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“Fostering has given us hope and strength”

 The Big Issue in the North (UK) 14 June 2019

To celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie adopting and fostering may be chic, but Scotland’s care system faces crisis with a shortfall of over 1,700 foster parents. More families like the Fletchers in Lanark are desperately needed to help give vulnerable children a home, writes Annie Stuart. (1304 words) - By Annie Stuart

DENISE Fletcher can clearly recall the moment she decided to become a foster carer. "I've worked with
children all my life, first as a nursery nurse and then providing support to young mums and babies in care," explains the 50-year-old, who lives in Lanark. "And I realised that for those young women, there is really not that much out there.

"My own children were grown up, my house was emptying and I decided that if I could even just get one young person, who had been through so much, to adulthood then I would have achieved something." Denise and her husband Ian, who is also 50 and works as an asbestos control officer for the local council, have been fostering for five years through Action for Children.

The charity provides a range of services for vulnerable young people across Scotland, including medium to long-term fostering for young people aged six to 18, specialised close-care fostering for children aged seven to 12, short-term youth justice fostering and short-break foster care, which gives the young people and their carers a break.

There are currently around 4,000 children in foster care in Scotland - but support group The Fostering Network, which runs Foster Care Fortnight, says there is an urgent need for another 1,700 foster carers to provide safe and secure homes for vulnerable children.

The charity believes the UK is heading for a crisis in foster care because two-thirds of the workforce is approaching retirement age. Around 65 per cent of foster carers are in their 50s, 60s or 70s.

While there is rightly no upper-age limit on fostering, these figures suggest a huge proportion of the workforce might choose to retire over the next 10 to 15 years. Only six per cent are in their 30s, with virtually nobody fostering while in their 20s.

Denise doesn't hold back when talking about how tough fostering can be. "Our very first placement didn't work out, for various reasons, and that was hard on all of us," she says, frankly.

"It can happen, but it was very upsetting. I found it hard to let that young person go. But sometimes, you have to ask yourself tough questions: am I doing any good here? Or am I making things worse by hanging on in there?"
She adds: "Action for Children works on the basis of one placement at a time, because our young people do need a lot of input. They come from very difficult backgrounds - abuse and addictions, generally - and often both at the same time. They are often very traumatised. Our job is to make them feel safe, and that can take a long time."

Troubled youngster Donna was 15 when she arrived at the Fletchers' home in Lanark four years ago. "Our first meeting was incredibly nerve-wracking," recalls Denise. "We were all so nervous. It's funny, we met in a restaurant with her care worker and Ian couldn't eat anything, nor could Donna. But after we broke the ice, it was fine."

Donna is now a mum herself, to eight-month-old baby girl Megan. "That was a shock to us [discovering she was pregnant]," admits Denise, honestly. "She was very scared about telling us, but once we had all sat down and talked about it, and we'd explained we realised this was just part and parcel of life, it was fine.

"She is doing well now. Obviously, her own past has impacted upon her, and that has been difficult for her. Our young people haven't had much experience of positive parenting, and if you haven't seen it, or learned it, or felt it, how can you do it?
"It takes time but she is getting there, and she still sees Megan's dad. They are working on developing their relationship, taking it slow. And Megan is an adorable baby, always smiling and happy."

Denise and Ian have five children of their own, aged between 26 and 32, and now have five grandchildren too. "We had three babies in the family all within a few months of each other," beams the proud granny. As well as Megan, we have a nine-month-old and a four-month-old! And we have a 10-year-old and a seven-year-old."

Denise laughs: "It's funny - I had just been saying there had been no babies in the family for a while, and then three arrived at once. I'll be careful about saying that again…" The family are heading off to Canada on holiday soon, to visit Denise's brother.

"My nieces are taking Donna to a prom out there," laughs Denise. "Her pals are all very jealous! We've just bought a beautiful green Amanda Wakeley  designer dress - in the sale! - with diamante straps. And we're going shopping for shoes this weekend. Donna can't wait, it will be fantastic."

Denise and Ian say fostering has changed their lives. "Hugely," nods Denise. "I can't remember doing anything else in my life. I thought I might have been bored, being at home all the time.

"I'd always worked, always been busy and had a big social circle of colleagues." She laughs: "But no. As a foster carer, you are never bored!"

Her advice to anyone considering fostering is simple. "Read up on it, talk to people who have done it, listen to all the preparations, and if you don't understand anything, say so," she says, firmly.

"The training is comprehensive. In addition to the introductions and preparation groups, which run over several weeks, you then meet up regularly with a senior worker, who comes out to your home - in our case it was once a week for six months.

"You have to have a basic knowledge of child development. My background helped me, because I had worked with young people who had had difficulties, but Ian hadn't. This was all new to him, and he believes it has opened his eyes to things about himself, that he perhaps hadn't realised."

Denise explains: "He has learned patience - we both have - and intuition, I suppose. Many young women in foster care are wary of men, and Ian can pick up on that right away. "That was hard for him at first, but it has given him the chance to be a positive male role model, which is very important."

As celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie continue to thrust adoption and fostering into the spotlight, Denise sounds a word of caution. "Be prepared for a 24-hour day, every day," she says. "It's a challenge. It's hard work. I hope people like Madonna and Angelina are doing it from a good place, and I think anyone who is prepared to give a child a home and a chance in life IS doing it from a good place.

"You have to have an understanding family too, because they are giving you up, in a sense. If a crisis happens, you will have to miss out on arrangements or family events, and that can be hard."

Denise grins: "Two of our sons were still at home when we were told the family were going to become foster carers and their first reaction was, 'Are you mad? You know what it was like bringing us up, why on earth would you want to do it again?'

"But they have all been very supportive and, in fact, my daughter is now considering doing respite care, for carers who are on holiday. And they have all been very good at saying, 'Right, mum, you need a break'."

Despite the challenges, Denise says she has never regretted becoming a foster carer. "Not for a second," she smiles. "The reward is to see a young person change and gain confidence and move forward with his or her life. And fostering has given Ian and I so much too: hope, strength, resilience.

"I mean, you think life is tough and then you look at these children and what they have been through and you see them smiling and happy and ready to fight the good fight and you think, 'My God. If they can do it, then so can I'."

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