We seem to spend quite a lot of time gazing at maps. Our foster children are of African heritage, and they like to point out where grandparents, aunts and uncles live. As it happens, my parents and some of my siblings live in Peru, where I grew up. My wife spent her early years in Australia, and her brother lives there. So, we spin the globe and chat about the weird and wonderful aspects of countries where we have roots.
This is the way it has been for almost two years, during which time children of a different race and faith have become part of our family. Although we are resigned to the fact that this is not a permanent arrangement, it is so difficult to imagine life without them. A couple of days ago, one of the children said that what most concerned her about moving to her forever family was how our two-year-old grandson would know where to find her to make sure she was OK. Sometimes, there are simply no words.
Their journey into our lives was one that no child should ever have to travel. We have given sanctuary to children whose world was not meant to collide with ours. Yet here we are. When they speak now I hear the accent and expressions of my wife and of my daughters. We have learned how to care for hair and skin that is not like our own, and to see our community through different eyes. Two years on, we see the children they were meant to be, and have a sense of the strong, confident young women it is now within their gift to become. We hope we shall have a chance to be part of their lives when that happens.
But we are 'culturally mismatched', I hear you say. What business does a white family have caring for black children, or a Muslim family caring for a white girl? And maybe you are right. There are many families out there who are better suited than us. Yet when the call came, on a bleak November evening, we were the ones who opened our door to three children who were tired, cold and frightened. We provided warm baths and towels, hot chocolate and cookies, a bedtime story, a warm bed. We dried tears, and held little hands until sleep finally came. And we set three extra places for breakfast, in silence as we tried to understand the scale of the challenge we had just accepted.
In a complex world, how do you even define the term 'cultural mismatch'? Increasingly, modern families defy conventional descriptions of race, gender or faith. The "white English" child at the centre of the now notorious Tower Hamlets fostering case came from an immigrant family, with a Muslim grandmother. Yet who is to say that her own mother was wrong to describe her as Christian? Multicultural families make accommodations that work until the relationship fails, at which point children can get caught in a tug-of-war over their identity. If a foster carer is needed, who are you going to call?
But let's not limit 'cultural mismatch' to religion and race. Some children we have fostered have come from homes blighted by unimaginable poverty. Life has been kind to us, and we live in a large house in the countryside. The gulf is huge, not just in terms of material possessions but also in terms of aspirations. It makes it even more difficult when children return to their family homes, weeks or months later, with expectations that parents and relatives may struggle to manage.
What about the potential 'cultural mismatch' involving same-sex foster parents? Same-sex couples have been one of fostering's success stories in recent years, bringing real energy to foster care and providing much-needed loving homes. Should those more conservative birth families be given a right to veto such a placement, just as a birth family in London was given a platform in a national newspaper to criticise a placement with a Muslim family in Tower Hamlets?
Let's face facts: being taken away from your family and placed in the care of strangers is terrifying and traumatic, regardless of race, religion or social circumstances. Even a child who lives in fear in his own home is likely to prefer to stay rather than be taken away to live in the unknown.
Recent government figures show that children are being placed in care in record numbers, while the number of children being adopted continues to fall. While polite society frets over so-called 'cultural mismatch', fostering is coming under greater strain than ever. Today, as always has been the case, a child's safety must be the highest priority, regardless of race or religion. And if that is difficult for you to swallow, might I politely suggest that you pick up the phone to your local fostering provider and apply to become a foster carer? Black or white, Muslim, Christian or godless, you are guaranteed a warm welcome.Suggest a correction