“Moving On” revisited

In 2016 I wrote a blog article called “Moving On”. In it I talked about the emotions a foster-carer might go through when a child leaves their care. My conclusion was basically:  yes, it might hurt, but it’s worth it.

The content of that blog post is something I often use when doing an Information Evening (which is where potential foster carers hear about the fostering life) and the subject of “will it hurt when they go?” always comes up. Actually, even if the question doesn’t come up I still talk about it anyway, because it’s always on someone’s mind even if they don’t want to ask.

At one of those evenings I was accompanied by another foster carer. At the point I concluded with “yes, it can be painful, but it’s totally worth it”, he left a respectful pause, and then said:

“And other times, of course, you can’t wait for them to go!”

He got a laugh. I have to say that at the time it felt a little callous. But, I reasoned, he and I were quite different people. Ignoring the difference in time-served, our experiences within fostering were also quite different: my wife and I tend to foster young children and babies, whereas he was a badass former police officer who takes the teenagers who had been thrown out of everywhere else. It would be foolish of me to dismiss the opinions of someone with this experience!

With that in mind, and with our experiences six years on, now would seem to be a good time to revisit.

In the time since I wrote that article, we have seen six young children on to adoption or to long-term placement with their extended family. And every one of them fits into the “painful, but totally worth it” bucket. We’re still in contact with all of them, so we get to see them grow up and make up for their lost time.

For the last seventeen months, we’ve been fostering number seven. She’ll be five in a couple of months.

She is adorable. She has bright eyes. She’s observant and inquisitive. She’s smart, and chatty, and likes to jump in muddy puddles, and loves pets and play parks and train sets and craft and dancing and sports and digging in the garden.

But she is undoubtedly the toughest fostering case we’ve ever taken. She’s a complicated mix of neglect, and physical, emotional and (suspected) sexual abuse. She’s overly friendly and chatty with strangers, with an amazing gift for making friends with anyone … but has a hard time processing how she feels about anyone she identifies as a care-giver. To her, strangers are not a threat; but adults who provide for her are unpredictable and untrustworthy. They should be fought-with over every mouthful of a meal, every item of clothing to wear, every toy, every bathtime, every bedtime. She has learned that to get the best deal you should haggle over everything.

She’s been diagnosed with a disorder with a complicated name. When you go googling for it, you find blogs and self-help books that say things like “looking after a child with this condition can end your marriage” and “for God’s sake don’t do this alone” … two pieces of advice which almost feel contradictory.

Thankfully, my wife and I have each other’s backs, and any time one of us has become overwhelmed by the screaming and shouting and tantrums from a little girl that we’re just trying to show love, the other has been able to take over and pick up the slack. But I worry a great deal about a time coming when we’re both overwhelmed at the same time.

Today was a particularly bad one. At 6am, I was screamed-at for attempting to help her put on her dressing-gown. She didn’t want it on. But then I was screamed at because she was cold.

Then we went down to get breakfast. I was screamed-at because she didn’t want Weetabix. Then I was screamed-at because her bowl of cereal didn’t have any Weetabix in it. Then we had our usual disagreement about whether chocolate is a valid breakfast choice. Then she screamed at me because she wasn’t hungry. Then, when I took the bowl away from her, I was screamed at because she was hungry. So I returned the bowl. And then she screamed that she didn’t want it.

Then we had five blissful minutes where we sat and read her school-book together.

Teeth-brushing went OK. Sometimes she likes brushing her teeth and sometimes she doesn’t, but today she did. We were almost having a nice time. But then we moved on to getting dressed, and the screaming started again. Likes those pants with the unicorn on them, then doesn’t like those pants because she hates unicorns. Doesn’t want tights on, but doesn’t want cold legs either. That sort of thing.

Then, whilst crouching down around her feet, helping her to push her heel into her shoe, an unexpected banshee-scream went directly down my ear. It assaulted my ear drum, and managed to hit a circuit somewhere in my head that finished me off. I just couldn’t take any more. I had to go and sit in another room on the floor, and sob. My wife took over, did her hair and helped her put her coat on. I had a few minutes to calm down.

Dressed in her uniform and coat, she walked up to me, gave me a big hug and told me she loved me.

Then I drove her to school. She happily held my hand between the car and the school reception. I handed her over to trained education professionals, returned to my car and cried alone for a few minutes.

It’s not always this bad. Some days can be OK. But we haven’t managed to properly identify the triggers. We have no idea whether each day is going to be a good one or not. In fact, we don’t know whether the next hour is going to be a good one or not. So we’re always on edge, even when things seem to be going well. We know not to get comfortable in the quiet moments, because they can end at any time.

And this has been our life for seventeen months.

I meant what I said earlier about her being adorable. She really is – she has so many lovely, personable qualities. I’d hate you to think that she was some sort of monster. Remembering all her positives helps to bring her behavioural issues into context: this behaviour isn’t “her”. It’s not her fault. Her first three years of life made her like this. Abuse and trauma from the people who were supposed to protect her from abuse and trauma have made her brain wire itself like this. How can I not do everything I possibly can to help her?

Meanwhile, I’m running on fumes. There’s nothing left in the tank. I’m exhausted. My mental health (a bit of a yo-yo at the best of times) is scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve been unemployed since January thanks to redundancy, but it truly couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m not sure I could have maintained regular employment through all this. But I’m supposed to start a new job at the beginning of June, and right now I’m honestly not sure I’m up to it.

Well-meaning family and friends have told us “You didn’t sign up for this. You’re not trained for this intensity of care. You shouldn’t have to put up with this.” And you know what? They’re absolutely right. But there is no-one else.

The fostering service is full. It is busting at the seams. Social workers are leaving, suffering from the same exhaustion and guilt as foster carers. The ones left are either super-human, or self-medicating each night when they get home, or have simply become numb to it all. The fostering system in this country is broken – but it’s still better than no system at all. We help as much as we can … but sometimes, the hard part is knowing our limits.

As a consequence, we’ve “served notice” on the placement. This is the official term for throwing-in the towel. It has been recommended in the strongest possible terms by our supervising social worker, and honestly, we can’t disagree with any of her reasoning. We’ve acknowledged that she’s more able to give a professional and objective opinion on the situation than us.

But no matter how right she is, and no matter how much we can see that this placement is no-longer healthy for us … that doesn’t stop me from being utterly riddled with guilt. I – a grown man who is supposed to understand the notions of responsibility and duty-of-care to the vulnerable – am abandoning a four year old girl. I feel like a selfish monster, and a foster carer who failed.

I love her. Completely. I love her when she gives me a hug and tells me she loves me, and I love her when she trashes her bedroom and screams at me. I am terrified for this little girl’s future, and hate that it won’t include me.

Even now we’re still looking for a way to keep her. If we could understand how to help her heal, or at least understand what triggers her. If the courts could understand that her situation needs to change in order to give her a chance. If funding could miraculously become available so she could get therapy. If …

Whether she stays or whether she goes, the result will be the same: it’ll break me.

Looking back at that first “Moving On” blog post, I still agree with everything I wrote. But I now acknowledge that there can be more to it than that. I did not appreciate that sometimes a child moves-on earlier than we would like. My wife and I always believed we’d have each child until they went to their “forever home”, but this child will be the first one for us where this hasn’t happened. We have to accept that this is OK. And we hope that in six months, we’ll be able to look back on this from a healthier perspective.

Diagnoses are done, therapies are beginning, and care-plans are in place. We’ve written a huge amount of notes and insights and observations to best equip her next carer. We try to take comfort in what we have done for her, rather than beat ourselves up about what we hoped to do for her. And we pray that this is enough. Because, like the other six before her, we want to be able to put this one in the “painful, but totally worth it” bucket.

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