After the birth of her own children, Melissa – a stage designer by trade – felt it would be difficult to go back to work and still give her children the time she wanted. She met a foster carer – whom she found inspirational – together with the children she was fostering, and found she enjoying being around them.
"At first I had all the usual concerns," says Melissa, "particularly how it would impact on my own children.
"In the event I really needn’t have worried. It’s actually has been a great experience for them – and helped them become the rounded, non-judgemental young people they now are.
"Yes, sure there have been a few difficult times, but when I talk to my children, they always say: ‘Oh just get on with it, mum – that’s who we are… a foster family’. They’ve never asked me to stop doing it – and we think around 30 children have now come to live with us for different lengths of time. Some still keep in touch – and that’s wonderful too."
"Initially, Melissa started fostering under-fives but as her own children got older so did the children she fostered. Now she fosters mother and baby placements – helping mums to become more confident parents. "Sometimes I have dad and baby placements too!" she says.
"There are a lot of misconceptions around fostering," she says. "'Will there be risks to my own children?' 'Will I get parents turning up on my doorstep?' 'How will it affect my extended family?’
"We’ve never had any problems like that, and my parents and my partner’s parents are really proud of what we do and they’ve been very supportive. To be honest, as with all families, the whole network of supportive family and friends is key to making the most of being a foster carer."
The assessment process gave Melissa and her family plenty of time to speak to other carers, receive training and make sure that she and her partner were making the right decision – and she says no pressure was ever put on her. "It also gave us plenty of time to get the spare room ready!" she says.
"Curiously I really enjoyed the assessment process," she says looking back. "It made us look again at our own upbringings, what our parents gave us and our approach to parenting.
"No way are we perfect parents, but I believe it’s helped us to become more consistent parents, and given us the skills to become an advocate for the children we foster.
"You do get asked a lot of questions – but you can understand why they take so much trouble to make sure about you. You have to trust the social worker team working with you."
So… 12 years and 30 children later, what are the tips that Melissa would offer to anyone considering looking at what fostering involves?
"Fostering really isn’t for everyone, but if it is something you think you might like to do – then just make that first call. You aren’t committing yourself to anything.
"Yes, if you have children, and not all foster carers do, you will have concerns… but I can only speak for mine when I say it is has been a positive experience for them.
"And be prepared for the fact that it is not always easy. In fact sometimes it’s very hard! But there is a great network of support available to help you – including Bournemouth’s network of foster carers who you work alongside right from the very beginning – many of whom have now become good friends.
"There was always someone at the end of a phone for me."
"Everyone’s reason for fostering is different. For me I went straight into remand fostering. There I was 27 and 31 with two kids, two and six at the time and we thought- let’s go for it – that was over 20 yrs ago. The reason I felt confident we could do it was during my childhood I had seen quite a few young people drift into breaking the law and I felt confident I could help – which I did for 14 years. I only really stopped as if you are doing remand fostering, you really should have just the one placement and it was difficult to do that and foster other teens
"I now concentrate on fostering teenagers which I really enjoy. Fostering teens is challenging, Many people fostering teenagers think all these young people will need is love and they will like you back. They also think they want to live with you. It’s not like that at all They don’t always want to live with you; they don’t trust you and they are not automatically going to respond if you show them love. You need to give them boundaries and your time – you can’t be judgemental. Yes it can be frustrating, but they need that time, and once you give them that they learn they can trust you and then the relationship comes after that. One way of illustrating this was I had a couple of teenage boys with me who were messing about and a friend of mine came to visit and said ‘If I’d seen those two I would probably have crossed the street, but when you talk to them they are lovely kids’ and that’s the case with most of them it is just bravado. Once you gain that trust you can have great fun with them – one of the kids I fostered long term is recognising some of her behaviours in one of the other teens I am fostering and we can share our experiences and laugh about it"
It has also been lovely over the years to have so many of the kids contact you over facebook to tell you what they are doing and what they have done in their life and it is fantastic to think you have been part of their journey. It has also helped my children learn about different people and helped them become the people they are now.
I would say for anyone considering fostering just do it. In Bournemouth there is some fantastic training and you are always supported. There is a good social worker team behind you who understand the challenges you are going through.
What you need to do as a foster carer is remember every child you foster is different and you need to have a different strategy to deal with them. You also need to be organised because some of the teens have come from chaotic backgrounds and need help – sometimes there is an assumption that the older ones don’t need the help as much – but they really do and, in time, they not only come to trust you but to appreciate what you do for them as well.
Fostering teens can be difficult you just have to remember that these kids need to trust you as like anyone they need to feel they are cared about and have someone who will listen to them. If you can do that you will find it hugely rewarding and life-changing"
What made you consider fostering as an option?
As a couple we have had a unique insight into fostering – my parents had fostered for many years, whilst my husband had had difficulties in his childhood and was fostered himself.
"Growing up, I had always found fostering a positive thing and couldn’t find a negative….there was always someone to play with us" says Shirley.
"When we did decide to go into fostering, we decided right at the outset that as we had always had an extended family around with foster children that we wanted to take two or three siblings – we didn’t like to think of them being apart and for the past 14 years or so have always fostered siblings. Indeed I can remember at one time my mum having 10 children in the house!"
"When we started we specified children in the age range five to 10 and we have largely stuck to that – the kids we have with us currently are nine, 10 and 12 so that will be interesting".
"I know when people come into fostering they imagine that there will be barriers and are nervous about how it works but you needn’t be. The process takes about six months and during that time you will receive really good training and feel supported throughout the process. I know sometimes people think oh six months, that’s a long time, but I think you really need the time between the training to go back and have a think about what this means for you and your family"
"I would certainly recommend fostering – but I would say it is not for everyone. I can’t tell you the amount of people who have come up to us in the street to talk about fostering and we are really honest. It is hugely rewarding for you and for your kids, but it is hard work too. You need to not only have patience and a good sense of humour, but you also have to learn to be less judgemental and to make sure you keep that balance. To do this you do need the support of your own family and a strong support network"
"My tip to anyone thinking about fostering is go and see if its something you can do. Don’t rush into any decisions if you don’t want to – get the information and have a think about it"
"For me and my family fostering siblings has been fantastic – from a personal point of view you get the satisfaction of knowing you have helped a family move on in life; whilst your kids learn how to communicate with all sorts of other kids – and from a practical point you only get one social worker"!