Take Care

10th May 2013

Heather Harris talks to foster parents about what it’s like to pick up the pieces other families left behind.

Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Murphy and Tracy Beaker all have something in common: what is it? It sounds like a fun Quiz Night question but the answer is no laughing matter: they were all foster children, or, as they are more commonly referred to now, ‘looked after children’.

Monroe, Murphy and the fictional Beaker are the lucky ones. Although today there are around 53,000 children in the UK are living with 43,000 foster families, the country is facing a shortfall of over ten thousand foster parents as more and more children are being taken into care and growing up in children’s homes. The main reason for this, according to the charity Fostering Network, is the aftermath of the 2007 Baby P case, when a 17 month old toddler was murdered by his mother and her partner despite being regularly seen by Haringey social services.

Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of Fostering Network, says, “We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of children coming into care and that’s meant that there is an urgent need for people to come forward. Baby Peter and the debate about the threshold for when children should come into care have certainly had an effect.”

So too has a change in the law, meaning that local authorities are more likely to have to take teenagers into care when they’re homeless. And as all young viewers of the CBBC series The Story of Tracy Beaker (adapted from Jacqueline Wilson’s book of the same name) know, finding families willing to take on older children is significantly more difficult than it is for babies.

Sue Hopwood from the Integrated Services Programme (ISP), a not-for-profit childcare organisation specialising in finding and supporting foster parents, tells me that the children who come to ISP tend to be between eight and sixteen “with difficulties that stem from early life experiences such as abuse, neglect and abandonment.”

Speaking from the organisation’s office in Chesham, Sue adds that in the 14 years that she has worked in fostering they have never been so desperate for carers.

“I think the main problem is that people are scared of failure. They think you have to be a special person to take on the role or fit a stereotype of well off middle class educated married couple in their thirties.”
This could not be further from the truth. “You simply have to have a deep compassion and empathy for children”, Sue says, “and ISP also requires that all our foster carers have a long-established sense of humour!”

Other than that the only other official restriction is a minimum age of 25. You don’t even need to be a couple. A single man can foster (witness the storyline in BBC’s Waterloo Road); so too can gay people, older couples and those with or without existing children.

“The important thing,” Sue emphasises, “is that all our carers are patient, understanding and resilient…” – qualities that Deborah and Harry Johnson clearly have in abundance. The couple, both aged 44, currently have five boys at home.

“My own sons are now 16 and 15 and we have three foster children aged 15, 11 and 4,” says Deborah. “It is tough, a 24/7 job but also hugely rewarding and I am proud of what we have done and also proud of how my own boys have reacted.”

They describe how ‘all hell broke loose’ the night their first foster child arrived. “He smashed the light bulbs, he was so aggressive.” Listening to tales like that, it’s hard, initially, to see why anyone would volunteer for such a demanding role. Another of their foster children is profoundly deaf as a result of meningitis.

“There is a lot of support. ISP offers respite days for when we’re totally worn out and there are always training courses to go on to teach you how to handle the difficult situations that fostering ‘hard to place children’ throws at you,” she tells me, as her four year old foster son giggles in the background.

And it’s this sound of laughter, which Deborah and Harry tell me proudly that they are responsible for bringing into his short life, that makes them realise the huge difference they have made.

“It makes me frustrated when people say they ‘admire us’ and ‘wish they could do it’ or say they ‘haven’t got the room’. We don’t have a big house and the boys live off pots of stew or chilli but life is fun! I always say to people: just go for it!”

This is exactly what Trevor and Pam Strong did. As their own children grew up and left home, 58-year-old Trevor, a PR executive, decided to go on the foster register for his inner London authority.

“From initial enquiry to the final panel took 18 months. It is too long. If this process was shortened I believe you would get more people volunteering,” Trevor tells me, clearly frustrated with the system.

The Strongs initially stipulated that they would be interested in short-term fostering only… “but then two and a half years ago Loretta arrived. She was ten years old and now has a long term care order so will stay with us. This was not what we intended but she’s now part of our family.”

Refusing to go into detail about the problems that are his foster daughter’s private concern, Trevor admitted that it has been very hard as she initially ran away a lot and was constantly excluded from schools.

This is not an uncommon situation, he says. “I do feel strongly that there needs to be a better relationship between social services and the education system as ‘looked after children’ are always being excluded because they have disruptive behaviour. But this is because they have never been valued. They have always been told they are useless and rubbish so behave accordingly.”

Together with his wife, Trevor is working with the National Children’s Bureau on a pilot scheme where there is a dedicated member of staff in school to focus on ‘looked after children’ and react to their specific needs.

“I used to be a ‘liberal leftie’, always saying that children should be kept with their parents,” he adds, “but after seeing the damage that simple neglect can do, I have now changed my mind”.

Since Loretta has lived with them, the couple have also had to attend numerous court hearings involving her biological mother, which at one stage resulted in the little girl actually returning to her for two months. “We were in bits when she left. Yes, fostering is tough – but so is parenting and the rewards are amazing. It is incredible how quickly you become attached.”

The concept of fostering actually dates back in the UK to 1853. The Reverend John Armistead removed children from a workhouse in Cheshire and placed them with volunteer families. In return the local council paid the ‘foster’ parents and were legally responsible for them.

The plan was for a short-term solution until a permanent adoption placement can be made. That’s still today’s goal. However, increasingly for older children, such as Loretta, fostering has become an ongoing arrangement, as the ability to adopt a baby from overseas means that demand for intra-UK adoption falls.

Foster parents acquire children either by registering with the Local Authority, as the Strongs did, or, like Deborah and Harry Johnson, by registering with one of the independent fostering agencies of which there are currently 300 registered in the UK. An agency may specialise; ISP, for example, focuses on matching children with special needs.

Fostering Network’s Robert Tapsfield believes that in the current recession, money is playing an increasing part in restricting people’s ability to foster as it is a ‘full-time job’. He explains, “Foster carers need to be very well supported and levels of pay make a big difference. If that were significantly increased it would make it possible for more people to be foster carers.”

In 2007, the UK Government brought in a minimum foster carers allowance; in the South East the 2013/14 rate is from £126 per week for under 4s to £197 for over 16s. On top of this there is a range of extra allowances depending on the child’s specific needs. The carers I met acknowledged that some people did it ‘for the money’ but for the majority it was more than that. As Trevor put it, “If life was just about enjoying ourselves, it would be very boring. Society as a whole would be a far better place if more people looked after children in need…”

For more details contact ISP on 01494 792999 or www.ispchildcare.org.uk
or the Fostering Network www.fostering.net

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