This summer we said goodbye to a much-loved foster child. Once we packed her belongings into the car, she sat with her most cherished possession on her lap during the drive to her new home. Under no circumstances would she let go of the box containing her collection of photographs, letters and souvenirs from the year that she was part of our family, including her memory book and letter from us. As another chapter in her life came to a close she took one final look over her shoulder at our home as we drove away, as if she was trying to commit to memory every detail of the house and garden that had been her sanctuary.
Foster carers are parents, guardians, advocates and counsellors, roles that are generally well understood. But we are also the custodians of memories. We are privileged to witness and to share the most precious moments in the life of a child or young person -- first steps, first day at school, cycling without stabilisers, a Christmas play, first romance. But we also have a responsibility to record and document events in a child's life, the seemingly trivial as well as the most significant. We safeguard those memories so that one day they may be shared with those who take our place in a child's life, and are never lost .
These are the moments that should belong to mummy and daddy, to brothers and sisters, to grandparents. Moments that families take for granted until such a time when destiny intervenes to take a loved one away. But looked-after children, separated from their families to protect them from harm and neglect, often become the flotsam and jetsam of the care system, drifting ever further from those who really know who they are. Or who they once were.
So much of a foster carer's time and energy is devoted to making and sharing notes. Many are factual, some require much more context. Every significant event has to be recorded to ensure that all those involved in a child's care are kept informed. Parents who are temporarily separated from their children should be able to understand what their sons and daughters have experienced during their time in care. Daily diary notes are sent to social workers, which may be followed up by questions arising from incidents that occurred during the day. The burden of paperwork should not be underestimated.
But capturing memories is not just about 'where' and 'when'. Just as important is the emotional context: the smiles and the tears, the courage and determination, the anger and the outrage. A life story should recall what made a child happy or sad, their generosity of spirit, the moments of despair. Every photograph, and there may be hundreds, must tell a story. When a looked-after child flicks through a photo album, there should be nobody left unnamed and every relationship explained. Memories define who we are, and give shape to our responses to the challenges that we face. We rely heavily on reminiscences with parents and siblings to keep these memories alive and to give meaning to the experiences of our childhood or adolescence. Our reflections evolve as we grow older and gain a greater understanding of these relationships with our loved ones. But when a child or young person lives in care, a process that is vital to emotional wellbeing is interrupted or at risk of being broken altogether. Foster carers are committed to ensuring that this does not happen.
Completing a departing foster child's memory book can be a tough emotional challenge. Words can seem so inadequate to describe the journey you have travelled together. You aspire to do justice to a life shared, and to help the next foster carers or adoptive parents understand and treasure the exceptional person who has joined their family. The process forces you to dig deep, and sometimes a realisation of the enormity of what has taken place amid the quotidian is overwhelming.
One day children who have been in our care will ask questions about their past that simply cannot be answered in a memory book. Above all, we hope that they understand that they were loved and cherished. And we hope that they know that they can come to us for those elusive answers. We are, after all, merely custodians of their memories.