How do you welcome a young person into your home?
“In our home, they come in and we introduce ourselves. We normally use a lot of humor to break the ice, especially with teenagers who often come with barriers. Their profile could be really bad but because we’ve read their profile, we know we can facilitate their needs, so it’s not necessarily things we need to go into with them on day one.
When we take them into the living room, straight away we’ll offer them a drink and they generally say no. Brandy, our dog, will come in and say hello. In our home, we have lots of family photos around so we show them photos of our children and our grandchildren and do it that way, rather than overwhelm them with a big meet-and-greet party.
It’s very casual and we’ll show them around the house and ask them if they have any questions that they would like to know about us. Interestingly, we had one young person ask if we’ve been CRB (DBS) checked. Obviously, the answer was yes, as local authority foster carers you have to be but it’s interesting that they asked.
They’ll be shown their room and how to use the TV and the Xbox to try and take the edge off. For them it must be harrowing going into a stranger’s home – they don’t know us from Adam. The social workers may tell them a bit about us but they’re not silly, they know a social worker is going to say that.
Della and I like to make it as informal as possible and ask them what they like to eat, for example, not just formalities. When we talk about rules and expectations, the one thing we don’t allow smoking in the room because a) health and safety reasons and b) we don’t encourage smoking. Other than that, there are no strict rules or a long tick list of dos and don’ts. A lot of it will be aired as you go along and we’re very open to them asking us questions along the way.”
How do you integrate a new placement?
“We try and encourage them to join us in activities as gently as possible, so it’s not overwhelming for them. There is a fear that they’ll become isolated in their room which we will actively try to discourage.
Some days we may sit down round the table for dinner, especially on a Sunday, but if they prefer, we can sit in the lounge and eat meals on the sofa so it’s not quite so formal. Some young people may have come from a background where they don’t actually sit around a dining table so they might find it quite intimidating. I mean, I did initially when I married Della; her family always sat round the table together.
We try to avoid anything intimidating, or what can be perceived challenging, for them until the setting’s right and they’ve had time to embed in. It’ll be done gently in bitesize bits, but everyone’s an individual so some people you can be more forthcoming with whereas others you can see finding it very difficult. It might be they do spend the first few days in their room and engage with them bit by bit, compared to others might be more forward and sit in the garden with you having a cigarette and a chat.”
How do you say goodbye to the young people you’ve cared for?
“It’s really hard, though it is a rewarding experience because that’s what you’ve been working towards; you feel that this young person is ready. It’s an achievement as opposed to a sadness. This person has come to you, from where they’ve come from, and actually worked towards this. They’ve outgrown this type of foster care, so it’s seen as a reward.
There’s usually a tear in your eye and we’ll give them a present and their savings. Della and I do savings of £5 per week, so if they’ve been with us a significant amount of time that can be quite a lot of money. I’m not saying that’s what they’re driven on but it gives them a little bit of a standing and a security.
It’s never a goodbye forever, it’s always a goodbye for now. They’re always welcome back and some do come back. Some will stay in touch on social media and others will close it down as a new chapter. There have been instances where we thought they have closed it down and yet, they get in touch months down the line when they’re ready. It depends on how they feel; we will never truly know what that experience is like for them.
Some may feel it’s the right time to move out, but when they actually leave, they realise they quite liked it here. We can all have that idealistic notion that we’ve done our job and done really well, and now they’ve moved on, they’re happy and ok. That’s a thought I’d always like to keep hold of but sometimes the reality is when they’re not contacting you maybe they’re hurting. They’ve realised something is missing so we might drop them message to see if everything’s ok.
We’ve had a couple of people who’ve left when it probably wasn’t the right time, but they have felt it was right so we may have had a difference of perspective there. When we’ve heard something’s happened since they’ve left but they were here it was fine, it’s shame but sometimes you need to appreciate that that can happen at any time. It’s always tragic when something happens that’s not in their best interest and you wonder is it because they’ve left premature? It’s when they go silent – is that when they need you most? Do they think, ‘life was good there, I didn’t have the responsibility I have now. I had my allowance and I could spend that on myself. I didn’t have to buy food and buy this and buy that.’ Although we try to prepare them for that, there is a difference between supported lodgings and here. We always try to maintain contact. As I’ve said, it’s a goodbye for now but we’ll speak soon, and we do.
If a young person continues to come round, it can be challenging sometimes. We may be in the middle of something with another young person who’s now come into your care and needs your attention. This other young person who’s recently left, will see it as though we can still give them unconditional time and emotional support, even when it isn’t a good time at that moment. How you negotiate that is its own challenge if you then have another placement who needs to your attention. It’s unconditional at the time and all of sudden conditional because of what you’re doing now.
One young person we looked after started an apprenticeship so he could train to become a mechanic. One day my car had broken down and so I asked him to look at my car, which he did. He said it was unrepairable, but he wanted to help me find a new car and take me out to have a look at some. He wanted to do it and to help me for a change; he said it was role-reversal. It was a lovely gesture to show he cared for us. He helped sort out the paperwork, picked us up and dropped us off to collect our new car. It stood with me that he said it was role-reversal and he wanted to give something back to me. It was absolutely brilliant and funnily enough, he was the most challenging placement we had.”