Eastern Fostering Services Blog
The Early Years - Eastern Fostering Services
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.
An Assessor Calls - Eastern Fostering Services
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 Training - Eastern Fostering Services
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
Foster Caring - The Application Form - Eastern Fostering Services
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.