How foster care changed my life for the better

Kayleigh Crossley with Brenda Whitworth, who has fostered more than 100 children.
Kayleigh Crossley with Brenda Whitworth, who has fostered more than 100 children.
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As a Yorkshire council’s campaign to find foster homes for 30 vulnerable children continues, Catherine Scott talks to two women about how being fostered changed their lives.

Sarah Robertshaw and Kayleigh Crossley don’t know each other and yet they have something in common. Both women came from troubled backgrounds and were in long term foster care and both have gone on to make successes of their lives.

Nurse Kayleigh, 23, had a traumatic start to her life and was eventually placed into long-term foster care at the age of eight. She spent the remainder of her childhood with Dewsbury foster carer, Brenda Whitworth, and her late husband, Ian.

Fully qualified social worker and businesswoman Sarah, 35, is a product of the foster care system and living proof that children who are fostered can have a full and happy childhood and become successful entrepreneurs with the drive to reinvest into the system that gave them a family.

Having been born in Nuneaton to a single mum who suffered from mental health problems, Sarah was in and out of care homes until she was taken into long-term foster care by a couple in their 60s with whom she stayed until she got married aged 22. She now runs her own business finding foster carers.

Both women are very aware that things could have worked out very differently for them.

“Before I went to live with Ian and Brenda, I lived with my mum and two siblings,” explains Kayleigh who lives in Dewsbury with civil partner, Beth.

“From as far back as I can remember violence, neglect and alcohol misuse were an all too familiar part of my home life. This meant that I’d become a mother figure to my two siblings, often taking charge of the cooking and cleaning, but for us this was normal family life as we’d never really known any different.

“There were times when we’d be placed into foster care for short periods whilst things settled down at home, but eventually things became so volatile that it simply wasn’t safe for us to return. It was from this point that my short-term placement at Ian and Brenda’s would develop into a long-term arrangement and unbeknown to me this would be the place that I would call my home for the next nine years.”

At the time, Kayleigh didn’t really have a full understanding of what was going on and she went through a real mix of emotions.

“Even though Brenda and Ian did everything they could to make me feel a part of their family, I struggled to adjust. This was partly because I’d lost my role as ‘mother’ – something that had become totally normal for me – and having someone else looking after me felt very alien.

“Initially I felt scared and confused at what was happening, so my first instinct was to rebel.”

This manifested itself in regular outbursts of anger and Kayleigh would sometimes run away.

“Although there were days when I’d appreciate what Brenda and Ian were doing to help me, after all the chaos and disruption in my life, pushing the boundaries was the only way I could cope. But Brenda and Ian were amazing. No matter what I was going through or how destructive my behaviour became they showed me unconditional love, kindness and understanding, and were always there for me. They also encouraged me to talk about what I’d experienced to help me come to terms with my past, something which must have taken real strength on their part as they had to listen to some pretty awful stuff. And importantly, they actually listened to me. This was vital in helping me to gradually overcome my issues and eventually settle down. Without their guidance and perseverance it would have undoubtedly taken me longer to break this pattern of behaviour.

“Despite my issues I’d always had an overwhelming desire to do something worthwhile with my life – perhaps by becoming a teacher, nurse or police officer – anything where I could give something back. I clung to this and my ultimate goal was to go and study. It was Brenda and Ian, along with my partner, Beth, who encouraged me to study as a nurse.”

Ian died in 2010 but Kayleigh says she will always regard him as a father figure and Brenda will always remain a big part of her life. “Ultimately, I believe that only I had the power to change my life for the better, but being in long-term foster care taught me the life skills and gave me the grounding I needed in order to do so.”

Brenda and Ian became foster carers in 1985. As well as having two children of their own they fostered more than 100 children and adopted two. Brenda still keeps in touch with all of her foster children and continues to provide long and short-term care for local children via Kirklees Council.

“When Kayleigh first came to us she was a troubled, frightened little girl, who had experienced more than her fair share of upheaval, and witnessed things no child should ever have to. Yet despite all of this she was able to overcome her issues and get her life on track. She’s done brilliantly and it makes me proud to think that Ian and I contributed towards this,” says Brenda.

“Though exhausting and frustrating at times, for me fostering is the most satisfying and worthwhile job I’ve ever done. After all these years it is heart-warming that my foster children still keep in touch with me and to see how far they’ve all come, so the rewards are more than worth it.”

Having successfully come through the care system Sarah Robertshaw now helps find suitable foster carers for others.

After having her own family, at the age of 30 she started a degree, graduating with first class honours in social work from the University of Lincoln.

“I am so passionate about the opportunities that foster care can provide for children. My foster parents gave me the stability I needed from the age of 11,” says Sarah, who grew up in Rotherham and now lives in Worksop. She still sees her birth mother a few times a year. “It was not her fault. She just couldn’t cope and a social worker decided that I needed more stability. My foster parents really gave me that. They looked after three of us and said we were welcome to stay as long as we liked. That is really what you want to hear.”

With her husband Ian, she has launched her company ‘Prepare to Foster’. She is now a businesswoman, wife, mother of a son of 13 and daughter of eight, and now carer to her 91-year old foster dad. Sarah’s foster mother died in 2005, the same year as Sarah gave birth to her daughter.

“I know what a child needs from a foster carer and so I can put myself in their shoes and make sure that the foster carers are prepared for what is to come.”