For a child or young person moving into a new home, and for their new family, including you, and everyone in your household, ‘moving in day’, will be an anxious occasion. Everyone, including social workers, will be feeling tense and emotional, and eager to see that things go to plan.
A child who is about to come into local authority care, or who has been part of a family introduction process, will be feeling particularly vulnerable. The first time I was clear about what was happening, I was 12 years old; in my first year at secondary school. By that age, I certainly had a grasp of how important it was for me to ‘fit in’ to whatever situation I was being taken to next.
So, due to my earlier experiences of abuse and neglect, I was, in some ways, ‘primed’ to accept, even embrace, any place or situation into which I was sent, so long as it was a relief from the abuse I was being ‘rescued’ from.
Understanding this survival imperative enables us to grasp why it is that children and young people who are taken into local authority care are so emotionally vulnerable to further abuse and why, as foster carers, we must understand this and protect children placed into our care just as we would our own children.
So how can the adults in this process, work together to ensure that the start of a new fostering placement gets off to a positive start? A good starting point is to understand how it can feel to be the child who is moving into your home.
Empathy is critical in fostering
This is why the personal attribute of ‘empathy’ is critical in fostering. Empathy, in my experience, is not an attribute that evolves without any effort. It’s not an innate quality we are born with, but one that we learn, most of us from parents and other significant adults in our early lives.
While for everyone, ‘moving in day’ can be emotionally fraught, it is only the child who is coming to stay with you who will be sleeping in a new bed, in a new bedroom, in a new house, surrounded by new people, on that first night. You and everyone else will snuggle down into their own familiar, and comfortable surroundings.
So, it’s from the perspective of a child moving into a new foster home, as I was, in the eighties, that I have written this guide, for people who are thinking about becoming foster carers.
As someone who lived in four different fostering placements, with two periods in a children’s home, memories of ‘moving in day’ remain especially vivid.
Because of the neglect and abuse I suffered at home, this was always something I looked forward to, because, for me, it meant not having to worry about having enough to eat, and having access to a toilet, and a shower, and other aspects of life as an abused child that are too numerous to describe here.
I usually became aware or was told, of what was coming, about one or two days before the move to a new foster home took place.
Moving in day can be exciting, but scary
For very young children, being taken into care, and going to live with a new family, can be very frightening, or exciting, or both. By the first time I was placed into a foster home, in 1979, aged 6 years, I had some sense that things at home weren’t happy, and I was excited to ‘go away’, because I knew it meant living somewhere for a while that wouldn’t involve adults shouting, arguing, throwing things around, and forgetting about me.
I remember feeling as though I was going on a nice holiday. The couple, who lived in north Nottinghamshire, had no children of their own, but they had a lot of toys to play with, and, after 2-3 weeks, I remember feeling very sad about being sent back home.
I didn’t understand why I had to go ‘on holiday’, but I do recall life at home being full of negative energy, unhappiness, and resentment directed at me by my new stepmother. As an adult, now, reflecting on this, I can see that already by then I had a fragile emotional connection with my parents.
Just two years later, in 1981, aged eight years, I was again sent to live with another foster family, in Sherwood, Nottingham. In those days, foster children were allowed to share with foster carers’ own children, and I recall sharing one of their two daughters’ bedrooms, and having the top bunk.
Along with my sister, we stayed there for around six weeks. I remember being taught how to make a fire, starting with scrunched-up newspaper, then sticks, and then coal on top. As a young boy, I loved this!
Moving out day can be even scarier
So when the day came for my social worker to ask me if I wanted to go back home to my Dad and stepmother, I felt despondent, but also very frightened about what my Dad might do to me if I said ‘no’. So, even though I desperately wanted to stay at my new home, I told my social worker the opposite, whereas my younger sister had been brave enough to say she wanted to remain in foster care.
If I were fostering, today, given my personal experiences of being fostered as a child, I would be very conscious that what a child says they want, and what they want, can be two different things. I know that I was, by that time, caught up in a conflict of allegiance.
I felt almost no sense of attachment towards my parents, but I was also terrified of violent consequences if I had refused to go back home. No one, at that time, told me that I would be safe if I said no. And without that adult, convincing reassurance, I was too scared to say so.
As a result, I was sent back home to live with my abusers. There then followed five more years of incrementally worsening neglect with more physical attacks, which need not have happened if an adult I could trust had told me it would be OK to say no and that I would not have to be the one to face up to my father, who I was terrified of, and tell him.
Eventually, in summer 1986, I was sent by my parents into care, this time, permanently. Following a few months in a children’s home, I was taken into a new foster home, close to my school.
Be sure your home and family are a good match
I recall feeling more afraid of my new foster brothers, more than anything else. I was not far apart in age from them, but, due to years of neglect and malnutrition, my growth had been stunted, and they were much bigger than me.
They were also very rough and often bullied me. At first, when I moved in, I ‘laid low’ in my new bedroom most of the time. I felt painfully shy, and ashamed to be there, and scared of getting on the wrong side of the two boys.
Life there became one of continued avoidance of ‘dead arms’, being grabbed by the throat and shoved up against a door, thrown around in a ‘headlock’, and being called ‘the runt’, and ‘shit for brains’, much of which was seen by my foster carer but dismissed as ‘brotherly rough and tumble’.
But for me, it was a period of constant fear, and I don’t think things were helped by my foster carer always sending me to bed early so that she and her boys could ‘have family time’. All this sent me a message that I was a ‘guest’, and I should be grateful for what I had got, and that complaining about anything would be met with disapproval.
Placement breakdowns are very painful
So, after a small lifetime of being unable to talk about my feelings, I found myself in a foster home where I still could not talk about my feelings. It wasn’t long before I asked my social worker if I could go back to the children’s home.
A further year later, I went to live in my last foster home, in a different part of the county. Moving in day, in summer 1988, was gentler.
There was a more careful introduction process, which started with going for tea with the family and then being driven back, and then staying overnight, and then for a weekend, and going on some day trips, so that by the time I arrived with a suitcase, I actually felt excited to be moving in.
There too, I had foster brothers, one several years younger than me, and one a few years older, who was moving out as I moved in.
Nonetheless, I still felt terribly awkward during the first few weeks. I had become so accustomed to feeling like an unwanted burden; everywhere I had ever lived, that I arrived with the full expectation of more of the same.
As before, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, because I was afraid of ‘getting in the way’ and annoying my foster brothers.
It helped that my foster carers would shout us all down for dinner and get us up in the morning, without waiting for me to smell the food and cautiously emerge to see if there was a space for me at the table, too.
Tips to help a new child feel at home
For people who are thinking about becoming a foster carer, and based upon my own lived experience, to help a child feel more at home when they move in with you and your family, here are some suggestions:
Make sure your own children, if you have them, fully understand what is happening and try to give them some idea of how scary it is to be taken away to live somewhere else so that they don’t tease or bully the ‘new kid.’
Recognise that children will need time on their own to get used to things, and be patient with this.
Make it easier for fostered children to participate in family activities, such as mealtimes, and so on, by explicitly asking them to join you for dinner, get breakfast, bring you their laundry, and so on. For a while, they need to be told they are welcome, and they’ll then start to believe it and feel it later.
Let children customise their own rooms a little bit. Your home isn’t a hotel, and it helps kids to settle in if they feel they have a space of their own. In the early days, foster kids can behave a bit like a new cat hiding under a bed. It takes time to feel confident!