In Million Pieces

Holly left 2 weeks ago, one month after giving notice. Our Social Worker insisted for Holly to stay with us for another couple of months because they had a possible suitable placement with a foster to adopt family who will attend panel at the end of September.

This request came from our Social Worker, who I respect very much, and made me doubt my own judgment. It made me feel undervalued, unheard, used and disposable. I told Social Services daily how our son Ben was scared of Holly, that he had nightmares, that the stress was getting too much for him to bear. I explained how Ben felt the need to protect me from Holly, how he was getting constantly hit by her and how destructive their relationship was. I used the word trauma over and over again. Regardless, Social Workers asked for more time, another 60 days of Holly living with us. They told me they were thinking about what was best for the child, but I had to doubt that because, clearly, the proposed arrangement favoured neither Holly nor Ben.

I realised that giving notice wasn’t enough, and I had no other option other than serving social services with a deadline. I gave five days for Holly to be rehomed, but my Social Worker bargained on that as well and it took a whole week to find a new placement.

The weekend before Holly left was one of the worst weekends of my life. It felt like 48 hours of constant aggression, screams, violence, meltdowns, anger, refusal, hate… Holly took it on me, on Ben, on my husband Diego, on strangers and kids. No one was spared.

Then Monday arrived, and Ben and I went to another foster home to drop Holly off. This time we didn’t even say our goodbyes. Ben didn’t want to hug her, or even get close to her. He climbed on my lap and whispered to me “Mum I’m scared of getting close to her”. I couldn’t blame him, and wouldn’t force him, so I just nodded and told him not to worry.

I kneeled down on the floor to talk to Holly. One more time, I explained to her “Holly, soon Ben and I will leave and you’ll stay here with Hannah. She has prepared a wonderful bedroom for you, with yellow flowers on the wall. Hannah told me she will cook pizza for lunch, your favourite” but Holly didn’t say anything, she didn’t even lift her head to look at me. She just kept pushing a plastic car back and forth on the laminate floor. Then, after the longest silence, she looked at me and told me to go away.

I wish it was one of the phrases kids tell us when angry or afraid, one of these phrases that actually mean the opposite of what they say, but it wasn’t. Holly just didn’t want us there with her. We were just a bitter reminder of all that happened to her.

And so we left. While leaving the room, I glanced back, just to see Holly completely oblivious of Ben and I leaving the room, leaving the house, leaving her life. When we reached the front door, I heard her softly asking: “Can I see my bedroom please Hannah”. I closed the front door behind me and Ben looked at me and sweetly confessed, “I will miss Holly, but just a small little bit, not very much”.

I spoke with Hannah a couple of times since Holly moved with her. I was genuinely pleased to hear how good Holly had settled in. She is happy, calm, relaxed. There is no sign of anger. No violence, no meltdowns, no defiance. Just a hurt girl learning to live again, in a place where she feels finally safe and loved.

In the meantime, my family and I are still trying to pick up all the pieces and return to a normal life. We carry with us the wounds Holly inadvertently inflicted in our hearts, and starting again is proving difficult.

Ben is challenging all the boundaries, even the ones we settled long ago. He’s emotionally dependant on us, he tells us constantly how much he loves us, and he needs to hear it back. He craves attentions, and kisses, and playtime together. His sleep is steadily improving, and the nightmares are getting more sporadic. He talks about Holly at times, in a bitter-sweet way, almost unsure of how he’s supposed to feel about her.

Diego hasn’t said much after Holly left. I think he feels relieved of having his family back, in a relaxed environment where he can enjoy spending time with us. If I know him well enough, he also feels guilty, but he might not even know what for. I bet he’s going through the last 7 months spent with Holly, over and over again in his head, trying to understand where we went wrong, what we could have done differently, and find the moment in which everything went sour.

As for myself, I’m defeated, broken, hurt. I failed to protect either kid and I cannot forgive myself for that. Sometimes I hold my son, in a hug that is almost too tight to be comfortable. I tell him how much I love him, how much joy he brings to my life, and how wonderful he is. Each squeeze it’s a silent request for forgiveness, that I hope it’s loud enough for him to hear.

When Caring Becomes Hurting

Since the day our foster daughter Holly has returned back to our home, we have been living under siege.

I feel for her. She left us to return to mum, and what was supposed to be the start of her new life was instead a nightmare that lasted 8 long days. She came back traumatised, hurt, scared, and angry. And I understand why.

I know why she so openly hates me, why she is so insanely jealous of my son Ben, why she lashes out constantly, why she cannot return to a good routine. I understand all the whys and I can justify all of them. I cannot really blame her. She is one of the victims of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, a casualty of a foster care system that doesn’t run as smoothly as it should.

As much as I understand why Holly is behaving as she does, I cannot ignore that, as a result of it, my son is afraid. Scared of Holly hurting him, scared she will get to him while he’s sleeping, scared that he won’t be able to protect me next time she hits me, scared she will stay here with us for good.

My son is my first priority. It’s my job to protect him and take good care of him. My role as a parent is to make him feel safe and secure. And with Holly staying here with us, I can’t.

So, we decided to give notice, we asked social services to find a new family for Holly. It was a hard choice to make, I felt I failed her, but I cannot have my son living in fear. So, two weeks ago I called and emailed both Holly’s social workers and mine and told them that, as sorry as I was, they needed to find her a new home, somewhere where she doesn’t have to constantly compete with other children for the attentions she so desperately craves.

First I was told they would move Holly in one week, then they say at the beginning of the following week, later that it would have taken two weeks, then again up to 28 days, and finally they mentioned a meeting in few days to discuss the next steps.

I’m so angry and disappointed. Social services are taking their time to decide what to do. Their first meeting together to discuss Holly is over two weeks after I gave notice. No one in this time ever offered support, came out to see us, or gave any tips to better cope with the situation. What I got so far is two phone calls from two different social workers asking my point of view so that they can bring it to the meeting. No one even explained how to give notice works, they just told me I have to be patient, up to 28 days patient, apparently.

No one from the fostering team told me I could also ask to place Holly in emergency care if the situation gets unmanageable, I had to find out about that by myself. Most day I think I should. Social services, in specific my social worker, failed to protect me and my family and left me alone to deal with all this.

But above all, I feel guilty. I put my son in a stressful and frightening situation. I can explain million times to him that no harm will come to me or him, but I would tell him a lie. Holly regularly bites him, scratches him, barges in his bedroom in the middle of the night, screams on the top of her lungs, and mock him by calling him names or just saying the opposite of what he’s saying.

My son has nightmares, he cries in his sleep. I can hear him most nights sobbing in his sleep “please Holly don’t hit me”. When he wakes up in the morning he crawls in our bed and he always asks: Is Holly still here?

I feel powerless. I put my son in this situation and now I cannot help him get out of it. I wanted to care for Holly and I ended up hurting my son instead.

Holly attacks are getting more violent, and more unpredictable. To keep my son safe, I finally decided to install a gate at Holly’s bedroom door. I keep the kids separate as much as I can. I’m becoming someone I don’t like, and someone I’m not proud of. But what choice do I have?

The reality is that I cannot cope with this placement anymore. I never thought fostering could have made me feel so lonely and isolated. Never thought that the so called professional could fail so miserably in protecting all of us, both my family and Holly.

There are no winners in this situation. My husband goes to work every day knowing that he won’t be able to offer any practical support, my son lives in terror, I’m exhausted, and Holly is just alone in her suffering.

Holly will move out of here one day. I don’t know what there will be left to save by then. I want to think that the summer holidays, lots of love and plenty of laughs will be enough for my son to feel safe in his own home again. But for now, he will have to rely on the temporary sense of security that a baby gate can provide, knowing that the person he’s afraid of cannot do him any harm, and waiting for the day there’ll be no need for it anymore.

About Fostering

It was only 8 days ago when we had to say goodbye to Holly, our foster daughter. It was heartbreaking and bitter. We waved goodbye and we prayed for a happy ever after for her.

Then yesterday the phone rang. The fostering placing team told us there was a chance Holly would have come back into care, and one hour later Holly was already running in our living room. When she arrived she looked tired, a bit absent, perhaps confused, but soon after that she got back into her old habits, and she returned to all her challenging behaviours.

She came in with nothing, just a shopping bag of dirty and mismatched clothes. She didn’t even have shoes on her feet! I just couldn’t understand how in a short week she could have lost all her belonging, and how no one seemed to care that she had no shoes on. When the social worker left, I panicked. I went hiding in the bathroom and cried. For a short while, I let it all out. I cried in sorrow and anger. I felt like I couldn’t breath, trapped. When I calmed down, all I knew was that I couldn’t run away from this, as much as I wanted to, and I had to be there for this little girl.

After Holly left us to be reunited with her mum, I tried to make sense to the prior six months spent with her. I felt like we went through hell, I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. The endless defiance, aggression, meltdowns, and rejection took everything out of me and left me like an empty shell.

I wrote a letter to my husband Diego explaining to him how I felt during what has been the hardest period in my life, and to try to plan what to do next, and how to keep our son Ben safe.

Here it is, at least a part of it.

I knew that the experience we had with Holly was a stressful one, but only when she left I fully realised how bad it really was.

I felt a guilty sense of relief when she left, together with the sadness of seeing her go away. It was like being able to breathe again, relax after months of tensions, empty my mind. I knew how stressed and exhausted I was, but I didn’t understand the extent of it until she left and I (we) returned to normality.

I worry sick that the next placement will be as bad, or even harder, and I really don’t want to find myself in that position again. I didn’t like what I became while Holly was here, it was against all I think it’s good and right for a child (any child) but I couldn’t help myself. The exasperation and secondary trauma took over me, and I lost control of myself. I was left empty and hurt. What if this happens again? Not only I’ll end up being profoundly unhappy, but I can seriously impact on the child’s emotional wellbeing, and not in a good way! And I wouldn’t want to live with that.

During the entire permanency, I thought I protected Ben, I thought I stayed close to him, nurtured him and always put him first. Not surprising, that wasn’t the case. Now that I’m spending time alone with Ben, now that I’m calm and mentally/emotionally available, I realised how much I missed. He can do so many things I didn’t know he could, he got much more articulate in his speech, in the way he processes information and situations, and in his general knowledge. I didn’t see that happening, even if I was here with him every day.

Ben keeps telling us how much he loves us. My personal view is that he’s happy to have found us again, to have regained not only our full attention, but a loving relaxed family life. He told me few times “mum I love you, I don’t want to miss you again”. That broke my heart. It’s not different than any other emotional neglect. Now I can see him smiling again, be happy again, be nice, funny, silly, loving… I don’t want to lose that ever again.

Also, we as a couple have seen some hard times lately. At some point, I really thought we lost each other and I seriously thought we were breaking up. But now, I think we are happy again. I know you feel the same way!

Now Holly is back in our lives. Tension is already taking over our home. The kicking, spitting and screaming already made an appearance. Ben had nightmares last night and by 5am he was crawling silently in our bed. Everything seems to be falling apart again, and I’m not sure I can keep it all together.

A little voice inside me keeps saying “let her go”, but I don’t know if I’ll be able live with myself if I decide to do just that.

Full Time Tire supports MadLug, a charity that helps children in care carrying their life with diginity. Read about them.

Saying Goodbye

Holly, our little foster daughter, moved out a few days ago.

When I look around the house, there is no trace she has ever been here, if not for a picture frame sitting on the window sill.

Holly arrived quickly in our lives, about 5 hours after we even knew she existed, and she left almost as fast. It was just a few days ago that we got a call from her social worker to say Holly would have left in a couple of days.

The news came as a bit of a shock, but not entirely as a surprise. It was in the air, it was the only choice left on the table. Her social worker didn’t really do a good job in representing her best interests, and the outcome just reflected that. I keep trying to remind myself that my role as foster carer it’s not taking decisions on what will happen to a child, or to judge the outcome of the court. But my role includes compassion and hope. So I hope every day that Holly is safe and looked after in her reclaimed life.

In the meantime, the phone already started ringing. We have a boy who needs a placement, would you consider an older girl, what about a siblings group? And every time I say no, every time I answer that we cannot accommodate a child, a little bit of me feels like dying inside.

I think back at Holly, at how she plainly said I made her feel sad, at the many times she told me she didn’t like me, and at how she never kissed me goodnight. My memories are filled with kicks, growls, and shouts. But there is no hostility or resentment from my side.

The day she returned to mum, I went to drop her off together with my son Ben. Holly was first glad to be outside the house, and then excited when she found out we were waiting for mum. And when mum entered the room, nothing else mattered anymore. Certainly, not me, nor Ben.

Ben and I stared at her walking away with mum. Holly didn’t wave goodbye, didn’t kiss us, didn’t hug us. She just looked up at her mum and asked in a joyful voice that I don’t recall she ever used with us Can I sleep in your bed tonight?

I stood there tall and brave for my son. The further away Holly walked, the closer I felt like screaming at mum Please, don’t fuck it up. That was also the moment I realised how much I loved Holly, how much she became part of our family, and how much each of us learnt from her.

My son Ben, my husband Diego and I, we all carry memories of our time with Holly. These memories will be in our hearts forever. Our time with Holly changed us, made us somehow better people, a better family. And our memories are a testament to it.

But I cannot fail to see all the pain that these memories are made of, Holly’s pain and ours. I wonder which of these memories will stay with Holly, if she will think of her life with us from time to time, if one day she will forgive me for all the sadness I caused her, and if she will be able to let go of all the anger she brings with her everywhere.

I sometimes glance at that picture on the window sill. She looks gorgeous, happy and without a worry in the world. And I know that’s exactly how I want to remember her.

A natural born mum

The first thing I learned when I enrolled in the adoption training is that there’s a lot more to learn; the last thing I learnt, is that I should stop being so flipping selfish.

I must admit I initially resented the notion that, as aspiring adopting parents, we need to be taught how to be one. I really took it the wrong way, as if someone was implying that my inability to have children of my own had something to do with my innate ability to look after one. Back then I would use expressions such as children of my own, which goes to show how little I knew about the whole subject.

I remember wondering how much there might be to learn. It seems silly now, but I remember complaining to myself that most people become parents without any formal qualification; they do just fine, why do I need to do this? There are very few things that can make you feel more insecure than parenthood, and the obvious lack of confidence from Social Services didn’t help.

A more rational part of me eventually accepted that I knew almost nothing about adoption. I could guess there was more to it than what can be learnt from the movies. Real-life adoption is obviously very different, and many adopters (like myself back then) need to be told. The training provided during the adoption process begins with doing just that, helping people wake up. It touches topics any aspiring adopter should know about, and many of them are not pleasant.

But there is one more thing that anyone should take away from the training.

When I first started, to me the adoption process was all about me. Adopting a child was simply a mean to get what I wanted: namely having someone calling me mum. I feel a bit shameful to admit it now, but that was then.

Luckily the training and the process changed my perspective. Even someone as self-centred as myself couldn’t fail to notice that adoption has very little to do with yourself. None of the sessions I attended focused on the needs of parents. Parents were rarely even mentioned, if not to illustrate which parent handled a horribly difficult situation correctly and which one didn’t; or to prove that, without guidance, I would have gotten it all wrong.

Adopting a child is all about what the child needs. If you, like me, got into the process with the wrong idea it’s fine, you can still do well. Just make sure that, by the end of it, you understand what every social worker has been trying to teach you all along.

U-turning

Before we decided to find out more, adoption for me was an obscure and seemingly complicated thing. When we finally decided to give adoption a go, I had to learn more about it, and as it turns out, adoption is indeed complicated.

The process itself is confusing. It involves stages, weird assignments, and all sort of people panels; but we got through it just fine. And not without a good helping of arrogance on my side. I was confident, more than confident, in fact. I knew we would have sailed through the approval process in a breeze because, I thought, we were exactly the kind of family the adoption service was looking for: young (-ish) professionals in a stable relationship, financially safe, and living in two in a house made for a larger family. I’m sure all that helped, but I still think it was the way the selection process changed our thinking about adoption that made us good adoptive parent material.

A few truths helped me make sense of the selection process. There were bad birth parents, and good adoptive families, all children were equally easy to love, and love could conquer it all. Adoption was always good, and how couldn’t it be. We were in the process of adopting a child because we wanted to be the best parents we could be for him or for her. How could that be a bad thing?

But that was four years ago and very much has happened since. As you learn more about adoption you realise that the simplistic views that propped you up in the past aren’t even half the truth. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that you were right when you knew nothing about it, adoption is complicated.

I have been forced to change my views on adoption at every turn. Four years ago, I wouldn’t have agreed with much of what I believe today. This process is still very much ongoing, but despite all the u-turns I make in the past, I’m still thinking that what I believe today is right. I will disprove myself in a few years, no doubt.

It helps to meet a birth mother before concluding that all birth mothers are bad people. There are some awful people out there willing to do the most appalling things to their children, and that’s what we often read about, but most birth parents are not the monsters we read about. They truly love their children and wish things were different for them, but it’s hard to be a decent parent while dealing with alcoholism and family violence. Their children will always be caught in the crossfire, and that’s why they’re taken away from them. It’s for the best.

But the truth is that often, in foster care and adoption, there are only bad options to chose from and it’s incredibly hard to pick. That’s the case for Holly, our foster daughter. Until not long ago, the options available for her were going back to her mum or go and live with a close relative. When this close relative pulled out, kind of last minute, we were all glad this change of heart happened now rather than later. But till not long ago, the close relative seemed to be the Holly’s best bet too.

We’ll need to make a choice too, because it’s possible Holly will need to remain in care for some time yet, and our supervising social worker is already asking what we’re going to do if that should happen. There are reasons (which I won’t disclose to protect the privacy of everyone involved) that make this choice more difficult that it should be. Soon we’ll have to decide what we think is best for everyone: us, our son, Holly. And again, there isn’t a single good option, what is good for one is bad for at least one other. But we will need to make a choice.

And maybe the best choice is for Holly to live with a new family, although I hate to even consider it. And as we put together a photo album and collect little mementoes for her to keep in her memory box, I worry what it will be of her, and who will be at hand to help her in the future, if not us.

What makes you sad?

The social worker came to see Holly, our foster daughter, in preparation for the final hearing. She arrived at lunchtime, because trying to follow a routine doesn’t seem to be so important anymore for some.

The social worker wasn’t anyone I already met. She told me she was just doing a one off visit to “get a feeling of the child”. It wasn’t even 5 minutes after she arrived when she asked Holly to follow her in the in the playroom, where they could spend some time together and play some games. Holly followed without any objections. It’s alarming to see a child so small and young to just walk away with a stranger, without even turning around once or show any sign of uncertainty.

I sat in the kitchen with my son Ben, and while we were having our lunch, I listened to what was going on in the playroom.

Holly showed the social worker all her toys to with pride and a touch of malice: my book, my ball, my doll. And then the social worker asked her if she wanted to help her with a drawing. She took out of her bag some colouring pens, and a black and white drawing of a house. Holly got closer to the table to see the picture, and the social worker asked, “what colour would you like to use for the door?”. Holly doesn’t know the names of colours and she just stood there, in silence, waiting for the next questions.

A couple minutes later, I heard the social worker asking, “Who shall we put into the house with you?”. Silence. More silence. And then a soft, “I don’t know”. The social worker was happy to step in, “Your mum?”. Holly said yes, and I could hear a smile in her voice. She is very attached to her mum, and every time she sees her or someone mention her, Holly brighten up with love.

The social worker was asking more questions, but I couldn’t really work out what they were saying. Then she asked her, “What do you like of your mum?”. Holly emitted a funny squeak. She definitely understood the question, that’s why she was giggling, but she couldn’t form an answer. I just thought that there is so much of mum she loves, that she couldn’t pick just one thing and therefore decided to stand there chuckling.

When the social worker asked what she didn’t like about mum, Holly swiftly dodged the ball by asking for one of the stickers that were popping out the social worker’s bag. She momentarily forgot all good manners and just proclaimed, “I want one of those”.

But the social worker wasn’t ready to give up as yet, “What makes you happy?”. I heard Holly saying “bobol” so the social worker repeated the question. Little did she know that bobol is the way Holly pronounces the word bottle, the one she still drinks every night to help her fall in sleep. It’s not that she doesn’t know how to say the word bottle properly, she just likes to talk as a little child and mispronounce words. I saw Holly behave that way with mum, and mum finding it very cute and worth of praises and cuddles. Holly pondered about the question for a little while, as if she was thinking at what happy means. This time she just said, “I don’t know”.

Then the social worker asked, “What makes you sad?”. Holly answered, quickly and concisely, “Laura”. Me.

I sat there on my chair. My heart skipped a bit. I held my breath for few seconds and then I let the gravity of that answer sank in. And that reality hit me harder than any kick Holly has ever thrown at me.

I wondered if she was aware I was listening from the other room, and if she knew how much her answer hurt me. But more importantly, I wondered how many times I unintentionally hurt her, when all I wanted was to offer my help.

The Eject Button

There is a folder on my desktop called “black hole”. It contains all the posts I wrote that should never be seen or read publicly, at least for as long as I’m around. That includes close relatives too, wife included. What goes in there stay in there, never to get out.

The reason I’m mentioning this is because the blog post you are about to read was probably destined to that folder. I got stuck at the first paragraph, thinking “this is another post that will take me years to get right”, which by definition makes it “black hole” material. But I decided to write it as it comes, even though it might be misunderstood or judge unfairly, but the topic is about something that has been buzzing in my head for way too long.

My wife and I have been foster carers for a little less than a year now. We are very new at this, and our first placement has proven to be more challenging than anyone could anticipate. Our luck, I guess, but for me the hardest part of fostering is not so much having to deal with nonsense tantrums, or the constant attempts of our little girl to draw our attention in any (bad) way possible. What I find really hard is dealing with the fact that fostering is not meant to be forever.

We were adoptive parents before becoming foster carers, and as adopters we were ready for almost anything. Truth is, we weren’t, but at least at the time we thought we were. We adopted a 6 months old baby, knowing nothing about what was going to be of this child, if not for all the warnings and words of caution of several social workers. We didn’t know how difficult it could have turned out, not as clearly as we do now, but we knew we would have dealt with it, whatever that might be.

Fostering is different. You can go in every new placement with the best of intentions, but when things go south, and they inevitably do, a little part of yourself will be there reminding you that this too shall pass. The foster child you are looking after will leave after a few months, you know that from the start, and that makes being a parent so much harder. We had our rough patches as adoptive parents too, but we knew we were in for the long haul; never once did we thought “this is not a life”.

When things are hard, as a foster parent, you might find yourself saying that on a daily basis. And the truth is that you’re right, it’s not a life that anyone would choose to live. And it is not the life that you have to live either. At some point you will ask yourself what is the use of trying to salvage the relationship with a child who has done nothing but abusing and rejecting you over the last few months, when she will leave at the end, and you will be no more that a distant memory, or a face in an old faded picture.

It’d be much easier to pick up a phone and let this child be someone else’s problem. You won’t even be judged, not in the same way you would if the child was adopted. People closer to you will recognise your efforts and all the sacrifices you made, some will even realise what an amazing job you’ve done. Fostering has an eject button that–for us–adoption never had.

My wife and I threat to hit that eject button at least once a week, but so far we never even seriously talked about it, and the reason for it is because we both know that eject button is not the easy way out, or the safety net it appears to be.

Sure, you could make that call, and sure enough, once that’s done, the child will be out of your life in less than a week. But it’s not just that simple and, as it is often the case, your choice will have far-reaching consequences, mainly for the child.

For the child, it will be another broken relationship, another lesson of how important people can come and go in and out of her life, how these people are not to be trusted, and this time they’d learn it from you. We heard our girl babbling to herself, “Daddy left, then mummy left too”, and it broke our hearts. She spoke those words without showing any emotion, in a completely matter-of-fact way, but we could still feel the pain hidden in her voice, and hitting the eject button would secure our place in that list.

Then there is the damage that it will cause to her self-image, or to the chances to ever be adopted, should it come to it. Because there is nothing more alarming to an adoptive family than a child who’s been moved from foster placement to foster placement. And if you had it hard, how much easier do you think it will be for whoever comes next?

So, as a foster family, during a difficult placement, you have a choice between self-preservation and martyrdom, an whichever you choose is a bad choice. You know your life and the life of every member of your family would be much easier if your foster child was out of the picture, but you also know that your foster child awful childhood would become all the much worse for it.

Knowing that, how quick would you be at reaching for that eject button?