Friday, January 20, 2017

Pause. Or maybe 'The End'.

This week I spoke to my fostering supervising social worker and asked her to take me off-list for a while . . . maybe a few months, maybe longer.

If you've been reading along, you'll know that I was expecting a placement of a newborn baby last week. It didn't happen. Just as I was packing up the car to set off to the hospital for the discharge planning meeting prior to bringing him home, a neonatal nurse phoned to check whether I'd been told that the placement was cancelled. I hadn't.

It turns out the social worker had managed to find a concurrent placement for the baby, which is really good news for him. For those of you not in the know, a concurrent placement is where a child is placed with prospective adopters who are also approved as foster carers. If he does end up going for adoption, he'll be able to stay with the family who have cared for him since he was a few days old. This is great for the child as it means fewer traumatic transitions.

So, I was pleased to hear about this plan for him. I was not pleased that nobody had mentioned to me that this was a plan they were actively pursuing. I was not pleased that this concurrent match had been decided in a meeting two days before his planned discharge from hospital, but not mentioned to me. I was not pleased that the social worker had asked me to go down to her workplace the day after that meeting to sign the placement paperwork for his prospective placement with me (so that I could give consent for his newborn hearing test) and still, she had not mentioned it to me.

I receive allowances from the agency to cover the costs of caring for the children I look after. These allowances begin when the child moves in and not before. At the social worker's request, I have visited this little one daily in hospital for a week, sometimes twice each day. At the hospital's request I have bought and provided clothes, nappies, bottles, dummies and cotton wool for him. I have fed him, rocked him, clothed him, changed him and given him his first bath. I have deliberately taken my children there to meet the baby they would soon welcome into their home, because I knew no different.

I will likely receive no recompense for my expenditure. I will definitely not be compensated for my time - a foster carer's time is given freely even when they do have a child living in their family. I can't even take the new bottles back to the shop as they were already in the steriliser when I got the call.

But worse than that, there has been no acknowledgement of my role as a human being in all of this. It's not the first time I have expected children that have not arrived, but this time I feel as though I have been led along and used. I don't regret a single moment I spent ensuring that this precious baby had extra cuddles and love while he was in hospital, but I feel frustrated that the real situation was not communicated to me.

Not for the first time I am reminded that, for some, foster carers are basically resources, like toasters. They come out of the cupboard when you need them, and once they've done what you wanted, you can forget about them. I get that this child's social worker was prioritising the child and he will be one of many children she is working hard for, but I saw her face-to-face the day after the decision was made and she still didn't say anything.

My supervising social worker was indignant on my behalf, urging me to at least claim mileage. I had to remind her that under the new rules no mileage allowance is given for individual journeys under six miles. I made the run between my house and the hospital maybe 20 times last week. None of those trips were six miles.

This comes at a time when allowances have been cut, retainers (such as they were) have been scrapped, mileage has been cut, routine replacement of equipment has ceased, I haven't had a child living here in four months and I don't know when the next one might come. Fostering has never been exactly financially rewarding, but now it's looking increasingly untenable.

And that's the conclusion I have come to after much soul-searching. Right now, I have to admit that continuing to be a full-time foster carer is financially untenable for our family at this time. And if it was just the finances I might soldier on, but it is also reaching the point where it is emotionally and practically untenable too. All the waiting by the phone, the uncertainty, the inability to plan, the frequency with which we just have to drop everything at someone's request, the difficulties we have planning trips abroad to visit family, the months that can go between placements. It's not just the effects of all this on me, but on my children and wider family too.

I have loved the children, loved being a foster carer. I am proud to tell people what I do. I look back on the last six years with a lot of joy, but I have been applying for other jobs for a while now, and I have been offered an exciting new role. Unlike fostering, I will receive a regular monthly salary that takes account of my time and my expertise. I will be able to plan ahead. I will have a regular (albeit flexible) working week. I will have a pension, an employment contract, employee rights and protections. And, most importantly, I will still be making a difference in children's lives.

I sincerely hope that I will be able to come back to fostering in the future, perhaps when our circumstances are a little more conducive to dealing with all the uncertainty. I sincerely hope so, but time will tell.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Best-Laid Plans

When you become a short-term foster carer there's a very real sense in which you hand over your life to Children's Social Care. This is even more apparent at the beginning and ending of a child's time with us, when the flurry of meetings and arrangements, often organised at the very last minute, seems to overwhelm normal life.

For just over a week now, we have been waiting for a new little one to join us. It's a bit of a complicated situation which I can't go into here really, but it means that from day to day, we are living with the uncertainty that our family life could radically change with just a few hours notice.

It began with phone calls. Lots of phone calls. And then I started preparing, getting out the baby equipment, washing tiny bedding and spare baby clothes, buying nappies, formula, wipes, more clothes, a new set of bottles and, most importantly, getting my two children mentally ready for the arrival of a needy, tiny baby.

Then there were delays, postponements, more waiting. The appointments I had cleared from last week's calendar were re-instated and I started working through next week's, wondering what I could cancel, rearrange or postpone.

Meanwhile, Birdy came down with a dose of winter vomiting. She managed her very first day at Playgroup, but the rest of her sessions that week had to be cancelled. Then the baby's social worker called: baby was alone in hospital. Could I visit?

So followed a time of reaching out to my support network. I couldn't take Birdy with me to the hospital as her illness would be a huge risk to the fragile babies in neonatal. My friends rallied round, my mum offered to fly over to help. We added daily hospital trips into our week's routine.

The contact centre phoned me, to give me a list of probable times and days for baby to visit with his family. It will be three times each week. None of the times are terribly convenient for us, and one of them clashes with the time I have to pick Birdy up from Playgroup. We negotiate a new time for that visit but the rest stand as they are because the service is busy and fostering means being flexible.

This weekend we are in limbo. It is highly possible that a decision will be made to discharge him from hospital any day now, but that can't happen until a Discharge Planning Meeting has been arranged. That can't be arranged until we know the date of discharge. It can't be arranged over the weekend because nobody is in the office to make the arrangements. I am mentally preparing for a phone call early next week asking me to get to the hospital in a few hours to meet professionals and bring baby home. I am wondering what I will do for childcare if I get that call.

I am not yet 'on the clock' with this baby, but I am already totally committed to him, time, energy, money and heart. I have cuddled him, rocked him, sung to him. I have taken photographs of him and shown them to my son, preparing him for the appearance of this little one in our home and our lives. We are a fostering family.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Return to Speech Therapy

Years ago, I got well-acquainted with the local Speech and Language Therapy service through NB, a little one I fostered who had no speech as he turned two, and not much more a year later, despite my best efforts. My memory of that experience is that it involved a lot of homework for me, and repeat visits to a group therapy session where NB steadfastly refused to say anything at all. We made some progress, but eventually he was adopted and it was out of our hands.

Our most recent visit has been for OB's benefit. I asked for the referral myself, partly because OB has turned six now and is still having trouble with 'r', 'w', 'l' and 'th', and also because he has developed a strange habit of stammering at the ends of his words. Since OB isn't at school I felt aware that nobody else was going to pick up on any potential problems except me, so I made the call.

We got off to an unpromising start. On the way there in the car, I was reminding OB of who we were going to see and why. I explained that the therapist was going to help us with some of the sounds he finds hard to say, like 'r'.

"Oh," he said, "Like this . . . 'r'?"

He said it perfectly. In the car. On the way to the Speech Therapist. Cue a load of eye rolling from me.

It is perhaps not surprising then that the Speech Therapist found no concerns with his sound production. In fact she said she wouldn't be concerned about those particular sounds until he reached seven anyway, and even then, they might decide not to take any action.

His stammer, though, was another story. Of course (of course!) he didn't replicate it at all in front of her (despite giving me two fine examples in the car on the way home) so she was having to go purely off what I was saying, but it seems as though this is an actual 'thing'. I'd assumed it was probably some sort of 'place-holding' noise he was making while he worked out what he was going to say next, and she did say it could be that, but then she threw around words like 'palilalia' and 'anxiety' and 'sensory feedback'.

We have an appointment pending to see an Occupational Therapist for a Sensory Integration Assessment, so the Speech Therapist advised us to bring it up there and see if anything comes of it.

In the meantime, I'm just going to have to get used to being regularly called "" and hearing random words in the middle of sentences being repeated over and over again. Apparently, I'm supposed to stay calm and ignore it, which will be no easy task for a person that needs all her mental strength to avoid finishing the sentences of slow-talkers for them!

Oh, and a little postscript . . .

During the lengthy process of asking OB questions and making notes about the way he pronounced his answers, the therapist saw fit to ask him about the best thing that had ever happened to him and . . . wait for it . . . the WORST thing that had ever happened to him!

Thankfully, OB came up with a memory about falling over at a friend's house and skinning his knee, but be aware professionals, don't ask a child a question like that unless you are fully prepared for the range of possible answers you may receive!

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Little Help From My Friends

I spoke to a friend on the phone the other week. It was just an innocuous conversation, but part way through I found myself telling her about an 'incident' that had occurred in our house that day.

The conversation that followed was everything I could have wanted from someone in my support network. Here's why:

  • She did not freak out
  • She listened to what I had to say, without judgement
  • She acknowledged what had happened and did not try to brush it off with a dismissive 'all kids do that' sort of comment
  • She did not try to defend the indefensible 
  • She acknowledged my feelings about it all
  • She asked me a few open questions with a view to heading towards a plan
  • She let me work out the plan for myself, out loud, while making the odd encouraging noise
  • She expressed full support for the plan, and promised to check in with me to see how it was going
  • She urged me to speak to her any time about it, and reassured me that it was right for me to be supported while I do what I have to do

It isn't rocket science but it's what every parent needs from time to time, especially parents and carers of children with additional needs of all kinds.

Daily, I find myself giving thanks for my support network. They walk this road with me in all kinds of ways and I couldn't do it without them.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Even Numbers

I've always preferred even numbers. I imagine them as rounded, more complete than odd numbers for some reason. The satisfying swirl of a 6 is so much better than the awkward 5 with that wayward top stroke you have to add at the end. A cheeky 2 has so much more character than the uninspiring 1.

So it is with great satisfaction that I can report that in the past two weeks, my children have ceased to be 1 and 5, and have become 2 and 6. And Birdy's new age brings with it the added pleasure that there is now definitively no need whatsoever to include any number of months in the reporting of it. She is no longer 20 months or 22 months. She is simply two. And in a few months I may allow two-and-a-half. I am very happy to now be able to report my children's ages on request without resorting to any level of mental arithmetic!

This is our annual breathtaking descent towards Christmas, packed with birthdays, birthday parties (my kids and so many others too), nativities (OB was a Wise Man this year - he was quite pleased about it), carol services and general discombobulation. And all topped off with our flight to France to spend Christmas with family. I tend to adopt a brace position, similar to how I imagine I looked the first time I braved the vertical drop on Blackpool's The Big One roller coaster. This year, we threw in an early December trip to Centerparcs as well. 

I can begin to see the track levelling out in front of me now though. The birthdays are done and both children were suitably impressed with their gifts, our trip to Centerparcs went off pretty well with only 4 out of 5 of us coming down with a vomiting bug, and OB managed to say his line in the Nativity, although Angel Birdy was something of a no show!

Ahead, there is a week of 'doing Christmas' with friends and family in England, and then we will board the plane and breathe a huge sigh of relief because even though there is the Big Day still to come, it will be my wonderful parents who orchestrate events and all I will need to do is go along for the ride and change the occasional nappy.

Nearly there now....

Friday, November 25, 2016

Romania on My Mind

When I first met Alina (not her real name) she was a quiet, shy teenager. I was volunteering for two weeks at a summer camp for teenage girls living in Romania's 'orphanages'. I use the inverted commas because none of these children were orphans. And the official term in Romania is 'placement centre'.

Many of the girls were very chatty and friendly. They wanted to try out their English on us. They wanted to get close, attract our attention. These days I would call it 'attachment-seeking behaviour'. These girls appeared to form bonds with the volunteers very quickly. It was gratifying for visitors who perhaps didn't stop to consider that they were just the latest in a long line of 'here today, gone tomorrow' people in these young women's lives.

Alina was not like these. Tiny, with her dark, curly hair drawn into a low ponytail, she hung around at the back, reluctant to get in the thick of things. She would sit with us and weave friendship bracelets - the trend of the camp that year - but would rarely speak or even raise her head.

I saw Alina at a couple more camps, and then she left the orphanage and I didn't see her again until I went to live in Romania several years later. As well as running the camps, the Romanian charity I was working with mainly concentrated on providing transition support to young women when they left the city's orphanages, often with just a small bag of belongings, no money and no plan. The charity was there for them long after the state had finished with them.

By this time, Alina was married. She seemed happy enough. During my two years there, she had a baby and I remember visiting her, nervously holding this tiny infant in a room packed with Alina's husband's family, while all the grannies commented on my cradling technique and I concentrated furiously on avoiding some terrible childcare faux pas. Such a thing is easily done in a country where folklore would have it that draughts, going barefoot and sitting on walls can all be sources of terrible illness.

A few weeks ago, an American lady we both knew in Romania messaged me to tell me that Alina was coming to the UK to work and would be in Leeds, near enough to me for visiting. I messaged Alina but didn't receive a reply until she was already here. She was lonely, scared. She wanted to meet up. I put her in touch with a friend who lives in Leeds. Alina messaged and phoned my friend many, many times in one day.

It transpired that Alina would only be in Leeds for one week, training. After that, she would be moved on to a care home somewhere else in the country. She was offered Dorset. She messaged me six or seven times that day, asking whether I thought she should refuse the offer and hope for somewhere else closer to me. In the end, there was no chance of that and, with time running short, I arranged to go over to Leeds and meet her before she left.

I took a little goody bag of useful items, scrambled together at the last minute. We drove to Yorkshire, stopping for the kids' sake at Bradford's Media Museum on the way. All day, messages were flying back and forth. She would be back at her hotel by 5.40. Now the course leader said they were going to finish at 9pm. Now it would be 6.30pm. After 6pm her phone started going straight to voicemail and messages went unanswered. I think her battery was dead. We waited at the hotel until 7.30, but it was getting late and I couldn't occupy the children in the hotel foyer any longer. We left our goody bag at the hotel reception and made our way home. Alina finished her training at 8.30. We never did get to meet up, and as I write she is likely on her way to Dorset.

All week I have been thinking about it. Alina has left her husband and her young daughter in Romania to come to the UK and work in a care home for what I hope will be at least the minimum wage. I hope she will be fairly treated. I hope her husband and daughter can manage without her.

In 2009, the Romanian government released data on children living in Romania's placement centres - the 'orphanages'. Most of the children were there because they had been removed from their birth families due to abuse and neglect. The system of foster care was in its infancy then, having only begun properly as a condition of their accession to the EU two years previously. But, if I remember rightly, 20% of children in Romania's orphanages were there because one or both parents had left to work abroad. And this is before Romania was granted full access to EU freedom of movement.

Alina has already been abandoned by her family, left alone in the world. Now she is alone in the world again, having left her own family and the grinding poverty of so many of her peers to come west in search of work. And in Romania, there is a child without her mother. Many children.

And in the week in which I have been mulling over all of this, I read an article about the work being done by Romania's social workers among street children. These tiny, lone children, sniffing paint and seeking shelter beneath overpasses and bridges are the children and grandchildren of those who fled appalling conditions in orphanages, preferring a life of unimaginable hardship on the streets. These are children who were born to the streets.

Ceaucescu's shadow over Romania still stretches long.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What to Expect From Your Child's Former Foster Carer Post-Adoption

Straight out of the block I'm going to admit that I may have over-sold this a little with the title. I can't really tell you exactly what to expect from your child's former foster carer because all foster carers are different, all situations are different, and there seems to be little consistency in the guidance given to carers from different agencies in how to handle ongoing contact once a child has moved onto their permanent home.

Despite this, I feel I want to say something on the subject because it comes up so often among adopters. Some are comfortable with well-managed ongoing contact, while others have settled for various reasons on little or no contact and are making it work for them. Yet for others, there are unmet expectations - too much contact or not enough, or struggling through ongoing contact that they don't really feel is working as well as it could.

From my perspective, ongoing contact is as much of a minefield as it probably is for many adopters. Literally the only thing that has ever been said by any social worker to me on the subject is that any ongoing contact is up to the child's new family and that I need to accept that I might never see or hear from the child again. I have always taken this very literally, and even more so now that I have seen the huge range of differing perspectives from adoptive families.

What that means in practice is that if you were to adopt a child from my home, I would not be contacting you at all unless you contacted me. If you emailed or messaged me, I would reply, but if you didn't reply back, then I probably wouldn't push it. I would send birthday and Christmas cards for the child, but if those went unacknowledged for a couple of years then I would consider stopping. If you vaguely suggested meeting up sometime, then I would be happy to do that, but if you did not come back to me with some attempt to firm up arrangements then I wouldn't push it.

If you, as the child's new family, were keen to maintain contact then I can see how my approach might make it seem as though I was reticent about the idea. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Whenever I hear even a snippet of news about any child I have fostered, I am beyond excited. I was recently sent some up-to-date photos of BG who I fostered back in 2014 and I couldn't stop looking at them with a huge soppy grin on my face. Even better, I was given permission to share them with my parents - like any other family, a foster family consists of many more people than just the parental figures.

Yet I also have to think of things from the perspective of families who, for whatever reason, may not want continuing contact at this time. How intrusive would it be in that case if I were to be sending regular emails, suggesting meet-ups or posting cards and presents?

I don't want to overwhelm you!

The thing is, when adoptive parents come to my house during intros, I don't know what they're going to want from me in the future. And neither do they, beyond the hypothetical. We are likely to have different lifestyles, different ideas about parenting, about lots of things, and sometimes these differences can cause tension, or at least, a perception of tension. It is impossible to predict how a child will react to the enormity of their move from their foster home to their forever home. Ideas about continuing contact that might have seemed eminently sensible during the planning stages can quickly fall apart once the rubber of adoptive parenting hits the road.

So, based only on my own thoughts on the subject, here are a few tips for a smoother approach to continuing contact. I'd love it if other foster carers were able to add their own perspectives in the comments as I know it's not a one-size-fits-all situation!

  • Don't assume your child's foster carer has had extensive training on handling intros, transition to permanence or continuing contact. I have had none. Others might have had loads.
  • Expect that sometimes, a foster carer's emotion will creep into things. Yes, fostering is our professional role and yes, we know that we will say goodbye to these children we have loved and cared for and yes, we mentally prepare as much as we are able, but we are humans too and sometimes our emotions can rise to the surface before we even realise it's happening.
  • If you do want continuing contact, then encourage the foster carer by initiating it in a format which you are comfortable with so that the carer has your lead to follow. 
  • Be very clear and honest about what you do and don't want. Spell it out so there is no ambiguity. If the carer is suggesting something that you think isn't a good idea right now, say so, and suggest reviewing the situation in 3 or 6 or 12 months.
  • Try to avoid making lavish commitments to continuing contact during intros. It's a time of high emotion, and if things are going well between everyone then it can be tempting to make plans that might not seem such a good idea a few months down the road. An experienced carer should understand this, but see point 2 - we can be emotional too!
  • Remember that some carers may have fostered dozens and dozens of children. It might simply be logistically impossible for them to sustain high-level regular contact with each child for years to come.
  • And finally, it just might be possible that some foster carers (ahem - like me - ahem) are not terribly administratively gifted. I have pictures on the wall of every child I've fostered and I think about them pretty much every day, but if I have to remember a birthday, buy a card, write it, get a stamp, post it . . . well, there are a lot of stages there where something can disappear to the bottom of my handbag and get forgotten. Even my closest family members consider themselves lucky if I remember to post a card! Moonpig helps me a bit with that. I guess that this is just a roundabout way of saying that parenting, and especially foster parenting, takes up a lot of a person's time and energy - if you haven't heard from your child's carer in a while, it doesn't necessarily mean that they have forgotten about your child.