Former teacher Sonja wanted to make sure her family was in agreement when she felt she would like to become a foster carer. Her decision to change career and foster a child would affect them too.
Plus, it’s essential to have a solid support network when you become a foster carer – it’s a challenging role.
Sonja researched how to become a foster carer, read advice on our website and did all the right things, like:
- Talking it over with her husband
- Exploring the potential advantages and disadvantages
- Helping their daughter prepare by talking about it often and in detail
- Talking to wider family and friends about her plans
Here’s more about how she started those conversations and how they paved the way to success.
Making the move from teacher to foster carer
Sonja had been a teacher for 15 years. It was her vocation but over the years she found it increasingly difficult to make a difference.
“It was less about the children and more about paperwork. I got to senior management level and I was just spending less and less time with the children. I knew it was time for a change,” she said.
“I’d always been interested in becoming a foster carer and I’d got lots of transferrable skills working in safeguarding and with children from different backgrounds with different abilities and with special needs. I decided that now was the time for change.
“My husband, Chris has a background as a researcher and often worked with children’s charities looking at what children need to flourish. Between us we knew we had a lot to offer.”
Local authority vs independent fostering agency
Sonja and Chris spoke to their local authority and a selection of independent fostering agencies about becoming foster carers.
“National Fostering Group emerged as our favourite choice. Everything was very transparent, from the pay and benefits and what to expect through to how long the application was likely to take. By contrast the local authority was all a bit fuzzy and unclear.
“I was giving up a well-paid job and I knew there’d be a massive drop in income but wanted to go in with my eyes open. We needed to know if we could afford it. With National Fostering Group, you get a flat fee each week, which makes it easier to budget. You don’t go into it for this reason, of course, but you have to pay the bills so it’s important to know.
“We were also impressed by all of information about training and support. The National Fostering Agency made it clear that we could do as much training as we wanted to and all of it was provided for free. As a former teacher, continuing professional development is important to me so I was pleased to hear that.”
Involving their birth child in decision-making
Sonja and Chris have a daughter, Phoebe, who was nine when she applied to become a foster carer. She is an only child and the couple knew it was important to fully involve her in the decision-making process.
Sonja said: “Before we decided to go ahead, we spoke to her in depth. We made a list of positives and possible negatives. We were very open and honest about how it would affect her, any challenges that might bring and also any positives.”
Advice from the National Fostering Agency
Sonja and Chris followed the advice on our website about speaking to birth children about fostering.
“Phoebe had been at a small school and led a fairly sheltered existence. We knew that the children who came to live with us would probably be quite different from her and might struggle with academically. There might be bad language or challenging behaviour.
“We discussed all of this with her to help her to understand not to frighten her. We wanted her to know too that, while a child might look like an eight-year old, they might have the behaviour of a four-year old and that we would have to treat each child individually and get to know them and their strengths.”
At first Phoebe didn’t really understand what fostering was and, again, our website proved a useful resource.
“Phoebe agreed that we should go ahead with the application, but we agreed that, if at any point she felt left out or that the situation wasn’t working, she would have to be honest with us about how she was feeling,” Sonja said.
“Over the last two years, there have been some challenging times and difficult situations and she has always come and talked to us.”
Foundations for a positive experience
The family believes that having these open honest conversations in the beginning laid the foundations for a positive fostering experience.
Their first foster children were twin boys, one of whom had challenging behaviour and was eventually placed with a family suited to his needs. His brother stayed with Sonja’s family.
Sonja said: “It was a lot to deal with. Before that, our family had always been quiet and calm. It was an eye-opener for all of us.
“Phoebe has coped with it magnificently. We talk together and she also talks to the supervising social worker. He is going to stay with us long-term and Phoebe loves him to bits.”
Weighing up the pros and cons
The initial conversations between Sonja and Chris about becoming foster carers also provided a solid base to build on.
“Chris was aware that I wasn’t happy in teaching any more and my mental health was suffering. This prompted us to start talking about what we wanted for our futures,” Sonja said.
“We spoke about the advantages of fostering – we could make a difference for children while maintaining a good work life balance. In my teaching job, it was out of whack; the pressures from school were immense.
“We thought it would be good for Phoebe to mix with children who’ve had a different type of life to her. Also, I recognised that I had great transferrable skills, which meant I’d be able to advocate for the children’s educational and health needs.
“The disadvantages were that we might bring children with violent behaviour into the house. We didn’t know what would happen as we have very placid, calm backgrounds. Many foster children come from a place of chaos so they feel comfortable with this behaviour. We thought ‘could we cope with this, how would we deal with it?’
“We were concerned too about the age of the child we might be fostering. It felt very important for the child to be younger than Phoebe.
“We talked all of this through before getting into the application process and decided there were more advantages than disadvantages.”
Talking to wider family and friends
They involved the wider families in these discussions. Chris’ mum, who works with adults with learning disabilities, many of whom have come through the fostering system, was all for it.
Sonja’s mum and dad were more cautious initially but have seen what a difference the family is making to their foster children and how happy it has made them. They are now great advocates of becoming a foster carer.
Friends understood the family’s reasons for wanting to foster and have been “amazing”, according to Sonja.
“We talked it all through it with them at the beginning – was it a good idea, were we making a mistake? – and they have been fantastic sounding boards all along. They’ve given us lots of support and our families have too, they’ve played a vital role.”
Sonja noted how her local National Fostering Group team gave them invaluable support, answering any questions openly and honestly and supporting them through the application process and beyond.
“We’ve had all the training we wanted, our supervising social worker is brilliant and they involved Phoebe really well.”
Sonja’s takeaway advice
“You need to have a relationship that is very open in order to foster, you need to talk to each other,” she said.
“Be honest with the person you’re fostering with. You’ll have bad days, and you’ll doubt yourself. It is a journey with ups and downs and twists and turns.
“If don’t have a partner you need a close friend – someone to vent to, someone to pick you back up when you’re down. For all the challenges you face, the positives are immense – the beaming smile you get when the child achieves something. It is worth it, hands down.
“Fostering has been the best decision I’ve made in my life. I’ve never looked back. It’s changed our lives in so many ways.”
The whole family thinks the foster children themselves are the highlight that makes it all worthwhile.
Sonja added: “It’s the little things that you notice, but that are really huge for them – learning to read, coping with a whole Karate class. I sing about these little things to anyone who will listen. They are massive and they make us so proud.”
Are you thinking about becoming a foster carer?
We’re happy to help you answer any questions, even if you haven’t quite made your mind up yet. Please get in touch with your local agency to find out more.