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

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

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

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