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'This house is full of war wounds'

Of the 65,000 children in the care of local authorities, some 38,000 live with foster parents. What is it like to share your home and family with children who are not your own? Three foster families talk to Beverly Kemp
Ijeoma Nwanokwu is 36 and the mother of a 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. She has fostered some 30 children aged between two days and 12 years during the past eight years. Her shortest placement was for five hours; the longest three years. Ijeoma is single and lives in London.

The first little baby came to me when he was five days old. Mum was a crack addict. He had the most terrible shakes and the only time he felt secure was when you held and rocked him. Every child who comes here is hurting. We've seen the whole scale of abuse - physical, sexual and emotional. Children come through my door who can't talk or eat and never smile. Some refuse to take off their clothes. Others can't look at themselves in a mirror. They'll bash their heads against the wall and break their own things, they hate themselves so much.

This house is full of war wounds. Furniture gets smashed. My own kids have been kicked and sworn at. Perhaps the most difficult placement was two brothers whose behaviour was extremely violent. Life had dealt them such a hard deal that the only way to contain them was to adopt a military regime in the house. At first you couldn't sit around a table and eat a meal with them because they used to throw food at you and think it was funny. When they left after nine months they were different children. Controlled, with good manners. After mealtimes they'd ask if they could please leave the table. They'd opened their hearts to me.

The greatest gift from fostering is seeing children come into their own. Lots of kisses, cuddles, laughter and stories at bedtime and they start smiling. I reassure them that their room is their own private space and that nothing of theirs will be taken or spoilt. I do their hair and let them know that they are beautiful or handsome. You know when they are beginning to feel better because it's no longer a battle to get them to put clean clothes on! All of a sudden you see them opening up like a flower and the real child coming out.

The best outcome is seeing a child I never thought would go back to Mum go home happily. But I do worry about some of them when they leave. One little girl started phoning me at 2am whispering: "Can I come back? Will you come and pick me up? I don't want to be here." The only thing I could do was tell her social worker she was unhappy where she was. I didn't sleep properly for two months because that child was constantly in my head.

This job would be 10 times harder without the help of my children. We did a lot of talking before I started. They don't always like the other kids and they'll come and moan to me, but most of the time they grin and bear it because they feel so sorry for them.

I do it because I've always got on better with children than adults. You have to have a big heart and not be overly particular about how your house looks. You can't afford to get wound up when kids draw all over the wall or decide to smear poo round the bath.

Jenny Hussein is 53, divorced, and the mother of a 30-year-old daughter. She fosters girls aged 14 to 18 and has had nine placements in eight years. Her shortest placement lasted two days; the longest three and a half years. She lives in Surrey.

All these girls arrive in exactly the same way - carrying their whole world in a selection of black plastic bags. My role is to help to prepare them for life in the outside world. Most of them have come from children's homes. I say to them: "I'm not your mother, so don't think of me as that. I'm just your friend Jenny." They're not looking for a substitute family. Look what their own have done to them. There are only a few rules in this house. Treat each other with respect and show consideration for others living here. Come home at night at the time we have agreed. Your friends are welcome here but I'd like to be introduced to them. No sex and no drugs under my roof. If you're going to have sex elsewhere, please make sure it's safe sex.

You are dealing with people whose standards and upbringing are often very different from your own. Maureen told racist and explicit sexual jokes. Denise was used to bathing only once a week. Sarah figured that because my daughter's father occasionally stayed the night, it was fine for her boyfriend to do so, too.

The girl I felt most sorry for was a 16-year-old who said as soon as she arrived: "You'll end up hating me. I will get drunk and I won't come home at nights." Two months later she had gone, leaving me a note saying "I'm sorry I can't stay here." In the dustbin there were loads of notes she had started to write, then torn up. All of them began with "I know I need help but I can't ask for it."

I've been hit in the mouth with a boot and pushed up against a wall. Jackie stole from my purse so many times that I finally said: "You have to understand that if you steal from people outside, they will either punch you in the mouth or report you. If it happens again, I'll go to the police station." It did happen again. She was charged with theft and now has a criminal record.

There are days when I feel very happy because people seem to be making real progress. Other days I feel angry at the things that have happened to them that I can't change.

My house doesn't feel like my home sometimes, especially if everyone has friends round. I find myself thinking: "Where can I go to get away?" I'd be the first to admit there have been a couple of occasions when I've wished that all my girls would go away so I could have a rest.

Malcolm and Lucy have been fostering for 18 years. They have four children: two sons of 23 and 22, a daughter of 16 and an adopted daughter of 17. Malcolm is 52 and works in the computer industry. Lucy is 47 and a full- time mother. They are currently fostering Daniel, nine, on a long-term placement. He has been with them for four years. The family lives in Kent.

Malcolm was brought up by foster parents from when he was a baby until he was 18. That was why we began doing it ourselves. We still have our first placement because we adopted her. Marie came to us when she was three and a half weeks old and is 17 now. She was a difficult baby and she's been hard work as a teenager. What makes it all worthwhile are the hugs, the kisses and the poems she writes for us. We adopted her at the age of six because by then there was no way anyone was going to take her away from us.

Daniel is so far ahead of his age sexually that we have had to warn other parents about his history if he plays with their children. For four years we have been chipping away, trying to help him to understand the difference between a nice hug and inappropriate touching, but he still finds it hard to distinguish between the two. We have to be one step ahead of him all the time, watching everything he does.

Daniel couldn't cry when he came to us. He used to make terrible moaning noises but the tears wouldn't come. Now he cries just like any other child if he's hurt himself. He's a very difficult child to love. Although we have grown very attached to him, we can't commit ourselves to an indefinite placement. In the back of our minds there is a very real worry that by the time he is 14, he could become quite dangerous. I wouldn't attempt to restrain him now. Physically, he's far too strong for me. I always make sure that Malcolm or one of our sons is in the house or I try to calm Daniel down by talking.

Our own children have grown up with other kids in the house. We've never had any resentment or jealousy. Our daughters loved having all the babies here and changing their nappies. Daniel irritates our sons and daughters sometimes because he winds them up something chronic.

It's difficult not to feel judgemental about the biological parents when you see the damage done to a child like Daniel, or you've cared for babies with non-accidental injuries, like broken legs. But abuse is a vicious circle. The self-same things were often done to the parents when they were little. Our job is to do everything we can to break that pattern so that a boy like Daniel doesn't go on to abuse his own children.

All names have been changed.

The National Fostercare Association can be contacted on 0171-828 6266.

Kent County Council Social Services Department is seeking people who can understand children with emotional problems. Most are four or older. Some may eventually return to their families of origin; others will need a permanent substitute family through fostering or adoption. If you feel you can help, call 01634 880404 and ask for the Homefinding Team.