We spent the middle Sunday of Foster Care Fortnight in the best way possible, in the company of foster children present and past. And no better meeting place for two rumbustious extended families than Groombridge Place, deep in the Kent countryside.
In a sane and just world our five children probably would never have met, coming from different schools, towns and cultures. But here they are, romping around in the forest together, apparently without a care in the world. They play chase, build dens, climb trees, tuck into cakes and ice creams. At the end of the day there are warm embraces as we say goodbye, knowing that it won't be too long before we are together again.
Undoubtedly there is a bond between our children, forged through lived experience, that few of the other children at Groombridge that day would ever understand. At different times these five children have eaten breakfast at our kitchen table, slept in the same bedroom, jumped on the trampoline in our garden. They have also come to us with their tears, their sorrow and their fears. They burst into our lives as strangers, and became members of our family.
As foster carers we are blessed to have been able to remain in contact with most of the children who have been in our care. Some are regular visitors to our home, with their long-term carers, and we have frequent get-togethers with other families, just as we did at Groombridge. On our walls their photographs take pride of place, alongside those of our daughters, our nieces and our nephews and, these days, of our grandson.
After all that we have been through together it is important for them to see that we still care. And we do, deeply. Though they may not realise it, at least not yet, it is just as important for us, their stand-in mum and dad, to stay in touch with them, to watch them grow, albeit from a distance, and fulfil the potential that we, in some small way, helped to channel. And it helps the children currently in our care to see and understand that living with us is part of a process, and hopefully they can learn from children who have gone through the same experience.
It feels like an opportune moment to raise the issue of continuity of contact during Foster Care Fortnight, which is so important to encourage the recruitment of new foster carers. I am surprised how often people to whom I talk about foster care say that one significant reason why they could not do it is because they could not bear to say goodbye to a child when a placement comes to an end. They feel that the emotional burden is too high a price. Their perception is that, inevitably and unavoidably, once a child leaves the relationship is effectively over or, at best, limited to the occasional letter or call.
And sometimes, sadly, that is how it is. A child or young person moves on, to adoption or long-term foster care or back to the birth family, and the relationship with carers is difficult to maintain. It is painful for all concerned. It is a test of a carer's resilience and it takes time to recover. The process has been compared to a period of mourning and, from painful personal experience, I can say that is no exaggeration.
And yet, even with the most painful separation, when the sense of loss is at its deepest, there is comfort in knowing that through your love and care, through your generosity of spirit, you kept a child safe by providing sanctuary when other doors remained closed. You have memories that nobody can take away, and you can look people in the eye and say "I played my part." And in years to come, when your foster children become adults and have sons and daughters of their own, they may pause for a moment to remember the kindness of the stranger who made this all possible.