Amanda and Michael are foster parents who live in Kent. They signed up with Heath Farm, which runs the pioneering Mockingbird Programme that provides wraparound support for carers whose foster children struggle with challenging behaviours.
Amanda has always loved children. Sadly, after having her daughter at the age of 28, doctors told her she was unlikely to be able to have any more.
After several years, she split from her first husband and met her second, Michael, who has no children of his own. They began to weigh up their options and realised that it was fostering that really appealed to them.
Amanda explained: “There are so many vulnerable children out there who need a home, whether short-term or long-term. And there’s such a lack of foster carers.
“We thought we could make a bigger difference by opening up our home to lots of different young people and trying to provide as much support as we can.
“We really wanted my daughter to be involved in the process, so we held off from applying until she turned 11.”
Initially, Amanda and Michael considered fostering in Kent by signing up with their local authority, but they attended a couple of information evenings and did not enjoy the experience.
“We began to wonder whether fostering was the right thing for us after all,” Amanda said. “It felt a bit like being on a conveyor belt, it really wasn’t what we were looking for.
“But then we spoke to an independent fostering agency called Heath Farm and the experience was very different.
“I spoke to an amazing young lady there. There was no pressure, it was all very relaxed and friendly. She answered all my questions and put me in touch with one of her colleagues so I could have a one-to-one chat.
“I think you have to really want to be a foster carer because the application process is so intense and you have to be completely open and honest about what you’ve done in your life.
“Everything just seemed to flow with Heath Farm and we decided that an independent agency was a better choice for us.”
Amanda was 40 and Michael 41 when they were approved as foster carers. Amanda believes that having plenty of life experience behind them was an important advantage.
“Fostering is not the easiest job and you need the understanding that comes with life experience,” she said.
“Lots of the foster carers at Heath Farm have worked with young people, had their own families, or worked in some kind of caring profession and that provides a good grounding. Even though fostering is a difficult job, actually, we both wished we’d done it sooner because it’s so rewarding.”
Amanda’s daughter was fully involved in the application process. Amanda said: “I wanted her to understand that the children who came to live with us might have had very different experiences to her.
“There might be times, for example, when they weren’t able to go to school or they might have challenging behaviours and I wanted her to understand why this was and not feel upset or resentful.”
Amanda is proud of the way her daughter Tia has risen to the challenge of fostering and says she is often able to calm and connects with the foster children in a way that adults sometimes can’t.
“Tia is 17 now and she really loves being part of a fostering family. She has grown into her role and knows exactly when to get involved and when to leave Michael and me to
manage things. She has an extremely calming way with the children and if they are upset, often she will just sit and talk to them. I’m so proud of her.”
Amanda and Michael were approved to foster children from five to 18. Heath Farm is a tier three agency, which means the foster children and young people may have more complex needs or high level behaviours.
At first, Amanda and Michael found themselves wanting to say yes to every child and young person who was offered to them, but they quickly realised that some children were more suited to their family and circumstances than others.
Mockingbird has been shown to improve placement stability by creating a network of foster carers who help and support each other. At the centre of the group is a hub foster carer who can provide sleepovers if any of the carers require respite.
Mockingbird foster families and their children socialise together and spend time getting to know one another – so, if the children do go for sleepovers, it’s with someone they know well and feel comfortable with, rather than with a stranger.
Amanda and Michael were keen to become involved in the Mockingbird Programme from the moment they heard about it.
“It was hilarious because it was on the day of our panel hearing,” Amanda said. “There was someone there called Darren, who is now Mockingbird Co-ordinator for Heath Farm. He spoke about the programme and I got really excited and wanted to join it straight away.
“Darren said we’d have to get approved first and then get some experience! But, two months after we were approved our supervising social worker called me and asked if we’d like to join the programme.
“The agency had trialled it the year before and wanted to trial it again. It was brilliant to be able to do this in our very first year of fostering and it has made such a difference.”
Amanda describes the other foster carers in the Mockingbird group as being like a “secondary family”, both for themselves as carers and for their children.
“It made our first year of fostering so much easier. You meet other foster carers and get to know them really well and they become friends. Often they have different perspectives and this is really valuable because, with the best will in the world, when you’re looking after someone else’s children it’s totally different to bringing up your own child, especially if they have learning disabilities or challenging behaviours.
“With Mockingbird, you have not just your own knowledge and experience to call on but also that of everyone else in the group, which is brilliant. We haven’t looked back since we joined the programme and it’s gone from strength to strength.
“Now there are four Mockingbird hubs within Heath Farm with 10 families in each. It builds stability and security for the children, as well as providing support to foster families.”
Before lockdown, Amanda and Michael’s Mockingbird hub would meet regularly for activities and socialising. During lockdown, they set up a WhatsApp group and held regular Zoom coffee mornings, quizzes for the children and circulated activity packs.
“We’ve learned to work together in a different way and become stronger as a hub because of that. Obviously, the training has been less during lockdown so we have more time during the day and we talk a lot more.
“Without this support, I think being a foster carer during lockdown could have been really tough. It is hard enough at the best of times, as these are children with complex needs, and if you were isolated it could be really difficult.”
Amanda believes there are three things about Mockingbird that are beneficial to such a foster carers and foster children.
“Christine is our hub leader. If she’s not available to do a sleepover then we can utilise one of the other foster carers in our network. It gets rid of that whole stranger thing because our children and young people always know the person they are going to.
“This is really important because the sort of children we are caring for often don’t understand or have much trust in adults. And, as a foster carer in Mockingbird, if you are having a bad time there are nine other foster carers to support you and gee you up.”
During lockdown, Amanda, Michael and Tia made themselves available to provide support to any fostering family within Heath Farm.
“A few families were close to placement breakdown due to the pressure of lockdown and we wanted to provide practical help and support.
“We offered to drive and collect the foster children to give the foster carer a break. Even just eight hours of calm can make all the difference for a family that is going through a very difficult time.”
Amanda and Michael currently foster a 17-year old boy, who will remain them under Staying Put until he is 21. They also have a 10-year old foster child with complex needs.
“Over the years, we have had many different foster children including teenagers with autism and ADHD. We have built some awesome relationships and many of the young people still request to come here for sleepovers.
“We tend to take a firm approach with the foster children and are very boundaried but young people thrive on that, it gives them stability and structure and a firm foundation to build on.”
“Every day is a learning curve and we all need support, even foster carers who’ve been doing this for 25 years or more. I would say to anyone considering fostering that the application process is awesome as it makes you take a step back and really look at your life.
“It’s important to do this because young people come into care for a range of reasons, including neglect and abuse, and if you have anything in your background you haven’t dealt with fostering could open emotions for you.
“If you get an opportunity to be part of the Mockingbird Programme, I would say definitely do it as it’s a great added extra, you’ll get so much from it. I’d also say to novice foster carers that it’s OK to say no. When you first start you want to say yes to every child or young person who is put forward but if you don’t think that a particular foster child will work in your home it’s better to say so.
“And, finally, if you’re having a bad day, talk about it. We all have bad days – it doesn’t mean we can’t do our job. Fostering is an awesome career. It’s changed my life and my husband’s life and we wouldn’t turn back. You do have tough days but it makes you want to do it even more.”