Why I am a foster carer
Why would you be a foster carer? We spoke to three adults who not only changed the lives of the children for the better, but also their own.
‘I wanted to share my life and my home with children and I needed a purpose in my retirement’
Name: Jennifer Dublin
Job: Full-time foster carer
Lives: Croydon, Surrey
Marital status: Divorced
Biological children: Michelle, 45, Jacqueline, 44 and Margaret, 43
Foster children: Currently awaiting second placement. First placement: Jessica, two and Matthew, six months.
‘Fostering is something I always wanted to do, but I had my own children quite young and then embarked on a career. When I retired, at the age of 60, I needed to do something and decided it was the right time to go into fostering. I’d worked in the field of fostering and adoption for nearly 30 years, I’d been a Sunday school teacher and a bereavement counsellor, so it was a case of pooling all my skills together. I’d also been a young, single mum myself, so I had personal experience, too.’
Having a purpose
‘There’s a need out there for people to care for children – I wanted to use my skills and experience looking after children but I also wanted to offer young mums parenting skills. I wanted to have a purpose and I also needed to utilise the space in my house.
‘In April 2009, I had two children placed with me – Jessica, who was two, and Matthew, who was six months, along with their mum. Mum stayed for five months but once she knew she had a safe place to leave her children, she left quite abruptly. I think I knew she was going to go – the indicators were there – so it wasn’t a total shock to me when she left. I then cared for Jessica and Matthew, single-handedly, for about 16 months.
‘My three daughters were very supportive – they wanted us, as a family, to assist other people. In the early days, they were very instrumental in babysitting and offering a lot of support. At my tender age, it was quite a shock having a young baby in the house again!
‘The jealousy came from my grandson, Sylvester, who’s 14. He’s my only grandchild so we’re very, very close. He wasn’t quite sure about me fostering. He thought that if a problematic child was placed with me I might be in danger and he wasn’t sure how he might react if a child threatened me, but after the children were placed with me, he actually got really involved. He liked the idea of having young kids in the house – his role was very hands on, especially with Matthew – he had a younger male child to interact with. He formed a very close attachment with Matthew.
‘It was also good for him to have the experience of being with a child that wasn’t a family member. Sylvester is very privileged because he gets everything he wants and he has lots of people around him – it made him aware that there are some children in this world who aren’t as fortunate as him. Being a foster carer has really energised me. It’s also made me realise I have more patience than I thought. It’s given me a real purpose – quite often when you retire you’re not quite sure what to do with your remaining years. I am very sure that fostering is what I want to do and what I will continue doing until I can’t do it any more. To think that I’m in my 60s, doing the school run and going to the park!’
‘With my fostering, I never wanted to be seen as the mum, I’d like to offer the older person’s viewpoint. I think in our society the family unit is breaking down, so I see myself more as a grandparent or an aunty. Jessica and Matthew called me aunty, as did their mum, but when we were out and about people would just assume they were my grandchildren. I just smiled sweetly, because it wasn’t anybody’s business really.
‘The hardest thing for me was recalling the stages young children go through. For example, when Matthew was teething, I had to think, “What do you do? He’s crying, what do I need?” The other difficult bit was when their mum left – it was very hard for Jessica in terms of separation and loss. It was very difficult to witness a child in such emotional pain as what she was in.
‘I then felt my own pain after Matthew and Jessica left. But I wouldn’t have wanted to have not felt that pain, because it would have meant we hadn’t bonded. I was incredibly close to those two little children but, fortunately, I’m still in touch with them.
‘Ideally, for my next placement, I’d like another mum with her child or children. All I really want to do is make a child’s life better.’
Thanks to: Talawa Fostering Services: www.talawafostering.com, 020 8367 6555
‘Our previous careers made us realise we could cope with challenging children, so fostering seemed to make sense to us’
Name: Leigh Thomas
Job: Property developer
Lives: Ashford, Kent
Marital status: Married to Sue, 44, a full-time foster carer
Biological children: Callum, 17, Abbey, 15 and Will, eight
Current foster children: John, Mary and Debbie, all aged 16
‘Years ago, my wife Sue and I both used to be support workers in a therapeutic community that looked after damaged children, with challenging behaviour. We both felt like we were successful in our roles there and it made sense to us to continue that in a loving, close knit family. The idea of fostering felt like a straightforward extension of that work.
‘We started fostering in 1996 and we were both young, at 27. We had our first placement, a 15-year-old girl, before our first son, Callum, was born. All of our own children have grown up with foster children around – they’ve never known anything different. They’re all very sensible, mature and articulate – I think that’s because of the experiences they’ve had, seeing the difficulties that other children have.’
‘Fostering is hard work, but we’ve never once regretted it, even though we’ve experienced difficult situations. One young boy was a black hole of emotional need. He constantly wanted to absorb all of my time and attention. It became clear to us over about six months that Callum, our oldest son, was unable to compete with this lad. It was a rare occasion that we realised our fostering was having a negative impact on him, he started misbehaving and rejecting me.
‘In the end, there was a planned move for the young boy to go back and live with his older step-sister. He’s since stayed with her and thrived, but in the last three months of him staying with us, Sue cried herself to sleep every single night. We genuinely felt like we did our best so there was no sense of failure; only a sense of regret that we were unable to do more. It’s not fair to beat yourself about it.’
‘Sue and I both believe it’s too easy to not stick with the foster children when it gets tough – if you have a child and they act up and it gets difficult, and you say, “I’m really sorry, I just can’t handle this behaviour anymore,” and that child has to leave, all you’re doing is compounding all of the damage that’s already been done. It’s often a case of feeling like you’re trying and trying, and nothing is working, and then you get a little chink of something that’s working and you think, “Wow”. It’s so satisfying and pleasing.
‘The most rewarding thing for me is what that the foster children bring to our family. We fostered two Afghan boys, Atash, now 25, and Farrin, now 23, who our children consider as older brothers. Like a lot of families, we used to eat our evening meal in front of the TV on our laps. Atash and Farrin came with very strict views about how a family should operate and one of the things that was important to them was eating an evening family meal, together, round a table. We took this on and it’s now one of the core, central parts of the way our family, and our fostering, functions.’ Changing lives
‘Fostering is definitely a two-way street, because I know we make a difference to the foster children’s lives, too. One boy arrived in November and had Christmas with us. He stayed a year and was with us the following Christmas. He was so excited and kept on going through what was happening. We said, “You’re really excited about Christmas aren’t you?” and he said, “Yeah, because I know what’s going to happen. I know what time we’re going to put the stockings out, what time we’re going to eat our meal, what time we’re going to open our presents.” It was the first time he’d ever been in the same place for consecutive Christmases. For this kid, until that year, every single Christmas had been radically different.
‘The hardest thing is when you have to say goodbye to those you’ve grown close to. Some children we accept that we’re unlikely to see again after they go, while others we’ve been accepted as part of the family.
‘Fostering is just like real life, whereby some people you just click with and some people you don’t. It’s the same with foster children, but you have to try and pick out the positives. During our 18 years’ fostering, we’ve looked after about 35-40 children, but it’s not about the number, it’s about the quality of care.’
Thanks to: Family Matters Fostering Ltd: www.fosteringagency.com, 01303 210029
‘Traumas of our own made us realise we could cope with difficult situations – we wanted to put that to good use’
Name: Patricia Smith
Job: Full-time foster carer
Lives: Hartlepool, Durham
Marital status: Married to Paul, 54, a plant engineer
Biological children: Mark, 20, Elaine, 14 and Lee, seven
Current foster children: Sisters Louise, 13, and Michelle, 11 and Katie, five.
‘Our route into fostering came about in an unusual way. November 2005 was a horrendous month for my family – on the 5th, we found out Paul’s mum had got terminal cancer, then on the 19th, my dad died suddenly from a massive heart attack. All this happened when I was heavily pregnant with our third child. It had been a difficult pregnancy all the way through – at 13 weeks, I had a miscarriage but, unbeknown to me, I discovered I’d been having twins and had lost just one of the babies. Thankfully, our son, Lee, arrived safely, weighing a healthy 10lb 14oz, on 23 November.
‘Soon after the birth, Paul’s mum began deteriorating quickly, so I started caring for her on a daily basis. A few months later, in June 2006, my own mum had to have an operation on her heart, and while she was in hospital recovering, Paul’s mum died. My mum then had to come and live with us for a while after her operation as she needed a lot of care, too. It was a terrible time but, somehow, we got through it.
‘The following year, we went away with some friends of ours, Philip and Laura, who were going through the process of becoming foster parents. We were talking about it with them and I remember them saying to me: “You should look into it – you’d be really good at it. You’ve looked after Paul’s mum, your dad’s died, you’ve had your baby, you’ve had your mum to live with you and you’ve dealt with all of that. You really ought to consider it.” That was how it all began. Later that same year, in 2007, we were approved as foster carers and not long after, we had our first foster child placed.’
A difficult start
‘Our first foster child was a boy aged 15. He was only supposed to come for a couple of weeks while he tried to get his relationship back on track with his father, but that didn’t happen and he stayed with us for a year. He presented very challenging behaviour from the start – he seemed to just attract trouble. In the end, we agreed with the social worker that he would move to a more appropriate family.
‘When he left, we did have a break for a few months, just to have some quality time back together as a family, but we didn’t want to give up, it would have felt wrong to do that and not all children are the same. We’ve since had other children placed with us that have been very successful.’
Challenges and rewards
‘I think what made Paul and I realise we’d make good foster parents was our experience: having three children of our own, having the experience of having had boys and a girl, living life as a busy family and feeling we could give children a feeling of self-worth and feeling wanted.
‘Our own children are wonderful with the foster children we’ve had – they’re absolute role models to them. My daughter loved having the baby placements because she could fuss over them which was really lovely to see. They were really rewarding experiences – one of the babies we had was adopted and that was just a wonderful experience; it felt like a great achievement and we were so proud of ourselves for what we’d done, providing him with his own “forever” mummy and daddy.
‘The most challenging thing with fostering is behaviour issues, especially if they’re drug and alcohol related. But even these problems have had positive benefits – it’s made our birth children think “My goodness me, I’m never going to get involved with drugs, smoking or drinking”.
‘And, to my amazement, the young man we’d had as our first placement did come back to our family home and he apologised for all the horrible things he’d done to us – he was 18 by then. I was incredibly surprised but I thanked him for being so courageous. It was a special moment.’
‘Without doubt, the most rewarding thing about this role is when a child turns round and says that they love you or gives you a big hug or thanks you for everything that you’re doing.
‘Children sometimes arrive with very few belongings – clothes far too small or far too big, no coats in freezing temperatures, holes in their shoes that are too small for them – and seeing children who’ve come from that start to flourish and blossom is wonderful.’
Thanks to: National Fostering Agency: www.nfa.co.uk, 0845 200 4040