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Nicola’s story: ‘We can find a happy ending’

Thursday 27 April 2023

Foster carer Nicola on a bike ride with her cockerpoo

Despite working in the fostering sector, it had never occurred to Nicola that she would make a good foster carer – someone pointed it out. Though she hadn’t easily recognised her own potential back then, 18 months later she says it’s the best thing she’s ever done and knows she’s making a difference.

Nicola busts many myths around fostering – full time working being just one. She doesn’t have children of her own. She’s single, though she was previously married. Her experience of domestic abuse led to her being treated for depression – help she’s still receiving, which dispels the myth that you should have A+ mental health to foster a child.

She speaks with moving frankness about her illness. Her authenticity and insight is setting an example to others – including her foster children – of not being ashamed of needing help and support during certain times in their lives.

Nicola’s verdict on the fostering assessment

Nicola is the PA to a member of National Fostering Group’s executive team, who said she had qualities that would make her good at fostering. It gave her pause for thought and, liking the idea, she started out on the journey to becoming a foster carer.

Assessment usually takes around 4 months, during which potential foster carers are guided through the application and Fostering Panel interview, and begin their basic fostering training. A timely bonus for Nicola was that our annual Fostering Fortnight events were in full swing, so she was able to engage with various introductory sessions and meet foster carers too.

A fostering application begins with an initial Home Visit. Nicola said: “They did a walk through the house, talked about my lifestyle and work, how I’d look after a foster child. We established from the start that there’d be no special treatment just because I work for National Fostering Group.”

… they have to look deeply into all areas of your life. In some ways, I found it quite cathartic. Nothing shocks them. They’re absolutely brilliant social workers.

In fact, Nicola’s initial visit should have lasted for 1 and a half hours but went on for 3. During the session, her assessing social worker led her through an in-depth exploration of her life, her work and her reasons for wanting to become a foster carer.

“Yes, being assessed feels invasive, but you’ll be responsible for a vulnerable child, so they have to look deeply into all areas of your life,” said Nicola. “In some ways, I found it quite cathartic.

“When I had to speak about details of my ex-husband… He was an alcoholic, emotionally and physically abusive towards me. There were some horrible details in there. Honestly, they’ve heard everything. Nothing shocks them. They’re absolutely brilliant social workers.”

Fostering with depression

Nicola’s traumatic experience is in the past but has left a mark. “I have reactive depression. There’s usually a trigger. After my marriage broke down, I was on antidepressants for 6 years. I came off them for 4-5 years but I was triggered and on them again for 2 years. Lockdown triggered me for a third time and my GP has recommended I stay on them long term.

“The second and third times I had depression, I recognised the symptoms. My GP said, ‘great, you’ve learned something about yourself’.

“I’ve done counselling, therapy and CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] group sessions. It helps you understand what’s going on in your head and body. I learned not to hide behind things any more. It’s OK to share these feelings. It’s OK to have a bad day. There are still so many people who don’t feel they can share how they feel.

“I can care for a child who has been abused. I can share my experiences to help others. I’ve learned not to hide my depression. I used to be ashamed, I don’t mind now. Nobody should feel ashamed. If there’s a problem and I can’t fix it myself, there are people to help.”

Drawing on her experience in fostering

National Fostering Group prides itself on diversity within its foster carers. The fact is, all foster children are different too – they have experiences, personalities and needs of their own. We carefully match foster children to their foster parents for the best outcomes, so experience like Nicola’s can be a valuable resource.

Tragically, most children in foster care have experienced neglect or abuse at home, so it’s common for them to be experiencing the after-effects of trauma themselves.

Nicola welcomed in her first foster child within 2 days of being approved as a foster carer, a 15 year old girl who stayed for 5 months. Now she has a young man who has been with her since he was 16.

He’s taking his tablets properly now and he talks openly about his ADHD. He knows that if someone isn’t very nice about it, it’s not his problem.

“He’s almost 18 now. He has ADHD and he was bad at taking his medication. He saw that I take tablets every day and asked what they were. He said, ‘you don’t look like you’re depressed, you look happy’.

“I got the opportunity to explain about how people mask how they are feeling, and might look OK on the outside though they feel terrible on the inside. We talked about chemical imbalances and how taking medicine is fine, it’s like taking paracetamol for a headache. He’s taking his tablets properly now and he talks openly about his ADHD. He knows that if someone isn’t very nice about it, it’s not his problem.

“We learn to cope. We all have something we need help with. I won’t be on tablets forever. Having issues helps me understand them and vice versa. It was good to chat to him.”

Long-term connections

Like many of our foster carers, Nicola has developed an emotional bond with her foster child that will outlast his placement with her.

“He has an EHCP [enhanced healthcare plan] and will always have a social worker, even though he’s quite independent. Soon, he’ll go to live in a Shared Lives placement with a foster family that supports over 18s. He knows why he’s moving on. He wants to stay with me but I foster children.

“We’ll maintain contact and there’ll be a transition period. I will miss him – but not his Xbox! I know he’s moving onto the next stage. If he ever needs me, he can call me. He wants to keep in touch.”

Despite the clear affection she has for him, Nicola is aware that the UK has a chronic shortage of foster carers – The Fostering Network says that 9,000 foster carers are needed across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I’m going straight into another placement after he’s gone. I’ll have 24 hours to clean up and do what I need to do. There are too many children in the system so I want to make myself available.

“I’m going straight into another placement after he’s gone. There are too many children in the system so I want to make myself available.”

She also helped to debunk a myth about teenagers being ‘trouble’. “Teenagers are great fun, really funny. He’s independent and he has friends. He always lets me know where he is.”

Fostering and work

“I’m a single carer and I work full time, so my foster children need to be of school age. Teenagers are best. The rule used to be that you couldn’t work full time if you were a foster carer. There are ways to make this work now. Working full time is a good ethic to have.

“Obviously, National Fostering Group is a fostering friendly employer and this helps, allowing me to take time for meetings and training. He can take himself to the dentist now. It’s no different to having your own kids in that sense.”

Fostering and life

“Fostering has given me a greater sense of self worth. I’ve got no children of my own and I feel like I’m giving something back to society. I’m saying, I might have had a trauma but here I am.

“And I can speak about domestic abuse and depression. I can encourage people to listen and be empathetic. I can try and help them understand and move forward with people to support us. We can find a happy ending. I was one of the lucky ones. There’s always hope and someone who can help and support you.

“Fostering is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s life changing. I’m a different person now.”

Fostering is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s life changing. I’m a different person now.

Has Nicola inspired you?

To be a foster carer, you need bags of patience and compassion. Genuine love for working with children. The ability to practice therapeutic fostering (training given) and work with other professionals. The gift of being able to create a safe space.

Experience is good but not essential. If you’ve worked in sectors like education, the emergency services, care or healthcare, you’ll be especially suited to a foster carer role.

How to become a foster carer in the UK

You might like to try our Can I Foster? tool, which answers common questions about suitability to foster, based on a personalised Q and A style format. If you’re ready to chat with a real person, contact your local team.

Are you a foster carer? Refer a friend

Sometimes people can’t see for themselves that they’d make a great foster carer. Why not have that conversation? If you’re currently fostering with us, you can ask if they’d mind if you referred them. When they’re approved as a foster carer, you’ll receive a loyalty payment of £1,500. See our Recommend Us page for full details.

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