David Eggboro talks to a mother who feels her family has been enriched by fostering a child with SEN
More than 65,000 children live with foster families in the UK each day. Each of those families provides a fostered child or group of children with a loving stable home which will help them to learn and grow and increase their chances of successfully transitioning into adulthood.
Across the UK, every 20 minutes a child or young person comes into care needing a foster family. Many of them have had a very difficult start in life and for some this is compounded by having SEN. One of the greatest challenges facing this particular group with additional needs is recruiting more foster carers with the skills and experience to help positively transform their lives.
The Cochranes are one family who have been caring for children with special needs. Carol and Nigel Cochrane live with their two fostered children and Carol’s mum, who suffers from dementia.
The couple decided to foster after seeing a newspaper advert to foster a young girl with additional needs. Carol says: “Our daughter Jayne was an only child at home and as I read the advert she asked us to bring the girl to our house. That made us wonder if it was possible.” As it transpired, Carol and Nigel did not end up fostering the girl but the idea of becoming foster carers had been planted.
Shortly after this, the couple spoke with Carol’s brother who, with his wife, had fostered many children for a number of years. It was after his recommendation that Carol and Nigel signed up with a fostering service, went through the approval process and began fostering in 2005.
The eldest of the two children the Cochranes currently foster, J, came to live with the family aged four with a range of complex needs. He is now 14.
“We thought very carefully before attending the initial meeting with J and looked up some of the conditions in advance”, Carol explains. “We immediately saw a little boy who was enjoying a lovely cuddle from a nurse. I just knew we would love and protect him and fight his corner, being a voice for everything he deserves.
“Had we just listened to his medical needs, we might have made the wrong decision, as J’s condition means he relies on adults for every aspect of his life. But he’s very good at communicating with us by noises and facial expressions, especially his big smile. He instinctively knows how to let us understand. We had to undertake intensive training before we could take him home but we enjoyed it. It’s been the best nine years and we cannot visualise a life without him.”
There have been a few worries along the way, but the family has overcome them with the strong support they have had from J’s social worker. Carol says: “She has been a consistent presence and guided us through all the ups and downs, supported us when visiting health professionals and even now, when we are faced with new situations, she is with us. Our own fostering team have also been a great support when there have been anxious times.”
It’s because of this support and the friendly relationships between the team working with J, in addition to J’s resilience, that the family has been able to cope so well. “We have been faced with bleak news in the past”, says Carol. “But knowing J is strong and loves his life gives us the strength to believe he will fight within himself to get better.”
A crucial part of fostering for the Cochranes is adhering to a routine. Carol explains: “With careful planning we can still enjoy a good family life. We have been abroad with J and had some lovely family days out, and he attends all family functions, which he revels in.
“Our older children cope well with the time we devote to J simply because we communicate with and involve them. J is a big part of their lives, as they are in his. He very quickly made himself the most important person in the home, with us all forming a great attachment to him. Our older two children will often FaceTime J as they know how much he misses them being at home”.
Fostering has had a positive effect on Carol and Nigel’s daughter Jayne and Ciaran, another child they fostered, who now attend the same university and also live in the same apartment.
As with any family, there are so many memories that the Cochranes have shared. “At the beginning, we were told J was blind but after being with us for a while we thought we had seen signs that, at times, J seemed to be able to track our movements”, Carol recalls. “We were advised to take him for tests and to receive news he can see, when not too tired, was the most precious memory we’ll have. He is now learning how to use eye gaze to control a computer.
“We hope to be able to carry on as we are and to have many more years to make wonderful memories with J and our birth and foster children.”
The work that the Cochranes do is replicated on a daily basis by the 55,000 other foster families across the UK – many of whom care for children with additional needs. However, thousands more foster carers are needed each year.
Many children in care will require additional support, whether it is with physical or mental health, learning difficulties or communication, sensory or interaction needs. Although some fostered children may require specific skills to support complex needs, what is also needed is a dedicated, loving family. With the right match, children with special needs can thrive and the experience can be rewarding for both the child and those caring for them.
One of the biggest issues within foster carer recruitment is finding suitable carers for children with SEN, but as the Cochrane’s story has illustrated, fostering a child can transform your life as well as theirs.
People from all backgrounds can foster, whether young, old, male, female, single or married. If you have the skills, resilience and love to look after a child, then you should consider fostering this Foster Care Fortnight. Perhaps it might be the decision which transforms your life.
David Eggboro is Media and Communications Officer at The Fostering Network: