It’s a very rare occasion that a Looked After Child will turn around and thank you for everything you’ve done for them and you learn early on in training not to expect gratitude. Some children and Young People resent being in care and see their foster carers as part of the system that took them away from their families. This was the case with Danny, a 15 year old we had in our care for two years.
Danny’s family circumstances were complicated and he had been passed around amongst family members for years before it was decided that foster care was the best option for him. He came to us a disgruntled teenager with a grudge against the system, us included. However, he had also learnt that running away and allegations against previous carers was no longer going to work and it was us or residential care. He moved in resentfully, refused to interact with our family and wanted nothing from us and no amount of encouragement seemed to change this.
The initial weeks were like a cold war, with Danny only coming out of his room for meals and passing by to go to school. New clothes didn’t help, neither did the suggestion of activities. We knew he needed time to adjust but his indifference morphed into difficult behaviour and open antagonism. This standoff lasted for months and we couldn’t seemed to find a way to reach him until he discovered football.
Danny had never lived in one place long enough to call a place home or to feel an affiliation with a town, so when Hubby went to football, Danny showed no interest in the club or game. However, Hubby never gave up and even though he was often ignored, he would tell Danny about the match. At school, Danny showed no interest in sports and making friends was a struggle but he eventually found a small group where he felt he belonged. This group of friends used to spend their Saturdays kicking a football around a nearby park and Danny started to join in. Hubby, never daunted by rejection, asked again if Danny wanted to go to a game and there was a hesitation and finally an agreement. Hubby played it perfectly, not showing his shock or delight at Danny agreeing and played it cool on the day. They travelled together, ate a burger before the game, watched and cheered as our team won, then discussed tactics on the journey home. They were still chatting about the game when they got home and I had to act normally and not jump around the room whooping with joy that this angry young man had made a connection with us.
I’d like to say from that day on, everything went smoothly and he integrated perfectly with our family, which didn’t happen, but he did start to take steps to accept us and his situation. We never did have the big event when he had a Eureka moment and the antagonism stopped but we did have lots of little victories. For months Danny would refer to where he lived as ‘the house’ or ‘your house’ and I can remember the first time he said ‘home’ in a sentence. We were on our way back from a shopping trip and he casually asked ‘are we going home?’ I was dancing inside but kept my cool and from then on, he always called our home, his home.
Our style of foster care is based on rewards and encouragement and Danny had to participate in our home life to receive his full pocket money allocation, such as occasionally washing up and laundry, taking the bins out and other small chores. This was to help him learn about budgeting, moving on to independence and that the laundry fairy is a myth. These requests were always met with contempt or refusal in the beginning but slowly, over months, he would start to agree and I always thanked him, no matter how hard it had been to actually get him to do it and how much teenage sarcasm I’d had to endure. However, one day, I asked him to take the bins out, which he did, then came in and automatically placed a new bin liner in the kitchen bin. I could have fallen over in shock but I thanked him and he casually replied, ‘you’re welcome’ as he went back to his room.
These small victories build up and each one is a little milestone that is worth a hundred times more than a spoken “Thank you”. By the time Danny moved on, he was part of the family, throwing himself on the sofa and eating me out of house and home. As expected he didn’t give us a thank you speech but he did give me a huge hug. It was a year before I saw Danny again but when I did, he introduced me to his girlfriend as his Aunty and gave me a secret smile as he walked away.