From the age of six, Donna was in foster care. Hers was a largely positive experience, remaining with the same family throughout her time as a looked after child and, ultimately, being adopted by them. There were 10 foster children and three birth children in the family besides Donna.
However, she recalls as she got older having a growing realisation that she was not a biological part of the family and remembers the discomfort she felt at being introduced to people as a “foster daughter” or “adopted daughter”.
“Every child just wants to belong. There is a stigma in being referred to as a foster child, it makes you feel like you’re on the outside.”
A second chance
Now in her 40s and married with two birth children aged eight and 12, Donna has wanted to become a foster carer herself for as long as she can remember. She explained why:
“It is my way of paying back to society. As a child, I had a second chance and experienced the comfort and security of being part of a family. Now it’s time for someone else to have this chance of a normal family life.”
Donna was scrolling through Facebook one day when she came across an advert for Heath Farm Fostering, part of the Outcomes First Group. It prompted her to begin the process of applying to become a foster carer and she was approved in September 2019. The family’s first foster child – a teenage girl of 14 – “came for a weekend and she is still with us.” Donna said:
“That’s how it goes with fostering. She fits in well with the rest of the family and we’ve enjoyed the challenge and rewards of having her here.”
Challenges to the family hierarchy
One of the first challenges for the family was the disruption to the established hierarchy. Being of similar age, there were sometimes clashes between Donna’s birth daughter and their foster daughter and it took around six months for this to settle down. Now, Donna explains, the girls mostly argue about normal teenage things like clothes and boys!
Testing the water
There was a brief period of very challenging behaviour from their foster daughter, but Donna’s experience of being fostered herself helped her to understand and deal with this effectively:
“It was her testing the water,” she said. “I remember doing this to my mum. I wanted to see if she would get rid of me. She didn’t and neither will I.”
Donna explained that this is an illustration of why former looked after children make particularly good foster carers:
“I can use my own experience to help me understand how she feels, what she might be thinking and why she’s behaving in a particular way. I’ve done it all myself and got the T-shirt. And because I understand her behaviour and can relate to it, I can advise her on better ways to handle things. Being in care doesn’t have to be a negative experience. You can turn it into a positive experience and learn from it. I’d like to think I’m a good role model for her because I don’t walk around with a chip on my shoulder.”
Training is a must
Despite her own understanding and insights, Donna values the training that is provided by Heath Farm Fostering and has taken up every training opportunity she can.
“The more training you can do, the better equipped you’ll be to help these kids. It can be a lot to get your head around but it’s a must and if you need help, there’s always someone at the end of a phone.”
Heath Farm Fostering uses The Mockingbird Model which creates constellations of foster families who socialise with and support one another. This support, coupled with that of the supervising social worker and therapists who work with the foster children is “fantastic”, according to Donna, as she knows that help is never more than a phone call away. She has recommended the agency to several of her friends.
A head start
Donna believes that to become a foster carer, you have to really want to do it because it is not an easy job. However being fostered yourself gives you an important head start. She explained why:
“You’ve got first-hand experience and insight. You know what it was like, how it felt and this helps you to know what to do and not to do. Children don’t come with a handbook. You learn by your mistakes. But, if you were fostered yourself your own experiences can help you do it better. I never liked being called “my adopted daughter” so I always call my foster daughter “my daughter”. It’s the, apparently, little things like that that can be very big for looked after children because it’s their whole identity.
“I think it’s important not to label that child because their parents couldn’t look after them, for whatever reason. My birth daughter didn’t really understand this at first but we’ve talked about it and I explained how important it is for children to feel like they fit in.”
Loved and cared for
As with birth children, foster children need to feel secure and loved. Donna concluded:
“It took a long time for me to get this when I was young, that no matter how many times we fought or fell out, I was still loved and cared for. I want my children to know that I’m always going to be here. If they want a hug, we hug. If there’s a family problem, we have a meeting. If someone’s having a hissy fit, we communicate. We have laughter, jokes and tears. There are ups and downs and we take each day as it comes. I spend time with each one of my children, doing the things they want to do. I don’t want any of them to feel left out. Everyone is included as part of the family and I ensure that their needs are met individually as well.”
Her advice to someone who is considering becoming a foster carer?
“If you’ve got the time and space and patience and love to do it, then do it. It is so rewarding. There are days that I think I can’t do it. Then, I hear the children laughing and mucking about together and I think “yes, I can do it”. It is about balancing the good times with the bad, the rewards with the challenges.
“If you can change someone’s life and give them second chance, hopefully that child will leave your home without chip on shoulder and get a good job and create the life they’ve dreamed of. I’ve managed to do it and hopefully, my experience will spur her on to fight for what she wants and believes in.”
Check if you can apply to be a foster carer and get instant answers and advice here.