The nation is crying out for foster parents. Anyone who can provide a safe and affectionate environment for children separated from their families should consider applying. Nick Jackson reports

Amelia has it all. A young, confident, professional graduate, she is the kind of daughter anyone would be proud of. But life hasn't always been so easy. At 11 she was taken into care when her mentally ill mother and alcoholic father were no longer able to look after her and her sister.

It was only with the love of the foster family who took her in when she was 15 that she could blossom into the young woman she is today. Now 23, she still talks with immense gratitude of the support and stability they gave her, how they welcomed her as part of the family, and gave her a home.

There are tens of thousands of children like Amelia across the UK whose homes and families have been taken from them by abuse, neglect, and illness, 50,000 of whom live with foster families. With so many children in need of a home, there's a child to suit every family, whatever your circumstances. Whether you are single or married, gay or straight, rich or poor, working or not, there is a child out there whom you can help. And with an estimated shortfall of around 10,000 foster families in the UK, that child needs your help now.

Children who cannot find foster families are forced into residential care. There the trauma they have suffered at home can be hardened by institutional neglect. Bitter experience of abandonment and abuse in care persuaded Jacqui Handley, 53, to become a foster carer after her children left home. "I would have been happier in a foster home," she says. "I had a bad experience in care and I've had to live with that all my life. I thought I could do a better job than they did for me."

Jacqui and Michael specialise in working with teenagers, and have been looking after the same two for the last few years. Against the image of foster carers as supermums with hundreds of children passing through their door over the years, most foster families take in one or two children at a time, often looking after them for several years. "With long-term children this becomes their home," Jacqui says. "We enjoy working through the challenges of their teenage years. These are the most important years of their life, and they need stability. Nurturing them and giving them that security is really rewarding."

Long-term care is only one way to do this. Jeff Leeks, 35, and his partner Michael have been foster carers for a little over four years. For most of that time they looked after a teenage boy, but when he moved on to another home they decided to adopt. They have been respite caring in the meantime, looking after an 11-year-old boy three weekends a month. "We are finding it much, much easier," admits Jeff. "We keep an eye on him and he goes back for a few days a week to try and make it work with his parents."

Jeff and Michael are one of an increasingly large number of gay couples in England and Wales who are now working as foster carers. North of the border gay couples are still banned from fostering, but Jeff says that in his home of rural East Sussex he has had few problems. "It's been very positive," he says. "When we've had obstacles, senior members of staff have helped us. There are some carers who don't mix with us, but I don't know if that's our sexuality or our personalities."

You don't have to be a couple to become a foster carer. Single men and women are as much in demand, and fostering can also lead to some unlikely duos. Most 23-year-olds do all they can to get away from their mothers. Not Asmeret Tesfazghi. Three years ago Asmeret, now 26, signed up as a foster carer with mum Letina. "It was my mum's idea," she says. "It wasn't easy for us when we arrived here as refugees from Eritrea and this seemed like the best way to give something back and help other kids."

Asmeret says that fostering with her mum has meant she has been able to keep much of her freedom, and still goes out to wine bars and restaurants with friends. And while she hasn't had to neglect her social life she has also found that it has brought her and her mum together. "It makes you communicate a lot more with each other," she says. "You have to back each other up, otherwise the children would be confused, and it makes you closer."

One fear that puts people off fostering is that the child they bring in will tear their family apart. Foster carers say the opposite is often true - relationships strengthen and biological children learn greater responsibility and maturity. But some children need to be looked after on a one-to-one basis. Sarah Allkins and husband Glenn specialise in fostering children with challenging behaviour. "At the beginning it is extreme," admits Sarah, 27. "We've had the garage door ripped off its hinges, rooms smashed up, verbal and physical assault."

But once Sarah and Glenn have earned the children's trust things begin to change. It helps that they are younger. "The kids see us more as friends than replacing parents," she says. "And when they see that we won't get rid of them if they're naughty they settle down. If you give them a sense of belonging they make more effort and gain self-respect." The 11-year-old girl they have with them now has just got all grade 5s in her SATs. "You think, would she have been able to do that if she wasn't here?" says Sarah.

That of course is the pay off. Those moments in a child's life where they open up to you and move on to become happier and more independent, and you think, "I helped them do that". Like all expressions of love, fostering is a risk. But when the reward is the chance to change a life, to give a child hope of stability and happiness, it's a risk, say fosterers, worth taking.

To find out more about fostering visit the Fostering Network website at or contact them on 020-7620 6400 or email:

The lowdown

What kind of person are they looking for?
Anyone who feels they can provide a safe and loving environment for a child separated from their family should apply. Your agency or local council will give you any training you need.

How much will I earn?
Not a lot, although you will receive an allowance which should cover the cost of looking after a child. The Fostering Network encourages local authorities to pay at least £112 a week, but many offer less.

What support can I expect?
All foster carers have their own social worker for support and advice, and many use peer support networks. Some councils run 24-hour support hotlines.

How do I get involved?
Your local social services will run introduction meetings. You can then choose to work directly for them or through a fostering agency. They will assess and train you. The whole process takes around six months. NJ

The foster carer

Marcia Gordon, 46: 'There should be a home for every child. No child should be forced into residential care'
Marcia is a single foster carer and mum. She lives in Ealing, west London, where she works full time for Ealing Council.

"This is my fifth year as a foster carer. I've been looking after a 16-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother for the last four years now. At first I thought I'd need oodles of cash and that was never going to happen, but it's not a financial burden at all, with the allowance they give you, and I'm still able to work full time.

I wanted to look after neglected children, but I knew I couldn't take disabled children, because of the layout of my house, and my temper meant I couldn't look after children with severe behavioural dysfunctions. It's important that you let them know things like that before you start. In my case both children are of Afro-Caribbean descent, like me. Most people look for children of a particular gender or age.

"I have a 19-year-old son. He was 15 when I started caring, and has been a big brother to my two foster children, particularly for my foster son, who didn't have a father figure before. And it's helped him too, he's had to look at himself as a role model. It's made him very mature. He's taken it in his stride.

"I believe that there should be a home for every child. No child should be forced into residential care. What stops people are the horror stories of children who are mad, bad, and dangerous to the structure of your home. That myth needs to be dispelled. The children aren't the problem, the problem is where they came from. Most foster children are just like your own children.

"If you're thinking about it, give social services a call. You can always back out later if you change your mind."