What does it take to be a foster carer? It is a question that is going to be asked a lot during Foster Care Fortnight, which runs from 16 May to 29 May. To judge by the typical recruitment ad for foster carers, the primary requirement is a spare bedroom, as if looked-after children and young people removed from their families were no different from lodgers or foreign students passing through. It seems like a modest starting point for such a major commitment, but I guess we have to start somewhere. Here's my alternative checklist to what it takes to thrive as a foster carer:
Sense of humour: No point in even talking about being a foster carer unless you are able to laugh at the absurd, and roll with the punches. If you can manage a wry smile and help others to see the lighter side, even during the darkest moments, you may have what it takes. It will help you to remain calm under pressure and maintain your sanity when all else around you are losing theirs.
Thick skin: Foster carers are brilliant, but not everyone sees it quite like that. Children will often say they hate you (and find many ways to show it), their birth families probably actually do hate you. At the school gate other parents will view you with suspicion, and teachers and GPs will brace themselves before meeting with you. Your friends will suspect you are tiptoeing towards a nervous breakdown, while even your loving family will talk among themselves about your wellbeing. You will learn to value the kindness of strangers.
Fortitude: Call it courage, call it backbone. Or maybe bravery or endurance. You are going to be tested and provoked. There will be good days, and wonderful days. And there will be bad days, when all you can do is count down the hours, minutes and seconds until bedtime arrives. Even then, there may be no respite. Yet, when you least expect it, a little hand will find its way into yours, a tired and sweaty head will flop onto your shoulder, and you will find yourself at peace with the world.
Limitless energy: Having your own children is simply a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Now multiply it by a factor of three, or maybe six. Looked-after children are like Duracell batteries: they go further for longer. They bring with them a cast of many: birth families, social workers, health visitors, contact supervisors and legal guardians. All have a claim over you and your precious time. And don't forget the diary notes you must provide, chronicling the week's significant events, including changes in behaviour, response to parental contact and comments a child makes. After all that, you are free to put your feet up.
Never take no for an answer: As the child's advocate you will be fighting battles you did not know would ever have to be fought, from doctors' appointments to invitations to birthday parties. You will be challenged at every step to secure the delivery of basic care that every child should be able to take for granted. You enter a bureaucratic hell, whose primary purpose will appear to be make your child's life as difficult as possible. You will learn to harass, beg, borrow, steal, cajole and, when all else fails, threaten. You will be the sharpest bullshit detector.
The need for foster carers is greater than ever, as children and young people are brought into care in record numbers. The Fostering Network estimates that 11,000 new fostering families are currently needed to ensure that children are able to benefit from the most appropriate placement for their increasingly complex needs. Foster Care Fortnight 2016 may inspire you to open your home to a child or young person in need of a loving family.
Having a spare room at home is a good start. But what you really need is room in your heart.