Sonia Walker grew up in an extended family Christian home in the Caribbean. Alongside her mum and dad and siblings and grandmother, there was a range of different foster children. Some of the children came for short visits – or even just for mealtimes.
Sonia’s mum was a nurse and a prominent figure in her local community. She had personal knowledge of local children who needed additional support and, along with Sonia’s grandmother, did whatever she could. Sonia’s said:
“Ours was a well-run and busy home with children coming and going. I was brought up believing it takes a community to raise a child and my mum and grandma did what they could to help the children who came into our lives to feel safe and loved.”
Sonia always believed she would foster or adopt a child one day:
“It was embedded in me; it was just a matter of timing. I don’t have birth children of my own but when a friend who fosters came over from the USA, we began talking about fostering and adoption. We talked about it and what started out as a thought became reality and fostering started. I spoke to my mum, siblings and friends, then I started making enquiries.”
Initially Sonia contacted the Local Authority, but quickly discovered she held somewhat different views about fostering. She explained:
“I work full-time, and the Local Authority thought that wasn’t compatible with being a foster carer. I disagree. My view is that it’s important for young people to experience being in an average working family. Being a lone carer, I think I was relatable to some of the young people who are from single parent homes, and I wanted to demonstrate it does not matter what home environment you are from once guidance, love and care is given it can work.
I started looking at alternatives and went to an Open Day with the National Fostering Agency. I found that they were more open to my personal circumstances. I liked their flexibility. The fact that I work full-time wasn’t a problem for them.”
Sonia began the application process in October 2016 and was approved in December of that year. Her first foster child – a Romanian teenager – had a troubled past and had ended up in the secure system before coming to Sonia. The girl had a boyfriend, who Sonia describes as “a bad influence”, and relations with her birth family were strained. Sonia believed the girl was heading down a destructive road and worked hard to help her to reconnect with her mother and understand the importance of being able to open about her feelings. Nine months after the girl arrived, she returned to her birth family and is still in touch with Sonia to this day.
“It was a difficult journey but, ultimately, a good one. I found it overwhelming at first. I wasn’t used to the mood swings or the defiance. There was one time when she was with her boyfriend and said she wasn’t coming home. My instincts cut in. I spoke to both on her phone and said I’d give her 20 minutes, or I was calling the police. She called me back and agreed to catch the bus home. I went to the bus stop to meet her. As we walked from the bus stop, we talked about the consequences of not coming home but I wasn’t angry. We went home and baked.
I’ve often used cooking and baking as therapy. We choose something from the cookbook and as we mix and weigh out the ingredients, conversation just happens naturally. That’s what happened on that day. I could see, after a while, that she was starting to listen to me.”
Another foster child came with Sonia to one of her kick boxing classes. Watching her training with weights gave the teenager a new-found sense of respect for her foster carer. Although she had previously been abusive to other foster carers, the teenager was never abusive with Sonia after that.
A quiet authority is something that Sonia works hard to cultivate. She finds that it helps to calm difficult or challenging situations with the young people in her care. She explained:
“When I am talking to a young person, I am careful to make my voice very soft, even if I feel angry. We talk about leaving a room to cool off if we feel angry. I’m very fortunate that my fostering agency introduced me to therapeutic parenting. It’s a great approach. Once you have the basics you can tweak it for any situation.”
As well as teenage foster children, Sonia has cared for younger children and currently looks after a boy of six. When he first arrived, the boy couldn’t read but Sonia asked his teachers to put him in Year 2 as a trial and promised to support his learning at home. Alongside encouraging him to look at library books, she holds a regular games night where they play word games, Trivial Pursuits and snakes and ladders. Now the boy borrows 15-20 library books every month and recently passed an exam he didn’t ever think he could pass. His teachers are delighted with his progress.
“It’s about giving them a chance. Everyone deserves love and someone to listen to them. I give the foster children love and security – that’s my work. Once the self-belief starts to come you can work on everything else.”
As a single, black foster carer, Sonia is sometimes asked for her views on the importance of recruiting more ethnically diverse foster carers. She said:
“We need more good foster carers full stop. It matters it is equally important to have good carers too match for culture or race identity but also it is equality important providing stabile home environment for young people.
I understand when people talk about cultural matches, especially in relation to breaking down stereotypes. But we have such high numbers of children coming into the care system that, although we do need representation from different backgrounds it’s important that we have good carers most importantly. What matters is that the children feel safe and loved. If you’ve got the time and patience, if you’re a good listener, if you’re willing to learn and you want to foster, then do it. We have a duty to equip our young people to survive in society, to understand and be prepared for adulthood.
I am a lone foster carer with a full-time job so fostering can be intense, but I manage to juggle it. These young people need our time and patience and understanding, particularly if they come from a destructive background. Once these things are in place, things get easier for them although it’s no bed of roses.”
As we mark Black History Month, Sonia is in no doubt who have been the greatest role models in her life:
“My mum and dad without a doubt. They were such a positive influence in my life. They taught me the importance of faith, family, community and care. You will not know what my life is like until you walk a mile in my shoe’ and we should all try and walk in someone else shoe to understand what is going and help if we can”
If you would like to find out more about fostering you can do so here