Richard's parenting journey lead him to become a foster carer for two boys with challenging behaviour
Richard, 37, is an educational psychologist with a background as a primary school teacher, and lives in London. At the time of this interview he had two foster boys – James*, 7 and Ben*, 11.
Richard always wanted a family and had planned his life around becoming a parent. When he came out at 27 that vision was challenged. “It was devastating to think I might lose that,” he remembers.
When old friends – a lesbian couple – asked if he’d be an active donor for them he was ecstatic. They spent months discussing it, getting legal advice and setting up a contract, and then started insemination. “They broke up three weeks in. I’d known them as a couple for 12 years!” he says.
It was working with foster carers as an educational psychologist that turned him on to fostering. “I wanted to support kids and carry out a consistent intervention – put
my money where my mouth is so to speak.”
Richard applied to become a foster carer in 2010, going through various home visits, safety checks, a five-day full-time course and a weekend course. Then came approval with panel.
“I had an independent social worker that I really liked for the assessment, report and panel. That’s the person you get to know, but mine wasn’t linked to the authority. Then I was given a new social worker. She was very good at ‘process’ but not very good at emotional support. As a single carer I needed that. It’s often down to personalities. I complained and now have another social worker.”
In February 2011 Richard was approved as a temporary carer for one child between five and 12 years old. He deliberately limited it to one child despite pressure to have more. He didn’t want to take on too much, being on his own. After eight observed visits he was approved to foster James.
“The problem was it meant I couldn’t take another foster child for a sleep over. Foster kids can’t be left alone with someone unless that person has been police checked.” They can’t stay at someone’s house unless it’s been safety checked and Richard has to sleep in the room with James but not in his bed. “It’s complicated – they’re taking a child away from their parents and saying, ‘you can’t look after them, we’re going to put them somewhere safe’. They cannot take any risks.”
The logistics of being a working single parent are hard for anyone, but for Richard fostering comes with its own unique problems. “The networks and support aren’t always that good. I’m working to pay my mortgage and bills, and have a child. It can be challenging with contact arrangements and school pick-ups. If something comes up you’ve not got someone to say, “I can’t get there, can you go and get him?” Everything is down to me, but I can’t organise the help myself.”
After almost a year with Richard, James is about to move on to a permanent placement. “I could apply to keep him long-term but that would affect any future fostering I do. I’m not allowed to look after children younger than James at the same time because of issues around what he has been exposed to and then done.” James copies inappropriate sexual behaviour he’s seen, targeting younger children. “He doesn’t understand. It’s really frustrating because he’ll never be able to have that natural childhood exploration. These children come with all their needs and the system has to safeguard other children. I’d like to foster long-term and we have a lovely relationship but I’d never be able to take on any younger children.” Richard is also painfully aware he’s single. “I’m seeing someone but it’s early days and he’s not ready to go there. I could see myself adopting at some point but I want to do that with someone.”
Does Richard feel he’s unique as a gay man fostering? “I thinks it’s hard for gay men to think about having children. But it seems lots of parents who have their kids taken away are single mums. I think it’s less threatening for a guy without a woman around to be taking the child. It doesn’t challenge the maternal role.”
Richard’s other foster son has only been with him for three months, but is now in his sixth foster placement. “He’s been asked to leave three placements. He comes from a family where there’s a lot of negativity: depression, quite a few deaths, suicide, aggression, violence. He has lots of siblings and his father committed suicide. After that his mother couldn’t look after him and didn’t fight for him. He felt very rejected and gets into a real pattern of negativity. He does very irritating behaviours without any social awareness. You need a very high level of patience.”
For Richard fostering is like a mix between home and family and work. “It has been hard work – I’ve had two tricky boys. At times I’ve felt quite isolated. My family were amazingly supportive. A lot of my gay friends see it as a success. Another gay couple have been inspired to become foster carers and are applying.”
And what about financially? There is a perception that there are foster carers who do it for the money. “I struggle. I get £250 per child per week but I cut down a very well-paid job to do this. It doesn’t cover my loss of salary and it’s expensive to live raising kids.”
“I was worried they were going to throw really challenging kids at me, but those are the kids you can make the most difference with. It’s amazing when you see the child settled. When James came he had 32 percent school attendance. He’s made two and a half years progress in a year. The fact that you can inspire enthusiasm around learning is fantastic. When Ben kicks off it’s different to when he first came. They start repeating what you’ve been saying – positive reinforcement, little strategies and language they’ve never been modelled before. You really know you’ve made a hell of a difference.”
“There’s amazing stuff gay people can bring to fostering. A lot of people going into adoption and fostering have years of mourning for the loss of their own child. For us it can be a very different starting point.”
This article was printed in We Are Family magazine, issue 1, Spring 2013.
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* names have been changed to protect identities.