We asked one of our foster children to list things she would like from her ‘forever family’, when the time came to move on. The first item at the top of her list was her own horse. She loved riding, so it came as no surprise to us. We didn’t want to spoil her dream, but at this point we had no idea how, or if, we might be able to help make her dream come true.
Saying goodbye is one of the biggest challenges faced by foster carers, as well as for the children and young people in their care. We have fostered for more than eight years, and it does not get any easier.
We are short-term foster carers, so when each placement begins there is a presumption that it is a temporary arrangement until a permanent home can be found. ‘Short-term’ may not be quite what you expect. Experience has taught us to expect a placement to last for about one year, but often it takes longer. Our most recent placement, which ended in late November, lasted for almost two years.
The children become part of our family. That’s not just my wife and I, and our two daughters. It also includes grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. And these days there’s a grandson too, and another on the way. When the children leave us, they say goodbye to the whole clan. It is tough for everyone, and their absence is keenly felt.
With that in mind, we do all that we can to prepare our foster children for the next stage. We try to include them as far as possible, to make sure that the outcome is not only in their best interest but enables them to fulfil their aspirations. Most, but certainly not all, say they want to stay with us until they become adults. The promise we make to them is that their forever home will be even better than ours, or we will not let them go. We really mean it. It is a big promise and I know it makes social workers fret, for foster carers are not meant to make that sort of commitment. But if we are not ambitious for ‘our’ children, and prepared to fight on their behalf, what is it that we are trying to achieve?
Hence the list, which becomes a starting point for conversations about their future, whether they are returning to their birth family home, being cared for by a close relative, staying in long-term foster or residential care or being adopted. It may change over time, as their horizons expand. But it remains as a constant reminder to those responsible for their futures, including us, that we should aspire for the very best.
In a sense, the first steps towards the moment when we must say goodbye are taken when the children arrive, and everything we do is rooted in the need to help them thrive in the big wide world beyond our doorstep. Some children have profound needs; some must simply rediscover their self-belief to be ready for take-off. Whether it is reading or practicing maths, learning carpentry or playing football, flying a kite or playing cards, these are all life skills that most children and young people take for granted. One of our young people was surprised to learn that both our daughters drove their own cars. Since that day, one of her ambitions is to pass her driving test, get a job and buy a car. I have no doubt that she will do just that.
I’d be lying if I said it did not break my heart each time a child leaves our home. But I hope that when the time comes we have helped them acquire the skills and the wisdom to help them on their journey. That is what fostering is really all about. And I also hope we have kept our promise that their new home will be even better than ours.
And, by the way, our former foster daughter has recently ticked off that item at the top of her list, and is now the proud owner of her own horse, called T-Bone. Just so you know, dreams do come true.