As you bake cookies, make decorations and buy endless presents for the kids in your life, spare a thought for those cast aside. Our regular guest blogger and SEMH school leader Graham Chatterley shares his views on why children in foster care should never be treated as disposable.
Why the care for looked after children can’t be conditional
There are a number of reasons why I write these blogs. I started because somebody asked me to, it’s not something I ever thought about doing. Then I started writing them as a way of organizing my thoughts, the one I wrote about ADHD actually played a big part in how we organized classes in school. However the best reason to write them is for my own well-being. So many first drafts were me ranting my little head off- and by putting them onto paper, it allowed me to think straight again. I would have to rewrite it and tone it down but it certainly made me feel better. The fact that people seem to like them was a bonus!
My own well-being is very much my purpose for this one. My job isn’t easy, we are a school but in many ways we are more like a trauma centre. We have a lot of children who are in care and a lot who probably should be. Trying to undo the many wrongs the children either have experienced or are still experiencing isn’t straight-forward. For a lot of our children, I listen helplessly to the disclosures and I battle with social workers daily, trying to ensure they are kept safe. We are constantly in dismay after hearing the length of waiting lists or the lack of service or just constantly being fobbed off. Helplessness is something I’ve got fairly used to – but at least I go home every evening knowing that I did all I could – and that gets me to sleep at night.
Well that and a certain 6 year old with special needs who likes to keep me just the right side of exhaustion!
This blog is specific, and it is emotional, and I’m hoping that writing it will get me to sleep tonight. In writing it, I may well upset some excellent foster carers. I hope they don’t see this as me putting them all in the same bracket – I certainly respect that there are a lot of excellent ones out there – but I can only comment on my own experiences, which are increasingly becoming a cause for concern. That concern is that people are fostering for the wrong reasons and it’s too easy to just ‘give em back’ at the first sign of trouble.
These children need a replacement for the unconditional love they should have received from parents but didn’t. A love that isn’t dependent on good behaviour and whatever they do or mistakes they make will still be given to them. However what we are increasingly finding is that that love/care is very much conditional. It is vey dependent on them being manageable and not too challenging.
Being loved and cared for is not an Xbox that can be given when you earn it and taken away as a consequence.
We know as a school that scared children cannot think, they cannot rationalize decisions and foresee the consequences of their actions. We expect mistakes and we help them to learn from them. We expect no progress from them until they feel safe, until they find one member of staff who they trust. Only then can we expect any progress. This doesn’t have a time limit and cannot be sped up with threats or consequences. Every time they say they hate the school the reply is the same; to say that we like them, we care about them and we aren’t going anywhere. Every time they get to crisis point and try to hurt someone, we hold them and tell them we are going to keep them safe. Eventually that child realizes they can’t push us away despite their best efforts. We have a child who now has a safety net and begrudgingly starts to trust.
It’s not easy – it can be very intense but it’s the process. The time it takes and the member of staff that child takes to is different for each individual, but it is the belief that they are safe and cared for unconditionally that gives us a platform. At home this love and care should be significantly multiplied but I’m increasingly seeing foster carers who are just not prepared for the early battle and want it to be easy, and sadly, it often isn’t.
The worst day of my career
I recently had the worst school day I’ve experienced. I watched a child literally break in front of me.
It was a Friday, and I left for the weekend not knowing if he was safe or where he would be sleeping. He wasn’t wanted because he was deemed to be “faulty” and therefore he was discarded – his foster parents had decided he was too much work.
‘I don’t want that one, take it back so can I have a better one’!
This child, who despite his mum choosing her abusive partner over him, despite the only father figure he’d ever known taking his siblings but not him, despite a previous failed foster placement, still built what he thought was a relationship with new carers and allowed himself to trust and care again.
And what did he get in return? He got led to believe that everything was fine whilst the carers served notice on his placement. His social worker was blocked from visiting in case they let something slip and his behaviour deteriorated, and he got dropped at school with a ‘have a good day, I’ll see you later’ knowing they were going to drop all his belongings at the school office and never see him again.
I had to try to explain this to him. He thought I must be making it up because nothing had been said other than ‘See you later’. The denial turned to the anger when he realized he’d been lied to. I held him through the heart-breaking realization when he just sobbed and replied ‘Why would they do this? I thought they cared about me’.
I mean what do you say to that?
I watched anger replace sympathy in the eyes of the staff who were with me at how any child could be treated like that.
And all this two weeks before Christmas.
How can I ever help that child to trust an adult again? How can he ever understand, when he’s been given no closure “because they didn’t want to rock the boat” before they cast him aside like a broken consumable?
The worst part though, is that he will be blamed. He is too challenging or too aggressive or progress is too slow. We cannot blame the child for behaving in the only way his brain will let him.
I am angry that this can happen and I am concerned that it is starting to become a trend. Although this was by far the worst example, it is not an isolated case. It is too easy at the moment for time to be called on foster placements. I don’t know if it is a lack of supportive services or training for the foster carers or a rise in private fostering agencies. Maybe it is a problem with vetting or maybe it is just seen as a way to make money – but something has to change – and fast – because these are children’s lives. Children who have experienced enough trauma already and just need to be loved.
If a child is in care, it stands to reason that they are going to test boundaries. People have abandoned them and abused their trust, so they are going to see if the same will happen again before they allow anyone thorough their defences. Reject first, push away, push boundaries – put up the wall and keep yourself safe.
‘It is better to live with the certainty of misery than the misery of uncertainty’ (Virginia Satir)
I’ve been there. My wife and I fostered a child in our mid twenties. It wasn’t planned, she was the friend of a neighbour who had ran away from her aunts. She was going to stay for 2 nights and left 3 years later! We never got paid for it and we found out later that her dad had beaten her regularly and her mum had emotionally abused her. It was exceptionally hard and she threw everything at us, our own children were young and we weren’t prepared for a traumatized teenager, but we did our best and we didn’t give up. She now has a house, a job and a family of her own. Damaged children need to know that you’ll be there for them, no matter what.
So what I am saying is this – if a foster carer isn’t prepared for what they are agreeing to and aren’t willing to do whatever it takes overcome the defences of the child and break down that wall, if they aren’t prepared to love the child unconditionally, then they shouldn’t become a foster carer because these children deserve better.