There is no higher accolade than to be trusted with a child who needs support, and when they make progress it makes the difficult times worth it
Fostering is a job filled with many surprises, and not always good ones. On numerous occasions I have found myself sitting on the stairs with my head in my hands asking why I continue to put myself and my family through this.
Like the time when a 10-year-old boy took a knife from the kitchen drawer and threatened to kill himself. Or when a seven-year-old ran out of the house screaming obscenities as an elderly neighbour was walking past.
I’ve been spat at, had broken glass waved in my face, and been up all night waiting for a 13-year-old to be returned by the police. I’ve become an expert at head lice removal and have developed a selective sense of smell, especially when entering a teenager’s bedroom. I have had to smile when I feel like screaming with frustration and talk quietly when my natural reaction would be to shout.
I first applied to be a foster carer as the single mother of two preschool children. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mum but also financially independent, so my health visitor suggested it. At that stage I knew very little about what was involved, other than looking after children who were unable to live with their parents. I wasn’t really aware of how badly damaged some of the children would be – it was a quick learning curve.
To become a foster carer you must go through a lengthy and at times quite intrusive assessment, involving questions about your life that can prove very thought-provoking, verging on quite difficult. In my case they included my divorce, the death of my father, finances and parenting style. It felt like the most I had ever shared with a single person.
After completing the process, I attended a short training programme and was approved in 1989. What has followed has turned out to be an exhausting, rewarding, exciting and punishing 26 years of my life.
It is like no other job in that you are neither “employed” nor “self-employed”. There is no national pay scale or salary as such, despite recommendations from the Fostering Network. In the UK, payments vary from county to county, with some areas paying a fee as a reward and others only very basic maintenance. The local authority that I foster for pays the recommended maintenance allowance, which should cover all costs for caring for a child and a small fee as a “reward” for my time and skills, equating to around 50p an hour. There are no set working hours; when you have a child or young person living in your home, you are, like any parent, there for your children all the time.
I met my husband eight years after I began fostering. He had close family who fostered, so already had a good understanding of what was required. We rely on his income for our day-to-day living, as the main foster carer is not encouraged to go to work.
I’ve always been very proud of how my children accepted others from very different backgrounds, and have been great role models for them. I’m also conscious that they didn’t really have any choice at times, and that as teenagers they may have needed more of me than they got.
At the beginning I was very selective as to which children I took in, ensuring they would be the best possible fit with our family, and always considering my own children’s safety.
I initially relied on my local authority’s fostering team to guide me through this. As the years have gone by, I know which questions to ask when I have an empty bed so that I feel fully equipped with the right skills to care for a certain child. Training provided by my local authority has allowed me to explore the physical effects of brain trauma when a child has been neglected, beaten, or emotionally or sexually abused. This sort of treatment can damage the child so much that they can be unlovable at times. Despite the training, it is only when you are living with one of these children that you can fully appreciate the emotional turmoil foster carers go through.
Some children have stayed with me for just a few days, some for a number of years, and others for ever – like our adopted daughter, who came into our lives as a parent-and-child placement initially. Our family had no intention of adopting prior to this, and managed for over 20 years before it happened. But it was right for everyone.
Children leave our care for numerous reasons. Some go home; others move to permanent carers via adoption, special guardianship orders or long-term care. In an ideal world, we would have contact with all those who have formed an attachment to us, but unfortunately this isn’t always realistic. Rather than not being encouraged, as has been suggested, I believe it is not adequately supported and becomes less of a priority in the eyes of the social workers.
It can leave a huge hole in your heart when some children move on. They take a piece of you with them that is never replaced. Others barely wave, like complete strangers, and our memories of them fade to almost nothing. I have been at the birth of three babies from young women who had previously been in my care as teenagers. There is no higher accolade than to be trusted with such an amazing and rewarding task.
For many young care leavers, a foster carer is one of the few people in their life they can turn to at such a time.
Despite the downsides, there are many days where I feel like I’m in the most privileged of positions. When a child or young person makes progress, begins to trust you, sleeps through the night without wetting the bed, and especially when they feel safe enough to share their worries, all the hard work seems worthwhile.
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