One month it’s a lying, stealing teenager, the next a little boy afraid of crowds and tomatoes. How does it feel, not knowing which strangers’ child will come through your door next?
Today we waved goodbye to Ruby and her two babies, one of whom was born during the four months they stayed with us. I knew I would cry, but I’m surprised at how emotional Ruby is. This tough-seeming 16-year-old buries every emotion, just as she hides her body under a thick duffel coat. As I hug her, she heaves with silent sobs and the last glance she throws me from the front of the social worker’s car is desperate. She texts me before they reach the end of the road – “Thks 4 evrythg u done 4 me. Com n c me soon.”
Ruby is heading into the great unknown world of the mother and baby unit. This is her last chance to prove herself an adequate mother, and she knows it. A huge responsibility to have on your shoulders when you are this young and when your family are seriously dysfunctional. Ruby’s dad is in prison. Her uncle is persistently trying to initiate a sexual relationship with her. Her mum doesn’t want to know about Ruby or her babies unless Ruby’s benefits have arrived, then she suddenly appears, all charm and concern, and drags Ruby off into town for a shopping trip. While they are off spending, the babies have to be left with us, according to the terms of the placement. They came into care when the 18-month-old was physically assaulted by Ruby’s boyfriend, and there are concerns over Ruby’s ability to keep him and his brother safe. Ruby returns late in the evening, no money left, having bought her mum a new coat, new shoes, cigarettes, beer. “Won’t see her again for a couple of weeks,” she says, then adds, “but I don’t care, she’s had a hard life. My nan bullied her when she was young.”
I try to suggest to Ruby that her mum is an adult and should be supporting her, not the other way round, but she won’t listen. She is desperate to win her mum’s love and approval, and her mum – damaged and consummately selfish – knows it and milks it. All my partner and I can do as foster carers is to provide a model of a healthily functioning family where our 12-year-old daughter is a child and behaves as such, and the adults, for the most part, behave responsibly.
For Ruby, this is the first time she has lived with people who don’t shout everything, don’t treat violence as a first resort, who listen to children, who eat together round a table. I can tell she finds us fascinating and peculiar. She is amazed that my partner cooks and cleans. She tags along on dog walks for the first few weeks, puzzled by my enthusiasm for trees and muddy pools. Gradually, she begins to ask questions: “Is that a tadpole up that tree?”; “Do sheep lay eggs?” Ruby isn’t stupid, but before she was out of nappies, her family had taught her that you don’t trust establishment figures such as doctors, police officers and teachers. So school was something to be endured, or bunked off from. Homework was something to be ignored, exams were something you didn’t turn up to. I can see the potential in her to do well – she is the only person in her family who has ever had a job – but without family support or, worse, with family interference, she is stymied at every turn.
We continue with what we hope is the positive “drip, drip” effect of living with us, but what can you do in four months? Her social worker, who crackles with stress like static off nylon tights, has told Ruby she should be parenting like us. We do as much as we can to guide her, but time is short. The battles we win are: getting her to agree that “shitbag” is not a good nickname for her child; getting her to take off her baby’s clothes when they are dirty, rather than putting a clean layer of clothes on top; and getting her to accept that one nappy won’t last a whole day. Ruby has the desire to change, but a day or even half an hour spent with members of her family sees her return to a shouting, blustering caricature of herself, with a swaggering walk and a fuck-you attitude. The sweetness I see in her interactions with her children at home is replaced with a negligent “kids are a bloody nuisance” approach.
Standing on the pavement waving her off today, I felt as though the placement might have been an exquisite torture for Ruby. We’ve shown her how things can be. I do have hope for Ruby, and I know that she loves her children, but I wonder how she will fare in the institutional setting of a mother and baby unit.
So the car disappears down the road and we walk back into a silent house. Relief is mixed with concern for Ruby. The stress of juggling her needs with those of my own family starts to lift. Normality returns, and we all enjoy it.
The inevitable period of readjustment is over and we are ready for another placement.
This month we have been asked to consider: a six-year-old with complex special needs who has broken every window in the house of her current carers – we say no thanks. A seven-year-old with Prader Willi syndrome who eats gravel and imitates police sirens when excited – we say yes, but his social workers choose more experienced carers. A mother and her baby, who has special needs, her partner, who has a drug and alcohol problem, and their cat. We say, “Are you joking?” Next in line are two teenage asylum seekers from Afghanistan – we say yes please. We are excited about the idea of a different cultural influence in our home. I start researching mosques and schools and halal meat suppliers in the area, but the social workers decide on more culturally appropriate carers.
We are buoyant one minute, downcast the next. We have been fostering for five years, and this is how it always goes in between referrals. The waiting game continues.
This is how a placement begins: Sarah is tiny, thin as a stick, with elfin features and a shy smile. She sits on our sofa next to her social worker (young and still enthusiastic) and her mum. She can’t live with her mum because, we are told, Mum is a recovering alcoholic and emotionally unstable. Sarah has been in care for the past two years and is leaving her current placement because of problems with her boyfriend (now in prison for armed robbery and drug dealing). She is 14. She tells us she likes to dance, listen to music, and when I ask what she likes to eat, she says, “Everything – KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King and Chinese.”
We feel good about this placement and agree to go ahead. Our daughter likes Sarah immediately; she seems compliant and polite and easy-going. Fellow foster carers will recognise this as the honeymoon period – when the child or young person is sizing you up and doing their best to fit in. Sometimes the honeymoon period doesn’t end – the placement fits the carers, everyone is happy. More usually, though, after a few weeks or a few months, the child begins to relax and believe they will be staying with you for a while. This can be a terrifying time for them – having a secure place within a family potentially requires them to cast off some of their attitude, bring down some of the barriers they have built. If they can’t bring themselves to trust you, the attitude is often amplified. They start to fulfil the prophecy that someone in their past has created, that they are worthless, unlovable. They act out, they challenge and fight. They destroy things in your home, they cause conflict between carers. If they can hammer in that final nail that ends the placement, then at least they are the ones in control. Anything is better than showing weakness by discussing their emotions, their past, their family.
Sarah has been with us for six weeks. She is still polite but irritants are beginning to creep into the relationship. She “borrows” my make-up and jewellery without asking. She makes calls in the early hours of the morning, despite a phone curfew of 11pm. She doesn’t get up for college, she misses her taxi, she spends her lunch money on cigarettes. All quite predictable teenage behaviour. She has a male friend, Vic, who visits every day. He seems pleasant enough, so we invite him to eat with us. Our dog, so much wiser than us, curls her lip at him whenever he slinks through the front door.
I take Sarah to see her grandmother one day and end up stopping for coffee. Sarah is glued to her mobile, formulating a plan to get hold of fake ID and go clubbing. I try not to listen, wondering what my legal responsibilities are here. I guess all I can do is advise her against going to the club and then let her make her choice. While I am sipping coffee with Granny, I receive a text from Ruby: ‘Wen u cming to visit? i miss u. dads out of jail and hes got a gun and he says he is goin to shoot my uncle. I hv stop bitting my fngr nails. Txt me bk.’ How do I reply to this? I make a mental note to inform the police and to send Ruby some nail polish.
While I am trying to order my thoughts, I realise Sarah’s grandmother is asking me something. “You’ve not had any problems with Terry, then?” she is saying. “You know – Sarah’s ex.” Apparently he got out of prison a few weeks ago. She tells me how Terry introduced Sarah to cocaine at the age of 12, and encouraged her to post pornographic images of herself online. I reassure her that Terry hasn’t shown his face, and remind her that Vic is now on the scene. She doesn’t know anything about Vic and as I start to describe him, she becomes twitchy, gives me a nervous smile and whispers, “I hate to tell you, love, but that’s Terry.” I feel cold and a little sick. “He’s a crack head, you know, or he was before he went to jail,” she adds. “Probably moved on to smack now.”
I drive home in a daze, take a wrong turn, panic, get flashed by a speed camera. Sarah is still attached to her mobile and doesn’t notice my silence. She heads off into town with friends while I breathlessly tell my partner the news. After the panic subsides, I feel incredibly angry that Sarah has lied to us.
My immediate reaction is that I want Sarah out of the house. Right away, no meetings, no negotiations, no middle ground. We decide to sleep on it, but both wake up feeling convinced it is the right move. Sarah’s social worker is away on holiday, so the two duty social workers who arrive at our house have never met her or us before. Sarah shows no remorse at being found out, and disappears to her room. Without being asked, she starts to pack. She does eventually apologise to us and gives us a hug goodbye. I retrieve my mobile phone, my charger, my hairbrush and a pair of boots from her luggage. We part with a smile. Her face looks tiny and white and pinched through the social worker’s car window. I feel like a failure.
A quiet month, no referrals, and it’s pleasant to go back to life without a teenager in the house. I have given up all other work to become a full-time foster carer, which means that between placements the time can drag. We attend training sessions on first aid and managing fostering allowances. I don’t believe anybody goes into fostering to get rich. Our allowance works out at approximately £2.14 per hour, per child – well below the £5.93 minimum wage. We are expected to spend 70% of the allowance on feeding, clothing, transporting and entertaining the children in our care. Although we are paid this amount for every hour of the day, even through the night, a mere 64p per hour is allocated to us for our time. You really do have to want to foster for reasons other than the income.
An emergency referral arrives in the shape of eight-year-old Dan. He stands on our doorstep, clutching one carrier bag of ill-fitting clothes. This is the worst kind of start to a placement. Dan has come from a local authority a couple of hundred miles from where we live. They have a chronic shortage of foster carers in the area and have been forced to cast the referrals net the length and breadth of the country. Dan has complex special needs and is extremely vulnerable. There is no social worker with him, only Steve, a frazzled-looking emergency foster carer who wants to drop Dan and turn tail.
So here, suddenly, is Dan – dirty, crawling with headlice, with one pair of jogging pants and shoes so broken you wouldn’t put them on a scarecrow. No coat, no pyjamas, no background notes, nothing. I am livid with Steve and the social worker, who, coincidentally, I can’t get hold of on the phone.
We have a steep learning curve with Dan, who has violent temper tantrums when people don’t understand him. He is scared of crowds and tomatoes. He insists on calling my partner Bingo. He likes to pretend he is a cat, and I attach a stripy pipecleaner “tail” to the back of his trousers which has the twofold effect of delighting him and reminding him which way to put them on. Dan’s social worker is nice but needy. She asks if we can keep him for two to three weeks, maybe longer. She doesn’t visit Dan to check on his progress or to see if our house and family is suited to him. Her telephone calls always end up being about her problems – illness, family issues, broken windscreen wipers.
Three weeks later and we have fallen in love with this eccentric little character. I phone Dan’s social worker to say we have found the perfect school for him when she drops the bombshell: Dan’s father is insisting on contact and a foster placement closer to home, and the judge handling this case has agreed. I explain, as best I can, to Dan that he has to go to live somewhere else, and that this is not our choice. His understanding is limited. He throws toys around the room and won’t be comforted.
Two days later, I get a call from Dan’s social worker saying that the decision has been reversed and Dan can stay with us for the time being. We are delighted, he is delighted. Everything calms down again. Four days later, the social worker calls again, in tears. There were crossed wires, and it has been very distressing for her, but she is phoning to say that Dan does have to move placements and that some unknown social worker will be arriving tomorrow to pick him up.
Again I explain to Dan that he has to leave and again he is tearful, but now slightly disbelieving. We pack up his toys and clothes, and have him ready for the journey the following day. Our daughter is very upset, we are all in shock. When the social workers arrive, Dan throws a chair at them, then runs into the bathroom screaming. I find him curled up on the bath mat, his neck suddenly covered in livid red hives. This is the worst, most traumatic ending to a placement. We are left feeling furiously angry with the local authority, the parents, the social worker, the judge.
You can’t predict which children will touch you the most, or how you’ll cope when they leave. An ending can be bittersweet if you know the child is going to a permanent and loving home. This ending leaves us traumatised and, without wanting to sound melodramatic, grieving. One minute Dan is here, running around, causing mayhem, the next he is gone. The hardest thing to accept is that there will be no further contact between us in case it prevents him settling somewhere new. In an instant, the child goes from being a family member to being a memory.
It has been two weeks since Dan left and we are still reeling, feeling the gap in our family. We drive to Pembrokeshire with our daughter and do lots of walking on the beach, in the rain. Time to think. Our daughter cannot understand why Dan had to leave, and why we can’t even meet up with him occasionally. She has a clearcut child’s sense of the unfairness of the system. She finds it incredible, as we do, that the parents of these children, even after neglecting, abusing, abandoning them, still have the right to dictate the details of the placement. It’s a constant source of frustration that the children in the care system appear to have far fewer rights than the people who have let them down.
Friends regularly ask us why we foster. The answer from my partner, Mr Practical, is – we’ve got the space, we’ve got the love and there is a desperate need. On a purely selfish level, he adds, it makes him feel better about himself.
My answer is – we love children and were both lucky enough to have had unconditionally loving, warm parents. At some point in our younger lives, I guess we made the discovery that not every child has this same nurturing experience. Maybe that sowed the seeds for us becoming carers.
Without wanting to sound like saintly do-gooders (which we are very far from), we both feel that society has some collective responsibility for these children. We are able to take on a tiny part of that responsibility, so we do. We also get a lot of pleasure from watching the children in our care make progress, learn to trust a little, become children again.
Things get easier again. We still think about Dan and wonder how he is doing. I receive a lovely letter from his new carer, telling us he has settled well. We start to move on emotionally.
Another call, another emergency placement, but this time a very different experience. Can we take four-year-old twins Tom and Phoebe? They are coming to us from a background of neglect, violence and chaos. They are severely traumatised and need a therapeutic, warm environment, somewhere they can feel safe. At the initial meeting, the children’s social worker claims to know very little about actual family life for the children.
The children arrive the following day. Their skin and hair are dull, and they both have hugely swollen stomachs. Junk food, lack of food, we don’t know why. Tearful and terrified, they are left by the social worker, whose parting shot is, “It’s all for show, they’re not real tears.”
These two are as tight-knit as it comes. They shadow each other around the house for the first few days and whisper in corners. They don’t look to me or my partner for food, hugs, reassurance, help or guidance. Neither of them cries when they hurt themselves and they seem bewildered by our efforts to comfort them.
As time passes, the children begin to relax a little. They are food obsessed. I find them eating food off the floor, out of the bin, out of the pets’ bowls. We have a standoff about vegetables – they don’t seem to know what they are and they won’t eat them. I stick to my “no vegetables, no dessert” rule and they finally give in. They often seem strangely quiet on their way to contact with their parents, and agitated on their return. They always come back laden with presents, clothes and sweets.
We are six weeks into the placement. Rather than sticking to each other like shadows, the children have started to stick to me. They follow me from room to room to room. They listen outside the toilet and the bedroom, and wait for me. They watch through the door hinges and eavesdrop on our conversations. If our daughter sits next to me, they try physically to force their way between us, insanely jealous of our closeness. They sit silently watching me prepare food. They are unable to play with toys or other children. Tom steals jars of Marmite, bread and jam, and hides them in his bedroom. Classic behaviour of neglected children, the social worker tells us.
One day at bath time, Tom asks me when I am going to play with his genitals. I wonder if I have misheard, but write it down in my daily logbook. He asks me again, a few days later, using explicit movements to accompany his request. This becomes a regular occurrence and a whole new level of stress starts to build within me. The social worker shows no surprise when I tell her what Tom has been saying – she has an “OK, I’m busted” look on her face. She admits there is a history of intergenerational incest within the family. Something the local authority decided we didn’t need to know before we took on the placement. When I pull the social worker up on it, she says, “Would it have stopped you accepting the placement if you’d known?” I can’t answer this.
Tom’s anxiety about contact with his parents increases. So this becomes my impossible daily routine: Tom tells me more horrific details of abuse, towards him and his sister, I reassure him, calm him down, then send him off for contact with his abusers. He comes back devastated and angry. He starts to become challenging and destructive, breaking toys, harming our pets. He becomes so sexualised towards me that I have to create physical distance between us. The local authority just keep telling me to record everything that’s said, and to wait.
Christmas is a joyless affair, the children are deflated and miserable, we are exhausted. Even a perfect snowfall doesn’t excite them. Tom hates the texture of snow and the noise it makes under his boots. He and Phoebe stand and stare at us throwing snowballs, building snowmen, lying on our backs and making snow angels. They tearfully beg to go back indoors, unable to embrace this change in their environment. Change is something that terrifies them, threatening to tip them back into the chaos of their former home life.
Phoebe has started talking about the abuse, independently of Tom. The children choose to speak to me and not my partner as he is out of the house working from eight to six every day. Our daughter is starting to feel pushed out and neglected. I am struggling to spend quality time with her and to shield her from the details of the abuse, which Tom and Phoebe bring up at the most inopportune times – during dinner, in the shops, while we are swimming. I feel I am at breaking point. Finally, the local authority call a meeting with the police. Contact with the parents is suspended while the allegations are investigated.
By now, I am hearing almost daily allegations against the parents. I can’t seem to think or talk about anything apart from the children. When my partner and I manage to get a babysitter, all we do is go out and talk about the children. We are both feeling overwhelmed, drained. I have a constant, gnawing headache and low-level nausea. This sort of stress sits on your shoulders and pummels you slowly into the ground. Respite, we are told, is tricky, because the children are so vulnerable.
The disclosures start to have an added, destructive effect on my relationship with my partner. I am suddenly able to associate sex only with horror and abuse. I don’t want him anywhere near me. On really bad days, I feel as if I will never be able to be physically intimate with him again. He feels frustrated, not understanding my coldness. We are able to talk to a counsellor, but my partner cannot understand the impact of what the children have been saying to me. “Just listen, write it down and move on, think about something else,” he keeps saying. As if it were that easy. I hate him for his healthy ability to compartmentalise things in this way.
I find myself being irritable with our daughter and regarding her as a selfish, spoilt child, when actually she is neither. This placement is starting to corrode every relationship within our family. And not just within our family – I feel alienated from the cosy reality of my friends’ lives when I meet up with them, angry that they are occupied with the normal trivia of what to put in their children’s lunchboxes, which colour to paint their lounge. I am just angry, angry, angry, and angriest of all with the parents who have wrecked Tom and Phoebe’s lives.
After a five-week break, the police have finished their investigation. The CPS and the police have decided the children are too young and too traumatised to give evidence in court. With no proof of abuse, the judge decides that contact should resume, at a reduced rate. Our household, which was already wobbling under the pressure, threatens to implode.
Tom has nightmares, Phoebe is anxious, tearful, terrified of her own shadow. I feel as if I am going mad. The children have clearly stated to me and to their social worker that they never want to see their parents again, but in law they are deemed too young to be able to make such decisions. I appeal to the children’s legal guardian to step in and speak to the judge about the damaging effect of contact. The guardian’s role is to speak for the children within the court arena, especially when the children’s wishes differ from those of their parents. The guardian, who has spent approximately 30 minutes with Tom and Phoebe in the past four months, explains that, in the high courts, he has very little power. So the children’s future is governed by the word, the experience and the prejudice of one man – the judge. He has never met the children. He has never spoken to us. This is, supposedly, child-centred British justice.
Everything turns around in the space of a few days. Help comes from unexpected but very welcome places. Nursery staff, the childminder and health visitor all contact the children’s social worker to report their concern at the change in the children’s behaviour. The pages and pages of written evidence we have presented to the local authority in the shape of our logbook has no weight compared with the combined voices of these professionals. We don’t care, we are just so relieved that those voices are being listened to. The local authority is able to go back to court and secure another suspension of contact for the immediate future.
We have reached a kind of plateau. We can begin the task again of caring for these children. We are able to arrange respite for a weekend, and begin to feel sanity creeping back into our lives. We have time with our own daughter, which feels incredibly precious. Equilibrium is regained. For how long… Who knows? We are taking life a day at a time.
The events of the past 12 months have left us feeling a bit battered, a lot sadder, a lot wiser. Despite the stresses, we are still fostering. Tom and Phoebe have been adopted by a caring family. It’s amazing how quickly you begin to bounce back. Our spare bedroom remains empty but not, I think, for long.
• Names and identifying details have been changed.