Natalie and her husband Ian transferred to National Fostering Group a couple of years ago, signing up as foster carers in Essex with Heath Farm, one of our local agencies.
They have been a fostering family alongside their youngest birth child, Honey, for eight years. Their two eldest daughters have grown up and left home. A former high-flying businesswoman, Natalie has found joy being a stay-at-home mum and foster parent in a way she’d never considered before.
Why did you decide to become a foster carer?
The inspiration for becoming a foster carer came from an unexpected source. Natalie explains: “I had my own business – a chain of furniture stores – for 21 years – but when my business partner moved to Australia, I didn’t want to continue on my own.
“At that time, Honey was around five or six and was desperate for the company of other children at home. She heard adverts for foster carers on TV and didn’t really understand what it was about. She used to ask if we could ‘hire a child!’ like the adverts said!
“I’ve always been a very nurturing person and had always been interested in the idea of becoming a foster carer so I made enquiries with the local authority. But some of the things they told me put me off and we decided we didn’t want to go ahead at that point.
“A couple of years later, I made contact with a local independent fostering agency. It was a different experience. Someone came out to talk to us and it was very friendly and relaxed. We asked them about what the local authority had said and they reassured us. It felt a lot better so we decided to go ahead and apply. That was eight years ago.”
Transferring to Heath Farm
Heath Farm, our agency that supports fostering in Essex, London and Kent, pioneered the Mockingbird programme in the 90s, which is wraparound, therapeutic foster care. Natalie has found the programme very supportive to them and their foster children.
“Initially we were with another agency but they had a few changes and we felt they weren’t as supportive as they could be. So, three years ago we moved to Heath Farm. They run the Mockingbird Programme, a way of providing additional support by creating a network of fostering families, with a hub home at the centre who can provide sleepovers for the foster children if foster carers need some respite.
“We really liked that idea and we joined the programme. The first one didn’t work so well but there was a change of hub home and now it’s working really well. Before Covid we all got together regularly with the kids for events and activities.
“Last May, a new placement coincided with a holiday we had already booked. My sister came to care for our foster child but while we were away her daughter became seriously ill. The Mockingbird hub home worked really well and our foster child was cared for safely until we came back.”
‘Amazing’ training and support
One of the benefits of being a foster carer with the UK’s largest independent fostering agency is the resources available for training and support. Natalie was very enthusiastic about both.
“The training is amazing. We regularly receive emails about the courses we can go on. Before Covid, they were normally at the local Hilton Hotel. It was great because you get to meet other foster carers and build up a circle of people you can talk to and you get to know the trainers, too. Fostering can be an isolated job so it’s a good opportunity to meet people and the training is excellent.
“During lockdown, we started doing training via Zoom. It’s not the same but it’s still good. There are so many different courses you can choose from – such as drugs, county lines, ADHD, sexual abuse, mother and baby fostering, internet safety and so on. You do the core training and then you can choose whatever training is most useful for you. I find the training very insightful and helpful.”
What are the rewards of fostering?
“I love being a stay-at-home mum, I never had that when I was running my business. I enjoy making a home for everyone and cooking. One of the best rewards is seeing a smile on the children’s faces.
Natalie and the family have done several different types of fostering placement. They are currently looking after siblings. This type of fostering placement is important as it keeps brothers and sisters together.
“This Christmas, the boys said it was the best one they’d ever had and that felt great. I can’t wait to take them on a plane when we go to Turkey and stay in a hotel with them. We are going all-inclusive and they are just so excited about being able to get a drink or an ice cream when they want them. We’re planning to take them paragliding, too.”
“Essex is a great place to foster with plenty to do. We live near to the beach and we’ve bought a kayak for our foster siblings, two boys, and Ian and Honey have paddleboards. Our youngest boy loves crabbing and we do that a lot. We have a skateboard park and nearby there’s the Olympic bike track.
“The boys do football on Saturday mornings and there are woods and parks and an old castle to explore. We also have trampolining, bowling, cinemas although since they arrived we’ve had repeated lockdowns so they haven’t really experienced much normality. Hopefully that will change soon.”
And what are the challenges?
“When you have your own child it can be challenging – you can’t let them disappear into the web of everything else have to do for the foster children. I didn’t realise how much there would be to do. With a mother and baby placement, for example, there are health appointments, solicitors’ meetings and appointments with therapists, social workers, lawyers and more.”
What advice do you have for anyone considering fostering?
“No two days are ever the same and it is really rewarding but also challenging. Saying that, I wouldn’t do anything else now because there is no better buzz than children saying they are happy with you. Foster children become part of your family and no other job can give you that satisfaction.
“You need lots of different skills as a foster carer: love and compassion, of course, but also good communication and organisational skills as there are lots of times when you’re with professionals and you have to advocate for the child make sure their voice is heard.
“My advice would be ‘don’t rush into your first placement’. When you get approved as a foster carer you can be so keen to get the ball rolling that you want to take any child who is offered to you but it’s really important to get the right mix and not to take on something that will be difficult for you to handle.
“Part of this is down to the agency’s matching process but part of it is also down to you knowing what you can and can’t live with. If you take a foster child on and then find you can’t handle them it’s worse than saying no from the start. “