If you love them, let go

Two sisters have been abducted by their foster parents, who couldn't bear to give them up. Is too much love a bad thing for children in temporary care? By Kate Mikhail

THE THREE-year-old girl stood in the middle of the shop and let out a stream of obscenities. All eyes turned on the mother in disgust. How dare she bring up her child like that?

Sharon Penzer, who found herself on the receiving end of the unmistakably hostile glares, said: "It is assumed that these are your children and you should deal with it. There is no understanding of what the child's been through." Sharon, 35, and her husband Steven, 42, who live in Birmingham, have fostered 50 children in the past five years but stopped taking in babies when they found themselves and their own daughter becoming too attached to them.

"We had one child who was only six weeks old when she arrived and it was like a bereavement when she left," says Sharon. "I still get quite choked about her and it's been a few years."

The agony of having to part with children that you have taken into your home was highlighted last week when a foster couple ran off with the two little girls in their care. It seems Jeffrey and Jennifer Bramley were worried that their application to adopt the children was about to be turned down.

The children's natural mother immediately issued an emotional plea for their return, stressing that she had not given up the children because she didn't love them, but quite the opposite. "I did it because I loved them and I wanted them to have a nice family to live with," she said.

"Abduction is extremely rare," according to a spokesman for the National Foster Care Association. "A lot of trouble is taken to stress to carers that there are problems with forming attachments to children, but essentially your job is to work to support the child at a very vulnerable time in their life and try to ensure as far as possible that they retain a strong bond with their family in the hope that they can go back to them."

Colin Green, Assistant Director of Children's Services at Cambridgeshire County Council, where the Bramleys lived before their disappearance, acknowledges that fostering is hard on both the foster carers, who suffer "pain and heartache" when the children leave, and the natural parents who often feel jealous at the sight of someone else looking after their children.

Sharon and Steven Penzer now take in three- to ten-year-olds, a situation they find slightly easier to cope with as the children recognise that they are not their parents. "A lot of the children we have have been severely abused and they do talk about it, usually at the breakfast table. They say: 'I've been locked in cupboards','I've been force fed'. They need to talk about it because for them it's the norm and they want to see your reaction, to see how you feel."

Sharon Penzer, who has completed the National Vocational Qualification in foster care, is very aware of the need to create a stable environment for the children she takes in. "By living with you, they see it's normal to have food on the table and to play with toys, it's just creating something they're not used to."

An alarming number of the children who have stayed with the Penzers have not known how to use a toothbrush or even the toilet, and these are children as old as eight.

As for Lauren, their eight-year-old daughter, feelings of jealousy are inevitable, and at the sight of all these other children coming and going she often asks 'when do I move on?'. Sharon says she is often tempted to adopt. But, she says: "We're fostering to help children move on and to help them make a better life. As long as I keep bearing that in mind I'll carry on and not adopt."

Of the 60,000 children in care in the UK, two thirds are placed with foster families which have increasingly come to replace children's homes, the subject of so much criticism in recent years. Foster carers are thoroughly vetted, police-checked and given extensive training to prepare them for what lies ahead.

Ernie Flynn and his ex-wife Pru used to provide short-term emergency foster care in London but stopped due to a disagreement with the local authority. The couple had five children of their own but when their youngest reached 14 they decided to start taking in others on a foster basis. "We first started off with 14-15 year-olds," says Ernie, 59, "but they are very difficult when they're that age, they've got their rights and they say 'I want to smoke, I'll smoke when I want'."

The family then took in seven and eight-year-olds who had been "sexually abused or burnt with cigarettes, hit with hammers and all sorts of things". After that they took in pre-adoption children, including babies that had been abandoned. Ernie remembers the "emptiness" he felt with each child's departure, but he still sees those he built up a particularly close bond with.

Foster carers often keep in touch with children who have passed through their homes, although sometimes they have to force themselves to let go.

"You have to be careful not be extra baggage for them to carry around," says Deborah Gibbs, 38, who has been fostering children for the past 14 years in Guildford. "If you're luggage, you're useful and there are things about you they can make use of. But when you're extra baggage around their necks forget it, they don't need it"

All carers have their own way of dealing with the trauma of children moving on and Deborah Gibbs, who has three teenage children of her own, copesby throwing a party for them.

"What's really important when your children move on is that you have a proper good-bye and you finish it, you close that chapter and move on.

"We usually have an event that marks it, with a cake and a pressie and photographs, and say: 'This is what it was all about. This is why you were here.' It gives them something good to take away and I think it's as important for the fostering family as it is for the child."

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital