I'm talking about the rôle of the foster carer.
Adoption has been a bit of a theme lately. Channel 4 gave us "15,000 kids and counting", and now ITV has "Wanted: a family of my own." I'm enjoying them both. I think the ITV one seems to go into a bit more detail about the complexities involved in becoming an adopter. Insulting questions from panel members, frustrating delays at court, the intimate details of your own life to date, hopes and dreams, gathered by one stranger and spread before a group of strangers who then hold the power to decide whether or not you should be allowed to have children.
The Channel 4 programme is more about the child's journey into and through fostercare, where adoption is the happy ending. The ITV series so far seems to be more focused on the adoption process itself, and very much more about the couples hoping to adopt.
So far, so good. But I've now heard several different jarring comments, and as I couldn't easily condense my thoughts into a Facebook post, I thought I'd blog them instead.
Comment 1. From training materiel given to the prospective adopters "he slept on a dog bed. He was starving."
Comment 2. From a discussion with adopters "he's never been read to, he's never known about jumping in puddles, he's never had tickles or cuddles."
Comment 3. "Yes, global developmental delay, but I'm sure once he's with a family, he will catch up and be just like other children.
And here's where my warehousing comment comes from. Because children do not, as a rule, move directly from birth families to adopters. Most children spend time with fostercarers. Sometimes just a few months, sometimes years.
The child who meets the adoptive parents is not the child who came into care. Adopters will not be the first people to cuddle a child, to help them jump in puddles, to work on areas of stunted development.
The child did not sleep, starving, in a dog bed in fostercare (unless the fostercarers were themselves abusive, in which case why were the children left there?).
Children don't spend their time in fostercare wrapped in a cardboard box, with social workers paying storage fees until a home is found.
We care. We parent. We love. We bathe bruised bodies and we darn that ratty t-shirt which is the only link with the mummy they loved even when she spent all day every day spaced out whilst her friends did unspeakable things. We listen. We comfort. We file reports, contribute to assessments, shout and jump up and down to get the children the help they need.
A child who spent the first few years of life unwanted (or wanted in the wrong way) isn't going to overcome that in a few months in my house. But not am I going to limit their new experiences until the ideal forever family can come and experience them together.
True, children do often make startling progress once they are settled with adoptive parents. Permanency can be a wonderful thing. For the child who is willing to take a chance on it. But that progress started with the foster carers. And it may take a lifetime.
Something touched on in the C4 documentary was a fostercarer calling herself Mum to the babies she fostered. The Social Worker was critical, and it was clearly a bone of contention between them.
I too used to disapprove. And it isn't always appropriate - many older children already have a Mum and Dad, thank you very much. But I changed my mind on this when I adopted my youngest.
For most of her short life, she had lived with the foster carers she now considers to be Aunt and Uncle. As one child in a large family, she was used to hearing the adults called Mummy and Daddy. What rejection would she have felt, learning that she was not allowed to call them the same names?
I was worried when she came to me. How could she learn that I was now Mummy, when she was mourning the woman she knew by that name?
As it happens, it made it easier for both of us. Over and over again, I would console her with the words "Mummy loves you." I knew I was talking about myself. She was probably thinking of the other mother in her life at that point. But she came to me to hear me say it, and it was comfort for us both.
I'm not fostering now. But if I was, then I'd argue children need parents. Not custodians. If you've never known a Mummy, how can you relate to a new one? But if you've known me as Mummy Tia, then you can learn that there's a Mummy Sue, or whoever else it might be when the time comes. Mummy remains a special word, and the love transfers with the title.
The series hasn't finished yet. I know that foster carers aren't the focus, although they do feature. But I hope there is time to recognise what a vocation they have. Foster Dad summed it up this week. His heart breaks with every child they move on. But we do it because it is the right thing to do, because it is right for the child, because it is who we are.
If you give me a child for six months, that child will not be the same child they were six months ago, and nor should they be. Time doesn't stand still, and nor do children. We stand in the gap, doing the best we can, bringing security to the children we have, and then helping them to move on. No warehousing here.