One of the joys of foster care is being a witness to extraordinary, life-changing moments. I shall never forget the day we took three young children to the beach for the first time ever, even though they had lived no more than 15 miles from the sea. As they splashed about in the waves it was as if someone had thrown a switch on to life's endless possibilities.
But my most poignant memory is of the moment a baby girl we fostered was introduced to the couple who were to become her adoptive parents. As she was held in her new mum's arms for the first time, I understood what a privilege it was to be present when a new family came together. It was also one of the most difficult moments for us as foster carers, as we prepared to say farewell to the beautiful child who had been part of our family since she was just three days old, until a few weeks before her first birthday. She arrived with her hospital tag still on her tiny wrist, and left us when she was full of curiosity about the world before her. I can only compare the weeks that followed her departure to a period of mourning.
Memories of those months came flooding back as we watched the second episode of Protecting Our Foster Kids, the BBC2 documentary series on foster care. The programme focussed on Dawn and Alan, foster carers with deep experience of caring for babies. Their story is picked up when Jesse, now five months old, moves to their home while his long-term future is being decided. Dawn has cared for 20 babies already and admits that she is deeply affected by loss when they leave. "You know you are going to fall in love," she says. "You are all-encompassed by that child." She also compares it to mourning. "It is harder the longer they stay." Clearly, it gets no easier over the years.
The first episode of Protecting Our Foster Kids attracted a mixed response, with plenty of criticism (unfairly so, in my view) of foster carers who found themselves overwhelmed by the responsibility and unable to continue caring for teenaged sisters. The second episode looks at very different aspects of child protection and I suspect (and hope) that it will receive a much more positive response. Dawn's tender efforts to engage with Jesse's mother on behalf of a baby boy who has stolen her heart are incredibly moving. This programme highlights the often overlooked work that foster carers do to build relationships with birth parents, which is so important for the successful outcome of a placement. Sometimes this involves setting aside personal feelings arising from allegations and claims that have been made, if this will help diffuse a tense situation to the benefit of the child.
The main aim of Protecting Our Foster Kids is to shine a light on the lives of foster carers and the challenge of looking after other people's children. But for me the heroine of the second episode is Jesse's mother, Natasha. She understands that she is suffering from severe post-natal depression and accepts that she is unable to care for Jesse, even though she is providing a safe and loving home for her first child. Her own description of her love for her son and the turmoil she is going through is heart-breaking. This is the purest love of a mother for her child. And she has taken a brave decision to speak openly about her mental illness, at this most difficult time in her life, and I hope her testimony will help deepen public understanding of post-natal mental health.
The programme ends with Jesse still in Dawn's care beyond his first birthday, with an unmistakable bond between him and her family. His future remains uncertain, but he has clearly enjoys the love of his foster family.
As for the baby girl we cared for, I am delighted to say that she is blissfully happy and settled with her wonderful parents, enjoying life as she approaches her fourth birthday. We are blessed to be part of their lives.