Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Little Dilemma!

I'm not really supposed to advertise to all and sundry that the children I look after are in foster care.  I think it's more of an issue with older children who, I'm sure, would not want their business discussed in public like that, but it matters for little kids too.

For instance, a while ago I went to get my haircut.  I didn't have the boys with me as my parents were visiting and had rashly offered to take them away for a little while so I could tame my mane.  The hairdresser asked me what I did, of course, and as soon as she heard, she set off telling me about a neighbour of hers whose child had been taken into care.  As the details of the story unfolded, it became pretty obvious that she was talking about NB.  How glad I was that I had followed the confidentiality rules and told her nothing about the boys.  Imagine if I had brought them with me!  It's a small world and you never know what people know.

Anyway, I digress.

When I absorbed all the confidentiality information during training, I was confident that I would be good at all that, but I didn't reckon on the curiosity of random strangers in parks and supermarkets!  It's not malicious curiosity at all, but more a natural reaction to seeing a cute baby in a pram or a trolley.  So I often get asked perfectly natural questions which unfortunately pose something of a dilemma to me.

You see, questions about age and name are not so difficult - these are neutral questions.  More awkward are the 'Is he your first?' types of questions, which thankfully eased off as OB got older.  At Stay & Play sessions, other mums are more probing.  It's amazing how often people want to discuss the details of their recent birth experiences and then ask you about yours!

I'm not a good enough liar to fabricate a believable back story, and nor should I, but one can only be evasive for so long before it becomes rude, so eventually I usually end up explaining that this is a looked after child.

Thankfully, as OB got older, the questioning lessened, but now I have a new situation.  These days, when I go out, I'm usually pushing a twin buggy with two children who don't look enough like each other to be twins, but don't quite look different enough in age to be brothers.

Twin buggies, I have discovered, get a lot more attention and many more questions than ordinary prams.  Conversations have a predictable pattern:

"What lovely boys!"  So far so good.

Then, more uncertainly, "Are they ..... twins?"

"No."

Then I watch a trail of expressions across the faces in front of me.  First of all comes a sort of satisfaction that they aren't twins - after all, the questioner suspected they couldn't be because they look so different, so it's good to have it confirmed.  Then comes the realisation that if they aren't twins then they are probably brothers.  And very close in age!  And probably with different dads because look how dissimilar they are!!!  Oh my word, what kind of woman is this?!?!  Two babies by two different dads and they can't be a year apart!!!!!!

Ok, I know I'm exaggerating here.  I'm sure most people aren't thinking that at all.  But I can't help thinking that's what they are thinking!

So now, when asked if they are twins, I explain that they aren't even related and I'm just looking after them.  I'm sure the questioners aren't that bothered really, but it makes me feel better about who I think they think I am! :)

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Things They Don't Tell You

The approval process for becoming a foster carer is so involved and thorough that it's hard to believe that there are can be anything left to know when you finally start doing the job.  And yet it seems that while you've told them every conceivable thing about yourself, there's plenty you don't seem to find out about what it really means to care for other people's children.

I could write a long list, but today I'm inclined to concentrate on just one thing: the amount of time you spend around distressed relatives.

At some point during the approval process I gained the distinct impression that, no matter how many contacts the children I cared for would have, I would not have to meet family members if I didn't want to.  I'm sure this is true, but in fact I have met not only parents but also stacks of extended family members for both the children I've looked after.

And not just met.  I've spent considerable time with some of these people, heard their stories and got to see the world from their point of view.

This last week has been a particularly hard one for the families of both the children in my care.  There has been bad news to digest and a need to adjust to new and hard realities.  At every contact, there have been tears or brave faces, sometimes recriminations and the searching questions of confused and hurting people.

It is easy to demonise the families of children who end up in care.  'How could anyone harm an innocent child?' is an expression I hear quite frequently, and it's an understandable reaction.  But behind every child in care is a family in crisis, people whose situation is completely chaotic, whose lives went out of control a long time ago, and now they don't know how to begin to rebuild.

Some of these mums and dads have their own sad stories of childhoods that were desperate and brutal, of exploitation, violence and abuse.  Some were in care themselves, others perhaps should have been.  Then there are the heartbroken grandparents who know that one day soon they will have to say goodbye to their beloved grandchild for the last time, and none of it is their fault.  Behind the victims, there are often just more victims.

So this week, I have been an observer to all kinds of pain.  I have spoken soothing words to a mother whose child reaches out for a stranger rather than for her.  I have listened to angry outpourings about social services, other family members and the world in general.  I have comforted those who are crying and turned away from tears I was not meant to see.

These are the things they don't tell you.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lazy Saturdays

Time was when Saturdays were an awesome day of the week - staying late in bed, a bit of Saturday Morning Kitchen while getting up followed by Football Focus over lunch and then the rest of the day to do as I pleased.

That was in the old days, when I actually went out to work!

Now, Saturdays are rapidly becoming my least favourite day of the week.

You see, most of my days are spent thinking up things to do with the boys so that they don't drive me (and each other) crazy cooped up in the house.  On weekdays there are contact visits, Sure Start activities, stay and play groups, and so on.  Perfect.  We usually managed to punctuate every day with something worthwhile, fun and, most importantly, out of the house!

Not Saturdays though. On Saturdays, all the usual possibilities don't exist, and instead we are doomed to fight with the rest of the population for what is left.  Shopping?  No thank you.  Even when I was working full time I preferred to do my shopping in the middle of the night rather than brave Tesco on a Saturday afternoon.  Kids' play places?  Also no.  On Saturdays they are packed with school-age kids that would  terrify my two little ones.

In fact, every place you could go on a Saturday is the same.  Even at the park, there's practically a queue to have a go in the giant wooden bus.  And on a wet Saturday it's even worse.  It must be appalling for those who work and have kids in childcare or school who are trying to fit everything in over the weekend while still having some sort of semblance of 'quality time'.

Thankfully, something nearly always comes up.  Today, we visited a Charity Fair at a local church.  Indoors, warm, and brimming with tasty goodies on all the homebake stalls.  We got some yummy biscuits and scones, as well as some lovely toddler-age books and rock bottom prices, all the while helping out local charities.  And best of all we got out of the house and spent some time with some lovely people.

And then we got home, had lunch and were all ready for a nap!  Perfect!

Busy Saturdays are the new lazy Saturdays :)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Target-tastic?

A report on the BBC News Website today explains how the Government is going to give local authorities 'scorecards' to measure how well they do on new adoption targets.

I probably shouldn't be amazed that after years and years of target-setting from the previous regime that often didn't account to much, the current lot are heading down the same path.  I probably shouldn't be amazed, but I am.

Have we learned nothing?

It's not that I'm against targets.  Personally I feel that a lot of what is called inefficiency in the public sector is linked to the problem of individual workers not really seeing how what they do matters within the whole organisation and to the public that they are serving.  Targets can help with that.

Also, it's undeniable that some services just haven't been up to scratch.  How can we measure improvement if we don't set measurable outputs and outcomes?

When I was teaching, I set GCSE pupils individualised target grades based on their past and current achievement.  These targets were applied to every piece of work and test they completed and pupils were rewarded for exceeding their target.  There was also a fairly unpleasant consequence for failing to meet the target.

Six months after introducing the scheme, pupils with less ability were increasingly looking at their own grades and how to improve them, and spending less time comparing themselves unfavourably with higher-achieving students.  On the other hand, top ability students could no longer coast along with the minimum effort getting 'B's if their target grades were 'A's.

What I did not do was set a blanket target that applied to all students no matter what their circumstances.  On the other hand, that is exactly what happened to schools.  'Five Good Grades' became the mantra all through my teaching career until I was sick of hearing about it.

And now, we are apparently shocked by the fact that enterprising headteachers have worked out how to achieve the target with the least hassle - get kids to take multi-award so-called 'easy' subjects that will earn them, say, two or three grades at once.  Concentrate on kids on the C-D borderline and ignore those who will never make it, or those who will easily make it.  The result?  Too much invested in 'average' kids and too little invested in weak kids and gifted kids.  Rafts of kids with great GCSE results in Dance, Health & Social Care, etc. but barely literate or numerate.

So, once again, we change the goalposts for schools.  Now, the five good grades must include Maths and English.  Even better, why not consider the English Bacc? - a totally arbitrary collection of so-called 'academic' subjects which must leave arty types (like myself) holding their heads in their hands.

I could go on.

The point is that it's not the idea of setting targets that is bad, it is the total lack of intelligent consideration and forethought that goes into deciding what aspects of a particular activity should form the basis of the targets.

The skewing that occurred within education should easily have been predicted, and if it wasn't, at least lessons should have been learned.  And yet here we are, doing the same thing all over again with Children's Social Care.

The new targets are all about speed.  Get adoptive parents approved more quickly.  Get kids into families more quickly.  Don't let little things like finding an appropriate ethnic match get in your way.

At this point I'm going to have to leave aside the scores of trans-culture adoptees who have spoken up about the difficulties they encountered growing up (including on Radio 4 only this week) because I do personally feel that, on balance, it is better for children to be adopted trans-culturally than to be left in foster homes and institutions if absolutely no appropriate ethnic match can be found.

Instead, let me just say that we live in a country where, according to a recent news report, 20% of adoptions fail - the adopted children end up back in care.  That's one out of every five children that is adopted.  Just take a moment to imagine how devastating that must be for a child who has already suffered so much.

Adopting a child is not all roses and petals.  Even childen adopted very young can later exhibit severe difficulties as a result of their early experiences.  If prospective adopters think that the process of approval is too much like hard work, then they probably shouldn't be taking on the massive challenge of bringing somebody else's child into their home and pledging to love and care for them, whatever happens in the unseeable future.

I'm sure the new targets will speed up the adoption process for parents and children alike.  And believe me, I'm equally certain that there is sometimes unnecessary delay - far be it from me to claim that all is efficiency and velocity at social services.  But what will be the unintended consequences?

Maybe at this point it's too simplistic to say that in the frantic push for speed and action, little thought is being given to maintaining and improving the quality of placements.  Virtually nothing is being said about a programme or plan to increase the number of adopters who are prepared to take on older children, disabled children or sibling groups, and these are the ones who are languishing in the system for years.  It's not difficult to find a family for a cute baby after all.

I can't help feeling that five or ten years down the line we'll be reading stories about tragic failed adoptions where unforseen circumstances in the parents' or childrens' lives have taken their inevitable course; failures that could perhaps have been prevented if enough time had been taken to gather all the necessary information and give enough breathing space to consider the realities of what it means to open your home to a stranger.

So, Mr Cameron, if all you want is to be seen to be doing something in response to a media storm, then go ahead and set your targets, and hope you're voted out before you have to deal with the fallout.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Safeguarding

I tend to find discussion of safeguarding and child protection depressing.  In my last job I helped voluntary organisations write child protection procedures and it was not a favourite part of the job.  Nobody really wants to spend any part of their day talking about the terrible things that can and do happen to children, often in their own families.

So I wasn't looking forward to the 3 hours of Basic Safeguarding Training that I had to attend today.   This training is mandatory for foster carers, so no matter how much experience you have, or how often you've attended the training before, you have to go every three years.

There was nothing new in the course.  They've changed their assessment framework to a 'windscreen wiper' model rather than the old 'triangle' model, but it's basically the same idea.

I was coasting through it until we came to a scenario about a hypothetical teenage girl who becomes moody and argumentative and eventually yells that she wishes she were dead.  Pretty typical teenage behaviour we all agreed in our group.  But no.  The course leader informed us that it was her opinion that a child protection referral should immediately be made and the girl should be referred to children's mental health services.

"Really?" I protested.  "I must have yelled that I wish I were dead a hundred times when I was a teenager."

"Yes," said the course leader.  "And for every thousand or so teenagers who say that, what if one of them actually tries to make it happen?"

The thought hung in the air uncomfortably for quite a few moments before we moved on.  It has stayed with me for the rest of the day.  So a news report tonight about a 10-year-old bullying victim who hanged himself hit me with immense force.  One of the criticisms of the serious case review was that his threats to kill himself weren't taken seriously.

When you spend a fair proportion of your life involved in child protection issues, it's easy to become suspicious of every circumstance, to see the worst in every situation.  Every adult becomes a potential threat, and every child is vulnerable.  Sometimes it seems over the top, but on days like this I can't help thinking that it's not such a bad attitude.

If a thousand threats are investigated and 999 families are inconvenienced and upset, isn't it worth it if one child's life is saved?