Changing lives one step at a time

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A portrait of handicapped down syndrome boy and his mother with checked aprons indoors baking in a kitchen.

Karina Auer offers a glimpse into the world of parents fostering children with SEN

Every day, over 65,000 children in the UK are living with almost 55,000 foster families and every 20 minutes another child comes into care. In the next 12 months, a further 8,600 foster carers are needed to ensure that every child in foster care can be matched with a family that meets their needs. 

A wider pool of foster carers is required right across the UK, to guarantee that children can live with a family that do not only have the skills and experience to care for them but are also a good “match”, in terms of their of location, culture, lifestyle, language, and interests. This is something fostering services up and down the country strive towards all year. 

Currently, there is a specific requirement for foster carers who can look after teenagers and sibling groups, and also a need for more people coming forward to foster children with a disability. 

Discovering new worlds 

Stuart Lewis and his wife Lauren are two such carers and have been fostering for almost four years. But when they started out as short break carers, they couldn’t imagine fostering children with additional needs. “We had just never considered it. We naively only thought of wheelchair users, which wouldn’t work in our narrow townhouse”, says Stuart. Back then, he and his wife Lauren looked after children for one or two weekends a month or helped out when holiday cover was needed. But everything changed when the couple was approached to look after a little girl with autism and a learning disability for a few weeks. 

At first, they were concerned. “We anticipated it could be tough and we wouldn’t have a clue how to communicate with a mostly non-verbal child”, Lauren remembers. But their worries proved to be unfounded. “It was amazing to see how quickly we all connected with her. She brought so much joy and laughter to our house and immediately felt like part of the family.” The little girl has been living with Stuart, Lauren, their 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter for two years now and they have never looked back. 

Growing with challenges 

It’s in the nature of fostering that it’s not all a bed of roses. Fostering can be physically and emotionally demanding and the Lewis family are not pretending otherwise. “There are of course lots of challenges. You fit in many social work meetings, always deal with numerous professionals who share responsibility of the child in your care and you manage contact with birth parents and siblings. It can be tough when there are sleepless nights, or challenging behaviour”, says Stuart, “but it’s good to know there is a lot of support provided through the social workers and other care professionals.” 

Sleepless nights are also something very familiar to Chris Pope, who has fostered alongside his wife Shirley for more than ten years. Chris says: “We have long faced the challenge of regular disturbed nights. This was especially the case following some rather traumatic family history work. A five-year-old wakes at two in the morning and suddenly “needs” to understand why rain falls from clouds, flows into the rivers and out to the sea (“but where does it all go?”) I think it took about two hours to sort that, and even as a geographer I am not at my best at that time! 

“This pattern continued six years later. You never have all the answers as a carer. For instance, you can suddenly realise that you actually know nothing about popular electronic games! But there is also a serious side to this; sometimes they wake because they have had a nagging concern about other members of their birth family. They have said they really want to keep it boxed up – but the lid keeps opening. 

“You learn coping strategies for yourselves and them. Jumping in the car and going for a drive is one; I have spent several nights driving around rural by-roads in silence or chatting about absolutely nothing before the issue suddenly pops out. Thank goodness for 24-hour fast food! 

“That they have chosen to confide in you is a real step forward. They can be just as pleased as you are at your own special family events and the importance, especially for long-term fostering, of keeping everything as normal as possible within your family is really worth doing. Our own adult children keep closely in touch.” 

Adapting to surprises 

“All children are special. But fostering a child with additional needs adds an extra challenge here and there”, says Chris. 

The couple have been looking after twins with varying levels of ADHD, complex social, emotional and behavioural challenges and complex attachment issues for almost nine years. When the twins came to live with them, they weren’t aware of the boys’ additional needs, and neither were their social workers. “It was a bit of a detective story, a puzzle we had to solve”, remembers Chris. “We asked ourselves whether their behaviour was just the result of their difficult start or was there something else?” The couple worked hand in hand with the boys’ school to identify issues, and their GP was able to refer them for further testing. “A year later we had a clear evidence-based diagnosis”, explains Chris. “Both boys now receive appropriate support, medication and therapy – and this has made such a difference.” 

“Still, it can be complicated trying to untangle what behaviours and traits are due to disability and what is due to life experiences”, confirms Stuart. 

Small changes – big achievements 

Despite the challenges, both families couldn’t imagine a life without their fostered children. “It’s such an incredible privilege to have this amazing little girl in our family, filling our house with so much fun. We see her develop and are constantly amazed by each new step she takes. There is so much to celebrate”, says Lauren about looking after a child with additional needs. 

“Early on I remember how she would panic and melt down every time I put my coat on. I always had to do hers first, so she didn’t think I was leaving without her”, Lauren adds. “Within a few months, she’d gained confidence and no longer panicked over that. These are the incredible achievements we’re celebrating, sometimes on a daily basis, with her and she is constantly surprising us.” 

Better together 

Foster carers play a crucial role in society and are at the heart of the team around the child, and yet, they couldn’t do it all alone. Chris highlights: “Building up a network of support is a vital part of being effective as a foster carer. It is even more important when you are having to address specific additional needs.” The Popes work closely with their children’s school and teaching staff to secure the best possible outcome. But they also have a good relationship with their fostering service and social workers. Nonetheless, the couple know the struggle to find adequate help. “Support from an overstretched and under-resourced system is a challenge. We had to push at every stage for getting the right support in place. Sometimes you pushed at an open door; sometimes you had to be more persistent. You might not always get what you want but you never stop trying.” 

For Lauren and Stuart, having a community that is understanding of the issues foster carers are faced with, makes all the difference. “The fostering community is close-knit and supportive and definitely one of the keys to thriving in this job. With entering the disability community, we have entered a whole new world and have found it to be an incredibly friendly and supportive place.” 

Foster carers might be faced with different challenges, but they have one thing in common: the desire to transform children’s lives. “Fostering is a life enhancing experience as well as being a life-changing experience. If you have time, space and think you can offer opportunities and experiences to children and young people who may have had a rocky start, we can think of nothing more fulfilling”, says Chris. “It isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.” 

About the author
Karina Auer is Media and Communications Officer at The Fostering Network.
Web : www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk
Twitter @fosteringnet
Facebook : thefosteringnetwork

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