“Nothing was ever hidden from us,” said Emma, remembering how it felt to be a birth child within a fostering family. “Our parents couldn’t give us details of everything that had happened to the children who came to live with us, of course, but we discussed things together as a family and they explained that the foster children hadn’t had grown up in the same happy environment that we had. They told us that the children needed care and support and a loving home. We were very happy to be a part of that.”
Busy and fun
Emma was a teenager when her parents became approved as foster carers. Although much of her childhood was spent with just her two birth sisters and brother, she finds it hard to remember a time when her family home wasn’t also home to looked after children.
“The house always felt busy, with people coming in and out, and we got used to having different brothers and sisters around,” she said. “It really was a very positive experience for us. Home felt energetic and busy and fun.”
Difficult to understand
There were some challenges, however, particularly at the start. Emma explained:
“At first it was difficult to understand that the foster children sometimes had different rules and could get away with more than we could. Sometimes they didn’t treat mum and dad very nicely and that wasn’t easy. But, as you get older you start to understand more. And mum and dad were very good and always involved us and sat us down and explained things.”
Emma recalls a particular teenage girl who behaved very disrespectfully towards her (Emma’s) parents. She was around 18 at the time and found the experience especially difficult. Emma said:
“You want to jump in and defend your mum and dad but you can’t. Then I had a conversation with my mum’s social worker and that was really helpful. She explained to me that there’s always a reason for this kind of behaviour, that it’s not just someone being naughty. And she said I could do a lot to support my mum. She told me that as the foster child and I were close in age, I might be someone she’d be willing to talk to. Something clicked into place at that moment and I thought ‘maybe this girl needs my help and support’. We began talking and she disclosed some things about her past to me. She said she felt comfortable talking to me and, in the end, she called me her sister.”
Since they began their fostering journey, Emma’s family has provided a home for 22 foster children and also adopted a two-year old boy (now eight). The family’s desire to foster initially began when Emma and her siblings were quite young but her mum and dad decided to wait until their birth children were older before beginning the process. Emma said:
“We were all part of the decision to foster. I remember very clearly the day that mum and dad brought the subject up with me. They made it very clear that we’d all have to be comfortable with the idea of fostering before they’d go ahead. We all said yes and took it in our stride. I felt really excited when they were approved because of how excited they were. And I can remember the mounting excitement as we waited for our first child.”
Support for birth children
Emma believes that the support she received from the fostering agency made a big difference to her, particularly at the start. She explained:
“When the assessing social worker came round before my parents were approved as foster carers, she spoke to each one of us individually and listened to what we had to say. She said we could speak to other birth children within fostering families if we wanted to. I did that and I found it really helpful. Mum and dad attended Skills to Foster training and we had a special children’s version of the training which was useful.”
One of her biggest concerns initially was how much life would change when her parents became foster carers. And, while changes to the everyday routine were inevitable, Emma’s experience was that fostering largely fitted in around her and her family, rather than the other way around.
Highs and lows
The family’s fostering journey has been characterised by highs and lows. For Emma, seeing children return to their birth families or going through the adoption process and finding their forever homes has been the most rewarding thing about being part of a fostering family. She said:
“It’s the small things you remember, like the teenage girl who didn’t really speak much when she was here but who sent me a birthday card saying ‘thank you for letting me be your sister, I’ll remember you always’. You realise that you’ve made a difference even though you didn’t really think you had.”
She remembers a young man who was 15 when he came to live with them. Now 22, he came back to visit the family last year and he’s now in the army and has a daughter of his own. A little girl who stayed with the family until she was 10 months old recently went to live with her aunt. She is in regular contact and Emma was thrilled to see a video of her walking for the first time.
Empathy and insight
Emma, 29, now works for the Outcomes First Group as their Marketing Manager. She is in no doubt that her experiences growing up provided the inspiration for her choice of career. They also give her a special kind of empathy and insight, as she is able to bring the voice of foster families and looked after children into her professional role, which is invaluable.
Her family is continuing to foster. They are currently looking after two siblings who have been with them just a few weeks. The last time she visited, Emma was pleased that the little girl wanted to show her photos of herself when she was a baby. Emma said:
“It’s lovely when children start opening up because you know they’re beginning to feel comfortable and safe.”
Remain open minded
Emma’s advice to birth children in fostering families is to try and remain open-minded. She said:
“Things are never black and white. When we first started fostering, I must admit I didn’t really understand the behaviour but gradually I came to realise that looked after children are looking for understanding and empathy, not sympathy. You’ve had a life they haven’t been lucky enough to have. My advice is to treat them like a brother and sister if you can. And enjoy what they bring to your life.”
To foster parents she advises openness and regular communication. She believes it is important for birth children to be prepared for the fact that looked after children may well disclose details about what has happened to them in the past. She said:
“Foster carers need to ensure that their birth children know what to do in the event of a disclosure. Essentially, they need to listen and allow the child to talk and, if there are legal implications, the foster parents or social workers need to know. It isn’t always easy but it’s really important.”
Amazing role models
She believes that growing up in a fostering family has made her who she is today. Emma said:
“It opens your eyes and makes you really appreciate the upbringing you’ve had. My mum and dad are such amazing role models. They don’t ever shy away from even the most challenging children. My experiences have led me into a career I love where I can make a difference. When I’m older I would also like to foster.”
Some prospective foster carers with birth children express concerns about the potential impact of fostering on their children. Emma understands these concerns but believes they are unfounded. She explained:
“If people could see the positive influence fostering has on birth children I don’t think they would worry. If anything, the experience of being part of a fostering family helps to make birth children more resilient. They learn empathy and understanding at a young age and they open up to new experiences.
“For looked after children, having birth children around helps them to feel calmer and more at ease. My adopted brother is now eight and he’s grown up with foster children. The little boy my parents are fostering at the moment is five and he doesn’t really understand how to play or make friends. My adopted brother is helping to bring him out of his shell. It is a fantastic thing to grow up inside a fostering family – so many amazing experiences.”
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