You might be forgiven for thinking that fostering is something for a traditional family unit – husband, wife, and the two-point-four children taking an extra youngster under their wing during a time of crisis in their lives.
All too often in the past that's how it's been portrayed.
But as it makes its latest appeal for new foster carers, Bristol City Council has been keen to emphasise that fostering is open to people from all backgrounds – whether that be racial and religious backgrounds, all sexualities and marital situations.
Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions about fostering is that it is the preserve of married couples. It is far from the case, as many single foster carers in Bristol will vouch.
Single mother Maria Mansaray, 52, of Totterdown, has been fostering since her mid-30s.
"I stumbled into it in a way," she says. "I had two sons of my own, so I hadn't really thought about fostering. I knew a woman who was having problems with her children. She couldn't cope and her kids were going to be taken into care.
"I tried to help by cleaning up her home for her. The eldest boy took to me and said he wanted to come to live with me rather than go into care. So I talked to the social workers and said I was happy for him to come to live in our house.
A residency order was set up, and he stayed with me and my boys for the next seven years, until he was 16 years old and able to start a life of his own.
"I'd enjoyed the experience of having him with us. He'd become part of the family, so I decided to train as a foster carer. I went through the whole process, which I was a bit nervous about at first – though there was no need to be. It was mostly about talking through my own background – making sure that I was suitable as a foster carer. They check things like your mental wellbeing and whether you have a history of criminality.
"But they also work with you and talk you through many of the situations that might arise as a foster carer, and that support continued. As a foster carer I have my own social worker, as well as the fostered children's social worker. She is there to support me as the carer and talk through any issues that might arise."
Maria has since offered a home to two short term foster children and three long term placements.
"All the children are different," she says. "They always come from different backgrounds, have experienced different difficulties in their lives, so you have to deal with the problems each child has as they arise.
"It always starts with a slightly uneasy period while the child is settling in to the family and the different way we do things from what they might otherwise be used to. But in time even the most troubled children settle down and just become part of the family.
"I'm currently caring for a 16-year-old girl. She's been with us a year-and-a-half and it's wonderful to see her developing with us a bit more each day and moving on from the problems she has been through."
There is plenty of support from within the fostering community – including a "buddying" programme with experienced foster carers and group support meetings.
"You get given a buddy early on – an experienced foster carer who can offer you advice when you need it. I found that really valuable and now I've gone on to be a buddy for other new foster carers.
"There are also group support meetings once a month when lots of foster carers get together to talk through the issues they're facing at that time. So even as a single person, you're never tackling things alone," Maria says.
Caring for troubled children
Veteran foster carer Kim James, 55, of Brislington is also dealing well with life as a single person fostering, after separating from her husband six years ago.
"There is plenty of support there, and I've been doing this for a long time so you know what you're doing – you learn how to cope with most things," says Kim, who has been fostering since the late 1990s.
In the last six years alone Kim has fostered more than 40 children – specialising in acting as an emergency short term foster carer for children in a moment of crisis. She provided a home to 17 children in one year alone and her vast experience means she often takes the most troubled young people under her wing. As a result, she faces challenges far more intense than those facing most foster carers.
"Some of the youngsters have real issues that they're dealing with," she says. "Whether it's conditions like autism, ADHD or just coming to terms with the problems of their past. So inevitably there can be difficult moments to get through – it can be a rollercoaster. There was one youngster who pulled a knife on me once, another who I found in the bathroom with a noose around her neck. They have often had troubled lives and need a lot of support and care.
"But I never feel threatened by the children or overcome by the challenge of helping them. It's just so rewarding when you get them through the hardest times and get them back on the right track.
"As well as taking on one emergency foster place at any one time, I also care for three girls who are older now – 18, 20 and 21 – but who have been fostered with me for a long term run through much of their childhood.
"I reckon I'll keep fostering for a few more years yet," Kim adds. "I started originally because we had raised four children of our own, so I knew I could deal with it. There have been plenty of challenges along the way. But it's always incredibly rewarding to know you have helped in their lives."
Bristol City Council is renewing its call for people to consider fostering in 2016 as the number of fostered children across the UK hits record levels.
The Fostering Network estimates that another 9,000 new foster families across the UK will be needed in 2016 with 600 being sought in our region alone.
Bristol City Council is running an LGBT adoption and fostering event in March to encourage fostering from a broader range of backgrounds.
There is also currently a particular need for families who are able to provide a home to older children, sibling groups, children with disabilities and foster families from black and minority ethnic communities.
Councillor Brenda Massey, Assistant Mayor for People with responsibility for Fostering and Adoption Services, said: "These latest figures from the Fostering Network show how needed foster carers are to provide a loving and safe home to some of the most vulnerable young people in society."
I would like to encourage all in Bristol to consider the joy and reward of opening up their home to a child in need of that love and security.
"Throughout the year, Bristol City Council's Fostering and Adoption team will be holding events to provide advice and guidance to those interested in fostering. I urge anyone thinking of fostering or just curious about this rewarding opportunity, to make contact and come along to one."
The LGBT Adoption and Fostering Event will be held at At-Bristol, Anchor Way, BS1 5DB on March 10, from 7pm to 9pm. For more information visit bristol.gov.uk/fostering
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