consider whether or not it is right to consign Alfie to long term foster care just because Rose is unadoptable,’ One of the social work managers spoke up.

‘Alfie is so cute……I could see him fitting into any family really well,’ this was Shell, an assistant social worker. ‘Whereas Rose….she’s that bit older, that bit more damaged and difficult.’ Shell smiled at me, but I couldn’t return the grin. My mind was working overtime.

‘Well maybe then, we should think about advertising Alfie on his own?’ the social work manager said, ‘Just to see what the response is.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ I leaned forward, folding my arms and grabbing onto my elbows in an effort to exert some self control. I didn’t want to start showing my anger and waving my hands around like a crazy woman. I already had an embarrassing track record of doing that.

‘In the last eighteen months, these children have lost -‘ I unfolded my arms without meaning to, an automatic desire to visibly count off the items on my list. ‘Let’s see – they’ve lost their baby sister – killed in front of them. They’ve lost their parents – however much we feel that’s a good thing, it’s still a loss. They’ve also lost all other extended family, plus the actual home they lived in. They’ve had to lose pretty much every value and behaviour they’d been brought up to see as normal. They’ve lost everything. The only thing that they have left is each other.’ I took a breath. ‘You can’t separate them. It will be the final straw. They’ve survived horrific abuse and neglect because they had each other. To rip them apart now is to destroy them.’

There was a long silence round the table. The children’s social worker smiled at me reassuringly, ‘It’s just an idea at the moment, one of many that we are considering,’ she said, ‘And we all want what’s best for the children. I could see Rose really blossoming on her own, not having to be ‘mum’ to Alfie, having that one-to-one attention. And Alfie – he needs a different role model, a healthy one.’

‘I’m sure Grace that you wouldn’t want Rose to be dealing with an incestuous pregnancy at fourteen, would you?’ the psychologist chipped in. ‘That might seem far-fetched, but believe me it’s not.’

‘So, say Rose and Alfie stayed in long term foster care, with two carers in a healthy relationship as their role models, and with daily support and encouragement, are you suggesting that they would still end up sleeping together – that there’s no hope?’ I directed my question back at the psychologist.

‘I’m afraid so,’ she said gently, folding her hands into a prayer-like gesture and resting her chin on them.

‘Well I can’t accept that,’ I shook my head, ‘I have to believe there is a chance to change that future and to keep the children together.’

‘Nobody is going to adopt Rose and Alfie together,’ the social work manager said grimly, ‘So do we sacrifice the happiness and security of both children or do we salvage the chance of permanence and a normal family life for one of them?’

‘They could have a happy, normal life together in a long term foster placement,’ I was quietly seething now. Adoption is  a fantastic option for some children, but it annoyed me that fostering was seen as second best, a poor substitute for real happiness and belonging.

‘Permanence is what we look for, it’s the gold standard,’ the manager said, giving me a hard stare. It was obvious his mind was made up and I hoped he wasn’t just calculating the money saved if Alfie was adopted.

The meeting left me feeling anxious and depressed. The more people I spoke to about the possibility of separation, the more my feelings seemed justified. There was my friend Sally whose sister had died when both girls were teenagers. The loss had shaped her life and choices, and still sat heavily with her every day. The head teacher at Rose’s school (and Alfie’s pre-school) was incandescent at the suggestion that the children would be without each other. She wrote a powerful four page letter to the local authority detailing the strengths of the children’s bond, their need to be close to each other, the love and support they provided for each other. The children’s respite carers also wrote to the local authority strongly condemning the idea of separation.

A few weeks later, we heard from Rose and Alfie’s social worker that the children would be put up for adoption together.

‘We’ve decided it would be too damaging to separate them. They need each other, and we recognise that,’ she said.

We all breathed a huge sigh of relief. In my heart I knew the children needed to be together. Life was going to be tough enough for Rose and Alfie, even if adopters were found, but at least they would face the challenges as siblings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The importance of keeping siblings together

Foster carers’ birth children

Our daughter Amelia was so excited when we talked to her about fostering. She was desperate for a brother or sister and delighted at the thought of ready made siblings arriving in the house.

We all went on an introduction to fostering weekend, sat through various training sessions and assessments with all the other prospective foster carers and their families. At the end of the weekend, as we were preparing to leave, Amelia turned to us, mystified and asked, ‘Where are the children then?’

Her face fell when we explained that foster children weren’t just handed to us at the end of the training – we would have to wait for the right placement and the right match for us as a family.

And so we waited……all foster carers get pretty good at waiting. Emails arrived, sometimes every day, laying out the details of each new child or sibling group or mother and baby who needed placing.

We said yes to two Afghan refugee teenagers, who spoke no English, had never attended school, needed to be fed a halal diet and taken to worship regularly at the mosque. We were turned down when someone better suited to the boys’ needs was found.

We said yes to a severely disabled boy with Prader Willi syndrome, who ate gravel and made deafening air raid siren noises at random moments throughout the day. Again, someone more experienced was chosen.

Finally, after turning down a young Vietnamese lad, fresh out of prison and being hunted by the Triad gang he had formerly been a member of, we said yes to Ruby, a pregnant mum and her 9 month old son.

Amelia was deeply disappointed by 18 year old Ruby, who came from a family where children were, at best, ignored, at worst, abused and neglected. In the three months that Ruby stayed with us, I think she spoke five words to Amelia. She wasn’t cruel to her, she simply saw no reason to acknowledge her existence or needs.

‘This is not what I thought fostering would be like,’ Amelia said to me tearfully one day, half way through the placement.

‘Me either,’ I thought to myself, while giving her a hug. Ruby’s second baby was born with Downs syndrome and she was nowhere near coping with motherhood. The stress of filling the maternal gap for the babies, while guiding Ruby towards better parenting and fielding the in-fighting of her dysfunctional family was taking a huge toll on me.

I reassured Amelia that in six weeks’ time, Ruby and the children would be leaving. To Amelia, who was seven years old, six weeks seemed as long as a life time, but she stuck it out.

It wasn’t all bad. There was a beautiful moment just after the birth of Ruby’s baby when Amelia explained to me in a voice hushed with pride that Ruby had asked her to choose a name for the newborn. When Ruby left, she gave Amelia a hug and called her a ‘doughnut’ – a term of affection she only applied to people she really liked.

After that, we had a short term emergency placement of a disabled boy, who we all fell in love with. Amelia grieved for him when he left, and still comes out with some of his catch phrases now. She found it hard to understand that one day he was in our house, our life and our family, and the next he was gone. No further contact was allowed, in order to give the long term placement a chance of success.

Then there was a pretty disastrous placement of a teenage girl, whose drug dealing armed robber boyfriend got out of prison just in time to start causing us grief. Amelia was fond of both the girl and her boyfriend, and we didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

Then there were a few different respite placements, which brought their own stresses and rewards. Amelia by this time was thoroughly disenchanted with fostering. We hadn’t had one placement which ticked her boxes.

Rose and Alfie arrived next. Another emergency placement, supposed to be three months long. It turned into a long term relationship for us all. Amelia finally had her friends, a brother and sister to play with, constant company, someone to share experiences with.

It wasn’t plain sailing. The children came from the worst background imaginable – and I know that sounds over dramatic, but it isn’t. They both had attachment disorders, Rose had an eating disorder, Alfie was dyspraxic and also appeared to be developing Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder). Both children displayed highly sexualised behaviour towards us, other adults and other children. Including Amelia.

So, overnight, Amelia went from being an only child to sharing everything with two extremely demanding foster siblings. Her world was rocked by the strangeness of it all, by Alfie and Rose’s deep distrust of everyone, their inability to consider the feelings of others, their anxiety levels.

Amelia grew with the placement. There were times when she ranted and cried over it, telling us we had ruined her life by bringing Alfie and Rose into our family. She demanded we stop fostering, threatening to leave the house as soon as she legally could.

There were other times when Amelia felt she loved Rose and Alfie, that she never wanted them to leave, that she saw them 100% as her brother and sister. As she matured, Amelia was able to contextualise the children’s behaviours and transfer her anger onto the parents rather than Rose and Alfie themselves. She even composed a virtual hit list of all the family members who had abused or neglected the children, coming up with inventive ways in which to do them harm.

We moved on from there, I am glad to say. Amelia is my hero. She has been pivotal to the success of all our fostering experiences, and we’ve been very forward in making her aware of how grateful we are.

When my husband and I have been at our wits end, when we’ve felt we couldn’t carry on, Amelia has lifted our spirits, been brutally, wonderfully honest with us and eternally optimistic. She has grown into a deeply empathic and emotionally intelligent person.

There are many many Amelias out there, doing extraordinary things every day, and their contribution to fostering is immeasurable.

 

 

 

Foster carers’ birth children

The beauty of respite

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.

 

 

The beauty of respite