Col’s Blog: Week 8 – ‘Over The Hill and Far Away…’
Col has been fostering for two-and-a-half years. He has had a variety of fostering placements and shares his experiences of fostering as a single male carer.
Week 8: Over The Hill and Far Away…
…or, to be more accurate, over the fence and just around the corner. At first sight this may seem like an odd way to begin this week’s blog, but please bear with me and I promise it will make sense by the time I’ve finished.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll remember I’ve been telling you about my first placement R, and how things started off well at home but, from day one, school was a major issue for him. As time progressed, however, his behaviour at home began to deteriorate as well, and this coincided with the possibility that he might be excluded from the mainstream school he attended and placed in a school for children with behavioural problems.
From the very moment the idea was first mooted, R was adamant that he wouldn’t go to the school proposed. As it turned out, it wasn’t because of the type of school per se, but because it was that particular school, although no one was ever able to find out why. The story surrounding the whole school ‘thing’ is, I think, interesting for a number of reasons, and is why this week I’m going to pretty much exclusively focus on it.
Firstly, it will give you an idea of the various professionals you will come across as a foster carer. Secondly, seeing the differing views of those professionals will give you an insight into how difficult it can be to determine what is in the best interests of the child. Thirdly, how attempting to do what is in the child’s best interests can lead to something of a dilemma depending on your viewpoint.
In the case of R, as the story unfolds, you might find it an interesting exercise to make up your own mind about what you would have done if the final decision about his school had been left to you.
A Change in School…
We know that mainstream school was difficult for R to cope with. He was constantly disruptive and despite only being on a half day timetable, it was not unusual for the school to contact me three times in a week to collect him early because of his behaviour. It might be worth mentioning at this point that because R was my first placement, I had nothing to compare the actions of the school with.
Like the majority of us with children of our own I suppose, there were never serious behavioural issues at school, and so I was in unchartered territory as far as R’s problems were concerned. Since then, however, I’ve had other experiences where a different mainstream school has dealt far more effectively with similar issues with another placement, although I accept that every child is different and you are never comparing like with like.
There have, however, been occasions when I was called to collect R early despite the fact he finished at lunchtime anyway, when I know the behaviour that prompted the call was nowhere near as bad as the behaviour of another placement (on a full day’s timetable), but where the different school dealt with it without resorting to asking me to pick him up early.
R had been excluded for a couple of days before Christmas 2012, and as we moved into the new year and through January 2013 he was again excluded for a few days. As a new foster carer I kept asking myself whether there was anything I could do differently to prevent R’s rebelliousness at school. What was even more worrying was whether something I was doing wrong at home was actually contributing to what was happening at school.
As a carer with Compass Fostering you are allocated a supervising social worker (SSW) who is your first port of call when problems arise, or doubts begin to creep in as described in the previous paragraph. My SSW was very supportive and reassured me that there was nothing I could do differently.
As with most other aspects of life, one of the key things is communication and that’s something I’ve always put at the top of my list when dealing with the professionals involved with me in the care of my placements. They may not always reciprocate, but as long as you fulfil your obligations in that regard that’s as much as you can do and no one can ever accuse you of not doing your best.
Coming back to R and his exclusions, it was becoming more and more likely that he would have to leave his mainstream school – albeit temporarily perhaps – and attend the ‘special provisions’ school which you’ll remember he was adamant he wouldn’t go to.
An Incident and a Meeting…
In early February the situation came to a head. It was a Thursday and I’d been called by the school to collect R early yet again because he had punched another student. When I arrived, R was with the Deputy Head Teacher who explained what had happened. For the purposes of this post the details of the incident are irrelevant, suffice it to say that I was asked to attend a meeting the following day with R.
When I arrived at the school with R on the Friday, we were shown into a meeting room close to the school’s reception. I was surprised to see not only the Deputy Head Teacher waiting for us but also the Head Teacher. I was equally surprised that the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) was not there as it was his responsibility to look after the needs of children like R (at a subsequent meeting attended by the SENCO, he told me he had not been told about the meeting and was extremely angry when he found out it had taken place without him).
The Deputy Head opened the meeting by saying that he had spoken to everyone involved in the previous day’s incident, and what they’d said was at odds with R’s recollection of events. I was expecting him to elaborate but instead he said, ‘so we’ve decided to exclude you until the half-term break, and because I have a friend at [the school R was adamant he didn’t want to attend], after half-term you’ll be going there until Easter and then we’ll see whether you can come back here.’
R stood up, shouted, ‘I’m not effing going there’, picked up his chair, threw it in the general direction of the Deputy Head and Head and stormed out of the room. I hurried after him as he rushed through reception and out of the building. There was a row of cars parked outside the reception area and next to the one on the end a rather large motorbike. As R passed it, he pushed it as hard as he could into the car on the end of the row.
He ran off the school grounds with me in pursuit. I eventually caught up with him and asked him whether he’d like to go home and talk about what had just happened. He said, ‘I’m not effing coming back with you, I’m going to a friend’s.’ I told him that was fine, but suggested he let me drive him to wherever he was planning to go because I was worried about him given how upset he was. He wanted to be left alone so I said I was going back into school to speak to the Deputy Head, and that if he changed his mind about a lift, to meet me outside the school gates.
In my opinion the situation was handled appallingly and I told the Deputy Head in no uncertain terms when I returned to the school. He was well aware of R’s feelings about the proposed new school, and to break the news to him in the way he did was asking for trouble. At the very least the school’s SENCO should have been present but in truth even that wouldn’t have been the correct way to deal with it. Imparting news of such significance to R should have been planned in advance with his social worker present.
After my ‘discussion’ with the Deputy Head, I left the school and found R waiting for me at the school gates. By the time we got home he had calmed right down.
A Possible Breakthrough…
Long before he came to me, R had received help from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), and it was felt that he might benefit from further assistance, particularly as his behaviour seemed to be deteriorating at home and we’d now had this major incident at school.
CAMHS, like many public services today, is under-resourced (I should point out that this is in no way a political comment; it’s just that there never will be sufficient money to go round), and the waiting list very long but, as luck would have it, R had been climbing the list and had reached the top.
Initially, myself, my SSW, and the mainstream school SENCO met with the psychotherapist who would be seeing R. R’s Local Authority social worker should have been there but for reasons I’ve now forgotten couldn’t attend, which was unfortunate given what subsequently transpired.
During the meeting, the school issue was raised and I explained R’s reticence about going to the school suggested. To my surprise the psychotherapist simply said, ‘So why is he being made to go there? There are other similar schools.’ He came up with a couple of suggestions and asked me if I would look into them and if appropriate, arrange a visit. I was thrilled with this new approach and very happy to do as he asked.
That evening I began my research by looking at the website of one of the schools suggested by the psychotherapist. While I was looking at the home page, R came up to me, pointed at the screen of my laptop and said, in a totally matter-of-fact a way, ‘I’ll go there.’
Eureka! I was so pleased I could have done cartwheels around the room, although why he was happy with that particular school I’d no idea.
Unfortunately, my unfettered joy was short-lived. When I told R’s Local Authority social worker about this major breakthrough she said, ‘he’s not going there. We can’t have the kids dictating to us where they go to school.’
And therein lies the dilemma I referred to earlier. When do we bite the bullet and allow the child to dictate terms and when do we dig our heels in? By now, I think it’s obvious what I thought about it, but I wonder what you’d have done if the decision was yours to make?
Back to The Drawing Board…
So we were back to square one and the process began for getting R to attend the school he didn’t want to go to. First of all I visited the school. R should have come with me but refused. I happen to think he would have liked it there but what I thought was of no consequence although I did try to convince him.
The next stage was a full-on attendance meeting with the Head Teacher, my SSW, R’s LA social worker, R, the SENCO from his mainstream school and uncle Tom Cobbly and all. R refused point blank to attend the meeting but I did manage to get him to come with me to the school, but had to agree to let him sit outside in the car whilst I went in. He told me that if anyone came out to try to persuade him to go in he would tell them to ‘f’ off.
I explained the situation to everyone there but one of the PE teachers said she would go outside and try to tempt him in. She returned five minutes later and said, ‘You were right. He told me to ‘f’ off but he was quite polite when he said it’! The meeting ended and the Head Teacher suggested he come to my house to speak to R because he would be on familiar territory. I told him he was welcome but not to expect any softening of R’s position.
Unlike Julius Caesar when he invaded Britain in 55BC, the Head Teacher came, saw but, unfortunately, didn’t conquer. R went out before he arrived, but his natural curiosity got the better of him and he did return whilst the Head Teacher was still there. He refused, however, to engage with him at all.
The next suggestion was to meet on the local golf driving range where R liked to go. I told him I felt he was now clutching at straws but was happy to try. He decided against it and said that the school attendance officer would turn up out of the blue at some point and try to speak to R.
A Great Escape…
It’s now that I get to fulfil my promise made at the beginning to explain the title (as amended in line one) of this week’s post.
I remember we’d had heavy snow around this time. R was at home because, you’ll recall, he’d been excluded. There was a knock on the front door. I went to answer it with R hot on my heels, curious as ever.
The woman on the doorstep announced herself as Mrs X, the attendance officer from the school, at which point R turned tail, hurtled along the hallway, through the kitchen and out into the garden. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn at the time that his feet and legs spun like a circular saw in a blurry circle, just as one of those cartoon characters gathers momentum before zooming off into the distance at warp speed 6.
I reached the backdoor just in time to see five-feet-nothing R scale an eight feet tall wooden fence as though it wasn’t there and disappear into the rough track that ran along the back of my house. He didn’t even bother to put anything on his feet, speed being the key in this moment of crisis!
I returned to the front door to find Mrs X rooted to the spot, mouth agape. She asked what was beyond the garden and said she would try to catch him as he exited the track, but I knew her high heels were no match for R’s bare feet in the snowy conditions. I watched her hurry as best she could the thirty metres or so to the end of the road and around the corner. After a minute or so, R reappeared at the bottom of the garden after vaulting the fence with graceful aplomb from the other side. This time he flew through the back door into the kitchen, along the hallway and out through the front door with me calling after him, ‘put some shoes on!’ It wasn’t that I meant to encourage him, it was just that, well, I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
And that, as they say, was that. Mrs X gave up her quest, and after a while R returned.
It had been my intention to mention a particularly bizarre piece of behaviour but that will have to wait until next week as I’ve already more than overstayed my welcome. I’ll also leave you guessing whether I and the powers-that-be managed to convince R to go to the school which, for whatever reason, he hated so much.