Stuart and Paula's story

Stuart and Paula and have been foster carers with Break for over ten years and during that time have cared for five young people, and five parents with their babies.

“I was working at a homeless hostel and we had so many young people come through the doors and it was heart-breaking to see where they had ended up,” explains Stuart, talking about why he first thought about fostering. “But I found it a difficult environment to be able to make a real impact. You’d start connecting with them but then you had to finish your shift and someone else would take over, or they would move on. That’s when I started to think about fostering and the difference we could make to a young person’s life.”

At the time his wife Paula was working as a teacher at the local high school. “When Stuart brought up the idea of fostering, I started looking at the children at the school and thinking, ‘could I foster that child?’, ‘are there any children here that I wouldn’t want to care for?’ and the answer was ‘I think I could help any one of these children if they needed it.”

As their own children were becoming more independent, with one at university and another at college, they knew the time was right to start looking into fostering and as a family, they agreed to investigate further. Eleven years later they are still actively fostering with both of them now being full time foster carers.

“What drew us to Break was their therapeutic approach, which at the time was in the very early stages of being a recognised way of working within fostering. It wasn’t something that the local authorities were aware of, and they seemed to be more about rules and procedures. When we joined Break they were still learning how to adopt this style of therapeutic parenting and we learnt with them. Today, we are great advocates for this method of parenting and it’s something that we now help other foster carers learn.”

I think if you’re a calm, warm person, who can provide empathy, you can make such a difference to even just one child who needs it.

Their first foster placement was a 11-year-old boy who had come from a background of violence and neglect. Today he is at university and is still very much part of the family, living with them during the holidays. ‘We can tell you that our foster son is successfully studying to be a chartered accountant, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge to help get him there,’ explains Stuart.

“At first we thought we would raise that child just as we have our own, but it obviously doesn’t work like that. By the time that young person is in foster care, they’ve been through so much trauma already that they think and behave very differently. They need such a deep level of nurturing and care. For example, being grounded or having their PlayStation taken away for a day if they’ve been challenging doesn’t work. They’ve experienced so much loss already that it’s just another thing to add to their list of why they’re not good enough.”

For the young people who have come through their door they would have seen several different social workers, have had several moves and, from their very early years, would have suffered from neglect and abuse. “This can have a huge impact on their development and their physical and mental health,” explains Paula. “It hasn’t been easy but the one thing we’ve tried to be is a constant in their lives. You’ve got to put yourself in their shoes and try and understand why they are displaying these behaviours. Most of the time it’s about them trying to get control because they’ve never had any control over what’s happening to them. So we try and do this in positive way, by giving them choices or not reacting in the way they would expect if they did something wrong. It can be as simple as letting them decide what to have for dinner or what they want to wear, or it can be working on strategies to be able to help them regulate their emotions. One of our foster children deliberately broke a new set of headphones, but instead of getting angry with him we said, very calmly, that he would have to save for new pair – it shocked him that we didn’t react in anger and also made him realise he needs to take responsibility for his actions.”

They also make sure that those in their care, where allowed, have contact with their own birth family. Although this can be hard, they both agree that it is important for the young person to be able to connect with their family if they can, and to be given that choice. ‘It is difficult when we do family contact because you have to get over the perception of the parents. We know the child’s background and the impact they have had on the child, but you can’t be judgmental,” explains Paula. “You’ve got to be understanding and put yourself in their shoes because a lot of the time, these children have been parented by families who have been through their own trauma. You’ve got to allow that young person to work through these things and at the end of the day, just be there for them.”

Family contact can be anything from monthly updates to days out, or regular monitored contact by phone or text. “We try to be welcoming and we have open conversations with the family and the young person about what we feel is suitable and what could work. We will arrange dinners or bowling trips with their mum or dad or siblings, and we’d go along but sit at another table or out of the way so they can enjoy their time together. We just try and work with them.”

It’s fantastic when you do see progress in a young person and see their confidence and self-worth grow.

Although being a foster carer can be challenging, the couple stress that it can be just as equally rewarding. ‘It’s fantastic when you do see progress in a young person and see their confidence and self-worth grow. We try to give them as many opportunities as we can. It’s about helping them to harness their strengths and finding that one little thing and asking yourself, ‘how can we support this? How can we help them to grow?’. This is something that they have helped all their foster children find, one was good a rugby and the another has found the Air Cadets has helped him to focus. ‘Our first foster was absolutely obsessed with football, but he played more like a rugby player. So we suggested to try the local rugby club, and before we knew it, he’d become captain of the team! It did him wonders, helping him to understand discipline, and his confidence just rocketed. He’s still playing today for his university team.”

They’ve also taken those in their care on holiday to Australia, and they have been on numerous skiing holidays – giving their foster children experiences they wouldn’t have ordinarily had. Some of the holidays can be difficult and this is where Paula notes that it’s important to have the support of family and friends. ‘One skiing holiday we were on, some of our friends commented that when you foster, it really is everyone you know who fosters with you, and I’m so very grateful that we have such a supportive network.’

The regular support group we have at Break is invaluable and the therapeutic team there are fantastic.

‘And it’s not just through our own friends and family, but also the people we’ve met through Break, the staff and other foster carers. The regular support group we have at Break is invaluable and the therapeutic team there are fantastic. When we meet, we all discuss and share our issues and more often than not someone has already been there and we all share strategies and reflect together. Some of us also days out or do activities together in the school holidays which is great for the children to connect with others in similar situations, and for you to be able to talk to someone going through the same thing.”

Stuart agrees. ‘Thanks to Break, we’ve got a really supportive network and we’ve learnt so much about trauma informed parenting and working with challenging behaviour. The therapeutic parenting training has been a real eye-opener and has completely changed the way I parent.”

Commenting on the skills and quality you need to be a foster carer, they both agree you need to be understanding, accepting, patient, have a sense of humour and be thick skinned.

It’s about trying to understand where they are coming from, being empathetic, and helping them to voice their emotions.

‘You need to be a calming and consistent presence, and to know that when they are being challenging, it’s not personal,’ says Stuart. ‘It’s about trying to understand where they are coming from, being empathetic, and helping them to voice their emotions. And if you’re doing it as a couple you need to work as part of a team. You will have disagreements on what you think the next steps should be and you can both look at things differently, but you must be on the same page when it comes to how to work with that young person. They need consistency. At the end of the day, our job is to equip them for the future and help them to be the best they can.’

Currently, the couple are caring for two foster children, one of which is now turning 18 and will be moving out so they will soon have another young person that they’ve been matched with come to live them. ‘She’s keen to start living independently, but she knows we’re here for her and that the door is always open for her here if for any reason something doesn’t work out,’ says Paula. ‘All of our foster children know this, and our first foster son still regards us as home and comes back during the holidays.’

“We’ve been doing this for a long-time, but I know we made the right decision to foster. I remember the panel asking us why do you want to foster and my answer was ‘well why wouldn’t you’, because I think if you’re a calm, warm person, who can provide empathy, you can make such a difference to even just one child who needs it.