Finding temporary homes for children unable to stay with their biological parents is a challenging, but essential task.
Only last week did the charity Action for Children reveal that 42 per cent children in West Sussex were separated from their brothers and sisters - thought to be caused in part by a shortage in foster carers.
Children go into foster care for a variety of reasons. It can be due to a parent’s ill health or death or because a child has been neglected or abused.
For some young people who have a disability the council can also share their care with their parents.
Billie, 18, has been in foster care for three years and is the 58th person her foster parents have cared for.
She explained what it has meant for her.
She said: “It’s giving someone a life, somewhere to live. Not just somewhere to live, but a home with people who are going to love and care for you and give you what you need. Not just in terms or food and water, but love and care; working with emotional needs as well as material needs.”
Billie, who lives in Upper Beeding, now gives talks to prospective foster carers giving a young person’s view on fostering.
“It takes time to build trust and gain respect,” she said. “The respect has to got to be mutual. If there’s no respect from the carer, then there’ll be no respect from the young person.
“It’s not like Tracy Beaker. I watch that show and point out the problems with it. It’s not like Oliver or Annie either. That’s what people think.”
She often gets asked questions about her experience fostering.
“You’ve gone to stay at a friend’s house before. You think ‘when do I eat’, ‘when do they get up’. Imagine that for every day.
“It’s for your whole life. It took me two months to ask my foster carer if I could go to the toilet at nighttime. You can get kids who are really nervous for the first few weeks.”
There is often a reluctance to foster teenagers and the county council is doing a lot to ease the worries associated with it.
Billie has had to challenge people’s misconceptions.
She said: “The worst question I’ve been asked is ‘what did you do?’. My carer says she’s been asked that a lot.
“We are not in prison. We’ve just been badly treated. It could be that our parents are in hospital or they have died.
“I’ve had every professional tell me what happened was not my fault, but feel every day it was my fault. I may not ever get over it.”
A carer’s point of view
Nikki and her husband Tony, who live in Horsham, have been fostering children from babies to teenagers for about 11 years.
They are currently looking after four children, including three siblings. They also have a teenage son of their own.
She said: “We’ve had teenagers and they haven’t wrecked our house, they haven’t put our son through bad experiences. They have been fairly respectful.
“If they’re given the trust and time and boundaries, which they have often haven’t had, they start to trust you and grow in themselves. It’s remembering it’s adults who have put them in the position they are in now.”
People thinking about foster care may also worry about the affect it might have on their own children.
Nikki added: “I think our son has benefited from it because he’s very aware of the wider world and of different cultures, that life is not perfect. He is very good with the children.”
As well as carers for teenagers, the council needs people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Nikki said: “We have fostered children from other cultures and religions and we’ve learnt a lot. We had two who were Muslim.
“I met the Imam’s wife, went on courses about Muslim culture. We had to learn to do what was required for that child to live in our house, but follow their religious needs.”
In an ideal world children would be housed with a family practising the same faith as their birth parents.
Who can foster?
The county council has more than 400 foster carers on its books, but with six children or young people needing a home each week, the council is short of about 50 carers.
There are few restrictions on anyone becoming a foster carer. People can be married, divorced, single, homosexual, unemployed, rent or own their own home - the possibilities are endless.
The most important thing is that they can provide a loving and stable environment for the child or children.
WSCC team manager for fostering Amanda Hemming explained: “There are misconceptions around, not so much of who your are as a person, but that you have got to have some sort of marriage or own a home.
“We have worked really hard to say this is not true. Our foster carers are all ages and from all walks of life.
“You have to be able to share your home with a child, but allow professionals in and work with the birth family.
“You need to be a fairly forgiving person - people who are not judgemental or want to punish the birth parents for what has happened.
“That is understandable, but you have to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
Service manager Mary Blanchard added: “Those children usually love their parents and wish they would stop doing what they’re doing. You tell the child what the parents did was wrong, not the parent themselves is bad.”
Foster parent Nikki agreed: “Each child is different and each situation is different, but most children adore their parents whatever the situation.
“They want to know they are loved, looked after and make sure they are safe, but most of them want photos up. Those things are really important to them.”
The council finds people are sometimes reluctant because of their own background.
Amanda said: “Quite often people think if they have had difficult stuff in their lives, that will exclude them.
“If people have struggled with their own stuff, but come through it, they can reflect on it. They can be exactly the right people to give support to that child.”
The benefits of foster care can go beyond the family home. Billie said: “I would not be doing what I’m doing (if it weren’t for fostering). I was very shy, very scared.
“I can never remember a time in my life when I wasn’t scared. Now as an adult, I can look back on things. I wouldn’t know what safe was.
“Now I’m very sociable, very happy. If I saw (my mum) again, I would tell her what she did by leaving me: she gave me a better life. I am happy now, I’ve got qualifications. I’m almost a whole person and that’s good.
“That’s what foster care has done for me.”
There is a range of fostering options to suit everyone. They include:
l Long-term - This is often an alternative to adoption where it is not possible for a child to return to living with their own family. They can grow up in a foster home while having contact with their birth parents.
l Short-term - It is not always clear how long the child will need to be in a foster home. Short-term foster carers work with the child to help them return to their birth family or move on to a long-term foster family.
l Short break - where children with disabilities spend short periods away from home to support the parents and enable them to share the care of their child.
l Emergency - where a child is provided somewhere safe to stay for up to two weeks.
For more information go to www.westsussex.gov.uk/fostering