With new recruits desperately needed, Sarah Freeman reports on a new campaign hoping to show fostering is very much a family affair.
When it emerged Rotherham Council had removed two children from a foster home after discovering the couple were members of Ukip, it wasn’t exactly the best publicity for a sector desperately in need of new recruits.
Reflecting a nationwide trend, latest figures from Kirklees Council have shown a sharp year-on-year increase in the number of children going into foster care, rising from 315 in 2009 to 383 last year. By September this year, numbers had already reached 440.
While an investigation is underway into the Rotherham case, Kirklees has gone on the offensive using the testimonies of existing foster carers in the latest campaign. It is hoped the first-hand experiences of the likes of sisters Jackie Coulter and Hilary Fisher will be more effective at persuading others to sign up than the usual promotional material.
“Hilary and I grew up with our parents and four siblings in a modest three-bedroom terraced house in Mirfield,“ says 46-year-old Jackie, who took up fostering six years ago. “We were a typical 1960s family. The thing that sticks with us is that despite not being very well-off, we never really wanted for anything and importantly, we grew up in a happy and loving environment.
“That is what my husband John and I wanted to pass on. Our interest in fostering had gone back many years, perhaps fuelled by the fact that John was adopted as a child.
“It inspired us to return the favour and give as many vulnerable children as possible a better start in life. So far, we’ve fostered four children and we get so much out of it. We’ve never looked back and plan to continue doing it for many years yet.”
The aim of the campaign is to dispel the myth that only married, middle-class couples are eligible to become foster carers while at the same time promoting the satisfaction being involved in looking after vulnerable children brings. “For me, perhaps the best thing about being a foster carer is seeing children go on to be adopted or reunited with their birth parents,” says 52-year-old Hilary, who has fostered 18 children on both long and short-term placements. “To witness those happy outcomes and to know that I’ve been able to make a difference to a child’s life, even if only for a short period, makes my job all the more worthwhile.
“Both Jackie and I have formed firm bonds with many of the children we’ve fostered. I believe that they take that attachment with them and as a result Jackie and I have kept in touch with most of the children we have looked after.
“Particularly as Christmas approaches, I would urge people to think about foster caring. Although a very family-orientated time, there is also added pressure on relationships and can lead to family breakdowns.
“Being there for a child at such a crucial time is incredibly humbling. Even having a present for them to unwrap on Christmas day can make all the difference in the world to them.”
The sisters have since inspired other family members to become involved in fostering.
Three years ago, their niece, Sarah Taylor, fostered her first child, and Hilary’s 18-year-old son Mackie now mentors children whose parents are foster carers.
“I came into foster caring after spending 20 years working in the care industry,” says 39-year-old Sarah, who lives in Heckmondwike with her partner Lee and 11-year-old son Lewis. “We did consider what impact it would have Lewis. Although he’d been used to seeing my aunts’s foster children at family get-togethers, we made sure we spent time explaining to him what was involved.
“We are currently looking after two siblings. Initially, we were just looking after one child, but when we were asked about taking on a sibling, we knew that we couldn’t see them parted and the benefits to them both have been clear to see.
“When the first child came to us at 11-months-old, it was like having a six-month-old, but with love and patience both children have come along in leaps and bounds and for me there is nothing more rewarding.
“Lewis loves having the children around the house. Every other weekend the family gets even bigger as Lee has three children from a previous relationship, so with up to six children in the house we really are one big happy family.”
To see Jackie, Hilary and Sarah talk about their experiences go to www.kirklees.gov.uk/fostering and for more details about fostering opportunities call 0800 389 0086.