As foster carers we are blessed to be able to count on the support of family and friends, who routinely sweep up the children who come into our care without skipping a beat. They open their homes to all comers, celebrate random birthdays with the same enthusiasm as their own and are generous with their time and their affections. And when it is needed they lend a shoulder to cry on.
But not everyone gets it and people can be insensitive, sometimes unwittingly but sometimes through ignorance or prejudice. So here is a handy guide to things that are best not said to a foster carer.
1. You've really earned your money today. No, we haven't. Because we don't get paid. We don't do this for money. Foster carers receive an allowance, based on the number of children we care for and their circumstances. We don't get a salary, or sick leave or a pension. After costs, there may be something left at the end of the month. But we will almost certainly overspend during the next month. There are good days, and there are not so good days
2. You get paid plenty: I've heard the ads on the radio. So have I, and they drive me mad. The figures quoted are usually based on the most complex cases (say, teenaged siblings with disabilities) and throw in every possible allowance to make it sound financially attractive. These allowances cover essential funding: most months that is how much the placement will cost, including items like heating and repairs to home and car. Do the maths.
3. It must be so rewarding. I know it is well meant, but really...? Yes, being a foster carer has moments that are rewarding. But the implication is that we do this because it makes us feel good. No, we do not. We do it because the need is so great. We live for a day when children no longer come into care, or there are so many foster carers that we are no longer needed.
4. The children are lucky to have you. There are lots of words you can use to describe children in care. But 'lucky' isn't one of them, under any circumstance. They have been removed from their family, probably after suffering severe hardship, and their life chances may never recover. Luck just doesn't come into it.
5. After all you've done for them... Children in care are often angry, and they have every right to be. Foster carers are in the firing line when the anger and frustration spills over, a cog in a system that has almost certainly let them down. They will always find it hard to trust people. They owe us nothing. We get that. So should you.
6. How many children have you fostered? It's a competition, right? In the public mind, the most valued foster carers are those who have fostered dozens of children. Which is hard on families who have committed their lives to say, one or two children, giving them a home for life. Foster care isn't a numbers game, it really isn't.
7. I could never give them up. I wish I had a fiver for every person who said they couldn't become foster carers because saying goodbye would be too painful. So here's a thing: it isn't about you. And just for the record, we find saying goodbye to the children who have become part of our family simply heart breaking. It never gets any easier.
8. People like that shouldn't be allowed to have children. People like what...? Children in care come from all walks of life. Bad things happen in the 'best' neighbourhoods, tragedy strikes, lives fall apart. No one sector of society has a monopoly on neglect or abuse. It can happen in a family like mine, or even like yours.
9. You need to think of yourselves. We do, more than you might expect. Like many foster carers, we probably would try to do more, if we felt we could cope. But we can't. So we monitor the daily texts from children's services seeking foster homes with a heavy heart. Because there is a shortage of foster carers, partly because of (See number 7).
If you have a friend who is a foster carer, and has not been in touch for a while, give them a call. For all its joy, fostering can be an isolating experience, as it often is across the whole spectrum of caring. Embrace the choices they have made, and be ready to listen, even if it means sharing the moment with a rabble of infants. But go easy with those words of advice, no matter how well-intended.