Other People's Children - Fostering

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?Burning Barn

 

Graham

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.

 

Jenny
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.

 

 

Graham
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?

 

Graham
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..

 

 

Jenny
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!"

 

 

Graham
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?

 

Jenny
The power of grace, as well as punishment. Forgiveness can be really powerful.

 

 

Can you give an example of that?

 

Jenny
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.

 

 

Graham
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.

 

 

Jenny
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.

 

 

Graham
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.

 

 

Jenny
It reflects what we believe as Christians about the way God forgives us.

 

Fostering

 

How has having foster children in the family affected your own children?

 

Jenny
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 in fostering?

 

Jenny
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.

 

 

Graham
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.

 

 

Jenny
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 loving home.

 

 

Graham
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.