Meet Hampshire foster carers who have changed children's lives for the better

Foster Portsmouth finds homes for vulnerable children across the area where they feel safe and loved.

By Annie Lewis
Tuesday, 8th December 2020, 10:40 am
Rachel Elkington, from Cosham, has been fostering for 18 years.

Three sets of foster carers reveal what their experience has been like and how opening their homes to children who need them is the best thing they have ever done.

‘If you have room in your home and your heart, you should foster'

Rachel Elkington always dreamed of having a big family.

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Sonja and John Polman at home in Bognor Regis.

‘I got divorced quite young and I have two boys of my own, but I always wanted four children,’ explains Rachel, 45.

‘My best friend fostered and my mum adopted me so I had thought about fostering before. I was very grateful for the life I was given when I was adopted and would consider myself as one of the lucky ones.

‘I have a lot of room and love to give. It’s very rewarding to give a child a second chance.’

Eighteen years later and Rachel, from Cosham, is still fostering children who need a loving home. Her sons – now 21 and 23 – grew up with foster children living with them.

Bob and Sharon Palmer with their dogs (left) Barney and Harvey. Picture: Sarah Standing (051120-7617)

She says: ‘The boys have told me that they like sharing their mum and they know how much I love children.

“I think growing up with children who have had little when they first came to live with us has taught my sons to be empathetic young men.’

The children Rachel has fostered have stayed with her for any time between two weeks and five years.

‘I think I have fostered around 30 children during my time as a foster parent and I still speak to nearly all of them,’ says Rachel, smiling.

‘They are so grateful and it shows how we take things for granted. It makes it more worthwhile.

‘I have looked after a child who had never eaten vegetables before.

“One of them asked me why their bed sheets smelled of flowers, because they would have previously never had their sheets changed.’

Like all foster parents, Rachel got ‘great’ support when it came to say goodbye to the young people who had lived with her.

‘It does break my heart when I have to say goodbye. But Foster Portsmouth does a lot of work with you about attachment and support.

‘I still feel a sense of loss but they come round for dinner and normally still drop their clothes round to get washed,’ says Rachel, laughing.

‘We are a huge part of their journey.’

Rachel, who is a single carer, says she would always recommend fostering but you have to have thick skin.

She explains: ‘The children don’t always want to be with you. No matter what their parents have done, they still love their mum and dad.

‘You can get your heart broken and your soul destroyed, thinking you can never reach this child. But one day, they could say something as small as ‘thank you’ and it makes it all feel worthwhile.

‘You get a lot of support from your family placement team. They do not get enough credit.

‘They work so hard and have so much to do but are so incredibly helpful.

“They will listen to your needs and who you think would fit best with your family.

‘If you have room in your home and your heart, you should foster. We don’t give up on our own children so how can we give up on them?’

Rachel, who became a proud grandmother earlier this year, is looking forward to a family Christmas with her two sons and her 15-year-old foster child who is living with her at the moment.

‘I love my house being busy and I thrive in chaos – organised chaos, of course,’ says Rachel, smiling.

‘We do need more foster carers. We need young carers too, people who have the energy and the get-up-and-go.

‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re single or married, what gender, age or sexuality you are, Foster Portsmouth is looking for people from all walks of life.’

‘It’s amazing to play even a small role in someone else’s life’

It was through their experience of adopting a child did Sonja and John Polman truly realise how many young people were in need of foster homes in our area.

After their first child was born, they decided to expand their family and adopted a child nine years ago.

‘A lot of children are adopted before they turn four but we realised there were so many kids over the age of four who needed a home too,’ says Sonja, 47.

‘When you adopt, you’re offering a permanent home and they become part of your family.

‘When we moved house and had a spare bedroom, we thought we might as well foster.’

Since then, the couple – with help from Foster Portsmouth – have provided eight children with a home, whether that was for a weekend or a matter of years.

John, 50, explains: ‘We have had some just for restbite care over a weekend, one for six weeks, one for four months and our 14-year-old has been with us for three-and-a-half years now.’

The Polmans, from Bognor Regis, explained that it has been hard at times, but they find fostering extremely rewarding.

‘You can’t really understand what it’s like until they come into your home. Some of the children have not had a normal life, so what we take for granted is not normal for them,’ says Sonja, who works as a nurse.

‘We took one of our foster children on holiday with us to North Yorkshire. She said she had never seen cows in a field before. Another one had never jumped in a puddle. We went on this long walk in torrential rain and they said it was the best day of their life.

‘It can be quite tear-jerking stuff.’

By opening up their home, all eight of their foster children have grown up in Bognor’s community and attended youth groups.

‘A lot of people give to charity and appeals, but giving your home, financial and emotional support to a child is very rewarding,’ says John, smiling.

And although it is hard, Sonja and John take pride in being a positive influence in a child’s life when they are struggling.

Sonja adds: ‘We had one girl come to us who wasn’t in a good place, was taking legal highs and drinking a lot.

‘She’s 20 now and studying for a health science degree. It’s amazing to play even a small role in someone else’s life.’

‘Fostering has kept us young’

After Sharon and Bob Palmer’s son left home, Sharon experienced empty nest syndrome.

‘We had this four-bedroom house and nobody in it. I got a dog to hopefully cure my sadness of empty nest syndrome. As much as we love the dog, it didn’t work,’ says Sharon, while she laughs with her husband Bob.

Eight years ago, the couple seriously started talking about fostering and went along to an event at the Spinnaker Tower, hosted by Foster Portsmouth.

‘And the rest is history. We spoke to people from Foster Portsmouth and othe foster carers. They sold the idea to us,’ says Bob, 61.

The couple, who live in Leigh Park, say the process to become foster carers is intense however they were supported every step of the way.

‘In the back of my mind, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to let them go,’ admits Sharon, 59.

‘Social workers started coming round once a week for a couple of months. They go into a lot of depth about your childhood and how you are as a parent.

‘If you ever wanted to bury something or went into fostering for the wrong reasons, they would know about it.

‘It was fairly therapeutic though. I cried a lot.’

After they were approved, the Palmers homed their first foster child in 2016 and have fostered a total of eight children during the past four years.

‘The first night, neither of us slept a wink. I was just hoping she was okay and wasn’t scared. But we soon relaxed,’ says Bob. ‘We were authorised to have up to three foster children and a fortnight after getting our first, we had a set of siblings who were 12 and 15.

‘It may have been daunting but I just went into full-on parenting mode and got on with it.’

Sharon says she still finds it heartbreaking when they leave, but through being able to connect with them on social media and through support from Foster Portsmouth, she has found the entire experience rewarding from beginning to end.

She explains: ‘Some really suffer with attachment issues and feel like they’re being disloyal to their parents by bonding with you.

‘Some have gone through such awful things which we can’t comprehend.’

‘But you get lots of help and support to cope with it. Just this past month, I have been doing a lot of online courses, says Bob.

With their two dogs and three foster children, the Palmers are a very happy family. Their son, Michael, has always supported them and sees himself as their big brother.

‘During lockdown, we felt it was important to keep everyone in a routine,’ adds Bob.

‘We all got up as if we were going to school and did Joe Wicks’ workout. We did school work until 1pm and then lots of TikTok dances.

‘We also put on a prom for our eldest one who missed out. Bob wore a suit and we all got dressed up. It was lovely,’ says Sharon, smiling.

Looking back, both Bob and Sharon have no regrets. Sharon says: ‘Fostering has kept us young. It is incredibly rewarding to see them be happy. They can sometimes arrive with no self confidence and it’s amazing to see them bloom.’