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

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

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

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