Friday, 12 December 2014

Fostering - the ultimate in blended families

At this festive family-centred time of year we are even more aware of Peter and Belle's families than usual, as well as the families of previous foster children we've cared for.

Peter's parents and siblings are spending their second Christmas without him. We recently took Peter to an informal contact session where we met up with all of his siblings and the various relatives and carers they live with, plus a smattering of other family members and their partners and children, saw Father Christmas and swapped presents. His siblings have started to ask why they can't all live together, and we know that Peter will be in their minds on Christmas Day, as they will be in ours.

Belle's parents are not only spending their daughter's first Christmas without her, but they have recently found out that the decision has been made for Belle to be adopted. We've never met them but regularly send and receive notes when Belle goes to contact sessions, and of course speak about them often with Belle's social worker. As the months go by and we learn more about their own stories, we start feeling like we know them a little. I can't imagine how they must be feeling now.

I've been thinking about Belle's forever family too and wondering who they are and what they're doing. They don't know it yet, and won't do for several months, but they will be spending their last Christmas without Belle in their family! They haven't even seen a photograph of her, but their tree next year will be decorated with adorable little hand and footprint crafts, they'll be hanging up a stocking with Belle's name on and getting excited about watching her open her presents on Christmas morning.

We're not in touch with Jack-Jack or Andy's forever families but we do think about them regularly, chat about how old they are now and wonder what they look like. Whether or not Belle's parents decide to keep in touch, and whoever we have in our family by that point, we'll definitely be thinking about her next Christmas too and wishing her well.

We've come to realise that fostering families just keep getting bigger!

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Changing fostering agencies

We're thinking about moving house to be nearer to our extended family for support. As foster carers this can be a complicated business! We foster for our local authority, and their rules state that foster carers can live in our home county or any one of the neighbouring counties. This sounds good in principle, however whenever possible children must be placed within easy distance of their birth parents to make regular contact arrangements viable and to enable them to remain at their current school/nursery. In our local authority the majority of looked after children come from one end of the county and the majority of foster carers live at the other end which is already an issue. Would we get any placements if we moved out of county? It's a risk.

If we decide to change fostering agencies there are further complications - do we simply switch to the local authority of our new county or do we choose an independent fostering agency? There are positives and negatives to both, and there can be huge differences in finances, training and support even between two similar agencies.

Then there's the switching process which requires a new assessment and a new "Form F". Sometimes there is a fast tracking option which means we'd be assessed whilst still fostering for our current agency, and would just select a transfer date once approved. Some agencies don't allow this - they require a 6-8 month period without placements whilst the new assessment is completed, which of course would mean no income for us. Some agencies will negotiate foster carers being allowed to "keep" their current foster children when they transfer, and some won't. We've also considered using our experiences with Peter and Belle so far and becoming specialised carers in a disability fostering agency.

Of course we have Peter to consider too. We wouldn't consider him leaving us now so whatever we do the new agency will have to accept that!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

What it's like caring for a pre-adoptive baby

People often get fixated on the "giving them up" part of fostering. They say "how do you do it?", "oh I'd love to foster but I could never give them up", or "you must be a special sort of person to be able to give them up."

We're not special sorts of people and it's definitely not easier for us than it would be for you. This is what it's like:

Imagine that you got a call out of the blue one day saying that a relative you didn't know had passed away, and that her baby girl needed a temporary home. They know you have a spare room and child experience, and wanted to know whether you would take the baby in for a few months whilst they searched for her father. You don't have much time - the baby needs a home today. You say yes and rush around buying nappies and formula and preparing her room. You're excited, it's been a long time since there was a baby in the house. You can't help yourself in the supermarket and buy a couple of adorable little outfits. The baby arrives with her social worker - she's so tiny in her car seat and looks so vulnerable. You sign the paperwork, pick her up and give her a cuddle. She's confused and anxious, and you spend long hours holding and comforting her over the next few weeks whilst you get used to each other and settle into a routine together. One day you realise you love her and you start to imagine her staying forever - you're only human - and picture her first day of school, helping her with her homework, teaching her all the things your mother taught you. You're there for her first milestones - teething, her first steps, her first word, her first birthday. She's part of your family - you're the one she reaches out for, you're the one she smiles for, you're the one she runs to when she's hurt and your children's grandparents dote on her.

You get calls now and then explaining that the search is still going on, and you don't really think about it. Then one day eight months later, her social worker comes to visit. They've found the baby's father. He and his wife were so excited to find out about the baby, they've been through the necessary parenting assessments and are looking forward to taking her home in about a month. She's brought a brightly coloured baby photo album containing photos of Dad, his wife and their home for you to prepare the baby for her move. They've sent a soft toy teddy as a gift for her, and the social worker tells you to put it in the baby's cot for her to get used to her new family's smell ahead of time. She asks for your phone number so that Dad can phone you to find out more information about the baby's routine and personality. You always knew that this was the plan, but you're surprised how shell-shocked you feel now that it's finally happening.

The next evening, Dad calls. He sounds so nervous, but relaxes during the conversation and his tone is gentle and kind. You can hear his wife in the background asking questions, and with your eyes on the sleeping baby you tell him all about his daughter - what makes her laugh, how to settle her at night, what her favourite foods are, the toys she has already and you suggest a couple of things for them to have in their house ready for her arrival. You've never heard someone so excited and you start to relax too - you know that this is the right thing for her and you know that she's going to be loved.

Two weeks later introductions start. The doorbell rings. You pick the baby up and open the door, and for the two people standing on the doorstep time stops for a moment as they meet their child for the first time. She knows their faces from the photo album. "Who's that?" you say, pointing at the man. "Daddy!" she says, and you see his heart melt. By the end of the first visit, she's sitting on his lap, knocking down towers of blocks built by her new mummy who clearly adores her already. They're all laughing, and you take Dad's phone and quickly snap a photo for them. Over the next week you step back, busying yourself in the kitchen so that the new family can spend time alone together, or recommending local parks for them to take the baby to on their own. You see familiarity growing, and one day the baby runs to Dad instead of you when she bumps herself. Your time together is nearly over. Friends and family start to pop round to say goodbye and you explain to so many people that they won't be seeing the baby again - people at church, mums at the baby group you took her to, the man who works in the bakery. You make a memory box for her of photos, cards and notes, and write her a letter to read when she's older about what she was like as a baby and how much she was loved.

When the day comes you're ready. All of her clothes and toys have already been taken to her new house, you pack up the last bag with her pyjamas, special soft toy and toothbrush. The doorbell rings at the agreed time, and as you've previously agreed as it's an emotional day for everyone there isn't much delay. You give the baby a big squeeze and a kiss, hand her over to her Daddy and wave as they drive down the road. You know that she's going to have a wonderful life, but your heart is broken and at several points over the next few days, weeks and months you will hold your family close and weep.

You think that you could never do it again, but a few months down the line the phone rings. "There's a baby…" they say, and you say yes because you know that they need you.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The difference a year makes

It's just over a year since Peter moved in with us which feels like a huge milestone. I remember when we were talking about the referral before we'd even met Peter we said "Give us a year, he'll be a completely different child," and it became a phrase repeated frequently by our friends and family and even other professionals.

Well, it was certainly true, there's just no comparison!

October 2013 aged 4

  • Full time nappies with no awareness of wet or dirty
  • Very skinny, in age 2-3 clothing with no strength in his limbs or hands
  • Wouldn't brush his teeth, couldn't go to the hairdresser or dentist
  • Self-harming behaviours (head banging, slapping his face so hard he'd burst his lip)
  • Dummy and comfort blanket full time except at school
  • 10 single words, numbers to 10 and the alphabet
  • Any change, transition or ending an activity would trigger a mega meltdown
  • Total refusal to walk outside
  • Unsafe near water
  • Tried to escape from any building or park we went to
  • Communicated in screams or taking our hands to show us what he wanted
  • No response to his name
  • No crunchy foods - would only eat puree, tinned veg stew or tinned spaghetti
  • Couldn't use fork or spoon, ate by scooping with his whole hand
  • Drank from a lidded no-spill beaker, and would only drink chocolate milkshake
  • No pincer grasp to pick up small items - whole hand grip only
  • Took medication to sleep
  • Addicted to the iPad
  • Very little eye contact and showed no affection
  • No self-care skills - couldn't get dressed, wipe his face, put shoes on

October 2014 aged 5
  • Dry and clean in the day, nappies at night
  • Tall and strong, in age 6-7 clothing
  • Brushes his teeth every day, happy at the hairdresser and dentist
  • No self-harming behaviours
  • No dummy, comfort blanket only for bedtime
  • Hundreds of words, talks in short sentences and learned phrases, counts past 100 and can spell some words
  • Very rare mild meltdowns now - change and transition are no longer an issue for him
  • Walks outside happily holding an adult's hand
  • Stays near us or keeps us in sight in parks - no longer tries to escape
  • Safe near water, he can be trusted to wait for permission to paddle if it's safe
  • Communicates verbally and using a few signs
  • Responds to his name, and can read and spell it!
  • Varied and healthy diet including a range of textures
  • Uses a fork or spoon appropriately
  • Drinks water, milk or diluted fruit juice from an open cup
  • Pincer grasp is developing
  • No longer medicated to sleep
  • Enjoys using the iPad when he's allowed to but will happily move on when it's time.
  • Excellent eye contact, loves cuddles and kisses
  • Gets himself dressed, wipes his own hands and face, puts on his own shoes

It hasn't been easy for any of us at times, but we are beyond proud of Peter for how well he's done getting used to a new home, new boundaries, new school, and now having another little person around and being a big foster-brother. We absolutely adore him and are so glad that he's part of our family. We love nurturing, teaching and encouraging him - we can't wait to see how much he grows and progresses over the next year!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Emotional baggage

Tonight was another instalment of "things foster carers do that other people never have to do". Belle's social worker arrived this afternoon with all of her belongings - several bin bags and a huge plastic tub full of mostly clothes, but also bedding, toys and bath bits. She asked us to go through it and decide what to keep to use for Belle, and the rest would be collected and returned to Belle's mum.

This is not something we've done before - Peter and Andy both came from another foster placement so had an appropriate amount of clothes and toys, and Jack-Jack arrived with absolutely nothing from home.

It was an emotionally tiring and heartbreaking task. Belle's mum had packed up absolutely everything - from the tiny baby first clothes that she's long grown out of, to bits and pieces in the next size with the tags still on. Warm coats and padded trousers for winter. Hand-knitted bootees and cardigans. Pretty dresses that might have been worn to a party or wedding. Tiny little pram shoes. Piles and piles of vests and sleepsuits, dresses, trousers and tops.

Of course, not everyone has the same taste and we needed to sort them out without any judgement or opinion - this wasn't "would I put my own child in this?", but rather "is this seasonally appropriate and in the correct size?"

We've ended up with lots of really lovely little outfits - some for Belle to wear day to day, and some which will be saved for her to wear at contact sessions with her mum.

We arranged the belongings nicely into groups and took some photos which we'll put in Belle's memory box for her to take with her when she moves on.

It's good for mum to see her daughter in clothes she's chosen so she still feels involved, but it will also be good for Belle to know when she grows up that her mum loved her and provided for her even when they weren't able to live together.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

New baby

We have a second placement! An eight month old baby girl - Belle, for the purposes of this blog - moved in five days ago (it's taken this long to get over "baby brain" and get ourselves organised again to post on the blog!) She is absolutely adorable but has some feeding issues and is severely underweight, so we've been trained in NG tubes to supplement her nutrition.

Peter is coping really well with the intrusion of his home and having to share us, (although a couple of days in he did say emphatically "Bye bye baby Belle! Baby Belle go back home!") we've made sure he's had extra nurturing and special time with us so that he doesn't feel jealous. There have been a few sweet moments between them - this morning he let her hold his finger whilst he watched television, and he puts up with her wanting to grab his nose and pull his hair. He keeps a keen eye on what we're doing, although he pretends to ignore Belle most of the time, he's very quick to notice when there are cuddles or feeding going on and pipes up with "Peter's turn!"

We don't know how long Belle will be staying or what the plan for her will be yet, but we're really enjoying our time with her and are looking forward to seeing her grow and progress.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Hidden talents

Our car needed to go in for a service today so Esmerelda picked Peter up from school in a courtesy car.   She pointed out to him that it had a picture on the side and that it was smaller than our car, but Peter didn't seem interested in the car at all. They drove to his Occupational Therapy appointment and when they came out  an hour later, on the way to the car park Esmeralda said "Do you remember which one is our car today?" "PN14 6GG" said Peter immediately. Esmeralda checked, and he had remembered the exact number plate of the courtesy car!

Peter does like cars but they're not a major interest and we had no idea that he was aware that cars have number plates, nor that they would be a way to identify a specific car.

We're wondering what other hidden talents he's harbouring!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Duty calls

We have a vacancy at the moment, and over the last couple of weeks we've received a call from the duty team most days.

The children they're calling us about may still be living at home and their case is going to court soon so a placement is being sought in preparation, they may have been removed as an emergency and a bed is needed for the same night, or they may be in another foster placement which isn't working and they need to be moved. One call we had recently was for an asylum-seeking child who doesn't speak any English. How frightened and confused he must be.

Two children would have been perfect fits for us if we didn't already have Peter, but his autism and multiple therapies make it more complicated, especially if a child has challenging behaviour or a high level of contact. All children in care are high needs in different ways, so meeting everyone's individual needs is even more important than with your own birth children.

Of course we feel for every single child and it's hard to say no, even when the child is clearly the wrong fit for our family. We've said no so many times recently that the irrational guilt has started to build up - Was that a good enough reason? (Yes - anything which avoids a future disruption for the child is a good enough reason.) Could we have just said yes and made it work? (Possibly, but would that be fair to either Peter or the new child?) Are we just making excuses because we're waiting for the 'ideal' child? (No - we couldn't describe the ideal child if we were asked - we're open-minded and consider each referral separately.)

It sometimes feels like the duty team are so called because it's our duty to take every child they call us about - they're certainly persuasive!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Things I love about autism

*It goes without saying that everyone is an individual and these things are specific to Peter and his autism.*

I read something the other day. It was written by a parent - they said that they hated their child's autism and wished they could rip it out of them. I do understand where they're coming from as our children face so many challenges every single day and it can be really really tough to look after them, but I think it's a mistake to separate the autism from the child in our minds. It's easy to be negative about the thing that we perceive is stopping our child being themselves, when in reality it's a part of them - they can't be themselves without it!

So without further ado, these are the things I love about Peter's autism:

1) He is easy to entertain. Peter is a sensory seeker for every one of his senses, so the only thing we really have to worry about is sensory overload. He loves loud and quiet noises, all tactile experiences, strong and mild tastes, interesting smells (he doesn't experience disgust at "bad" smells the way we do), physical movement like spinning, running and jumping, visual input like lights, colours, pictures, moving objects. If there's nothing to interest him at any given moment he'll make his own entertainment by moving his fingers in front of his eyes to make the light flicker, looking at things from the corner of his eyes, flapping his hands, spinning, or making loud noises.

2) He takes joy from the little things. Peter really appreciates beauty, especially in nature. He will stop and examine flowers and insects on our walks, and will stand and gaze at running water for what seems like hours, he loves clouds, rainbows, stars, walking barefoot on grass, the wind in his hair, splashing in puddles. The joy just bursts out of him as though he can't take it any more - his whole body will tense up, and then he explodes into laughter, shrieking and flapping. You can't help but smile when you're near him!

3) He wears his heart on his sleeve. He is not secretive, he doesn't hide his emotions, he's not an introvert. When he feels something, we know about it - whether that is frustration, upset, anxiety, boredom or pure joy.

4) He is predictable. Yes, we get it wrong sometimes, but generally we can predict how Peter will react in situations and can prepare accordingly. Activities and days out take far more planning and preparation than they would with a neurotypical child, but if we try to see things through his eyes we can envisage trigger points before they occur and react accordingly.

5) He loves routine. We have no problems at all putting Peter to bed, because the "tea time, bath time, bedtime" routine is such a safe and secure part of Peter's day that he looks forward to it.

6) He is determined. He struggles to understand and make sense of the world every minute of every day but doesn't let this stop him enjoying life, progressing and achieving beyond anyone's expectations.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Raising expectations

We're finding it frustrating that people seem to have such low expectations of Peter. It took months of his teachers saying that he was doing well, settling in beautifully, a lovely member of the class etc. before we found out about some atrocious behaviours that they were dealing with on a daily basis and were able to help them put strategies in place to improve things. We've just had a similar situation as Peter has just finished three weeks of a special needs holiday club - on the last day we discovered that he had been behaving appallingly from the first day, and the play leaders had just let it all slide meaning that his behaviour deteriorated as he continued to push the non-existent boundaries. When we challenged them they were shocked that we don't accept such poor behaviour at home so it rarely happens - they genuinely didn't think Peter was capable of making good choices.

Why is this? Is it because he has autism? Because he's developmentally delayed? Because his speech is immature and his eye contact is minimal with people who aren't close family and friends? Is it because he's a looked-after child?

How do they expect children to learn how to behave if expectations are so low from the start?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Sibling contact

Peter's having a fantastic Summer holiday! He relaxed into the swing of things about one week in, and we've had some really lovely days out as a family. We even went camping together near the seaside, and Peter enjoyed the whole tent experience, paddling in the sea and watching the boats.

We had Peter's first sibling contact this week at a local soft play centre. Peter has several siblings - some in other foster placements, and some placed with relatives. The children were removed from their parents getting on for 18 months ago, they haven't seen each other for around a year, and it was fascinating to see them all instantly drop back into the roles they had when they were at home. The oldest child became "the parent", the youngest child became "the baby", and they all treated Peter as though he'd made no progress at all since they last saw him although they clearly adore him and have missed him. Two sets of their grandparents had also travelled to be there, and it was a strange and wonderful experience chatting to all the people present, and realising that they are now all part of our extended family because Peter is part of our family. Sibling contact will be arranged at least four times a year, and it will be lovely to watch the other children grow up and see them progress, just as it will be lovely for them to know Peter as he gets older.

One bizarre consequence of having a large, loving, extended family who don't communicate or see each other regularly seems to be duplicate presents! It's no secret that looked-after children tend to have a lot of "stuff" (although we've tried to stem the tide a bit by saving towards more expensive items that meet a sensory need rather than endless toys), but as an example Peter has received no less than three remote control cars from various members of his family for his birthday! Not that he is complaining at all, although he hasn't got the coordination to work them yet so they've been put away for now.

We've noticed that Peter seems to go through phases of rapid progression and then plateaus for a while to process everything before starting again. He's in a rapid progression phase at the moment, especially with his speech and understanding, which has been fantastic as it's reduced his overall frustration and anxiety. He's putting several concepts together now to ask questions and tell us what he wants in more detail - still no grammar, just lists of words such as "come on come on watering can paddling pool Peter blue slide tummy" to tell me I'm not filling up the watering can with the paddling pool water fast enough, he wants to slide down the blue slide on his tummy whilst I spray him!

He also now understands how a calendar works, and accepts if we tell him something fun is happening "on Friday", rather than having a meltdown because he didn't understand that the fun thing would ever happen if it wasn't happening now. We use a visual calendar with symbols for activities we're doing during the week, and he regularly checks it to remind himself what's going on. It will be a very different child going back to school in September!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Summer update

Amazing to think that we're nearly at the end of the first week of the Summer holidays already! Peter had a wonderful Frozen themed birthday at home playing with our friends and their children. We were impressed that he held it together all day and had great fun, although it did mean that there were a couple of days' fall out afterwards, and we ended up taking all his birthday presents away and drip-feeding them back over the next few weeks as he couldn't cope with all the change at once.

Peter found the last couple of weeks of school hard due to the changes in routine and the constant reminders of transition - saying goodbye to the leavers, having his "moving up" day with his new teacher and classmates for next year, talking about the holidays etc. and his anxiety has been coming out at home in regressed behaviours which haven't yet calmed down.

The holidays are also hard for Peter in different ways. We have lots of lovely fun activities planned as well as down time at home, but we also have high expectations of him in terms of his behaviour, tidying up, finishing tasks and learning to do things for himself. It's nothing he's not capable of, but it's extremely tiring and frustrating for him to listen, focus and stay on task so he's been trying every trick in the book to get out of doing whatever we've asked him to do!

Peter's just started Occupational Therapy and we're learning tips to help him improve his fine motor skills at home. We've come to suspect that school are not placing any demands on Peter or trying to teach him much at all as yet, which is such a shame. He's keen to learn, he just needs someone with him to help him focus. He's made huge progress with his language, but at the end of Reception year he didn't know which end of a Pritt stick was which, no one has attempted to correct his "whole fist" pencil grip, and we've eyed most of the art folder that came home with some suspicion as it looked more like the work of a TA!

Even with all the anxiety and regression, Peter is still doing fantastically. We started very casually potty training at the start of the holidays and he loves all the praise and chocolate buttons although isn't yet able to tell us before he needs to go. It will come. He can get dressed pretty much independently now and is working on being able to put his own shoes on. He's mastered opening and closing screw-top lids and is completing 50 piece puzzles. We're excited to see how much progress he makes by the time school starts again in September!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Five years old

Peter's turning five very soon. Five feels like such a massive milestone - it's the end of being a toddler and the start of being a fully-fledged child, and as a parent/carer you find yourself thinking scary thoughts like "only five more years and we'll be looking round secondary schools". One minute you look at your four year old and they seem so so tiny, and the next you wonder how you never noticed how tall they were getting. You start comparing photos from the start of the school year and see all the little changes in how confident and grown-up they are.

So Peter, on the cusp of turning five, here are five things I love about you:

- Your singing! You sing when you're happy, which is 99% of the time. You sing at the top of your voice, and you sing in whispers when we've asked you to be quiet. Even though you haven't worked out the concept of a tune you sing as though your life depends on it and some of my favourite moments are singing duets with you. At the moment you seem to like folk music and show tunes - a killer combination.

- Your independence! Nine months ago I never thought I'd miss you taking my hand and needing me by your side, asking to be carried 100 times per day, gluing yourself to my lap every time I sat down, wanting me to stay by your bedside until you fell asleep… but I do. I'm so proud of you and what you're achieving every day, but I selfishly wish that we'd had more of your baby days to treasure.

- Your communication! You're trying so hard to overcome your communication difficulties. You're working out new ways of letting us know who you are, what you need and how you feel, and when we get it wrong you tirelessly try again and again to get us to understand.

- Your determination! Everyday tasks are more difficult for you to learn, but you don't give up. It took you four frustrating tries this morning to put your hoody on but you got there! You're keen to learn and are patient with us as we work out ways of breaking down tasks for you and giving you the necessary 'muscle memory' to do it for yourself.

- Your memory! You've memorised hundreds of songs and rhymes, entire episodes of Peppa Pig and In the Night Garden, about 20 different Thomas the Tank Engine books plus loads of sections of Disney films, adverts, you name it. You can recall these at a moment's notice with frightening relevance to the topic at hand, whether we thought you were listening to our conversation, or not!

You are going to be a force to be reckoned with as you grow up, and I'm so looking forward to going on that journey with you.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Out of the mouths of babes

We are a Christian family and pray with Peter every day, as well as singing worship music together and attending church. Peter has delayed speech and understanding, and I've often wondered what his first real reference to God or his first prayer would be. Maybe it would be something profound!

Someone was handing round little slices of cake as we were leaving church this morning, and we gratefully took one each to eat in the car. It was the Vicar's birthday cake, so on the way to the car I said that we'd need to say thank you to the Vicar next week for giving us some of his lovely cake. Without missing a beat, Peter said "thank you Jesus for cake, amen."

His first prayer. It was definitely heartfelt and to the point!

We'll work on the theological issue of confusing the Vicar with Jesus at a later date…

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Family likeness

Today I noticed something fascinating.

As Jack-Jack's birthday is coming up we've found ourselves missing him more than ever, and today I decided to look his adoptive parents up on Facebook to see whether there was a recent photo of him. There he was as soon as the page opened, and it was astonishing how much he's changed! He no longer looks like the baby they collected from our house at the end of the introductions, he's now a little boy, and even more than that he really looks like his adoptive mum and dad.

When he lived with us, people used to tell us that Jack-Jack looked like us all the time. They'd stare at us each in turn and exclaim how he could have been born to either one of us. He doesn't any more, he looks like his new family.

Esmeralda was at a training course a couple of weeks ago where all the participants passed round a photo of their child as a point of reference. No one knew that she's a foster carer and not related to Peter at all, but when she passed his photo round all of them said how much he looked like her.

It's all down to a combination of picking up turns of phrase, sounds and accents, facial expressions, body language etc. from the people you spend so much time with, but I found it amazing that it's happening so quickly, enough to be noticeable in a photograph!

Monday, 26 May 2014

The lows

Fostering, like anything is full of lows as well as highs. It's easy to feel guilty when things aren't going so well because overall Peter's making such fantastic progress, but it's important to be realistic. We recently found out that our close friends and family have no idea what our life is like on a daily basis because whenever we speak about Peter we're so full of our love for him and pride in his achievements that they assume everything's fine and dandy at home.  We're still relatively new carers - we need to learn how to use our support network so that they can actually support us!

Peter is extremely full on from around 4am when he wakes, to 6.30pm when he goes to bed. His volume dial is always turned right up and both Esmeralda and I carry earplugs to wear to take the edge off when it gets unbearable. His attention span is very short, and he cannot be persuaded to engage in something if he hasn't chosen to do it himself as he has a meltdown. At the moment there's a big discrepancy developmentally between his brain which gets over-stimulated with very little, and his body which needs high activity levels to burn off energy. There are many things that are completely out of the question for us with Peter for now, such as going out for a meal, going to a playground with more than one entrance, anywhere with a pond, river or lake, going on an aeroplane, staying in a hotel, going to any organised group activity (where there are any expectations to stay in one area/room or follow even simple instructions), staying anywhere more than a couple of hours, having more than one or two visitors at a time. Visiting someone's house is hit and miss - with careful planning we might be able to stay an hour. We can't browse around shops, go to the supermarket, a museum, stately home. We go to church, but sit in a side room as he can't cope with sitting in the congregation. He doesn't play with other children or have friends, so we don't do play dates or birthday parties. We can't use a crèche or leave him with anyone. We can't go anywhere we might need to queue. We have to plan days in advance based on how we think he'll react, but he's very unpredictable so there's a fair chance that we'll have to turn around and drive home 20 mins after we get somewhere. Thankfully we haven't had to take him to the GP as he would have to be pinned down to be examined and it would be traumatic. We have to micro-manage his food as he can't tell us when he's hungry, thirsty or full, grabs any food he can see regardless of whether it's on someone else's table/plate, stuffs his mouth until he chokes and would eat until he was sick.

He needs constant supervision, has no concept of safety or rules, cannot be reasoned with and doesn't understand even simple explanations like "it's closed". He has no comprehension of good/bad behaviour or rewards so things like star charts would be pointless. Due to his size and level of understanding it takes both of us to keep him safe and organise the day, so whilst he's awake neither of us gets much of a break.

There are loads of things he enjoys and can do of course, and we have great fun together, but it takes a lot of energy to "manage" Peter's time and anxiety levels so that we have as many successful days as possible. Cutting Peter's school hours down was absolutely the right choice for him and we can see the benefits, but it's intense and we're all tired. This weekend tempers have been somewhat frayed, so today we veged at home and watched DVDs together.

We'll be speaking to his social worker this week about finally arranging the respite that we were promised before he moved in, but which seemed to fall off the list of priorities once he was placed. He's 5 - we're not going to send him away for the weekend, but we would appreciate Children's Services funding the odd Saturday at a special needs playscheme, or approving a qualified babysitter so that we could have a meal out after he's gone to bed. Eight months is a long time in any job with no time off.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Birthdays and waiting again

I'm not sure whether it's because we knew we were in this for the long haul when Peter moved in, or whether it's due to his age or additional needs, but even though we're now in our eighth month together it still feels like early days in many ways. In contrast, Jack Jack lived with us for only nine months before he was adopted and it felt like a lifetime. We've been thinking about him quite a lot recently as it so happens that Jack Jack and Peter's birthdays are within a couple of weeks of each other. We're looking forward to celebrating Peter's fifth, but it's reminding us of last year when we were planning Jack Jack's first.

We had a catch up with our social worker Jane recently and have officially been put back on the lists so are waiting for the call for a second placement. We know the right child is out there, and it feels like it's coming at the right time for Peter as his attachment continues to progress and he's settled so well with us. We still haven't decided whether an older or younger child would be better for Peter as there are positives and negatives to both, so it will be much easier to receive a call from the duty team and assess whether we think a child is the right fit for our family based on their specific needs rather than an imaginary set of needs based solely on age. Peter has only really been interested in playing with/near other children for a month or so, so it seems like good timing - I think he'll love having another child around once he gets over the initial shock of having to share our attention. It's quite exciting passing the spare room, glancing in and wondering who will be living there in the next few weeks or months.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Full of surprises

Peter is amazing us every day at the moment - he seems to have decided to teach himself to read, armed with his weekly ration of Cbeebies, a couple of Vtech talking toys and a shelf full of picture books. He knew all his letters before he moved in with us but we've kept it very low key since then - a few matching games here and there if he showed an interest, but all based on letter names, not sounds. (I clearly hadn't read the "Jolly Phonics" handbook…)

We received a report from school recently that was very positive, detailed and descriptive in all areas of Peter's development, although they seem to think that he only knows the letters that make up his first name and isn't fussed about the rest of the alphabet.

Imagine our surprise when out of the blue a few weeks ago, Peter tips a pot of foam letters into the bath, plucks out c, a and r, sticks them on the side of the bath and says "car". He played it cool after this, but earlier this week followed it up with "weel", after a thoughtful and considered process of sounding the word out phonetically (hence the missing "h", but interesting that he put in a double "e".)

He's also started recognising a bizarre selection of whole words - so far it's been "warning", "sky" and "moo", all out of context so not recited as part of a story or with any clues of particular fonts and colours. It's fascinating!

We've bought some resources to start helping him along, but are taking his lead. As school are finding out, our boy isn't a performing monkey, he's very bright but on his own terms. We're so proud of him!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Easter holidays

We had a fantastic break. We'd planned in an activity for each day of the first week, and then went on a trip away for five days on the coast. Peter loved the beach and paddling in the waves, and even had his first ice cream in a cone! He threw himself into every opportunity that came his way, and it was amazing to see his independence and confidence grow over the fortnight.

He has so much energy and enthusiasm that it's easy to forget that although physically he's nearly five, mentally and emotionally he's about half that. By the Friday before school was due to start again we realised that it was all getting too much for Peter. We reigned it all back in and spent some quality quiet time at home, reading stories, laughing together, doing jigsaws and singing, without any distractions or stimuli like the TV, iPad or visitors. Peter really responded well to the new relaxed routine and we've had a peaceful and easy start to the Summer term.

With all this in mind, we've decided to calm things down around here for the time being. Fewer planned activities, less screen time, going out at when it's less busy, and a focus on family time at home. We've even cut down on Peter's hours in school as we saw how much better he did in the holidays when he was able to nap every day and the effect that had on both keeping his moods regulated and the quality of his night time sleep. We'll be picking him up after lunch and will evaluate how he's doing at half term to see whether we'll continue.

In the spirit of Easter, it's been a wonderful rejuvenating time, and feels like a fresh start for all of us.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Parents' afternoon

We were invited into Peter's class today to play with the children, see the work they've been doing and have a special tea with them. We've had several meetings with the teachers, but it's the first time we've actually been into the classroom since he started at this school so we were very excited to see all the things he's been doing.

We wondered before we set off how the teacher would refer to parents/carers as a group as we know that Peter's not the only fostered child in the school, and there are other children on special guardianship orders, living with grandparents etc. but as we walked in we heard her say "We have some special visitors today children - your mummies and daddies have come to play!" Whoops!

As it's a special school, the teachers and assistants all use Makaton signing to aid communication for all children, and as Peter is only just starting to sign at home we hadn't appreciated how much they signed at school. Our own signing is limited to a few basic ones picked up from Mr Tumble, so we're got a way to go - it's inspired us to source some training so that we can give Peter some more continuity.

Peter loved having us there and was so excited once he got over the initial confusion as the normal routine had changed, and it was wonderful watching him participate in the singing and dancing with his classmates. We were amazed how involved he was in all the actions and how beautifully he was sitting on his own chair for circle time. He's come so far in a term!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Modelling behaviour

We went to a playground today that we haven't been to before. It's especially designed for children with additional needs, and we've been really looking forward to going for several weeks. Peter had a great time overall, but the behaviour of some of the other playground-users prompted me to write this post. It wasn't the children, but the parents!

During our two hours there, Peter was pushed off a tricycle, spat on, kicked, had his hair pulled, had a toy he was really enjoying snatched from him and was shouted at. All were unprompted attacks, and he didn't retaliate. None of the parents did anything, and they were all right next to their child at the time.

Now, I'm not judging your parenting for your child's behaviour. I appreciate that your child is not being "naughty", I understand that right now they may have a lack of impulse control, they live in the present and don't understand consequences, their underdeveloped communication skills mean that they are unable to listen to reason when they are focussed on something that they want, and they act from emotion without thinking. That's my child too. That is absolutely no excuse for not modelling appropriate responses. If an incident occurs, all it needs is:

Simon pushes Peter off the trike and then spits on him and kicks him.
Simon's mum "Simon that wasn't nice, that hurt the little boy. It's your turn on the trike next." (to us) "Is he ok? I'm sorry that happened."

As it was, we barely got eye contact and "Simon" wasn't spoken to at all except a half-hearted "stop it".

We ended up saying each time, out of earshot so it didn't sound like we were trying to correct someone else's child - "That boy didn't make a good choice - it's not nice to *insert action* and you were very kind not hitting him back." We mostly avoided the other children from then on by playing outside when they were inside and vice versa.

There's just no need for that to happen, I would have been absolutely mortified if it had been Peter attacking someone. If you know there's a risk of your child being violent to another child, surely you need to stay nearby to anticipate any trigger points and act first.

We go to "Special Needs" venues because they're generally quieter and safer, to avoid the risk of Peter being picked on for being different, and to meet and chat with other parents who understand and are going through the same things. We're quite disappointed that they didn't seem to be at this particular place.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Re-traumatising and music therapy

When living and working with traumatised children, it's important to know as much background as possible about each child so that you can avoid re-traumatising. For example, if you know that your foster child was abused in their bedroom you might want to move settling activities such as bedtime stories downstairs, or if you know that your foster child was scapegoated in their family, you will want to be very careful how you phrase things when disciplining them to avoid bringing those feelings to the surface.

We know very little of the day to day detail of why Peter and his siblings are in care, so haven't really had to plan any strategies other than the usual ones around safer caring. We had an issue the other morning that could easily have been avoided - I bopped Peter on the head with a cushion in a playful way to chivy him on, and he looked terrified and reacted as though I was going to beat him. Obviously I felt dreadful, but now we know that reaction is a possibility and can imagine some of the reasons why, we'll be able to be more sensitive.

Peter seems to be very musical. He hasn't yet got the concept of "tune", but he definitely has rhythm and a good memory for lyrics (not the exact words as his language skills aren't there yet, but he gets the general shape of them), and loves to sing loudly and enthusiastically, sounding a bit like a Gregorian chant. He can also pick out a different part to a song, so sometimes I'll be singing a melody and he'll come in with the bass line, getting the length of each note right and without getting distracted by me singing something different, it's quite extraordinary. We're hoping to arrange music therapy for him in the near future to see whether he engages with it, but for now he seems to be happy chanting along to folk songs in the car!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014


One of the reasons we decided to take Peter as a long-term placement was because we went to visit him and saw how much potential he had. It's unusual to be allowed to visit a child before agreeing to take a placement, but the social workers had painted such a bleak picture of Peter, his behaviour and his additional needs over the phone that we stood our ground and requested to be able to meet him first. We chatted to his previous foster carers before he came home from school, and spent maybe 15 minutes in Peter's company. By the time we left, we had already made our decision.

We found out yesterday that the paediatrician who was assigned to Peter's case at the time had told the foster carers that Peter had no potential. Zero. He would never make any progress, he would be unable to communicate or make meaningful relationships. He would achieve nothing. He would amount to nothing. This was about eight months ago. In fact, the foster carers were told that it was not WORTH them even trying to get through to Peter because he was a lost cause.

How dare s/he?

Thankfully the foster carers ignored the doctor's advice, and worked tirelessly with Peter day and night on his issues with food and sleep, reading to him, talking to him, involving him and loving him. They had no training or support, and felt completely overwhelmed and out of their depth, but Peter did make great progress with them. Fast forward to the present day and we're looking at a completely different child.

This was a medical professional. As far as I'm concerned, this is like telling a pregnant woman that the foetus in her womb has no potential. All children have potential. I wonder how often this happens - imagine the lives wasted if this advice was taken seriously by parents and carers.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Progress and first impressions

I'm sure that this is the same for all children, whether looked-after or not, but we've found that people's first impressions of Peter really depend on what time of day they meet him. We had a friend come to visit this weekend, and as she left she commented on how well-behaved and calm Peter is. She'd been here for the two hours before bedtime, when he was winding down, having a bath and eating tea. As any parent will know, that could have easily gone the other way as overtired children rarely come across well! Esmeralda and I are probably more aware of this than most due to Peter's additional needs, and occasional (used to be much more frequent) epic tantrums accompanied by ear-piercing screeching, head banging and face slapping. He is an affectionate, helpful, clever, engaging sweetheart, but it's easy to miss that fact when confronted by extreme behaviours, and it can be soul-destroying to see some people's negative opinions of Peter formed in just a few short minutes.

We recently got to the point where my iPhone was almost filled to the brim with photos of Peter, so we decided to go online and make him a photo book to preserve the memories for him. As we looked through the photos to choose the ones to go in the book, we were surprised how different he looked when he first arrived. It's so easy to forget! He was pale, thin and small, in his own little world, hardly making eye contact and rarely smiling. Fast forward a few short months and we have a vibrant, happy, healthy child with rosy cheeks, full of energy who's shot up a size in clothing and shoes. I'm sure in another six months we'll look back and be amazed at the changes again - it's so rewarding to see!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Moving and attaching

Peter coped fantastically well with our house move. He came with us to pick up the keys, and we did a couple of car loads and long play sessions in the new house over the weekend so that he could get used to the space with some of our belongings in, and then we did the majority of the move whilst he was at school. He loves the new house, and it felt really special to buy him some new bits and pieces of furniture and set up his new bedroom as "Peter's room" to his tastes and interests rather than just an impersonal and mitch-match "fostering" bedroom as it was in our old house.

We're five months into placement now and he's recently started showing the beginnings of attachment behaviours towards me, almost like he's going through an infant phase of separation anxiety. He doesn't like it if I leave the room, and I need to engage him in something and sneak away if I need the loo otherwise he's screaming outside the door. He's always asking to be picked up and if I sit down at all he's on my lap or tugging on my hand. He's a little treasure and I do enjoy the cuddles, but it's exhausting being constantly needed, and Esmeralda has been finding it a bit difficult at times as Peter's no longer as settled with her. It will pass, we went through exactly the same thing with Jack-Jack who came out the other side much more confident and attached to both of us, but I must say it was much easier having an eight month old glued to me than a 20kg four year old!

Friday, 14 February 2014

Moving house

Just as we'd made the decision to stay in our current rented home for a few more years to save up a decent mortgage deposit, our landlords dropped the bombshell that they wanted to sell the house. Ah. It was certainly a shock, but has actually worked out really well as we've found a house to rent on the other side of town which has a better layout and more space. We were thrilled to find it and it's perfect for us, but it meant that we were faced with raising the topic of moving with a four year old to whom moving home has been something frightening and traumatic. Peter has moved home twice in the past year: once from his parents' home to his previous foster carers, and then again when he moved to us. Permanency in foster care is supposed to offer the child long-term stability, but of course we can't second-guess when landlords might serve notice!

We've got a couple of weeks to go now, so we've started drip-feeding information to try and prepare Peter for the transition so that he feels as safe and secure as possible. Peter's school have offered their support, so we've taken photos of the new house and sent them into school for them to use when discussing the move with him. We're speaking little and often about the things we're looking forward to doing in the new house, and how we'll be doing them together as a family. We'll involve him in packing items up and unpacking them at the other end, and we'll make sure he sees that it's not just his belongings that are moving this time. One thing we're very excited about is that we're going to cut the number of stairgates down from seven to two when we move (just Peter's bedroom and the top of the stairs in case of nighttime wandering) as Peter's becoming far more trustworthy around the house. We're really proud of him and are amazed at how quickly he's progressing!

Hopefully the message will get through, but even if it doesn't straight away, it might be an unsettling time but Peter will see that we're all still together in the new house and will start to understand that Esmeralda and I are his permanent home, whichever house we're living in.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014


Over the months that Peter has been with us we've found quite a lot of people get very excited once they realise that we have a dog, and tell us lots of wonderful stories of how they've known/read about/seen on TV that children with autism have their worlds "unlocked" by a special relationship with an animal, usually a dog. They then wait expectantly for us to tell them all about how this is magically happening in our home. We were guilty of this ourselves whilst we were waiting for Peter to move in - imagining teaching Peter about empathy, hygiene, eating and toileting whilst he helped us to care for Lady and anticipate her needs. We thought he'd probably attach to her before he attached to us, and pictured the two of them snuggled up together.

Well suffice to say Peter does not have this magical relationship with Lady and it was definitely not love at first sight (on Peter's side at least) - he really couldn't care less whether we had a dog or not!

This has improved a little over time. To start off with, Peter completely ignored Lady and refused to acknowledge her at all, whilst she desperately tried every trick in the book to make friends with him. After a few weeks he touched her on the side without looking at her, and a month or so later he would throw her ball if she put it directly in his way. These days he'll occasionally stroke her tail or briefly pat her tummy, has said her name a few times and has shown that he realises she's a dog by pointing to her lead and saying "woof woof"! He will occasionally allow her to sniff his neck which makes him smile, but usually he just pushes her out of the way if she gets too close. Thankfully she's very robust and doesn't mind!

We've taken her to school a few times when we go to pick Peter up, and whilst his teachers and the other parents and children love her, Peter just gives her a disdainful glance, although he does seem to enjoy watching her walk alongside his buggy on the way home.

Peter does like animals - he can name most farm and zoo animals and knows the sounds they make, he's fascinated by the squirrels in the park, and he loves watching fish, butterflies and birds. Maybe Peter and Lady's friendship will develop as time goes on and they'll become firm friends, but for now poor old Lady is getting the cold shoulder!

Friday, 24 January 2014

School and the looked after child

Looked after children (or children in care) are much less likely to achieve academically than children who are not looked after. This can be for a multitude of reasons, for example - lack of early stimulation, several school moves, attachment difficulties, missing a lot of school before they came into care - but in most cases is due at least in part to heightened anxiety levels. A five year old has recently been told that the family finders are looking for an adoptive family for him, a 15 year old living in a children's home is worrying about moving out to live independently when she reaches 16, an eight year old who's just come into care is concerned about whether his drug addicted parents can look after themselves without him, an 11 year old still expects a beating from his foster father after school because he thinks that's what all adults do, a seven year old doesn't yet trust that her foster parents are going to give her enough food every day and hides her school lunch in case she's hungry later, a 10 year old has just found out that his younger siblings are going to be adopted without him…

Put very simply - when a child has such high anxiety levels they are unable to concentrate on school work because it isn't important to them.

There are obviously exceptions, and children in stable long term foster placements are statistically likely to do better than those who move around which is great news for Peter as we're now moving towards permanency for him.

We've been working for the last few months on lowering Peter's anxiety levels by building up trust, and his progress is really clear to see. We love his school, and we're very grateful that he was able to get a place to start this term, but we've definitely seen his anxiety levels rise as he's in a new environment (again) and doesn't know what to expect. He's testing the boundaries and we've been told of several behaviours that would be unacceptable at home but his teachers just laughed about!

I'm sure it can be difficult, especially as it's a school without much experience of looked after children, for the teachers to distinguish between behaviours that are related to Peter's additional needs, typical behaviours for a 4 year old, and those related to his early life experiences and more recent upheaval. It certainly is for us! We just need to try to work together to make sure he's supported so that he can achieve to the best of his ability. He's a bright little boy and we're very proud of him!

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Another placement

Now that Peter's been with us three months and has made such fantastic progress, we're starting to seriously talk about and consider when might be a good time to add a second foster child to our family - how old that child should be, how Peter will cope initially, which additional needs we think we could handle etc.

I don't think either of us are ready for the emotional upheaval of another pre-adoptive placement, nor do we think that having a child join our family as a short-term placement would be good for Peter, so at the moment we're looking at another, probably younger, child on long-term/permanency. There's no hurry, as we want to make sure that Peter is well settled both at school and at home before we go ahead, but the matching process can be lengthy and is even more important with a child already in placement, so there's no harm in starting our search for the right child early.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Back to school

Peter starts his new school on Tuesday and whilst we're excited about the new opportunities and experiences he'll have, we both feel a bit sad that the holidays are over as we've had such a lovely time together.

Esmeralda took the whole school holiday off work, and 2.5 weeks of having two adults completely focussed on him have been fantastic for Peter. We did a count up recently - since he moved in with us 11 weeks ago he's gone from using about 10 single words to 200 words and phrases, and 50 of these have been during the Christmas holidays! His language and communication are really blossoming, it's amazing to see. He's confidently eating several crunchy foods now, and we're sure that this has helped his speech as his muscles are getting a better workout.

His behaviour is completely different now, you'd barely know he was the same child. He had a period of regression after a contact session recently, and it really served to remind us how far he's come.

Peter has met quite a few friends and members of our extended family over Christmas which has been really good for him to develop his social skills and coping strategies. He's walking for longer periods outside holding hands without needing to use the buggy (today was for almost an hour) and we're working on his awareness of danger and road safety. He even managed a family meal out in a restaurant on Boxing Day! We'd had it booked for months, and even though we pre-booked our food and phoned ahead of time to make the waiting staff aware, we thought he'd last about 10 minutes and we'd then take it in turns to walk around outside with him. He surprised us all by sitting beautifully in a dining chair playing on the iPad after he finished his food, and we stayed for the whole three course meal!

We couldn't be more proud of Peter and his progress, and are looking forward to the Easter holidays already!