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Fostering in a pandemic

Published 25 Mar 2020

Our secret carer describes some of the challenges in keeping the pandemic at bay when you have teenage foster children. 

Fostering in a pandemic

Lockdown. A necessary measure. But our children are the spirited sons and daughters of a free society who are used to pushing the envelope. They are like so many ships at anchor, tossed on a storm of emotions, their fractured moorings reaching deep down into a sea of troubles (to get a tad Shakespearian about it). And their role models are wild and free. It might sound romantic, but the implications can be grim, especially in a pandemic.

My teenage boy, Sam, ran this morning. I found him two miles out of town, walking to a rendezvous with a friend who he just needed to see!

Foster parents are on the frontline of this pandemic. They may not be dealing, yet, with direct casualties, but they are looking after other people’s children who are, by their nature and not through their own fault, often very difficult to deal with.

As such, we are working at considerable risk to ourselves, and many of us lack the PPE – the Personal Protection Equipment that health professionals have access to, or should have access to.

Well, the good news is that we can do something about that.

When I go out to where other people are, I wear disposable rubber gloves so that I’m protected from anything I touch, be it a shopping trolley handle, the keys of a cash machine or the touchscreen in the self-service section of a supermarket. In fact, I’ve stopped using cash, keeping just a small amount (all disinfected) in case of need. I don’t use public transport. Out on a walk I keep upwind of other walkers or, if I can’t, I hold my breath as I walk by them because if they exhale the virus, or sneeze it out, it can reach me.

The precautions are necessary because I have asthma and could lose a stone or two and am over 60, so if I catch this disease the prognosis is not good.

I say I don’t care how I look, but in fact it takes quite a lot of courage to don a mask and go shopping – so few others wear them where I live and they are prone to sneer

When I come in, I change my clothes and shower. I regularly spray the handles of my gate and doors with Dettol. And now my foster child is doing the same – which, as you may imagine, took some persuading and continues to do so.

My birth son has been living in lockdown in a major Chinese city for the past two months. The destructive potential of Covid-19 was drilled into me early on.

Despite my precautions, I still think it likely that I will get this illness, because I have such limited control over my teenage foster boy. And I do find that worrying.

Shortly after I first explained the full seriousness of this pandemic to Sam, he took it upon himself to go missing for a week, travelling on public transport around London searching for relatives, some of whom are not taking the crisis seriously at all. He smoked and shared cigarettes with friends as part of social gatherings.   He is a coronavirus time bomb, and it is, I fear, simply a matter of time.

And he is bored. He doesn’t want to do the assigned schoolwork and he is getting into a low mood. I try to keep him active, but as a single carer, this is hard – I have other work I have to do, too. I cannot give him 100% of my time. Who can? .

I have stressed to him that he does not want to be in a situation in which his carelessness causes harm to those around him, including his foster carer. I have told him that travelling to see relatives and friends puts them, and him, at risk. I have told him too that the only time placements end here is when I sense that I or my family are being put in danger by my foster child. I have told him that if he goes wandering in this pandemic, then for the sake of myself and those others I love, I will have to end the placement and he will have to go and live somewhere else.

But how? And where would he go? Who would take him, a boy so careless of others’ lives, a boy whose head is so full of pain that he cannot understand the risks?

Placements ending during lockdown is going to become a major problem – currently, a foster parent deciding he or she can no longer face the risk is still required to give 28-days-notice – and 28 days is a long, long time in a pandemic. Some authorities are looking to make it longer.

But what to do if your foster child is breaking quarantine is a conundrum which will increasingly play on the mind of every foster carer.

So yes, foster carers are on the front line, and single carers perhaps even more so. I cannot call upon my local network of family and friends to help, because they too are locked down. There are no home visits from support workers – how could they be? What sense would there be in putting them at risk too, of increasing their chances of spreading the virus into the fostering world?

For heaven’s sake, is there no good news?!

Well, yes, happily, sort of, in a double-edged sort of way.

When I told Sam that new research coming out of China and Italy has revealed that young people are getting the virus and dying from it, he began to take it all a little more seriously. He is washing his hands regularly and thoroughly and has agreed to adopt the new routine – a shower and change of clothes as soon as he walks through the door.

I am fortunate here in that I have quite a lot of room in my home for table tennis, some exercise equipment and a workshop (DIY stores were doing a booming trade up to the moment of ‘lockdown’).  But in truth Sam doesn’t really use these – he generally takes to his room and his video games. I am concerned for his mental welfare – the pandemic is weighing on him, as it must, for his survival and for mine.

I also have board games and a really marvellous Indian game called Carrom played on a special board – which is a form of ‘finger-snooker’ using draughts pieces as balls. You can while away hours practising on your own or playing with up to three others. Sam wants to get good at this and the boards, pieces and powder, which allows the pieces to slip fast, are available online.

So, it’s going to be hard, right? Yes, it’s going to be hard. ‘I offer you nothing but blood, toil, sweat and tears’, said Churchill in a moment of sobering realism, early on in the UK’s last major crisis. We could say the same.

Are there any answers? Well, Sam and I did a three-mile walk yesterday and today we’ve just had an epic table tennis match. I still have an edge, but come the end of lockdown, he’ll be beating me hollow. Badminton in the garden or the park is another option for those without table tennis – but get a good supply of shuttlecocks, because they will go astray.

My plan is to rouse Sam out of his room every hour or so to do some activity or other with him, to keep his mind off his desire to socialise, to keep his head out of the grim places it can go to.

We’re going shopping soon. Sam’s going to wear a mask – a sort of gangsta snood, or neckscarf, that pulls up over his mouth and nose, pre-sprayed with Dettol and now drying in the sun. And Nike gloves, which we will wash afterwards.

This pandemic will change everything, but the first thing it has to change is the way we foster. I am doing my best. I hope it will be good enough. I’ll keep you posted.


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