This is Ryan and Darren’s story…
Ryan was brought up in foster care and knew, by the age of 15, that he wanted to become a foster carer himself. He met his partner Darren at age 17.
“I knew I wanted to give something back and help others like me,” explained Ryan. “But, Darren grew up with his birth family and so didn’t have the same experiences or motivations as mine and he was more cautious about fostering.”
The right time
It took five years of deliberation and discussion before the couple felt ready to begin the process of applying to become foster carers. Ryan was 24. He said: “We felt we were at the right point in our lives. We were settled in our relationship and had good jobs and a good base. We thought it’s now or never, we’ll try it and if we don’t get through the process it wasn’t meant to be.”
Motivated to “do it better”
Sometimes people are inspired to become foster carers after having a good experience as foster children. Sadly, for Ryan this wasn’t the case. He said:
“I started in residential and then had two foster placements. Both of them broke down, unfortunately, and I was abused physically and emotionally. I wanted to become a foster carer and do it better. I think to have been in foster care yourself as a child gives you an edge. If one of the children has something going on, I think ‘what would I have done in that situation, how would I have behaved?’ and it helps me to understand them better. I would imagine if you’ve never been in that arena before some behaviours might come as a bit of a shock.”
National Fostering Agency Team Manager, Katie, who is in a same-sex relationship herself, agrees that shared personal experiences – even difficult ones – can be invaluable for foster carers:
“Some LGBT foster carers have had difficult experiences within their own families when they came out so they can empathise very well with looked-after children. Maybe they experienced being bullied at school or feeling different from their peers or the rest of the world. Many children in care share this feeling of being different or stigmatised.”
Ryan remembers how difficult times of transition were, in particular, describing them as an “emotional and mental step up”.
Agency rather than local authority
Ryan and Darren decided to go with a fostering agency rather than the local authority. Ryan explained why: “The support we’d get from an agency was really important to us. It felt a bit like a security blanket, having someone else to back us up and stand alongside us. We felt that the training was better, too. Everyone wants different things but for us the agency route was better.”
Since becoming registered, their agency – Jay Fostering – has become part of the National Fostering Agency. Ryan and Darren are “still adjusting” but say: “We like the new umbrella. We find that if someone at Jay can’t help us, someone at NFA can. We’ve been made to feel very welcome. It was like a family bubble at Jay and now we’ve got a bigger bubble.”
Since becoming registered three years ago Ryan and Darren have fostered seven children. Their first foster child was a girl of 15. Ryan admitted to being surprised by this. He said: “We’d never looked after a girl before or thought we’d get a girl. We learned a lot in the six months that she was with us and, three years on, she is still in touch with us.”
Ryan and Darren have not experienced any kind of homophobia from the children in their care. However, when the girl who they fostered in the beginning requested a move to another foster carer, social workers asked whether that was the reason:
“It almost felt like they were looking for that to be the reason but actually she just said she wanted a woman’s touch, which is fair enough.”
Easy, natural conversations
The topic of Ryan and Darren’s sexuality is one that the foster children have taken easily and naturally in their stride. There have not been specific conversations about it but the theme of sexuality has come up in relation to other things, as Ryan explained:
“None of kids have really wanted to discuss the fact that me and Darren are gay but it has come up in conversation in relation to things on telly. They wanted to know why we couldn’t give blood or become organ donors – things like that. We’ve had very natural, easy conversation. I’m not a fan of forcing something onto the agenda, I’d rather just deal with it when it arises.”
Times have changed
Ryan believes that for most children the issue of gender and sexuality is far less significant than it used to be. He described one of the boys they were fostering coming back from school looking surprised because he’d told his friends he was living with two men and expected to get picked on… but he didn’t.
Ryan said: “Children can be cruel about lots of things but when it comes to gender and sexuality I think they are generally less cruel than adults. We have faced more questions from adults whereas the kids just tend to get on with it. When I was their age, things weren’t like that. Times have changed.”
Ask for support
The message that Ryan wants to convey to prospective LGBT foster carers is that the views of the past are not necessarily the views of the present. He said: “Don’t be scared to approach the subject of sexuality with children if it needs approaching. If you are trying to help children understand their sexuality – whether they are gay, bi, straight or transgender – it helps to know where to go to ask for help. We’ve asked for counselling for some of our children in the past and all of them have accepted that help. We’ve also been offered psychotherapy support if we need it. Don’t be afraid to ask for support at any time. With the National Fostering Agency the support available is fantastic not just from our manager but from social workers and other foster carers.”
Everyone is different
Ryan and Darren have adopted a policy of honesty and openness with the children: “Be true and honest with them about who you are and what that means to them. We tell them that we are still there for them and still care for them but society has given us a slightly different label. We remind them that everyone is different.
“It is so important to have a diverse group of people caring for children. Right now in the world, the discussions about racial equality are prominent, which is great, but it would be good to see more focus on LGBT equality too. In foster care, a wider variety of carers means a more effective matching process. You can’t pigeonhole people.”
More blended families
Katie agreed. She said: “People often ask me ‘can I foster if I’m gay?’ The answer is a definitive yes. We don’t discriminate on the basis of sexuality or anything else. There are many more blended families in society and this is just one more example of that. The question really doesn’t need to be asked. If you are gay, yes it’s OK and we would welcome your enquiry. If you are gay and single, that’s OK too. There will be a procedure to follow if you begin a new relationship but that would be true for any single foster carer. We are keen to encourage more people – gay or straight – to become foster carers and everyone will receive whatever support they need.”