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.

 

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Alfie opens up

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

Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

It’s scarey For Esme, our foster daughter, to tell anyone she loves them. It requires a depth of trust that she doesn’t have access to. It requires her to make herself vulnerable, to lower the heavy armour she has built up over the years of her life.

Abusive, inconstant and cruel parenting forced her to start layering on this armour before she could speak. If you raise the barriers, you can’t be hurt – this is what she has taught herself. She was the oldest child in the family, so when she was born and first began toddling around, there was nobody to act as a buffer between her and her parents, no caring sibling, no protector. Her younger brother is far less damaged, because he had Esme to shield him, to some extent.

So Esme appears cold, distant and uninterested in people much of the time. It has taken me years to accept her need to push me away. I have cried and agonised on many evenings, at the end of a long day of trying to connect with this little girl and feeling that I have failed.

Just one of the many profound lessons that fostering has taught me is that children can’t be forced to accept love, and that I can’t expect children to fall in with my ideas about how to behave, and to express that huge thing – love.

So, I want to give Esme cuddles. She hates them. Still, at the school gates, she strains away from me, presents me with the back of her head for a kiss, won’t make eye contact. At bed time, after a book, she can’t handle a kiss so we manage an awkward hug and then we do the hand kiss. This is something Esme came up with a couple of years ago, and it has become more important and complex as time has passed. It started off with her kissing her palm and then putting her hand on my arm as she said goodnight. It then progressed to me kissing my palm and her allowing me to lay my palm against hers. A kiss without lips or intimacy. I guess it feels really safe but still feels like an expression of love. We now kiss both of our palms and press them against each other’s corresponding palms each night and at the same time, I try to hold her gaze for a few long seconds. It feels good. It’s a positive way to end each day, whatever has happened.

Occasionally now, when I have left Esme’s bedroom and am making my way down stairs so that I am well out of sight and almost out of earshot, Esme will call, ‘Love you!’ I think it’s directed towards me, so I call back ‘Love you too!’

A couple of nights ago as we did the hand kiss, Esme suddenly said, ‘I just can’t stop holding you.’ I was shocked into silence for a few seconds. She NEVER holds me. Never physically, because it feels too risky. Because even after living with us for several years, I think there’s a part of her which still fears that I will turn that hug into something else. After recovering myself, I said, ‘You can hold me any time, I’m always here for you.’ She responded with a smile.

Without claiming to be a mind reader, I like to think Esme hugs me and cuddles me in her head. A smile from her, with proper eye contact, is as good as a hold.

Some time soon I’m hoping the hugs will become easier for Esme, something she can accept and offer on an ad hoc basis like her brother. Until then, I will do as I was recently advised to by a friend on Twitter – smother from a distance.

 

Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

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

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

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

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