Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

So it turns out we were right, and although we only put two presents under the tree for Peter to open this morning, he did get overwhelmed within an hour or two of getting up! He did really well though considering the changes to his routine, and how much sensory input he was getting from the new toys, different words (people saying Happy Christmas etc.) and music, and new smells and tastes that Christmas brings. We decided to have our big Christmas Dinner in the evening after he'd gone to bed, so Peter had familiar meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but he really surprised us by asking to try several new foods today including warmed mince pie and soy cream, pâté, a parmesan and garlic twist, and soy ice cream (you can see the sort of day we were having…)

Peter has many more presents to open, but we're going to spread them out over the next few days to help him to cope. He's a delightful person to give gifts to - he tears the wrapping paper carefully and examines each item inside including any packaging, instructions or booklets. Today he got genuinely excited opening a new blanket! Esmeralda's mum is here visiting for a few days and is completely smitten by him. He's definitely part of the family already!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

How little we know

Every time we've passed a certain fast food chain since Peter arrived with us he's pointed at the big yellow logo and looked excited, so on Sunday we decided to round off an excellent weekend by having a meal out. As we approached, Peter got more and more excited, and as we went through the doors he looked like he couldn't believe his luck. Peter's diet is quite limited due to some sensory issues around food so we didn't think fries or nuggets would go down too well, but he does enjoy nesquick, so I confidently ordered him a fish finger kids' meal to see if he'd try it, and a chocolate milkshake.

We sat down and started getting our food out of the paper bags, Peter looking on expectantly. He hasn't really got to grips with straws yet, but Esmeralda started him off on his milkshake, he took a few sips and everything seemed to be going well. That was until all the food was on the table and we started to eat.

Peter watched me as a I raised a chip to my mouth and made an indignant noise. I offered it to him, he batted it away. I picked up a nugget whilst he stared at it intently, I offered it to him, he glared at me and threw it on the floor. Esmeralda unwrapped the toy that came with the meal and hopped it across the table, and Peter didn't deign to look at it (I don't blame him, it was quite a disappointing toy). He picked up the paper bag that the food had come in and shuffled through the rubbish inside. We realised at this point that we had no idea what Peter's mum and dad used to order for him, so we didn't know what he was expecting and he couldn't tell us. We felt awful.

Esmeralda suddenly realised that we'd forgotten to pick up any sauces, so went over to the counter and brought back some BBQ and ketchup pots. I opened a pot of BBQ and dipped in a chip, and Peter suddenly looked hopeful and pointed at it, so I handed it to him. He licked off the sauce, made a face and dropped the chip as though it was poison. He reached over to the table, picked up the fish fingers that had come with his meal and poked them. Esmeralda wondered whether he wanted to try them, and dipped one in some ketchup. Peter's face lit up, he licked the ketchup off the fish finger and handed it back for Esmeralda to dip again. He finished the whole pot of ketchup and then sat back in his buggy and was happy to move on.

Trial and error is a big part of fostering, especially when you consider how little we know about children's lives before they arrive with us and the fact that many are developmentally unable to tell us things that really matter to them. I'm glad we got it right this time, although I don't think we'll be going out for lunch and ordering Peter just ketchup very often!

Monday, 9 December 2013

O Christmas Tree

Christmas can be a very difficult time for foster families. There are so many traditions wrapped up in the festivities, and each one can be a trigger to foster children that reminds them of past Christmases at home with their parents. These could be good memories, as every family has their good times together, or they could be bad memories. What may be a harmless glass of wine with dinner on Christmas Eve could be a reminder of a Christmas Day spent without food or presents whilst their parents slept off the alcohol from the night before. Watching a foster sibling open a much longed for present could be a reminder that at home presents were given as bribes or rewards for abuse. A fleeting comment about burnt turkey or lumpy gravy could be a reminder of an argument that turned into domestic violence.

Even if there are no bad memories, adverts are constantly telling us that Christmas is a time for families, and children may be aware that other children are allowed to spend the holiday season with their parents and they are not. Contact around Christmas can be very painful and confusing for both parents and children, as they exchange gifts and try to have their celebration in the strange environment of the contact centre.
(This is for children with autism, but I suspect that one for fostered children would look quite similar)

This is our first Christmas with a child in placement. We don't know anything about Peter's past Christmases, and due to both this and his additional needs we weren't quite sure how to approach Christmas this year. Should we put up a tree and decorations? Should we do the big pile of presents under the tree? What about Christmas dinner? Would he enjoy visiting Father Christmas? How will he cope with other people opening presents in front of him?

In the end we've decided to go quite low key. We put up the tree yesterday (which Peter loved), but have put it at the back of the living room rather than the front, to avoid moving Peter's toys and so that he can choose to go near it or not. Peter has food anxieties so we're going to have our main meal and open our own presents in the evening on Christmas Day after he's gone to bed, and we're going to gradually spread out his presents over a few days (and leave some unwrapped) and see how it goes rather than having a big overwhelming pile of gifts. Esmeralda's mum is coming to stay over Christmas week and is being very understanding of the fact that it's going to be a bit different this year.

Peter's making so much progress that next year will probably be completely different, and he may well cope with a bigger build up with talk of Father Christmas and presents under the tree. Of course, as foster carers we don't know exactly what our family will look like next year - we may have one or two more children with us (and a labradoodle if Esmeralda has anything to do with it!) so will need to consider their needs too. Whilst we'll incorporate our family traditions, Christmas will more than likely be different every year!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The right thing to say

We were doing some shopping in Sainsburys this afternoon, and were just at the till packing up, when Esmeralda noticed an older gentleman tutting behind her. She apologised and moved to the side as she thought maybe she was in his way.
"Oh it's not you that's bothering me, it's whoever that belongs to," he said, gesturing to the side and sneering.
"That" was Peter, sitting beautifully, strapped into one of the trollies made for older children, staring into space and tapping his foot gently on a sign.
"Oh, he's mine," said Esmeralda, completely shocked.
"Oh it's a boy is it?" the man replied.
The man then leaned down to Peter and stared into his face. "Smile!" the man said. Peter ignored him.
"It's not even going to smile then," the man said to me, sneered again and walked off. I wanted to run after him and punch him or have him arrested for just being a horrible person, but in the moment I had no words.

It was one of those situations where you can think of a hundred things to say after the event that would have been appropriately cutting and witty and showed the man up for who he was... but the moment passed, the man walked off and we'd said nothing.

I still don't know what the right thing to say would have been - something to set a good example, that would have shown Peter that it's unacceptable to treat people like that, and that we will always be there to stand up for him. Hopefully he doesn't remember it, and hopefully these moments and ignorant people will be few and far between.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Age appropriate behaviours

Peter has been living with us nearly five weeks now, and we're really proud of how much progress he's making. He's very delayed in most areas but it can be difficult to judge some things, as even some "normal" four year old behaviours can have very different meanings when taken in the context of Peter's past experiences, additional needs and high stress/anxiety levels when he arrived. We're now starting to see:

Pushing boundaries - he's testing Esmeralda and I to make sure that we always react the same way to his behaviour, so that he feels safe and secure. Unpredictability, inconsistency, anger etc. from adults are all very frightening, so he needs to know we're going to be calm, consistent and in control.

Refusing main meals in favour of pudding - this is actually a massive breakthrough for Peter (although can be annoying for us!) and means that he now trusts us enough that we will continue to provide him with food.  In common with many children in care, food has been one of his big anxieties and he's taking a risk refusing a meal, but he feels secure enough in our daily routine that the next meal will appear as usual.

Running off in the park… and returning! - this is another huge breakthrough and is still nerve wracking each time we test it by continuing to walk and pretending that we're not looking to see where he is. He's getting to know that we are "his" safe adults and wants to return to us.

Independent play when out of the house - this has only really started in the last week. He now no longer needs to always keep us by his side or in sight, and will go off and play by himself for short bursts at soft play. When he wants company or help, he will come and fetch us (usually both of us) and lead us by the hand. He likes to walk with each of us holding one of his hands, it's very sweet!

Imaginative play - this is a big thing for Peter specifically, as his diagnosis of severe autism means this sort of play would usually be unlikely. We've seen him pretending to cook and taste his concoctions on a toy kitchen, he pushes cars and trains around, flies helicopters, planes and rockets in the air and gallops toy horses across the floor.

And the big one… tantrums! Progress is being made here too as he settles. We're noticing a shift to less "meltdown" type tantrums, and more "goal oriented" tantrums, which are completely age appropriate. I never thought I'd get excited about a child shouting and screaming before, but when it's about something he wants but can't have or something he's not allowed to do, he responds to the behaviour being ignored, calms relatively quickly without assistance and accepts a natural consequence (i.e. the TV stays off until all the toys you've just tipped out are tidied up), then we consider it a success!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Long term fostering

Peter's social worker has been in court for the past week discussing Peter and his siblings' futures, and has now confirmed that he'll be staying with us as a long term placement. Long term fostering is completely different to short term fostering. There are many positives, not least of which the fact that it gives the child stability and a permanent home, as there would have to be an extreme reason for a child to leave a long term placement.

Contact with his birth family will be greatly reduced to help him settle. As a comparison - Jack-Jack and Andy as short term placements both had contact three times per week, whereas the average child in a long term placement will see their birth parents around 2-4 times per year. This will give us far more freedom, as we can make normal family plans without worrying about working around frequent contact.

We will be able to move Peter to a local school which will open up opportunities for local friendships, play dates and birthday parties for him as he gets older, and will drastically cut down his travel time, giving him the chance to participate in after school activities.

Many support services and therapies such as CAMHS will only accept a referral once a child has either been adopted or is settled in a long term and stable placement, as the levels of heightened anxiety in a child who doesn't know what the future holds make working with them to help them understand their experiences and feelings very difficult.

We as foster carers will be able to make more decisions (this is known as delegated authority) without checking with Peter's social worker, or getting his parents' permission. Things like school trips, sleepovers at friends' houses, trips to see family, holidays and haircuts become easier as we won't need to wait to get a form signed.

We had an unusual reaction yesterday when someone asked us how long Peter was going to stay with us. They said how sad it was, as once he reaches 18 he'll be kicked out and on his own. I reassured them, as we will reassure Peter as he grows - I very much doubt he'll move out at 18 unless he's off to university, he definitely won't be kicked out, and when he does move out he'll always be welcome wherever we are!

It's not adoption - we're not Peter's parents, his social worker is still heavily involved, and we will continue to be paid an allowance from the local authority towards the cost of caring for him (I'm not going to pretend that this covers everything, because it doesn't!) We will work with Peter to encourage a continued and positive relationship with his birth parents, siblings and other relatives. However, this is where he will spend the rest of his childhood and adolescence, this is his home, and our network of family and friends will love and support him alongside us as he grows up.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Life with our 4 year old

Just as I was starting to write this post, I thought I'd check something in my "Fostering" folder on the computer. This is where we save all our meeting reports, training certificates, finances, diaries etc. relating to fostering. Cue a massive panic - no sign of the folder and we have a meeting tomorrow that I need to prepare for. Five minutes later I discover that Peter has somehow renamed the folder "bvbv" and moved it to the other side of the desktop. Panic over, time to password-lock the computer!

We had a great half term together building trust and making memories. Peter is a funny, creative, independent, playful, determined little guy with a cheeky sense of humour! He is sensory-seeking, which for him means that he likes very loud sounds, licks random things, chews his fingers/cuffs/zip pulls, and loves for us to stroke his skin. We're getting to know his likes, dislikes and triggers, and he's learning our few house rules. He really wants to communicate and his speech is coming on in leaps and bounds with words getting clearer all the time and new words being added to his vocabulary every day, it's so exciting to watch. We've felt privileged to be part of all our foster children's lives, but with Peter even more so as we hope that he'll be with us long term, and we'll be able to see him grow and progress into the adult he's meant to be.

I know it's cheesy to say, but this really is one of the most rewarding jobs on the planet.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Becoming the family of a child with special needs

Peter has been living with us for nearly a week now, and we've been spending the time getting to know each other and starting to build trust. We're trying to keep food and routines as similar as possible to the ones he was used to at his previous carers, and will make gradual changes over time as he settles in. Considering how big a change the move has been for him, he's doing fantastically well.

The hardest thing for us so far (apart from the fact that a 4 year old has lots of energy and doesn't nap!) has been nothing to do with Peter at all, it's been the reactions of others. Peter is developmentally delayed at the moment - he still uses a buggy whenever we leave the house, wears nappies, only says a few words, and using a dummy has been one of his coping mechanisms when he feels tired or overwhelmed. We're not concerned about any of this, and know that he will progress in time at his own pace, but it has been a bit of a shock to see so many people staring and giving us judgemental looks when they see us pushing a 4 year old in a buggy with a dummy in his mouth. We've even had some ignorant and outrageous comments from professionals who should really know better.

Thankfully there have also been a few lovely people, such as the lady at the soft play cafe who took time out of her day to try and connect with Peter, or the train driver who leaned out of his window to talk to us, and then honked the horn especially for Peter as the train left the station!

It's definitely a steep learning curve for us, and Peter is being very patient whilst we learn!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Starting introductions

We had a meeting with Peter's current carers and social worker this week, and shortly afterwards he came to our house for his first visit to start the introductions. He can be a bit unpredictable in new surroundings, so both we and his carers had prepared ourselves for the first visit not going well, but we needn't have worried. He came straight in and made a beeline for the toys we'd set out, and a few minutes later he was stretched out on the floor making himself comfy and doing a jigsaw with Esmeralda. He was calm and contented for the whole visit, and even sat himself on my lap when I got down on the floor to play with him.

We have two more visits scheduled, and then he's moving in towards the end of next week. His carers brought a carload of his stuff and there's still more to come - amazing how many belongings a four year old can accumulate.

So we're now entering the mysterious world of school - packed lunches, school photos, parents evenings, planning everything around school holidays, home/school books, washing paint stains out of uniform, getting ready by 8am, PE kits... It's quite exciting but does feel strange for us to jump straight from toddler groups and midday naps to school, having missed out on the terrible twos and nursery!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Why I love babywearing as a foster carer

Esmeralda and I are big advocates for babywearing. We own a variety of different slings and carriers - Jack-Jack was carried in one almost every day that he was with us, and had at least one of his daily naps in the carrier for the first few months as he found it difficult to settle in his cot. Even as he got older, if we were out over nap time the only chance we had of getting him to sleep was to pop him in a sling - on my front to start with, and then on my back as he grew too tall to see over. He loved it. From very young, as soon as he saw me pick up a carrier he'd squeal with excitement and crawl or walk over to me in expectation. Andy was also carried - firstly out of necessity on dog walks where we couldn't take the buggy, but he too obviously liked it, he'd come over and raise his arms to be carried if he saw me pick up "his" sling, and would occasionally ask to get out of the buggy and into the sling if we were out.

Neither boy was that fussed about standing still but were both happy to be carried for miles - Jack-Jack arrived in January and I spent hours of my life pacing up and down in the hallway at home when it was too cold to go outside and he was napping. I became quite adept at reading whilst walking, holding the book behind his head as he slept. The rocking motion of walking is so soothing to little ones, it never took him very long to drop off but he'd always wake up the moment I stopped walking!

Being in a sling doesn't have the same forced intimacy of a cuddle, hold or cradle, but at the same time it's fantastic to provide comfort and promote trust, attachment and bonding, particularly for a confused and anxious little person who has recently moved primary carer. There's no expectation of eye contact, or any communication at all, but it really does encourage little ones to engage much more than being sat in a buggy facing away from the carer would do. They're up in your eye line, so can see what you're pointing out as you're talking to them, and can communicate as much or as little as they feel comfortable. Even when on my back, Jack-Jack would be chattering, singing and trilling away to me constantly, whilst pointing over my shoulder to get my attention focussed on whatever he was looking at, or to let me know there was an interesting texture he wanted to reach out and touch. When tired, overwhelmed or over-stimulated, he would rest his head against me and shut out the world for a few minutes or fall asleep.

It was invaluable during separation anxiety or illness (it was the only way we could get any housework done at all at those times whilst giving Jack-Jack the security he needed), and for toddlers and preschoolers, particularly those who are fostered or adopted, it can help when they're going through periods of regression and need extra nurturing. Even though Peter's older, due to his additional needs we still intend to offer a carrier as an option for him, although it will be his choice of course.

Modern ergonomic carriers are so comfy and well designed, there are really no downsides to it. As an aside, although the child's weight is spread comfortably, a long walk is still a great workout for the person carrying which has got to be a bonus! I fully expect to have muscles of steel within a few months if I do end up regularly carrying a 4 year old...

Friday, 20 September 2013

No news is no news

We're still waiting to hear whether the logistics have been sorted out so that we can start planning Peter's move to us. In the mean time, the other day we received a call to take an emergency placement of three school-aged siblings. After a few deep breaths we said if needed we'd take them for a week or so until they could be found a suitable longer term placement. We were told that they could arrive at any time, so with Esmeralda at work I spent the afternoon running around like a mad thing preparing the house and putting together enough beds of the right sizes for the three children. When everything was ready I received a call from the duty team saying that other arrangements had been made and the placement was no longer required.

It's only been just over a week that we haven't had a child placed with us but it feels like such a long time! We've been spending our time going out for breakfast, doing online training courses and reorganising cupboards. Hopefully we'll have more news on Monday.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Fostering before having your own children

When we initially looked into fostering, we wondered whether not having previously had our own children would count against us in the assessment, but in reality we found the opposite was true. Our social worker Jane and her manager both seemed quite excited by us - here was a couple who could focus all their attention and energy on fostering as they had no other children to distract them. We were convinced of the benefits too, and looked forward to a new life as foster carers whilst planning to add to our family by other means later on.

Now that we're getting on for our first annual review and have said goodbye to two foster placements our outlook is somewhat different, and at the moment we would caution anyone who was considering short-term fostering without also having had their own birth/adopted children, or without any foster children on permanency.

There's very little I can say that can accurately describe how it has felt since Jack-Jack has moved out. Of course we miss him, but it's much much more than that. The house feels empty and too quiet. There's no one shouting at us to wake up in the morning so we keep oversleeping, we've both been absolutely shattered (the intros really take it out of you) and haven't had the energy to cook so we haven't been eating as healthily as usual, plus there's no one to set a good example for! Without a child we both feel a bit like frauds right now and we've been avoiding the friends with children we've made since starting fostering.

Of course there's the practical aspect too - fostering is my full time job so between placements I have not only nothing to do, but no income, which makes it rather more difficult to do the things we haven't been able to do with a baby in the house, like going out for dinner, to the theatre or the cinema.

We didn't have any of this when Andy left. It wasn't easy and we missed him, but our routine didn't change as we still had Jack-Jack and his routine to focus on. It's made us want to look at bringing forward our plans for starting a family so that as we continue to foster and placements come and go, we'll have our own children to hold that bit tighter and appreciate that bit more.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

An end and a new beginning

Jack-Jack has now moved to his new home, and although it hadn't been planned this way, we ended up meeting the little boy we hope will be our next placement the same day. Peter is four years old and has a high level of additional needs, but we're confident that we would be able to help him blossom and reach his potential. He's lovely, sociable and talented, and at the moment is functioning at around the level of a very young toddler, with all the frustrations and tantrums that go along with that. It's not definite that he'll move in with us yet as all the social workers are still involved in negotiations around the arrangements for school, contact and support services if the move was to go ahead. Fingers crossed, we have his room ready for him.

When Jack-Jack left, we started to get the house ready for the next child. With Peter in mind, we packed up all the baby toys, got out bits and pieces for older children like jigsaws and imaginative toys and reorganised the living room. We cleared out the larger spare room upstairs (it had been Andy's room but had turned into a bit of a dumping ground over the Summer,) made up the bed and put out a few books and ornaments to make it look welcoming. We took down the blackout blind from Jack-Jack's window, aired the room and moved the furniture. Overnight the house felt strange and empty, but it really helped that when we woke up, Jack-Jack's room wasn't just how he left it and there weren't loads of reminders around.

We've coped surprisingly well - we held it together throughout introductions and the final handover, and had a big cry whilst sorting through the old baby toys once it was all over. I'm sure we'll have many more over the next few days and weeks, but it's lovely to have someone new to focus on. Lady has actually been the most affected in the household in many ways as we couldn't explain anything to her - she was extremely unsettled over the last few days of introductions, and has been moping since Jack-Jack left. It feels very odd having so much freedom again (we took Lady for a walk after 6pm today which was absolutely unheard of whilst Jack-Jack was here as we were all about the bedtime routine), but we're trying to enjoy it and rest as much as we can before we embark on the next great adventure.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Moving on up

Jack-Jack's introductions with his parents are underway, and are going very well. His parents are honest, open and friendly which has made the process so much easier (they say the same about us!) and we're stepping back gradually to allow them to take over his care and start forming a bond with him. He's going through a wonderfully cuddly phase at the moment and Mummy and Daddy have both been treated to cuddles already which was so sweet to see. Everyone acknowledges that the situation is a bit awkward at times (who jumps up if he's touching something he shouldn't or is about to fall off something?) and will be hard on all of us in different ways, but we can already see what the life he'll lead might look like, and it's full of love which is ultimately all we ever wanted for him. Jack-Jack will meet his older sibling for the first time today and will spend the day together as a family, which might be a bit of a shock for both of them!

It turns out we didn't need to worry about having an empty nest - we've already had a call about another little boy who we think could be a very good match for our family. It would be a planned move as he's already in foster care, but he has various additional needs so we've got lots of questions for his social worker and current foster carer before we agree to take him - we need as much information as possible to ensure that we could make the placement a success and do our best to avoid any unnecessary moves.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Lives touched

Lately we've been having to tell people that it's probably the last time they'll see Jack-Jack. We chatted about it a while ago as so much in fostering is on a "need to know" basis, but decided that it would be unfair in most situations to tell people after he's gone, to give them the opportunity to work through their feelings rather than just saying out of the blue that he's left us. It's amazing how many people have been involved in his life since he's been here, even people we wouldn't previously have thought of. Most of these know we foster, but hadn't really put two and two together and truly realised that Jack-Jack would have to leave one day.

Our neighbour who has a child of a similar age was moved to tears when we told her, our cleaner who's known Jack-Jack since he was six months old was quite upset, our hairdresser who's been rooting for us since our first visit from our local authority and who did Jack-Jack's first haircut was shocked, Esmeralda's manager who's never even met Jack-Jack got emotional when she authorised Esmeralda's annual leave for the week of introductions, and friends and family who've welcomed Jack-Jack into their lives and love him as we do are obviously very affected too.

It's pretty awful every time. There seems to be an even split between people who try and put a positive spin on it - they look horrified and don't make eye contact whilst saying things like "oh how lovely, a new family", and those who have pity in their eyes and say "oh no" and "it must be so difficult". To the last comment we've just started saying "yes it is" and leaving it at that.

We've got the planning meeting for the introductions coming up, I think we'll both feel much more at ease after we know exactly what's happening and when, but right now we're a bit all over the place.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Life on hold

With Jack-Jack's upcoming adoption always in the forefront of my mind, I've noticed that I've recently stopped trying to help Jack-Jack progress. Almost unconsciously, I've taken a step back from actively teaching him and encouraging him to practise new skills (numbers, animal noises, body parts, signs etc.), as it would be so nice for his new parents to teach him these things and share in his achievements. His walking is coming on in leaps and bounds, but I've caught myself thinking "not yet!" as I'm imagining how much his new parents would love to hold out their arms and have him wobble and totter into them, as he's been doing with us. It might sound silly as you don't want to hold them back, but I've heard of foster carers holding off on weaning, moving from bottles to beakers, potty training etc. to allow the adoptive family to go through that milestone with their child.

I sat down to make a plan for how we're going to pass on all the photographs and other memories we have saved for him, and in doing so went through all the notes we've made each day on Jack-Jack's progress, outings and behaviour. It made me realise how many of Jack-Jack's "firsts" we've been there for - first food, the first time he sat up by himself, starting to crawl, the first time he babbled, the first time he pulled himself to a stand, his first steps, first visit to the dentist, first holiday, first shoes, first haircut, first birthday... We were so excited about each one, celebrated it, documented it with photos and video, and talked about it with pride to family and friends. Now when I look back, although he will have the photos we took, it seems so desperately unfair that neither his birth family nor his adoptive family were there for these special moments in his first fifteen months, and I do feel disappointed for his adopters that it's taken so long to get to this point. Adoption was mentioned as the mostly likely outcome for him when he was placed with us, and we've known this specific family was on the radar from that point too. It's almost like the courts forget that you can't put a young child's life on hold whilst you wait for decisions to be made and meetings to be held, however much you might want to.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Foster carer support

Esmeralda and I are finding that time is really dragging at the moment. Fostering is not for the impatient, we've spent many weeks waiting for various things - waiting for panel, waiting for the decision to be ratified after panel, waiting for our first placement... but this is one of the hardest waiting periods of all - we're waiting to meet Jack-Jack's adoptive family so that they can get to know him and his routine, and then take him home. They've been through their matching panel and are waiting for the decision to be ratified until he is officially their son. I'm sure their wait is very hard too, but there is a world of difference between waiting for something wonderful and exciting, and waiting for something inevitable and awful. That's not to say we're not happy for them, we've received a photo album of pictures to look through with Jack-Jack, and they look like a lovely family for him. We're looking forward to meeting them and showing them what a wonderful little boy Jack-Jack is.

That said, the process isn't over yet and we already feel horrendously unsupported. We are new carers still in our first year, Jack-Jack was our first placement and sometimes carers foster for many years before going through adoption introductions with a foster child. The LA consider our social worker to be enough support for us. We like our social worker Jane very much, but we're not sure how she can support us through this as she's never been through it herself. Even aside from this, as it's summer she's been on annual leave over the period spanning Jack-Jack's matching panel, our first telephone contact with his adopters etc. and we had no one to call to talk through questions that we had.

I'm sure there are those who would disagree, but we feel that it would be more appropriate to talk to someone who has really been through it - who knows the process, can help us to work through our feelings, and above all understands how much we love these children who are not our own. In our minds, this has to be another foster carer. As we've asked to be put in touch with other foster carers before and nothing has been done, we're not going to mention this to Jane until our next supervision session, which will be after Jack-Jack has moved on, but we really hope a scheme can be put in place to help new carers in the future.

As we've said many, many times over the past year and a half, we're so glad we have each other for support and we're not doing this as single parents.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Toys

Yesterday we decided to write a list of Jack-Jack's belongings to make it easier to pack them up when the time comes for him to leave us and join his adoptive family. It's amazing how much he's accumulated since he arrived! We figured we might not be thinking as clearly during the week of introductions with all the emotions that go along with that - better to be prepared now so that we don't forget anything. We decided it would be easier to separate Jack-Jack's own toys from those that will stay, so spent a good hour reshuffling the living room.

We filled an empty plastic box with his smaller toys and games, and as we went through the various boxes that make up our toy collection, we realised how much we've already refined our toy purchase decisions over the time that Jack-Jack's been living with us. Some toys we found on the bestseller lists we'd never buy again (there's one particular toy we'll be thrilled to see the back of), others we'd highly recommend and will be replacing. Although we have a selection of each, we noticed a real preference for wooden toys over plastic for both Jack-Jack and Andy, the big exceptions being Happyland and Wow toys which both come out every day. The very few electronic toys in our collection have hardly been played with at all.

Over the years I'm sure the toys in the house will keep changing, as different children come and go, and even those of the same age will have different preferences, interests and skills, and will have toys that challenge them and help them to understand the world. By the time we've been fostering for twenty years we'll be toy connoisseurs!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Progress

We had a call a couple of weeks ago about a young child within our preferred age range who was from the other end of the county - I rang Esmeralda at work and we quickly decided we'd go ahead with the placement. When I called the duty team back, they told me a placement had been found - they had also put the call out to agency carers as new policies stated that the child must be placed within their home region if at all possible, to avoid them having to travel too far to contact with their birth families.

This is the first we'd heard about the change, and we think it's a massive step in the right direction. When Jack-Jack was placed with us as a 6 month old, he was expected to travel an hour each way to contact, three times per week, because we live on the other side of the county. He often arrived home starving, thirsty and with a full nappy, because of course the sessional worker who transported him each way couldn't give him a drink or change his nappy on the way, and we presume the same happened at the other end. I wouldn't like to think what would have happened if he'd suffered from motion sickness!

Of course, there are always two sides to the coin - agency carers are paid considerably more than local authority carers and as a general rule are offered the more "difficult to place" placements such as older children and teenagers, children with behavioural problems, or children with disabilities. Putting the needs of the child above the financial needs of the LA is both unusual and very welcome, but there is always going to be the argument that the money could be better used elsewhere. Cuts have meant that the children's social workers we've come across have huge workloads and are horribly stretched. The solution to this problem, as ever, seems to be that we need to recruit more local authority carers!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Summer

Summer is a very busy time in the fostering world. We've had a huge number of calls about placements in comparison to the average we've had since we started fostering. Summer is when most families arrange to go on holiday and foster families are no different - about half of the calls we've had have been for respite whilst the child/ren's foster carers are away. We're encouraged to take the children we foster away with us on family holidays as they're part of the family, but in some cases that's just not possible - perhaps there are issues getting a passport in time, perhaps an older child doesn't want to go, perhaps there are issues with missing contact, or perhaps the holiday was booked long before the child was placed and they can't be added in.

Summer can also be a stressful time for birth families as they are not used to having their children at home 24/7 which can exacerbate issues. We've had several calls to place school-aged children at short notice over the last few weeks.

As this busy period coincides with carers going away, the matching process for placements gets much trickier for the duty team, and we've had quite a few calls for children outside our preferred age range of 0-8 (we're approved for 0-18), or even outside our approval category of 2 unrelated children. I'm sure we'll take teenagers at some point in the future, but at the moment we don't feel ready. We've only been parenting for about 8 months, whereas a birth parent gets 13 years to prepare for those interesting teenage years!

This should all die down a bit towards the end of the summer as everyone returns from their holidays, children on respite return to their regular carers, and everyone prepares for the start of a new school year, but unfortunately it will probably get busier again shortly afterwards. Many of the referrals to social services are made by schools, so the start of the new school year is an opportunity for teachers and school nurses to keep an eye on their pupils again - perhaps a child's presentation has declined since they last saw them in July, perhaps their personality has changed significantly, or perhaps a child confides in a teacher about something worrying that happened over the summer holiday.

We've turned down a couple of open-ended school-aged placements recently as we think it wouldn't be fair on Jack-Jack for his last few weeks with us, being ferried around to activities that would interest older children, and their new school year would start around the time we need to be focussing on the introductions between Jack-Jack and his new family. We are open to taking a toddler or baby placement in the mean time though, so we'll see what happens. Around this time next month, our lives could look completely different and we might be joining the ranks of frazzled parents and carers trying to get everyone organised by 8am for the school run!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Information overload (or not)

After my previous post about how hard it can be to make the decision whether or not to take a placement, I thought I'd write a post about how the process and how much information we get.

When the duty team call, their first questions are always clarifying who we have in placement (for some reason they didn't know about Andy whilst he was here so we had a couple of calls as they thought his room was empty) and where they're sleeping. The type of house we live in, how many bedrooms we have and the sleeping arrangements are on our records. Having clarified that we have the space available (if not the actual beds - we had to rush out and buy Andy a cot!) they tell us the age and gender of the child/ren they're looking to place, as well as the timescale - emergency same-day, short notice, planned. Most placements are planned in advance even if it's just by a few days, as the duty team are informed that a case is going to court, or that a situation looks to have escalated.

If we're still interested, they tell us more information if they have it available, for example:
- the area of the county they come from
- why the child has been/will be taken into care
- whether the child is currently in care, and how many placements they've had
- what the contact arrangements are likely to be
- a little bit about the parents' history i.e. if they've had a chaotic upbringing or were in care themselves, whether they've had any previous children taken into care
- finally, a bit about the child including whether they're meeting milestones, if they're in school/nursery, whether they sleep/eat well, whether there are any behavioural or emotional concerns etc.

Unless it's respite or a planned move from another foster carer, it's never absolutely certain when the child might arrive, or even whether they will come into care, but the duty team need to have placements arranged just in case. Courts can cause delays too for various reasons and the social worker might not get the outcome they expect. It's also not guaranteed that the child would come to us even if we said yes, as it's likely that the duty team will have approached several carers at once, and may have called fostering agencies too.

When the child arrives, or within the first few days, we should receive a care plan and placement plan, which should have all the details of the case so far, the child's current routine, contact arrangements, medical/allergy details, any self-care or hygiene needs, behaviours, learning needs, school/nursery/clubs information, likes/dislikes. If it's respite or they're coming from another foster carer the information should be far more detailed to try to make the transition easier on the child i.e. that she likes a specific type of cup, singing a special song at bedtime, watching a certain tv programme to signal that it's time for bed, he'll only fall asleep in the buggy cuddling his favourite toy etc. We should also get the child's red book if they're under five.

Whether or not all of this information is available is down to each individual situation - where the child has come from, how quickly they need to be placed, how long the family have been known to social services, and ultimately how conscientious the social worker is at chasing everything down, even if it's not available on the day. From our own experiences and those of other foster carers we've spoken to, it's generally an exercise in piecing facts together over time to build up a full picture, and muddling along doing the best we can in the mean time.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Saying no

Andy's moved back to his carer now, and whilst waiting for a call about our next placement we received a request to do three weeks respite for two siblings. They are much older than Jack-Jack although still within our preferred age range of 0-8 years. Esmeralda took the call and noted down all the relevant details, but when discussing it afterwards we weren't sure what the right decision was, and neither of us had any strong feelings either way. We talked through all the pros and cons, and have decided not to do the respite as we wanted to book some time away ourselves before Jack-Jack moves on. We've found it very hard saying no to placements, especially when we have the room and know it would probably work out ok. Even though rationally you know that you have good reasons and another foster home will be found, emotionally you just want to find a way to take every child! It doesn't help that the duty team sound a bit like estate agents sometimes, like they're trying hard to "sell" the idea of the child/ren to you, when all you want to hear are the facts so that you can make an informed decision. It definitely adds to the guilt...


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

You can't choose your family

So, we all know the phrase "you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family". We were thinking about this over the weekend as we took Andy and Jack-Jack to see the "In the Night Garden" live show. Due to the distance we had to stay overnight the night before, and chose to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel so that we could put the babies down to sleep in the bedroom and still enjoy our evening without disturbing them. After we'd arrived and had some dinner it was past their bedtime so we gave them a bath and settled them down in their travel cots.

The giggling and jumping up and down started the second we pulled the door to as the boys realised that being in the same room together was officially the best and funniest thing ever. Andy got over this pretty quickly but Jack-Jack soon bounced and giggled himself into a hyperactive frenzy, even managing to rock the cot from side to side with loud thumps. Each time I went in to resettle them I saw poor old Andy laying in his cot good as gold, looking more and more exhausted, resigned to the fact that there was a baby-shaped tornado gradually inching his cot closer and closer with each jump. After an hour or so of this Andy fell asleep, but it was another hour before Jack-Jack finally gave in. There was nothing else to do in that situation as we had nowhere we could separate them, and both boys really were too tired (despite appearances!) to get up and try again later.

These boys aren't related by blood, they're not step-siblings or siblings by adoption, they're just living together temporarily in the same foster family. It hardly seems fair when we think about how much they impact on each other.

This is something we think about quite often as we know that we want to carry on fostering once we've started our own family, whether by birth or adoption. We believe that our children will benefit from growing up in a fostering family, and whilst we're sure there'll be highs and lows as different children move in and out of our home, we hope that they'll grow up to be non-judgemental, caring individuals able to connect to and relate to people in all sorts of situations, who will want to grow up to make a positive difference to the world.

We can't choose our family (and our children can't choose their siblings) but we can choose our family values, and we hope that every child of any age who leaves us takes a little bit of these with them in how they've developed, learned and grown whilst they've been with us.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Emotions

Andy moves back to his carer in a couple of days - this month has flown by and it's really been a joy to look after him and see him learn and develop. He's grown both physically and in confidence since he's been here, he's learned new skills, had new experiences and tried new tastes, he's sturdier on his feet and has started to stand his ground with Jack-Jack. We'll be very sad to see him go, even though he's going back to his very experienced and loving carer. Over a 6 week period we will have been told about a child who needs a long respite placement, met him, moved him in and settled him, become attached, found out that our first placement is leaving us soon, and then moved the second placement back to his carer.

I'm working on a photobook for Andy's memory box at the moment, putting together a selection of the photographs we've taken of him over the month with captions about what we were doing, where we went and how much fun we had. A month isn't a long time in the grand scheme of things over the course of someone's life, but I still wouldn't like to think that he had no evidence of who he lived with and what we did.

No one ever said it would be easy, but emotions are running pretty high here at the moment as you can probably imagine. We're doing our best not to talk about what's happening in front of the children, and are mindful of who we do discuss things with. Quite aside from the fact that the children's histories (and futures!) are confidential, we don't want to overload our family and friends or give them an unrealistically negative view of fostering. It is hard work, it's completely different to parenting, and it can feel like it's just not worth all the emotional strain at times, but however well-meaning, we don't want anyone to suggest that we just throw in the towel.

Yesterday a little boy, who a month ago cried when he spilled anything down his front, successfully fed himself with a spoon all by himself and got absolutely plastered in yoghurt in the process. We couldn't have been more proud, and although it sounds cheesy, we're hoping that these are the moments we'll remember long after the children have moved on, not how hard it was for us.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Surprise inspection and moving on

We had an unannounced inspection today. I was just sitting down for my lunch when I heard a knock at the door, and a lovely lady stated that she was from social services and was here to check the children's rooms as part of our annual review. Our review isn't due until the end of the year, but apparently carers start to expect these visits around their review date so they have started doing them mid-year in an attempt to make them truly unexpected. We wouldn't have been expecting one at all as this was the first we'd heard of them! I cast my mind nervously around the house, mentally noting the state of the bathroom, whether or not the laundry bin was overflowing, and trying to remember whether I'd washed up the dishes from breakfast, but took a deep breath and invited her in. I needn't have worried as she was very nice, complimented me on our home and commented that any house with young children in shouldn't be tidy or they aren't doing it right!

We now know that the outcome for Jack-Jack is adoption, and although we don't know the official date he'll be moving on from us, we know that it's weeks away rather than months. We both have a mix of feelings about this. I must admit that when I first heard the news, the boys were napping upstairs and I went into the garden for a bit of a weep. It would be strange if I didn't feel sad as Jack-Jack is so deeply loved, attached and settled here, but I feel a peace about the fact that he's moving on to his "forever" home. We are a Christian family and have been praying for the right outcome for Jack-Jack since the moment he moved in, and we trust that the right decision has been made. I'm sure there will be many more tears shed after we've packed up all his belongings and he's gone, but right now it's up to us to work with his new family and help to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Relief from the heat and the passing of time

This week has made me even more in awe of single parents than I was already. The boys have been sweaty and irritable in the heat and have been getting up to mischief - one memorable morning we had a huge poo leak on the carpet and curtain, a cot drenched in wee, a dramatic glitter and water explosion in the living room and then an A&E visit, all within an hour! Thankfully Esmeralda was at home that day. She works four days in the week, but even when it's been a bit of a day I know that she'll be home eventually to talk things through, and of course I look forward to the three days she's at home with us. We've had a week of big tantrums, slapping, pushing and biting (all the boys!), a broken ornament, insect bites, poor Andy got blisters from his new sandals, heat rash, bumps and grazes, and in the midst of it all Jack-Jack took his first steps! It's been amazing to see him practice and explore this new freedom, they're both getting more confident and steadier on their feet each day.

It was a bit cooler today which was a huge relief. We took the boys out to our local Italian restaurant for lunch and they both behaved impeccably. Our landlords have had a new fence installed in the garden which has created a safe area for the children to play without us having to be on top of them all the time, and they had two long play sessions out there today, having a whale of a time (Andy seemed to think he actually was a whale, as he kept sitting in every bit of water he could find and was on his 3rd clothing change by 10am!)

This month is going by so quickly. Andy's only with us for one more week, it will be strange when he goes back to his carer even though this was a planned respite placement and we've always known how long he was going to be staying. He's such a lovely little boy and has settled well into our family life. It must be different for each child and situation, but although with Jack-Jack it took me quite a while to realise that I loved him, with Andy I knew before he'd even moved in. Fostering's a funny thing, we're already wondering and thinking about who will be moving in next...

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Two more?

We found out this week that our approval category has been officially changed at panel, and we're now approved to foster two unrelated children or young people aged 0-18. We currently have two under-twos in placement.

Today I received a call asking whether we could take a short notice placement of twins.

I didn't even ask their age as I didn't want to get that far in the thought process - I had to say no!

It would have definitely been interesting though...

Monday, 15 July 2013

Only human

During our assessment and training, much emphasis was placed on the fact that children just need "good enough" parents/carers - i.e. that no one is perfect, and "good enough" parenting/caring is fine. We've been approved for getting on for 8 months now, and I still have trouble getting my head around this.

It might be because we're looking after other people's children, but it feels like we hold ourselves to very high standards, and once you've set those standards for yourself (even unconsciously), it can be hard to live up to them. Unlike the vast majority of foster carers we haven't had our own children yet, so we are expected to be "professional parents" before we have even parented, which is a bit daunting when we think about it, although of course we're learning more and more each day. I'm sure that our foster children's parents aren't told that they are our first placements and we've never parented before!

I've been feeling poorly for the last week or so which has meant that my patience and energy levels have been rock bottom, and I've felt very guilty at times that my care of the children hasn't been as good as usual. It's taken several friends and family members telling us that we're doing a good job to remind me that it's ok to feel poorly, it's ok to have a day where the TV is on rather more than we would like, and it's ok to lose your cool occasionally. We're only human!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Final court hearing


We've had some progress - Andy is becoming a little bit more assertive with Jack-Jack and has started hitting him, throwing things at him and snatching toys from him. Although this doesn't sound positive, it shows he's growing in confidence and at the very least means we're not spending all day telling only one child off!

Now that we're more than six months into placement it's starting to get very hard for us that we don't know the plan for Jack-Jack - we don't have any way of preparing ourselves for each eventuality. His final court hearing is coming up, so we should find out whether or not he'll be going home to mum, and if not then what the court's recommended plan for him is. They normally go along with the local authority's recommendation, but not always. Long term fostering is never the plan for under fives (except in extremely rare cases - I've only heard of one), so the likely outcome for him if he doesn't go home is going to be adoption and there is no shortage of adopters waiting for healthy under-twos. We know this is a possibility, but no one has discussed timescales with us so we have no idea how long the process is likely to take.

Parenting is full of uncertainties - as a birth parent when you bring your newborn home from the hospital you don't know when they're going to learn to walk, whether they're going to be an early reader, what their talents are going to be, which childhood diseases they're going to get and when, whether their hair is going to be curly or straight etc. Adoptive parents face even more uncertainties as they may have very little information about the birth parents' histories, so can't even make educated guesses at their child's likely traits, abilities and any possible issues.

Foster parents face a lot of this too of course, but also live with the biggest uncertainty of all: is this child still going to be living with me next year? At Christmas? Next week? Tomorrow?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Toddler behaviour

As I've been watching Jack-Jack and Andy interacting over the last couple of weeks, I've been thinking quite a lot about toddler behaviour. There's no reasoning with them at this age, nor do they understand action and consequence, so there's no point in disciplining or any sort of punishment/reward system yet. Andy just about understands and responds to being told not to touch something, or not to do something (but not the reasons why, although I do point them out), but Jack-Jack just laughs and does it again.

From an adult perspective, there's a definite freedom in being a toddler. They have no concept of acting a certain way because of what others might think, and are even expected to think and act in a very selfish way. Sometimes as adults I'm sure we have days where we feel like screaming until someone brings us our dinner, or sitting down in the street when we've had enough of walking and waiting to be picked up.

It's also very frustrating for them - they have no real independence or autonomy. We decide when it's time for a nappy change, time to go out, where we're going, what they're going to eat (although not how much), what toys to have in the house, when it's bed time, what they can watch on tv etc. and they have very little say in the matter. They're both also pre-verbal although Andy has a few words, so have very limited ways of telling us if there's something they want or need, unless it's within pointing distance. They can express their outrage, and we encourage them to express their feelings by describing the emotion, but in our house we have a policy of "kicking and screaming gets you nowhere", so the louder they scream, the less likely they are to get their own way. This policy has had a lot of use over the past week and a half, as Andy is a screamer and Jack-Jack was starting to copy the behaviour thinking it would get him more attention or his own way. Nope!

Esmeralda and I have enjoyed watching the series of videos on youtube Conversations with my 2 year old, where a man reenacts real interactions he's had with his 2 year old daughter, where the child is played by a grown man. Every now and then I imagine interactions between Andy and Jack-Jack as though they were two adults, and yesterday it made me realise how much I'm expecting of Andy. Jack-Jack thinks Andy's amazing and wants to be precisely wherever he is all the time, playing with whatever he's playing with (or stealing it from him), drinking out of his beaker, eating out of his bowl and generally touching, poking, pinching, patting or laying on him constantly. Of course I keep them apart and engaged in their own activities as much as possible, and intervene if necessary, but I can't be right by their sides every minute. There is no way I would put up with that from another adult. I'm not sure I'd even last 5 minutes before I'd be politely asking them to back off, let alone cope with it all day!

Friday, 5 July 2013

Changes in behaviour and what foster carers wish other people knew

I've read quite a few adoption blogs where the parents have written about their child's habits and behaviours with respect to what was previously told to them by the child's foster carers. I've seen more than a few comments like "they said he eats anything but we can't get him to even look at a vegetable" (or indeed the other way round - "they said he'd only eat fish fingers but with us he even eats chickpea and lentil soup") or "they said he threw 3-hour tantrums but he's been good as gold here," or "they said she would only fall asleep in front of the tv but we pop her up in her cot and don't hear a peep until morning" or "they said she walks everywhere but we can't get her out of the buggy."

We were a bit surprised at first when we found out that Jack-Jack didn't display any of the behaviours that we saw at home when he was at contact (this was before we found out that this is really common.) We've also seen this phenomenon first hand since Andy moved in. We were told various things about Andy including that he was a terrible eater, that he wouldn't walk more than a few metres at a time, that he wouldn't snack (even that he didn't like biscuits,) that he hates nappy changes and doesn't like taking baths. We haven't seen any of this.

There are many different reasons why a child behaves differently for different carers - perhaps they're not sure how a new carer will react so they hold back from tantrumming and showing strong feelings until they feel more secure, perhaps they are now the only child in the family and are feeling under pressure having 100% of their carers' attention, perhaps they're now one of several siblings and have to learn a different strategy to get attention, perhaps the change of environment and routine has "broken the cycle" of certain habits, perhaps they're in a state of shock or grief from the loss of their previous carers - more often than not we don't know the reason and can only speculate.

I read an article recently called What foster parents wish other people knew which was written collaboratively by a group of foster parents. Although it's written in a rather more forceful tone than we might use, and some of it relates to the foster care system as it is in America rather than the UK, it really struck a chord with us. We've often found ourselves wishing that there was more awareness in the community about fostering and what foster carers do. We've definitely come across some well-meaning but old-fashioned or misguided views on both fostering and adoption, and most people aren't clear on what we can and can't talk about, particularly in front of the children. It's worth a read, even to just open the channels of communication and get people talking about foster care - as it says in the article, becoming a foster carer isn't the only way you can help!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Constant vigilance!

Honestly looking after two toddlers makes me feel like Professor Moody from Harry Potter - "Constant vigilance!"

On Tuesday I had a load of washing on, and Andy managed to change the program and then turn the machine off without me noticing. This happened three times in a row mid-wash after I'd reset it and put it on again each time. You'd think I'd learn!

Esmeralda very bravely took both of them to a sing and play session at the local library by herself this morning whilst I went for a dentist appointment. All was going fine until she came to put them back in the buggy at the end. She stood Andy next to her, turned to strap Jack-Jack in, and had a heart-stopping moment when she turned back and Andy had vanished. She found him seconds later in the crime/thriller section, and when she returned Jack-Jack was chewing on someone else's buggy.

I thought I was staying one step ahead of them by moving the stool and child's wooden chair we have by the fireplace in our living room into the middle of the room, as they had started to use them to crawl up onto the sofas (and thus gain access to the higher shelves.) I popped into the kitchen to fetch them a snack, and came back to find Jack-Jack standing up on the chair and Andy poised to push him off!

Even with both of us there, they still manage to speed off in different directions. They're both very mobile, but not old enough yet to be left to their own devices to play so the other day at our local soft play centre it was hard work keeping both of them in our sights - we were like cowboys on the plains trying to herd them up, shouting out directions and instructions to each other from opposite ends of the room: "To your left!" "Behind you!" "Coming down the slide!" (Ok so that last one doesn't quite fit with the metaphor...)

It's good fun (most of the time!) and definitely a great way to keep fit - if not for the relentless chasing and running around after them, then for the workout you get pushing a double buggy uphill!

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Child friendly attractions and stain removal

Although Jack-Jack still isn't walking he's extremely active and mobile, crawling at the speed of light in every direction, standing up and walking holding onto furniture/hands and wanting to investigate absolutely everything. Andy is walking, but is still a bit wobbly and can't walk very far yet. We're always on the lookout for new places to go where they can safely let off steam and have lots to investigate, but which doesn't require children to be able to walk (or not to put things in their mouths, which rules out things like petting farms at the moment as Jack-Jack doesn't want to stay in the buggy or carrier!)

We've been to two local museums lately, neither of which are specifically designed for children, but the experiences at each were so different! At the first, an employee rushed over to help us, told us where to leave our buggy and looked really pleased that we'd brought young children with us. Many of the exhibits were low down and the floors were clean, so we were very happy for Jack-Jack to crawl around and discover everything with us - there were doors at the entrance to each room so we knew he couldn't get out. He absolutely loved it. At the second museum, we struggled in with the buggy and had to find somewhere to put it, whilst being frowned at by staff and visitors when the boys made a bit of noise. The whole museum was open plan (including the staircases) so we had to be on our guard at all times, chasing them around trying to keep them both safe and in view - it must have felt to them like we were spoiling their fun and Andy particularly got quite frustrated that he couldn't go wherever he wanted. Many of the exhibits were high up so we had to lift the boys up to see anything - from their level it must have looked quite boring. The whole experience was quite stressful and we didn't stay long. We'll definitely go back to the first museum on a regular basis, but I think we'll think twice before attempting the second with young toddlers again! It was an interesting attraction for adults and older children, but it's amazing how just a few little changes could really widen the target age range considerably.

I've spent the last week trying various methods to get a large unidentified stain out of the front of one of the t-shirts that Jack-Jack's mum bought him. He came back from contact with food down his front as his mum had chosen not to put a bib on him, and I'm now stuck between a rock and a hard place, because if I send him to contact in a stained top it will all be my fault and I've stained it on purpose, but if I send him in a different top it's a personal attack on mum and I'm saying the clothes she's bought him aren't good enough. It's almost funny, I've bought a specialised stain devils product as a last ditch attempt to remove the stain, which cost about the same as a new t-shirt. If we had a local branch of the shop the t-shirt came from, I would probably have gone out and bought an identical one to save any hassle!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Fairness

We have a new challenge in our lives with two little ones to look after - keeping everything fair. We're not sure whether the children actually have a sense of "fairness" yet - probably not - but as adults we do. We want to make sure we mix it up so that one child isn't always last, (except in the double buggy - we've chosen the seating arrangement specifically as one child is much more likely to kick the other in the back), and that neither child feels like they're going without - so everything must be offered to both, even though one child would happily eat all day and the other only has a tiny appetite!

Meals now don't end until everyone has finished, which means the youngest (and fastest eating) member of the family who has been used to deciding when dinner is over tends to spend the remainder of his time smooshing his leftovers into the corners of his highchair tray and sweeping them onto the floor whilst wailing at the injustice and being outraged that he's not allowed to grab his favourite foods off someone else's plate.

The more time they spend together, the better they are getting at sitting near each other and playing without Jack-Jack feeling like he absolutely has to grab Andy's nose. They're not yet of an age where they can play together and share, but we had a lovely moment in the swimming pool today where they were throwing a ball back and forth with lots of encouragement from us. They do seem to be starting to enjoy each other's company and are genuinely pleased to see each other when Andy is dropped off, or when they wake up from naps. I think Jack-Jack has been generally relaxed about the whole thing overall - the only exception being when Esmeralda was feeding both boys yoghurt, and Jack-Jack looked absolutely horrified every time the spoon went anywhere near Andy's mouth instead of his!

Monday, 24 June 2013

Esmeralda takes the helm

I went on a local authority training course for foster carers today, so Esmeralda was left in charge of our "ship". She's never looked after Jack-Jack on her own as I'm the primary carer whilst she works full time, and as if that wasn't enough extra responsibility, Andy was also due for a visit today! We worked out the times and realised that Jack-Jack would have left for contact before Andy arrived, and I would be back from my course before Jack-Jack got home, so Esmeralda wouldn't have to worry about caring for both toddlers at once.

As I walked into the training room I received a text: "Contact on." Excellent.

A couple of hours later and we'd just stopped for a tea break when I recieved another text from Esmeralda. "Change of plan - contact cancelled." I could feel the slight tone of panic emanating out of the phone, but sent an encouraging text back.

As it was, Jack-Jack went down for a nap just before Andy arrived and slept for an hour, and Andy went down for a nap straight away, slept for nearly 2.5 hours and was woken by me ringing the doorbell when I came home so Esmeralda was spared looking after two (awake) toddlers on her own. We played all together until Andy was picked up.

When Jack-Jack was in bed, Esmeralda looked around at the boxes of toys strewn across the living room, then looked at me and said "So... you went out for the day, both babies are still alive and the house is still standing. Are you proud?" I really am!

Friday, 21 June 2013

Getting to know you

We met Andy for the first time yesterday, along with his main carer and social worker, and with Jack-Jack and our social worker Jane here too it made for quite a cosy living room! We talked through Andy's daily routine and the requirements for his contact sessions, and also planned in regular visits for the next couple of weeks so that he can spend more and more time with us - eat meals here, have a nap in his new cot, sleep overnight etc. all working up to the day he moves in with us. It's useful for us too so that we can get to know Andy, how he behaves in different situations, what he likes etc. and can ask his carer any questions before she goes away. For Jack-Jack these visits will be a bit of a steep learning curve as he'll have to share our time and attention for the first time!

When Jack-Jack and Andy met unfortunately neither of them was very impressed at all and they both burst into tears! Andy came again today with his carer and it was a little better, although Jack-Jack is fascinated by Andy's face and just wants to grab his nose, and Andy gets very upset if Jack-Jack gets within arms reach so it required a bit of baby wrangling and distraction, but we had a lovely afternoon.

This is a completely different experience from Jack-Jack's placement with us when we had about 40 minutes notice of his arrival - at least with Andy it won't be such a shock for him (or us!) as we have the time to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Names and a new placement

Over the years there seems to have been a general shift in terminology from "foster mum" to "foster carer". People we know from our parents' generation and older regularly refer to us as "foster mums" or even just "mums", and many made a point of texting or calling on Mothers' Day to congratulate us, thinking we'd be celebrating it as our first.

I think the shift is intentional. We're not allowed to encourage the children we foster to call us "mum" or "dad". I've heard of several cases recently where the foster children called their carers "Grandma and Grandad", or even "Auntie and Uncle", but "Mum and Dad" seem to be sacred terms reserved for a child's forever family (so of course in permanent foster placements the child might choose to use those names.) We're using our first names to refer to ourselves with Jack-Jack, but in reality it has meant that we haven't actually referred to ourselves half as much as we would have done. It just doesn't feel as natural to us to refer to ourselves in the third person using our names, it's not like saying things like "it's ok, mama's here," "come to mama" etc. Most of the time we use I, my, me instead, which I'm sure is not delaying his speech and understanding, but it probably is delaying his use of our names (as opposed to how early he might have said "mama") as he doesn't hear them as much. Our names are also not reinforced by others i.e. a stranger in a shop will say something like "you look so much like your mummy," or "I bet you keep your mummy on her toes!" (we get this last one quite a lot.)

The only person to use the word "mummy" in our house so far has been Jack-Jack's social worker asking him how his contact with his mum had gone that day. Everyone else seems to skirt the issue - our social worker, support worker and the health visitor never mention Jack-Jack's mum to him and don't refer to us at all!

One of our neighbours bumped into Esmeralda in town the other day, and, after not recognising her immediately, she suddenly said "Oh you're Jack-Jack's mum!" We don't usually correct comments like that, and hardly any of our neighbours know that we're fostering. Esmeralda and I had a chat about it and we agreed that it might be a bit awkward when a new child arrives or if/when Jack-Jack leaves us, but we don't think it's the right thing to announce our foster family status to all and sundry, especially if/when an older child arrives who might not want everyone to know.

We have some news - we had a call about a short term placement today, and a little boy will be moving in next week and staying for a few weeks whilst his carer is away on holiday. He's a few months older than Jack-Jack and his blog name will be Andy. We're looking forward to meeting him!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Sensory/messy play

My mum was visiting last week and mentioned that she was impressed with the amount of activities we do with Jack-Jack. When I thought about it, I suppose one reason we do so much at home at the moment is that we don't have the option to leave the set-up and clean-up of messy/sensory play to someone else (much as I wish we did sometimes, particularly when I think about painting!) as our local messy/creative/outdoor stay and play sessions don't fit in with Jack-Jack's contact schedule. Plus I enjoy watching his expressions as he investigates and discovers, and he gets very excited when he sees the messy mat and trays come out, so it's win-win.

We don't like to have Cbeebies on too much, and as Jack-Jack's only just turned one his attention span for most toys and activities is well under ten minutes which makes the day feel very long sometimes. I've spent quite a few evenings on various blogs and websites gathering ideas and inspiration for things to keep him (and me!) stimulated and busy.

I'm looking forward to a time when he's stopped putting everything straight into his mouth (he's definitely getting better at exploring with his hands and feet, but everything eventually has to pass the taste test) and we can have messy/sensory fun without it having to be technically edible!

Successes so far have been:

The great outdoors - we go out to a park most days and in most weathers, and Jack-Jack spends time exploring the textures of grass, mud and pavement, and picking up flowers, sticks and stones. He loves it, and requires very little input from me beyond narrating what he's doing, naming plants and animals and heading him off from patches of nettles.
Rice - this was the first time I've actively discouraged Jack-Jack from mouthing whatever he's playing with, and he got rather cross and bit me!
Cornflour and water - this was amazing and kept his attention on and off for about an hour - he kept exploring something else in the garden and then returning to the tray. Clean up was easy too as we were outside - just hose everything off and pop the baby in the bath!
Painting in a ziplock bag - I'll be trying this one again as the paint I used was a bit too sticky for the job.
Water - always a winner in any form - we've done warm/cold, scented, rainwater, bubbles, and the paddling pool.
Popcorn - a bit of a cheat on a rainy day, but foods are textures too and he enjoyed putting his hands in the bowl up to his elbows and watching all the popcorn spill over the sides.
Jelly - Jack-Jack looked absolutely disgusted the first time he touched jelly, but soon realised that digging both hands in and squishing it all over the highchair tray is good fun, and eating it is even better!
Cooked spaghetti - always a hit - the first time he saw cooked spaghetti it made Jack-Jack laugh, and he still loves it.
Ice - this doesn't hold his interest for long yet, but does give me a guaranteed few minutes peace to make tea.
Cotton wool balls and water - We did this today - I was impressed how quickly Jack-Jack realised that after they'd been in the water the cotton could be sucked or squeezed to get the water out again, and did this over and over.

It's definitely nice just having one child to focus on at the moment, as all activities can be aimed at Jack-Jack's skill level and attention span, but I hope that we can carry on doing this when we have two (or three, or four...)

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Review: Plum's Little Foodies

The lovely people at Plum have been kind enough to send us their new "Little Foodies" range of toddler meals for 1-3 year olds, to see what Jack-Jack made of them.



Our first impressions were very positive - the packaging is attractive and clearly displays the key ingredients that are in the meals. It reassures parents and carers that they're giving their children the best food choices possible, when perhaps it's not convenient to serve home-cooked. The recipes are organic and are full of exciting flavours.

We were sent the full range, all of which sounded delicious:
Morrocan Tagine with apricot, lamb and bulgar wheat
Jamaican jerk chicken with mango and wholegrain rice
Vegetable biryani with wholegrain rice
Italian ragu with tomato, beef and ditalini pasta
Jack-Jack normally eats the same food as we do, even when out at restaurants, so it's been several months since he was regularly eating pouches of baby food. The exceptions have been when he's been poorly, teething, or if he's very tired - we've found that it's a quick and easy way of getting nutritious food into him without too much effort on his part! We usually keep a couple of toddler steamed meals in the cupboard for these occasions.

We had the perfect opportunity to try one of the Little Foodies meals the day after Jack-Jack's birthday, as we'd had a picnic party in the park out with friends at lunchtime followed by a huge play, so Jack-Jack was ready for his bath and bed at teatime, but had worked up an appetite! I was slightly dubious about trying new flavours, as Jack-Jack has been known to completely refuse to try anything new if he's not in the mood, but I decided to go ahead and chose the Jamaican jerk chicken with mango. The pot was very large (as it would need to be to cover the 1-3yr age range), so I split it into two portions and popped one in the fridge. It smelled amazing - I was a bit jealous!

Jack-Jack likes to look at, have a tiny taste, feel with his fingers and smell his food before committing to eating it, but it seemed to pass the test as he happily ate nearly the whole portion after examining it closely! There were whole peas, beans and pieces of sweetcorn to chew, and plenty of wholegrain rice. He finished off the second portion the following day - as it had been in the fridge for a day we decided to heat it up in the microwave, and Jack-Jack enjoyed it just as much warm as at room temperature.

The clean up afterwards was easy, even though Jack-Jack had managed to spread the remainder all over the high chair tray and up into his eyebrows and hair, and I was pleasantly surprised that there were no orange stains on the high chair, bib or flannel after washing.

Unfortunately the high cost of these meals (RRP £2.25 each) means that we wouldn't be buying them regularly, but we can definitely see a use for them and would consider keeping one or two in the cupboard for the odd occasion.

We were sent the products free of charge for review purposes, but weren't paid for the review, and all opinions are our own.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Putting the child first

One of the things Esmeralda and I have been shocked about during Jack-Jack's placement with us is how little his needs seem to be prioritised by the adults responsible for him. Fostering is also known as "corporate parenting" meaning that the local authority is responsible, at least in part, for the child's welfare. In Jack-Jack's case, his mother and his Social Worker are jointly responsible for him. We as his foster carers are responsible on a day to day basis and can make very basic decisions for him i.e. the brand of wipes we use, what he eats, how often we wash his hair etc. but even these can sometimes be overruled by mum - if she insisted that we buy Johnson's wipes rather than supermarket own brand for example, we would probably be told by the Social Worker to buy them.

Jack-Jack's age is a disadvantage when it comes to having his needs prioritised, as he really does have no "voice" whereas the adults in his life have very loud ones which are harder to ignore. We have advocated for him of course and have written countless emails and reports detailing where things have been going wrong, and changes have been made, but it's been very slow going. Mum has been allowed to cancel contact at very short notice, announce that she no longer wants to see a particular sessional worker and they have to find a different one (which has changed the times/days as availability of rooms needs to be taken into account), insist that contact be nearer her home than ours so Jack-Jack has to travel, and has displayed unpredictable volatile behaviours.

Parents who have had their child taken into care will have all sorts of issues. They may be drug or alcohol users, they may be mentally ill, they may have depression or anxiety, they may be physically unwell, or at the very least emotions will be running high. It's vitally important for the child that for those few hours the parent's feelings are put aside, so that contact can be an enjoyable and positive experience on both sides. Jack-Jack's contact this week has sadly not gone well. After the complete shambles that happened on his birthday mum was told that if she didn't change her behaviour, the consequence would be that she wouldn't see Jack-Jack for a defined length of time and contact may be permanently reduced overall. At the very next contact we were phoned almost immediately to say that he was being brought back. It's beyond our comprehension.

Having said all of the above, we were genuinely surprised and touched when we heard that one of Jack-Jack's parents has put together a truly thoughtful package of birthday gifts for him, including things he'll use every day, and things he'll keep forever. They've really been chosen with Jack-Jack in mind, and are personal to him and that parent. He hasn't yet received even a card from the other parent. At Jack-Jack's age he won't remember his first birthday, so it's important that he's given gifts that have a lasting memory - we haven't yet met either parent, nor do we have any real opinions on them or their parenting skills, but it looks like one of them has got it right.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Dear Jack-Jack

We had a meeting with your social worker last week, and found out that you will more than likely be with us for at least the next four months. We don't have any more certainty than that right now, but we treasure every day that we get to live with, look after and love such a precious little boy!

Here are a few of my favourite things as you approach your first birthday tomorrow...

The way you learned to blow kisses by making lip smacking noises after eating your beloved yoghurt.

Your all-consuming joy when we go in to get you from your cot in the morning or after a nap.

The way you turn the phone and iPad over to try and work out where the pictures are coming from.

Your cute little snores.

The way you light up when you see Mickey Mouse (I hope we can take you to see him in Disneyland one day!)

Your dramatic flung to the side "talk to the hand, lady" face if we offer you something you don't want.

How you wave with your whole arm, and usually after the person you're waving to is long gone.

Listening to you singing and chatting to yourself until you fall asleep.

How enthusiastically you approach new situations.


Your cheeky grin when you peep around corners to play peekaboo.

How you open your mouth expectantly to share a bite of whatever I'm eating.


The fact that just seeing Lady chasing after a ball can make you laugh, even if you're cross.

You get more excited about picking a dandelion in the park than you do about a new toy.

You make a beeline for your books first thing every morning, although you're still more interested in chewing the pages than having them read to you.

You still choose a silicone whisk over every other bath toy at bathtime.

How you would rather eat grapes than biscuits, and will eat a whole apple and just leave the stalk.

You love it when Esmeralda and I have a sneaky kiss or hug whilst holding you.

The way you snuggle into my back when you fall asleep in the sling.

How you keep us on our toes by changing your routine just when we think we have it sussed!

Happy Birthday to the gorgeous one-year-old who turned this couple into a family, we hope your second year is full of joy, wonder and exploration.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Summer

I'm not normally a sun-lover. I'm the sort of person who says, on a warmish spring or autumn day that it's perfect because "it's not too hot" or "there's a lovely breeze." I have spent many a beautiful summer's day inside reading a book, with the curtains drawn slightly to stop the glare. I also suffer from hayfever so summer has been synonymous with itchy, red eyes and a streaming, puffy nose. Not fun.

This year I'm already loving the summer! A warm sunny day now means an hour or two in the park, not having to wrestle Jack-Jack into hundreds of layers of clothing (so getting ready to leave the house is much quicker), ice lollies, the paddling pool, bare feet, playing outside in the garden, no mud to clean up when we walk the dog, laundry hanging out on the line, eating meals outdoors, smelling neighbours' barbecues and hearing snatches of conversation and laughter in the evenings, picnics... the list goes on.

I was even eyeing up buckets and spades in the toy shop the other day. Anyone who knows me will be shocked at this announcement, given my past dislike of sun, sand and sea, but living with a small child seems to turn everything on it's head and I'm already planning a trip to the seaside!

Thankfully Jack-Jack doesn't mind having his sunscreen applied and can be persuaded to keep a sun hat on, or perhaps these hot summer days wouldn't be quite as much fun!

Friday, 7 June 2013

Professionals

Foster carers are professionals. This is drummed into us during our assessment and training - gone are the days when foster carers were just kindly old couples who took in a child or two, now we are professionals, part of a multi-disciplinary team of other professionals who professionally put across their views and are open to the views of others. We treat each other with respect. We attend meetings, are qualified to provide excellent care, to advocate for the children in our care and liaise with other members of the team to ensure that any concerns are handled appropriately in the child's best interests. This is what we're told anyway.

The reality is somewhat different.

We had a meeting this afternoon with the Health Visitor and Jack-Jack's social worker, to talk through some concerning behaviours we'd observed, and do a general update on his progress and the case in general. The meeting was in our living room, and Esmeralda and I were both there, so there were four professionals present. The Health Visitor (used to dealing with parents of birth children) deferred to the Social Worker, but directed all questions to us as Jack-Jack's carers. The Social Worker spent much of the meeting pretending we weren't there and directed all questions to the Health Visitor! It's very hard to talk to someone who is talking over you, talking down to you, isn't listening to half of what you're saying and is actively trying to disprove the rest.

This is the person who is supposed to know Jack-Jack well and make the decision on what will be in his best interests for his future. He hasn't seen her since February. Her only interaction with him today was saying over and over "Are you ok?" whilst he just looked at her slightly bemused.

The meeting was actually quite positive overall as the Health Visitor kept turning the conversation round to how much progress Jack-Jack has made in our care and how pleased she was with how he's doing. She seemed to be getting quite frustrated with some of the bizarre responses from his Social Worker too, but is very much "on side" with us, wanting the best for Jack-Jack and his development, and talking honestly and openly about our concerns.

They were here nearly two hours in total, and Esmeralda and I feel exhausted this evening. Jack-Jack on the other hand got super over-stimulated by all the extra attention and took 2 hours to fall asleep this evening compared to his usual 10 minutes.

We found out that the case isn't as far along as we'd been lead to believe, so it looks like Jack-Jack will be with us several more months at least which is lovely. He's so much fun to be around and his personality is really starting to shine - we've got some exciting times ahead!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Uncertainty

We've come to realise that foster carers are at the bottom of the list to be kept in the loop with what's happening with a particular child's case. It doesn't seem to matter that we're the ones caring for the child 24/7. We know nothing about what's happening with Jack-Jack's case at the moment, and regardless of this we decided to book him a place on a series of weekly classes starting in September. We know he'd get a lot out of them, the classes are very popular and we wouldn't want him to miss out on a place, but it's strange to think that he might not be here when September rolls round and we might have to cancel.

Booking things ahead is a bit like that as foster carers - full of uncertainty as the situation can change at a moment's notice. A couple of months ago Jack-Jack was obsessed with the TV program "In the Night Garden"(he hasn't watched it for a while as we changed his bedtime routine when the clocks changed, but he still recognised the characters in a book we got out of the library!) so we booked tickets to the live show in July as a summer treat. This felt like it was ages away when we booked it, and we weren't sure how long Jack-Jack would be staying so there was a chance we'd be going on our own, but it's already June now so it's not far off! We always have to consider when we make future plans with family and friends that the child/ren we're looking after may change in the mean time (and plans made with a baby in mind might be completely unsuitable with a school-aged child!) and we may have to rearrange at short notice to accommodate the child/ren's contact schedule.

Jack-Jack's social worker is coming to visit us this week so hopefully we'll be updated and have a bit more of an idea about Jack-Jack's future. Children's social workers are supposed to visit a looked-after child every six weeks, but for one reason or another we haven't seen Jack-Jack's since February so she'll hardly recognise him. He's a real toddler now and still growing at a rate of knots - we had his feet measured the other day and he had grown an entire size in just 6 weeks! Thankfully he's not wearing proper shoes yet as he's not walking - we had a bit of a shock when we saw how much infant shoes are in Clarks. How can they be so expensive when they're so tiny?!