The worst things people have said to me about fostering

Thought I should write something shorter and snappier today.

I was struck by the thought that so many helpful professionals have made pronouncements about the children we have fostered, I wanted to share some of them.

I know they mean well, (at least, I think they do) but sometimes people should really think before they speak……..

At a placement breakdown meeting : Social worker: “We thought she was unfosterable. You were her last chance and we didn’t hold out any hope for success. That assault on the policeman (which we hadn’t been told about) was probably a warning sign. That and the nude pictures she was posting online (which they also hadn’t told us about). God knows where she’ll go from here.”

Therapist : “If these children (very young brother and sister) aren’t separated soon, they will definitely end up in a sexual relationship with each other as soon as they hit puberty.” (They weren’t separated and they didn’t end up together sexually.)

Social worker : “You mustn’t allow this child to think of his mother as a monster. She’s not a bad person, just a person who has done some bad things.”

Therapist : “This little boy has Multiple Personality Disorder,and these other characters will always be a part of his life.” (Wrong, on both counts).

Social worker, who saw the very traumatised children in question four times a year and took them to KFC or Macdonalds every time for about 30 minutes. “They’re no trouble are they?”

Therapist, on hearing we were moving to a small village with two of our foster children : “Don’t tell anybody in the village anything about these children. You will be alienated and excluded by everyone if you do.” (We told the people who needed to know, and we and the children were treated with the utmost kindness and understanding.”

Social worker, on hearing that my husband and I had offered to keep two of our foster children on a long term basis.  “You can never have respite again.” Thanks, just what we needed to be told at the moment of making such a huge committment. She caved in a few months later, and the kids had wonderful experiences with their amazing respite carers.

There are many more ‘helpful’ comments from experts which I could quote……maybe this could become a regular post. It’s good to vent.

The worst things people have said to me about fostering

A sudden rush of sympathy

So this week I have been digging up photos of one of our foster children’s birth family. Not something I relish, knowing what I do about these people.

Our foster daughter, Esme* is about to embark on some Life Story Work – a way for her to process what has happened to her and to help her understand why she is in care. It takes the form of regular sessions where Esme looks at photos of both her foster family and her birth family, and discusses her feelings and memories. Her support worker will then try to unravel some of the confusion which reigns in Esme’s head. Confusion which still leads her to state that the abuse which happened to her was ‘no big deal’.

The photos were buried deep in the back of a filing cabinet, and in some long forgotten files on the computer. I opened them up and was immediately catapulted back into the horror of Esme’s first year with us, when she was still having contact with her parents. The chaos, the defiant, oppositional behaviour, the constant sexual approaches. That year pushed me and my husband to the edge of our sanity and nearly the end of our marriage. I have tried to compartmentalise these memories, and, with time, I have been mostly successful.

Seeing the photos whipped away all the protective layers I had put in place in my head. There was Esme’s mum again, in one shot posing and smiling on the beach, in another sticking her tongue out at the camera, in the next she was cuddling one of her many babies, then unwrapping Christmas presents with Esme. Esme herself stares vacantly out of the pictures, her eyes ringed with dark circles, her mouth pinched, her hair hanging in greasy clumps. She looks anxious and unkempt.

You have to understand, well, actually you can’t understand how much time I have given over to hating Esme’s mum and step dad. I don’t like to admit it, even to myself. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it is a pointless exercise, as my husband often reminds me.

This time, as I scanned the photos again, I allowed myself time to relax, step away from the judgemental, hateful me and see Esme’s mum from an objective point of view. (OK, not fully objective, but I’m trying.) I set aside my disgust, my horror and fury. I saw a very young mum with her children. A mum who was struggling to live on benefits and had been evicted from five different properties due to non payment of rent and anti-social behaviour. I saw a mum who comes from a  family where inter-generational incest is the norm. Where boundaries and positive role models don’t exist. Where mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles and aunts are all intertwined in a chaotic sexual melting pot. Where everyone lives in close proximity to each other and keeps to the family code of silence – about what happens behind closed doors.

For the first time, I felt a rush of sympathy for Esme’s mum, despite the fact that she had horribly abused Esme and her brothers. I’ve had years of social workers telling me that Esme’s mum is a victim too. I guess if I am going to support Esme effectively through this difficult work, I have to cast off the hate and find some acceptance within myself of her family.

So that when she wants to look through those pictures and talk about her mum and her siblings and her step dad, I can do so without anger. If I want Esme to understand and then forgive, I have to do those things too. Somehow.

 

 

 

*not her real name

A sudden rush of sympathy

Betrayal – Rose & Alfie’s story

A little excerpt from my book, the first in a trilogy. I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, the book is available on Amazon.

‘Well, hello,’ I said, bending down a little to them, ‘I’m Grace and you must be Rose and Alfie. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you two so much.’
Alfie was like a doll, tiny for two and a half, closer to the size of a one-year-old. He wore faded blue jogging bottoms and an oversized grey T-shirt, which hung at a crazy angle to just above his knees, the hem trailing a long zigzag of cotton thread. His shoes were cracked and worn, turning up at the toes. Everything about his clothing spoke of an indifference to how he looked. In contrast, his white-blonde hair had been carefully shaved into sharp tramlines at the sides. He didn’t look or smile at me, instead his fists went into his mouth and he stared down at the floor.
Rose did look at me, but was unsmiling, her eyes huge in her pale, heart-shaped face. A widow’s peak framed her elfin features and small pursed mouth, which seemed to suggest disapproval. She too was small for her age, with incredibly thick hair, the same white-blonde colour, which fell to the middle of her back and was arranged in a complicated French plait. Despite having a daughter, I was hopeless at dressing girls’ hair and I thought, sadly, that Rose’s hair would never look this good again while she stayed under our roof.

 

Here’s the link.

 

Betrayal – Rose & Alfie’s story

Hypervigilance

This week has been tough. One of our foster children has admitted to her therapist that she has inappropriate feelings towards a young boy who lives, not just in our village but on our street. I now have to consider his safety as well as the safety of our children. I can feel my protective abilities being stretched to capacity again. I have to watch our foster daughter’s every move, eavesdrop on her conversations, rifle through her diary when she’s out, monitor her friendships and maintain the firm family boundaries.

I have become as hypervigilant as the children we foster, and I hate it, it doesn’t sit well with me. I am a pretty laid back person by nature, but circumstance is forcing me into super control mode. I am jumpy, irritable, anxious and emotional. Not a good foundation for parenting, and not a state in which I can remain for long without total burnout.

Somehow I have to accept what has happened, reinforce the rules to our foster daughter in a nurturing way and learn how to relax again.

The root of success for me is remembering that I can only do my best, I can’t change what has happened to any of these children, I need to love them and continue to provide a safe and stable home for them.

A therapist once told me that what foster carers are doing is trying to teach children in placement a second language. Their first language was whatever their birth family taught them – this could be abuse, neglect, violence, abandonment.

Imagine being born into a household where you are treated as a sexual object while still in nappies, or used a punch bag for adults’ frustrations or you are simply ignored, left to your own devices. If this is their first language, it’s no wonder children in care struggle to comprehend what we want and expect from them.

So, this week I have been sitting down with our foster daughter and going over the same old safeguarding rules that we have been trying to teach her for the last six years. She pays lip service to everything, but I get the feeling she still thinks we’ve got it wrong. The worst thing about that is that she leaves the house every day and seems to immediately slip back into old behaviours and ways of managing people and life. Ways which place her and others at risk.

Our foster daughter lived with her birth parents for four years. Four years of chaos, hunger, abuse and fear. Her first language.

Our language, of acceptance, love, safety and empathy is battling to gain a foothold in this child. We will keep on pushing it and pushing it and hopefully one day this young lady will become fluent.

 

Hypervigilance

Hormones, hormones, hormones

I naively thought boys didn’t really suffer because of their hormones. Wow, how wrong can you be?

Our foster son is 14, just. I read somewhere recently that at, or around the age of 14, boys experience an 800% surge in testosterone. I think the whole 800% has happened this week.

We’ve had tears before school, tears on the way to school, tears after school, tears at dinner and bed time. And punctuating the tearful epsiodes are the arguments and the shouting. Arguments about absolutely nothing – ‘She’s always staring at me!’ ‘Nobody cares about me!’

‘I wanted to sit on that seat and she knew that!’ ‘He made a weird face at me.’ The list goes on.

There’s no point in trying to reason with him, or intervene, even when he starts hitting himself with toy guns and hairbrushes. He has to be left to rant and shout and work it out of himself. Then of course I get, ‘You didn’t stop me hitting myself…..you don’t care!’

I tell him that I do care but I didn’t want to get hurt and I felt he needed space.

‘Well next time, I don’t want you to give me space, I just want you to stop me hurting myself, OK?’

I suggest other ways he could take out his anger and frustration, we discuss hormones and the way they can take control of you and make you act – I feel so deeply for him, as a hostage to hormones myself once a month.

My husband and I have our own linguistic system to warn each other of the lie of the land, regarding our foster son and his mood. My husband comes in from work, raises his eyebrows at me in ‘Well, what’s happened today’ manner.

If I reply, ‘Low tide,’ he knows all is well. If I answer, ‘High tide and plenty of flotsam,’ he knows that the dinner table will be an unwinnable battleground of perceived slights, barbed comments and hard stares.

It’s not all bad, there are the quite times after the storms. Following one of his outbursts, or explosions, our foster son is left feeling perplexed by his own actions and the strength of his emotions. He comes to find me, once he is calm, and gives me huge hugs, telling me he has been an idiot, he is so sorry, he will never do it again.

I just hold him tight and tell him we love him, and silently hope for low tides tomorrow.

 

 

Hormones, hormones, hormones

Homework….and giving up

Every weekend in our house is blighted by the H word – homework. Our foster daughter has an entirely negative and belligerent attitude towards it, whether it is maths, literacy, geography or history.

She slumps at the table, face plants on a dinner mat groaning and pulling her hair.

‘I don’t get it,’ she complains, before even looking at the task.

I try to remain jolly and upbeat. The school have recently changed to topic based homework, which seems a lot more interesting and creative than the system they followed before.

‘Creative’ is the problem here. Our foster daughter cannot or will not access her imagination. This is a by product of the abuse she suffered as a young child. She had to become hyper vigilant, every watchful and switched on to high alert, leaving her no time to explore and develop her creative imagination.

‘OK, so you’re studying Shackleton and his exploration to the Antarctic?’ I try, enthusiastically.

‘Yeah, s’pose,’ she responds grumpily.

‘And you’ve got to pretend to be one of his men and describe how you felt, how cold you were, how hungry, scared and sad you might feel, and write it all in a letter?’

‘Hmmm,’ she mumbles, head still on the table.

‘So……..how do you think they felt?’

‘How would I know?’ She sat up and snapped at me, ‘I wasn’t there was I? How would I know?’

‘Perhaps you can use your imagination? Try and guess how they would feel…..’

‘Can’t.’

‘Yes, you can, lets have a think about this….you’re cold, very cold, freezing in fact, with very little to eat, no prospect of rescue, thinking about never seeing your family again…..how would you feel?’

‘Fine.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. I’d be fine.’

I decided to give up at this point. Sometimes I just have to celebrate and acknowledge its a miracle she’s alive. Homework can wait.

Homework….and giving up

The volcanic child

We have a volcano living under our roof, in the shape of our 9 year old foster son.

99% of the time, he is delightful, eccentric, affectionate and good humoured. The other 1% of the time he is an eruption of fury and aggression, mowing down any children, adults and pets who stand in his way.

There is no gradual build up to these outbursts, no obvious or avoidable trigger. Something inside him snaps and explodes, the proverbial red mist descends and he turns into a savage.

The worst incidents happen at school. He has lost all his close friends; there are no more party invitations or play dates. People are begining to avoid him, although with sympathetic glances in my direction.

Luckily he has a wonderful, understanding teacher, who states happily that she is always five steps ahead of our foster son, attempting to distract him away from challenging situations or children he regularly clashes with.

At the moment he is manageable, helped by the fact that he is very small for his age. His head master can still pick him up under one arm and deposit him somewhere safe if need be. Once the eruption has happened, this tiny child is befuddled, confused, doesn’t understand the whys and wherefores of his own actions.

We struggle to understand them too, but we know the anger stems from trauma and developmental delay, due to the abuse meted out by his birth parents. Trauma shapes a child’s brain and learning, it stunts their understanding of the world around them. It stops them learning to cope with stress and shame, and in our foster son’s case, it prevents him from controlling his impulses.

He sees a cake, and wants it. If anyone gets in his way, they are pushed over, trodden on, kicked, punched or slapped.

He wants to sit in a certain seat, drink from a specific cup, open or shut a particular door, be at the front of the queue, be equipment monitor, hold someone’s hand etc and if those things don’t happen, he doesn’t sulk or shout or make rude comments, he immediately and spectacularly explodes.

A 9 year old having a violent toddler tantrum is not a pretty sight – it alienates his peers, it shocks teaching staff and leaves us despairing.

This child has been living with us for six years, hasn’t seen his parents for 4 years, and yet their neglect and abuse, their inability to nurture and guide him through those early developmental stages still blights him. Will he ever change? will we be able to show him that not sitting where he wants, not opening or closing the door, not being first in the queue….simply doesn’t matter.

At the moment, these tiny annoyances are end of the world scenarios to him.

His teacher describes him as a work in progress. We love him to pieces, but he scares us. What might he be capable of when he is 12? 16? Will he end up hurting one of us and causing the end of the placement, or will we find a way of channelling his fury in a productive way?

Fingers and legs very firmly crossed.

The volcanic child

Writing as therapy

I published my first book this week. Writing it has been a long and painful process. Made more painful by the fact that it is a true story….the story of Rose and Alfie, two of our foster children….and our family’s journey with them.

I started off writing the book as a form of therapy – I needed to get it out of my system, channel some of my anger and frustration. I also needed to chart the children’s progress, to remind myself of how far they have both come. Rose and Alfie are now young adults and still struggling in lots of areas of life, but they are both incredible people and an inspiration to me in many ways.

As the book developed and evolved, the feeling grew in me that this story needed to be shared. That people needed to know about the powerless and voiceless state of some children in care. And the frustrations and struggles of those caring for them. Maybe we have been unlucky with the experts, social workers and judges we have encountered, but I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not the case. I still feel very angry about some of the battles we had against the system, and about some of the final decisions made, often by people who had never met the children….or me.

Ultimately I am hoping people will read ‘Betrayal’ and be inspired by Rose and Alfie’s story. Admittedly it is a sad tale. They came from the most horribly abusive family background, from chaos and neglect. There is a lot to feel angry and despairing about in the book.

But there is also a lot to celebrate and feel positive about. Like the fact that Rose and Alfie found their place with us, in our family.

It was pure chance that they ended up on our doorstep.  Pure chance that we had the space, had no other foster children at that time, were willing to take on a short term emergency placement.

Now, when I think of the people Rose and Alfie have become, and consider what their future would have been if they hadn’t been rescued, it gives me a lot of pause for thought, and reason to smile.

‘Betrayal’ by me, Grace Hunter, is now available through Amazon.

Writing as therapy

Foster children and birth families

So, my foster daughter, who has been a walking thundercloud of anger and defiance for the last six years has suddenly changed into a calm(ish), happy(ish) sweetheart. Someone you would want to spend time with. Someone who wants to please people rather than fight them, manipulate them and hurt them.

Fantastic. And just as suddenly, she has announced to her social worker that she wants to see her mum and dad, once a month. These are the parents who abused her daily for the first four years of her life, who saw her as something to be used, who neglected her and degraded her, leaving her with no childhood and no sense of identity.

I expected the news to hurt, for me to feel rejected. I think that’s what my social worker expected too – she was very sympathetic to what she saw as my damaged feelings. I was in shock, for sure, for a few days. I started to see all the work, the progress we had made with this child in the last six years slipping away from us.

Once I got over the shock, and was reassured by the social worker that contact wouldn’t be restarting, at least not in the near future -I started to see something very positive about our foster child’s request. She is definitely in denial of anything abusive having happened while living with her parents – this is not a positive, and it’s a fact she will have to face up to one day. The positive thing for me is that this little girl appears to have decided she is with us for good. The change in her behaviour is due, I feel, to her lowering some of the barriers she has erected around herself.

She is calmer, she is happier, she is more affectionate and spontaneous than she has ever been, and I am surprised by the warmth of my own reactions to her. She shouted ‘I love you’ to me from the school playground on day this week when I dropped her off. That’s a first. She told me she feels safe in our house at bedtime a couple of weeks ago. Little tiny things, but huge for her……and for us.

So, rather than feeling hurt and rejected by her desire to see her parents, I feel like celebrating. Not that I would want contact to re-start, I think it would be disastrous. But it seems to me our foster daughter, for the first time in six years, feels she has the head space, the confidence and the maturity to handle contact with her birth family while staying firmly rooted in our lives.

Things are changing, in a good way.

 

Foster children and birth families

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

So my foster son went back to school this morning. I was full of anxiety, trepidation, stress. He was beaming, cheerful and confident.

His last school year was disastrous in patches. Stubborn refusals to join in with lessons and activities, running away from staff, controlling behaviours and physical aggression which escalated to such a level that the head teacher threatened to exclude him.

There had always been problems with school, but last year was off the scale, and it deeply affected his friendships and our stress levels. Luckily, the parents of the children he had hurt were incredibly understanding, down playing events and giving him leeway.

We were at a loss to understand quite why things were so bad, but, and I feel awful saying this, my husband and I are convinced that some part of the problem was his teacher. She was lovely, enthusiastic, young and bubbly. We sat with her in a meeting before our foster son entered her class and explained that he needed boundaries…..very firm boundaries. It makes him feel safe if he knows who is in charge, and then some of the controlling behaviours recede, which usually takes away a lot of the conflict. She nodded and seemed receptive to what we were saying.

However, we discovered at a much later date that this teacher believed in fluid boundaries, and felt so sorry for our foster child that she allowed him to do pretty much what he felt like in the classroom. A recipe for disaster. He didn’t respect her authority, she didn’t understand or accept what he needed and so all the foundations of good behaviour which other teachers had nurtured in him collapsed. In three months. The really low point was when he stabbed another child in the back with a pencil.

I think this was when the teacher sat up and realised what was happening, but it was pretty much too late by then for her to claw back her authority. Our foster son spent the rest of the year in limbo, unsure of this new ‘strict’ version of his teacher, while also being aware of her vulnerabilities and sympthies towards him, he was miserable and unsettled. We were all glad to get the year over with.

This year, our son has a fantastic teacher. She is no nonsense, she is fun, she is firm and extremely kind. As we approached the classroom this morning, she whisked me into a side office and told me about the prep she has done, just for our child. She recognises that she has to be five steps ahead with him, anticipating his anger, looking out for triggers for his controlling behaviours, seeking out the best companions for him on tasks. She has allocated a safe area in the classroom for him to go to when he feels angry or sad or needs to talk. She will be making him feel needed by giving him specific, but varied jobs each week – the variety means he can’t become obsessed with doing one thing, to the exclusion of all the other children.

Speaking to this teacher makes me feel grounded, it gives me hope. She listens to me and accepts that I know what this child needs. So often as foster carers I feel we are perhaps judged as being harsh – I have to monitor everything my foster daughter eats as she has an eating disorder. I can’t allow either child to have a sleepover with friends as they are both prone to sexualised behaviour. I have to remove a lot of choice fom their lives because otherwise obsession and control loom too large and cause conflict.

To be listened to and not judged is a fantastic thing. We beat ourselves up enough in our own time – at least my husband and I do – about how we are parenting these challenging children.

Support from school can go a long way to removing the stress from fostering. I feel very blessed that our foster son has this teacher for the next school year. He has so much potential, and hopefully this year he will be able to fulfill it, rebuild friendships and blossom as an individual.

Watch this space……

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make