Fostering can be a challenging but rewarding experience and more carers are needed. RACHEL JONES meets a couple who offer a home and support to children and young people.
As the ambulanceman dealt with a drunk teenager at Linda’s home, he offered a few words of wisdom to the young lad.
‘I know where you’re coming from, I was in foster care,’ he said. ‘But please listen to these people because they are here to help you. Believe me years down the line you’ll wish you’d listened to them at this point.’
Linda and husband Ken had called the emergency services after the lad had run away and come back inebriated and violent. They were following standard fostering procedure for their own and his safety, but they had also had an alarming experience.
But as Linda listened to the paramedic, her reasons for fostering came back into focus.
‘His words came just at the right time,’ she says. ‘You hope that you can support people and help them to make changes in their lives and he was saying the same thing.’
Linda, 56, and 60-year-old Ken have been welcoming youngsters into their Waterlooville home for four years after replying to an advert by agency Blue Sky Fostering.
The organisation was set up in response to a growing demand for foster carers. Across England there are an estimated 60,000 children and young people in the care system and more than 42,000 of these are in foster care. The need for foster families is increasing each year with a shortfall of about 10,000 carers nationwide.
Linda and Ken thought long and carefully about applying. ‘You have to be prepared to deal with things like running away – that can be a problem. And you musn’t forget that that is a 24/7 job in your own home.
‘It’s part of your life and you can’t get away from it, you have to really want to do it,’ says Linda.
But being a foster parent has huge rewards. Linda and Ken are currently caring for a teenage boy who Linda says has ‘become part of the family’.
He has been with the couple for two years and as they watch him playing football or starring in the school play, they feel the pride of parents.
‘He’s had difficulties, when he came to us he was bewildered I think and he had to overcome anger problems. But it’s been a perfect match for all of us. He is one of the family,’ she says, adding. ‘He’s why we went into fostering. He’s changed his life around.’
The boy has raised his grades from Gs to As, plays on local sports teams and is a school prefect.
He is with Linda and Ken for the long-term but she says he still has contact with his family.
‘That’s very important. He has a mum and he loves her too. He has contact with his family and that’s the thing we have to try and manage, we’re there for support because these young people have mums and dads and siblings and that’s their future and their past.
‘I always say he has two families. It’s great for the children to have that if possible.’
Some foster children are in care because parents have had to go into hospital and others need a bit of time away while issues are resolved. Many return to their homes.
But others come to their carers with more serious problems and Linda and Ken have had to deal with plenty of emotional issues.
Although she has brought up two sons and experienced all the usual difficulties that parents face, Linda’s mothering skills haven’t prepared her for all the problems.
But fostering agencies and organisations offer plenty of training and support. Linda and Ken have a social worker to contact and there is a 24-hour emergency line for foster parents.
When a youngster arrives in a new home there will always be a settling in period. Linda says: ‘Often it’s about finding out their interests and engaging them, showing an interest in what they like and encouraging them.’
She adds: ‘Many lack stability and structure in their lives and they don’t realise that’s exactly what we all need and want. It might seem all right to be able to do exactly what we want, but we all need that structure and guidance and someone to run to when things go wrong.’
Linda and Ken have only fostered teenagers, some of them simply preparing to live independently. It’s often a case of supporting them with practical things like washing, cooking and budgeting.
They form stronger bonds with some than others. ‘I think some want to be here more than others,’ says Linda. ‘Others are going through the system and want their independence. Out of 13 about three have kept in touch and let us know how they’re doing and it’s great to hear from them.
‘And who knows we may have made a difference with some of the others. I think these days people don’t start maturing until they’re about 25 so it might be that they look back and think about their time here. Foster carers who have been doing it a lot longer often tell us that’s the case.’
Linda and Ken are relatively new to fostering but they’ve already learned that you can’t solve every problem.
‘But you can do your best to support people. It’s about giving them a safety zone or that bit of respite,’ says Linda.
And sometimes it becomes more than that. When the teenager that is living with the Duncombes recently starred in a school play, it wasn’t just the couple who went to see him, it was the whole family, including sisters and nephews.
‘He thinks of my sons as older brothers and when he feels he can’t talk to me about certain things, he goes to them as they live nearby,’ says Linda. ‘I think that’s really nice.’