Contact with family members can be one of the most stressful times for a Looked After Child in foster care, and a settled child can become withdrawn and silent or challenging, difficult and angry as the day approaches however it is usually a combination of the two. I have never had a child live with me who didn’t struggle with family contact and it is high on the list of most foster carers pet hates. As foster carers, we understand and support the need to keep family connections (in most cases) but it does bring a lot of stress and anxiety to the household.
M deals with family contact by becoming withdrawn and portrays an air of indifference. She has learnt to be cynical about it and finds the need to put up walls and not allow herself to care. J looks forward to contact with his siblings, and although he doesn’t really like to talk about it, I can see the wounds of rejection becoming raw and angry all over again at each scheduled visit. The hardest thing for a Looked After Child to face regarding contact is a ‘no show’ and for a foster carer, it’s one of the most difficult things to explain to a child.
Danny, a young teenager in my care, dealt with this again and again and in spite of erratic behaviour from his father, he would still turn up for the prearranged meetings and sometimes his father would be there but usually he failed to show up. Occasionally, he would be turned away from the Children’s Centre where contact was held by the staff as he was drunk or high.
When Danny first came to us he wore a baseball cap every day. All day, every day, to every occasion. It was a uniform that he couldn’t be without. He had next to nothing when he arrived, and one of the first things we had to do was go out and buy him clothes, from underwear to a winter coat. He was indifferent about the clothes and didn’t care what shop they came from which is unusual for a teenager, but his hat had to stay. I bought him a new baseball hat with a fashionable New York logo, but he only wanted to wear his stained, battered and slightly smelly hat that he came with. Over the first few months, nothing changed; he was an angry young man and didn’t care who knew it and the hat stayed. He went through the stress of a lengthy family court case and the hat stayed on throughout and it wasn’t until his first summer holiday with us that it came off for a few hours at a time. On our return to the UK and routine, it took me a while to realise that he was going days without wearing it and it correlated directly with his feelings of growing security with us. If he had a bad day, the hat went on.
It became an unacknowledged signal of his mood and feelings; if he came out of his room in the morning with the hat on, we knew we were in for a bumpy ride that day. Eventually, he learnt that no matter how difficult he was, he wasn’t going to be sent away and the hat mostly stayed off, even if he had a bad day. One day, he asked me to wash it which I did. I was careful and put it on a delicate wash and he stood by my side as it went into the washing machine as if it was a ceremony. I told him I’d take care of it, as although I didn’t know who gave it to him, I knew it was a family member. He inspected it after the wash and checked it regularly through the drying and reshaping process and once it was dry, he asked if he would put it on the wall. Together, we hammered a hook into his bedroom wall and he placed it in pride of place next to his favourite footballer’s poster.
The hat was rarely worn again until his father came back on the scene when, once again, he lived in it for three months. Danny’s last year with us was relatively smooth in foster carer terms and the only time he wore the hat was as armour plating if he had an infrequent contact visit with his father and he failed to show up. The hat would stay on for a few days while Danny took time to process the rejection and come to terms to being needy for that connection. He coped with mock and actual GSCE exams without the hat, coped with work experience in a busy adult environment and a brush with the police, all without the baseball hat and I realised he no longer needed his armour plating.
In the last month he was with us, Danny had a contact arrangement planned with his father and he seemed indifferent and I wondered if he was bracing himself for what he saw as the inevitable ‘no show’, and as I dropped him off I noticed he had no hat on and it wasn’t in his back pocket, waiting to be whipped out to shield him from danger. Danny texted me for a lift home as his Dad hadn’t shown up, and in the car he chatted about the latest Playstation game which was the focus of his life, he didn’t mention his father. He didn’t wear his hat again while he was with us and it disappeared from his room. I suspect it was relegated along with other childhood memories to a box under his bed. When Danny eventually left, we helped him pack his stuff up and although I never saw the hat again, every time M yanks her oversized headphones on her head as she makes her way to the café to meet her Dad, I think of Danny and his bulletproof hat.