How childhood experiences shaped me as a foster carer – by Jenny

Fostered from the age of five, Jenny moved homes around ten times and suffered loss and physical abuse before finally settling with her long-term foster carer. Now, along with husband Jonny, Jenny is a foster carer herself.

“I know how it feels for the children in our care – how nerve-wracking it is to move into a new home and the sinking feeling you get when you come away from contact with your birth mum, as much as you love the foster home you’re in,” she said. “Having this awareness influences the way we parent.”

Fostering gave me a stable life

With her long-term foster family, Jenny said: “I realised how lucky I was. I finally had a stable life, I had friends and I had contact with my birth Mum.”

As she grew older, her foster parents continued to look after vulnerable children and Jenny became their support carer. In Summer 2019, she made the decision to become a foster carer herself.

By this time, she was married to husband, Jonny and they had two children of her own, aged four and seven. While on holiday, Jenny’s foster parents received a call about emergency foster care for a young boy whose father had died suddenly.

“It was the motivation I needed to make the call about fostering. There is such a need for foster carers. My parents already had two foster children but they took the new boy. I thought ‘we are in the position to do this now’ and I called our local Trust when we got home to say we were interested in becoming foster carers.”

Fostering in Belfast

Jenny and Jonny completed their basic fostering training course and received their initial visit from an assessing social worker – then heard nothing. When they enquired, they were told a shortage of social workers would delay their progress. They were disappointed but then a neighbour recommended an independent fostering agency in Belfast called KinderCare, which is part of National Fostering Group.

She contacted the foster agency and learned their social workers had different caseloads to their colleagues in the Trust, so could allocate a social worker straight away. The couple completed the Skills to Foster training (for a second time) and were approved as foster carers in January 2020.

Understanding and empathy

Jenny’s experience of growing up in fostering gives her a deep understanding and empathy with children in care. She was separated from her younger brother until he was five and she was eight. Happily, when he moved to a new foster family, the siblings were reunited and they stayed with their foster parents for the rest of their childhood.

Jenny said: “It was so lovely to be together again, we developed a healthy normal life. But I know how it feels for the children in our care – how nerve-wracking it is to move into a new home and the sinking feeling you get when you come away from contact with your birth mum, as much as you love the foster home you’re in.

Working with birth parents

“Having this awareness influences the way we parent, so when the little guy who’s living with us comes home on a Saturday from being with his dad, we go to park for a while or to McDonalds or have a movie night. That transition from one home to another is hard so we do what we can to make it easier.”

The family has worked hard to build a good relationship with the boy’s birth father, including liaising about issues such as device time and rules around sugar consumption so it is easier for the little boy to adjust from one home to the other and to underline that they are all part of the same team.

Their fostering journey

The family’s first foster child was a young boy from Kenya. Despite being advised of some difficult behaviours by his former foster carer, they decided to “get to know who he was in our home”. They discovered a very energetic young boy who needed a lot of stimulation to keep him occupied.

“Luckily, we are a very active family and, whether it was this I don’t know, but we didn’t experience any difficult behaviour, in fact he was a joy to have.”

Jenny and Jonny hoped he’d be able to stay with them, but the Trust thought it was in his best interests to move to other foster parents. It highlights the emotional highs and lows of being a foster carer – being loving and empathetic people, our foster carers genuinely care for the children in their care, so it’s only natural they feel sad if they have to move on.

“He’s now with another foster family in KinderCare. It broke our hearts when he went,” Jenny admits.

The six-year old boy who lives with them now was very angry when he arrived and didn’t want to engage. It was the family’s seven-year old son and four-year old daughter who managed to help him to settle in and broke down some of the barriers simply by being themselves.

Jenny said: “He’s moved four times already and he’s only six. It’s a lot for him to process. Him and his dad have a great relationship and he really struggles with why he’s in care. He needs strong routines and stability.

“We moved house recently and the routines were not the same so he started to have certain types of behaviour. Things weren’t predictable and it remined him of the chaos of his early life. He needs to know what to expect and if it differs from this – even an extra slice of pizza – he finds it hard.”

The family is hoping that he may live them long-term, depending on the outcome of an upcoming court hearing.

The bond between foster children and birth children

The children frequently bicker and compete with each other. However, when it comes to the crunch, they care deeply about each other. Jenny described how her son, aged seven, read uplifting quotes to their foster child when he was upset recently, and how their first foster child warmed the hands of Jenny’s daughter on a cold day.

She said: “Our foster son is very affectionate, hugging me over and over again and telling me he loves me. I thought my son might be jealous but he’s not. He doesn’t really understand it but he’s not threatened by it.

“Birth children are fantastic to have around when you are fostering. It’s important, though, that all the children have some one-to-one time with you so no-one fells left out.”

Support from a caring team

Jenny and Jonny are foster carers in Belfast. The area is ideal for families, with many different facilities as well as a beach and a forest nearby. Jenny describes the support provided by KinderCare as “amazing”.

She said: “It is an independent fostering agency with quite a small team. They are so supportive. When our first little guy left, well, nothing prepares you for that. They were great, they would phone up to see how we were doing. They really care about us as people and how we are feeling.”

The agency runs social hubs so foster carers can meet with others in their area. During lockdown these became virtual hubs. The agency has run a ‘Mail a Hug’ campaign throughout the pandemic to show support for its fostering families and there is always plenty of support and advice from the Helping Hands team and Fostering Forum.

Jenny added: “KinderCare is such a great community. This is one of the real positives of fostering in Belfast.”

Could you become a foster carer?

If you’re considering becoming a foster carer, Jenny describes it as “fulfilling in a way that not many other things are. Home is the most important place in the world and, as a foster carer, you could become a source of comfort and stability for a child.”

National Fostering Agency has agencies across the UK and Northern Ireland. You don’t have to have had any experience of fostering but you might like to check out foster carer criteria or try out our Can I Foster tool to check your eligibility. Visit our transfer to us section if you’re an experienced foster carer and wish to move to National Fostering Group.

Alternatively, anyone can get in touch with their local team using our contact form.

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