Angela Hart* is a best-selling author who, alongside her husband Jonathan, has dedicated her life to taking care of looked-after children. Inspired by her experiences, Angela has written several novels which highlight the stories of children in her care – something she hopes will inspire more people to get into fostering.
With her latest book, The Girl Who Wanted to Belong, out now, and a new book, The Girl in the Dark, expected in February 2019, we recently spoke to Angela about her experience of fostering and how it’s helped shape her career as a successful novelist – giving you an in-depth look into the life of a full-time foster carer.
Read our full Q&A below.
Hi Angela, thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Firstly, could you tell us a little about how you initially got involved in fostering? And what drew you to become a foster carer?
As a child, I had always wanted my mother to foster. My friend’s mother used to provide holidays for children who lived in a children’s home. We had a great time playing out together during the summer holidays, and were upset when their holiday time ended, feeling sorry for the children not living with a family.
Then, in my 30s, I saw an advert for foster carers, which I applied for. The rest is history. It’s the best decision I ever made and definitely the most rewarding thing I have ever done, even if it is very challenging at times.
What aspects of foster care would you say are the most rewarding, and what have you enjoyed the most about caring for children over the years?
The most rewarding aspects, beyond any doubt, are seeing the children becoming relaxed, feeling secure, achieving educationally, growing in confidence and, ultimately, being able to go on to have families of their own or even become foster carers themselves.
We see many of them now as adults, with their families. My Christmas list is getting longer as we are seen as grandparents to their children.
Having taken care of more than 50 looked-after children, you must have faced some incredible challenges over the years. What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve faced, and what steps did you take to overcome it?
Trying to get mental health support for the children who have needed it, as there is such a shortage of staff able to provide this. I never give up, in some cases writing letters to MPs and even Downing Street. I’ve also done lots of training on therapeutic fostering, to keep up with the latest research and practical advice.
Therapeutic training is a completely different approach to responding to a child who has experienced trauma. For example, time out becomes time in, touch is very important as this increases the ‘happy hormones’ in the brain (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin), which in turn brings feelings of flight, fight or fright. I read everything I can on the subject.
You’ve written about your experiences of fostering and the young people you’ve encountered in a bestselling series of non-fiction books. Could you tell us a little about when you started writing and why fostering inspired you to put pen to paper?
I wanted to show people the positive outcomes for children in the care system, as there is so much negative press out there. We all deserve a chance to succeed and I felt that writing honestly and openly about my experiences might encourage others to foster and change more children’s lives for the better.
The overwhelmingly positive response I’ve had from readers inspires me to keep writing. Many have told me they have applied to become carers after reading my books. That is fantastic.
After working full-time in a vastly different profession, adjusting to life as a foster carer must have been challenging. How quickly did you feel comfortable in your new role, and did you make any lifestyle changes to adjust to life as a foster carer?
It was very different from the life my husband and I had before. Our home was not our private place any more. We had to ensure that we followed all the fostering rules, such as wearing dressing gowns, keeping bedroom doors closed, sharing our time and planning in advance if we wanted to go out together and so on.
That said, I don’t think it was long before we felt comfortable. It seemed to come naturally, quite quickly. It was challenging looking after these children for the very first time, but the way I’ve always thought is that it must be even more difficult for the child coming to live with us.
Our job is to work out how to deal with each child individually, as no two children’s life experiences are the same. This soon became second nature, with the help of regular training.
What would you say you’ve learnt during your time as a foster carer? Do you think it changed you as a person or affected your outlook on life?
It has definitely changed me as a person. I have become more empathetic, caring and understanding. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I don’t see any situations in life as being black and white any more. I always see two sides to the story and I always stop to think that there is a reason behind the way a child reacts to every different situation. It’s my job to look for that reason, and to help the child deal with their reactions and emotions in the best possible way.
How did you feel when you heard about your first foster placement? And do you still keep in touch with any of the looked-after children who were in your care?
My husband and I were very excited about having the chance to look after a child, although we were a little bit apprehensive because it was a leap into the unknown. As I’ve said, we do keep in touch with many children we have fostered, and particularly those who stayed with us for a long time or moved out when they were teenagers leaving the care system.
We always help them to move into their own flats and invite them back to our home for meals and so on. We tell them they can call us any time for any help, support or guidance with any aspect of life, and we organise reunion parties from time to time, inviting all those we are still in touch with. On those occasions, it is always so rewarding to see them with children of their own, to hear about their qualifications, jobs and families and most of all to see them as happy, confident adults.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a foster carer?
Go and talk to a foster carer who has been fostering for a while. Get advice from them about their experiences and how they really feel about fostering. Of course, also talk to social services. Ask them precisely what becoming a foster carer entails and read as much information as you can.
I think some people have a preconception that they can’t foster, perhaps because they are single, in a same-sex relationship or consider themselves too old. However, the most important thing is having the passion for helping a child. Anyone can apply to foster and it is extremely rewarding, so don’t be put off by preconceived ideas.
Could you tell us a little about your latest book, The Girl in the Dark? What was the inspiration behind the story and what do you hope readers will take away from it?
The young girl I write about, Melissa, had been on my mind a great deal and I just knew I had to tell her story. I won’t go into detail as I want readers to discover the facts for themselves, but I had been hearing a lot in the media about other girls suffering in the same way as Melissa.
Social services, as is often the case, had come in for heavy criticism, as had foster carers, in some cases. Nobody had given the inside track from the point of view of the foster carer, and I thought it was the right time to do so.
Early reviewers tell me it’s an extremely moving and eye-opening book; one that shines a light on a very dark area of society that foster carers unfortunately sometimes have to deal with. I hope The Girl in the Dark will help inform the authorities and anyone who is trying to tackle such cases.
We’d like to thank Angela for sharing her experiences of fostering, and hope that her insight and advice will help you on your own fostering journey. For your chance to win a set of Angela Hart novels, enter our writing competition which closes on 18 January 2019.
*Angela Hart is a pen name, and not her real name