It’s a beautiful, sunny Wednesday morning. We’re suited and booted and on our way to panel to be approved as foster carers. We’re meeting Stef (our Form F assessor) at a café near to where the panel is taking place, to have a little run through the potential questions we can expect.
As someone who has served on the panel, I have a view on the questions I might have asked us if the roles were reversed. And I have a plan.
‘Right,’ I say. ‘Let’s have a run through.’
‘Isn’t that what we’re doing with Stef?’ Jim asks.
‘Yes, but I suspect that we’re going to need some extra preparation.’
Jim accepts this with only a mild look of suspicion on his face. I start to question him.
His answers are punctuated with ‘don’t say that’, ‘or that’, and ‘definitely whatever you do, don’t say that.’ Actually, Jim manages to give at least four sensible answers before he tires of the seriousness of the matter and begins to add a good heaped teaspoonful of sarcasm to his answers.
‘Jim,’ I say. ‘You’re stressing me out. Please don’t be all sarcastic.’
He laughs and tells me he’s merely ‘getting it out of my system.’
‘Ok then, ask me some questions.’
Priests and train-spotters
By the time we arrive the “practise” has turned into a competition to see who can come up with the most inappropriate answer you could give and we are both laughing. I have to admit that Jim’s tactic of shrugging it all off is by far the most effective in terms of relaxing us for the task ahead.
Jim heads into the shop and comes out with a Coke and a Crunchie. I observe that these items might not be terribly conducive to a calm, smooth interview.
I’m suddenly reminded of one of the most painful job interviews captured on celluloid; that of Spud in the film Trainspotting. Spud, high on speed, goes for an interview that quickly becomes an unmitigated disaster; a fact to which the rambling, nonsensical Spud remains blissfully ignorant. It is also reminiscent of an episode of Father Ted where Ted attempts to limit the damage-reaping remit of Father Jack during a visit to Craggy Island by the Bishop. They spend hours and hours training Father Jack to say ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’ as a stock answer to cover a multitude of less savoury options.
We meet up with Stef and it’s her turn now to counsel Jim against unwise jokes – she looks at once amused and anxious. Jim plays up to this magnificently and, following his coffee and a slice of lemon drizzle cake, really looks like he is having a super time. He is relaxed and weirdly so am I.
Another foot, another shoe
We get to the venue and don’t have to wait long to be called in.
The chair comes to get us, introduces herself to Jim and asks me how it feels to be on this side of the panel for once. I tell her I’ll let her know at the end. The panel starts off with introductions. Everybody confesses to knowing me, apart from an observer whom I have not met before.
Then the chair tells us that the panel only have four questions to ask us and hands over to one of the panel members to ask the first one. It’s directed at Jim.
‘What is your motivation in becoming a foster carer?’ Jim starts to respond and I immediately relax. He talks about the nature of fostering we’d like to specialise in, that of fostering unaccompanied asylum seeking children. He talks of watching world events unfold and knowing in our hearts that we had to do something that could be part of a long term response and not just a short-lived donation or a brief outcry on social media. When he’s finished speaking, I add that in reality you wouldn’t have to have much to have more than these children do and that therefore it is just a matter of doing the right thing.
The second question centres around our busy lifestyle. We both work, we have two children, I’m working on a campaign connected to the refugee crisis, Jim does voluntary work in the community, coaches rugby and tutors teenagers. The panel want to know what impact we expect fostering to have and how we’ll manage it. Jim immediately relays a conversation we’ve had where we’ve both agreed to cut back on the extra-curricular stuff as and when it’s needed. In these conversations, we’ve reflected that modern parents tend to overload their children with extra-curricular activities without ever teaching them to simply relax in their down time: their schedules are packed. We try and manage this for our children with varying degrees of success, but even so there is room to cut back and I know that the boys are happy to do so.
The panel then ask Jim to explain to the panel what my strengths and weaknesses are. Anything could happen here, I think. So I say a little prayer. It’s quite strange listening to Jim speak about me. You don’t often get the chance to sing each other’s praises and you don’t often have permission to be honest about one another’s shortcomings. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to explain why I think Jim will be a fantastic foster carer and it would seem Jim feels the same way.
The next question is addressed firstly to Stef. The panel want to know how well our boys have been prepared for fostering. Stef answers this and the conversation moves on to how we’ll know if the boys are struggling with the fostering. We talk about communication and the fact that our boys are always encouraged to be honest with us. We talk a lot. If they do feel unable to talk to us, both boys are very close to my mum and always open up to her about anything. Ultimately our children know that they will never be forced into anything they are unhappy about. We then talk about placement endings. This is a topic I have already started to prepare the boys for. We have spoken about children absconding, or being sent back to their country of origin, we have spoken about the possibility that our home might not be what the child expected or wants. I am trying to let them know that some events are not going to be a reflection on them or us as a family. But it will also be ok to be upset. Well laugh together in the good times and cry together during the sad times. Jim adds that placement endings are always going to be tougher on the child in question than they are for us; after all we have each other. I am touched once again by his ability to get to the crux of the matter.
When asked how we’ll manage the changes to our family dynamics, Jim once again shows insight and practicality. He talks about modelling behaviour and taking the heat out of conflict, he talks about collaborative parenting and the importance of good communication. I add that having younger children in the home is a great way for a newcomer to learn the ropes and can dilute some of the scrutiny that looked after children are subject to.
The verdict is in
Stef is asked to summarise why she thinks we will make decent foster carers and gives a moving summary of her experiences of spending all those Saturdays with us.
We are then ushered gently out of the room so that the panel can make their decision.
There is a huge sense of freedom that comes from knowing there is nothing further you can do. Jim and I both feel it. Jim says that he felt the panel was warm and friendly and that he’d felt relaxed. I feel that I’ve had a clear reminder of all the things I loved about Jim when we very first met. I realise exactly why we’re supposed to be together and why we’ll be together in every up and down we go through. This feels like a blessing even without an approval at stake.
After a short while, we’re called back in. Thankfully the panel does not take its modus operandi from popular television. There is no three-minute tumbleweed moment as the chair says ‘I can tell you that…..’ and we resemble rabbits in the headlights. Instead we are told straight away that we’ve been successful and the panel are recommending us as foster carers.
They go on to outline their reasons for the decision; I notice that Jim’s eyes are moist at this point and I realise just how much he cares and how he loves this family of his who are being praised by the panel.
‘Was that a tear in your eye?’ I ask later.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he says.
That’s what he said when I caught him crying at Shrek. He switches on the radio to drown me out. It is an interview with the chap who wrote Father Ted. We laugh.
My phone beeps and a message comes through from someone I know asking me if I saw an article on fostering asylum seeking children that had been on TV that morning; she doesn’t know we have been at panel today but says that she’d thought of me and was particularly struck by how important what we want to do is.
To me, these things feel like a huge encouragement that we’re exactly where we need to be right now. Knowing this makes the inevitable waiting we now face until the right match is found, all the easier. And so, we wait.