"Am I too old to foster? Can I foster as a single carer? I haven’t had children of my own, will that be an issue?”
These are some of the questions Suzanne asked us at a drop-in information stand at her local library. Twenty months later, she’s been a fully-fledged foster carer for just over a year and has looked after many children.
Suzanne was previously a teacher for 34 years, with 17 of those years as a headteacher. We sat down with her over a coffee and she told us all about her fostering journey.
What do you enjoy most about fostering?
“I like building relationships with children and helping them to feel happy and secure in my home. I love teaching and it’s great to see children grow. I love being outside and being active with the children and sharing lots of different places and experiences. Fostering can be challenging and quite tiring, but I get gaps in between having children to stay so it suits me. I’ve had 14 children to stay in the past year and I visited one in hospital as an emergency. It has been brilliant getting to know each child.
On one occasion, I was asked to take three children who needed an overnight stay. I was told that they were a ‘little bit challenging’ and I wasn’t sure if I could manage all three by myself so I called in a few favours and had a relay of friends coming to support me – one did Friday evening to cover supper, bath and bedtime, another came Saturday morning and another came Saturday afternoon.
I had been told that the youngest was likely to be adopted and that very soon the siblings would not be together. The profile showed they had difficult to manage behaviour, but the children were delightful and amazing. They had had a tough time and were traumatised but they were so supportive of each other.
On Friday evening, the children asked, ‘Shall we do a puppet show for you?’ as my friend had brought a box of puppets with her. They set up behind the sofa. The 3-year-old opened the show with the words: ‘Hello boys and girls’ in a story-teller’s voice - I thought their creativity was lovely to see. They didn’t make a fuss when they arrived, they helped lay the table, they were polite, and they went to bed without an issue. On the Saturday we went on a themed woodland walk and they absolutely loved it. Sharing experiences like that is what makes the role rewarding.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had worrying experiences too. Some children are daredevils and going to the park can be interesting! After one boy climbed on top of the park equipment rather than using it in the manner intended, I booked a supervised session at an indoor climbing centre. We still go to the park and I still worry – accidents can happen – but you don’t want them when the children are with you!”
How did you get into fostering?
“My husband and I briefly talked about fostering many years ago as we were not able to have children of our own, but his health was poor, and we decided against it. He fell seriously ill again in 2012, and I left work to spend time with him. Sadly, he passed away in 2014. With the help of my family and friends I was able to manage my grief. Teaching and working in schools also helped. It was during this time that I became a learning mentor and worked with several looked after children and taught Therapeutic Story Writing to groups of vulnerable children.
I saw an advert for a Fostering Event at the local library; I went in to meet the team and asked my questions: Am I too old to foster? Can I foster as a single carer? I haven’t had children of my own, will that be an issue? I was asked if I had any experience with children and whether I had a spare bedroom – when I told them about my career, and my home, the team were pleased to sign me up.
What type of foster care do you provide?
“I’m a respite foster carer and I also do emergency and out of hours caring. I believe my role is to give the children a home from home – if it’s respite – and a safe haven if it’s an emergency placement. This type of caring suits me at the moment.”
How do you manage saying goodbye?
“The longest period of time I’ve had children is 18 days for respite. As long as I feel they’re happy about going back to their carers, I feel I’ve done my little bit. The 10-month baby I was taking care over Easter was the hardest though - it was very hard to say goodbye as I didn’t know what was going to happen to him, but I am sure a lovely foster carer who specializes in looking after babies would have taken very good care of him.
Once, I was taking care of a girl for respite who soon after moved on to an independent foster carer. Not knowing where a child is going or what is going to happen next can be hard.”
How do you cope with difficult behaviour?
“Once a teacher, always a teacher so fortunately I have a range of behaviour management strategies at my fingertips.
One girl I was looking after kept trying to test me and would throw tantrums, especially at transition times. It was as if she thought; ‘Will you still accept me if I do X, Y and Z’. Keeping calm is essential, not labelling the child but talking about the emotions she was feeling all help at the time.
‘I hate you and you don’t want me to stay in your house!’ was shouted on one occasion. The next day, I wrote her a note on a heart-shaped piece of paper and put it in her lunchbox saying, ‘I am so pleased you are staying with me.’ She didn’t say anything that night until after supper. ‘I got that note that you wrote me, and I put it in the bin. Why did you write it?’
This girl would say she was rubbish at everything. I wrote a note the following day on a star shaped piece of paper telling her what she was good at - singing, dancing, and she had a lovely sense of fun. I sent her a letter card in the post at the end of her stay which she would have received when she arrived back. These children need to know that they are’ being kept in mind’.
How much of an advantage, do you think, not having your own children has had on your fostering experience?
That is a hard question to answer.
However, I think my experience as a teacher has been beneficial. If children need therapeutic parenting, my experience and training have certainly helped me.
How do you use your supervising social worker?
“I see her every 5-6 weeks. I’m very open with her and reflect on things a lot. My supervising social worker has very good active listening skills. After the children have returned to their carers, I reflect on what went well and things that I could have done differently, or better, my supervising social worker helps me keep a sense of perspective.”
How does your relationship work with other carers?
“Initially, I had a buddy who introduced me to other carers and answered lots of my questions. She was very reassuring. I have also kept in touch with some of the carers who were on the same training course and they are also very supportive.
There are two children I see regularly who live with a connected carer. They first came to me in September 2018. The carer works full time and has a career. I feel I have built a positive relationship with her and her family; I am like a member of the extended family who has time to offer support when needed.”
What advice would you give to new foster carers?
“Firstly, go on the Cool, Calm and Connected course as soon as you can - it’s a fantastic course. Secondly, do some extra reading about attachment if you can, in addition to what is covered on the training course.
Also, if you need to take a child to contact, make sure you know where the contact centre is, leave in plenty of time and know the handover details, as it can be quite a stressful situation for the child and therefore for you.
Lastly, try to maintain a sense of humour and perspective when a child’s behaviour is challenging. I try and see the funny side of a situation, whilst remembering that the behaviour is a form of communication, so it’s important to look beyond that to see what the child is really feeling and trying to say.
But that’s why I foster - it’s fun. These children have brought a lot of joy into my life.”