At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Karen’s husband Scott was laid off his usual job in film & TV. Needing to work, and feel like he was doing something meaningful, he became a care worker. His experience inspired Karen to think about a career change herself, a journey that has taken her from retail to fostering children.
The couple are now foster parents to Chloe and Jack. “It’s a job worth having,” Karen said. “We are not clocking in or clocking out – it’s our lives. Every day I see small improvements. The idea they’re so happy in their day to day when they struggled before.”
She explained how she and Jack had recently talked about his feelings for the future: “He said to me, ‘Two years ago I was just looking for a happy home, I never dreamed I’d have this life’.”
He said to me, ‘Two years ago I was just looking for a happy home, I never dreamed I’d have this life’
Karen, 41, is a foster carer in Glasgow with her husband, who’s 40. “I was in retail for 18 years, working in different departments like homeware, fashion and jewellery. I’d got to the stage where I didn’t feel fulfilled by what I was doing.
“Then the pandemic came. Scott’s an actor and was the manager of a theatre, but it closed and he was made redundant. He became a care worker for an autistic young man called Alex and it changed everything for us.”
Scott set about getting to know him and working out what he could do to make a positive impact. Alex is non-verbal but Scott observed that he seemed happier when they got out and about into nature.
“He started taking photos of their outings,” Karen said. “For Christmas, he made Alex an album of all the things they’d done together. It was 80 pages long – photos and memories of all the adventures they’d had. Alex showed his appreciation by touching Scott’s hand, which really enlivened him about what he could do for the lad’s life.”
Meanwhile, Karen was researching fostering. “I thought, we have 2 rooms free. We could give someone a nice home. So, we spoke to Pam, a Carer Recruitment Officer at NFA Scotland, and decided to see how far we could go.”
I thought, we have 2 rooms free. We could give someone a nice home. So, we spoke to Pam at NFA Scotland and decided to see how far we could go.
Karen and Scott’s approval process took several months (the average time it takes to become a foster carer is 16 weeks). They’d already started their basic fostering training and thought they’d get their first placement quickly.
“We waited 9 months, which was a surprise – and frustrating,” Karen said. “We thought it might be because we were first timers with no children of our own. But my social worker said that your first foster child needs to be the right one so you don’t get overwhelmed. It was worth the wait. I have a very good social worker, she made all the right calls.
Foster carers are encouraged to make a book that’s given to potential foster children as part of the introductory process. However, Karen felt particularly inspired by the one Scott originally created for Alex, which had prompted such a lovely response. She decided to use the same app, which produces a printed and bound album with a hard cover, and thoughtfully created a book with everything the children might need to feel welcome and safe.
“We first met Chloe and Jack in a local park,” Karen said. “Straight away it was easy, there was a connection. They’d seen our book, so they knew what we looked like, what our house looked like inside and out. They knew we liked riding our bikes and getting out and about, so they had something to talk about when we finally met. It helped with the settling in period. They even knew what their bedrooms looked like.
“They had an exceptional social worker, who spoke to them about what was going to happen. We started with introductory meetings, then progressed to longer meetings, and a sleepover, to gradually put them at ease. It was good for us too.”
We thought it might be because we were first timers with no children of our own. But my social worker said that your first foster child needs to be the right one… It was worth the wait.
Karen is a full time foster carer. “I don’t have other obligations,” she said. “100% of my time and attention is holding this space. “They know we’re doing this for them. They embraced this experience, that this was going to be a new chapter in their life, with us.
“We do something nice most weekends. There’s a lot of sightseeing – parks, bike trails, car adventures, safari parks, boat trips. Every weekend is an adventure.
“We’re teaching them self sufficiency and the power of community. They’re very confident kids now, who have no fear and can communicate their needs. Feeling like part of a community has brought them out of themselves.
“We’re giving them tools to learn, life skills like telling the time, tying laces, cooking food, behaviours, good manners. When they go to parties, they know how to get invited back. Kids from a fostering background come with a label, so getting invited back is important. Labels like ‘traumatised’, ‘troubled’, ‘challenged’. Our foster children know that they need to excel to overcome these labels.
“Also, I’m working with their school to help staff understand the sensitivity and compassion that’s needed for children who’ve experienced trauma. People who experience trauma are more prone to outbursts, so there needs to be more awareness for kids who come from a vulnerable place.”
“Now, I can see their wee characters coming out and relationships coming on. They’re very loving and very appreciative, so chilled in their behaviour, and very well adjusted after everything they’ve been through. They’ve done so well. They are so far from the kids who arrived. They’re generous with each other, kind and courteous. Things like this make me proud.
“I was talking to Jack recently about the future. He said to me, ‘Two years ago I was just looking for a happy home. I never dreamed I’d have this life’.”
When I was younger, I wasn’t one to speak up – but I’ve been given the privilege to speak for Chloe and Jack.
Karen has found it enjoyable to develop her personal skills in her role as a foster carer. “I could never see myself back in retail now. I was my boss’s ‘right hand man’ but I never felt confident enough to be the boss. When I was younger, I wasn’t one to speak up. Now I’ve been given the privilege to speak for Chloe and Jack.
“I prepare for meetings [with other fostering professionals]. When it comes to my turn, I’m talking for Chloe and Jack. I know I’ve put their point forward and their voices have been heard in the room when there’s a decision to be made. I love chatting about the process and their achievements. It’s about them, their voice.”
Meanwhile, Scott still works in the care sector on a sessional basis, helping out when various companies are short of carers. “He works for a theatre and acts on other projects,” Karen said. “It pays for all our lovely days out and keeps the kids in the manner they’ve become accustomed to!”
“When the children arrived, they were anxious about food,” she added. “I think there had been times at home when they didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. At the beginning, I had to carry food in my handbag so they knew they could eat whenever they wanted to.
“Also, I’d been planning to have the kitchen done but they were so anxious about food availability that we put it off for a year. They feel more secure now. They love the new kitchen and the big fridge with the tap on it!
“Chloe was initially hypervigilant, very jumpy, with symptoms similar to PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. Now she’s singing all the time and she’s embracing her wee life. They came with a lot of baggage for young kids. To go through all that and be happy is amazing.”
I think there had been times at home when they didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. I had to carry food in my handbag.
A lovely thing that foster carers do for the children they look after is making Memory Books: photo albums that chart a child’s progress every year of their life in foster care. These help the child get a sense of how their lives have changed, how much progress they have made in areas of their lives, and who they have become.
Karen and Scott again produce these memory books using the photo app – and the results are gorgeous and quite moving. “They’ve got 2 books each now, one for each birthday they’ve been here,” Karen said. “They get them on their birthdays for the previous year. The way we do them, they’re quite expensive to get made, but they’re important for their memories.
“They don’t see their mum at the moment but maybe one day they’ll be able to show her the books and share the life they’ve had and the things they did.”
Between the covers are photographs of many ‘firsts’ – their first outing with Karen and Scott on their bikes, first visit to the cinema, first day at their new schools, first BBQ, first holiday, first pantomime and Chloe’s first bouquet.
Other photos include various outings, visits and adventures, including their fortnightly visits with their brothers and sisters.
“Jack has very good vocabulary and he’s starting to think about going to university,” Karen said. “He wouldn’t have had the option for uni before. He says he wants to be a social worker.
“Chloe loves art and she wants to help other people too. She loves drawing and she’s always making things. I think she’ll start her own wee gift industry but she also wants to use art to help people through trauma.”
Karen and Scott are in the process of applying for permanence order, which would mean the children can stay with them until they’re at least 18.
“I don’t know what they’ll be like as teenagers but I’m looking forward to seeing how they turn out! And we’ve got a 5-year plan to add an extension onto the house to create more space. We don’t want them to feel like they have to move on.”
As long as you’ve got an open heart and you’re caring, you don’t need experience.
Around the country, dozens of children enter the care system every day – children who can’t live at home through no fault of their own. Our local fostering agencies work with local authorities in every region of the UK to meet growing demand for all types of fostering.
Can you become a foster carer and make a difference to a child’s future? We offer a generous fostering allowance, with exclusive perks and benefits, free training (including specialisms) and exceptional support from your local team.
While it’s true that parents and childcare or health professionals are well-suited to become foster carers, Karen and Scott show that it isn’t essential. “As long as you’ve got an open heart and you’re caring, you don’t need experience with children,” she said.
“Educate yourself – I submerged myself in interviews with foster children and educated myself. You learn on the job and there’s lots of free training to choose from.”
If you’re unsure whether you’re eligible, try our Can I Foster? tool, which answers common questions about suitability to foster, based on a personalised Q and A style format. The outcome might surprise you!
If you’re ready to chat with one of our fostering advisors, contact your local team.