More than 70,000 children live with around 60,000 foster families across the UK and Ireland, and every year thousands of new foster families are needed.
Those families give children and young people the homes they desperately need, for both short and long-term periods, and can often transform their lives.
But what’s it really like to be a foster carer?
To mark Foster Care Fortnight (May 9-22), which is run by a charity The Fostering Network to showcase the commitment of foster carers, there can be very few people better than Louise Allen to outline the highs and lows of fostering.
Allen has fostered more than 25 children herself, and is the author of the Thrown Away Children series of books – the latest of which is Sky’s Story – detailing her often heart-wrenching fostering experiences. She has also written Thrown Away Child, her own harrowing memoir of her abusive childhood in an adoptive home.
“I’ve learned not to get bogged down with the idea of love for and from the children I look after,” she admits. “Instead, I’ve settled on the reality that all any of us should aim for is to do right by the child, and by doing this we’ll weather the storms and enjoy the good days.”
Allen, who’s married and has two of her own children, ran away from her abusive adoptive home because she wasn’t safe, and was expelled from school, so she can absolutely identify with a lot of what the children she fosters have been through.
“Fostering can take you close to the dark side of humanity, it can make you question everything – the idea of family and parents,” she says.
“I’ve looked after over 25 children, but I haven’t always had a good experience,” she says, recalling how a young girl she was fostering once held her at knifepoint.
“Sometimes the challenges are from the children, and other times from the system itself.”
But she adds: “Despite the worries, the fears and the hard work, I still absolutely love fostering. I just wish more people contacted their council with the interest to help support a vulnerable young person.”
Here, Allen outlines the highs and lows of fostering from her perspective…
Meeting a child for the first time
Allen says that before she meets a new child she tries to find out as much as possible about them, and says: “Sometimes you receive pages of information, but with others you’re lucky to get more than a few lines. Then I feel a blend of anticipation, fear and excitement.”
Seeing children’s progress
Allen says it can be marvellous to watch a child progress, even if for some that progress may seem small, like choosing cutlery over using their hands to eat dinner. Remembering Sky, the troubled little girl that her book Sky’s Story focuses on, Allen says: “Sky wouldn’t wash, she pretended to get in the bath, she pretended to change her underwear – sometimes the smell was so bad I’d struggle not to retch. But after her excited purchase of a washbag and some products, she let me wash her hair, and after buying a new towel she did get in the bath and use soap.”
Camaraderie among foster carers
Allen says the friendship with other foster carers “is not only essential, it can be hilarious.” They communicate on WhatsApp, sharing experiences, support and information.
The satisfaction of getting a foster child to eat new food
Small triumphs, like finding a new food a child has never previously eaten, which quickly becomes their favourite, can be great, admits Allen. “I introduced Sky to houmous and carrots – she loved it,” she remembers. She’d also make the little girl a ‘soup mountain’ to amuse her and get her to eat tomato soup, by putting a pile of mashed potato in a bowl and pouring soup round the sides like a moat. “Food and mealtimes, along with bedtimes, are the most important things to work on and get right,” she says.
Helping a child to flourish at school
This is one of the most rewarding things a foster parent can do, says Allen. “I’ve learned that trying to understand the birth parents’ attitude to school is key,” she explains.
“I’ve met some bright young people whose parents are still trapped in their own memories and feelings about school and pass this on to their children. By working closely with the school, changes can be made, and sometimes I’ve had to help educate the school about children and trauma.”
And the lows…
Placements breaking down
Allen admits that sometimes it’s a relief to say goodbye to a child, but usually she has mixed emotions. She explains that placements can break down for many reasons, sometimes because a child’s birth family encourages their poor behaviour, perhaps buying their child expensive smart phones which the child hides to enable unsupervised contact with them – and perhaps even with predators or gangs.
“Sometimes as a foster carer, you feel you’re in a losing battle trying to set boundaries and keep children safe. Technology is making this important part of our work extremely difficult.”
Both foster carers and fostered children can feel less valued than others, Allen insists, explaining: “We receive a small allowance that doesn’t even get close to the real cost of living – it can make us feel poor and a bit foolish for doing the work.
“Children in care are still seen by many as badly behaved and that’s why they end up in care, but this perception isn’t helpful. The way to deal with this is for people like me to keep chatting about how things really are.”
Allen believes foster carers should be seen as professionals, have their work and experience qualified and certified, and have a professional body like social workers.
“Sometimes we know way more than the professionals, but their snobbery and insecurity keeps us as ‘pin money’ earners,” she contends, saying she thinks foster carers’ allowance is “pathetic”, and that to give a child a good life experience foster carers have to pay for their foster child’s holidays, meals out, mobile phones etc themselves.
“So when we’re treated so badly by the system that ruthlessly exploits our kindness, it can grate,” she explains.
Have you ever fostered? Let us know in the comment section below!