When you foster children, you are accepting that you could find yourself at ground zero of a huge conflict. You will often be the unseen, unheard participant of the arguments with accusations flying around you, hopefully passing you by. Sometimes they will have ended years ago and on other occasions; it is all very fresh and painful. The child’s future may still be undecided, with ongoing court dates which the birth parents can find very hard to deal with; and of course the uncertainty to the foster carer who doesn’t know when/if the child is moving on or back home. All this is confusing and distressing, especially to the children involved.
In my blog, I talk about children and foster carers but rarely do I talk about the birth parents, mainly because I tend to focus on the children’s perspective.
With M, the court case deciding her future was over long before she came to me. It was a particularly difficult and protracted case and social workers have told me M and her siblings were hugely affected by it. J’s court case was complicated and involved lots of siblings. Although it is still in dispute, the decisions regarding J have been made. Baby S’s future is still being decided but there is a pending court date and as contact with Mum has been stopped, I don’t have any contact with any of the children’s parents.
I want to tell you about Rachel, a mum of 5 who kindly took the time to talk to me about what it’s like being the birth mum in these difficult cases.
She’s happily married and 4 of her children live with her. Her first child was removed from her care with Rachel’s agreement whilst she sought treatment for drug and alcohol misuse. She struggled in an underfunded rehabilitation programme and with little family support; her treatment wasn’t successful at that time.
I met Rachel, whose name I’ve changed to protect her privacy, because there are so many stories in the press of how ‘evil’ or uncaring birth parents can be and I’ve heard people say they should be sterilised or worse. Yes, I’ve had children in my care that you do wonder about the parents’ motives. However it is never as cut as dried as good vs bad, and birth parents rarely get a voice. Rachel told me she was 17 when she fell accidently pregnant with Ben and, although she loved him instantly, she didn’t know how to care for him and as her own mum had thrown her out, there was no one to show her. She was offered parenting classes 40 minutes and 2 buses away and she struggled to find money for food and the rent for her 4th floor bedsit, let alone bus fare.
She didn’t know this at the time, but missing several of the voluntary parenting classes was the first of what she calls the ‘black marks’ against her. She found a makeshift family of drug users nearby and solace in alcohol when she could afford it. Things moved swiftly and Rachel has told me honestly she can’t fully remember the timeline but one day 2 women with name badges turned up at her door; the next thing Ben was in foster care.
Initially, there was a short-term relief that the grisly, colicky baby that wouldn’t sleep was being looked after by someone else, but after the first contact visit arranged for a week later she was missing him so much she would cry herself to sleep. Contact was a nightmare, Rachel told me. She said she felt judged by the social workers and the foster carer, which made her twitchy and defensive. The foster carer was very experienced and had her own children. Rachel said she felt intimidated by her natural ease with Ben.
The contact sessions left her feeling worthless and depressed and she started arriving late and missing the occasional meeting. Rachel spiralled into depression and drug misuse, not turning up at reviews, or arriving late and dishevelled.
Rachel said it felt like weeks, but she understands it was months later, she was informed that they were seeking adoption for Ben. Devastated, Rachel tried to clean up her drug habit and in her words ‘turn into the model mum’ but she said it was too little, too late.
She was given the opportunity to say her goodbyes to Ben and to her lifelong regret she said she couldn’t do it. She turned up but stood outside nearby waiting for the right moment and she watched the foster carer arrive with Ben who was smiling and babbling. She left without giving Ben the soft blue rabbit she’d picked out for him.
Rachel glosses over the next 5 years, but from her face I can see it’s hard for her to talk about. She smiles as she brings up her husband Winston and their children. Rachel pushes her phone across to me and starts swiping through photos of her children and 2 grandchildren. The youngest are chubby little babies and there are several photos of them sitting on Rachel’s knee. As I pass the phone back, she pulls out a grubby piece of material from her handbag and as I look closely, I can see it’s an ear from a child’s rabbit toy. Rachel can’t talk and I lean over and touch her hand as she smiles weakly, holding back tears.
Rachel said she met Ben once when he was 16. He had requested to meet his birth mother and Rachel met him in a motel lobby, just outside Birmingham, near where he now lived.
He told her about his mum and dad, and how he grew up with 2 younger brothers following him about everywhere. He said he had a great childhood and was about to start college. Rachel learnt how it was the original foster carer that led the introductions to the adoptive parents and she had kept everything that Rachel had given Ben on the contact visits. The foster carer told the adoptive parents how much Rachel loved Ben and how hard it was for her. She said she saw Rachel at the last goodbye meeting and he was brought up knowing how much his birth mum loved him.
We are both in tears by this stage. Two grown women sobbing in Costa Coffee is hard to ignore and we called it a day. I told Rachel I would tell her story and when I got home I looked at all the things Baby S’s mum had given her during the contact meetings and knew I was touching treasure.