Every 22 minutes, a child in the UK needs a foster family. But a shortage of people willing to take in a child in need means thousands go without. Liz, 19, was one of the lucky ones.
It was a stop-gap. She was only meant to stay for two weeks. But the instant the stroppy, wayward teen stepped through Debbie Hearson’s front door, it felt like home.
An incredible change began in 15-year-old Liz from that day on. After being taken into care at the age of four, Liz had grown up in a succession of foster families. She had always felt the outsider and had become determined to fend for herself and rely on no one. It felt safer that way.
And finally, she had hardened her little heart and told social services she wanted no more of foster care. She wanted to live on her own in a bedsit at a council-run residential unit.
“I thought I’d look after myself; that way no one could hurt me, or be hurt by me, ever again,” recalls Liz. “I’d given up on everything and everyone.
“I look back now and realise how sad that was and what a bad place I was in emotionally. I couldn’t bear to bring my guard down and let anyone in. It seemed too much effort to try to get to know someone and get that feeling of love and belonging, then maybe have it all taken away again,” she says.
She remembers as a young child longing for love from her parents, then standing at the gate of her first foster family’s home and crying for her mummy and daddy to come and get her and make everything all right. And she describes that pain and longing changing as she grew older into anger and defiance.
“I was with a succession of foster carers I couldn’t bond with. I was unhappy and constantly playing truant and running away,” she remembers.
“I’d go missing for long periods of time. One night when I ran away and had nowhere to go I slept rough in Norfolk Park. I slept behind a tree, in my coat.”
Now 19, Liz reflects: “I didn’t have any fear of what might happen to me that night. I had so little love for myself and so little sense of self-preservation I didn’t actually care if anything happened to me.”
She shudders at what might have become of the lonely, insular little girl she once was, had she not met Debbie.
She sees it as fate; social services needed a safe place for her to stay for two weeks until her residential place became available – and as luck would have it, Debbie Hearson had a place.
“I arrived as Little Miss Independent, only there until I could start my new life,” she says. “But living with Debbie was so different to anything I’d ever experienced. It was just... Harmony. I think I fell in love with her after three days.
“Debbie was patient, she was calm, she was kind and loving – she was everything I needed. And all of that was in the first week of my being there.”
Liz realised she wanted to stay long-term at Debbie’s home in Abbeydale Road and asked her surprised social workers to make it possible.
“I couldn’t believe it when they said I could; I was so happy. I had a lovely room and everything I wanted, even Marks and Spencer’s food for my tea, and Debbie’s daughter Megan was lovely. It was like rehab.
“But the best thing was we would sit up into the early hours, eating cheesecake, talking and crying. It was like someone had taken the tape off my mouth. All the stuff I’d bottled up for years came out. Kids who have had lives like mine need to talk.”
In Debbie’s home, also shared by a younger foster child, Liz blossomed; her attendance record at school shot from 14 per cent to 98 per cent; within the year she had gained eight GCSEs at A to C grade. And she had found a sense of belonging.
This is my family now and forever,” she says. “It’s an amazing thing that Debbie made a girl who believed she didn’t have anyone feel that way. She chiselled away all the bad bits of my life, bit by bit, polished me up and made me better.”
Liz has a part-time job and career aspirations – she would love to be an undertaker. And last June she moved out to live in her own maisonette.
She says, grinning at Debbie, with whom she is in constant contact: “I’d had my time there, Debbie had made me all better and the time had come for me to move out so that some other sad little kid could come and get some rehab.”
n “Becoming a foster carer can be a truly rewarding experience as this heartwarming tale illustrates,” says Coun Jackie Drayton, Sheffield City Council’s Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Families, in National Foster Care Fortnight.
“It also highlights the fact that fostering is not just for young children and that it is never too late to make a difference to a young person’s life.
“I would encourage everyone who is thinking about fostering to come forward and make that difference. Fostering is open to anyone from any background so please pick up the phone today.”