'Our door is always open' - meet the Yorkshire prison officers who have fostered the most vulnerable children and given them a future

It is not perhaps the place you would expect to meet the love of your life, but while working with young offenders at a Yorkshire prison, Anita and John Woods bonded over their desire to help others and make a difference.

Foster carers Anita and John Woods

Twelve years on, the Doncaster couple are happily married and have given so many vulnerable children a bright future since they started fostering in April 2006.

Having seen young people become embroiled in a life of crime and the dire consequences this can have they decided they need to do something to help and give some children the chance to thrive when no-one else would.

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Mr Woods, 61, said: "We saw some bad experiences of children being let down when they were getting out of prison and we felt useless. For us, it was difficult as we couldn't have any contact with them after prison and there were a few cases where we were quite upset with the whole system.

Foster carers Anita and John Woods.

"We had these young children getting out of there with nothing and as much as we tried to help, we couldn't.

"It was one lad who really touched Anita's heart that started our fostering journey. His dad was in prison so he had nothing to go home too when he got out and there was nothing we could do. Initially we wanted to do remand fostering and get in before they ended up in prison - that's what we did first - and then we had a child with special needs and we ended up helping more children with difficulties."

The couple say they have "lost count" of the number of children they have fostered through Orange Grove Fostercare, but say the most rewarding thing for them is seeing them flourish after very difficult starts in live.

Mrs Woods, 53, said: “John and I feel like we’ve made a big difference to a number of young people’s lives.

“The most rewarding part is watching the children grow, develop and become valuable individuals.

A young girl, who has hearing difficulties and could not talk when she was placed with the Woods, now "doesn't stop talking" and several years on returns to see the couple who she sees as her mother and father.

It wasn't plain sailing at first though, as Mr Woods said: "The only conversation we used to get from her was 'I am alright' and she would say that a thousand times a day.

"At first she thought we were just staff from a children's home and that we would go home and leave her - that's what she was used to.

"She came to us from a respite place where she had been for the best part of a year.

"Us being ex prison officers they thought we could handle anything and she was one of the first through our doors. We took her on board and at first we had some horrendous times with her. She was very very challenging and she was very vulnerable. She was at a special school before she came to us and was constantly kicking off and having to be restrained by staff regularly."

Mr Woods explains how at the girl had "violent episodes" and on one occasion, while he was driving, she tried to strangle him using the seatbelt he was wearing.

"At the time that was the final straw," he said.

"The authorities found her somewhere in Manchester. Both Anita and I went to have a look at the place and we cried all the way home. There was no way in the world we could let her go there. Anyone could have picked her up as she was just so vulnerable and we decided we had to give it another go."

After this and with perseverance, the girl started to calm down and now - 10 years later and living on her own as a grown woman - is described by the couple as an "absolute dream".

Mr Woods said: "She comes on weekends to see us still and often comes on holiday with us. She is also here every Christmas which is lovely.

"All our extended family - my mum and my sisters and the kids - all think of her as one of ours. She loves going to see nan down in Wales."

The couple recall how they also got a young boy through his GCSEs by religiously taking him to school and picking him up at lunchtime and returning him for the afternoon to make sure he didn't play truant.

Mr Woods said: "We just had to make sure we got him through those last few months to make sure he got his exams and he did get them. If he had his own way he would have sabotaged it all.

"We take pleasure in knowing he has them if he needs them."

Mrs Woods added: "All the children have their own individual problems and challenges but watching them progress is extremely rewarding.”

The couple, who have four adult children between them, admit fostering is not for the faint-hearted and state it is a lot more difficult than it sounds on the adverts.

Mr Woods said: "It infuriates me when you hear the adverts on the radio and they ask if you have got a spare room and want some extra money. That to me really hurts me because its telling the kids that all we want to do is earn money out of them. Its about so much mire. you need a lot of patience and generally care about children.

"There's not every child that has walked through the doors that has taken to us both, one seems to work better with one and another with another, you just work with it.

"The prison service career really helped us both as we helped young offenders to flourish and this is just taking it that one step further really."

The couple spent Christmas at home this year, and were visited by many of the children they have fostered over the years to share the festivities.

Mrs Woods said: "It is lovely when they come back to us as they still think of us as 'home'.

"Most of them have their own families and have grown up and moved on, but they do still come to us at Christmas and birthdays because they know our door is always open."

It's lovely when they come back to us, they think of it as home."

Mr Woods said: "It's a great achievement to know we have helped vulnerable children and changed their lives for the better. At the end of the day it's about supporting them and being a friend or whatever they need - that is what you are."