Our foster carers provide safe and loving homes for hundreds of children each year, but with a number retiring and demand continuing to be high, up to about 100 new foster families are likely to be needed this year.
To help raise awareness of the need and inspire the next generation, existing foster carers in Essex are telling their stories this Foster Care Fortnight.
Sally and Barry Wood
Sally Wood, 52, and husband Barry, 62, were inspired to foster after the death of Sally’s mother, Jenny Hudson, who had worked with Essex County Council’s fostering service for a number of years.
Sally said: “I worked for about 20 years in a residential care home for children with disabilities and my mum was also a team leader for the children with disabilities team and then a reviewing officer for the fostering service, so I already knew quite a lot about it.
“Sadly she passed away about 18 months ago and, as we shared a house with her, we had some extra space at home and we were looking at what to do.
“I’d already reduced my hours at work to care for my mum and she actually died while I was working my notice period.
“They were quite happy to take me back once she died but it felt like time for a change.
“Given what mum had done during her career, and the skills I already had, fostering just felt like the right thing to do.”
Ever since then Sally has never looked back and the couple, who live in Mayland, were approved in September 2016.
They now look after children with disabilities as part of the council’s fee paid short breaks scheme, which helps give families a chance to have a break from their caring responsibilities and everyday routines.
“We’ve got three children placed with us now and another referral going through,” said Sally.
“We only ever have one child at a time and they tend to come for a couple of nights.
“One of the children comes to us for 104 nights a year, which equates to two nights a week, another comes 48 nights a year so about four nights a month. It varies really, depending on the child and their family.
“The idea is that it gives the rest of their family time to spend together and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.
“I remember one time we took the little girl back home and her mum said something like ‘We were able to play Monopoly as a family for the first time’ and it really can be as simple as something like that. You can make just that little difference.
“Another child stayed with us for nine consecutive nights and that was so his regular foster carers could have a break, so there’s that side of it too.”
The couple, who have a grown up daughter of their own, find fostering incredibly rewarding.
Sally said: “Being able to spend some real focussed time with the children and just seeing them make all of the little achievements is very special.
“You’re making a real difference to a child’s life and also the lives of the rest of their family.
“Having worked in a residential setting, I was very aware of the difficulties families can have if they don’t get that support.
“Getting just that bit of help means they can still cope with the child’s needs the rest of the time.”
She added: “One of the very positive things about fostering with Essex County Council is the amount of training and support you get.
“When I was running training in my previous job I worked with some of the independent fostering agencies, so I was quite aware of the lack of support you get in comparison.”
Ray and Sue Unwin
Semi-retired builder and property developer Ray Unwin, 61, and wife Sue, 59, started fostering a couple of years ago after wanting to give something back to society.
Ray said: “I personally came from quite a poor background. I’ve always been quite ambitious and hoped to one day be in a position to sponsor a young person from a similar background so they could have the same opportunities as everyone else.
“The recession put pay to that idea so I was never quite in a position to do that, but I’ve still done reasonably well in life and wanted to give something back.
“I managed to pull myself up on my bootlaces and I just thought ‘How can I help somebody else?’”
Having decided the best way to do that was to foster, the couple, who live in Stansted, went through the process and were approved in May 2015.
Recalling the first time a child was placed with them, Ray said: “We had literally just been approved and then the next day the phone rang and they asked if we could take a 14-year-old boy.
“A couple of years later and he’s still here, and he’s now long-term linked with us.
“He’s doing really well. He’s got a few confidence issues but he’s doing well at school and has made huge progress since he’s been here.
“It’s been a real eye-opener for us, but we’ve loved it.”
The couple, who have four grown-up children of their own, now also care for a young girl who has been with them for six months and have had a few short term placements as well.
Ray said: “What I get out of it is just the feeling that you’re helping somebody that might really have struggled without you.
“Seeing them grow and develop is very special. It’s heart-warming to think where they were when they arrived and then look at where they are now.
“I really enjoy having loads of people around and having a busy house anyway. I can’t stand the thought of sitting in at night with just a book and nothing to do.
“If you’re looking for something that’s rewarding and helping put people on the right path then there’s nothing better than fostering.”
Sally and Ian Farquhar
Sally, 57, and husband Ian, 58, provide respite care to help the family of a girl with severe disabilities.
The couple, who live in Maylandsea and both still work full-time, had been considering fostering for a while before being approved about six years ago.
Sally, who works in finance at Essex County Council, said: “As I already worked for Essex County Council, I was well aware of fostering and it was something I always looked on as very worthwhile.
“I used to watch Home and Away when my children were little and there was a character on there called Pippa who was a foster carer, this was probably the first time I became aware of the need for foster carers.
“During a major restructure and faced with the possibility of job cuts and I started to think a bit more seriously about it as an alternative career. It was at this point that we started to investigate and attended a fostering event and then began the training with a view to becoming respite carers.”
At a similar time, the couple’s youngest daughter Sophie started doing some care work herself after leaving college and worked with the girl Sally and Ian now care for.
Having got to know Sally and Ian through Sophie and discovered they were going through the fostering approval process, it was arranged for them to provide respite care.
They now look after her about one weekend a month, allowing her mum, who is a single parent, to have a break from her caring responsibilities.
Sally said: “I think it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.
“It sounds clichéd, but the main thing for me is the fact that you’re making a real difference.
“The girl absolutely loves coming here and, although it’s very challenging, it is so rewarding and it makes such a huge difference to her mum.
“When the weekend comes to an end in a way you’re relieved because it is hard work, but you feel so good about yourself.
“I certainly can’t imagine not having her now. She’s like part of the family.”
Sally, who has worked at Essex County Council since 1999, added: “The council are very accommodating. I get the two volunteering days that I can make use of and they give me five days a year to attend training, if needed.
“My line manager has also always been very supportive which makes things a lot easier.”
Ian, who works for BT, also finds his employer very supportive and is also allowed volunteer days, which helps when attending training.