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

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

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

Sex in Class

Channel 4 screened a programme last night about the parlous state of sex ed in UK schools, and the mission of  Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens to change the situation.

It really gave me pause for thought. I like to consider myself as very open when it comes to talking about sex with my child. Any questions – I’m happy to answer them. I don’t really get embarrassed about the subject. So, there’s me patting myself on the back and thinking I’m doing  a great job, but ‘Sex in Class’ made me feel a bit inadequate.

Goedele was so up front, calm and matter of fact about every subject and area of sex, that she made me feel like a dried up old prude. Yes, I answer questions, but I don’t ever elaborate on subjects such as masturbation, orgasms or pornography. I’m actually just doing the bare minimum when it comes to imparting information about sex.

Goedele demonstrated the appalling lack of knowledge that girls, in particular, in the UK, have about their bodies. I know I was the same at the age of 14/15, but the girls in the class Goedele was working with couldn’t draw a diagram of their sexual organs. She tried to hide her shock at this as she handed the girls their homework. They were each given a hand mirror, which they were asked to take home and use to look at their genitals. One of the girls was so upset by the homework that her parent had to phone Goedele and make his concerns felt. She looked pretty depressed after the phone call.

I found the boys very interesting too. They were genuinely keen, in a respectful way, to engage with learning about sex from a girl’s viewpoint. They each made works of art showing the clitoris, vagina and labia, and ended the programme with far more knowledge, confidence and empathy for the girls in their peer group.

This is surely what we need in all schools. To see how empowered the girls in the class were by the end of the programme was quite amazing. They were telling the boys what was OK and what wasn’t, without embarrassment or apology. To see how much more sensible and thoughtful the boys were was also pretty mind blowing.

By the end of the programme I felt empowered too. Watching and listening to Goedele had given me an answer to my thorny issue – how do you teach sex education to children who have been sexually abused?

The answer has always got to be openness. It’s going to be tough for me. The children I am fostering have been abused from a very young age and their sexualised behaviour is hard wired into them. My reaction has been to shut the lid firmly on everything sexual, suggestive or adult. I’ve wanted them to regain their innocence and to forget what has happened, but it’s never going to happen.

I need to get real. The next time I am asked where babies come from, I am going to have sit down and have that conversation, calmly and sensibly, without censorship. At some point I have to trust in the children’s ability to relearn about sex in a healthy way. I have to dig deep and find my inner Goedele Liekins. She’s in there, somewhere……

Sex in Class

Clever coping mechanisms

I was struck today by the different ways in which our foster children cope with stress, shame and fear. It made me question how I cope with those difficult feelings, and it made me aware, as is often the case, of how lucky I am.

For me, I might blush, get tongue tied, or dig deep and find the adrenaline to deal with a confrontation or danger. it would be awkward, embarrassing and physically demanding for a short while, but I’d get through it.

Our foster children don’t have the emotional foundation that my husband and I, as foster carers do. I have always known that I am loved and I have always been able to trust in people and their goodness. We were given the tools as children to cope with stress and fear, to know that however bad a stuation felt, there would be an end to it, a way out, a safe haven.

Our foster children face stressful experiences with a gaping chasm beneath their feet rather than a strong emotional foundation.

One child responds by pulling her hair across her face and shutting the world out. She can stay like that for thirty minutes. Her brother dissociates at the drop of a hat, freezes on the spot and literally drifts away, his eyes glazed over, his head somewhere safe. Another child simply picks up his feet and runs.

We have the massive task of starting to build those missing foundations. To enable these children to thrive, we have to get them to rethink their responses to stress, and most of all, to trust that things will be OK in the end.

 

Clever coping mechanisms

The ingenuity of abused children

One child I fostered was two years old when he arrived on our doorstep. Tiny, fragile, vulnerable, terrified. He clearly expected only the worst from adult caregivers. He screamed when I or my husband went near him. He constantly chewed his fists and hid behind doors and sofas. He tried to make himself invisible.

Then, a few weeks after he had come to live with us, he decided to trust me with an enormous, overwhelming secret. It was a secret which left me reeling. The trust and courage it took for that little boy to speak those words – I can’t convey how much it took out of him, or how much admiration i felt for him afterwards.

As time went on, this amazing child found different ways to work out the anger, the fear and the deep confusion which the abuse had left him with. He often dressed as a woman, and obviously felt safer in those pretty clothes, escaping his identity as a boy. The most incredible thing he did, and he only did it for a short period of time, was to take on the role of an adult social worker – someone he knew and felt very fond of. While he was ‘Bridget’, he would ask me to be him – ‘Alfie’. He would then ask ‘Alfie’ why he was sad and what had happened to him. I would talk about the abuse he had suffered, using his own words. As ‘Bridget’ – complete with her accent, mannerisms, a set of fake car keys and a handbag – he would then reassure me that what my parents had done was wrong and that he felt very sad for me. He would finish the chat by telling me that i didn’t have to go back and live with those ‘horrible people.’

I was left breathless by the simple, powerful effectiveness of these role playing sessions. How clever this child was. Not only was he able to feed his need for escapism by becoming Bridget; he was also able to talk through his feelings of anger and fear. Despite his parents best efforts to normalise the abuse he experienced, he knew, already, that it was wrong.

Therapists told me Alfie had Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and that these escapist behaviours should be discouraged, or they would start to take over his life. I didn’t agree. I could see how calm and happy Alfie was after them. I’m afraid I didn’t listen to the advice. Even if I had, I think Alfie would have carried on being ‘Bridget’ or whoever fitted the bill, but behind closed doors. Would that have been any healthier?

Alfie is now a young adult, and still amazing. He is colourful, theatrical and charismatic. He still likes to dress as a woman sometimes. He is still angry with his parents, as he has a right to be. But that ability to construct his own therapy has stuck with him.

We worry about him and his future, but we know he has that fantastic ingenuity to fall back on.

The ingenuity of abused children