A Family Affair: Fostering brought out the best in us

Iain Macdonald and Ken Thomas are gay and were among the first men to foster children from Haringey Council and the Albert Kennedy Memorial Trust, a gay fostering agency. They did that for eight years while living in north London. Iain, 46, a Christian minister, and Ken, a 57-year-old retired academic, live in Devon

Ken

From my late twenties I was aware that I would like to have children, and as my relationship with Iain became established I also found myself getting positively broody. But I pushed the idea to the back of my mind because I knew there was nothing I could do about having a child naturally.

It was Iain who suggested fostering, and we were certainly among the very first gay couples to be given children. We were checked out very thoroughly, but I don't think any more than other potential fosterers. We didn't ask specifically for boys who had decided they were gay but some came to us because they had said that they wanted gay carers. I do think they felt they could trust us and turn to us for support in a way that they wouldn't have with heterosexual foster parents.

We were very aware of public hostility to gay fosterers when we began nine years ago. I remember one newspaper that said: "Imagine if you and your wife were killed in a car crash, your children might be given to gay people..."

Within our circle people had feelings about it. No one actually said they didn't want to be our friends any longer, but heterosexual friends just stopped inviting us or they invited us without the children. Some, we felt, didn't want their children to ask questions. Our gay friends didn't say anything outright but it was plain they couldn't stand it. For them we were too much of a family. We lost a lot of friends at that time, but we also made some new ones.

I sometimes wonder if Iain and I would have done it if we had realised quite how hard it would be. It was much, much more demanding and challenging and, frankly, exhausting, than we had ever imagined. I remember thinking, at times, that this wasn't what I had in mind. I had a very idealistic notion of how it would be. I'm an academic and I visualised quiet hours helping with homework. In fact it was computer games, checking they weren't experimenting with aerosol abuse, or supplying the police with photos when they were late home at night.

We said we wanted older children because we felt better equipped to deal with them, but we hadn't thought about how much emotional baggage they would bring. Take Lee, who was 16 when he came to us from a home with a violent father and a mother who couldn't cope. Then there was Reuben, who had been brought up by his single mother but moved out when his stepfather threatened to kill him. It's not difficult to imagine what a lot they had to struggle with.

But we have a very strong relationship and none of this affected us fundamentally. We've moved to Devon and stopped fostering now but the boys both visit regularly and they came to the funeral of Iain's mother, which caused a few raised eyebrows but made us very happy. We're having that "empty nest" feeling just now, and we may foster again when we're a bit more settled.

Iain

It had never occurred to me to consider children, but was very keen. The idea of gays fostering had hit the news with a video that Haringey made to recruit male carers, and there was much talk about loony-left councils. I heard about this and about the Albert nedy Memorial Trust which seeks homes for gay youngsters. We felt we should be eligible. We had been together for 20 years, had a secure relationship and a comfortable home.

I felt great doubts about doing it, but I made a commitment to taking on children with because I felt confident we could cope and that we had something to offer children in need. We got our first child at the end of 1990. He turned up in the middle of the night for emergency shelter and ended up staying two years. Then there was Lee, who had huge difficulties - but one day I overheard him saying to a visitor: "I always wanted a dad who would treat me well and I was lucky, I found two. and Iain have given me all the good things in life."

We had to impose rules and be very clear about what was acceptable, and there were edgy times, like the occasion when got very angry and the boy we had with us said he was going to phone his social worker and make allegations. We realised this could be even more problematic because we are gay.

There were additional strains on our relationship with my being away during the weekdays, studying for the ministry in Oxford, leaving , effectively, as a single parent. I would come home at weekends and be critical because things had happened that I wouldn't necessarily have allowed. There were some rows, but I also understood that frequently had to make snap decisions at a moment of crisis and it just wasn't practical to ring me every time to check.

Before going to Oxford I was very involved with the local church, and the great advantage to that was meeting parents, although most didn't acknowledge our domestic set-up. But they did chat about children as any parent might. You know, the "oh, my kids were much worse than that" kind of talk.

Being a gay parent obviously made my sexuality very high profile, and that has not helped my wish to become a minister. I got a wonderful reference when I wanted to be accepted for training at Mansfield College, Oxford, saying it was recognised that I had a calling. But the implication was that God had got it wrong. Now that I have finished my training I have been able to get a placement as a minister.

We never insisted the children should come to church so I was very touched when, a few days before I had to conduct a service for assessment during my training, Lee, who had never been to church said suddenly: "I think we should all go as a family."

That brought tears to my eyes. Oh yes, having children has been a watershed in our lives.

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