So you're thinking about fostering?
Updated: Jun 19
What does it take to be good foster carer? Do foster carers get paid? How much time will you need to invest in young people? Here I explain my thoughts as a former foster child and resident of various children's home in the late 90's and early millennium.
By Ben Westwood, Author of Poems From a Runaway - A True Story.
Some of you new to the concept of fostering may have come across adverts in your local papers or online encouraging you to sign up to be a foster carer.
Some foster companies can pay pretty well, and if you've found yourself wanting to foster as a way of earning extra cash then the best thing that I recommend for you to do is to scrap the whole idea completely and go and do something that your'e passionate about.
"Why are you discouraging me?" you may ask. "Isn't there a lack of much-needed foster parents?"
Indeed there is, but children in care need people that are extremely passionate about what they do. Not somebody thinking that it's an easy way to pay off the mortgage.
Anybody that tells you that fostering is easy is weaving you a lie or a sugarcoated scenario. Even many of the deep-thinkers that already know this have often found that they had underestimated the time and effort it can take to be a foster parent.
The truth is children in care need remarkable people. People that have it in them to want to spend the extra-time and energy in understanding the lives of children and young people living in the care system.
I guess this is where I give a big thank you to each and every person that's ever made the effort to come and listen to me at one of my talks, whether they are a foster parent or social worker.
Those that take on a dedicated and wholesome approach to fostering may still likely at times be pushed to their limits, especially with young teenagers.
Anybody wanting to foster must understand and accept that many young people in care have had confusing and chaotic childhood's and that we can't expect young people to be the masters of their own mental health.
But those that have chosen the direction of seeking guidance and have received the support that they need from social workers and fostering organisations will often tell you how much of a rewarding experience it can be to know that they've helped support and guide a child or young person in the best way they can.
The new experience of fostering works both ways
For many children entering the care system, even the experience of being fostered can be a completely new thing for them even if they've been fostered before.
In many ways I found myself extremely lucky at one foster home when I found out that I was to receive a small amount of pocket money each weekend and that there was a fund to go and buy new clothes as well as for things like deodorant and toothpaste.
I'd never really been clothes shopping before apart from buying a football shirt on one of my birthdays. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from charity shops or teachers at school that could see that my mum was doing the best that she could looking after three children on her own, but we really did have just the very basics.
There were of course my own odd times from twelve years old buying clothes whilst missing from care as a runaway living rough on the streets of London.
But knowing I was going to get new fresh clothes that I didn't have to beg the money for outside of tube stations felt pretty cool.
But even at those times that I found myself extremely fortunate, it would take a whole lot of work for social workers and foster parents to help work out why I still would always run away. The truth was by that point, I didn't even know myself.
There were two particular foster homes that chose not to return to, simply because I felt guilty about the amount of times I'd ran away from them and gone missing for weeks, often months on end.
I just didn't want to keep putting any of my foster parents through all of the worry and long nights again.
But I guess that there is one important question all foster parents must ask themselves if not already, and that is how does it feel for a child to be driven to a house by a social worker and arriving at the front door of a family of people that they've never before met in their life. I look back at each one of those journeys to a new foster home that I can remember as feeling somewhat a bit abstract, as I presume most children in care felt on similar journeys.
But not only was it having some new clothes and deodorant, or being able to dive into the biscuit box or the fridge that I only appreciated, but the sense of some positive discipline.
Things such as one of my foster parents sitting with me to help me do my homework. Sure, he told me I'd be grounded if I didn't put the effort in to do it but I think his advice about not wanting me to fall behind in school had come across well. Even though I didn't know it myself at the time, it was the first period in a long time where I hadn't truanted from my classes in school.
But even then I think he could see that I respected him for that, yet I couldn't at that age work out why.
All foster children have different stories though, even those that seem somewhat similar, and any child may each come with a different set of challenges to help overcome.
But what children in care need are the type of people that see those challenges as their own challenge. Young people are a vessel with their whole lives ahead of them, and many children in care have been on some rough seas.
They don't need people around that will say "Oh that ship is too damaged for me to work with." They need the type of people that want to help build that ship back up to it's fullest glory and see it sailing through life beautifully.
Sure there will still be rocky seas ahead, but they will get through those future storms much easier than before. Get my drift?
So if you think fostering is going to be a quick and easy way of making money then you should save yourself the mental breakdown and do something else instead. Kids in care need an adult on board with them, no longer alone in the storm but someone that doesn't mind grabbing on to the swaying sails and getting soaking wet from the rain at the process.
Sometimes those young people on the ship might not be able to hear your shouts due to the intense weather in their own lives, but that's no reason to stop trying to help them.
And what a lot of people don't really know, is that many kids in care can often see quite clearly when someone genuinely gives a crap or not, and oh my do they feel it too.
Anybody without the right approach to fostering that has somehow managed to slip through the net has likely not made any money at all anyway - because if they don't genuinely care deeply enough about what they are taking on they may pay for it one way or another such as sleepless nights, broken items or some other form or karma.
But that's not to say that the best and brightest foster parents don't go through some of that sometimes either.
The futures of foster children.
As diverse as their backgrounds, so are the futures of children and young people growing up in the care system, and being a foster parent for no matter how long you've been part of a young persons life is all part of that. Even some of the respite (short-term) foster parents I lived with whilst growing up I still consider a memorable part of my journey
Guidance is the massive key here.
Some relationships between foster children and their carer's don't always work out, that's just how it goes sometimes, but every positive influence, little tips and tricks and memorable signposts for the road ahead will all help a person in the long run. As for myself, I was a confused foster child in many ways and instead of staying on with foster parents that may have helped to support me growing into adulthood, like many I found myself bouncing around the system and going it alone in life whilst growing up in hostels from the age of sixteen.
But there are other stories out there that are a lot more inspirational. Some foster children have managed to stay at their placement and stay supported through their transition into independence.
Being a foster parent can be a life-long relationship in this regard, for most foster children and many of us care-leavers - all we ever really wanted was the sense of having a family. Many care-leavers go on to spent a lot of their Christmas's and birthdays either alone or with people that they don't know very well. No achievements or memorable moments are celebrated with them by their natural birth families and even wondering why it's all still like that can drain a lot of energy, until like me in your thirties you finally come to terms with the fact that you'll never really have a relationship with many of your natural birth family.
I guess when a fostering relationship is working out, this is where the future of a young person in care is really impacted. Enough love to all of those foster folk out there that have stayed in touch with those that they've looked after to be another friend if nothing else.
You don't just foster children. You foster futures.
If you've been thinking of fostering a young person in southern England or the West Midlands, here are two organisations that I've shared my story with over the last couple of years and take an open-minded and educational approach to understanding the lives of children in care and their families. Cambridge/ Southern England - To The Moon and Back Fostering - https://tothemoonandbackfostering.com/
Shropshire / West Midlands - Sunflower Fostering - https://www.sunflowerfostering.co.uk/
Also , if you'd like that listening to adult care-leavers on social media might help you to further understand children in care, you can search the hashtag #CEP on twitter which stands for 'Care-experienced- person' You can also follow me on Twitter @PoemsFaRunaway
You can also read my story about going into care and being a runaway from ten years old and being a runaway living on the streets of London from twelve in my 350-page book 'Poems From a Runaway' which you can find on Amazon or signed colour copies available from the 'my book' section of this website.