Our secret single male foster carer shares the first in a series of blog posts about his experience of fostering -- the highs, the lows and everything in between.
Some of the young lads who have stayed here showed a strong preference for not being here at all.
It wasn’t that they had anything particularly against me or the place, it’s just that they loved the thrill of being ‘on the run’.
The first time I had a ‘runner’ on my hands, it came as a total surprise. A young lad, 17, tall, good-looking, self-confident, polite and friendly, whom we shall call Pete, arrived having been thrown out by his mother.
After his social worker left, I sat him down at the big table and we chatted a little about his past and a little about the town – with its skatepark just a matter of yards away. He was intelligent, mature and genuinely engaged. I found myself thinking, ‘this lad is a good one – he’s going to be no trouble at all.’ I took a picture of him – no protests – and asked for his mobile number. He didn’t have a mobile. No problem, I thought, I can get him a £10 burner tomorrow.
I took him to his room and helped him unpack, showing him the best place to put his stuff. I left him to finish off on his own and returned to my office.
About an hour later he came up, very smartly dressed in the Nike code of his contemporaries, carrying a mini back-pack. ‘I’m just going to see who is around in the skatepark.’
‘Fine by me,’ I said. ‘When will you be back?’
‘Oh no more than half an hour.’
I never saw him again.
An hour later I was cycling round the town looking for him. No sign. Soon I was on the phone to the social service duty office and reporting him missing to the police. I learnt later that he had returned to his mother. A few days later I packed up his clothing and arranged to have it picked up, which, as these things often do, took a while.
My next placement, let’s call him Rob, was another 17-year-old. Again, smart, good-looking, polite and self-confident. Rob was easy to talk to, though, I could see, when witnessing him talking on the phone to friends and relatives, that he had a temper – one which, happily, he never lost with me.
I set up the punch bag for him – a long heavy sausage out of which he would daily belt seven bells. He had a court case coming up – all to do with him getting angry and violent with a group of older people outside a nightclub in the early hours.
Not in employment, education or training, I was, with the help of social services making plans for getting him back on the rails, when, one Friday evening, he walked out of the door. I caught him leaving – it was after 8pm and darkness was about an hour away. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Just popping out – won’t be long – definitely back in an hour.’
An hour later I called him on his phone.
I texted him. No reply. I gave him a little more time. Finally, an hour after he was missing I was on the phone to the police and social services.
It turned out that he had gone to his hometown, met up with his brother, recently released from jail, and spent the night with a relative. The police picked him up and brought him home on the Monday.
This became his weekend habit. Every Friday he’d walk out, tell the same lie, and disappear. Soon I had collected a list of addresses where the police could look.
He soon dropped the lying, and just told me that he didn’t want to stay here at the weekends, that he liked the place but it was ‘boring’. Indeed, I could not compete with the adrenalin rush of running with his mates and avoiding the police on the streets of his hometown.
I would dutifully tell him that if he didn’t return by the agreed curfew – 9pm – I’d have to report him missing. He accepted this, and, of course, would go missing anyway.
Each time I’d have the same half-hour wait to get through to the police – Friday nights are always busy – answer the same questions, and then go through it all again around 2am when the local police turned up to search his room and make sure he wasn’t hiding. Such duties tended to fall to the night shift, and they were rarely sufficiently free of more pressing concerns until the early hours.
Rob’s downfall was his continual shortage of cash – what money he had saved from his personal allowance was not going to be ‘wasted’ on rail fares. So, inevitably, he would get caught skipping the fare, get into arguments with the inspectors, and get himself arrested. Soon he was chalking up a whole host of potential court cases.
For his first court case – to do with the pre-placement incident at the nightclub – I persuaded him to wear a suit belonging to a lodger. He accepted the shirt, jacket, trousers and black shoes, but refused the tie. But the intimidating nature of the courthouse made him change his mind. He went into the juvenile court looking very smart and managing, with the help of an able barrister and a few words from myself and his social worker, to come away with the minimum possible sentence.
He resolved to change his ways. ‘I’m going to sort this out. I know it’s madness to go off at the weekends. I just get myself into trouble. I’ll get a job and get on with stuff.’
I’m well connected where I live and have secured jobs among friends for a number of my placements. ‘I don’t want to follow my older brother and land up in the nick.’
He was absolutely serious.
But come Friday the heady allure of his hometown would, more often than not, prove too much. I’d protest at the door ‘don’t go, Rob. You know you’ll get into trouble.’
‘No I won’t. I can look after myself.’
‘I’ll have to report you missing.’
‘Do what you have to’.
By this stage, Rob was getting grief from his friends and relatives who were getting regular visits from the police searching for him. So he found other places to go. Sometimes he’d arrive at an address, call me and tell me where he was, just before the curfew. This was enough for the police – if I knew the address, that meant that he wasn’t missing and they encouraged me to accept his word.
But sometimes it was pretty clear to me that he wasn’t where he said he was. I thought about driving the hour required to check out the address, but this was ruled out by my supervising social worker. The police took a different view, sometimes telling me that it was my ‘duty’ to check out where he was. ‘Wouldn’t you do that for your own child?’ they’d ask. ‘Yes,’ I’d answer, ‘but this is not my own child and social services advise against it.’ The police are sometimes slow to see the difference between parenthood and foster caring.
Too often he was with his errant older brother, and sometimes up in London doing who knows what.
There was one occasion I had to pick him up from a grim police station in east London. By then he had a street-wise lawyer advising him to do ‘no-comment’ interviews as the police presented him with video evidence of shoplifting.
One time, after he’d been ‘on the run’ for a week or more, he got himself arrested for fighting, and then, more seriously, burglary, and, finally, extremely serious, robbery with an offensive weapon.
He was on the run for three weeks before the police tracked him down. He was sent off to a youth offenders’ prison while awaiting trial, scheduled a few months hence.
I wrote to him in prison, and he replied, saying ‘how stupid’ he had been, how ‘terrible’ life was in 23-hour lock-up. ‘All through the night people would be calling you, saying they wanted to fight you. Someone would shout, “you got my back, Rob?” I’d reply “I’ve got your back, mate”. And then someone would shout ‘You got HIS back? Tomorrow I’ll **** you.’
How he should have listened to me, how he would never do it again.
Through the efforts of his social worker and his lawyer, and possibly benefiting from some clerical ineptitude, he was granted release before his trial date, and returned to me.
When I picked him up, his joy was untrammelled. Just seeing green fields, the sky, to be free to walk into a shop, to do the things we all take for granted, clearly moved him; my heart soared for him.
His commitment to changing his ways was total, and, as a court order demanded, he was on daily supervision by the Youth Offending Service, even spending a day cleaning all my windows.
But now a new siren was calling – a girlfriend who had been writing to him in jail.
One Saturday afternoon he said he was off to meet her in London.
‘You’ll never get back in time,’ I warned him.
‘I’ve got hours.’
‘Hours fly in the company of a lover,’ I told him.
‘I’ll be back.’
‘If you are not, you’ll be in breach of your bail conditions, and you’ll be thrown back into that hell.’
‘I WILL be back.’
They arrested him three weeks later and he was returned to prison. He sent me another ‘sorry I’m so dumb’ letter.
There is, I think, a hopeful postscript to this sorry tale. I hear from the Youth Offending Team that he is now out on an intensive supervision order, and attending every day, and has been attending every day for weeks.
Rob was bright for all his impulsive stupidity, and his time in jail and his current court order have wiped out his crimes. He could make it out of the trap.
It’s one of the things I’ve noticed about foster children – they take a little longer to ‘grow up’ than their more stable contemporaries, but they usually manage it, they do live to regret their wildness, and they do, it seems, find ways to settle down. And that process, I think, is really helped by the few months or years they spend in a stable environment where they are given freedom and respect. I don’t think they ever forget it.
I remind myself of this when a placement is going badly, when a boy is kicking off, when it seems to be going from bad to worse. Someday, their time here will help salve the searing wounds they have suffered in early childhood. We do such an important job. We should be proud.
Photo credit: Sladic via Getty Images