“We love doing what we’re doing” – what it is really like to be a foster carer

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Being a foster carer can be the most challenging job, but also the most rewarding.

Sandra and Steve Henshaw, from Manchester, have been fostering for seven years through Manchester Council.

During their honeymoon, Sandra fell pregnant but unfortunately lost the baby. Instead of becoming biological parents, both Sandra and Steve decided to become foster parents.

Steve said: “We decided we wanted the responsibility of looking after children. We’ve got neighbours and friends who are foster carers.

“We discussed it one night and the following day, Sandra got in touch with the right people and the wheels were in motion. Before we knew it, we were actually in the process of becoming foster carers and heading towards panel.”

Sandra and Steve became approved foster carers in 2012 with their first placement coming 18 months after. They’ve had children in their care for more than five years.

“Any parent would say being parent is not an easy job, but when you’re looking after someone else’s children, who sometimes have additional needs or problems, it can be difficult. But the rewards are seeing the differences and being able to provide a stable home for these children,” said Steve.

Sandra said: “Seeing the difference between when the children first arrives to seeing them at a later date, is the best thing about fostering.

“You’re basically making a big difference by fostering.”

Sandra and Steve Henshaw, both from Manchester, foster for Manchester Council.

Steve quit his job, as a computer programmer for an engineering firm, to become a full-time foster carer and support Sandra and the foster children in their care.

He continued working for a couple of years after him and Sandra became foster carers. He was often out the house for 50 hours a week for work, this was whilst one of their foster children was having a very difficult time, resulting in Sandra and Steve having little sleep.

Steve got an opportunity to leave his job, so he did and hasn’t looked back since.

Their foster children have also made great progress at school, which Sandra and Steve love seeing, just like a biological parent. Their children receive awards and certificates from their schools as well as good comments from teachers at parents’ evenings.

Overall, Sandra and Steve have fostered four children so far, with one child from their first placement still staying with them, five years later.

Currently, they have three children in placement with them and they have plans to take them on holiday to Florida, later this year.

When looking back, Steve and Sandra have enjoyed their role as foster carers the most when they’ve taken the children on holidays, celebrating birthdays and Christmases and even the little achievements that are common for children who grow up with their parents, such as learning how to swim.

For preparation for their holiday later this year, Sandra and Steve took one of their children to swimming lessons. At first, the child didn’t understand the aspects of swimming and was confused to why they were soaking wet. Now, they have got their first certificate and they love swimming.

Sandra said: “Just seeing their faces when you take them to do something that they have never done before is lovely. It is a very rewarding job.”

Sandra and Steve have day-to-day routines very similar to any other parent – washing, school runs and cooking. However, they do sometimes have to attend meetings about their placements and sometimes have to attend training sessions. This helps them to stay up to date with foster carer training and learn new skills, which would benefit the children they currently look after.

In between all this, they also have to take some of their foster children to contact sessions with the children’s biological family. For them, contact happens fortnightly and monthly.

They often like to spend time together as a couple when the children are at school.

Despite currently looking after three children and fostering for seven years, Sandra and Steve feel like their opinions as foster carers are not listened to, similar to other carers across England.

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Andy Dolan, a foster carer from South Hampshire, said: “Foster carers are not appreciated at all by agencies or local authorities. The easy bit is looking after the children, the more difficult part is dealing with the local authorities.

“We are treated as disposable by the local authorities and in their eyes, they do nothing wrong. The also place blame with the foster carers.”

Sandra said: “You’re treated as though you’re the bottom of the pile basically. You’re seen as though you’re just there to look after the children. If you question anything or you know you are doing the right thing, but it is not what they want you to do, it is frowned upon.”

Both Sandra and Steve feel as if they are dictated what to do, despite them wanting to work with social workers and authorities, to work out what is best for the children in their care.

“They do not always listen to us, they don’t always communicate. The communication is really not great sometimes,” said Steve.

They’ve faced issues when social workers have been off work for months at a time. During this time, they have received no phone calls or emails regarding the child in their care, who is under the social worker who has been off.

Steve continued, “When you first go on the induction courses before you’re approved as foster carers, they discuss the network of people you have around you from different departments of the foster system. They essentially show us our support network.

“It looks great in theory and on paper, it looks like you would get a lot of help. But they all work differently and separately, they don’t always communicate – communication is different for each individual of the network. So, it’s not easy.

“We go into meetings sometimes and its as if you don’t feel empowered. I’ve been sat having a meeting with a social worker, in my own living room, and the social worker once raised their hand to get me to be quiet.

“I’ve had condescending remarks, we’ve been blackmailed and a bit bullied. That’s how a lot of foster carers feel, not just us, not just in Manchester, but everywhere across the country.”

Sandra and Steve would like to see workers’ rights for foster carers being brought in, in the future, to improve the fostering system.

Sandra said: “You’re classed as self-employed, but they actually call you volunteers. Yes, we get allowances for the children and a small allowance for yourself, but you don’t get sick pay or holiday pay.

“Managers in the fostering system treat us as if we’re just carers that are just there to care for children, when really, we are their work force too but they don’t seem to recognise that.

“There are unions that are currently trying to get that all changed, until that happens, I don’t think anything will change.”

Steve added: “It’s an environment of fear we live in when we are caring for the most vulnerable children in our society and it is a hard job, which is 24/7.

“If a child that lives under your roof is having a lot of difficulties and they are not getting the support they need, and they make a false allegation, the social workers will have nothing to do with you after that.

“They can take the children off you, even if the allegation is false. We know examples of people being deregistered as foster carers for false allegations.”

Dealing with allegations in the fostering system can take quite a long time, which leaves foster carers no income to live on.

Overall, Sandra and Steve wouldn’t swap their job for the world.

They said: “We love doing what we’re doing, we just wish there was more support for us and more understanding about the job we do.”

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