‘Looking after these children is my life’

On her Instagram account Pleeggezin_van_Jan_Steen, Sietske (58) posts almost daily messages about the eight boys she receives together with her husband Fred. “I want to make a different sound. Not more positive, not more negative, but just as it is.”

Sietske (58): “Actually, I was a bit tired of all the negative reports about the poor state of youth care, about dysfunctional foster families and children who fall between two chairs. We have different experiences. That’s why I wanted to hear a different sound. No more positive, no more negative, just exactly as it is. Maybe I should start an Instagram account, I suggested to my now grown daughter Nadieh. “Nice,” she said, “but you have to get permission from your foster children’s parents for that. You also have to come up with a catchy name, what do you think of Jan Steen’s Foster Family?” Fantastic. I was instantly excited. Not because it’s a mess at home, certainly not. But we are a big family with eight foster boys, which is always happening at home. Never a dull moment, shall we say. That name fits.
I presented it to the boys and their parents. Funnily enough, everyone immediately thought it was a good idea. One mom even recently said she likes it so much that she can now see what her child is doing on an average day, on weekends and on holidays. She literally said, “I feel even more involved in your family and feel like I’m a little bit with him this way.” Very nice of course, although I hadn’t thought about it that deeply myself. Of course, now that I regularly post videos, pictures and messages, one of the boys doesn’t feel like it. No problem. Then they stay out of sight for a while. I only post things that everyone agrees with.”

This never again

“Fred and I actually ended up in foster care by accident. We have two children together: Nadieh, 34, and Remon, 35. Nadieh is pregnant with her first child, a boy. Remon and his wife Liesbeth have two girls Zoe and Benthe. When our children were still in elementary school, we took in a thirteen-year-old teenager from the area. We saw that he was not well at home, at night he slept in a new quarter under construction. Fred looked for him and took him home.
Back then, it was a so-called network location. At first it was a week. He ended up staying with us for seven months. That period was very hard. We immediately fell flat on our faces. For the first time we saw the police station and the court from the inside, and we had to deal with school suspensions. Much of what was not our world suddenly became our world. It took some getting used to. So when the seven months were up, Fred and I looked at each other and said, “Never again.”
And yet, a while later, we decided to immerse ourselves in foster care. Especially because it also gave us a very good feeling that we could do something for this boy. We had helped him back on track a little. I would have liked to see even more results, but I know now: every little bit helps. Of everything he has seen and experienced in our house, something will always stay with us. Even if it’s just a birthday celebration. That someone sings for you or hangs the garlands. If it continues as a positive experience, such a boy may soon do the same for his own children.”

Outside the boat

“We wanted to help more children, so we took a beginner’s course in Foster Care and got our first placement. A girl. emergency shelter. Very short. Then a brother and a sister followed, then three more children at the same time. Often short-term. And all in consultation with our own children. We thought that was important, they had an influence on this. It wasn’t until Nadieh and Remon left home that we entered long-term programs for more children. It turned out – it probably sounds a bit strange – that we are very comfortable with children who are left out everywhere. Who have already been to various care addresses and family homes, but have nowhere to settle down.
At the moment eight boys live with us, Daan and Noah, they are fifteen, Gabriel, Julien, Jarick and Dilano; they are all fourteen. And Joell and Mattan, they are eleven. We don’t live in a very spacious house. In fact, it is a terraced corner house with an extension on the side and rear. We have cleverly divided the rooms. Normally, you are not allowed to accommodate so many people in one family, but in good consultation with the municipality and youth care, it is allowed here.
We are often asked why we can offer these boys a home. The answer is simple: we don’t expect anything from them. Children need structure, warmth and security, we can give them that. Stability too. These are important prerequisites to be able to do this properly. In addition, I accept from the children that they are as they are. I don’t expect them to suddenly like me, let alone call me mom. Most of them just have a father and a mother, I’m Sietske.’

honeymoon

“What you notice is that most of them have already been through a lot before they come here. They come in with a backpack. I never assume that a child is grateful when they come to live here. On the contrary. Most kids don’t want to be here at all at first and say so. They just prefer to stay at home, logical right?
I give the boys – we’ve had girls too, but we only take boys in now – they always come here first to get used to it. We call it the honeymoon. It often goes well during that period because everything is still new. Then there comes a time when they are rebellious, angry or sometimes even aggressive. One has screaming fits, the other scolds and hits or breaks things. Sometimes there is no land to sail with them. I never take that personally. Not even when they scold me. I let bad words escape me. If you keep it up long enough, you will notice that they stop that behavior.
By the way, every child is different, so there is no standard way to raise or respond. One needs a hug when angry, the other a warning or time-out. All I often say anyway is that I understand them, but that I hope we can make the best of it together after all. Such an affair always ends with a high five. And of course it’s not good all of a sudden. Sometimes it’s wrong an hour later. This requires time, energy and patience. A lot of patience. A foster child therefore gets at least one year to land here. After three months, you really can’t tell if something will work or not. You don’t know the child yet.”

Worst nightmare

“With the eight boys who have who now, it’s very pleasant. Although it was different at the beginning. There is also good contact with the parents. Something like that has to grow. At the beginning, of course, it was me who took their child away. Like feels like that to them. I understand that. In fact, if my kids were moved out, I think I’d be every foster mother’s worst nightmare. I’d be white-hot. Nevertheless, we gradually build a relationship of trust with the parents. They just visit their children right here at our home. Most people now say: ‘It’s terrible that my child is in foster care, but I’m happy that he is with Fred and Sietske.’ A real compliment. Once the bond is established, you can also involve the parents more in the upbringing. In my contact with the parents, I never try to judge what went wrong in the past. Of course, the children don’t live with us for nothing, but I mainly concentrate about the here and now.”

A big family

“The intention is that the boys only leave home when they are ready. It is possible with eighteen, but also with 23 years. Fred and I are trying to give the boys here as normal a life as possible until then. And the feeling of ‘we are one big family’. All eight go to school, have friends, play sports or work in their spare time. They are not brothers and it doesn’t feel like it. They only stand up for each other as brothers when something goes wrong at school.
Because regularity is important to them, every weekday for everyone here starts at seven o’clock. Then we eat breakfast together. After dinner, they help clean up, clean the table, sweep the floor and wash the dishes. Then they walk out the door. Fred too. He still works as a sprayer. I myself am always at home for the boys. A plus because I hear and see everything. Taking care of these children is my life, it gives me energy.
Fortunately, we have arranged it so that we can regularly go out together. In the theatre, out to dinner with friends or to a concert. We have been given hours by the municipality where we can hire a professional babysitter. Luxurious, but also necessary, otherwise you won’t last.”

Concerned look

“Three years ago, Fred was diagnosed with cancer. It had an impact. Also on the boys. What if Fred dies, they asked, should we leave? I didn’t want to keep looking. We’re not making the situation prettier than it is, but I kept telling them, ‘It’s going to be okay. Have faith.’ Fortunately, Fred actually got better. He was only out of circulation for six months because of the chemotherapy and then went back to work, fishing with the boys and fixing tires as usual. Yet at home I still saw worried looks around me for a long time when Fred coughed or went to bed early. “Are you okay?” the boys would ask.
That period was also hard for me. I remember driving back from the hospital with Fred once and it was all too much for me. I started shouting and cursing. All the way back. At home I immediately thought: I’m not feeling well. I act like the boys. The next day I went to the GP and received EMDR therapy to process the trauma – which was Fred’s illness for me. That period was very educational. An eye opener. So that’s how boys feel when they rage, I thought. Powerless. They don’t know what to do. Because of what I experienced myself, I now understand them even better.”

Wrong track

“Fred and I have looked after a total of 36 children over the years. Some of them still come to visit us. One eats once a week, another attends birthdays or family celebrations. There is also still contact with our first ‘network’ child. He’s fine. As with many others. Although a few have gone astray as well. I’m quite worried about that. I also compare. Because even if I wanted to, I can’t save the whole world.
My Instagram account is running well. I feel like I’m putting ‘the real story behind foster care’ on the map. In the meantime, I get a lot of questions from people who are considering foster care or from fellow foster parents who want to chat with me about something. Those contacts are valuable and I find that I like to think together with others. What I would like to convey to the outside world, and certainly to my own children, is that we must look around. It is good to do something for others. To be hospitable and open one’s home. My two children have become social creatures and love our eight. All I have to do is call them and they are ready. I am quite proud of that.”

Follow Sietske? Look on Instagram: foster family_van_jan_steen

Text: Jolanda Hofland
Photo: Yasmijn Tan
Make-up: Wilma Scholte

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