**All names have been changed to protect the identity of the foster Family**
I wondered why the headteacher locked me in the office. “I’ll go and see if he’s ready now”, she said as she closed and locked the door.
I sat and waited, replaying the details in my mind of the call I’d had earlier from social services. Two brothers had been removed from their home that day and were at their separate schools, waiting for me to go and collect them to bring them home with me. I had been told that Harry, who was 7, attended a specialist school for children with learning difficulties and that his older brother Thomas (10) attended a school for children with complex emotional needs and behavioural problems. Both boys had various diagnoses of various learning difficulties, global delay and attachment disorder.
My husband, Geoff, and myself were newly approved foster carers with no children of our own. We had undergone months of training, preparation, and intrusive probing into our own family backgrounds and childhood to get to the point of approval. We had been eagerly waiting for ‘the call’ to accept our first placement.
I sat there in the office at Thomas’ school, nervous and excited to begin the work of helping vulnerable and broken children. I heard a commotion outside of the door and could see the headteacher in the background with other worried looking members of staff. This little face appeared at the door. I smiled and waved. He spat at the glass and screamed, “I’m not coming with you, you f******g b**ch, I hate you!” I was shocked and thought ‘God, help me, what have I got myself into!’ The headteacher unlocked the door and she stayed very close to me as I stepped out. Thomas was screaming and running round the foyer shouting, “F**K, F**K!” I was stunned, and honestly a little scared. He was jumping on the furniture, kicking the walls, then he picked up a table and threw it at me, followed closely by a chair. swearing and screaming the whole time. Now I knew why she had locked me in the office - for my own protection. Members of the social services team were there also, they tried to contain Thomas and calm him but he was unreachable in that moment. The head told me that he had smashed the window in his classroom when he had been told the news of his move.
I was told to go to Harry’s school to collect him and that either social services or the police would transport Thomas to our home later, once he was safe to travel. As I drove to the school I was in a daze, totally shocked by what I’d just witnessed and wondering how on earth this was going to work out. I was escorted to Harry’s classroom to collect him and was met with a tiny boy who looked about 5 years old, not 7. He was terrified, frozen, and very unhappy. He came with me though and calmly got into the car. I started talking to him, trying to reassure him. He didn’t listen or seem to understand anything I was saying. He kept saying on repeat, “Where’s my radio? Where’s Thomas? Where’s mummy?” I would start to speak to answer him but he didn’t stop repeating those words for a second. I have never felt more ill equipped in my life than I did that day. I really thought ‘what have I done?!’
I got Harry home and he said he wanted to watch Peppa Pig. I put it on and he watched the same episode over and over again, watching it each time as though he’d never seen it. That theme tune haunts me, even now. It was the constant backdrop to one of the most stressful times of my life. As he watched it, I anxiously waited for Thomas to come home.
There was a loud banging at the door. I opened it and there stood Thomas, with two social workers following closely behind. He kicked me, spat at me, called me a f*****g b**ch and screamed that he wasn’t coming to live with me. He ran off down the street and I realised the loud banging had been him trying to kick my front door in - there were footprints on the door. I asked one of the social workers what I was supposed to do, I had no idea how to handle this! She said they would handle Thomas and I should stay with Harry. I was shaking, and felt totally out of my depth. I wanted to call my husband, Geoff, to tell him everything that was happening but there just wasn’t time or space amongst the chaos!
The next thing I knew, one of the social workers came in and said, “He’s smashed up your car”, “you’re joking” I said. But she wasn’t joking. He had picked up stones from our drive way and thrown them at the car, in the process he had smashed the rear windscreen. I was furious, as well as totally stunned and overwhelmed. Shortly after this, Geoff came home, oblivious to the drama of the afternoon and totally shocked by the smashed up car, and the scene worthy of an Eastenders special unfolding in our street. “Welcome to fostering” I said, as he came in the house.
One of the social workers and I went round the house hiding anything precious or breakable, and putting the knives in an out of reach place. Another social worker arrived. Thomas was still having a complete meltdown outside, refusing to come in. Eventually, he had to be forcibly carried over the threshold of our house, it took three social workers and my husband to do this. Angry young boys are freakishly strong. All the while there theme from Peppa Pig played in the background.
That night, social services did not leave our home till midnight, when Thomas finally had no fight left, and fell asleep on the sofa. The entire night, with the exception of him eating his dinner, was spent with social services team members holding him while he screamed, fought, cried and shouted threats and obscenities. It took four adults to contain and hold ONE child.
It was horrific.
The next day, social services arrived at our door at 7.30am. Harry went off to school and Thomas continued in the manner of the night before. There was myself and one social worker at this time as Geoff had to go to work. So myself and the social worker had to manage him alone until more help arrived. Which meant a crash course in holding/restraining for me. The whole time he was screaming and crying, fighting us and spitting at us both. More help arrived and they managed to get him off to school.
During the course of that week we were told we would need to learn to ‘hold’ him, as he would never see us as the authority if we couldn’t do this. So once we had been briefed, it was our turn to try to do this. The social workers disappeared to another part of the house and left us to it. Sure enough, we had to put our new skills to the test very soon. I ended up being kicked in the face, kicked onto my back, spat at, being told he was going to kill me and hurt me every day. By the end of that first week I was black and blue from head to toe, had a bald patch at the front of my hair where he’d ripped it out, and myself and my husband had bite and scratch marks.
There is so much more I could write about that week but this is supposed to be a blog, not a novel.
The final straw for me was when Geoff and I were having to hold Thomas on the living room floor. I had his top half and Geoff had his legs. Thomas was wild and kept getting free of us and causing us considerable injury. I looked up for a second to see Harry standing behind Geoff, pale and frozen with fear, tears streaming down his face. I thought ‘enough is enough’. I shouted for the social workers who were in the other room to come and take Harry upstairs. One did this while the other took over from me. I went to check on and reassure Harry then went to my room and looked in the mirror. I saw my bald patch, my bruises and bite marks, and thought about how long social services would be able to sustain this level of practically ‘live-in’ support of this placement. I called the head of the fostering team, who was totally aware of the situation and very supportive (as were the entire fostering team). This was on a Sunday afternoon, and she came to our home within half an hour. She was shocked at what she witnessed and said in all her years of the job she’d never come across anything this extreme.
I cried and said one of the hardest sentences I’ve ever had to say. “When he goes to school tomorrow, he can’t come back here”.
I knew full well what the alternative would be for Thomas but we couldn’t do it any more. Plus, Harry was being so traumatised by everything that was going on and wasn’t getting any nurturing or attention due to his brothers needs. So Thomas went to school that Monday and was told he was moving somewhere else. He was happy about that. We were asked to keep Harry, and six years later we still have him!
Harry is also a very complex character and displays a lot of the same behaviours his brother did, but nowhere near as frequently. That week with Thomas was extremely intense - ALL. THE. TIME. Harry can display those same behaviours but not as frequently. He has so many diagnoses, and unofficially diagnosed autism too. He is like a coin, one side is wonderful, sunshine and charming, the other side is like he’s possessed by his big brother. It’s always an exhausting and delicate balance keeping him on his good side.
What we have experienced is at the more challenging extreme of fostering experience, not the ’norm'. If you’re interested in fostering, don’t let this story put you off. Not all foster children are this challenging (though some are!) There are some great moments, some hilarious moments, some sad moments - but it’s all part of a plan to try and help these children not to be a broken product of their past experience. It’s not easy, and the experience varies with each child.
We have a foster daughter too, who came to us six months after Harry, and the story of her being part of our family is completely different. She is so easy by comparison that we could foster ten of her at once and not have a hard or stressful time. She is wonderful. Except when she takes half an hour in the shower and uses all the hot water, or says she’s ready to go and she’s still got at least ten minutes of make up application to go! But that’s just your typical teenager stuff - right?
We love them both as if they were our own children, and they call us Mum and Dad. It’s a calling, privilege and honour to be the ones who get to help these kids overcome things no one should have to experience. They have such strength and resilience. Yes, there are days when I can barely keep my head above water trying to cope with Harry - and days I really hate myself for not being able to keep him from melting down, and feeling like I’m failing him by not being the perfect carer. Yet, we keep on, and take a day at a time.
If you’re curious about fostering, get in touch with your local authority. It’s not for everyone - it’s definitely a calling - not a career, but if you have the heart and perseverance (and a spare room) it could be for you. There’s also a charity called ‘Home for Good’ that offer advice and signposting too.
Also, if you’re wondering about what happened to Thomas. After a very rough time, he has made huge strides in all areas of his life and is happy in a great place with people who have the right expertise to support him. He is loved and he is thriving. We see him regularly when he and Harry meet, and we have a mutually loving and caring relationship with him. He is part of our extended family.
Don’t you just love a happy ending!
P.S. I still can’t stand Peppa Pig