'One foster child behaved like an adult as she'd had to parent her mum'

When Carol-Ann Morrison talks about why she became a foster parent, she gives a simple answer. However, her words also gives a bleak snapshot into what life can be like for a child who isn’t lucky enough to have a supportive, loving family.

‘I wanted to protect a child from any of the things I encountered and give them a chance of a happy life – the one that I was denied,’ Carol-Ann, 60, tells Metro.co.uk. ‘My childhood was marred by mental, physical and sexual abuse and I don’t remember ever being a child to be honest. The reason I came out the other side is because I’m a very resilient person.’

Although she is one of the 54,000 foster carers across the UK, a serious shortage of those willing to take on such a demanding role means many vulnerable children in need of a stable family environment are being moved away from the things that form their identity including their school, friends, hobbies and wider family.

Currently, there are over 90,000 children in care in the UK and three quarters live with foster families.

But more carers are needed to ensure that, when safe to do so, every child who can’t live with their own family is cared for within their community.

The Fostering Network calculates that 7200 extra fostering households are needed across the UK to make sure that children can be cared for and remain together with their siblings. This equates to 6000 extra foster placements in England, 500 in Scotland, 400 in Wales, and 300 in Northern Ireland.

‘An estimated one in three vulnerable children in England and Wales have to leave their local authority area because a foster family cannot be found to look after them nearby, causing additional trauma, as they are moved away from everything they know,’ says Sarah Thomas, CEO at The Fostering Network.

But how has the care sector reached such a crisis point? According to new research by Care Visions Fostering Scotland, misconceptions about fostering may be one of the main barriers to potential carers.

After a total of 503 people aged over 18 were surveyed, more than a quarter thought you needed your own house to foster. Over 20% assumed you needed to be between the ages of 30-60, while more than 30% felt that being single would be a barrier to fostering.

Another 25% thought that you must be a British citizen to foster in this country. None of these are true.

Money was also seen as an issue, with 69% saying the current cost of living stops them from fostering. However, the reality is foster carers receive a fostering allowance – around £23,500 per year (£450 per week), depending on local authorities.

Money aside, there’s the fact that raising a child is far more than a 9-5 job – even more so when they’re not your own.

However, Carol-Ann, who lives in Lanarkshire, says fostering gave her the chance to draw a line under her own troubled childhood.

Having had a successful career working in a legal practice for 35 years during which time she and husband Stephen, who have two children of their own, her thoughts turned to caring for a child, but admits she had deep reservations.

‘The fear of leaving a well-paid job, not knowing what the future would hold, whether it would work, would it affect my own kids… there was a lot to consider,’ she explains. Then, 10 years ago, she was made redundant and decided to take the plunge.

Since then, she has fostered nine children on long and short term placements, looked after 12 children on respite and right now she is caring for two siblings, a little boy aged four and his big sister, six.

‘When she arrived the little girl behaved like an adult as she had been parenting her mum who was unable to care for them,’ remembers Carol-Anne.

‘At that stage she was having 10 meltdowns a day, so we had to unpick all of that and find the wee child within. I enlisted the help of a friend to do music therapy and the Care Visions Therapeutic Family Workers gave me techniques, such as lying on your back and kicking a balloon to each other, which helps build focus, creates a connection and is also fun.

‘Eventually we unleashed a happy gene in this wee girl that we hadn’t seen before.’

Carol-Ann adds: ‘Fostering has helped me lay to rest some of my demons. It can be challenging but the rewards outweigh everything.

‘You love them unconditionally, but the most wonderful feeling is when they love you straight back.

‘Financially it’s not like my previous job, but it’s not about the money.

‘It’s a privilege to watch these kids blossom and exceed their goals in life knowing I played a part in helping to get them there.”

It would be naïve to think every foster placement has a happy ending every time, however. Being a carer is more than just providing a nurturing family home and stability to children and young people – many of whom have had a difficult start to life.

There are heartbreaking moments, when placements break down, or children with whom strong bonds have been forged leave to be reunited with their birth families.

Steven Carroll, 45, from Motherwell, has been a full-time foster carer for 15 years, foregoing his career ambitions to become a teacher like his wife Kristin, to care for children in his own home, and has had his fair share of drama.

Overnight they became foster parents to three young brothers, aged four, seven and eight.

‘We were straight in at the deep end, and it was a bit of an adventure, but we took it in our stride,’ admits Steven.

‘The boys were wild when they first arrived, climbing all over furniture, into everything. We put boundaries in place – bedtimes, bath times, reading stories, and they very quickly settled into a routine.

‘Very quickly, and unprompted, they called us mum and dad – it was very special and felt very natural.’

‘But they definitely experienced trauma,’ adds Steven.

In most cases, fostered children never completely let go of where they came from and are very often rehabilitated back with their birth families, which can be challenging.

When one of the siblings Steven and his wife were caring for had some behavioural issues aged 14, the placement broke down and the teen moved into a children’s unit.

‘We undergo specialist training and there’s a broad spectrum of courses that help you accept that these challenges, although tough, are just part of the job,’ he says.

It was also heart-breaking for Steven when a baby they’d been looking after from the age of six months, was rehabilitated back to his parents eight months later.

‘There have been difficult times and sad times, but that was the first time I thought “wow, this is hard.”‘

Now Steven is once again permanently caring for another three siblings; sisters aged six and eight and their 10-year-old big brother.

Fostering has been my job and vocation. You accept the challenges as part of the job, but it doesn’t really feel like a job. It just feels like life.

‘A couple of times I’ve thought “have I got the energy for this all over again” but the flip side is there’s so many rewarding moments.

‘The wee one was recently in a dancing show and came away with a medal as if she’d won the Olympics and the eldest boy is helping me restore and rebuild an old motorbike. He loves his own tool kit so gets a huge amount from that.’

Steven adds: ‘Fostering has been my job and vocation. You accept the challenges as part of the job, but it doesn’t really feel like a job. It just feels like life.’

On average in the UK, a child comes into foster care every 15 minutes, and most have better outcomes when they can be placed with their brothers and sisters. Some foster families look after children on a short-term basis – for a few days or weeks. For many kids, fostering offers them a secure and loving home for their whole childhood.

However, Lorraine Kubski, of Care Visions says that many siblings have to be separated due to the lack of foster carers.

‘There is a recognised need for foster carers who are able to care for sibling groups and this was highlighted in Scotland by the National Care Review which advocates for brothers and sisters to remain together wherever possible and within their own communities,’ she explains.

‘But in practice, this is not always attainable. Placement choice can be affected by the lack of foster carers in a child’s local area and children may then need to be placed out with which can have several implications including having to change school, loss of friendships, and layers of additional trauma because their lives have been disrupted in so many ways.’

She adds: ‘Children placed within residential services often have a higher level of need than can be met in a foster family and there are usually specific reasons for seeking a residential placement.’

However, with the nuclear family firmly a thing of the past, foster carers don’t need to form a traditional family unit, as Nicola Fleming found out when she applied to be one.

With three children of her own, the 50-year-old from Glasgow is also a single foster carer to two disabled children, both with autism.

‘Initially I thought being single would be a barrier to fostering,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I went to a foster training night and was a nervous wreck because most of the other prospective carers were couples, but they told me being a single mum wouldn’t be an impediment and explained how it could enhance my life skills and boost my confidence in my own abilities, after all I did a good job raising my own children single headedly.’

A former support worker with a charity, Nicola’s own daughter has autism, and she says fostering was something she was always interested in.

She adds: ‘My children were away, and I felt I could still do more. I was working as a support worker at the time and because I had to give up the stability of my own job to foster, it was a lot to think about.’

That was four years ago, and now Nicola has embraced the role as foster carer to two children, aged 14 and 10.

‘When you take this young person into your home, they don’t know you, and you have to build trust and make them feel relaxed.

‘But it’s very rewarding to see how the children come on. The hardest part will be if either of them have to go.’

For more information about fostering visit www.carevisionsfostering.co.uk.

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