Feature: Sunderland foster carers tell their story

Ashley Thompson and her son Kailem Ramshaw with Roxy, their pet dog.
Ashley Thompson and her son Kailem Ramshaw with Roxy, their pet dog.
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SIX Sunderland foster carers share what it’s like to open their home to a child in need of a fresh chance. Alison Goulding reports.

ASHLEY Thompson was just 21 when she started fostering. Now she says she can’t imagine life without a full house.

Babies, tots and teenagers stay with Ashley for respite care, short periods of time when their main carers are on holiday or need a break.

Becoming a foster carer was a natural choice for Ashley, a mum herself to seven-year-old Kailem.

The 25-year-old said: “My son’s dad’s family are all foster carers and we thought we’d love the opportunity to do it.

“We were together for eight years, but when we split up I decided to do it on my own.

“It’s remarkable what you get back. The children call me aunty.

“Because I’ve got a good bond with them they keep in contact. They’re never going to leave my life. I can pick up the phone any time and see how they are.”

Before she began fostering, Ashley had her concerns.

She said: “When I first started I had lots of doubts, like what would I do if a child kicked off? But they give you loads of training courses about how to deal with that. I’ve had a few episodes, but nothing massive.

“My other thought was about Kailem and how it would affect him. Obviously I have to put him first, but I’ve found the system very good.

“I have a dog too and they’ll take care not to place children who don’t like them with you – they make sure it fits right.

“In the beginning it was me and my partner applying. Because we were just approaching 21 I think we had a few more meetings to check that we were capable and had the knowledge and understanding.

“At first they only put certain children with us because Kailem was so young, but as he’s grown older it’s opened up a bit more.

“My family provide a lot of support and I have a good relationship with the other carers.”

Ashley has some children who stay with her on a regular basis, but never knows exactly how her week will turn out. She also works part-time at the Royal Bank of Scotland while Kailem is at school.

Ashley explained: “I might get a call if a kid is acting up at home and their carers need a break to recharge their batteries. The children come to me for a time out and then everyone can start back refreshed.

“I tend to get the same kids over and over, they’ve all been in the care system from a young age.

“I see myself more as a youth worker.

“I think because I’m young they respect me and look up to me. I recently had a six-week baby and her teenage mum come and stay with me. She said she saw herself in me because I became a mum when I was young too.”

One of the most rewarding things for Ashley is seeing the progress in each child.

She said: “One of the teenagers who’s been coming to me has changed so much over three years. She was so mixed up and had a different identity every time she came, but now, because the people around her have all believed in her, she now believes in herself.

“She’s really grown in confidence which is an amazing achievement.”

Being a foster carer has also had a positive affect on Ashley’s son.

She said: “With him being an only child he loves having all these people around all the time. He looks forward to seeing them and playing with them.

“I’ve been fostering since he was three. When he was really little he thought the children were family, but he’s started to realise they are in the care system.

“He’s asking a lot more questions and wondering about them.

“He knows we’re taking care of them. He’s bonded with all of them and he never gets pushed out which helps. He’s very laid back about it.

“Some of the children are independent and like to do their own thing, but some of them make a big fuss of him. It’s an eye-opener for him. He’s getting to the age where he respects the life he’s got. He realises he’s got everything and that he’s part of helping other children and making their lives better.”

For anyone thinking of fostering, Ashley has the following advice: “I think a good carer is fun, firm and friendly.

“You just need to be approachable and able to provide a relaxed, comfortable environment.

“If you show you care and you respect them, then you get that respect back.”

JOHN Brymer started taking in foster children 30 years ago with his wife Olwyn.

After Olwyn died four years ago, he decided to carry on.

With Olwyn, and as a widower, John has fostered more than 100 children – sometimes for a short respite break, sometimes for years.

In 1986 the couple did a double adoption of two young children they had been fostering, John and Ashley, now 33 and 27 respectively. John now has five grandchildren.

John, 59, said: “Sometimes when you first get them they come in all states, dirty, lice, not a good background, but by the time they leave there’s a big difference. That’s the rewarding bit.”

He says it is always hard when they leave.

John said: “You’re only human. It does affect you, but at the same time you know they’re moving on to better things and they’ll be looked after and cared for.”

“You have to be dedicated to be a foster carer. After that you just try and be normal and give them lots of love and attention. A good sense of humour is useful too! I think when you’ve brought your own family up you know what to put into it.

“It keeps you on your toes. Nine out of 10 times you can help.

“I think people are put off by the initial tests you have to go through, but it’s worth it in the end. When Olwyn and I applied they put us in separate rooms and asked us the same questions.

“Me and Olwyn weren’t far apart in our answers, we were spot on. We just felt it was right for us so we stuck with it and never looked back.”

The decision to foster meant a busy house for John and Olwyn.

He said: “At times we had our two children and four foster children in the house.

“I knocked two of the bedrooms into one big one and put bunk beds in. It wasn’t always easy, we definitely had our moments. It was hard keeping the peace sometimes.

“When John and Ashley were young there was a bit of competition because they were sharing us with these other little children. Ashley loves coming round and spoiling the foster children now, you can see it’s rubbed off on her.”

Fostering officer Angela Hall has known John for 20 years.

She said: “It’s inspiring in my work to know people like John and see how dedicated they are fostering despite the difficulties.

“John makes such a difference, like all foster carers, in helping young people achieve good outcomes.”

PARTNERS Sarah and Lisa began fostering their first child, 11-year-old Katie, two months ago.

Lisa said: “We don’t think of ourselves as foster carers, we prefer to see ourselves as Katie’s family, giving her a normal childhood.

“We phoned up after we heard an advert on Sun FM. It was a little boy saying ‘Who will still love me when I’m naughty?’ and I was shouting at the radio ‘I will!’

“They sent someone round to check the house and that we weren’t nutters. Then we did the training and they wrote a report on us.”

Since Katie arrived, they’ve been going all out to make her part of the family with trips to Alton Towers, the cinema and Thorpe Park.

Sarah said: “It’s been really good fun, with some tough bits. We kind of went in at the deep end because Katie came to us three weeks before the school holidays and we suddenly had six weeks we needed to fill with things for her to do.

“When she first arrived she said she hated the holidays because she was bored, but now she asks for a rest because there’s so much going on.”

The couple first considered fostering two years ago. Lisa said: “We decided we could offer someone a better start than they’d had. That’s why we signed up to look after older children.

“I think if you’re thinking about it – try respite or temporary care. Just be open and honest if you’re not sure at first. If you’re worried about something just say and they’ll work around it.

“It’s very worthwhile, we’ve seen the difference it makes to Katie. Her manners are so much better, she smiles a lot, we can’t shut her up!

“She didn’t have any friends when she came, but she has a couple now who she plays out on the street with, which she’d never done before.

“We think she feels quite secure because she talks about the future and asks about her first car and when she’ll be paying bills.

“We’ve told her she can have her first boyfriend when she’s 85. We play it so cool, but at night when she’s in bed we’re like ‘Eeee! She was talking about this or that.’ It makes us feel secure that she’s planning a future with us – it’s a two-way street.”

Lisa says having Katie in their lives has opened their eyes: “We were surprised at how au fait she is with social worker terms. She talks about introductions and yearly reviews and I don’t really like that because she’s so young.

“I took her to Fenwicks and she went quiet and said she hadn’t been to a toy shop before, which was heart-wrenching.

“We’re really excited about Christmas. She doesn’t believe in Santa, but we’ve agreed to all believe in the magic of Christmas. We’re also planning a proper holiday for next year. We’d like to take her to Florida.”

Katie’s permanent placement had broken down and she was housed with Sarah and Lisa temporarily. But when everything clicked it was decided that she should stay.

The couple admit it’s been a steep learning curve. Lisa said: “I think a sense of humour is absolutely essential and she totally picks up on that. It’s a lot easier to laugh than to be serious all the time.

“We don’t see it as a job. She’s part of both our families and though she’s only been here a short time we couldn’t imagine her leaving.

“If we’re stuck we just think ‘what would our social worker do?’ She’s brilliant and we can call her whenever we want to.”

l Names have been changed.

MERVYN and Pat Heward have been fostering for three decades.

Six children have stayed with them long-term and a further 40 have spent short spells with the couple. They have three children of their own, now grown up, Sharon, Allan and Patricia.

Pat said: “My mam fostered and we just love children.

“She started when I was grown up and we all loved it.

“We didn’t have a father, he left, but my mother was like me – all for kids.

“She used to take us and all the bairns from round the doors out for trips.

“Our favourite thing was to walk up to the graveyard and have lemonade and crusts.”

Mervyn and Pat always knew they wanted to foster, and contacted social services to find out more.

One child who stayed with them for 10 years made a particularly big impression. Now 19, Amy* is studying child care at college and has proved herself to be an outstanding pupil, gaining distinctions in all areas of her course.

Mervyn said: “She had two placement breakdowns and was set to go into a home and we said we’d give it a go, that we weren’t miracle workers, but we’d give it a good shot.

“When we first got Amy she’d never been to the beach.

“We took her to Seaburn and she just loved it.

“We took her every night for a long time. She’s been a hard worker all along and she arrived with an old head on her – she was eight going on 18.

“She knew all along she wanted to study and do child care and now she plans to work with children who have autism.

“We want her to have recognition for what she’s been through. She’s come out on top. They can turn it around with a lot of love and patience.”

The phone and the doorbell are in constant use at the Heward’s home, and the foster children call them “grandma and grandad”.

The couple saw one of their long-term foster children wed this year.

Mervyn said: “She’d always dreamed of having a horse and carriage for her wedding so we sorted that out for her, and a wedding singer. It was lovely.”

The couple say knowing what the children have been through motivates them to iron out any problems.

Mervyn said: “When you know why they’re in care you want to give them a positive outlook.

“You hear horror stories about fostering and we’ve had them too, but if you persevere, lay the rules down and let them know you’re there for them, it can come right.

“If you’re doing it for the money it won’t work, you’ve got to care about the kids because of the grief you get sometimes.

“We’ve got each other, our families and a support network and we’ve been doing it for so long we’ve been through every situation that could come up. We’re probably unshockable.”

Pat added: “We get plenty of training and the social workers are brilliant. Social services gets a bad name, but I tell you I think they are fantastic. They’ve got a hard job and they’re hard workers.”

The house rules for all their charges are no swearing, smoking or drinking, but there is always a sympathetic ear available.

Mervyn said: “The answer is usually a cup of tea and to talk it through.

“You put yourself in their shoes and think what they’ve been through and why they’re reacting the way they are.”

Pat and Mervyn are foster care workers, which means they get a salary. If they’re not fostering a child they work in residential care.

Mervyn said: “My first day at one of the homes, this lad opened the door and he was ‘effing and blinding. I went in at the deep end. But by the end we had a great relationship.”

l Name changed to protect identity.