Sarah Smith talks about her experience of becoming a foster parent during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for all parents, but especially for new foster carers who have welcomed children into their homes during a time of great upheaval, social restrictions and future uncertainty.
While in normal circumstances, foster parents would have welcomed their foster children with outdoor trips, activities and socialising, the lockdown has meant much more time spent at home. One foster carer, Sarah Smith, who is also a childminder, began the fostering application process through Hertfordshire County Council just before the pandemic began last year and attended the remote learning, meetings and visits necessary to become a foster carer. In September she welcomed her first foster child, four-year-old Matthew*.
Sarah is lucky in that she lives in idyllic surroundings – her family’s farm on the outskirts of Stevenage, with plenty of space to play, all within close proximity of her parents and sister, who has two young children of her own.
She says: “I’ve always wanted to foster ever since I was little – my sister says she can remember when I was about eight years of age and we both had our dolls. She would say, “this is my baby,” and I would say, “this is my foster baby”. “My grandad on my dad’s side of the family was in foster care, and then on my mum’s side, her mum and dad fostered, so that may have had an influence.”
When Matthew was first placed with Sarah in September, restrictions allowed a visit to a water park and some Christmas shopping, but the tightening of Covid rules soon made things more difficult. She says: “The cases were higher, the schools were off, and Matthew attended a nursery, so I made the decision, along with the social workers, to keep him with me fully until the lockdown restrictions eased and I think that helped him a lot.
“Keeping him away from school wasn’t a choice I took lightly, it was about making him feel secure, building up his self-esteem and making sure he wasn’t affected by all these changes. When he first came to me, he was only stringing three words together and now he is writing his name, knows all the alphabet and is starting to read. Now, everyone mostly understands what he is saying as his speech has massively improved.”
Sarah had to cut back on work when she started fostering. “I reduced the number of children I mind since looking after Matthew and now look after just five children, helped by one assistant,” she says. Doing so has helped Matthew not only in terms of time but space. “Having a separate childminding playroom is like having a second school for Matthew and it has brought him on massively. At first he played only solitary but now he’s like a social butterfly.”
Sarah admits it has not been easy. “I’ve had loads of issues to work through with Matthew. He couldn’t regulate his emotions, so I had massive tantrums. It helped having reward charts in place which helped him understand the
boundaries. He loves Mr Bean, so he’ll have a picture of Mr Bean on there! Or he loves Postman Pat or Spiderman – he always gets to choose,” she says.
Nevertheless, she has learned from experience and has advice for other foster parents. “If anyone is struggling during fostering,” she says, “I’d suggest that they go back to using a simple reward chart, because there is always going to be something the child will want, for example, an extra story at bedtime which Matthew loves. You can’t change everything all at once – don’t go into it with high expectations and think you’re going to be able to unpick everything straight away, it’s a gradual process.”
Overcoming the challenges has been very rewarding. Sarah recalls: “I remember during the last lockdown, Matthew running to me and literally just jumping into my arms and hugging me and I thought ‘this is what you read about when you learn about fostering’. I didn’t think it would be a reality, but it actually was, it really made me well up, I realised
he had made that attachment I’d always dreamt about.”
Prior to becoming a foster carer, Sarah was a childcare manager for the holiday company TUI, helping to write their childcare policies and procedure manuals. She also created activity manuals, wrote staff training guidance and managed training courses for 200-300 members of staff. She travelled all over the world making sure all the training was being put into practice, but after 15 years felt ready to think about fulfilling her dream.
So she set up her own childminding business from premises attached to her home and two years later in 2020 saw a fostering recruitment open day event advertised on Facebook which she went along to.
She was relieved to discover that because the premises were completely separate from her home, her set-up was perfectly acceptable.
A Hertfordshire County Council recruitment team member visited Sarah’s home the week before the first lockdown, starting the approval process.
“I had virtual meetings with social workers; I hadn’t done anything virtually, up to that point – I was tech savvy as I’d written online learning, but when it came to Teams and Zoom I had no experience,” says Sarah.
Being locked down at home actually turned out to have its advantages for the fostering application process as it gave Sarah more time to complete the weekly tasks set by the social worker and prepare her home.
“Because I had that time in the lockdown it was perfect, I got loads done,” she says. “As well as completing lots of tasks for fostering, I could sort out the playroom and the outdoor areas to make sure that when Matthew and the other children I look after came back, it was going to be amazing. I didn’t know how long we were going to be off for, and it felt like forever.”
She adds: “Once I was approved, I went on holiday for a week and when I returned, I got a call to say I was on stand-by. A week afterwards I was asked if I could foster Matthew.”
She is grateful for the support she received to get through the training and for ongoing help from her social worker and a network of fellow foster carers.
She says: “You get really good training and a really good support network. It was all virtual, but the people I did the training with we still keep in contact with, there was a group set up and we all talk and share opinions and advice, so that’s been a real lifeline for me during Covid.”
*Name changed to protect identity. Hertfordshire County Council currently has 1,000 children in care and needs to recruit 60 foster carers each year to meet demand. Picture: Sarah with her nephews Max and Lucas.