One of our carers, Tracy, talks to Lorraine about fostering teens…
One of our carers, Tracy, talks to Lorraine about fostering teens…
Come and have a chat to us about fostering. Meet the team, chat to our carers, have a bit of cake! All welcome. Call 01206 299775 for more information.
The view of Narnia
This is the first post from Lucy Stevens who, along with her family, is embarking on the process of becoming a foster carer. She will be chronicling the story of her journey via this regular blog.
I’m on a journey into foster caring. This journey of mine is a little different from the norm. For me, it’s a bit like the C.S.Lewis book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the main character, Lucy stumbles upon a whole new world on the other side of a wardrobe she is hiding in. The world she ends up in, Narnia, is full of new, life-changing things to discover. The way is littered with potential pitfalls and dangers. Lucy enters Narnia for the first time on her own before eventually taking her family with her, in the form of her brothers and sister. Together they are shaped by the events of the story and eventually they thrive.
As I write this very first blog, I’m probably in that place that Lucy found herself in near the beginning of the book- I’m in the wardrobe, with one hand parting the row of coats, aware that the air on the other side is different: fresher, bracing, compelling. My fingers have brushed that first fir frond that tells me there is a new world to discover on the other side. You see, I’ve been working at Eastern Fostering Services (EFS), an independent fostering agency, for about two years now. During this time, I have very much been on this side of said wardrobe, but it’s been a wardrobe with a view.
A bit about me
I’m Lucy and I have two boys and a husband. In the days before this rather messy, rather boy-heavy, at times rather smelly but equally rather wonderful existence, I worked for various small businesses, helping them to grow.
Where are you going? Come back. There’s a point and I’m getting to it, I promise.
When we had the boys, my husband and I decided that I would stay at home while he worked in London. I loved every minute of this but as someone who likes to be busy, I knew that I had to use that time wisely. I started to write. Then I did a writing degree. Then I wrote some more. Once both boys went off to school, I started to run creative writing and storytelling classes for the children at their school. Soon I knew that I wanted to do this for children who didn’t necessarily have all the opportunities that these kids did. Around the same time I was asked by someone I knew (who runs EFS) if I would consider being on their Panel. I was made up. After I’d been doing this for a while, I asked if I might run some story making sessions with the agency’s looked after children. EFS is a highly creative, child-centred agency and they were delighted to have another form of direct children’s work. So effectively I had two hats: panel and direct children’s worker. After about a year, my husband decided he really didn’t want to work in London any more (who can blame him?) and opted for a PhD in plant science instead (as you do). This life-changing decision coincided with EFS asking me if I would be willing to put on one more ‘hat’. They employed me to help them recruit foster carers.
Now, EFS is a small agency and as Sister Sledge once declared: we are family. We all muck in and we all share in the ups and downs. Throughout my time at EFS, I’ve built relationships with the children, the carers and the EFS staff. I’ve felt both the elation and the heartache of these three groups. I’ve seen fostering families flourish. I’ve seen children happy and settled. I’ve listened as carers have bared their deepest fears for the children in their care. I’ve laughed with our social workers and cried with them too. I’ve seen frightened children. I’ve seen exhausted carers. I’ve seen how tough it is for everyone concerned. I’ve been furious. I’ve been sad. I’ve whooped for joy. I’ve had my face covered in shaving foam and Cheerios – don’t ask. At times I’ve been unable to think of anything else but the children we exist for. In short, I’ve fallen in love with this bold, new world.
Stepping through the wardrobe
And so I’m heading through the wardrobe into Narnia. The Stevens’ have decided to foster. Lucy made her first foray into Narnia on her own. After two years of gazing, open-mouthed between the coats, this Lucy is going with her family at her side. And you’re invited too. Every step of the way, from application to awaiting the arrival of a child (we’re hoping we get that far!) You’ll see our hopes and aspirations; share in our triumphs and our failures. We might encourage you in your journey or we might put you off, but either way we’d love to have you along for the ride. If you’re up for it?
Home sweet home
Last week I went on a home visit to a lady who had enquired about fostering through our agency. She’d been on our website, liked what she’d seen and dropped us an email. I’d been the one to call her and answer her questions. I’d been the one to book in a suitable time to visit her at home to talk in more depth. And, along with my colleague, I’d been the one to go to her lovely home. For an hour and a half we chatted and she asked us lots of questions, which we answered honestly. We gave her a realistic picture of what she might expect from fostering. We also asked her lots of questions about her family, their experiences and motivations. We’re not sure if she’ll apply to foster with us but we left her with an application form and lots to think about.
The tables have turned
The following day I had a little visit of my own.
Our home visit was booked in for 1.30pm. My husband, Jim, rocked up at 1.28pm. He is the master of cutting it fine. But wait. Was I nervous? Did this walking aimlessly up and down the hallway qualify as pacing? Yep, I was definitely verging on the anxious. I picked up the list of questions that Ben and Theo, my two sons, had helped me put together the night before.
“What if the child doesn’t like us?” Theo, aged six, had asked with a look of great consternation.
“What if they can’t understand what we’re saying? How are we going to communicate?” asked Ben, aged nine, clearly thinking about the nature of child we’d like to welcome into our family.
You see, we feel we’d like to welcome an unaccompanied asylum seeking child and this comes with a list of very specific questions as well as the more generic ones.
“What if they’re not nice to us?”
“Will we have to change the house?”
“What school will they go to?”
Once the boys had asked their various questions I had one for them: “How might a child feel, coming into a strange, new family?”
“Terrified,” suggested Theo. “Very anxious,” said Ben. “They might be trembly.” “Their heart would feel like a stone.”
It was fast becoming a competition.
Time to see what Jim wanted to know.
In other words, how long will it take to be approved? How does the referral process work? How long before a child is placed with us? What is the matching process? What support is there? In short, all the questions I had breezily answered at the home visit the day before.
The reality hits home
Sitting at our dining room table with our cups of tea, listening as the home visitor, Elle, answered Jim’s questions, I was struck by the oddness of it all. I started to ask a few questions of my own. Let’s be clear, I wasn’t asking questions as some sort of gesture to prove that I didn’t think I knew it all, or as a mere show of solidarity to Jim, who knows relatively little about the technicalities of fostering. The only way I can describe what happened is to say that the answers to all those questions suddenly morphed from something flat and one dimensional, something that trips off the tongue to something concrete and tangible and very much 3D. Suddenly, it was about our boys, our home, our routine, our sanctuary. And I was both disturbed and reassured to feel just how much difference that made.
Of course, we also had some additional questions around how I can foster and continue to work at the agency. I’ve said before that the agency is small, energetic, creative and willing to think outside the box. There should be no reason why I can’t continue to work there. But we have to make sure there is no conflict of interest. Elle is keen to set out ways to make sure that our information is kept private at work. And of course I’ll have to stop being on Panel. Lots to think about and work out. But we know it’s all possible if everyone is willing.
Warts and all
So, if we go ahead, it looks like we’ll have an independent form F assessor to take us through the assessment process. I listened as Elle explained that she’d probably make about eight visits and would interview us separately and together. She explained the background checks that are needed and the work that will go into presenting us as a family to panel using the infamous form F. I could tell Jim was thinking, ‘eight sessions! My life’s really not that interesting.’ I know from experience that that’s what they all say!
But I was thinking something different. It’s funny because I thought I might feel a bit odd about sharing my life, warts and all, to a group of people I’ve worked with for two years. I’ve read many a form F and I know that a good one leaves no stone unturned. But I also know that our panel is made up of people who are human, who are warm, who are real and who want real families to look after these children. So what I was thinking was that there is no other group of people I would trust more with my warts. So to speak.
At EFS, we aim for around three to four months from application to approval at panel. So we could be approved and ready to go by February. Then it will be a question of waiting for the right match. As I said, we’re looking to welcome a very specific child into our family. It is crucial for that child and for our birth children that we give the arrangement the best possible chance for success. Because Ben and Theo are relatively young, we will most likely need to be patient for that child to come along. It could be a long wait. There was a twinkle in Elle’s eye when she placed the application form on the table.
“Well?” I asked Jim when she’d gone. “Let’s go for it,” he said. Yes, let’s.
I’m not going to lie to you. The application form? It’s a brute.
My brother has a bit of a phobia of application forms and if he caught sight of this specimen, he’d be running to hide behind the sofa quicker than he did when he first saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
How have I gone two years working for Eastern Fostering Services without truly studying the application form? Careless, that’s what I’ve been. Well, this week I’ve had my eyes well and truly opened. There I was serenely thumbing through the application form when my eyes fell upon four relatively harmless words: Every. Address. Since. Birth. For about three seconds my thumbing continued unabated until… What?! You want what?! Every address since birth?! This filled me with horror.
I barely knew where I lived when I was living there! Such things were a mere distraction to the real business at hand – having a good time. All the time. Remember the details now, over 25 years on? You have got to be kidding me!
Apparently they are not kidding me.
A trip down Google lane
All I can say is thank God for old friends, Google maps and postcode finder. Also thank God that what started as the world’s most arduous task actually turned out to be a lovely little virtual trip down memory lane. I (virtually) stood outside many a front door that I had long since forgotten about and reminisced about what a great time I’d had.
In contrast, I began thinking of the address histories of many looked after children. How on earth can many of these children keep track of where they’ve lived? Many of them have moved so many times that by age 10, it’s not impossible for a child to have moved more times in a single year than I have in my entire life. That shut me up.
So I completed my part of the form, giving all the required information: details of employers, details for referees, experience of volunteering or working with children etcetera, etcetera. Then I handed the form to my husband, Jim. I watched as he casually thumbed through the form and I counted: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (he reads more slowly than me)…. “They want what? Since birth?”
I left him to it and chuckled my way into the kitchen. Two days later, Jim finished the application form and I gave it a good once over. Something towards the end of the form caught my eye. “Jim,” I casually called out to him. “I never knew you’d been arrested ….”
Well, EFS want real families and that is definitely what they’re going to get with us. We’ve made mistakes. The thing is, we haven’t really thought about those mistakes for years. Our mistakes were made privately. Stuff happened. We learnt, we moved on. We did stupid things like get drunk, act like a prat and get ourselves arrested (well Jim did). But those things didn’t follow us everywhere and we weren’t constantly reminded of them. In fact I don’t think you could say that Jim was ever held back because of his mistakes, and neither was I. And there’s no photographic evidence either.
Not like teens today, who grow up in an online arena where their mistakes are catalogued and shared and preyed upon. Not like the young people EFS look after, who are under additional scrutiny by social workers, therapists, carers, teachers. These are kids whose criminal records really might count against them in a way Jim’s never did. It’s another sobering thought. Pardon the pun…. So as I hand in the application form, that’s what I’m hoping we can provide: a safe place to mess up. A safe place to make a mistake and move on from it. Safe for the child we take in. Safe for our children. Safe for us. We know we’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way but that’s how we’ve always done it.
An assessor calls…
It’s Saturday morning and the house is now (reasonably) tidy. This is unusual for any day of the week but particularly for a Saturday. Today, however, is no ordinary Saturday – today is the day our assessor is coming.
The assessment form is a document compiled by an assessor (who is usually also a social worker) which presents you as foster carers to the approval panel. Once approved, the document is also used to present you to the local authority when you’re being put forward as a potential carer for a child. It highlights your motivations, your family dynamics, your strengths and your weaknesses. Our assessor will visit us approximately eight times to gather all the information she needs to present us accurately and will be asking us many in-depth questions about our lives, loves and limitations.
She starts straight off by asking us about our motivations for fostering: Why? Why now? What do you hope to offer? What do you expect the impact to be?
I begin by explaining what has happened to bring us to this point. I explain that I have worked at Eastern Fostering Services, an independent agency, for a while and that I have wanted to do more. I explain that as a couple, our faith calls us to feed the hungry and clothe the poor, to provide a refuge to others in stormy times. As we want to foster unaccompanied, asylum seeking children, I explain how Jim and I have been moved by the plight of adults and children fleeing their countries of origin. How we have lamented the likelihood that this will all be old news soon, once the media has a new focus, how many people will effectively be left to rot. I explain that we had to act. Not just a short term, sticking plaster approach but something long term and tangible – something practical. I also explain that it was only once Jim realised you could be so niche in terms of the profile of child you foster, that the conversation had turned more serious.
‘What held you back from considering fostering before then?’ the assessor asked Jim.
I mentioned last time that Jim has a wicked sense of humour. I also told you how we met at work. What I omitted to tell you was that Jim was very nearly fired from this job when he set up his own internal “Dear Deidre” advice column. Staff could email Jim with spoof dilemmas and Jim would advise. Needless to say, the “advice” Jim elected to give was not always received in the spirit he intended. Sometimes his humour is a little out there. The Dear Deidre debacle was one such occasion. Watching Jim prepare to answer this question is a bit like watching the Dear Deidre truck collide with a wheelchair bound pedestrian. I know he’s about to come out with something leftfield and I have no way of stopping it. I can only watch.
‘I don’t like other people’s children very much,’ he says.
See what I mean?
Thankfully, Jim has learnt to read people’s reactions a little over the years since Deidregate and he quickly claws back the ground. Jim comes to life as he talks about what he feels he could offer an asylum seeking child. He talks about how much he enjoys tutoring A Level students and how a lot of this work is around building confidence and equipping young people to solve problems themselves. He talks about his passion for science, for carpentry, for coaching sports. His voice betrays the fact that he likes other people’s children perfectly adequately.
Not the Von Trapps
I explain that as a family, we are far from perfect. There are many things that we could probably do better as parents. But one thing I know we can offer is a stable, structured and consistent base and that this will be provided in the context of a loving family. And that’s the essence of what we have to offer: love. Love is bandied around a lot as if it’s something that’s easy to do. During my time at EFS, I have seen that it is not easy to love every child. I am aware that a child may well come to us who is tricky to love. But I also know that love is not just about the heart. Love is about doing. Love is practical and consistent. It’s about perseverance; about sticking with it. It’s warm and it’s safe. And sometimes it’s a little leftfield.
‘You poohead!’ comes a scream from upstairs as I draw my impassioned speech to a close.
Ben, aged nine and Theo, aged seven are swiftly given a talking to. But the reality is that they have not been to football this morning and are therefore like tightly wound springs. I don’t particularly want to shout at my children in front of the assessor. Instead, I turn and give her a look that says: This is us. More Von Krapp than Von Trapp. In that look, I try and communicate a little thumbs up emoticon but I resist the urge to actually extend said digits.
Thankfully, the assessor is warm and friendly and does not make us feel that we’re under scrutiny (though of course we are). She allows the boys to give her a tour of the house so that she can do her health and safety check. Her check reveals a consistent lack of both. Theo has a cold and his constant old-man-hacking cough follows them around the listed home we live in. The safety glass is conspicuous in its absence. Medicines are not locked away. There is no fire blanket. We’ll need to fix some of these things and a few others but that’s ok. It’s much less painful than I was expecting.
A quick check of our birth and marriage certificates, MOT certificate, insurance documents and driving licenses and we’re done.
We’re told that we’ll be getting some homework to do over Christmas. We’ll be sent questions which we’ll need to provide written answers to. We’ll then discuss these in more depth at her next visit.
This is good. Writing we can do. For one thing, since Deidregate, when Jim writes, he has at his disposal, a very effective editing system.
Her name is Lucy.
Skills to foster
My husband Jim and I first met each other at work. He always struck me as a great person to be around: intelligent, insightful and fair but with a wicked sense of humour. As we headed off together last week to attend the Skills to Foster training, I was taken straight back to the days when we used to work together every day. I was thinking how nice it was to be going to the same place at the same time for once. I was thinking that spending two days during the working week together was a rare boon. I was excited that, as a couple; we would be learning more about something we care deeply about and our responses to it.
I asked Jim how he was feeling.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
“I don’t really know what to expect but I’m looking forward to finding out.”
Then he cleared his throat, “as long as there isn’t any role play of course…”
Produced by The Fostering Network, The Skills to Foster training is an obligatory part of the assessment process with our agency and is used by virtually all fostering services in the UK. It helps to prepare prospective foster carers for some of the challenges they may face and aims to equip them with some of the skills to overcome these challenges.
We were a small but well matched group of three couples and over the two days we covered a variety of subject areas: the importance for children of identity, how to provide a secure base for children, positive approaches to challenging behaviour, the importance of the birth family, the effect of multiple moves on a child’s psyche, and approaches to safer caring, to name but a few. The group was respectful, open and warm and while many of the subjects we covered were pretty upsetting, there was plenty of opportunity to laugh too.
The role of a lifetime
The course used a variety of materials and exercises, from videos to informal discussions to, yes; you guessed it, role play. If you were to cross the facial expression of a startled rabbit caught in the headlights of a ten-tonne truck with that of someone who thinks they are at the summit of a mountain only to discover they are just half way up – that’s pretty much how Jim was looking at me when the trainers landed that little bomb shell.
But as with everything, (apart from the Cyndi Lauper CD on the car journey there) Jim put his feelings aside, and through the role playing exercises, demonstrated his strong sense of fairness and his non-judgmental approach to other people (well, those who aren’t Cyndi Lauper anyway….). It was interesting to see that each person and each couple brought many different things to the table. Looking at how different Jim and I are, for example, it’s clear we’re both going to bring different things to fostering. Despite our differences, or maybe because of them, Jim and I work pretty well together. I don’t say this smugly; I say this with full recognition that fostering tests every relationship and ours will be no exception. Foster care is complex and emotionally demanding. It involves supporting, and liaising with, a large number of people involved in that child’s life; this can mean some interesting dynamics. We happen to be a couple but I know many carers who foster on their own. Whether you’re a single carer or a couple, old or young, male or female, you need to feel equipped and supported. As foster carers, we’re going to need to use the skills we’ve got and we’re going to have to acquire a whole set of new ones.
A takeaway pint?
On the way home we talked about what we had taken from the training. We felt that the course had a good balance of realism (fostering is hard!) and encouragement (it’s worth doing!). We agreed that it was something that was going to challenge us and we agreed that we would need to invest plenty into our family to ensure our collective wellbeing. Our overriding feeling though was that this is something we still really want to do.
“Oh and I could definitely see myself going for a drink with those guys, you know, for moral support?” Jim added, referring to the other men in the group.
Actually, I’m with him there. Establishing a good support system is going to be critical for both of us. In my experience, female carers are generally very good at seeking out and finding that support, but, and this is only my experience, male carers can find it harder to do so. At EFS (the fostering agency I work for), we’ve been talking a lot about how to support our male carers in a way that they actually want and need. If Jim is advocating moral support over a pint in the pub, that sounds like as good a place to start as any. Imagine a cat that has got the cream and a child who has inadvertently stumbled on Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Put the two together. That’s how Jim is looking now.
The Fostering Network in Wales has produced two reports for men in foster care: https://www.fostering.net/all-about-fostering/foster-carers/men-who-foster#.VlhZ-3bhDcs
The assessment is underway and we’re starting from the beginning, or as the form F calls it, the Early Years. Our assessor has sent us a list of questions as homework in preparation for her next visit this weekend.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs I work for Eastern Fostering Services but I am also a ghost-writer. Specifically, I write people’s autobiographies for them. I ask my clients all manner of questions about their childhood, their parents, their experiences; their journey. I am rarely more comfortable than when I’m listening to people talking about themselves, and generally I don’t enjoy talking about myself to the same degree.
So for me this is a little weird.
The worm and the tables have both performed their rather clichéd manoeuvres. The shoe is well and truly on the other foot. And guess what, it seems to fit. I discover that I quite enjoy dissecting my childhood. I find that it’s sobering to see myself, however fleetingly, as a product of my parents. In examining your childhood, you examine how you were parented. In examining how you were parented, the hard-earned successes and the inevitable struggles are brought into relief. This, in turn, allows you to quietly muse on your own successes and to shine a light on the things that you struggle with.
I’m neither a believer in nor a fan of detoxes but this feels like a detox for the soul and one that might actually be constructive. I have a sudden picture of myself, breathless at the side of a winding road, hands on hips, looking back at the terrain I’ve covered before turning towards my destination as it unfolds, little by little, before me.
And it’s while contemplating this figurative journey that I am reminded of another journey. Not my own. But one that is a small part of my narrative nonetheless…
Out of Africa
I’ve developed a particular interest in journeys over the last couple of years. From life’s ever changing journey, in general, to more poignant journeys in the personal realm. I have watched as the media has spewed out images of journeys, most borne of desperation, all shocking in their nakedness. I have met and worked with children who have undergone journeys that would make your hair stand on end. I’m easily able to see how any one of us could, in the blink of an eye, find ourselves on a desperate journey. In fact it’s because of a journey my Nan made almost 70 years ago that I have been able to empathise with men, women and children journeying to flee war, poverty or persecution. It’s partly because of her journey that I have been so moved by their journeys.
When my mum was three years old, my Nan took her and her brother and left their home in Zimbabwe. My Nan was married to my mum’s father who was a game warden. It’s not my story to tell so I won’t go into details, but suffice to say things in Zimbabwe were bad enough to convince a young mother to travel thousands of miles, under a cloak of secrecy, back to the UK. Fortunately for Nan, she had parents who loved her and who agreed to take her and the children in. She must have been incredibly brave, bearing as she did not just a demanding journey from Africa to Northumberland with two children in tow, but equally the judgemental stares and concealed whispers of those who frowned upon such a refugee: two kids and not a husband in sight.
Well, times have changed and my Nan’s story is different to many of those who are staking their all on desperate journeys in today’s world. But one thing is clear; a journey is proved worthwhile in its end destination. For my Nan it was the open arms of the parental home. For many unaccompanied asylum seeking children it’s a foster family. I hope one day that we, as a family, can prove the worth of a journey conceived in desperation, in secrecy, out of hope for something better.
Back to basics
But first we have to go through the assessment and the small matter of getting Jim to answer questions about his early life. If I’m sold on detox for the soul, Jim is emphatically keen on constipation. Encouraging him to give answers that exceed one syllable is going to be interesting. Like me, Jim had a happy childhood but he is uncomplicated in his approach to it: ‘I always knew I was loved and I’ve never had to think about my childhood in any greater depth.’
I suddenly feel very grateful to my Nan and very sorry for our assessor.
This instalment of the blog should really come with a disclaimer. Somewhere here in bold text should be words to this effect:
*The actions of this blogger in no way constitute a statutory requirement for the fostering of asylum seeking children*
The objective of this blog is to give a detailed account of the fostering application process and I promise that this is what I’ll do, but I’m taking a little detour this week, a voluntary detour, via Calais…
An early start
It’s one o’clock in the morning when a group of us, including Eastern Fostering Services (EFS) agency director Eleanor Vanner, head off for three days’ volunteering at the camp known as The Jungle in Calais. As we make the drive down to Kent where the ferry awaits, I’m thinking about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and what I can possibly achieve.
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll know that my family and I want to foster unaccompanied, asylum seeking children. You’ll also know that the agency I work for, EFS, already looks after children who have come into the country without their parents. I have met and worked with these children. I have an intellectual understanding of the journeys they’ve taken and the conditions they’ve lived in. I could recount their stories verbatim. And yet, for me personally, this falls short of enough. My motivations in going to the camp are complex and yet inseparable, like threads of a blanket. Teased apart they mean very little, weaved together they have purpose.
Here then are the threads I am clutching on our journey to Calais: my faith, my job, my children, the world that is changing around us, my desire to DO something, childhood memories of arriving in Calais fresh off the ferry, our holiday stretching before us, a gnawing fear of the Calais I’m about to arrive in, the plight of the child who could walk through our front door one day soon, the sensation of squeezing my feet into the dusty, dog eared shoes of another and that one coarse golden thread that speaks of human understanding.
I stash them away as we arrive for the morning briefing.
Bearers of bad news
Our first job is to get to the jungle and break the news that the French authorities want to clear a large area of the camp. The last time such an area was cleared, the authorities used force and many residents of the camp lost the few belongings they had to the jaws of a bulldozer. We head to the Afghani area of the camp. It is there that I meet four young boys who call me into their shelter. They are grinning and chattering excitedly as they show me their home. It’s like a delicious bubble amidst the filth of the camp. For a moment, I think that I’ve stumbled onto a scout camp, a place where stories are shared and illicit snacks are eaten and the giggles of boys can be heard long into the night. And then I wonder where their mothers are. And reality bites. The boys don’t believe me that they may lose their home. They look at me with cheeky grins and dancing eyes. Silently, I pray for them and ask they be spared from a violent eviction. I want to take them all home. Home, that place which is so near and yet so far removed from this hell. Home, where it’s clean and dry and safe.
The people we meet that day shock me. I am expecting a cold shoulder at best; violent, red hot rage at worst. What I get is this: invitations to tea, smiles and nods, handshakes and thank yous. A sorry here and there. A pat on the back. A peal of laughter. What I get is a warm welcome that shames me.
The following day, we start to clear areas of land that could be used to rehouse residents before the clearing by authorities begins. This feels like it could be something valuable. The land is badly contaminated with human excrement and pools of stagnant liquid. I weep and gag in equal measure. I rage that humans are expected to pitch a tent somewhere I can barely breathe. One of the lads helping us has some music and it booms from somewhere deep in his coat. It lifts us and it also attracts a group of teens. They are from Syria. They point out to me where they sleep in the camp. They smile and joke but their eyes have seen things no child should have seen. They come and help. But they have no gloves and I don’t want them handling this filth. They don’t listen though and whoop with the effort of pulling an abandoned tent from the thick mud. Once they’ve finished, I give them my hand gel and they look at me, bemused. Crazy, English lady. Of course. They’ve handled far worse.
Then along comes a young lad. I smile at him and he asks me what I’m doing. He’s 14 and from Syria. His parents are over there still, maybe alive, maybe not. His skin is a sickly yellow. He looks weak with illness. His eyes are utterly beautiful: green, framed with thick lashes. And incredibly, his smile reaches them still. He stands there like a ghost, watching. When it’s time to go, I walk up to him and my arms open slightly. His do too. I’m not sure who draws who, but we hug. He grips me tightly. Someone tells me later that he has his eyes closed. It’s in that hug that the threads come together. That’s when I know this is right. If we can help one child escape this, that’s everything. And I wish it were this green eyed boy who clings on so powerfully. This boy I will never forget. This boy I will pray for every day. But it most likely will be another or another or another. There are so many of them. So many.
We finish clearing land in time to see some of the guys we had met the previous day arrive with their shelters and tents. We know that something good has happened. They cheer as they arrive in this “safe zone”. This new home. Well, for now at least. As I write this, I’m in the office and I’m still weaving it all together, still processing it all. I’ve spent three measly days there. Trying to get back to normal life is hard. I see things through changed eyes. I think of the stories of the kids we work with and I know them now in a way I didn’t before. I can smell the places they’ve been. I can see what my home must look like: strange and comfortable – but uncomfortably so. I can share in their sighs of relief to be out of that place. I can picture the dreams that claw their way in in the dead of night. I barely know the half of it. But there are questions I won’t need to ask now. Some things I won’t have to wonder about. Maybe a child will sense that. Maybe they’ll feel at home. Maybe they’ll feel loved. Maybe they’ll close their eyes, even for a moment, while we hold them in this blanket we’ve woven.
The forthcoming edition of The Fostering Network members’ quarterly magazine, Foster Care, explores the current refugee crisis in Europe, how it impacts foster care and tips for people caring for UASC.
I get back from Calais absurdly happy to see my family and determined to see this fostering thing through to its conclusion, to its beginning.
It’s just as well because we are straight back into things. It starts with the small matter of a trip to the doctor for our medical assessments. Eastern Fostering Services (the fostering agency) provided us with the forms which we filled in and dropped to the surgery. An appointment was given and hey presto, I find myself slightly sleep deprived, weeing into a pot and answering the usual bland health questions. The long and short of it is that I am fit and healthy and so, it turns out, is my husband Jim. It’s all very routine. Right up to the point, that is, where the doctor seems to make some clandestine analysis as to the completeness of my mental faculties. Evidently he finds my faculties lacking.
‘Your children are still quite young. Deep breath. It’s a great thing to do of course. Breathe out. Very challenging though. Another one. And your children are young still aren’t they?’
I’m pretty certain what he means is: ‘Your kids haven’t even hit puberty; you think you’ve got this parenting thing sufficiently licked to take on another child. You’re deluded. You know nothing. You’re in for a shock.’
I wonder momentarily if he’d be saying the same thing if I was pregnant with a third child, though I recognise this is not a particularly helpful path to go down at present.
The fact is that I’ve detected this undertone in a few of the responses to the news that we’re hoping to foster. People I’ve known for a long time have surprised me. Some have asked me, in that same constipated voice, ‘oh and what do your boys think?’ As if I’ve somehow bulldozed them with fostering, as if I am doing something cruel. As if fostering were a chastisement and not an opportunity for growth.
So I am relieved when our assessor arrives a day later and announces that this week she’ll be talking to the children. Without us.
The kids are alright
The children spend a nice long time with the assessor and during that time (we later find out) the boys demonstrate an impressive grasp of what fostering involves, a philosophical approach as to what we can all expect, ‘there’s a lot we won’t know until we do it’ and a clear affection for their bulldozing parents. It also transpires that Ben and Theo love and irritate each other as much as they do Jim and I. All normal then.
None of this means that we have the parent thing licked. Of course we don’t. We get things wrong. We lose our tempers. We look back and think we could have done that better. In short, we’re human.
That said, we have involved our children in every step of the process. We have given them the freedom and the space to raise their concerns. We have explained why we’d like to do this and we have been clear that at any point we will stop if the boys are unhappy. We are both aware that children like to please their parents and my boys are no different. They could just be trying to keep us happy. After all, they know how much this means. But that’s a hard game to play for long and we’ll be watching them closely. And so will our assessor. For the moment she is happy.
Jim and I are next.
Mr and Mrs
This week we’re looking at our relationship. Our history. Our marriage. What we think of each other. What works. What we need to work at.
Jim looks terrified. His look says: ‘Is this marriage counselling?’He eyes the front door with something like longing.
I guess thisis a little like marriage counselling. Once the assessor has spoken to us separately, we all get together and she shares what we’ve both said. As a couple, how often do you sit back and consider the things you like about each other, the tough times you’ve got through, the reasons you work together? How often do you reflect at all? The answer is of course that you don’t. You just get on with things. But today as we laugh about the things we’ve said about the other, there is reflection. There is an acknowledgment that whilst as humans we are imperfect, our marriage is imperfect, we are a good team. And what’s more we like each other, as long as Jim isn’t hanging out the washing and as long as I’m not offering my advice on how said washing could be hung out in a way more conducive to drying. The assessor thinks it’s funny that we have both mentioned the washing as being a source of acute irritation. She thinks it’s funny that Jim cried at Shrek. That he regularly leaves Christmas presents on trains. She even laughs that my tendency towards control freakery is clearly laughed off and undermined at every turn by the three boys of the house. She is determined that all of this will go into our assessment form. The form F.
I start to wonder what that F really stands for.
Eastern Fostering Services
Unit 1E, The Gattinetts, Hadleigh Road, East Bergholt, Suffolk CO7 6QT
Call Us: 01206 299775 Email Us: firstname.lastname@example.org