Our new fostering placement - how it begins
"Are you the foster carer?" someone asks. I introduce myself. Everyone looks at me and then goes back to staring at the floor, the walls or the files they are clutching,
Eventually a nurse arrives. She is irritated. This mother and baby were ready for discharge three days ago and they are unnecessarily taking up a bed in post-natal due to delayed paperwork. We are ushered into a room with instructions to "just get it done".
There are seven of us. Everyone apart from me is wearing a local authority or NHS lanyard. Two health visitors, a hospital midwife, baby's social worker, mum's social worker, mum's support worker and me.
Someone asks when the baby was born. Baby's social worker gives a date. It's the wrong date. There is some confusion and shuffling through paperwork. I supply the correct date. Nobody pays attention. Eventually baby's social worker confirms the correct date. Then somebody asks baby's birth weight. Again there is paper shuffling. Again, I supply the correct information. Again everybody continues as if I have not spoken. I think for a moment how nice it would be to have one of those lanyards . . . and a voice.
When mum arrives with her tiny baby and a supportive friend, she is crying. We all shuffle around to make space for everybody. Social worker suggests that mum sits next to me. Mum looks uncomfortable with the idea but complies.
This is a 'Discharge Planning Meeting', but everybody knows that once the talking is over, this mum is going to be separated from her baby. Tension arcs across the room. Professionals start saying things that are almost certainly sailing right over this distraught mum's head. I think what a waste of time it all is, getting all these people here to pass on information that will only be forgotten, confused and misunderstood.
After a while, mum finds her voice. She wants daily updates on her baby. Baby's social worker asks if I will send daily texts. I explain that I don't use my personal phone for that. Social worker expresses surprise that I don't have a works phone with a blocked number. I inwardly express surprise that social worker doesn't realise that I don't 'work' for anybody and therefore don't receive such perks as a mobile phone, a lanyard, national insurance payments or a pension.
Mum's social worker wonders whether I could show mum the daily log that I keep. No I can't. It's strictly confidential. But I will keep a communications book to be passed between us at contacts. And I would be prepared to send regular informative emails to one of mum's workers so that they could pass information on by text. Nobody volunteers an email address.
Then mum asks what she needs to do next. What does she need to do to get her baby back? Baby's social worker says vague things about keeping her solicitor's appointments. I think this is incomplete advice. If they asked me I'd say turn up to contact every time without fail. Be on time, early even. Be clean, tidy and presentable. Be sober. Nobody asks me. Nobody else has anything to say.
Inevitably, the time is drawing close when somebody will have to take that tiny baby out of its mother's arms. The empty car seat sits there in the middle of the room, increasingly drawing everybody's eyes towards it. One by one, the professionals start to excuse themselves - "I'll just wait outside." - until there is only me, mum, mum's friend, baby's social worker and baby.
Mum stands up, clutching baby, sobbing. Social worker starts filling her arms with baby's things, mostly soft toys and cuddly blankies. I don't see much in the way of clothes, essentials. There is no coat, but I have one waiting in the car. Mum's friend doesn't speak or move. She is frozen in her chair. Mum moves forward, lowers baby into the car seat and fumbles with the straps. I hesitate before going to help. There's a delicate balance between letting mum feel humiliated because she can't do it, and letting her feel humiliated because I jumped in as though I thought she were incompetent.
We are ready. I look at the social worker. She is backed against the wall. She shrugs her shoulders at me, indicating that her hands are full with baby's belongings. Mum's friend doesn't move. Mum looks at me. I take the car seat off her gently but firmly and say a quick goodbye. I wait, holding the seat awkwardly as mum leans in for one more kiss on baby's head. Then we leave her.
Outside, there is a line of professionals against the opposite wall like some kind of sombre parade. They don't look at me. I can hear mum's sobs behind me as the door closes, and I still hear them following me as I move quickly down the corridor. Baby's social worker trots alongside me, chattering in a high-pitched voice about how she shouldn't be doing this, she's a looked after children's worker, she hasn't done a removal in over 20 years. I think, well, you haven't done one now have you? You let me do it.
The following days are a flurry of arrangements, meetings and appointments. I may have a brand new baby in the house today, but that doesn't stop anybody arranging a placement planning meeting for tomorrow. Then the social worker calls to cancel the placement planning meeting, but three professionals turn up at my house anyway as they weren't informed. The midwife comes. There is a contact arranged. The placement planning meeting is re-scheduled and again the house fills with professionals. Another contact. At every one of these occasions I have to be clean, professional and on the ball with all of the information. Baby has to be dressed, clean, fed and in perfect order. Chronic lack of sleep is to be no excuse for any dip in standards.
Today I took baby for her third contact with mum. It was to be held at mum's placement. Mum wasn't there.