Norwich family gives the thumbs up to fostering

Last month's Foster Care Fortnight highlighted the urgent need for more foster carers. EMMA HARROWING meets the Cringleford family making a difference to the lives of children.

Watching the five-year-old girl race around their garden at their Cringleford home shouting 'watch me, watch me' before doing a cartwheel on the grass to rapturous applause, Simon and Sally Hook felt a sense of pride and achievement as they chatted to her adoptive mum.

Five years earlier she had entered their home as a five-day-old baby, unaware that her life was different to other newborns as she was in care. Unwanted or unable to be looked after by her birth parents, she was temporarily placed with the Hook family – husband and wife Simon and Sally, 12-year-old Ben and 10-year-old Tom, while a suitable adoptive family could be found.

The Hook family fed, changed, cuddled and played with her, watched her smile for the first time and recognise sights and sounds. Their house was full of toys and other baby paraphernalia, the soft gurgles and the high pitched screams of early childhood. Then her new family was found and they said their goodbyes and their house fell silent. Welcome to the world of fostering.

Simon and Sally have been foster parents for five years and in that time they have fostered six children. They are short term or task-related foster carers (there are many different types of foster carers, such as long term and emergency care) which means that they can have a child stay with them just overnight up to a period of several months until the child can return home to their own family or a longer-term fostering or adoption placement can be found. 'We decided to become foster carers after our two boys had reached high school age and we discovered that we could no longer have children of our own,' says Sally.

'I have worked in child care for a number of years and had reached a point in my career where I wanted another challenge – fostering seemed the natural choice. It took us about 11 months to go through all the extensive and often intrusive checks and get the go-ahead to foster. We made the conscience decision to only foster children from babies up to pre-school age mainly because they would be much younger than Ben and Tom and so there would be less chance of sibling rivalry. Ben and Tom were also both old enough to help out by taking the child out to play in the garden to give us a few minutes' peace!'

The role of a foster carer is different to that of an adoptive parent as the birth parent or parents still have legal control over the child. This means that as well as working with social workers, foster carers often need to maintain contact with the child's birth families regardless of any personal feelings they may have about them. Says Simon: 'Looking after other people's children is a serious business and you do have to understand and respect the wishes of the child's natural parents. We have had parents telling us what clothes they want to see their child in when they visit and we have to ask permission to do things such as get the child's hair cut. It's all about the natural parent gaining back control and you have to understand this.'

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Adds Sally: 'It's best to keep a record of everything from how much weight they have gained and how tall they were, to when they first smiled or got their first tooth.

'This record of their childhood is not just important documentation for their birth and/or future adopted family, it also gives the child a sense of identity and belonging when they get older and ask questions about their childhood.'

Documenting even the tiniest and often rudimentary events in a child's life also protects the foster family against any accusations, as the Hook family discovered.

'Fostering can be pretty tough and any bruises and grazes children naturally get while they are playing can be questioned,' says Simon. 'This happened to us on one occasion when a child in our care was out with their birth parents and we got a call saying that the child had been taken to the hospital to be examined after bruises were found on their legs.

'It was all very innocent and the doctors could quickly tell that nothing untoward had occurred. Luckily we had recorded in our book that they had knocked their leg earlier that week. This was our wake up call to really make sure that everything, no matter how small was written down and recorded. Emotions always run high when a child is taken into care.'

However tough fostering gets Sally and Simon have the support of their dedicated social worker Caroline.

'Her support is fundamental to everything that we do,' says Simon. 'Children's services often get bad press, but without Caroline we couldn't do what we do to help children in care. She helps with day-to-day situations as well as all the legal issues surrounding fostering as well as keeping communications open with the birth parents, the child's and the doctor's social workers.'

Fostering in the short term means that the Hook family doesn't have to endure too much heartache when a child is taken away from them and placed with their new family. There is a photo montage of all the children they have taken care of over the years on their fridge in the kitchen and the family keep in touch with the children if their new families agree.

There are many good points to fostering – the main one being that you can make a big difference to a child's life. The Hook family love welcoming a new addition to their home and at all times try to maintain a sense of normality so the child can have the stability that they may not have had before.

Says Sally: 'In our home the focus is on play. Letting children be children while teaching them the discipline of routine can make the world of difference to a child's life. Many children come to us with behavioural issues even when they are a year old; many bite, kick and scratch because they have had the burden of responsibility thrust upon them as their parents cannot cope. We have also had child come to us looking thin and undernourished. It's really rewarding to see them develop and grow in a matter a days.'

With sons Ben and Tom now in their mid teens, Sally and Simon enjoy looking after younger children in order to relive childhood experiences. According to Sally and Simon, this is a highlight. Says Sally: 'Going on family days out to the zoo, to places such as the Dinosaur Park or just feeding the ducks in the park are things that we no longer do as a family now that Ben and Tom have grown up.'

Simon agrees: 'You also still get to experience a child's first day at nursery or first day at school, or get to see them perform in a school play. It's like reliving the memories of when Ben and Tom were young.'

Many people will see what Simon and Sally do as special and in some ways heroic, but they are quick to disagree. 'I see fostering as more of a vocation than a job as it's something that we all want to do to help children separated from their families,' says Sally.

'Fostering children is an extension to our family life. People often say that we are doing a special thing, but this is just what our family does.'