New acquaintances are always intrigued to learn that we are foster carers. They have many questions about every aspect of what we do. But what they all really want to know is how many children we have fostered. When we tell them I look for a hint of disappointment in their faces, for their awareness of foster care is often based on stories of legendary carers who have looked after hundreds of children, and that is certainly not us. They may have seen foster carers on shows like Pride of Britain or Surprise, Surprise and been moved by the dedication of someone who has provided a temporary home to dozens of vulnerable children over many years. These are, undoubtedly, remarkable people and society owes them a great debt indeed. By comparison, our own achievements as foster carers fall short.
It is not only the general public that is beholden to the numbers of foster care. When Debbie Douglas, of The Only Way Is Essex fame, was announced as a new ambassador for fostering last month the Department for Education press release focused on the fact that Ms Douglas had fostered more than 250 children over two decades. She was, said children's minister Edward Timpson, "an inspiration".
She truly is. Foster care needs role models like Ms Douglas to encourage more families to consider becoming carers. But by focusing on the large number of children who have spent time in her care, rather than the breadth of her experience, we are doing Ms Douglas, and foster carers in general, a disservice.
The number, rather than the quality or complexity of foster care, has become the benchmark by which we are measured. Perhaps this is inevitable, but is it right?
We are not talking here about the number of goals scored or houses sold, but about real lives, about vulnerable children who have suffered neglect or abuse, about the tragedy of a family that has fallen apart.
We rightly applaud foster carers like Ms Douglas and her family. But are their achievements any greater than, say, those of the family who welcome a single child with learning disabilities and provide a home for life? Or those of a grandmother who steps in when her daughter's life falls apart to take responsibility for her grandchildren, at a time when those of her age are contemplating retirement? These are life-changing, full-time commitments that foster carers typically make, unselfishly. They look modest, almost insignificant, when subjected to the 'how many children have you fostered' test. Yet these carers stand shoulder to shoulder with those who have fostered hundreds of children. They are just as inspirational, and have so much to teach those who are contemplating becoming foster carers. In so many ways they are the real heroes of child welfare.
My concern is that our emphasis on numbers also perpetuates the image of fostering as a conveyor belt of care, which sends vulnerable children spinning from one home to the next. Do the maths (as prospective carers will do): if you have cared for 250 children over 20 years it means that in a typical year at least a dozen children will have passed through your front door. How to build meaningful relationships or to become a positive role model under such circumstances? Faced with the daunting prospect of this upheaval, and emotional challenge, it is hardly surprising that many families do not give fostering a second thought.
This image also weighs heavily on media representation of foster care. Last month The Times said foster care "brutalised" children, urging the Government to do more to encourage permanency through adoption. It becomes more difficult to argue against this when a Government minister singles out high placement numbers as an outstanding achievement.
The work of foster carers is diverse and complex. In our experience placements last for around one year. Typically, we receive siblings (we currently care for three children) and we been able to build lasting relationships with members of their birth families and their long-term carers. We are in regular contact with most of the children who have lived with us, and consider them to be part of our extended family. Under such circumstances it is unlikely that we shall ever be able to say that we have cared for hundreds, or even dozens of children. Yet our experience is not dissimilar to that of many foster carers, and all the more rewarding for it. Our lives have been enriched by this experience and we believe that, under difficult circumstances, the children have also benefited from the time they spent with us until their long-term futures were resolved.
How many children have we fostered? From now on, that will remain between us and the children, thank you.