Eastern Fostering Services Blog
The Fostering Approval Panel - Eastern Fostering Services
Today we had our last information gathering session with Stef, our assessor. Next week she’ll have the first draft of the Form F for us to look at and comment on. It feels like we’re coming to the end of something, but I know that it is in fact the start line we’re approaching. There is a huge blank canvas stretching before us and I am at once excited and terrified.
There is of course one thing to get through first – panel. Appearing in front of the approval panel is a daunting experience for anyone. For me it is no different despite the fact that I have served as a panel member.
Now that the information on us has been gathered, everything is about presenting us to the panel. The first thing that will happen will be that the completed Form F will be sent to each of the five (minimum) panel members. They will attempt to stay interested for long enough to read it. I joke. They will read it and probably reread it. They will pick out any areas that they feel are of potential concern or that they feel they need to know more about. They will be thinking about what they’d like to grill us on at panel. On the day of Panel, before we arrive they will close themselves into a room and agree which questions they are going to ask (usually about five or six but there may be more if there are areas for concern). Then Jim and I will be called in to answer them in a suitably convincing way. This concerns me. If I could somehow engineer Jim to come down with a voice-jacking form of laryngitis or if the use of duct tape was permitted or perhaps even if we could answer questions using the medium of interpretive dance, I would possibly feel better. But the answering of questions is an unavoidable fact of the panel experience. More’s the pity.
Winning friends and influencing people…
Let me just explain. I have no doubt that Jim will make an excellent foster carer. He is a brilliant dad and a fantastic person – truly. But Jim has this “thing”. It’s to do with job interviews or indeed any situation where he is called upon to impress someone. He’s had numerous disastrous interviews (not as numerous as the disastrous dates but that’s for another time) including one for which he was a month early and one that was called to a confidence-shattering halt after five minutes (a mercy that very few of the date disasters afforded him). What happens in these situations is that Jim starts to act as if he’s featuring in his very own multiple choice personality quiz. You know, the ones that list a choice of actions, none of which any sane person would ever select even in the most desperate of circumstances:
Q: You are in an interview scenario and feeling incredibly nervous and unsure of yourself. Do you:
a) Behave in a way that suggests extreme arrogance topped with a liberal sprinkling of cock-suredness?
b) Make ridiculously inappropriate jokes that in no way reflect your character in an attempt to “win them over”?
c) Adopt the “I don’t give a rat’s backside what you think of me” stance with stunning effectiveness?
d) All three?
So the Form F needs to be good.
And this is what is behind Stef’s thinking at this final fact-finding session.
Go with the flow
Over the last couple of months we’ve covered a good deal of ground with respect to the form F. We’ve answered endless questions about our childhood, our views on parenting, our relationship, our children, our values, our faith, our mental health, our highs, our lows. We’ve also done lots of work on the theory of fostering, working through the Skills to Foster material. We’ve read books and articles and attended training. Stef has been diligently collecting all of this and cramming it into the Form F with undiminished enthusiasm.
And now she is looking at it through the eyes of a panel member. She’s asking us some of the trickier questions to fill the gaps. She’s asking us to elaborate on some of the answers we’ve given. As well as giving Stef the opportunity to produce a really thorough Form F, this also gives Jim and I some much needed practise for panel. We fall into a pattern, which can be expressed rather nicely in a simple flowchart.
Stef asks Jim a question > Jim says “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember” > Lucy prompts Jim with a few well-placed cues > Jim responds with eloquence and feeling > Stef looks pleased > Jim looks even more pleased > Lucy mops her brow
Is it a panel proof flowchart I wonder….
Safer Foster Caring - Eastern Fostering Services
Safer caring is the means by which foster carers can ensure the safety and well-being of children and young people. Because the business of foster caring happens in the home of the carer, safer caring also aims to protect the well-being of carers and their families. It covers a broad range of themes, such as forming healthy attachments, dealing with difficult behaviour appropriately, ensuring the protection of each member of the household and minimising the risk of allegations made against carers.
‘But what does that mean in practise?’ Jim and I ask our assessor, Stef.
The Safer Caring guidance is provided by The Fostering Network but each agency will have their own plan template. The plan we’re being asked to think about and complete is divided into 18 subject headings. Under each heading you state what you will do to minimise the risk of harm for the child, yourselves as carers and your family.
A rose by any other name?
‘For instance,’ says Stef. ‘Under the section “Names” you will want to be clear about all the names you use for each other. Do any of you have nicknames, for example? This helps a child to make sense of who everyone is and who you’re referring to. Also, you need to ensure that you’re using the right name for the child who comes into your family.’
This may sound like a bizarrely obvious thing to say but you’d be surprised. In the case of asylum seeking children, quite often names are misspelt, mispronounced or misinterpreted. In my work at Eastern Fostering Services (EFS), I’ve seen the same child be referred to using three differently spelt names. Sometimes also the child is known by their middle name and not their first name. The obvious is not always obvious.
Benedict (usually known as Ben) chooses this moment to rush into the room and make an announcement.
‘Mu-um Theo just called me a Dumbass!’
I kid you not. I sometimes wonder whether this isn’t just some big conspiracy the kids have cooked up, a bit like the time a few years ago when I’d told them both off for something. Half an hour later I’d found them working beautifully together on a new “project”. This collaboration turned out to involve a surprising amount of tripwire and one common enemy: me.
‘Dumbass probably won’t be one of the recognised names on our safer carer policy.’ I add, settling Benedict/Ben back to his homework.
Back to the safer caring plan.
Time for a cover up
‘You’ll also need to think about bedrooms. What are the rules about entering other people’s bedrooms? What about using the bathroom? Is the door going to be closed? Do you emerge fully dressed etc. You’ll need to think about masturbation…’
I see Jim visibly relax when he realises Stef is referring to the masturbatory habits of the young person and not him. Although Stef makes the point that our privacy and intimacy needs to be taken into consideration in the plan. Who said romance is dead?
We discuss the importance of showing affection to children but that this affection must be consensual and appropriate. We talk about leaving some doors open and making sure other doors are closed. We talk about the importance of cultivating an open and honest environment.
It is at this point that the second half of “Plan: Undermine The Parents” is implemented, this time by Theo. He enters the room in his pyjamas, sits himself down on the sofa and nods regally at us. For a moment, I am so struck by his majestic poise that I fail to notice the pair of pants on his head.
Little does he know that I could actually hug him right now for not coming in stark naked. I am not going to tell him this though. That would be suicide. Instead Theodore/Theo/Captain Underpants is dispatched with a book and the conversation continues.
My view is that the plan is common sense. It makes sense that you can limit the possibility of an allegation being made against you by a child if you can ensure that interaction happens out in the open rather than behind closed doors. It makes sense that you would be intentional about who is allowed in whose bedroom. It also makes sense that you would be intentional about noticing, hearing and understanding the child or young person and the things that occupy them. Being able to have conversations about sex, sexuality, drugs, self-harm, bullying, relationships, faith, privacy, family is important because it potentially affords the carer the ability to safeguard more effectively. Equally, setting clear family rules and practical boundaries helps everybody understand what is expected and with that comes confidence for every member of the household.
And none of this is lost on Jim/Jimbo/James I discover later that evening as he summarises things with the sort of smugness that surrounds someone who has grasped something both complex and critical.
‘So basically, I need to get a dressing gown?’
And I need to have a word with two small fiends who shall remain nameless…
Going Through The Fostering Application Process - Eastern Fostering Services
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.
The Jungle in Calais - Eastern Fostering Services
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.