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Foster care finds its own special literary ambassador

Foster care memoir is illuminating

Foster carer memoir is poignant

Foster carers will almost certainly have heard of Lemn Sissay by now. In the last year, he has become the ‘face of fostering’ – a trite, but popular term, for myriad activities or endeavours human beings engage in if judged to be all-knowing on that topic. And as he has recently been getting a lot of media attention, it’s fortunate he has such an engaging and winning manner. Because that’s what’s needed when it comes to firing up the debate on a subject that has become as contentious as fostering has. 

But a broad smile and twinkling eyes would not have been enough by themselves to bring him such a wide audience. This has happened because; against heavily stacked odds, Lemn Sissay has achieved much. He is a poet and a performer. And, for good measure, he is Chancellor at Manchester University. These are achievements not easy to have predicted when Lemn was born in 1967 at Billings Hospital, close to St Margaret’s Hospital for pregnant and unmarried girls and women in Wigan. His mother was an Ethiopian student who wanted him to go into foster carer whilst she studied. That being her goal, she refused to sign adoption papers. This meant that Lemn’s fostering journey began. He was handed over to foster parents by a social worker and given the name ‘Norman’. It was the kind of inauspicious start that is still sadly the lot of so many children that enter the care system. 

A foster care memoir that speaks to us all.

From the stage he has reached in life now, Sissay has produced a touching memoir – ‘My Name is Why’ – which has distilled his experiences of growing up in the care. The actual details do not count so much as their effect upon him. They are similar to those of all children who are ‘care experienced’. Each story is, of course, different but the themes remain similar: uncertainty, hope, anticipation and all too often a disappointment. Then, as in his case – and most, there is the understandable curiosity. Who were my parents? Where did I come from? This is almost universal when an individual is fostered or adopted from birth. What is particularly touching about his account is the quite understandable naivety a child has. This includes the desire for acceptance, belief and the trust they have in those who are fostering them. What can be so heart-rending is that often these expectations can never be met in full. And, in Sissay’s case, his experience was all the more poignant. This is because; as is the case with most young children, full comprehension of the reasons for his being moved in 1980 from his ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, were lacking. Not surprising as the dynamics of that relationship were, after all, seen through the eyes of a child. The way he saw things were not increasingly as his foster parents saw them. Not particularly, from the account given, anyone’s fault – just the changing eddies in the dynamics that affect all families.

‘My Name is Why’, published this August is likely to be a long-remembered addition to the oeuvre of this widely respected poet. And that’s especially fitting, and this has been remarked upon because it possesses a lyrical quality which imbues it with the power to remain long in the memory. And because of this, it should be read by anyone considering fostering. Why? because it painfully recounts the innocent hopes and expectations blended with a vulnerability that any child finding themselves in his situation will have. It is the misperceptions that hit home with particular force:  early on Sissay recounts: 

“mums smell; there must be a smell a child is attuned to from being a baby, a cross between baby powder and witch hazel. I don’t believe an adopted baby gets any less love from their parents than a child naturally born to them. Forever, for ages, until the end came, no matter how volatile the day had been, I’d pray she’d open the bedroom door before I slept, I’d pray she’d sit on the edge of my bed and sing me to sleep as she did when I was younger. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey.” I believed her. 

Foster understanding.

The pathos is all the more heightened as we become aware of how Sissay slowly and painfully realises that not all is right with his world. Which then comes to an end abruptly. But it is the manner in which this becomes evident that gives the story much of its power. And this, perhaps more than anything else, is what someone thinking of becoming a foster carer should reflect upon. 

The phrase ‘vulnerable child’ is now used so often that the emotions it should elicit have become dulled. If pressed to define vulnerability its something we can do – but mostly in abstract ways. This account leaves us with a searing and memorable impression of what vulnerability actually is. So when we hear terms like placement breakdown or descriptions of placements ‘not working out’, Sissay forces us to feel the impact of these terms. That is the power of this book. It needed a gifted poet to arrest our attention and sensitise us to the affecting misapprehensions of a young child. It is these that should give anyone thinking of becoming a foster carer pause for thought. 

More and more we look for foster carers to be ‘resilient’. It is a word that is gaining currency. But is it the right word? In many ways, it is unfortunate as brings to mind ideas of toughness, hardness and inflexibility. Are these the qualities needed to address the needs of a child who has been traumatised for could be a whole combination of reasons. Understanding is a better word than resilience and need not imply weakness. It can be argued that a person gains real strength only through understanding. And the best way that this can be achieved is through the kind of empathy that most closely approximates seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Many children coming into foster carer have seen things that adults would find distressing and hard to cope with. And for those children unfortunate enough to be destined to enter the care system, this can be far worse because their young minds are still developing. This makes it impossible for them to make sense of certain experiences they have – through no fault of their own – been forced to undergo. So it should surprise no one that their behaviour can become extreme as a result. 

It’s further proof of the long-term effects of uncertainty and insecurity that being in the care system can exact as ‘My Name is Why’ feels like a personal catharsis. Lemm Sissay one senses is still healing. And if this can be achieved by recounting his childhood experiences, that’s all to the good. For no one can doubt a child coming into foster care after suffering emotional upset – or worse – will have found life at times unbearable. Lemm Sissay’s is a timely work: it shows that we simply cannot do right by the children in our care system if we fail to understand and address their emotional needs. There is one dramatic statistic that can leave us in no doubt: as iI write, it is an unsettling and disturbing fact that 65% of children entering the care system right now are suffering the traumatic effects of some form of abuse. On the plus side, this has been recognised. It had to be. One of the most significant effects currently being seen is the high rate of placement breakdowns with the accompanying ill-effects. And these really do hit home. It’s not just about the disruption to schooling – although that is bad enough – and explains in large part why only six per cent of care leavers go on to university. Worse still is that when children flounder in school they become at risk form being ‘off-rolled’ which can make them especially vulnerable to becoming co-opted into gangs. Anyone with any knowledge of ‘County Lines will see that these children are almost inevitably going to be propelled into the arms of the criminal justice system. So it is not just that they are failed educationally, they are being prepared for a life of crime. The image of Charles Dickens famed ‘Artful Dodger’ springs to immediately mind. To stem this tide, therapeutic foster care looks like it will be providing much-needed answers. It is a step-change in the way we have come to think about foster care as compared to only a few short years ago. And at its core, it is about understanding. And more specifically understanding the interior world of a child. ‘Resilience’ seems more about the desired traits of a foster carer. But what we need now are large numbers of carers trained to have a deep understanding of the effects of childhood trauma.  

A different approach.

We are currently witnessing the ground shifting underneath us in terms of what the role of the foster carer is expected to be. This is not a propitious time for this to be happening given there is a nationwide shortage of 8,600 foster carers. More than anything we need to be starting from the guiding principle that a placement has to be loving and stable. Where a child arrives in a foster parents home suffering from trauma, it must be met with a level of professional understanding. Where appropriate, there has to be a route to clinical expertise and support for that child that the carer can then play a role in supporting. And there is a single proof: Lemm Sissay provides this touchingly and eloquently in his book. It is the overriding need for a child to think in terms of having a ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. When placements end, and in the worst cases go on ending, this essential idea can never take root. Children who were already vulnerable become more even more so. Moreover, they can become susceptible to other highly negative effects – as already mentioned – poor behaviour resulting in being ‘off-rolled’ at school is a prime example. As a society, it might be a lot more sensible to place vulnerable children into a different context – such as residential homes. At least while we make strenuous efforts to attract, recruit and train enough therapeutically trained foster carers. But there is an important caveat to this: the allocation of significant funding. If, as we are told, we have apparently emerged from austerity residential homes need to be properly funded and resourced. Children in well-managed homes are far more likely to have a proper grasp of their situation. And more realistic expectations. Of course, being in the best residential setting can never compensate for not being in your own family. But this is way more preferable to falling victim to multiple placement breakdowns. We cannot be surprised that children will quite naturally seek their own ‘mums’ and ‘dads’, but if a placement is poorly matched and the foster carer unable to cope – and this experience is repeated – the harm can be considerable. And one should say here that this extends to the well-being and morale of foster carers too. The aim has to be for children to be found foster homes where they can be confident in their particular situation. And for them to feel it will be one endures and offers security – and maybe even a ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. 

Being a foster carer with Rainbow Fostering.

We make every attempt to inform and educate our applicants of the realities of fostering. This blog is part of that ongoing effort. Our team work hard to make everyone connected with Rainbow feel valued and supported every day. We are learning all the time. And the most important thing about knowledge is that it is shared. This reflects the unique culture of our Rainbow community. 

So, please remember, ‘My Name is Why’ should definitely be on the reading list of anyone contemplating a future career in foster care. 

And if you decide to proceed and are confident you have the commitment and dedication to supporting a child or young person, we’d like you togged in touch. There is never any pressure from us or obligation. We like to think in terms of starting a conversation. It’s important we understand your motivations for wanting to foster in the first place. It’s important you understand them fully as well. It’s quite alright to decide fostering is not for you. It’s not for everyone – but well done for even considering it we need many more people to do so. This country currently faces a national shortage of 8,600 foster families. 

Next steps. You can call us on 020 8427 or use our National Line 0330 311 2845. Rainbow is looking for foster carers in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Portsmouth and Hampshire. And we have carers from all kinds of backgrounds: single people, couples (married or living together), same-sex couples, families – with or without children – and from all religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. BUT, you will need to have a spare room to accommodate a foster child or young person. There is more information about fostering at:

Transfer to Rainbow.

If you are already a foster carer and are thinking of transferring, we make the process simple and straightforward. That’s what you would expect from an agency that has been rated ‘Outstanding” in all areas by Ofsted. by doing our best to care for our foster carers at all times, we know they will be providing the very best care for our children. call for a sympathetic, confidential chat about how we can further your professional career in fostering. More information is available on our page:

Finally, please feel free to browse our blog section. It covers a wide range of topics about fostering: informative, sometimes opinionated – and always, we hope, thought-provoking – there is much to illuminate the world of fostering. There are even accounts of the experiences of foster carers! Here’s just one: Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

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