Fostering Devon – Everyday Heroes
Full disclosure. This is probably the most difficult and emotive article that I have ever written. I have cried several times in the process of getting it in front of you – once after the initial interview and a couple of times during the writing process. This is partly because of the intense personal connection that I have to the subject matter and also partly owing to the power and compassion that sit at the heart of the work carried out by Luke Chapman and his team at Fostering Devon (the fostering service run by Devon County Council). I recently visited County Hall, Exeter to meet with Luke and we were joined part-way through our chat by Kim St Barbe and Sarah Denton – two of the almost 300-strong army of foster carers in the county. It made for a memorable and impactful morning.
I first sat down with Luke, County Manager for Placements and Permanence. He heads up Fostering Devon and is responsible for the safety and care of those children placed with Fostering Devon Carers across the county. Quite the responsibility, I’m sure you’ll agree! I was immediately struck by his inner-peace, the air of unpretentious confidence that he carries and his deliberate effort to maintain eye contact with me and listen intently to whatever was coming out of my mouth. It was clear throughout our conversation that he is a values-driven man – motivated by the inherent worth that he sees in humans and his desire to be a part of the restorative solution to some of society’s most deep-rooted and complex flaws.
Indeed, the landscape of fostering is a hard one to traverse. Often involving some of the most vulnerable children in society who have experienced (or are at significant risk of experiencing) all manner of upsetting treatment or neglect, it sometimes reaches the point where the extremely difficult decision has to be made to remove that child from their birth parents.
Luke told me that this decision is never made lightly, commenting,
“We operate with the basic assumption that, as long as the right levels of care are provided, a child is always best to stay with their birth parents. If the aim of the family unit is to invest in and care for children so that they can develop into healthy and happy adults, we know from extensive research that one of the factors which can harm that process the most is to remove them from their birth family.”
“However, if the right levels of safety and care aren’t being provided, there quickly comes a point where the negative effects of abusive or neglectful parenting outweigh those of removing a child from their birth parents. The kinds of factors that we have to consider include different types of abuse, drug or alcohol misuse, mental health issues and neglect. We will always try first to place a child who cannot be cared for by their birth parents with other relatives but, again, sometimes this just isn’t safe or possible to do.”
THESE ARE DEVON’S CHILDREN
He told me that, currently, there are 762 such ‘looked-after’ children in Devon (excluding Plymouth and Torbay) and that this number has been steadily rising throughout the last few years. Of these children, 319 are placed with Devon County Council foster carers and the rest are predominately with carers from commercial fostering agencies. Nationally, there are 80,000 such children, 63,000 of which are living in 53,000 fostering households.
Some of those foster placements are in emergencies or for the purposes of short-term respite. However, some fostering arrangements can end up being more long-term – anything from a few months to, effectively, a permanent solution up until the child reaches adulthood. DCC also provide supported lodgings through their Devon Young Peoples Accommodation Service scheme. This provides a safe, healthy, nurturing environment for vulnerable young people aged 16+ who need to develop independent living skills, so they can work towards going it alone as young adults.
I asked Luke how he felt working within a system that, logically, he must wish would one day be redundant. He thought for a second and replied,
“At least for the foreseeable future, sadly, the need for Fostering Devon will not be eradicated. However, we are focused on doing the very best that we can to both prevent and also deal with the challenging situations that some children in our society find themselves in. It would be unrealistic to think that we can remove the underlying problems which lay behind the need for foster care in our society, but we can certainly do everything within our power to improve individual lives of children in our county. Every time that we do that, we slowly improve the overall picture of the society around us.”
One of the common misconceptions that Luke seemed keen to combat was that fostering is something which only a small few are able to do. With passion and urgency, he stated,
“People often say to our foster carers that they admire what they do but couldn’t do it themselves. Apart from those who can’t for a particular reason, I would say yes they can! Fostering Devon is a family and a community made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. If you are prepared to open your heart and your home to these youngsters then you can make a real difference to their lives. It really is that simple.”
As our portion of time came to a close, I asked whether working in such a trying role ever had a negative effect on him. With a broad smile on his face, he replied,
“Of course there are tough parts to my job but that’s the same whatever job you do. I find my work both inspiring and a real honour. The skills, experience and qualifications that I have gathered over the years now mean that I can make a real difference and help to deliver excellent outcomes for youngsters who are in need of the services that our organisation offers. My professional aim is to be exhausted and proud at the end of the week from what I’ve done. These are Devon’s children. It is our job to care for them.”
OPENING HOMES AND HEARTS
At this point in proceedings, Luke left for another meeting and I was joined by Kim and Sarah who have each been fostering for years now and, as it happens, each currently have two children in their care.
Kim explained that, for as long as she can remember, her Mum had spoken openly about one day wanting to foster children. Kim was one of three children who were raised by their Mum and Grandma and this pattern has been repeated in the next generation as, now, Kim and her Mum foster together. This sort of fostering setup was fairly uncommon six years ago when they started fostering but is far more common nowadays.
“We started off with a bit of respite care here and there and then started taking in our first proper foster placements. We’ve fostered lots of children since, including a few teenagers nearer to the start. We quickly realised that having younger children worked well for us and, since then, have typically fostered children under the age of five.”
I asked Kim what it was like to open up her heart and her home to someone else’s child and, without hesitation, she replied,
“You just look at their faces while they’re sleeping and you can see the pure, lovely child that sits behind the often challenging personality that you encounter in the daytime. You know up front that you aren’t going to be their permanent care-giver so that frees you up to put your all into caring for them.”
“I’ve learned that it is key to teach them that what they have lived isn’t normal. There is ‘better’ out there for them and we show the children who we care for what that ‘better’ looks like. It’s amazing, in many cases, how quickly you see the sparkle of hope, innocence and joy returning to the eyes of these young ones. Often they have endured horrific experiences that no child should ever have to encounter but, with the right kind of nurturing care, the ability for the human brain and soul to be restored is truly remarkable. Sometimes you have to disregard the usual developmental guidelines for a child of their actual age and treat them as you would a much younger child. I’ve learned that, sometimes, you have to go backwards in order to move forwards in the personal development of children who have endured trauma in their lives.”
“I also try really hard not to judge the birth parents of these children. In most cases, the parents haven’t been parented well and shown how to do it. It’s a hard enough job when you have been parented well, let alone when you haven’t! For older children who remember their parents and the negative behaviours or circumstances which lead to them being removed from their care, it is vitally important to speak as positively as you can of their birth parents. After all, they represent the very DNA inside of them and form a core part of their life story and identity. To dishonour their parents would be to fundamentally undermine their heritage and identity. It can be really hard though!”
BECOMING A PART OF THE SOLUTION
I turned to Sarah and asked about her fostering journey. With four birth children, she had spent thirteen years at home raising her own kids. She’d always wanted to foster but her husband was more reticent until, in 2010, he started a new job working with Social Workers. He started hearing lots of stories about children in care and, within his first week in the role, came home one night and said to Sarah, “This is something that we have to look seriously at.” He had suddenly come face to face with the challenges and needs of these children and immediately reacted by wanting to become part of the solution.
Approved to be fosterers in 2012, they have since fostered twelve children, often the tiniest babies coming straight out of hospital. Sarah explained,
“You know that they aren’t going to be with you permanently, so you gladly give the best of yourself to them, to try and help the repair and restoration process. You sometimes end up caring for children for longer than expected though. We had a short-term foster placement that has turned into a two-year placement. We’ve been really lucky though as we’ve stayed in touch with many of the children who we have fostered, particularly in the cases where they have gone on to be adopted by a local family. For a child who has had to leave the care of their birth family, having that connection with a care-giver from their very early years is hugely important for their future development, self-worth and sense of identity.”
“What happens pre-birth hugely affects us as people. We’ve had five-hour old babies come from hospital into our care and already be in a hypervigilant state [a state of extreme sensitivity to their surroundings, often prevalent in babies whose mothers have been severely distressed and/or physically abused during pregnancy]. It is absolutely heart-breaking to see a baby born into a world that they are already fundamentally scared of. Simple things like holding them close to you is hugely important for their future as a person – for their emotional and physical development as well as their ability to form attachments with other humans, to feel safe, to feel loved and to have a positive sense of ‘self’.”
“A big part of my role as a foster carer is to help the children that I look after to make sense of their experience, their emotions and their life story. Particularly in longer placements, you become their safe base – the person who they learn to come back to for security, identity, stability and support. This is such a basic but key building block for their future as it feeds into the very core of their identity and self-worth. It’s not easy though. Often their behaviour can be very challenging. We’ve learned that this is the ultimate back-handed complement though! As their safe and secure base, you have become the only person who they feel safe enough with to show their emotions to. Even if that means screaming, punching and all the rest.”
I was profoundly struck by the selflessness, humility and sacrifice that both Kim and Sarah have embraced in their lives. The impact and lifelong difference made by foster carers every day in our county cannot be overestimated. My time with Luke, Kim and Sarah only went to reinforce the stark truth that you simply don’t know the stories of the people that you walk past on the street every day.
Whether the amazing foster carers providing care for some of the most vulnerable children in our society or the children themselves growing up within that surrogate care, the number of lives changed in our county by the amazing work of everyday heroes just like Luke, Kim and Sarah cannot be calculated.
I’ve heard it said that the hardest step of a journey is the first one so, if there is anything in you that thinks you may have the capacity and inclination to consider fostering, why not take that huge first step and find out more at www.fosteringindevon.org.uk . Here, you can download an information book, request a call back from one of the Fostering Devon team and hear first-hand what it’s like to be part of the Fostering Devon family. With the excellent support and training on offer, who knows where it might lead and whose lives that small but significant step will impact.
Go on…be brave…be a world-changer.
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos supplied by Devon County Council