Our secret foster carer looks at what prompts so many foster children to reject help and to throw it all away
Monday morning, 8am. George, 13, is walking backwards out of his room. Why is he coming out backwards? It is, I discover, a hopeless tactic.
‘George mate, turn around.’
He turns around. His school tie is missing.
‘Where’s your tie?’
‘I lost it?’
‘You lost it? How could you lose it?’
‘I don’t know, it’s gone.’
There follows a top-to-bottom search of his room. No tie. We search the home. No tie. I guess he has thrown it away following the bad day at school he had on Friday.
‘You do realise what’s going to happen, George, if you keep on breaking the school rules?’ George knows the answer well – he breaks the school rules every day.
‘You do understand,’ I add, ‘that you are on a warning, that if you don’t behave at school, you will land up at the Pupil Referral Unit.’
‘I hate the PRU.’
‘I know. So, for heaven’s sake, behave!’
It’s a simple message, if a little sharp – all stick and precious little carrot. Directed at your average child from a good, stable home, it is a parental ploy that has every chance of success; too many PRUs has a ferocious reputation for being populated by hard cases and bullies. George, in placement here for six months, has been to one before, and never, ever wants to go to one again.
But the PRU is exactly where he is heading, whatever he wants. Because he cannot stop himself from pressing the Big Red Button.
This is the situation. George grew up in a chaotic household that failed to provide him with sufficient love and security. There followed, in what promises to be a troubled life, a desperate search for that missing comfort, but it was and remains a child’s search, echoing with a baby’s scream for love and milk in the night, and it is flawed. Babies who keep screaming can irritate the parents, but the baby doesn’t know it – baby only knows need. Deep down, the troubled foster child cannot stop screaming either, but while, unlike the baby, he know it irritates, like the baby, he can’t stop it. Deep down, the troubled foster child is always screaming for love, warmth and mother’s milk.
And, like the child who is regularly beaten, George always comes back for more. He craves that intense attention – not because he likes being punished, but because the angry focus he secures from family, teachers, peers and even his foster parents, fills some small part of the desperate need he has for being loved, for being at the centre of things. Making someone angry has become his love substitute, because he can’t make people love him enough, not love him like the absent mother. It’s impossible – he needed that love in his first three years and didn’t get it. He’ll never, ever get it; it is lost in time. With help, he can adjust to that. But his case is dire.
So, he carries on screaming, in his way, by backchatting the teachers, ignoring the school uniform, making people angry. He doesn’t mean to do it, he just needs to do it.
And why didn’t his mother love him? Why did she get rid of him? He knows nothing of her pain, her own suffering and trauma, her own damaged childhood, and even if he did, it wouldn’t help much. For George has unconsciously decided, deep down in his soul where decisions are formed without words, in that dark place that can be cosy with love or, as it is in his case, cold and void, that his mother didn’t want him because he is the bad person, because he is unworthy of love.
And that makes him even more angry. It’s not his only thought about this – humans rarely have only one thought or one motivation – actions and reactions are spawned by a multiplex of reasons. He will often defend himself, principally by blaming others, and, still, and I hope for ever, he does cling to a sense of self-worth. But anger, motivated by emotional deprivation, is a powerful force.
When love comes, he destroys it. Not all the time and not immediately, but quickly enough to make him difficult to live with. He wants love and approval, but he thinks he doesn’t deserve it, and he can’t keep it when he gets it, so he concludes that all good things will be taken from him because he doesn’t deserve those either. He knows the pain of love being withheld and taken away, and he cannot bear it.
So he takes control of it, and destroys it before it can hurt him. He presses the Big Red Button, the Self-Destruct Trigger, and blows it all up. If he can’t have love, at least he can have some control and some attention.
He doesn’t know any of this, not consciously. He’s acting on a dark, sharp instinct honed by trauma.
What am I telling you? Nothing you probably haven’t heard on a thousand training sessions. But my point is this. Even though, as foster carers, we know all about the Big Red Button, too often we act as if we have no clue.
I am guilty. Mea culpa. I have become angry with my foster children, loudly imploring them to change their ways, telling them of the consequences of their actions, using the stick, unable as I too often am, to find a sufficiently tempting carrot.
As I write, I am, of course, thinking of George, and now, as I look around my desk, I see the expensive smart phone I lent him. It is here because if he takes it to school, he plays with it during lessons and gets in trouble. He loves the phone – is grateful for it, looks forward to having it when he gets home. But, looking closer, I notice for the first time that while the phone is in a case, because I insist he keeps it in a case, that it is not the case I provided. It is a black case – cunningly similar to the one I provided him, but it is broken and tatty – God knows where he got it from. It doesn’t fit this phone, which means it will fall out if the phone were dropped, might slide out anyway, rendering it useless.
I lent him this phone because he lost his last one, a similarly-costly iPhone, which he loved, but with which he was so careless. He will destroy this phone too – he has already prepared its destruction by putting it in a case that cannot protect it, having, presumably, ‘lost’ the case that protected it properly. What can I do but take it from him? – he’s broken every rule associated with having it. But he expects that outcome, it will be nothing new when I do it. It’s so frustrating. And so deeply sad.
Out in the hallway, I look at the bike I gave him – twisted rear wheel, still covered in mud from being left in a field. I checked his school bag this morning while looking for his tie – rulers broken, pencils snapped, the bag empty but for sweet wrappers; evidence of the comfort food he stores and eats to make his day a little more bearable.
He left this morning for school after the lecture from me. Will he actually go to school today? He promised he would – but he could hardly admit that he had no intention of going.
And why doesn’t he want to go to school? Because he says the wrong thing, to the wrong people, at the worst possible times, and his teachers and his peers are becoming intolerant, with one older boy threatening to beat him up. Will this threat change George’s behaviour? No, it will make it worse, has already made it worse– he will say the wrong thing again, and he will get hit. He doesn’t want to get hit, but with his finger ever more often upon the self-destruct button, it will happen.
We can talk – but we mustn’t be angry or frustrated, however hard that can be. We can point out the path of self-destruction, but by doing so we risk imprinting in their minds a terrible future, a hell-like destination that some dark place inside of them feels they probably deserve. We can tell these tragic children that they are wonderful people with golden hearts, that they have so much going for them, and we do say such things, over and over, but that, I fear, is only so much breeze rushing by their ears – good to hear at the time, but not able to reach into their cores.
The answer, surely, is therapy, by a trained and able counsellor – not one who sits there expecting it all to come from the child (I’ve heard too many reports of such things) but one who is highly-trained and talented enough to address the fundamental issues, bring out the trauma, help them face the realities, and learn to cope with it.
Good therapy is so hard to come by – it remains an infant science. There is, in this overstretched social care system, insufficient funding and insufficient prioritisation to ensure that every foster child is matched with a talented psychotherapist who will help them at a fundamental level early on.
I looked after a lad, some time ago, called Shane, who had the biggest self-destruct button I have yet encountered. A charming lad, good-looking, highly popular, bright, fun and witty and who, with any other background, had a glittering future at his feet.
But he’d do the maddest things; criminal things – arson and car theft among them, drugs and drug-dealing. On a whim, out of the blue, he’d do something high risk, dangerous and criminal.
Shane was one of a large family – he had six siblings. He shared with them a background of maternal deprivation, sexual and physical abuse. Every one of those children engaged in therapy, except Shane. It must have been good therapy, because they all settled into their foster placements, engaged with their respective schools and, as far as I know, are making good progress. But Shane refused – refused to accept these things had happened to him, refused to accept any therapy.
He claims he is happy. He thinks he is in control, that he runs his life. Adults are stupid! He doesn’t need them, because he has a fascinating life in spite of their petty rules, a heroic life – all his Snapchat mates are wowed by the videos he sends from a stolen car, the movies of his rolling and smoking enormous joints loaded with stolen skunk, these video celebrations of his criminal successes. He has the love he wants from his awestruck peers, be it ever so ephemeral, disappearing within hours on Snapchat. That ‘love’ is, of course, never enough.
In truth, his peers are fascinated by Shane, but they fear him – many hate him – but they are hooked on his life story. Last I heard, he was on the run, again, from the police. How heroic.
George, the boy who I hope made it to school this morning, does not have even this empty, self-destructive comfort. His Big Red Button makes him unpopular and the more he presses it, the more unpopular he becomes, with both adults and children, and he knows it. He does not have the comforting illusion that Shane enjoys, that he is some sort of hero. George doesn’t want to go to the PRU, but it is where he is headed, implacably, because he cannot keep his finger off the self-destruct detonator, and, I hate to admit, I am not good enough to stop him pressing it.
What does he have? He has joy here, and fun, and laughter, and banter, and a sense of family. But it is only a sense. He is due to return to his home family soon, and he’ll take all the troubles that brought him here back to the cauldron that produced it. His future does not look good.
So what is this article? Nothing more than the crying out for help that comes from a thousand foster carers, who understand what is happening to the children in their care but who are powerless to stop it. The screaming of the foster parents.
It is a call, I guess, for a change in the system, the whole system, for more money to be put into mental health, for advances to be made, for a fundamental change in priorities, for every foster child to receive top-class professional mental help from the get-go.
Mental health is, I believe, the world’s biggest crisis, responsible for pretty much all the world’s evils and which, like Global Warming, is currently receiving band aids when it needs instead major medical intervention.
And here I sit, waiting for the school to call to tell me that George has transgressed again, or hasn’t even shown up. And, against expectations, I hope, I pray even, that my words to him this morning, some angry I confess, may have found some purchase in the polluted soil of his troubled, desperate mind.
And the good news? Please let there be some good news! I have some. It’s midday and the school hasn’t called. Yet.