Adopting and fostering can work for families of all ages. This week is National Adoption Week and here, one foster parent tells her story
For some, the presiding image of fostering and adopting might come from Jacqueline Wilson's The Story of Tracy Beaker, the original book that spurned five television series on the BBC.
But for many families, having children in care is far from fiction. Last year, over 69,000 children were in the care of local authorities; of those, 75 per cent were living with foster carers, while five per cent were placed for adoption.
Of course, the two ideas are quite different. Adopting a child is for life, whereas foster carers step in when parents are unable to. First4Adoption, the service dedicated to providing information and guidance about adopting in the UK, asks the following of those considering doing so:
This week is National Adoption Week, and now, thanks to an injection of cash from the Department for Education, over 2,000 families are receiving further help adopting children. £7m of government investment has been pumped into supporting families and giving them access to essential therapy services to help children settle into their new life.
With this, 14 Regional Adoption Agencies have been set up with the aim to help place children quicker than ever in stable, loving homes where they can thrive.
For those involved with adopting and fostering - of all ages - it wasn't always so. This much Avril Head knows well.
With her husband Ron, she has been involved with both fostering and adopting children for over 40 years. In 2014, they were awarded MBEs for services to children and families.
Now 63 and 66 respectively, with three birth children, two adopted children and two fostered children, their vital work looking after disabled children who urgently need someone to love them and bring them up properly continues.
“I often get told I should write a book,” Avril laughs. Her journey began in the late 70s. "We had had two children of our own and thought we would like to involve ourselves in a scheme that our local authority started up with gave families a break."
Her journey as a foster parent began here, and the local authority linked the Heads up with a family. "By the time we had our third child, we were taking in children from other families, as we’d got involved with social services to help with child care for those with disabled children.”
From there, the couple went into mainstream fostering. “Over that time, we fostered about 140 children,” Avril says.
During this period, the couple were still caring for the two children to whom they had been initially linked. “The house was brimming with children all the time. It was a lovely time. But of course, it has its drawbacks. We never knew what was going to happen one day or the next,” she says.
At the time when her peer group are enjoying the excesses of having grandchildren to spoil, the Heads' house is still full of children. And it's "exhausting", Avril says. "We're working harder than we've ever worked in our lives," she admits. "We should be slowing down and having days off and weekends in our caravan."
"It's very strange. It's almost like we've turned a complete circle. We began by helping out, trying to give people a break from their disabled children. Now, we're trying to do the same find people to give us a break!"
It is a life commitment, adopting and fostering. “A lot of people wonder why on earth we do it or how we did it, or why would you do it,” Avril says.
“We’ve gone from one thing to another because the situation has meant that that’s what we needed to do. We seem to be in a bit of a time warp. We’re doing the same thing now that we were doing 40 years ago – we’ve got nappies and a school route. Nothing has changed in 40 years.”
Life might not have changed much for the Heads, but Avril isn’t feeling the pressure. “We love the children, they’re a very important part of our lives. This is what our lives have lead to, we’ve chosen to do it, but I don’t know how we’d stop the wheel and get off.”
She is keen too to bust a couple of myths about both fostering and adopting. “One of them is the age,” she says. “People think that because you’re older you wouldn’t be able to do it, or you wouldn’t be accepted. What you have to do is turn your life around and ask yourself what would you be willing to accept. Ask, what can I do.”
The second myth is about disability: “children with a disability are probably far less complicated than mainstream children. We enjoy doing it because we find it so rewarding. If our children come home from school and they smile, it’s such an achievement. Something so small can give such an immense amount of pleasure.”
While life might not have moved on for the Heads, it has for their friends. And that’s okay, Avril says.
“A lot of our friends we had as teenagers have been lost on the way up. As we grew older our friends tended to have weekends away with no children but we always had nappies to carry around. It's okay though - we’ve ended up with masses of really good friends who are younger than we are.”
Avril remains happy. “People say fostering is a vocation, but we’ve just done it. We have a wonderful life really. Just every now and then there’s a tiny bit of us that we would like a break. But really, we don’t know how we’d get it.”
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