Today there are 62,000 children in foster care in the UK. The fostering network reports that 9,000 more foster carers are needed this year to provide a stable home to vulnerable children.
The fostering network describes what foster carers do into four categories; Manage Relationships, Commit Time and Energy, Develop Skills and Work in a Team which is essentially what fostering is. They also discuss contact which can be different for every child in care. Some have lots, some have none. More often than not when a child first goes into care they have regular contact with their family. Simon and I agreed right from the start that we would keep our opinions of our foster child's family to ourselves. It's human nature to judge, especially when your dealing with the aftermath of a situation that has occurred because of their families failures. In front of TB we never speak about his family in a negative way, it isn't for us to judge. That has already been done by social workers and a court. There are times when we become frustrated with TB's family and we don't always agree with the decisions they make but that's something if we feel we need to, we discuss it in private without the risk of our TB over hearing. If we think appropriate we discuss it with the social worker. We've worked really hard to build up a relationship with TB's family, it works well for us. It work's well for TB, his mum is very supportive of us as TB's carers.
Caring for a foster child is full time, twenty four hours a day. You never clock off, the same as having your own children. The difference being the child isn't yours, their personality and traits were not moulded by you and your family. Their values are likely to differ from your own. When caring for a foster child the first couple of weeks can be known as the honey moon period. It's not always the case but when TB first came to live with us we spent the first couple of weeks wondering why on earth we'd had reports of troubled behaviour. He was an angel, only as time progressed we began to get to know the real TB, it's a long process and understandably he held things back for quite a while. No one is perfect and we shouldn't expect our foster children to be either.
I've always thought fostering was like learning to drive. Your instructor teaches you how to pass the test, you really learn how to drive once you have that pass certificate and are on the road. There's mandatory training before you begin to foster that helps to prepare you but until you have a child or children in your home you cannot be fully prepared. If we foster again when TB moves on we'll have to prepare ourselves for a brand new learning experience, it's unlikely that'll you ever meet two foster children with the same issues.
Simon and I both agree that we've only been so successful with TB because of the support we've received from our friends and family. They have always been there for us, happy to take over with TB when we've needed a break. To begin with we didn't ask for much help and felt TB was our sole responsibility despite the offers being there. It was only really after the first year TB began to stay out and we'd have the odd day off. We quite quickly realised how much we all benefited from that time apart and it gave us time to relax and recharge and look at certain situations without the stress that had been building up. Supporting each other is also really important, we both know when the signs of when the other is in need of some time away.
People are usually quite surprised that we're foster carers firstly because of our age (I was 22 and Simon 26 when we began the fostering process) and secondly because we don't have our own children. People always ask why we decided to foster, it's a really hard question to answer. There isn't a simple or a quick answer. When I was asked to write this post I began thinking about how to answer that question, how we usually answer when people ask. I discussed it with Simon and we decided he would describe how we made the decision to foster and why we do it.
Here's what Simon had to say;
There are a lot of different reasons why we chose to foster, and these are different for the both of us. I've worked in care since leaving school, and spent a lot of time moving between specific areas of care. I knew from pretty early on that I wanted to work in care, but that was as far as my career choice had got. After working with the elderly, learning disabilities, physical disabilities and mental health, I decided to give working with kids a go.
I'm not really sure why it took me so long to try working with kids, I've always related better to kids than to most adults anyway. I decided to apply for a job in a privately run children's home a few years ago, and got the job mainly through my transferable skills from other areas of care. It was by far the hardest job I'd done, and I immediately felt the pressure of working with children as opposed to adults. It's a different aim completely, when working with adults the focus is mainly on improving or maintaining their quality of life, which while challenging and rewarding, never made me feel like I was making that person/people's life better in any way. It struck me that working with kids was different, your job was to try and help these children become successful members of society.
I loved the job as a support worker, it was hard,the hours were long, the money wasn't very good, and more often than not I was being verbally abused by teenagers, but it was brilliant. After being promoted to Senior, things became not as fun, as I spent most of my time doing paperwork rather than actually working with the kids. I became increasingly frustrated with the fact that I was no longer doing the job I loved, and felt a sense of personal failure each time something happened to affect these kid's chances at a decent future.
With the regular changing and moving on of children from the home, I got really frustrated and unhappy. It was one of my rants at home about this frustration that made Louise suggest fostering. We'd both seen Louise's mum fostering, and Lou had a lot of experience in dealing with foster kids, as she'd lived with them at one point. Lou had always made it clear she didn't want to foster. But as we talked about it, and looked into foster care in general, the more we felt we could do it, and probably do it well!
We'd seen quite a few bad examples of kids being let down by the care system, being moved a lot, inappropriate placements, etc. and we agreed that we'd make official enquiries. For me, fostering was mainly about being able to work closely with a child/young person and really make a positive change. Almost half of all looked after children fail to get Five GCSEs or more, and only 7% of them ever make it to university, as opposed to 40% of children who live with their parents.
Instead of working within a system where I could maybe slightly improve a few kid's lives, before they were inevitably moved on or discharged, we chose to work with just one child at a time, preferably an older child. It's always bugged me a little that once children in care reach a certain age, they lose any chance of being adopted and having a normal life. Obviously, potential adoptive parents want to adopt a baby, or very young child. Most foster carers we've met seem to prefer younger children too. As I was to be the main carer, I made it clear I wanted to work with a boy, aged between 10 and 15. This group of kids tends to get overlooked, dismissed as troublesome or nightmarish. My kind of kid. Lou was really supportive, but probably would have preferred a younger child.
One of the struggles with older children can be summed up by one of the sayings I use when trying to explain some of the issues we have to friends. “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”. I don't actually agree with the saying, but it makes it easier to explain. Younger children have fewer preconceptions or concrete opinions/feelings on things. Habits are easily taught (such as good personal hygiene etc.) Obviously, the older the child, the more ingrained some habits and belief systems are. After some discussion, we agreed that we'd really like to work with a young person from this often overlooked and dismissed group. Besides, teenagers can wash themselves. Never been good with nappies, bottles, etc.