Tracy has been a foster carer for 12 years. A year ago, she transferred from her previous fostering agency to Heath Farm, which is part of National Fostering Group, the largest independent fostering agency (IFA) in the UK. She explains why and shares her experience of fostering with an independent agency.
What made you want to become a foster carer?
I have five kids and it was very calm and relaxed in our home and their friends were always coming round. Often, I’d get a call at 1am and go and pick one of their friends up to stay at our house. I’d ring their parents and say ‘don’t worry they are with me and they’re safe’.
I found myself wondering what would happen if my kids had to go into care, whether they’d be split up. It just takes one good person to keep a group of siblings together and I thought ‘actually, I want to be that person’.
That was when I was 43. I was with a new partner – Rob, who became my second husband. We applied as a couple and we’ve been fostering ever since.
Why did you decide to foster children with an agency rather than local authority?
Initially, we applied to our local social services team but they just never got back to me. It was disappointing but then I talked to a nurse in our local hospital and she put us in touch with someone who worked for an independent fostering agency near us. It went from there. We were with them for 12 years but then a year ago we decided to change.
What prompted the decision to change agencies?
It was all to do with the quality of the training. It’s so much better at Heath Farm – National Fostering Group is the largest independent fostering agency and has the resources to do a great job.
My long-term career goal is to be a child support worker in a senior school, once our foster children have grown up and left home and we’re no longer fostering. Originally, our previous agency offered enhanced fostering qualifications level 3 and 4 but then they stopped. Heath Farm said they could offer me this type of training and more.
I think it’s such a shame otherwise that all of that knowledge and experience you build up over years and years just goes to waste once you finish fostering, I want to carry on working with children even if I’m not caring for them at home. I’m interested in counselling young people. I relate particularly well to teenagers.
How do you manage having birth children and foster children?
The children come first – both birth children and foster children. When I met Rob he had no children of his own and was happy to take on mine. I remember when he asked me to marry him, I said ‘you do know there are five people who would come before you (my birth children) and if we become foster carers there will be more?’
But when we went to the first meeting with the fostering agency he said ‘How could we not help kids like that? We have the space, the time and the love.’ And that’s where it started.
My birth children – four boys and a girl – were 13, 17, 19, 21 and 23 at the time and the two youngest still lived at home. They were completely on board with the idea of fostering. When we did the training, we used to come back and tell them what it was all about so they’d understand that what was ‘normal’ for the children we’d be caring for might not be the same as what was normal for them.
Our only rule was that whichever foster children we got had to be two years younger than my son at least. I needed to ensure that he was safe and would be able to stand up for himself if necessary.
How did you start your foster care job with National Fostering Group?
We started off with a respite placement – two brothers aged five and six. Not long after that we had three siblings come to live with us – a girl aged four, a two and a half year old boy and their sister aged 17 months.
They were with us for 18 months before going to live with their grandparents on a special guardianship. But that broke down after a while and they came back. They are still with us now, aged 15, 13 and 12.
What are the rewards of fostering for you?
The best part is seeing a child’s progression – when they start to feel safe. One time my husband was cooking dinner, when the foster children were younger, the little girl asked ‘what’s that smell?’ and I said ‘that’s dinner’ and she said ‘who’s it for?’ and I said ‘all of us’.
She ran in to tell her brother and sister because it wasn’t something they were used to. Sometimes they used to smell the sheets and smell your hair but then, over time, being fed and having clean sheets and clean hair just becomes part of normal life.
And that’s when you know you’re making a difference. It’s wonderful when you see the stress leave their faces and they start to smile. They stop feeling like they’re in a stranger’s house and start to feel like this is their home and ask if their friends can come round.
And what are the challenges?
All children in care have issues and that can be hard to deal with. It can be draining when you’re putting your whole effort in and you don’t always get it right.
My youngest son came in from school one day and he was talking to me about something when one of the younger foster children did something and I went straight over to them. My son said ‘I’ll talk to you later’ and I thought then how hard it is to get the balance right.
It’s hard, too, to have to interact with people who’ve done bad things to the children. You wouldn’t normally dream of having a relationship with someone like that but you have to for the children’s sake. If you can encourage the children to feel compassion, rather than anger or hatred, it’s far better for them in the long term.
What good about working for National Fostering Group?
It is the support you get from the moment you call. There is someone you can speak to immediately and things get things put in place quickly. I had an issue recently and I emailed on Friday and by Monday the therapist was on the phone. You feel very supported.
And if there’s anything you want to learn, they will find a training course for you. And that’s great because the better we become, the better the children’s lives become.
The pay is generous, too, so you never find yourself worrying about taking the children on holiday or feeling like you need to get a second job to make it work. Fostering is a full-time job and getting a decent wage means you can give it your all without any distractions.
What advice would you give to anyone considering fostering?
Do it, but make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, because every knockback damages a child and they’ve had so many already.
It’s not like bringing up your own children, you have to be prepared to go through very rough times. You need to have a great deal of dedication and patience.
Sometimes I talk to people who are fearful of children in care and I say ‘they are just children who’ve had a difficult time and who need love and guidance’. Our eldest foster child is an A-grade student and he’s training for his second dan in Karate. The second one is more troubled but, oh, what a love he is.
You need to do things day by day – start each day afresh, never carry anything forward. I always say to them ‘I don’t care what happened yesterday, this is today’. That is so liberating for them, they respond so well.