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The mighty jungle

This instalment of the blog should really come with a disclaimer. Somewhere here in bold text should be words to this effect:

*The actions of this blogger in no way constitute a statutory requirement for the fostering of asylum seeking children*

Check.

The objective of this blog is to give a detailed account of the fostering application process and I promise that this is what I'll do, but I'm taking a little detour this week, a voluntary detour, via Calais…

An early start

t's one o'clock in the morning when a group of us, including Eastern Fostering Services (EFS) agency director Eleanor Vanner, head off for three days' volunteering at the camp known as The Jungle in Calais. As we make the drive down to Kent where the ferry awaits, I'm thinking about what I'm doing, why I'm doing it and what I can possibly achieve.

If you've read any of my previous blogs, you'll know that my family and I want to foster unaccompanied, asylum seeking children. You'll also know that the agency I work for, EFS, already looks after children who have come into the country without their parents. I have met and worked with these children. I have an intellectual understanding of the journeys they've taken and the conditions they've lived in. I could recount their stories verbatim. And yet, for me personally, this falls short of enough. My motivations in going to the camp are complex and yet inseparable, like threads of a blanket. Teased apart they mean very little, weaved together they have purpose.

Here then are the threads I am clutching on our journey to Calais: my faith, my job, my children, the world that is changing around us, my desire to DO something, childhood memories of arriving in Calais fresh off the ferry, our holiday stretching before us, a gnawing fear of the Calais I'm about to arrive in, the plight of the child who could walk through our front door one day soon, the sensation of squeezing my feet into the dusty, dog eared shoes of another and that one coarse golden thread that speaks of human understanding.

I stash them away as we arrive for the morning briefing.

Bearers of bad news

Our first job is to get to the jungle and break the news that the French authorities want to clear a large area of the camp. The last time such an area was cleared, the authorities used force and many residents of the camp lost the few belongings they had to the jaws of a bulldozer. We head to the Afghani area of the camp. It is there that I meet four young boys who call me into their shelter. They are grinning and chattering excitedly as they show me their home. It's like a delicious bubble amidst the filth of the camp. For a moment, I think that I've stumbled onto a scout camp, a place where stories are shared and illicit snacks are eaten and the giggles of boys can be heard long into the night. And then I wonder where their mothers are. And reality bites. The boys don't believe me that they may lose their home. They look at me with cheeky grins and dancing eyes. Silently, I pray for them and ask they be spared from a violent eviction. I want to take them all home. Home, that place which is so near and yet so far removed from this hell. Home, where it's clean and dry and safe.

The people we meet that day shock me. I am expecting a cold shoulder at best; violent, red hot rage at worst. What I get is this: invitations to tea, smiles and nods, handshakes and thank yous. A sorry here and there. A pat on the back. A peal of laughter. What I get is a warm welcome that shames me.

The following day, we start to clear areas of land that could be used to rehouse residents before the clearing by authorities begins. This feels like it could be something valuable. The land is badly contaminated with human excrement and pools of stagnant liquid. I weep and gag in equal measure. I rage that humans are expected to pitch a tent somewhere I can barely breathe. One of the lads helping us has some music and it booms from somewhere deep in his coat. It lifts us and it also attracts a group of teens. They are from Syria. They point out to me where they sleep in the camp. They smile and joke but their eyes have seen things no child should have seen. They come and help. But they have no gloves and I don't want them handling this filth. They don't listen though and whoop with the effort of pulling an abandoned tent from the thick mud. Once they've finished, I give them my hand gel and they look at me, bemused. Crazy, English lady. Of course. They've handled far worse.

Then along comes a young lad. I smile at him and he asks me what I'm doing. He's 14 and from Syria. His parents are over there still, maybe alive, maybe not. His skin is a sickly yellow. He looks weak with illness. His eyes are utterly beautiful: green, framed with thick lashes. And incredibly, his smile reaches them still. He stands there like a ghost, watching. When it's time to go, I walk up to him and my arms open slightly. His do too. I'm not sure who draws who, but we hug. He grips me tightly. Someone tells me later that he has his eyes closed. It's in that hug that the threads come together. That's when I know this is right. If we can help one child escape this, that's everything. And I wish it were this green eyed boy who clings on so powerfully. This boy I will never forget. This boy I will pray for every day. But it most likely will be another or another or another. There are so many of them. So many.

Home

We finish clearing land in time to see some of the guys we had met the previous day arrive with their shelters and tents. We know that something good has happened. They cheer as they arrive in this “safe zone”. This new home. Well, for now at least. As I write this, I'm in the office and I'm still weaving it all together, still processing it all. I've spent three measly days there. Trying to get back to normal life is hard. I see things through changed eyes. I think of the stories of the kids we work with and I know them now in a way I didn't before. I can smell the places they've been. I can see what my home must look like: strange and comfortable – but uncomfortably so. I can share in their sighs of relief to be out of that place. I can picture the dreams that claw their way in in the dead of night. I barely know the half of it. But there are questions I won't need to ask now. Some things I won't have to wonder about. Maybe a child will sense that. Maybe they'll feel at home. Maybe they'll feel loved. Maybe they'll close their eyes, even for a moment, while we hold them in this blanket we've woven.

The forthcoming edition of The Fostering Network members' quarterly magazine, Foster Care, explores the current refugee crisis in Europe, how it impacts foster care and tips for people caring for UASC.

Blog category: AdviceCommunityBlog tags: communityadvice
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Community Round-up #108

Community Round-up 108

Good afternoon members and welcome to the first community round-up of 2016, giving you an overview of posts you may find useful from the past month. We hope that you all enjoyed the festive period and are feeling good about the year ahead.

  • A thread on respite entitlement has generated mixed responses – do you have anything to add?
  • One member has asked for advice on passports, can anyone help?
  • The issue of accepting placements has been discussed at length – can you contribute to this conversation?
  • One member asked for advice on income support issues – join the thread here.

A reminder that bookings for our Fostering Roadshows 2016 are starting soon and it's not too late to book. We hope to see you there! Find out where your nearest roadshow is here.

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Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks

Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks

Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are more commonly known as police checks. All foster carers have one but what exactly are they?

Formerly called a Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) check it will show if prospective foster carers and approved foster carers have any criminal convictions that would make him or her unsuitable as a carer. All members of the household aged 18 and over have to be checked.

The DBS is a government department with links to the Police National Computer. The aim of a DBS check is to allow organisations to safely recruit by identifying candidates who may not be suitable for certain work, especially that involving children or vulnerable adults.

There are three types of criminal record check:

  • Standard: this checks for convictions (spent and unspent), cautions, reprimands and final warnings.
  • Enhanced: This is the same as the standard check plus any additional information held by the police that is relevant to the role the person is applying for.
  • Enhanced with barred list checks. It is like the enhanced check, but includes a check of the DBS barred list (adult and/or children) - that is a list of individuals who are unsuitable to work with children and/or adults because of past convictions. This is the highest level of check and the one foster carers have.
  • There are slightly different rules for criminal record checks in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and for applicants who have lived overseas or are foreign nationals.

    It is illegal for anyone barred by the DBS to work, or apply to work with the sector (children or adults) from which they are barred. It is also illegal for an employer to knowingly employ a barred person in the sector from which they are barred. However, someone who has been cautioned or convicted of an offence as long as it is not of a sexual or violent nature will not automatically be prevented from fostering.

    I hope this unravels some of the mystery attached to these checks.

    Cathy Glass

    www.cathyglass.co.uk

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    The wonder years

    The assessment is underway and we're starting from the beginning, or as the form F calls it, the Early Years. Our assessor has sent us a list of questions as homework in preparation for her next visit this weekend.

    As I've mentioned in earlier blogs I work for Eastern Fostering Services but I am also a ghost-writer. Specifically, I write people's autobiographies for them. I ask my clients all manner of questions about their childhood, their parents, their experiences; their journey. I am rarely more comfortable than when I'm listening to people talking about themselves, and generally I don't enjoy talking about myself to the same degree.

    So for me this is a little weird.

    The worm and the tables have both performed their rather clichéd manoeuvres. The shoe is well and truly on the other foot. And guess what, it seems to fit. I discover that I quite enjoy dissecting my childhood. I find that it's sobering to see myself, however fleetingly, as a product of my parents. In examining your childhood, you examine how you were parented. In examining how you were parented, the hard-earned successes and the inevitable struggles are brought into relief. This, in turn, allows you to quietly muse on your own successes and to shine a light on the things that you struggle with.

    I'm neither a believer in nor a fan of detoxes but this feels like a detox for the soul and one that might actually be constructive. I have a sudden picture of myself, breathless at the side of a winding road, hands on hips, looking back at the terrain I've covered before turning towards my destination as it unfolds, little by little, before me.

    And it's while contemplating this figurative journey that I am reminded of another journey. Not my own. But one that is a small part of my narrative nonetheless…

    Out of Africa

    I've developed a particular interest in journeys over the last couple of years. From life's ever changing journey, in general, to more poignant journeys in the personal realm. I have watched as the media has spewed out images of journeys, most borne of desperation, all shocking in their nakedness. I have met and worked with children who have undergone journeys that would make your hair stand on end. I'm easily able to see how any one of us could, in the blink of an eye, find ourselves on a desperate journey. In fact it's because of a journey my Nan made almost 70 years ago that I have been able to empathise with men, women and children journeying to flee war, poverty or persecution. It's partly because of her journey that I have been so moved by their journeys.

    When my mum was three years old, my Nan took her and her brother and left their home in Zimbabwe. My Nan was married to my mum's father who was a game warden. It's not my story to tell so I won't go into details, but suffice to say things in Zimbabwe were bad enough to convince a young mother to travel thousands of miles, under a cloak of secrecy, back to the UK. Fortunately for Nan, she had parents who loved her and who agreed to take her and the children in. She must have been incredibly brave, bearing as she did not just a demanding journey from Africa to Northumberland with two children in tow, but equally the judgemental stares and concealed whispers of those who frowned upon such a refugee: two kids and not a husband in sight.

    Well, times have changed and my Nan's story is different to many of those who are staking their all on desperate journeys in today's world. But one thing is clear; a journey is proved worthwhile in its end destination. For my Nan it was the open arms of the parental home. For many unaccompanied asylum seeking children it's a foster family. I hope one day that we, as a family, can prove the worth of a journey conceived in desperation, in secrecy, out of hope for something better.

    Back to basics

    But first we have to go through the assessment and the small matter of getting Jim to answer questions about his early life. If I'm sold on detox for the soul, Jim is emphatically keen on constipation. Encouraging him to give answers that exceed one syllable is going to be interesting. Like me, Jim had a happy childhood but he is uncomplicated in his approach to it: ‘I always knew I was loved and I've never had to think about my childhood in any greater depth.'

    I suddenly feel very grateful to my Nan and very sorry for our assessor.

    Blog category: AdviceCommunityBlog tags: recruitmentbecoming a foster careradvicecommunity
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    An assessor calls…

    It's Saturday morning and the house is now (reasonably) tidy. This is unusual for any day of the week but particularly for a Saturday. Today, however, is no ordinary Saturday – today is the day our Form F assessor is coming.

    The form F is a document compiled by an assessor (who is usually also a social worker) which presents you as foster carers to the approval panel. Once approved, the document is also used to present you to the local authority when you're being put forward as a potential carer for a child. It highlights your motivations, your family dynamics, your strengths and your weaknesses. Our assessor will visit us approximately eight times to gather all the information she needs to present us accurately and will be asking us many in-depth questions about our lives, loves and limitations.

    She starts straight off by asking us about our motivations for fostering: Why? Why now? What do you hope to offer? What do you expect the impact to be?

    I begin by explaining what has happened to bring us to this point. I explain that I have worked at Eastern Fostering Services, an independent agency, for a while and that I have wanted to do more. I explain that as a couple, our faith calls us to feed the hungry and clothe the poor, to provide a refuge to others in stormy times. As we want to foster unaccompanied, asylum seeking children, I explain how Jim and I have been moved by the plight of adults and children fleeing their countries of origin. How we have lamented the likelihood that this will all be old news soon, once the media has a new focus, how many people will effectively be left to rot. I explain that we had to act. Not just a short term, sticking plaster approach but something long term and tangible – something practical. I also explain that it was only once Jim realised you could be so niche in terms of the profile of child you foster, that the conversation had turned more serious.

    Dear Jim…

    ‘What held you back from considering fostering before then?' the assessor asked Jim.

    I mentioned last time that Jim has a wicked sense of humour. I also told you how we met at work. What I omitted to tell you was that Jim was very nearly fired from this job when he set up his own internal “Dear Deidre” advice column. Staff could email Jim with spoof dilemmas and Jim would advise. Needless to say, the “advice” Jim elected to give was not always received in the spirit he intended. Sometimes his humour is a little out there. The Dear Deidre debacle was one such occasion. Watching Jim prepare to answer this question is a bit like watching the Dear Deidre truck collide with a wheelchair bound pedestrian. I know he's about to come out with something leftfield and I have no way of stopping it. I can only watch.

    ‘I don't like other people's children very much,' he says.

    See what I mean?

    Thankfully, Jim has learnt to read people's reactions a little over the years since Deidregate and he quickly claws back the ground. Jim comes to life as he talks about what he feels he could offer an asylum seeking child. He talks about how much he enjoys tutoring A Level students and how a lot of this work is around building confidence and equipping young people to solve problems themselves. He talks about his passion for science, for carpentry, for coaching sports. His voice betrays the fact that he likes other people's children perfectly adequately.

    Not the Von Trapps

    I explain that as a family, we are far from perfect. There are many things that we could probably do better as parents. But one thing I know we can offer is a stable, structured and consistent base and that this will be provided in the context of a loving family. And that's the essence of what we have to offer: love. Love is bandied around a lot as if it's something that's easy to do. During my time at EFS, I have seen that it is not easy to love every child. I am aware that a child may well come to us who is tricky to love. But I also know that love is not just about the heart. Love is about doing. Love is practical and consistent. It's about perseverance; about sticking with it. It's warm and it's safe. And sometimes it's a little leftfield.

    ‘You poohead!' comes a scream from upstairs as I draw my impassioned speech to a close.

    Ben, aged nine and Theo, aged seven are swiftly given a talking to. But the reality is that they have not been to football this morning and are therefore like tightly wound springs. I don't particularly want to shout at my children in front of the assessor. Instead, I turn and give her a look that says: This is us. More Von Krapp than Von Trapp. In that look, I try and communicate a little thumbs up emoticon but I resist the urge to actually extend said digits.

    Thankfully, the assessor is warm and friendly and does not make us feel that we're under scrutiny (though of course we are). She allows the boys to give her a tour of the house so that she can do her health and safety check. Her check reveals a consistent lack of both. Theo has a cold and his constant old-man-hacking cough follows them around the listed home we live in. The safety glass is conspicuous in its absence. Medicines are not locked away. There is no fire blanket. We'll need to fix some of these things and a few others but that's ok. It's much less painful than I was expecting.

    A quick check of our birth and marriage certificates, MOT certificate, insurance documents and driving licenses and we're done.

    We're told that we'll be getting some homework to do over Christmas. We'll be sent questions which we'll need to provide written answers to. We'll then discuss these in more depth at her next visit.

    This is good. Writing we can do. For one thing, since Deidregate, when Jim writes, he has at his disposal, a very effective editing system.

    Her name is Lucy.

    Winking emoticon…

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    Foster Carer’s Training Courses

    Foster Carer’s Training Courses

    We arrange a comprehensive Continuous Professional Training Programme to ensure that all those who work with children and young people have the most up to date knowledge and skills to ensure best practice and outcomes.  Click here for the current course list. How to access current training courses If you are a Foster Carer and