Following a fostering information event held in London this week, we meet an Irish foster care family to find out about how helping children in need can be an enriching experience…
“THERE was this old NSPCC advert that used to get me every time. One day I just wanted to reach into the TV to help the child. That was when I decided to become a foster carer.”
Niamh Murphy has been fostering with her husband Peter for six years and during that time they have looked after eight children ranging in age from three days to 15 years old.
Sitting in the cosy front room of their London home as the rain pummels the windows outside, we begin by talking about why they decided to open their home to some of the country’s most vulnerable children.
Later, Niamh promises, they will recount the journey of the child currently in their care, which they believe to be conclusive evidence that they made the right choice by becoming foster carers.
But there are some sobering challenges that foster caring presents.
“Nothing prepares you for fostering,” Peter says. “I wanted to be a foster carer when my last child left home,” Niamh says, pointing proudly to the smiling school pictures that adorn the mantlepiece. “But that was before I met Peter and I thought you could not do it if you are single.”
“Then I met Peter,” she says. “I just had to find out about fostering after that NSPCC advert, with the child called Miles, came on the telly again. So I got all the details and found out I actually could have been doing it all these years because you don’t need to have a partner.”
Over the next year, the couple went through a robust assessment process.
The process begins slowly with a training course and a visit from a social worker to judge whether the prospective carer’s home is appropriate for supporting a foster child.
However, it quickly becomes a thorough assessment of the candidate’s background, life experiences, and lifestyle.
Daniela da Costa from the Fostering and Adoption Service of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster City Council, describes the process.
“We do ask quite a lot of questions because often the children come from troubled family backgrounds. We need to be sure that foster carers will provide a safe, warm, comfortable and respectful environment for them,” she explains as Peter and Niamh nod in unanimous agreement.
Having been approved by the fostering panel and with their training complete, Niamh and Peter’s skills were put to the test immediately by the first children that came to them. There is no easing into foster care.
Peter says: “We quickly learned that you have to take each child as he or she is. Every child that comes into care comes with a family history, often having experienced emotional or physical abuse. Eating has been a problem with every child we have cared for.”
Damon, they say, was a particularly acute example of that challenge. During the months he spent with Niamh and Peter he hid food throughout the house — under the sofa, in his shoe, in the toilet — and it took a great deal of effort for the couple to convince him that he did not have to steal his meals any more.
“It took us so long to get him to believe that the food was not going anywhere,” Niamh recalls. “If you got down to the last couple of slices of bread in the morning, he would have a panic attack because there was not another loaf there.”
But the practical experience has taught them lessons that the training courses could not. “You need to be able to listen because that is half of the problem,” Niamh adds. “These children have never had someone in their life who would sit and listen to what they have to say. But that is the only way you can build trust with them.”
In the case of the child they are currently caring for, 10-year-old Joanna, crossing that bridge proved to be an emotionally difficult step for them too.
“It can be very hard to listen to a child as they tell you their family stories,” Niamh says. “And you cannot say anything or be judgmental because whatever this person may be, she was her mother.”
The couple agrees that Joanna has presented them with the biggest challenges. But at the same time, they stress, her case is a perfect example of why fostering is worth it.
Joanna came to them aged six, again for just one night initially, with severe behavioural problems and educational difficulties.
Today, she has developed strategies for dealing with her behaviour through therapy and is at the top of her class, something that Peter talks about with the same pride that is recognisable in any parent.
As a result of her progress, it has been decided by the local authority that Joanna will stay with the couple until she is 18.
“We are just so proud of her,” Peter says. “She is coming home with certificates for star of the term, she was voted into the school council by her class and she got 99 out of 99 in her recent times tables test.”
Pointing towards the dining room table, he jokes: “I felt a sense of achievement too for that! I remember sitting there with her for hours going through those times tables and doing the homework.”
Joanna’s progress has been remarkable. “She was physically very violent at first,” Niamh says. “She would knock teachers down stairs and throw furniture around the room.
“She would spit and bite and do whatever she wanted. So the first time that we did not have to collect her early from school because something happened we went out and celebrated.
“All of this has only been possible because we have helped Joanna to develop her self-esteem. Now Joanna has plans. She wants to go to college. She wants to work with young kids.”
Niamh adds: “Being in a couple has certainly helped. Support is absolutely essential and it also means that I get Saturdays off. This is Peter’s day with Joanna.”
Apart from the help they give to each other, they talk about the other avenues of support that have been open to them, including their social worker and the local fostering support network.
Far from being an imposition when trying to create the typical family environment, Niamh says that the visits from their supervising social worker are helpful and supportive.
Peter adds: “We have had huge support from our supervising social worker and we also go to support groups with other foster carers who have experience in dealing with the kinds of challenges that come up. You will always find someone with an ear to bend.”
Referring to a phone call that interrupted our conversation earlier, he says: “That was another foster carer on the line just now.”
Again reiterating her motivation to get involved in fostering, Niamh says: “To see these children achieve something that they thought they never could is incredible. It is like winning the lottery to watch their confidence grow.
“It is so painful to look at kids who are hiding in themselves, frightened to talk, frightened to do anything. It is just horrible. Even seeing them play with a toy without throwing it is rewarding.
“In my head I am a bit like the Waltons. I want the big kitchen with all the kids around it and if I had a big house and a big kitchen I would take loads in.”
To prospective foster carers, she gives straightforward advice: “Research it and do not expect a perfect child. Most importantly, make sure that your family is behind you because they are the most important kind of support that you are going to get.”
Find out more about other forthcoming fostering information events in London…
April 11: 6pm at Westminster City Hall
In addition to these information events you can also find out more about fostering by going along to a community event. The next community event is:
March 11: 3-6pm at Brompton library, 210 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0BS
FOSTERING – THE FACTS
What is fostering?
• Looking after someone else’s child in your own home when his or her family are unable to look after them
• Fostering placements may last for short periods to support a family through a crisis (a matter of days or weeks) or for longer periods of months or even years
• Some children who are unable to return to their birth families may be permanently fostered
• Providing a safe, stable and nurturing environment allowing children to thrive and develop
• Helping a child or young person to come to terms with difficult issues
Who will I be caring for?
Children and young people from birth to 18 years old may need temporary, or sometimes permanent support. Children and young people in foster care come from a variety of backgrounds and ages. There are also children with disabilities, sibling groups and young parents with children. Each child’s story is different and unique to them, although many children need a foster home for the following reasons:
• A temporary crisis in their family
• Parents struggling to cope
• Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
• A child or young person has been in trouble with the police and needs extra support outside their family
• Drug or alcohol difficulties in the family
• Violence in the family
You can foster if…
• You are 21 years old or above
• You have the time, space and commitment
• You are single or with a partner
• You practice a religion or not
• You are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or heterosexual
• You have got your own children or not
• You live within the M25
You can foster if you are working, not working, or a full-time parent at home. Foster carers caring for children from birth to five years need to be at home on a full-time basis (one of the partners if you are a couple). If you are caring for a school age child and you work you will need to consider what arrangements you will make to take the child to and from school and to accommodate school holidays.
What support will I be offered?
The Fostering Service offers a comprehensive package of support and training to all its foster carers. It includes…
• Your own supervising social worker who will visit you at least every six weeks to guide and support you, identifying any training needs that
you might have
• Support and guidance to complete the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) standards
• Bonus payments in recognition of long service
• Access to a wide range of professional support from education, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and health
• A weekly fee and allowance
Could you foster?
Foster care provides a stable and supportive home for children and young people at difficult times in their lives. The children supported by The London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster City Council, come from many different backgrounds and foster carers are needed to reflect the diverse needs of these children.
Motivated, enthusiastic and caring individuals or couples are being sought to become foster carers to help provide a positive contribution to children in care.
If you would like to talk about fostering or have any questions please contact 0800 169 3497 (9.30am to 5pm) or email@example.com
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Additional information about fostering
Fostering network – www.fostering.net
BAAF (British Association for Adoption & Fostering) – www.baaf.org.uk