12th Feb, 2008

We don’t usually do respite care, but….

Seven year old Jaimee spent the weekend with us, as she does each month. I first met this little girl when she was an active and demanding toddler having occasional foster care with a friend of mine. When, due to personal circumstances, Jaimee required full-time care, my friend offered to provide that even though she already had a pretty full house. She had developed a supportive relationship with Jaimee’s single mum and really wanted to help this little family stay together.

Unfortunately, Jaimee’s aggressive behaviour caused great difficulties with the placement, especially as there was a younger child in the family who was constantly being bullied by this tiny, angry two year old. A decision was made to move her but, as so often happens, a suitable family in the area wasn’t readily available. Our family happened to be between placements – we had only taken babies in the previous few years. This seemed to suit the new dynamics of our family as Portia and Seth settled into being in their ‘forever’ family. As they were now aged nine and seven, I thought a nearly three year old could suit us. But I was wrong.

Over the next six months our family lived with almost constant chaos. Little Jaimee had significant emotional problems. Her rigidity and defiance, her frequent melt downs with shrill screaming , hitting and kicking meant she was constantly the centre of my attention and energy. Portia responded to the situation by regressing to her own “toddler” behaviour, and little Seth, who needed his environment to be calm and predictable, responded with tears and anger at all these people disturbing his peace. The six weeks of the summer school holidays were particularly difficult to manage, despite seeing some progress in Jaimee’s behaviour, as I tried to parent her with strategies gleaned from my training in therapeutic foster care. Our worker, although very supportive, agreed with our family that it might be better that three year old Jaimee be placed with a new family. In time (we didn’t hurry the process) a new but keen foster family with no other children at home accepted little Jaimee, and four years later she is doing really well in her long-term foster home.

We felt quite guilty at having to disrupt a placement, as foster carers often do. However, seeing Jaimee gradually adjust to her new home and build up an attachment with her new Mum eased my conscious somewhat. The relief felt by all the family when Jaimee left and the work I could put in with Portia and Seth to “mend the bridges” reinforced the rightness of disrupting this placement. But I felt an ongoing commitment to little Jaimee, and we have continued to have her back with us for regular respite (even though we don’t usually do respite foster care).

The advantages are felt by everyone. This little girl has a second family with whom she feels comfortable. A weekend is manageable. With a lot of hard work, and knowing we only have to sustain our efforts for 48 hours, the family stays relatively calm. This has become significantly easier as Jaimee has responded to a stable long term family and supportive therapeutic care from a number of professionals (she was put into an intense fostering program a few years ago) and her behaviours have become so much easier to manage. We have gained a lot of satisfaction from seeing this little girl grow and settle, and from being important in her life. We provide a stimulating family environment with slightly older and younger children to interact with, contrasting to her own home, where she is the only child. I am proud of Portia and Seth who, despite sometimes groaning when I announce it is our turn to have Jaimee, go out of their way to play with her and accommodate her in their busy weekends. And I know Jaimee’s foster parents appreciate the time they have ‘child-free’ knowing their little girl is happy and secure in one of her other families (my friend who first had Jaimee in her care, also offers regular respite). In fact, I would go so far as to state that regular respite is essential for the continuing success of Jaimee’s long term placement.

Most importantly, for Jaimee, it means that the three separate placements in foster care that she has had are still all connected, as with an extended family. Her life story book has no photos of strangers, of placements forgotten. Even if she doesn’t really remember living in our home for that six months during which she turned three , she feels like she does, because the photos of that time are filled with familiar people, pets and places – all of whom she still sees regularly. If for no other reason we will continue to have Jaimee for regular respite, so she retains that sense of continuity, and so that as she grows to adulthood, she still has someone of whom she can ask “… what was I like when I was just two years old?” and we will happily tell her.

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