Other People's Children - Fostering
Saturday, 25 March 2006 19:39
Fostering just involves offering food and a bed to needy and grateful
children, doesn't it? If this is what you think Graham and Jenny Marshall
would be quick to disillusion you. They have been foster parents in Slough
for the past twelve years, and have found it full of difficult situations and
hard decisions, as well as huge rewards. At it's worst, Graham ended up locked
in a police cell...
So what's this about the police cell?
We were on holiday in Wales with our own three children
and Mark who we were fostering. We were in a self-catering cottage on
a farm. In the next field there was an old barn. The farmer had
told us he reckoned it was about 800 years old. Towards the end of the
holiday, it burned down. The firemen who dealt with it thought that it
might be arson, and so we had the police come round to ask us some questions,
because we were so near by, They wanted to know if we had seen anything
suspicious, or anyone hanging about. As the day went on, they spent more
and more time questioning Mark.
We were convinced that Mark was innocent. He'd
never been involved with anything like that before. He began to let slip
little comments though, about what had happened when the fire started, and how
it had got out of control. It became more and more clear that Mark had
been involved somehow. The police ended up taking him into custody. Graham
felt that he couldn't leave him there by himself so he joined him locked in
the cell for most of the afternoon and evening.
It wasn't really what we'd had in mind when we started fostering!
Fostering sounds like a tough job. How much support did you receive?
On the whole we've had a lot of support. Some of our
kids went to a school for children with special needs in Slough, called Arbour
Vale, and they were brilliant. More than anything, It was a relief
to know that they found some of the kids difficult as well. It meant we
knew it was not just us doing something wrong..
We only discovered that one foster child, Philip, had been
making up stories about us when we went to a parent's evening. One of
his teachers met us for the first time. We chatted for a bit, then she
commented with surprise "You're so much nicer, in real life, than I expected!"
Some of the social workers we've dealt with have been very
good too - they've had a lot of skill in handling the children. Philip
once ran away from school after a particularly difficult day. He ended
up in the Social Services office and I was called in to pick him up, but
he refused to speak to me. The social worker resolved the situation, by
passing messages between us, "Graham, Philip would like me to tell you..."
As we were all sat in the room together, it was rather farcical. but it
did help us to resolve the situation.
What do you feel you have learnt from 12 years of fostering?
The power of grace, as well as punishment. Forgiveness
can be really powerful.
Can you give an example of that?
There was a time when we noticed that various things were
going missing - some money, but also some more personal items, things that we
wouldn't be able to replace. At last we realised that it must be Michael
who was our foster child at the time. In the end we decided that we would
have to confront him. He admitted that he had taken the things to sell
but it was pretty clear that he was genuinely sorry about it.
We asked him to go away and make a list of what he had taken
and to seal it up in an envelope. When he brought it to us, he was obviously
expecting to be punished.
We took the list from him, and tore it up. We didn't
even read it. We wanted to show him that we still loved him, and that
we forgave him.
Obviously discipline is really important, setting clear boundaries
for kids so they know where they stand and what behaviour is acceptable. But
forgiveness is really crucial, letting kids have a fresh start when they've
made a mess of things. After the fire in the barn, we spent a few weeks
trying to encourage Mark to think about what he had done, and the reasons
for it. He had a strongly ingrained habit of "forgetting" anything
that he found unpleasant to think about, and we felt it was important not to
let him to do that here. After a time though, we wanted to draw it to
a close. We didn't want him to feel that we would always be throwing it
back at him. I took him to a local garden centre, and we had some chips
and a drink together, as a treat, and then we went to a small local church to
say a prayer together. It marked the fact that he could put the fire behind
him and move on.
It reflects what we believe as Christians about the
way God forgives us.
How has having foster children in the family affected your own children?
It's lead to some difficult decisions at times. We had
one particularly difficult foster child who had a very disruptive effect on
the family. He just seemed to have this enormous need to provoke anger
in other people. He would niggle and niggle away at whoever he was with,
until they lost their temper. I think he felt that he knew where he was,
with anger, he knew how to react to it. Anything else made him feel insecure.
We considered our own children very carefully when we decided whether
we could keep him with us or not. We didn't want them to look back in
later years and feel that we'd never had time for them because we'd always been
dealing with this foster child. Yet on the other hand, we didn't want
them to look back and regret that we didn't do enough to give him a proper chance
at family life. Of course we took their opinions into account, but we
didn't want the final decision to rest with them. It wasn't their decision.
It wasn't a responsibility they were old enough to take.
Despite all the difficulties, are you glad to have been involved
Definitely. It can be immensely rewarding. There
was one young girl we fostered who came from a really bad home background. Both
of her parents had alcohol problems, and neither could hold down a job. It
was a hopeless situation. There seemed no way that the family could be
kept together, it just wouldn't work. The parents hadn't really realised
how bad the situation was so it came as a tremendous shock to them when their
daughter was taken in to care.
The mother became determined to create a stable home for her
daughter, and the father sorted himself out, and got a proper job, Within six
months the family were back together again. It was a real privilege to
have been involved in helping that to happen.
Even with Mark, who eventually we felt we couldn't cope with
any longer, we still feel glad that we could give him four years in a stable
There was another foster child who we took on holiday with
us once. He was a twelve year old who had seen things that no twelve year
old child ought to have seen. We had been on the beach for the day, just
messing about and relaxing. In a quiet moment towards the end of the day
he told me "I didn't know it was possible to have this much fun."
Interview by Claire Cullingworth
Names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the children.