Who is brave enough to be a foster parent?

Children in the headlines show the urgent need for temporary homes – but there's a shortage of carers

When Joy first came to us she was eight years old. For seven of those eight years she had suffered abuse, neglect and deprivation and, as a result, came to us a very frightened, disturbed and damaged little girl, such as we had never realised existed. She had no speech and so no way of expressing her needs or feelings. She had special needs in every area of her life.

The words are those of a foster parent working with the children's charity Barnardo's. They are a salutary corrective to the usual media tales of foster parents such as David and Heather Bowen, struck off for smacking their own children, or of those who refuse to agree to hypothetical questions about whether they would take an 11-year-old to a group for gays.

For most, the reality is more prosaic and more sobering. There are 72,000 children in care in Britain today, the vast majority of whom – 51,000 – live with 43,000 foster families. The figure is rising, up by 9 per cent since 2001.

Being a good foster carer is far from the same thing as being a good parent. "A parent is motivated by an unconditional love for their child," says Jackie Sanders of the Fostering Network. "You see yourself or your partner in your child. Fostering requires a different kind of commitment.

"You are dealing with other people's children. You don't know their full history. They may have had traumatic starts inlife and their behaviour may be very challenging. And you have to be able to work co-operatively with a wide range of other people – social services and courts, teachers and psychotherapists." Fosterers are constrained by rules, one of which is that they are not allowed to smack even young children.

When we first met Joy we were almost sure we would not be able to manage her, but there was a part of us that had at least to try.

Children need fostering for many reasons. They may have been neglected or abused. There may have been a family crisis such as a divorce or mental health problems. Or a child may not get on with her mother's new boyfriend.

Fosterers have different specialisms. Some provide emergency cover when a child needs somewhere safe to stay for a few nights. Others look after children for a few weeks or months, while plans are made for the child's future. Others provide regular respite breaks for children with disabilities, special needs or behavioural difficulties to give their parents a break. Others offer a permanent home to children who do not want to be adopted. The UK has just 4,000 adoptions a year.

The vetting process for foster carers is very stringent. Assessment takes up to a year and includes criminal record checks as well as those on the safety of the home and even the insurance policies of the carers. They then receive intensive training on neglect and abuse, psychological attachment, disability and sexuality, teamwork and managing difficult behaviour. "Many say that all this makes them better parents to their own children," says Ms Sanders.

Joy has been with us now for 14 months... I know all our hard work is changing her life... It is a very slow process but she is beginning to trust us a little more each day and putting her hand out to me when she is afraid... To take that hand is worth more to me than any amount of hugs and kisses.

Foster carers are paid an allowance of between £103 and £181 a week to cover the cost of food, clothing and other expenses. It does not go far. Some 75 per cent of carers live on less than the minimum wage, according to a survey by the Fostering Network. "They get a lot of stick for taking money," says Ms Sanders, "but many of them end up out of pocket." Because foster children can be very demanding, 88 per cent of carers don't have full-time outside jobs.

There is a shortage of fosterers. Nationally more than 10,000 more are needed. There is a particular shortfall of carers for teenage boys, groups of siblings, black and Asian children, and those with special needs.

"I couldn't do it," Ms Sanders admits. "It requires skills and qualities I lack. I don't have patience, resilience or the ability to let children eat that much into my adult time." She is speaking for most of us. But, thankfully, not all.

Joy has changed our lives completely. She has turned them upside down. But she has also touched our hearts with her courage, her achievement and her spirit, and we hope that we have changed her life as much as she has changed ours.

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