This month we spoke with one of our fostering families, Julie, 56, and Craig, 51, who live in Norfolk. As a couple, Julie and Craig have been fostering for nearly two years with AFA, and here we explore their journey into fostering, and some of the challenges they have faced, and the rewards.
So, Julie and Craig, what was it that made you decide to become foster carers?
At the time we first thought about fostering, we were both self-employed, and lived in Hertfordshire. Julie had always worked predominantly in hairdressing and was also a qualified pastry chef. However, in the last year or so she had been providing elderly home care which she really enjoyed and wanted to progress further.
Around that time, in early 2016, a leaflet came through our door that was promoting foster care, and we’d also had some publicity from the school, and it was this that prompted us to explore what fostering was about.
I had been running a business for some time and was also starting to think about doing something new, and also our children were getting older; we had one that was just coming up to GCSEs and the other one was just finishing off his A levels.
So we were looking at what we wanted to do in the next stage of our lives. I’d been working away a lot and we both agreed that we wanted a different lifestyle, so we planned that after the boys had finished their exams, we’d start the fostering assessment process.
We signed up to a local fostering agency, and did our assessment, and when we got to the end of this, we were asked what sort of children we wanted to foster. Unfortunately, they couldn’t offer us long-term fostering, something we were sure they could have been far more upfront about in the beginning.
At that point, an opportunity came up for us to move to a new house, so we decided to clear the decks and we moved to Norfolk. Craig took on a new role and it just happened that our new neighbours knew about, and recommended AFA Fostering to us.
We got in touch with AFA, and met the team and told them our story, and they said they’d love to take us forward. After all, we’d got a big home here we can offer children quality of life. So, fast forward two years on, and we’d had a child for six weeks over the summer, and after doing loads of training, in October 2019 we took in two siblings.
By this point, we both decided to pack in our jobs and both of us focus on fostering, working together, something we had always wanted to do with the opportunity to give back. We weren’t ready to give up work, but equally we didn’t want to carry on doing the office 9 to 5 and fostering provided us with a lifestyle and a new challenge with the chance to be together, which was lovely.
It sounds like fostering met your expectations, then?
Yes, it did, because we wanted it to, and we’d committed fully to it. We love working as part of a team, and I can’t tell you how much training we did, probably 20-30 hours of it, and we really enjoyed the therapeutic side of training, which has been excellent in teaching us how to really care for children with trauma.
With AFA, this meant that you actually heard from people who have been through the care system, which gave us the insight and prepared us for what we could expect with the children when they walked through our door. It meant that from the moment they landed with us, there were no surprises and perhaps because we’d also been trained in worst case scenarios, we were very open to all kinds of possibilities.
Fostering is hugely rewarding, but it’s about the training, the insight, and the excellent support through our placement manager, that was provided to us by AFA before these children even arrived at our door, so we could make sure that everything was set up on its correct footing and we wouldn’t then see these children leave because we failed them.
So, AFA’s training helped you build a good foundation. But have there been any challenging situations you’ve dealt with?
We had a girl called Helen* who was quite resistant to being here with us and that was quite difficult, but I think what we were saying about children needing time… she was resistant to start with because she wanted to be with her parents, and she’d been told by them that it was social services taking her away and that they didn’t want her to go. She thought it was just because Mum didn’t have a home but once that was sorted out, they’d all be back together, and everything would be fine.
But there was a back story—there had been chronic neglect with her and her siblings that had gone on for years, and the parents hadn’t worked with the social care team to sort things out – while putting pressure on her and her brothers and sisters to ‘stay loyal’ and believe that the situation wasn’t the parents’ fault, but the system’s. When this girl arrived with us, she was very unsettled, but her younger brother instead was actually very relieved to be in a secure home.
So what we had to do as a couple was work with AFA and the social care team, and eventually we worked with Mum, and we had to get Mum to acknowledge to her daughter that it was okay to be happy, not to feel guilty about it, and to enjoy what was being offered to her.
By providing Helen with the factual information it helped us to build a secure foundation with her so that she can trust us and also trust what other people are telling her so that she can start becoming more relaxed and accept the situation. But it all takes time – after listening to Helen, being there for her, giving her guidance, she has come around and is a different girl now.
When Helen’s younger brother, James*, came to live with us, he was very dysregulated, but he’s so much calmer now, a changed boy. But at the start, his default reaction was to run away, though thankfully it wasn’t running away and leaving, it was running away because he didn’t know how to handle his emotions.
There was a lot of time spent understanding what would trigger James and understanding his reaction and helping him to understand his emotions and naming those feelings, and then being able to talk him down. Now when James gets frustrated he is able to regulate his behaviour and that has been transformational.
James’s attendance at school was well below 50% and he came to us unable to fully speak, and he was illiterate and only knew the first quarter of the alphabet. Now he’s fully competent in his alphabet and reading. You have to remember that the children that arrive are not the children they turn out to be, and fostering is about creating possibilities for them.
James didn’t have a very good short term working memory, so establishing a routine has been absolutely essential, but if you come in well prepared, you can move through some of these phases very quickly.
There are other things that the children haven’t experienced or have no knowledge of that take time to overcome but that make a profound difference. Even teaching them the basics of time, the days, the weeks, months, the seasons, so that they can start piecing the world together and from there it just builds.
We went into fostering very open minded but it’s very easy to label— “you’ve got other people’s children, who are really naughty and misbehaving and they’re not going to know how to use knives and forks”—but actually it couldn’t be further from the truth, with the right support and the right approach.
All the challenges can be overcome very quickly, because what these children are looking for is security and an environment where they can grow and develop, and if you can create that then children are very resilient, and we saw that with our first-born child who was in intensive care for three months in hospital.
Make sure they know you are a safe, kind, loving person and if we just let the children find their feet and accept that there are going to be difficulties and that it will take time to work through their trauma—which is why the therapeutic training has been so helpful.
The other point which is always made at AFA is, it’s not you and it’s not them, it’s what they have been through. Their life experiences are something many of us will have never got close to, and putting that perspective in allows you to think “well, how would we have coped?” You must remember, this is not a ‘naughty’ child, this is a child that’s troubled because of what they have experienced.
How would you say fostering has changed you as people?
I can’t say I was an intolerant father, but you’re driven when running a business and with two boys you’re pretty firm – and if you’re working hard then you expect the same of your children… there were very high expectations that were put in place, many a time unfairly whether that’s on the sports field or in the classroom.
I think, for me, I am so much calmer now and I don’t put too much emotional pressure on myself or the children. Now I enjoy them for being children and the things that children do! If I’d had all of AFA’s training before, I’d have been a bloody brilliant parent!
It’s just lovely having children around; I was nearly a full time mum before. The training with AFA has been brilliant and I have to say it’s a must, we couldn’t have done fostering without it, it gives you the framework for when events occur.
With your own children something will happen, and you’ll think, I’ve not seen this before, and your reaction might be ‘what are you doing? Stop it!’ but with a looked after child, my approach is that I can now see something going wrong here, this behaviour is triggering something, let’s understand what that something is and what potentially the child might be thinking or doing because he does not have the language or words to express himself.
What would you say to someone who is thinking about fostering?
If you’re a couple you will have disagreements with each other about whether you handled something in the right way or whether you are undermining the other, so you’ve got to be on the same page, and that also avoids not being played off against each other.
Be prepared to embrace the children, it’s what we learnt in our training, as we call it ‘claiming’ the children, that makes a huge difference. If you claim the children, they are part of your family and you embrace them in that way, and the rewards really do start to flood back.
Definitely you’ve got to have resilience. You have to be prepared to work as part of a wider team and be fully committed.
Finally, be open minded. The children you are going to see are not the children that you can help them be. Think in a world of possibility. It will be challenging early on, but actually it gets easier, and it’s a lot of fun!
*Names have been changed
If you could help a child or young person to heal by offering a spare bedroom in a secure and loving home, we provide our foster carers with full training and support and a competitive allowance to care for a child. To find out more and start the process to care for a child, call our friendly team on 0333 358 3217 or complete our online form