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What's it really like to foster?

child's drawing
child's drawing

In our first weeks together while carrying our wriggling foster toddler down the street, my wife or I would sometimes have brief conversations with passing acquaintances.

“Hello! How are you?” we’d say as our witty, clever and beautiful child thrashed around shouting “Noooo!” to everyone within earshot.

“Don’t worry, I’ve been there,” people who’d once parented a two year old would chortle.

“Hmm,” we’d say.

The ‘ACES’ term has been in the news recently, a cheery abbreviation of ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences.’ In a toddler in care’s case, ACES generally means: ‘I’m stropping off not so much because I can’t have an ice cream, it’s more that my parents were drug addicts and I’ve witnessed domestic violence’.

Over the last thirty years, researchers have used a list of ten questions to reveal someone’s ACES score. As a child, did an adult in the household hit you, swear at you, sexually abuse you or make you feel afraid? Were you often hungry, or did you feel unsupported and unloved? Were your parents separated or divorced, was there violence in the home, or was a parent a drug addict or an alcoholic, suffering from mental illness, or in prison?

If you log four or more ‘yes’ answers (and get an ACES score of 4+), it’s now been shown that you’re more likely to suffer from several life threatening health conditions and depression, you’ll be 12 times as likely to attempt suicide, and your life is likely to be significantly shorter than those on low scores.

In a nutshell, traumatic early experiences wire a baby or small child’s developing brain to cope with stress, and change the body’s chemistry.

And here’s the point: that’s not the end of the story. A stable environment with adults who keep their youngster safe and ready to enjoy life gradually reduces stress for the child, helps her ‘self regulate’ and realise that she’s actually worth something. All this makes her more ‘resilient’ and reduces the effects of that life-threatening ACES score.

Every now and then our toddler cries out screaming in the evening, either having a nightmare or too terrified to open her eyes. After picking her up and rocking her for five minutes, she settles down and goes back to sleep.

We have no idea what she can remember of her early life. It doesn’t matter. In the morning she grins and chatters, and goes out and says hello to everyone she meets. She rarely throws herself about in public now, and she’s developing into the kind of bright, cheerful (albeit very strong willed) little girl you could imagine captaining an SAS unit.

We don’t know everything, but we know enough to estimate her ACES score at 6 or 7. Being a foster carer is about helping this small child start her journey away from those stark figures for suicide, life expectancy and mental illness.

As they say, making a difference.

You can find out more about fostering with Sheffield Council here.

Artwork by E.