On becoming and being a foster carer

By Shanna Marrinan

Date Posted: Sunday, 14 December 2008
Shanna Marrinan is a foster carer for the London Borough of Camden, and lives in Tottenham, North London, with her three foster children. She is 28 years old and is currently completing a PhD in Health Science at Middlesex University.  


On becoming and being a foster carer

At 28 years old, and having fostered for the last four years by myself (I am a single carer and do not have my own children yet), I have come across a range of reactions to my choice to look after other people’s children, from disbelief to admiration to scepticism.  Equally, my experiences of caring for children and young people may have been quite distinct from those of other foster carers, who are often coming from a very different starting point.

My entry into fostering now seems, in many ways, a foregone conclusion waiting to happen. I had worked with children in a range of settings since I was 14; moving from babysitting and daycare to residential language teacher for international teenagers, to providing educational support in and out of school, and visiting schools to provide guidance on higher education.  As a result, I had acquired a great deal of childcare experience, and knowledge and skills relating to children’s development, education and care.  Coming across looked-after children from time-to-time in the course of my work, fostering always struck me as something I wanted to do. I first answered an ad in a newspaper placed by a private fostering agency when I was 21, and completed the initial training, but concerns from my family that I would be taking on way too much convinced me not to pursue fostering at that time.

Around two years later, my work in education led me into home-schooling a looked-after young person, who later needed a new placement. Having built a close relationship with this teenager, and already having thought deeply about fostering, it seemed natural to offer myself as a carer for her.  I remember a close friend observing at the time that it was like fate that I tutored that child, as it was led me back to fostering in the most compelling way!  The child’s wishes, combined with my successful assessment and spare room, led to an agreement to assess me as a carer for that particular child, and the young person stayed until she moved to a semi-independent setting.

I was then assessed as a full foster carer, and have since cared for a range of children from 3 yrs old to 17 years old, and have loved (almost!) every minute of it. I recently resigned myself to the fact that my two bedroom flat was too small for me if my fostering career was to progress and develop, so after moving to a larger property, I now have three children in placement and everything is so far going wonderfully.

I was recently asked two pertinent questions; what are the greatest challenges in fostering and what makes a good foster carer?  While these are both huge questions that could never be fully answered here (if anywhere!) I do have a couple of thoughts.  I think that for me personally the challenges depend on the child, and are innumerable, but so are the rewards.  I have previously said that one difficult aspect for me was accepting that not everything can be solved, and not all behaviours have neat explanations and answers, but saying that, sometimes, especially with younger children, you can see vast improvements and that’s very fulfilling.  Another big one would have to be the devastating impact on your social life – Fostering is truly a 24-hour ‘job’ and trustworthy (available!) babysitters are a must from time to time!

As for what makes a good foster carer, perhaps the children themselves have the most important perspective on that – certainly adults seem to have difficulty agreeing on the best way to do things when it comes to all things child-related!  Although there are things that are universally accepted as not ok, the ‘best’ way is another story!  Dealing with fussy eaters, or attention-seeking tantrums, or teenagers that won’t get out of bed, are just some of the areas foster carers can widely differ on, but often no one approach is ‘better’ than another and a course of action that works wonders with one child can cause uproar with another.  I certainly have my own preferences and ‘tactics’ but when it comes to those of others I understand that I probably don’t understand, and try to stick by ‘if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all’.

One rule some might find useful however, is don’t do anything, as far as the kids are concerned, that you wouldn’t do in front of your social worker – cutting corners when you’re in a rush, for example, could have huge consequences if the children’s care is compromised.

We foster carers do do things differently but we generally have good reasons for doing what we do, and as long as people think through the long term consequences of their actions and the messages they send to the children, foster for the right reasons, and communicate with and listen to other professionals involved with the child, then they shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Fostering ‘for the right reasons’ includes, for most carers I assume, a real desire to make a ground-level positive contribution to the lives of the children and young people they work with. This should not, however, detract from the fact that although fostering goes far beyond a ‘job’  –  it is truly 24 hrs a day and 7 days a week  –   foster carers are no less professionals than the social workers and others involved, and should be recognised for that. I feel that most of the time we are suitably valued by the local authorities, but I regularly come across members of the public who despite having a high regard for what we do, seem to think foster carers should not be remunerated and should provide their services ‘from the goodness of their heart’, despite the fact its extremely difficult to have any other source of income while you are fostering, and you have huge additional expenses, particularly in relation to providing suitable accommodation.  I am sure medics, midwives and firefighters feel equally as strongly about their vocation, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone question their right to an income!  I do believe, however, that much of this comes from the widespread confusion between adoption and fostering, and the resulting lack of knowledge about the extent of foster carers’ roles. I personally find the child care the easiest part, while squeezing in all the meetings around far-flung school runs and contact with children’s family members is far more stressful!

I hope that I don’t sound too ‘airy-fairy’ and I realise this article may be  lacking in practical advice and handy hints but in a sense this has been my intention. There are just too many unique eventualities to deal with in foster care. The nature of the role precludes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and its more important to be flexible, adaptable and approachable.