Fostering: 'Our job is to give them both stability and care'

Justine East meets a dedicated couple who have helped children with challenging behaviour for more than 11 years
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The Independent Online

Carol Rothery may be 46 years old, but she remembers exactly what it felt like to be a child. "I was very volatile in my adolescent years and felt that nobody understood me," she recalls. "In particular, I can remember trying to talk to my mum, who just didn't have a clue. I made a conscious decision to remember how it felt to be that young and I stuck to it. I think it's one of the main reasons I was interested in fostering."

Sixty-five children later, Carol smiles at the level of success many of them have reached. "Two girls who were with me at the same time spring to mind. They arrived here within a few weeks of each other. The first one had to travel a long way to school and faced many challenges, but I encouraged her to stay focused. Later, she wrote to say she'd done her A-levels in subjects such as politics. I met her last Christmas and she had three children and sat on a fostering panel.

"The other girl came from a much more neglectful background. Her mother had been a prostitute and didn't care for her the way she should have. But she managed to learn to read and she had a baby of her own who she cared for well and although it might not sound so amazing, I would argue it's just as wonderful."

What you aim for, as a foster carer, is to give young people the space to reach their own personal potential, says Carol. "We all have different capabilities and standards, which depend on many things including our start in life. Our job as foster carers is to give them both the stability and care to enable them to do the best they can."

Very often, young people wind up surprising themselves, she says. "I've seen young people maintain a job when they never thought they would. Likewise with getting qualifications. One girl became a manager and yet she never believed she'd amount to anything. Others have become really good parents. It's not really about what they wind up doing, but the sense of fulfilment it gives them."

Not every tale has a happily ever after, she admits. "There are some people who lose their way and that's sad. But even then, hopefully you've still had a helping hand in improving their lives in some way."

While seeing young people do well is a huge reward for Carol and her 52-year-old husband Colin, it's by no means the only one they get from fostering. Carol speaks of the laughter that's filled their house and the lasting bonds they've formed.

Although Carol and Colin have been fostering officially for 11 years, they started bringing young people into their home four years earlier. "I was doing some youth work in our area, Goole, and I noticed a lot of children didn't have anywhere to go. We helped some of them out."

Goole is a small town and Carol's affinity with young people soon became big news. "I knew a lady whose nephew had difficulties and was due to come out of prison on his 21st birthday. She didn't know what to do because no family member felt they could cope with him. Colin and I decided to take him in for six-months. He was only here for five because he went off to college and passed with flying colours and got a flat in York. The difference in him within just five months was incredible. I'm not saying it was easy, but it was well worth it. Last year he said to us he didn't know what he'd have done without us."

Having applied for lottery funding to help set up The Hinge, a scheme which found sympathetic landlords for other young people in need, Carol and Colin – who had three young children of their own – turned to fostering.

Given their latest experience, remand fostering appealed to them. "It was mainly young lads who, rather than being remanded in custody, were remanded in our house. Because the court had already imposed all the restrictions such as curfews, it meant they were forced to do family things with us that they would have thought too uncool to ever choose. But they found they enjoyed it and we'd wind up having great fun playing scrabble and going on picnics. It was an amazing success. I remember being called in by 12 magistrates to explain why it was so successful."

The next scheme the Rotherys got involved with was time-limited, task-oriented work. "The social worker identified a specific need in the child and we'd try to help them meet it. It might be getting involved in hobbies, getting them back into school or just getting them to eat at the table. We'd be given six months and although we enjoyed it, we were beginning to yearn to do longer- term work. So in 2000, we started taking on youngsters aged 10 to 17 for a less fixed period."

Their interest in taking on youngsters with the most challenging behaviours continued. "We started taking on youngsters with attachment problems because we seemed to deal with them well and we have excellent training and support," she says. Today, Carol and Colin look after two children, aged nine and 10.

Although respite isn't an option for Carol and Colin – because of the youngster's attachment issues – they still find ways to take time out. "We used to talk about the youngsters whenever we went out, so we've started dance classes once a week because you have to concentrate," she laughs.

"We've met new people and we come back light hearted, which is important because fostering can be heavy hearted. It's not just the looking after them, but the legal and administrative side. You also find yourself having to fight for children. You might be trying to get a statement for one or therapy for one and you have to really push hard, which does take up energy."

Indeed, Carol doesn't believe fostering ever becomes plain sailing, no matter how long you've been doing it. "I still wobble sometimes, but we all have limitations, and I think it's OK to admit it. Colin is an anchor, so that helps, and the fostering agency are very supportive too. But I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. It's part of who I am now."