A huge shout-out to foster carer, Karen Hardaker from Thundersley in Essex who was named the winner in the ‘Carer’ section of BBC Essex’s prestigious Make a Difference Awards on Thursday 21 September 2023.
Karen was nominated by a woman who was a fellow foster carer with Kindercare – part of the National Fostering Group – between 2004 and 2008. Over the years the pair became firm friends and Karen supported her former colleague through a very difficult time in her life after her friend took on a Special Guardianship Order for a troubled young person. Years later, when tragedy struck with the loss of two close family members, her friend once again turned to Karen for support.
The Make a Difference ‘Carer’ award recognises someone who makes a difference to the lives of an individual or group of people by caring for them on a regular basis. Karen was nominated by her grateful friend, both for being an amazing foster carer and for being a friend – someone others can always turn to for help and support.
And without a doubt, Karen has made – and continues to make – an extraordinary difference to the lives of the people she touches. She fosters with the National Fostering Group and is now in her 20th year. Karen has looked after many young people on long-term placements and is still in touch with the children who have come into her care over the years, describing them as “part of the family”.
A few years ago, Karen also trained as a social worker and, alongside fostering, she works for a small fostering agency as a supervising social worker for other foster carers. This gives her a unique perspective, as Karen explained:
“Although I am a social worker, I walk in their shoes and the foster carers really like that. They can tell me things and I know what it feels like because I’ve been there myself and I know how to get through it. It’s really important to have a high level of understanding and empathy as a social worker because fostering can be hard. If an allegation is made against you as a foster carer, for example, you feel very isolated, it’s not easy to get through it. And, if they’ve never experienced it themselves, most social workers won’t understand how that feels. But I do.”
Karen always worked with children in her native South Africa, where she was a patron for a home for children with HIV. When she came to the UK, she initially applied to become a nursing sister, but she decided that it was fostering where her passion lay. She was approved as a foster carer in 2004. At first she fostered for her Local Authority but switched to an independent fostering agency soon afterwards and has never looked back.
“The best career move I ever made”
She can’t quite believe she has been fostering for nearly two decades and says it is “the best career move I ever made, I wouldn’t want to do anything else”. Despite her obvious love of fostering, it hasn’t always been an easy ride. There have been allegations made against members of her family and, at times, she has had to sit with foster children in a prison cell overnight, as an appropriate adult if the social worker is unavailable.
“As a foster carer I am always defending foster children. Society has a weird attitude to children in care, like they are naughty or something. It is not their fault they are in care and they have as much right to be treated well as anyone else. We have good days and we have bad days. You need a lot of resilience as a foster carer because these children have had a troubled past. I make sure we never carry anything over into the next day. No matter how bad things were today, tomorrow is a new day, a new page. A lot of children will flash and have bad days, but the secret is being able to bounce back. There is nothing a child can break in my home that I can’t replace. If they damage things wilfully there are consequences – there have to be – but they are not so worried that they try and hide things from me. When one of my foster children put his fist through my wall, I got him to work with the builder to fix it. That way, he made reparation and he also developed a useful life skill. It’s about being innovative so that the children can grow up to become happy and successful adults.”
Karen currently has three foster children, two of whom are siblings. They have been with her around eight years. Her previous three foster children were with her for 13 years. Her preference is to foster long-term, as she explained:
“You can watch them and help to mould them so they leave you with strength and independence. With short-term placements it’s hard to see the outcome. I’ve fostered five children long-term and eight short-term. I always remember everyone’s birthday.”
Karen has this advice for anyone considering becoming a foster carer:
“Be prepared for highs and lows and never carry anything forward into the next day – new day, new page. You need a lot of patience and resilience to foster. Children don’t remember what you say to them the first time, or the second or maybe even the third. And children who’ve experienced trauma can’t cope with multiple instructions. It is a different way of parenting. You need to learn how they cope best and work with that. And it’s important to be aware too that, no matter what they’ve been through, children still love their parents so coming to live with you is a loss of something important for them.
Saying all of that, if you have inner strength, don’t hesitate to foster. It is the best decision I ever made. I would give up being a social worker before I would ever give up fostering. It gets into your blood. Foster children make your home feel alive and busy. You will never again feel bored.”
Karen received her BBC Essex Make a Difference award at a star-studded ceremony in a manor house outside Chelmsford. She was completely surprised to be named the winner in the Carer category:
“I really didn’t expect to win. There were so many amazing people there, all of whom deserve to win. I sat next to a wonderful woman who created bleed kits for pubs after her son was murdered. It was a lovely evening and a great way to look back on everything that’s happened to me as a foster carer. Fostering is for life, my foster children will always be a part of my life.”
If you would like to find out more about becoming a foster carer, you can enquire here.