Shauns fostering journey
We have another of our amazing foster parents journeys to share with you. Shaun has been fostering with us for 3 years, leaving a career in retail to become a foster parent.....
What did you do before you fostered?
I had worked in retail all of my working life. I managed a large shop with 120 employees. I really enjoyed it but I was working 6 days a week, 13 or 14 hours a day. At 49, it was becoming tougher and tougher, up at 5.30am and not back home until 7 or 8pm with rarely a weekend off. That was all OK when I was younger but I thought, can I keep this up in my 50’s?
What motivated you to become a foster parent?
I also ran, and still run, a swimming club. A couple of the children that I taught were foster children and they were so lovely. One of the foster mum’s joined our swimming committee and one day we got talking to her about fostering and she encouraged us to look into it. Until I spoke to her, I didn’t realise that you could actually earn a livable salary through fostering. Although it's not and should not be about the money, I had a good salary and we were comfortable. I didn’t want to be unable to pay the mortgage or bills, I needed to earn a similar wage to keep us afloat.
At the time it seemed like such a massive move, such a huge change in our lives. It was scary. Going from being employed with a stable income to self-employed and only paid when you have foster children living with you. We had a cruise planned with our son, who was 16 at that time. It gave us a good opportunity to speak about it a lot together and with him. We wanted to make sure it wouldn’t negatively affect him, the most important person in our life. He said he was really happy with the idea of us fostering, as long as we didn't take any children who were older than him as he didn’t feel comfortable with that. At the time we didn’t even realise that you had a choice, we thought your spare room would be filled by whichever child most needed it. But actually you do, because it’s important that the child that you foster fits well within your family, otherwise they won’t be happy either. The more we thought about it, the more we realised that it was an option. We had two spare bedrooms and knew that we could offer children a good home. That was the kick that I needed, to come out of my quarter century comfort zone and do something completely different. It's honestly the best thing I've ever done in my life.
We spoke to a few local fostering organisations but Xcel 2000 were by far the best fit for us. They came out to see us at our home and we met the Directors and were able to meet and speak to a family who already fostered with them. I liked that there was never any pressure to join Xcel, they just wanted to give you information and advice and then the choice was ours.
So you hadn’t always wanted to foster?
No not at all, it hadn’t even occurred to me before. Once the decision was made I gave my three months’ notice at work. I remember that it was announced at an area meeting that I was leaving to become a Foster Parent. I was surprised how negative people were about it “oh goodness that's so tough, why would you want to do that?”, one colleague even said “isn’t that a bit weird, it should be females fostering shouldn’t it? That made me have a wobble, I thought everyone would stare and wonder why a man would want to look after young children. I got home and discussed it again with my wife and we decided to ignore those comments. I am glad that my colleague raised it in a way, so that I'm aware of those perceptions but I know that I'm just as capable of caring for children as anyone else.
I still get surprised by people's misconceptions; lots of people think that you can't cuddle your foster children - not true - and that they’ll be violent and smash up your house, these are all things that I was told. I guess it's the same as in retail, you can give great customer service to 1000 people but the 1 person who has a bad experience will talk about it and that's what people are going to remember.
Had you had any relevant experience?
My ex-wife and I have 1 child between us, who we like to think we brought up well, he’s a good lad. I don’t think that having had a bunch of your own children necessarily makes you a better or worse Foster Parent. It doesn't matter how many children you look after, every single one is unique. You may have had 12 children but it doesn’t mean that you have dealt with that particular child's personality, behaviours or coping mechanisms before.
Also, there were a lot of transferable skills from my retail management role. Basically managing people, their expectations, dealing with their complaints, it’s all the same just with family rather than colleagues. And managing your time properly. The best advice is to get a calendar and use it as a bible; there are all sorts of meetings, reviews and so on. I write lists so that I don't forget anything. Retail also taught me that when an Area Manager or Regional Director asks you for something, they want it now. So I've stuck with that mentality. If the Social Worker emails me, I reply immediately. So really there's lots of transferable skills from most workplaces to fostering.
It's also about drawing on your life experience. I hated school, the academic side of it all, I loved sports, I'd have done that all day but not the lessons. Now when I speak to my foster son who struggles with school, I can understand what that's like. I still want him to do his best but it means that I can be patient with him, I know what he’s going through.
What was the assessment process like?
Quite long, ours was 7 months from start to finish. I liked going through the “Form F”. It took me right back and was useful to understand where I get my traits and behaviours. It was therapeutic talking about my Nan and Grandad who I loved very much growing up. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when I thought “do I really want to be doing this on my day off?” but now, looking back it was so important that I did. All of that information goes into a report for the fostering panel, it was essential for them to understand me and also for me to understand myself.
What was going to panel like?
I love panel - maybe that sounds a bit weird but I love being in front of people and being asked questions. I guess it’s back to my work skill set, that set me in good stead as I regularly had to speak in front of hundreds of people as manager. I was comfortable with it.
It is daunting and can make you nervous but they want the best for you and for the foster children so really it’s nothing to worry about. Basically, you’ve just gone through 6 months of deep analysis of your life, they’ve already read through all of that and they know you, they just haven’t met you yet.
Did you have to wait long from being approved to foster to having children live with you?
We waited for about 10 weeks before my foster son and daughter came to live with us. During that 10 weeks, we did respite, looking after foster children for very short periods only and really enjoyed it. I can honestly say there wasn’t a single child that we didn’t enjoy looking after. We had a couple of brothers for 2 weeks and got on like a house on fire and we loved having them to stay. We also had a referral for an 18 year old during that time but, for my son's sake, that wasn’t right for us, so we decided to wait. One Monday, we got a phone call for a pair of siblings, could we take them? That was my foster son and foster daughter and they came to us the very next day. They have lived with us for just over 3 years now. We recently agreed on a permanent arrangement for them, so they will live with me until they're adults, they call me dad and I see them as my children.
How was that experience?
I remember they came through the door like little bolts of lightning. They were so loud and excitable. That's when all the training and advice we’d got from our meetings kicked in. Sleeping was a nightmare - there were lots of late nights. I understood that their adrenaline must have really been going with a new place and lots of new people to meet.
Is fostering what you expected it to be?
Yes but it’s been better than my expectations. What other job could I do to be at home with no stress? My day starts at 7.30am with getting the children up and ready for school and then doesn’t resume until 4pm at school pick up. I get 7 hours pretty much to myself every day. I have reports to write and bits and bobs but that's it. In my spare time I can learn new skills or do some exercise. And at the same time, I'm still making a huge difference to little human beings.
Fostering has given me a quality of life that I’ve never experienced before. The first year that I fostered was the first year that I ever spent Christmas with my family. I realised that I'd missed so much of my son's life growing up by having to work so much. It's been lovely to now have that time with him and my foster children.
I also love how my foster children are now just like any other children, they’re on their phones and watching YouTube. You know you are getting it right when they just act like normal kids and do normal things, they are comfortable with their surroundings and life. Then you just have to prepare them for adulthood as best you can and that’s no different to your own children and what you would want for them in life. I want the best for them.
What's been your proudest moment?
There's not one individual moment that I can pick out; I have proud moments every month with my foster son and daughter. Seeing the progress that they’ve made, the things that, when they first came here they couldn’t do and how effortlessly they do them now, without me even having to ask. Small changes in everyday behaviours, the ways they acted that may have worked for them before but really doesn't now, or were the result of what they’d experienced, all of these things are celebration moments. There are little snippets of improvement month on month, sometimes so small you don’t even notice yourself until someone comes in and comments on how well they seem now, or says “wow, you look smart Billy” and you look over and see he’s gelled his hair and brushed his teeth and is all clean in smart clothes and has a huge grin on his face, all proud.
Is there anything that's been more challenging than you thought?
There are times that I get frustrated with how slowly the fostering movement moves. There are things I don't agree with but have no control over, like pocket money and savings. My son had to earn his pocket money by cleaning the car or doing a bit of housework but the Local Authority dictates how much you have to give your foster children each week. I worry that they won’t realise the value of money or how to properly budget as so much is paid for for them, all their school trips, brand new laptops. It’s like they throw money at foster children to make up for what they’ve been through but I’m not sure that's the right approach. I worry that it’s setting them up for disappointment in the future, when they’re adults and will expect things and not be able to afford them. It’s the decisions people make on yours and your foster children's behalf that I find frustrating.
What has fostering taught you?
Fostering has taught me so much about myself. It has taught me how to understand children better and most importantly of all, I've learnt how to control my own feelings when situations don’t go my way. Behaviours that I didn’t know how to handle, it frustrated me, until I realised that it wasn’t about me and my feelings, it was about them and what they needed. I quickly learnt how to deal with these outbursts to get the best out of them both.
I guess that's the big difference between parenting and fostering. It’s the same as my role as a swimming coach. Parents often get so wound up by the frustrating behaviour of their own children but I think it’s easier to react differently when they’re technically not your own. You must accept them and learn how to deal with the situation and your own feelings towards their behaviour. I learnt that you can't fight fire with fire. The best thing I can do for my foster children is not to get angry, to take a step back, let them calm down and then have a conversation and diffuse the situation.
I can remember getting referrals for children with severe behavioral issues and that really daunted me and scared me, but now I know that I could pretty much deal with any child in any situation. I’ve learnt how to manage stress, by not taking things personally and realising there's a reason for every outburst. I look for that reason and I am chilled about it all. My stress levels are zero compared to my last job.
What has helped you the most on your fostering journey?
The regular training that we do with Xcel 2000 has been useful but I think that listening to other Foster Parents who’ve been in similar situations has been the biggest help. I’ve found that there is always someone who’s dealt with something similar and has some useful advice to give. We have regular meetings with all of the local Foster Parents at Xcel 2000, a time to sit and discuss the week, the ups and downs. Someone will say something and you realise “oh yes, why didn’t i think of trying that”.
What do you like about Xcel 2000?
I honestly can't fault Xcel. We looked at 4 different organisations when we were choosing a fostering service. Xcel were the only ones who came to talk to us on a 1:1 basis in our home, all the others invited us to their introduction days at their offices. That 1:1 time during the home visit with Xcel’s Directors was very important to us. There was no pressure from them, they said we’re not asking you to join us, they just wanted to give us all of the information we’d needed to make the right choice for our family. They invited a couple of their Foster Parents to speak to us too, who we’ve now got a great relationship with.
Xcel also puts on loads of activities and fun days which we love, there are coffee mornings, trips to the park, we even go on mass foster family mini-breaks together. Even during this lockdown we’re still taking part; my foster children enjoyed their online cooking show on Friday. They loved making the strawberry cheesecake dessert with Tracey, Xcel’s director. My foster daughter went to a hair and beauty day a few months ago whilst I took my foster son to the cinema. All of that is so important to me, I think you have to be prepared to open up and get involved, put in the effort to make those links. It may seem like a lonely old job, being stuck at home most of the time without adult company but you must ask for help and reach out to others, get involved in activities, get out and about, then it’s not lonely at all.
How do you manage to juggling fostering with your other commitments?
I still do swimming club and it’s actually easier as I do not have to rush home from work now. I did worry about the effect on my child before we began fostering but actually he’s the best asset that I could have ever had in fostering. My son is now nearly 20 and my foster children adore him. The relationship that birth and foster children can have is beautiful and I've seen that a lot with my fostering friends too, so I would say don’t underestimate the positive impact that it can have on your children. Having foster children around taught him how to share, it taught him all sorts, he can now see why I did things for him while he was growing up and why that was in his best interests.
Who/what inspires you?
My foster children inspire me. They inspire me every day. It’s the times when you get a school report home showing 100% attendance or exceptional behaviour. It’s the little things. They may have tantrums, they're not perfect all the time but I can definitely see the difference that I'm making. Foster children just want to feel important and loved - no different to any other child. Fundamentally the basics are there, every child wants to do well, they want their needs met and they want to make you proud. You have to give them plenty of opportunity to do that. I give them a task and say, ‘can I trust you?’ and yes, they show me that I can.