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Suspended Animation and Online-Gaming

Our secret single male foster carer shares the second in a series of blog posts about his experience of fostering -- the highs, the lows and everything in between.

It’s a blow when a foster child leaves, and in the build-up to that moment, the relationship often intensifies.

I have in mind particularly a young lad, 13, who had been separated from his parents following a court order, and who spent his time in foster care in a state of suspended animation.

Let’s call him Bill.

This state was created by a local authority who had told Bill that the whole process – of reuniting him with his mother or another close relative – would take under a month. I wondered if this was a conscious subterfuge – an effort to sugar the pill of being wrenched from his home. My own knowledge of the torturous snail-pace of court-controlled matters made me think the proposed timing hopelessly optimistic. I held my tongue at the placement meeting during which Bill was offered this hope.

Certainly, had Bill been told how long it was likely to be, he may have been a lot harder to control. He was utterly opposed to the separation, felt that the social services had lied in the presentation of their evidence – this a reflection of his loyalty to and influence by his parents and in no way a reflection upon the social services involved – it is common for separated children to believe such things. But the consequence was his deep distrust of the authority’s various agents.

So if the upside of telling Bill that he’d be home soon when he could not possibly be home soon, was better behaviour in my home, the downside was his ever-amplified impatience and contempt for the social services that were trying to help him.

A direct result of this state of suspended animation was that he became hard to engage with – for who was I, from his point of view, but yet another agent of the authorities? He retreated, pretty much totally, into the world of on-line video games – a world extremely difficult to monitor from a carer’s point of view.

His on-line gaming could only really be controlled by a) my insisting he play the games at the main table – guests would just have to put up with it, b) my looking over his shoulder occasionally – and c) by my switching off the wifi he logs into at 9pm. (I have a wifi router extender – which is easy to turn off and remove, leaving me with online access while preventing others).

Bill, it turns out, had no problem with these rules. What he did have a problem with, was mixing. He had no interest in trying to make local friends – he did not socialise easily anyway, and just didn’t see the point of going through the pain ‘if I’m going home in a few weeks’. The local authority’s subterfuge had a second downside.

If visitors came around, young or older, Bill would just sit at the end of the table, hiding behind his big TV screen, clicking away, chatting to other game-players on his headset, ignoring the visitors except perhaps to say ‘Hi’.

This included me too. Our conversations were pretty much limited to the time we spent cooking together, shopping together and to the long, weekly journeys to a contact centre where he’d meet, separately, his mother and father – a four-hour round-trip, excluding contact time.

The suspended animation was made more wearing by the fact that I worked from home and Bill didn’t go to school – for various reasons, over the whole period he was with me, the local authority had not been able to provide him with an education. I had started some home education with him, which began well but, within about three weeks – the time at which he was told he was likely to be returned to relatives – he began refusing my help. He also agreed to regular exercise, but this too was increasingly refused as time went on.

A lot of Bill’s conversation was all about Fortnite – a multiplayer on-line game in which people work together in squads to achieve military objectives. From what I could see over his shoulder it wasn’t particularly violent – that is, if you accept that shooting fellow gamers’ virtual heads off isn’t particularly violent – standards in the do-it-yourself Hollywood of cyberspace are, happily, not what they are in reality. And it did seem to have an upside.

Bill was a leader in this virtual world – someone who others followed. Often I’d hear him giving instructions to a team and helping comrades stuck in ‘life-threatening’ situations. Clearly this band of brothers and sisters from San Francisco to Hong Kong needed his expertise.

And I saw his generosity – how he would help people who had got their account ‘hacked’, gifting them virtrual equipment to set them back up, equipment he had acquired through skill or gifts from relatives. Sometimes the language was ripe, but I generally let this go – providing the windows weren’t open to the passing public and he reined it in when guests were about. I saw the game as his escape valve.

Do such games limit young people, especially if played so obsessively? Quite possibly, but there are advantages, and they became especially apparent when a friend from China visited me with their 12-year-old son, Lee. Normally Bill would ignore the arrival of young people, but Lee, who had sat dutifully at the table to spend some time bored rigid in the company of adults, turned towards Bill, his ears pricking to the low sound of on-line gunfire.

Soon they were chatting. As Lee moved to sit alongside Bill, Lee’s mother asked, ‘what are they playing?’ When she heard Fortnite, she said, ‘oh no, Lee, you never get off that game. Come and sit with us.’

Lee looked at me. I winked; he sat down with Bill and watched him play, asking the occasional question. And so it was that a few minutes later Bill was fully engaged with a real human being of his own age, and clearly enjoying it. It was significant – Bill had hated school and had declared he could not get on with anyone of his own age – his online colleagues were mostly much younger than him.

And so the adults began a conversation about the pros and cons of online gaming (the mother resistant, the more geeky father intrigued) while the two boys traded information, talked and laughed about the game. Bill now has a new online friend.

The downside of Fortnite obsession, of course, is that it is exactly that, an obsession. Bill would chat to me for ages about the game; in the car, over dinner, on our short walks to the shops. I tried to show enthusiasm: ‘wow’, ‘that’s good,’ ‘how funny,’ ‘well done’, but in truth he might as well have been speaking Greek to me.

So it was a pleasant surprise in the days before Bill was due to leave me, that he opened up a little more than usual, this on a trip to a local shopping centre to spend some £260 of accumulated clothing allowance on whatever he wanted that he could wear.

Normally, of course, such clothing allowances don’t accumulate so grandly, but Bill had issues with his personal appearance and had shown no interest in getting new clothes – to him, I surmised, his old clothes were a connection to the home life to which he so wanted to return. His personal appearance, which he knew would not gain approval from his peer group, made him even less inclined to engage with local young people.

We recalled moments when visitors questioned his clothing choice. He wouldn’t answer, they would persist until I stepped in saying, firmly: ‘He chooses to look this way because that’s what he wants’, in a tone that brooked no argument. The subject was changed. Bill chuckled as I reminded him of the friends who I had silenced.

‘So do you think you are going to sort that out, now you’re going home?’ I asked.

‘Yeah,’ he laughed, ‘I reckon it’s time’ – time to revise his identity.

He recounted his first day here, how weird it had been for him, waking up several times during a long car journey and still not being here. How he had arrived in the deep snow and a cutting northerly wind. How freaked out he felt going to bed in a strange room in a strange place with no idea what the future held. All pretty terrifying.  

And then he took me back into his earlier childhood as he revealed experiences, thoughts and feelings he’d never told me before – sad and disturbing revelations.

Back home from the shopping trip, we packed up his clothes, put away the punch bag (barely used) and recommissioned the table tennis table (used three or four times in eight months) and then went back to our respective screens at either end of the home, me in my study to work, he in cyberspace to waste the inhabitants of Fortnite.

The next day, after last-minute packing, a hug and a blinked-away tear, he was gone, whisked away by a new social worker, my home empty despite a series of visitors that day. Bill was not much of a talker and had spent most of his time behind a video screen, but his absence was palpable. It always is when a foster child leaves.

So what could the authorities have done at the outset? Did they have to tell him ‘three weeks?’ Was this a necessary white lie?

No, in my view, it was not. They should have emphasised the weekly contact but warned him that the process could take ‘many weeks – possibly months. It could be three weeks – but it may take longer. We will do all we can to make it quick. Let’s hope it will be sooner rather than later.’

My experience of children is that if you are honest and open with them, you get better results than when you spin a yarn, however noble your intentions.

 

Photo courtesy of the BBC

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