“We’ve had 28 years of teenagers in the house!” says John with a chuckle. He and his wife Stephanie were rewarded for their work as permanent foster carers to 26 children aged ten or older with an MBE in November 2009. At the reception in Buckingham Palace, when told the age group of the children they were fostering, the Queen asked, “Oh! Are they difficult?”. “Some are, some aren’t,” replied John, who finds it embarrassing to be called a hero…
Almost thirty years ago, John and Stephanie saw an advert in the Yorkshire Post about fostering. It was something they had been discussing for a while but knew little about, so they decided to go along to an information evening organised by their local authority. Their intention was to find out what fostering was all about, and start the process some years later, once their own children – who were three and five at the time – were grown up. However, having found out that there were children of all ages waiting for a home, they decided that they could take on a teenager, leaving a suitable age gap with their birth children.
Their first placement was a young girl of 13, who stayed with the family until she moved into her own flat at 17. John and Stephanie were invited to her fortieth birthday party last year. “She keeps in regular contact with us and has three children of her own,” says John. “She has always been around, always been part of the family.”
After this initial placement, John and Stephanie acquired a reputation with their agency for being able to manage teenagers, and have fostered mainly in that age group – apart from a ten year old, around the time that their own children were entering their teenage years themselves! They found they were good at it. “Thirteen to seventeen is supposed to be the most difficult age,” explains John. “We had challenging times with them, but we enjoyed having them around. Teenagers can have a good sense of humour. When we look back at some of the situations we found ourselves in, we found that they could be very funny!”
John has found it immensely rewarding to seethe teenagers he fostered become adults and start a family of their own. “We feel really proud, seeing these young people who have come from a difficult background parenting their children well, knowing that we have contributed to this.” They have ongoing relationships with their foster children: they will visit at various times, like birthdays or Christmas, often with their own family.
Receiving their MBEsboth their MBEs by throwing a large party recently to invite all the young people they had fostered, and their birthparents as well.
“We’ve always thought that keeping contact with their birth families whenever possible was a big plus for the children,” explains John. Before a child is placed with them, John and Stephanie try to get as much information as they can about his or her birth family. If contact is to take place, they ask to meet the family to talk to them and reassure them that they are not going to cut them off from their child. “If all goes well, we will be fine with initiating contact and promoting it. We will work with the family as much as they want and are able to.”
When they started as permanent foster carers, they were the first to receive training – there hadn’t been any before that. Their local authority piloted a training programme which came from the USA called Parenting Plus. Afterwards, their local authority asked whether they wanted to get involved in training other carers and they have carried on over the years – the last ten to 15 years in post-approval training, especially around dealing with teenager behaviours.
John and Stephanie have received a lot of training over the years over general issues for looked after children, such as attachment difficulties, dealing with difficult behaviour, safe caring for abused children, or child development. They have also been able to access more specialised training, focused on the type of fostering they do: for instance, working with teenagers with drug issues, or teenagers and pregnancy. John feels very positively about the training. “If there is only one thing you takeaway from it, then it’s worth it. And it’s also important to meet other foster carers there.”
Support from other foster carers is paramount. “Because you work on your own from home, foster care can be very isolating,” admits John. Fortunately, their link worker runs a support group where foster carers meet once a month to discuss what is happening in their lives and issues they may have with children. “There are some situations that only other foster carers can understand,” explains John. “They can give advice, ‘I’ve had that happening to me and I’ve done so-and-so and it worked’, which is really useful.”
John and Stephanie are also supported by the link worker from their agency, who visits them once a month to discuss the children placed with them and any problems that have arisen. Permanent foster care is a job like any other – in John and Stephanie’s case, they cannot take on other types of work, as they have to be available 24 hours a day – with its fair share of paperwork, such as risk assessments. Foster carers also need to keep up to date with health and safety issues and – rather frequent, according to John! – policy changes.
Over the years, John and Stephanie have found that support from the social workers of the children placed with them has varied quite a lot, sometimes depending on their relationship with them. John is sympathetic to the demands made on their time. “Social workers’ caseloads are too big. They’re fire-fighting, and have little time to spend with the children. Children in long-term placements can get missed,” he admits. “Visiting once every three months is not enough for their social worker to build a real relationship with them.” His experience has been that, sometimes, the social worker will only visit outside of the regular meetings if something has gone wrong, which gives children the message that their social worker is primarily there to tell them off.
John recognises that there have been bad times as well as good ones, but his outlook is positive when asked if he has any advice for other foster carers. “If you can’t see an end to it, remember that this won’t go on for ever. Things will change. Hang in there.” He is always open to new approaches, some of which he has learnt in training or from other foster carers. “Sometimes you think that you’ve tried everything, but you haven’t. There’s always something new to try. Sit down and think about the issue from a different perspective.”
Listening to John speaking about the children placed with him and Stephanie reveals their flexibility, willingness, and acceptance – perhaps the secret of their success as permanent foster carers… “In 28 years, we’ve never had two children the same. Something that works for one won’t work for another. We do a lot of talking with children. We will try things, and see if it works. If one approach isn’t working, we need to do something else. You have to change if you want to change the child. We have learnt this over the years.”
Read about how to become a permanent foster carer
Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in May 2010.
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