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

Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Living with child survivors of sexual abuse

The beauty of respite

Our social worker telephoned today with some bad news. It might not seem like much to non foster carers, but we found out that our regular respite carers are retiring. My heart sank into my boots. Respite is what has kept our current placement going – that and a ton of perseverance (or just plain stubbornness) on our part.

So far the children in placement with us have had three different sets of respite carers in just over six years. Its a big ask for them to learn to trust new people each time, but so far the experience has been hugely beneficial for everyone involved. Each new set of carers bring different skills, different values and different lifestyles, but they all add something to the children’s development and makeup.

When my husband and I decided we could commit to keeping the children long term, we met with social workers and psychologists to discuss what this might mean for us all. It was a huge decision for us, and one which we took at the same time as knowing we had to move 300 miles away for my husband’s new job. Taking the children with us to have an entirely fresh start just seemed right.

One of the first things the social worker said to us at the meeting was, ‘Long term fostering is the same as adoption, I hope you realise that?’ She followed this with, ‘And that means you can’t have any more respite….ever.’

As I absorbed this information and tried to arrange my thoughts into some kind of order, the attending psychologist added her opinion – ‘Yes, research has shown that respite is a disruptive influence for children in care. They need to feel they are a part of your family, and being sent away from home doesn’t sit well with that.’

Both the social worker and the psychologist then sat and stared at me silently for a while…..a long while. I often wondered if they practised this silent staring together, because they used it repeatedly at meetings. The worst occasion was when they tried, in a two pronged attack, to emotionally blackmail my husband and I into adopting the children. It didn’t work then, and it didn’t work this time, but it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, like a selfish, inadequate failure.

What I wanted to say was something dynamic and attention grabbing, like –  ‘We’ve had respite for the last two years. We haven’t used it very often and we’ve made sure it was an exciting, fun and positive experience each time. The children love going to their respite carers – the rules are easier, the boundaries are looser, they get spoilt. It’s a bit like going to stay with a doting grandparent. We get a rest, the children see it as a holiday – it’s a win-win situation.’

Instead of which, I found myself fighting back tears, and blurting out – ‘They haven’t got any easier you know,’.

I was met with unfriendly looks. And more silence.

‘I mean, they’re still extremely challenging children to care for,’ I carried on. ‘We will need the occasional break, just to recharge our batteries.’

The social worker shook her head, raised her eyebrows and said, ‘If you feel that you can’t cope then I’m afraid we’ll have to review the future of the placement.’

‘I can cope,’ I snapped back, ‘If I have respite. Surely the odd bit of time away from us (we were allocated around 14 nights a year in total at this point) is better than them having to up sticks and live somewhere else entirely.’

‘It just won’t work in the long term,’ the social worker replied, ‘At least, we as a local authority don’t believe it will.’

I could feel the tears brimming in my eyes again, my cheeks reddening as I contemplated having to say goodbye to these children. The feeling of loss, even this tiny foretaste of it, was devastating.

The silence had descended again, and I could feel the weight of everybody’s stares on me like a physical pressure. I had to be brutally and completely honest.

‘I can’t continue the placement without respite,’ I said, slowly, picking each word carefully, trying to avoid a knee-jerk blurt which I would later regret. ‘I know, in my heart, that I would not withstand the stress, and things would end badly.’ The social worker was regarding me with a frown, her pen poised above her notepad. ‘I don’t want to get to that point, where the children have to leave in some kind of chaotic meltdown.’

‘I get the feeling the children are being labelled,’ the psychologist now said, as if I hadn’t just spoken some of the hardest words I had ever uttered. ‘And I don’t know if that’s helpful. I mean, which particular behaviours do you find so difficult?’

Now I was angry. The red mist descended.

‘Well, there’s the hypervigilance. The constant surveillance, the following me around the house, the eavesdropping, the intrusion into my personal space. There’s the highly sexualised behvaiours, the suggestive comments, the explicit approaches, to myself, my husband, our daughter and our friends and family. There’s the shoplifting, the stealing and the lying. There’s the issues with over eating, the issues with toileting, the controlling behaviours, the tantrums and the defiance…….’ I stopped to draw breath.

‘I don’t see any of these behaviours when I’m with the children,’ the social worker said, ‘They’re no trouble at all.’

‘Well, with respect, you see them once a month and you take them out to McDonald’s for half an hour,’ I replied, ‘Not much time to start showing any challenging behaviour.’

Another awkward silence fell. The social worker finally broke it.

‘If you really mean what you’ve said, then I need to take this information back to my manager and we’ll have to make a decision about whether or not to move the children,’ she started tidying her notes and pen into her bag. I felt sick, anxiety and anger battling for control inside me.

‘When will you be able to tell us?’ I asked, nervously. ‘We are moving house in around six weeks’ time. I’ve just heard that the children have places at the local school – everything is kind of in place for their new life.’

‘We’ll let you know, as soon as we can,’ the social worker replied. ‘I mean, if the placement’s ending anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether that happens after the move or before it.’

I was momentarily flabbergasted into silence. This woman’s lack of empathy was breathtaking.

‘So, you want us to tell the children they’re moving house with us, potentially move them half way across the country and then – then – after settling into the new house and the new school, they might be told they’re not staying?’

‘I don’t think it matters where they are when they’re told,’ she responded, pulling on her coat and standing up.

I felt I had nothing more to say to this woman. How could I communicate with someone who believed that uprooting children from their home (for a second traumatic time) wouldn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things.

They made us wait for three months. We decided to stop thinking and worrying about it. We moved house, the children started school, we began to put our roots down.

Occasionally the subject would resurface in conversation between my husband and I.

‘I’ll take them to court,’ he would say, ‘I don’t know how we’ll afford it, but I’ll do it. Or I’ll go to the papers.’

Eventually the children’s social worker visited us, sat down and explained that, after much discussion, the local authority had decided we could have respite. She said it as if she was offering us the crown jewels, or as if we were a special case. I thanked her politely for letting us know, and in my head I called her some unpleasant names.

Six years on, and we’ve been lucky enough to meet some fantastic respite carers – people willing to meet the challenges of children with attachment disorders, eating disorders, gender identity issues and sexualised behaviours.

Now we have to go on a search for the next set of respite carers. It’s going to be hard for the children to learn to rub along with new people – again. But, hard as it may be, each new relationship they begin and build with caring, understanding people helps them to change their negative world view and expectations. Another set of people to learn to trust – yes, but another set of people who don’t abuse and neglect them in the way their parents did.

Respite helps us to rise to the challenge of caring for the children long term. It allows us time with our own child. It is often a time of reflection, sometimes a chance to let our hair down. It is a precious thing, and something every foster carer should have access to.

 

 

The beauty of respite

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