Posted by Heather from the Isle of Wight on 19th, June, 2015
The phone rang. It was the FCA referral team. Could this be the call I’d desperately been waiting for? Could this be the “ONE”? With bated breath I answered the phone and listened to the long in-depth referral.
F was a 15 year old girl living in a children’s home in Manchester. It had been decided that she was ready to be moved into a foster placement, and she had asked to be moved back to the south coast so that she could be closer to her family.
Her referral included everything imaginable. Self-harm, drug and alcohol experimentation, absconding, possible sexual exploitation and eating disorders… the list felt endless. But there was something I liked about her. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew more and more as the referral went on I wanted to meet this girl.
I told the referral team that I would like to be put forward as a carer for F, and then things began to move quickly.
F was what was known at the time as a residential-migraton. This always gave me the image of a beautiful bird flying to warmer climates, and in a way this was true for F. The name has since been changed to the step-down programme. The programme gives you the time to meet the young person and build a relationship with them before they move into your home… well that was the theory! My experience wasn’t going to quite fit into the perfect step-down mould.
Quite quickly after the agreement came for me to be F’s new carer I found myself on a train to Manchester for my first meeting with her. I was so excited to meet her, she would be my first foster placement and I think I smiled the whole 300 miles.
I was met by a member of the children’s home staff and as I hopped into their car full of enthusiasm I was greeted with a tired smile and a big sigh. The worker explained to me that it had been a very difficult night as F had absconded from school the day before and had arrived home at 7.30am that morning. I was told that she was refusing to come downstairs to meet with me. Well, I wasn’t going to let my five hours standing on an over-crowded train go to waste. It would have been easy to say “okie dokie” and turn round to go home, but what F hadn’t banked on was meeting me, a carer who was probably more stubborn than her!
I arrived at the home and was met by another equally tired looking carer, and the news didn’t look good. Apparently F was now asleep and had stated very firmly that she was not to be disturbed. I gave the workers a sideways look and said, ok… let’s give her an hour then I’ll go up and knock on her door, if that was ok with the staff. They gave each other a knowing glance and agreed we could try. This gave me the opportunity to have a much needed cuppa and the chance to find out as much as I could about F. If I’m honest, tiredness and emotions meant that the carers didn’t paint a very pretty picture of F. This had the opposite effect on me than it might have had on some, it made me even more determined to meet F, I felt she needed to be out of the home, and living with someone who could nurture her and give her a more stable home.
The hour quickly passed, so a member of staff went up in an attempt to wake F up. Well that went well… not! From the living room downstairs I could hear shouting and a lot of banging. Apparently the wardrobe was getting the brunt of F’s anger. If there is something I have learnt over my years of being a youth worker, it is that anger almost always masks another emotion. My guess was that F was feeling very scared about another big change in her life. With this in mind I climbed the stairs and made myself comfortable on the floor outside F’s bedroom door. The staff member speedily retreated to the safety of downstairs telling me where she would be when I needed her.
I will never forget my first ‘meeting’ with F. She was absolutely determined that she would not open the door to say hello. As determined as I was to try everything to get her talking to me, and I succeeded. After the initial grunts of “go away, you’re wasting your time” F actually started to talk to me! Still through the closed door, but I felt victorious! After two hours, and a numb behind from sitting on the floor for so long, I said a cheery goodbye to F and made my way back to the hotel.
I offered F a trip out to the shopping centre the next day and told her I would collect her at 11am. Of course, when 11am came, F refused to come out of her room. I felt a little deflated, but resumed my position on the floor outside her bedroom door. F again told me to go away. Luckily for me I was used to the words she used as I had been a youth worker for years, and am not easily shocked. I think my lack of reaction confused F slightly, which then led to her having a good in-depth conversation with me about how she felt about moving from the home. Phew!
I was beginning to understand the way that F worked. She understandably needed to be in control of a situation she felt she had no control over. I knew I could work with this, but I also knew it wouldn’t be plain sailing. I told F that she had an unfair advantage over me. She was suddenly very interested in what I was going to say. I told her that she knew what me and my family looked like, as she had been given a welcome book, but I had no idea of what the person I was talking to looked like. After a couple of minutes of silence, apart from the sound of muffled rummaging, F slid a photograph under the door. YIPPEE! This was a massive break through! Now I was going to push my luck. I told F that I couldn’t really see her face in the photo as it was too blurry. Her response stunned me… “go downstairs and I’ll come and make you a cup of tea, after I’ve done my hair”. Well I almost fainted with shock! I scrambled off downstairs to wait. Within an hour the kitchen door opened and in walked an incredibly beautiful girl. Jet black hair and the most beautiful blue eyes. My automatic reaction was to gasp and say “F, you are beautiful!” This was greeted with a flicker of a smile… I knew then that we would be ok.
The next couple of months were touch and go. F refused to meet the rest of my family, but would happily come out of her room for me. She also refused to come to my home to visit, but managed to bring herself to have an overnight stay in the town I lived in, which meant I could visit her in her hotel. Again she refused to meet anyone else in the family. Sometimes this felt frustrating, as I knew the moving in date was getting closer and closer.
One Thursday morning, three weeks before the moving date, I received a phone call to tell me that F would be arriving that day. It had been decided between the police and the local authority that she needed to be moved immediately for her own safety due to suspected sexual exploitation. I was told that F would be brought by two workers from the home, and that I should expect her as soon as they could prise her out of her room. I knew this would be like trying to prise a too big snail out of a too small shell. It would not be easy!
I spent the day preparing the room and trying to keep myself busy. The house was buzzing with excitement, which continued until late evening when she arrived. I was worried all day. I knew F didn’t want to leave the home (although the move had been agreed because she was adamant she wanted to move to a foster carer in the south). I could only imagine how she must be feeling, and was bracing myself to open the door to a very angry teenager. Well, again I was proved wrong. When they arrived I opened the door and was greeted with a “You alright” and the biggest smile. F’s carers stayed for a quick cup of tea and then left us to it.
The first seven weeks of F’s stay with us she stuck to me like a limpet. She wouldn’t go out, and I had to rely on my support carers and the FCA support worker to sit in the house with her so I could do the shopping, and get my little one to nursery. Finally the news came that F would be attending a local school! F’s education had always been very sporadic, as F often absconded. F seemed excited about her first morning (she would be doing a stepped introduction to her new school, so she would attend a couple of mornings the first week, and this would gradually increase over time to full time). The family support worker was going to drop F off on her first morning. At lunchtime I got a phone call to ask if F could stay all day! Yes! This all looked very good! Later that afternoon when F arrived home from school she asked if she could go out to meet a friend she’d met at school. Yes again! Brilliant! She was making new friends! I was so happy. We agreed F would be home by 9pm as it was a school night. There must have been a slight communication problem, as it was 8.30 the next morning before she rolled home. This was my first experience of an absconder, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last.
F settled into school really well and started attending full time. She was always ready in time for the taxi to take her in the morning. Which for a girl who was used to sleeping all day and being in bed all night was a huge transformation. I felt almost as proud of her as she did herself.
During many conversations with F she told me that when she reached 16 she would leave care. There was nothing I could say to her that would convince her otherwise. True to her word, two days before her 16th birthday, F absconded again. She came home for two hours on the evening of her birthday and then went again. The local police became my new best friends, as every night I had to report her as missing, and most times they came to the house, to search for her and make sure I wasn’t hiding her. After several weeks it was agreed that F would be released from my care, and would be returned to her mum, as she was hardly ever at home. This was a time of mixed emotions, as I was sad that our time together had come to an end, but happy for F that she felt able to return to her family home.
One thing that I told F from the moment I met her (well, her bedroom door) was that I wouldn’t give up on her. This was a phrase I used with her many, many times and I know F knew that I meant it, even during some very challenging times.
My advice to other carers would be, try to see through the referral, get a real feel for the young person. Don’t just say no to fostering them because their referral sounds scary… underneath the labels they’ve been given is a real person, who probably hasn’t been given the best start in life. Give them, and yourselves, a chance. You’ll be surprised what you can do with the right support. And don’t give up.