MARTIN SMITH: Meet the new faces of city’s fostering

FOSTER PATRENTS  Left Royce Simpkins and Martyn Oldfield pictured at their Gleadless Common home.
FOSTER PATRENTS Left Royce Simpkins and Martyn Oldfield pictured at their Gleadless Common home.
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Openly gay couple change perceptions of parenting

ROYCE and Martyn aren’t your average foster parents. In fact they are unique in this city.

Openly gay and looking after boys aged ten and 12, they are the new face of fostering in Sheffield. And, apparently, we need more just like them.

Sheffield has a huge shortfall in foster parents - around 600 children need caring for and there are only 230 foster carers - so much so that the city council has launched its biggest-ever recruitment drive, offering up to £30,000 a year to experienced carers.

Royce and Martyn have been carers since July last year. They see this as their chance to help.

“I don’t want people to think that we think they are our children,” said 46-year-old Royce, at the couple’s Gleadless home.

“We’re not doing this to have our own gay family, we are not saying we’re gay, we want a family, we’re not trying to be Elton John and David Furnish.

“I look at it as being long-term babysitters for these children, to give them a helping hand in life they might not have been getting at home.”

The couple, who married in a civil ceremony in 2007, became registered foster carers after going through the training, counselling, police and medical checks that all would-be foster carers go through. They have cared for seven children, all boys, since.

Royce, who has two children of his own from a previous marriage, was a foster parent while he was married to his first wife.

Both men realise there will be people who strongly object to two gay men fostering children.

“A lot of people think it’s wrong, a lot of people think why would two gay men want to foster?” said 39-year-old Martyn Oldfield, who runs his own hypnotherapy practice.

“But it is so rewarding to be able to give kids a loving home.

“It’s hard work but the emotional rewards are fantastic for everyone concerned.”

So how do the foster children react when they are placed with a gay couple?

“We don’t tell them we’re gay.We let them work it out for themselves, it grows on them gradually. They ask us if we are brothers and if we have bedrooms of our own but there are clues around the house,” said Martyn.

“There’s a picture of us at our wedding and there are fridge magnets made of our pictures and in one of them we’re kissing. One of the lads saw it and said ‘Why are you two kissing?’ and then said: ‘Oh, you’re a couple, why didn’t you tell me?’

“We said: ‘If we had would you have reacted differently?’

“He said ‘yes, I would, because I don’t like gay couples. If I had walked past one in the street I would have been disgusted’.

“We asked him what he’d learned from that and he said: ‘I’ve learned not to judge people so quickly’.

“He was able to tell his family that gay people are alright.”

The two men are aware, as all foster parents have to be, of the way they behave with each other around the house.

“They do not see us kissing or holding hands,” said Martyn.

“Once they have gone to bed, we can lie on the settee and cuddle up to each other like any other couple,” added Royce.

“In our opinion, we do not want them to see any signs of over-intimacy. Even if we were straight, I don’t think that would be appropriate.

“One of the boys was on the phone having his regular chat with his dad, and he told them he was living with a gay couple and the first thing his dad asked him was ‘What have you seen?’

“We know some people don’t agree with the way we live and we have to use our common sense. We have a Code of Practice that all foster carers have to follow called Safe Care Rules.

“For example, we are not allowed to sit on the child’s bed, not even to tell them a bedtime story.

“We have to keep a diary of every day and every event that the social worker checks every month. Our bedroom is our private environment. The kids have to knock on the door and wait for us to let them in, otherwise they’re not allowed in.

“I have a friend who is applying to be a foster carer directly as a result of seeing that we have done it. Our advice is that if it’s in your head that you want to do it then go for it.

“We are being open about who we are. We want to try and break some of the stereotypes about foster carers – it is not always people with a nice house, two cars and a Mrs washing pots indoors.Anyone can do it.”