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Source ISBN: 9780007280971
Ebook Edition © DECEMBER 2014 ISBN: 9780008131920
The Saddest Girl in the World
The Girl in the Mirror
I Miss Mummy
Mummy Told Me Not to Tell
My Dad’s a Policeman (a Quick Reads novel)
Run, Mummy, Run
The Night the Angels Came
A Baby’s Cry
Happy Mealtimes for Kids
Another Forgotten Child
Please Don’t Take My Baby
Will You Love Me?
About Writing and How to Publish
Daddy’s Little Princess
A Child Bride
John, my husband, and I were trying to start a family, but it was proving difficult. We were doing all the right things (and often) but the longed-for baby hadn’t arrived. One Saturday evening I was flicking through the local newspaper and saw an advertisement: Could you offer a child a home? Mary desperately needs one. There was an accompanying black-and-white photograph of a darling little girl, aged six months, reaching out with her arms and eyes to anyone who would look, together with the telephone number of the duty social worker.
I glanced up at John, who was sitting on the lounge floor trying to repair his electric drill. Lots of little metal bits were strewn across a sheet of old newspaper. Our first home together had been a DIY project, although now that we had been living in it since our marriage, two years previously, the worst was over. Most of the rooms were not only habitable but decorated, and although sparsely furnished, comfortable. I looked again at the social services advertisement, and to the small print under the main heading: Little Mary requires a foster home while her mother recovers in hospital.
‘John?’ I said tentatively.
‘Mmm?’ He glanced up, with the metal casing of the drill in one hand and a screwdriver in the other.
‘What do you think about this?’ I left the sofa and, careful not to tread on the assortment of drill parts, showed him the open page.
He read the advertisement and looked at me seriously. ‘You’d never be able to give her back, would you?’
I paused for a moment, deep in thought. ‘I guess you have to go into fostering aware that you are going to give the child back to the mother. What do you think? Is it worth a phone call to find out more?’
‘What about your job?’ he asked.
‘I suppose I’d have to hand in my notice. I was going to give up work anyway when we had a baby.’
‘It’s not the same as having our own family, is it?’ He was still looking at me, concerned. John could always be relied upon to view a situation objectively, seeing the pitfalls and problems when I had possibly rushed in.
‘No, it would be as well as having our own family,’ I said.
He looked down at the drill. ‘I’m not sure about fostering. Let me think about it.’ And if I was honest I wasn’t sure either.
Could I look after a child that wasn’t my own? Feed and change her, bond with her, knowing that at some point she would be returning to her mother? It was a huge emotional undertaking and a life-changing commitment, added to which, we needed the money from my job. Every penny counted, not only because of the cost of the house, but also as a nest egg for the day we did have a baby and I had to give up work. I closed the newspaper and dropped it into the magazine rack. ‘Coffee?’ I asked John.
‘Yes please. And a doughnut if there’s one left.’
It was John who raised the subject of fostering again, later that night as we climbed into bed, having obviously given the matter more thought. ‘You know, I had an aunt who fostered,’ he said. ‘She looked after two boys. I don’t know all the details. She lived in Scotland and we didn’t really see that much of them, but they seemed happy enough.’
‘Really?’ I asked, intrigued, resting my head on the pillow.
‘I suppose you could just phone, and find out more,’ he said. ‘They must have lots of enquiries that are never followed up.’
‘If I have a chance I’ll phone on Monday during my lunch hour,’ I said. I worked for the civil service and the office manager didn’t mind the staff making the occasional phone call as long as it wasn’t overseas.
‘And in the meantime, how about we have another attempt at starting our family,’ John said with a smile. ‘You know what they say – practice makes perfect.’
I laughed, and snuggling down into the bed felt John’s strong warm arms encircle me and his lips lightly on mine.
I phoned the social services on Monday; it was an answer machine. I left my name and home telephone number, and said that I had seen their advertisement about fostering Mary and would like some more information. There was no dedicated line to the Children and Families team at that time. Now, if you phone to enquire about fostering, a social worker from the Children and Families team, with experience of ‘looked after children’, as they’re called, will speak to you and tell you what you want to know. Well, that’s the theory at least, although even now some councils are more efficient than others at recruiting foster carers. My message then would be picked up by the duty social worker with no knowledge of fostering who dealt with all messages coming into the social services offices, on all subjects.
My call wasn’t returned for a month, by which time I had forgotten about fostering, or almost. A social worker phoned at 5.30 p.m. when I had just returned home from work. There was no apology for the delay in getting back to me. After she had given me her name she asked if we had ever fostered before, and I guessed my ‘no’ was the wrong answer. ‘Oh,’ she said clearly uncertain what to do next. All my questions were met with ‘I’m sorry, I really don’t know.’ So when we said goodbye, five minutes later, I was none the wiser about fostering. However, she did say she thought there might be a leaflet somewhere, and that she would try to find it and send it to me, for which purpose I gave her our address.
Another week passed before the leaflet arrived – a single photocopied A4 sheet, showing pictures of smiling children with some general remarks that foster homes were needed for children who couldn’t be looked after by their natural parents, but with no details about what was actually involved. On the reverse of the leaflet was a date (in ten days’ time), together with a venue where an ‘introductory evening’ was to be held. I assumed this was an introduction to fostering, although it could have been about pig farming for all the information there was. I’d asked the social worker a number of specific questions, and the leaflet said nothing other than there were children of all ages who needed foster homes.
I left the leaflet with the other non-urgent mail on the shelf in the kitchen and thought no more about it. John and I were both busy with work and finishing the house. It wasn’t until the day before the introductory meeting was scheduled that John raised the subject over dinner.
‘Are you going to that meeting?’ he asked as we ate. ‘About fostering,’ he added as I looked at him, non-plussed. ‘It’s tomorrow.’
‘I hadn’t planned to. We were going to finish the tiling in the bathroom tomorrow evening.’
‘I can do the tiling, if you want to go,’ John said. ‘Or we could go together, and do the tiling on Saturday. I’m not playing golf.’
My enthusiasm for fostering had lapsed with the passing of time and the less than dynamic attitude of the social worker. ‘Do you want to go?’ I asked.
He nodded. ‘May as well. Hear what they have to say. Otherwise we’ll always wonder what we were missing.’
‘OK,’ I said. ‘Fine.’
There were eleven of us in a church hall – five couples and a widow. The meeting was led by two social workers who spent half an hour explaining to us the reasons children came into care; the current policy that believed such children were better looked after in foster families than children’s homes; and that all foster carers had to be interviewed. An experienced foster carer then talked to us for twenty minutes, giving us a down-to-earth, experienced-based account of her fostering, which was very interesting. We broke for coffee and had a chance to chat to the other couples present, all of whom, like John and me, had never previously fostered and had come to the meeting to learn more. After coffee the foster carer who had spoken to us before the break was available to answer our questions. Her candid responses and the little details of family life in her fostering family were riveting and also invaluable in helping us reach a decision on whether to proceed. By the time we came out, an hour later, I was enthusiastic again, and so was John. The descriptions we had heard of the children’s sad lives and the reward of being in a position to help a little had won us over.
‘We could have the second bedroom for the foster child,’ I said. ‘Which leaves the third bedroom for the nursery, as we planned.’ John agreed.
We had been told at the meeting that we should think about what we had learned and if we were still interested to phone the duty social worker and ‘someone’ would get back to us.
When I think of the vetting process that prospective foster carers go through now, what happened then seems risible and also potentially negligent for the safety of the child in foster care.
I made the phone call the following week and was duly sent an application form, which we had to complete jointly. Apart from our contact details, date and place of birth, and employment history, there was a blank box for us to describe in fifty words why we wanted to foster. We spent some time drafting and re-drafting those fifty words, and eventually decided on something to the effect that we felt we could offer a child a loving home but were aware that the child would eventually be returning to live with his or her own family – we had understood from the introductory evening that it was important to include this. I mailed the application form, and a month or so later a social worker phoned and arranged to visit us one evening at home for an interview. Her name was Susan and once we had settled in the lounge with coffee, she went through our application form, and asked us to expand on why we felt we had what it took to look after a child who wasn’t ours. John and I said that we wanted to be parents and in our hearts already were; that we knew how to parent from the fine examples our own parents had given us; and that when we eventually had a baby of our own we would still foster.
Susan seemed happy with our responses, smiling and nodding as we spoke. She asked us about our own families, and what impact we felt a newborn baby would have on a foster child. We were honest in our replies and answered as best we could, saying what we instinctively felt. We were also asked to think about the impact the foster child might have on our lives. Susan’s first visit lasted about two hours; then she visited us again a couple of weeks later for an hour when she had written her report. We weren’t allowed to read the report, as prospective foster carers are now, but she gave us the gist of what it contained, and said that she would be recommending our application and that it would have to be approved – by whom wasn’t stated.
Another month passed before we received a phone call from Susan who was pleased to tell us that our application had been approved. Susan also said that we would have to attend an information evening before we could start to foster. Because we hadn’t had experience of babies or very young children we would only be allowed to foster children from five years upwards. Perhaps whoever had approved our application felt that our naïve and clumsy efforts might be less damaging to older children – I don’t know, but John and I were ecstatic that we had passed and were actually going to foster, albeit not a child of Mary’s age.
At that point we told our parents that we were going to foster, and had a mixed response. John’s mother said, ‘Oh, I thought you wanted one of your own.’ To which John replied, ‘We do. This is as well as.’ My mother said, ‘That’s very nice of you dear, but you don’t know anything about children.’ I said, ‘Does anyone before they actually have children? And I think we shall be learning very quickly.’ Never was a truer word spoken!
After a two-hour information evening, where we met other couples who had been approved for fostering and spent some time role playing various situations that could arise in the fostering home, we were ready to receive our first child. Susan phoned me two days later and said that she would be bringing Jack to us that evening.
‘He’s fifteen,’ she said. ‘He goes to school, so you will be able to work out your notice. A month, isn’t it?’
‘Er, yes,’ I said, hesitantly. ‘He’s a teenager, then?’
‘Yes. Most of the children we are placing now are. We have a shortage of teen carers, not helped by one of our teenage units closing. Don’t worry,’ Susan added. ‘Jack won’t give you any trouble.’
And that was the first indication that children in care (for reasons that weren’t their fault) could cause ‘trouble’, and big time.
Jack had been with us for three months when I started to feel sick. Not sick as in having eaten something which had disagreed with me, but a vague and persistent nausea which was worse first thing in the morning. Hardly daring to hope, and without John knowing, I bought a pregnancy testing kit and only told John when I had the result.
‘Amazing! Fantastic! Yippee!’ John cried. Usually he had a better command of the English language; indeed he has a degree. ‘Let’s celebrate! Tonight! Fetch Jack and we’ll go out for a meal. No, on second thoughts, you sit down and put your feet up and I’ll go up and get Jack.’
I laughed as John tore up the stairs to retrieve Jack from the all-consuming rapping music that accompanied him whenever he was in his bedroom. An hour later the three of us were seated at a corner table in our favourite Italian restaurant in town, with John proposing a toast. ‘To Cathy: well done and congratulations. And to Jack, for doing so well at school.’
I smiled at Jack as we raised our champagne glasses. Jack’s glass was only a quarter full, which at his age seemed appropriate – a few mouthfuls wasn’t going to hurt him and it was important he felt included.
‘I’m expecting a baby,’ I said quietly to Jack, who hadn’t the least idea why John had knocked on his bedroom door and, unable to contain his excitement, told him to get changed into his good gear as we were all going out to celebrate.
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