Shades of grey

Foster carers inhabit a strange world. It is one where black and white don’t exist in isolation but bleed into one another.

The fostering landscape shifts regularly, throwing what was stable and steady into fragility, and establishing as part of the scenery that had previously not even appeared as a smudge on the horizon.

The world of fostering is anchored by a few core truths which are universally acknowledged and yet within these truths there are myriad other truths jostling against and contradicting one another.

The whole truth

It’s generally accepted that the following are true for all foster carers:

  1. A foster carer should care for and nurture the child(ren) in their care.
  2. A foster carer should help children to make their voice heard.
  3. A foster carer should create a secure base for children to grow and heal.
  4. A foster carer should do all they can to keep the child safe.

Navigating these truths is a bit like being caught in the Bermuda triangle; the compass needle spins furiously.

And it all comes down to the individual child.

If we look at the first truth, that a carer should nurture the child they are caring for. What does this look like? What if the child resists efforts to nurture them? What happens when tried and tested techniques fail? The scenery shifts and the carer is left with the compass in an outstretched palm trying to assess where to go now.

Safe and sound?

I was thinking about all this the other week as I grappled with the fourth truth, that a foster carer should do all they can to keep their child safe.

It’s true that for children in foster care, there are all manner of potential threats. Sometimes carers might be keeping children safe from online threats, from bullying, from exploitation, from absconding and often from themselves. Sometimes a carer is called to protect the child from their own birth family. It was whilst thinking about this that the intricacies of these facts struck me. Because in my case I am keeping my child safe FOR the birth family. And it is a responsibility that weighs heavily.

Family ties

My foster son has been separated from his family. Before this separation our boy describes parents who struggled greatly but who went to extreme lengths to keep him safe. Whenever I picture his mother I see her wringing her hands. I see a woman who has taught her son to be kind, respectful and gentle. In my mind, she is the catastrophic loss that has killed something vital in our child. It is unlikely that I will ever meet this mother and yet I have heard her plea to me, relayed via the social worker in the early days when the facts were being established: ‘Please love him like your own. He is so young. He is such a good boy.’

In our foster son’s mind, the loss of his mother is the ultimate price for his safety. The dangers he faced at home were stark, noisy, violent and very, very visible. The dangers that I need to keep him safe from here in the quiet and peaceful place he now calls home are not remotely tangible for him. How can he understand what dangers lurk here when he now enjoys a freedom he had never previously imagined? How can he see how vulnerable he is when his life is no longer centred around hiding and staying hidden, around living or dying? How can he accept that he is still at risk when he and his family have made the ultimate sacrifice for his safety?

Our fostered son’s compass is out of kilter. He is living in a context he can’t understand. It’s a slow process for him to chart the social, political, technological and cultural landscape he finds himself in. But for me there is always the guidance of: ‘Please love him like your own.’

And oddly, from one side of the world to the other, we work together, his mother and I. Because she has raised a son who will listen. He might not always like what he hears but he listens and he respects what he hears. It means I can provide boundaries and explain my reasoning. It means I can express to him that I have his interest at heart. He may not always understand but he knows the weight of that promise I was unable to relay back to his mother. Because I made it anyway. I will care for and nurture him. I will give him a voice. I will help him to grow and heal. I will do all I can to keep him safe from dangers he can’t see. I will get it wrong and I will get it right. I will do my best in this shifting landscape of greys.

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