And at one time they were told they could not foster girls.
But attitudes have changed, and nearly 20 years later, having looked after more than 50 children, campaigned for disability rights and fought for equality and inclusion in the fostering world for the LGBTQ+ community, Michael Atwal-Brice has earned a top award.
The 38-year-old, who lives in Thurnscoe, Barnsley, with his husband Paul, has been invited to the Palace of Westminster on Thursday, July 7, to receive his British Citizen Award (BCA) from TV news presenter Naga Munchetty.
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Michael, who has four children of his own with Paul – two sets of identical twins, Levi and Lucas, aged 16, and Lotan and Lance, four – is one of just 25 people from across the country to have been selected for the honour.
“We’ve fostered a lot of children over the years, many with additional needs, and it means a lot to be honoured in this way,” he said.
‘It’s really rewarding helping foster children flourish and learn to trust people again’
“It’s really rewarding seeing them come, sometimes with nothing and really frightened, having suffered terrible neglect, and helping them get better, flourish and learn to trust people again. You get a lot back from that.
“We always promote fostering because there are a lot of children, especially those with disabilities or from large sibling groups, who need somebody to look after them and show them love.”
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The British Citizen Award, presented in partnership with One Stop, recognises ‘exceptional’ individuals who positively impact their communities, charities, and individual causes.
Paul, who is 44, got his in 2019, and the couple have also received The President’s Award – the fostering network’s highest accolade – for their commitment to social care and promoting the recruitment of foster carers from within the LGBTQ+ community and those from minority backgrounds.
‘There are always some people who will protest or who will troll you online but we tend to just block them, ignore it and move on’
They are ambassadors for the disability charities AFK Working With Disabilities and Caudwell Children, and they successfully campaigned to make cannabis oil available to people suffering the most complex and painful conditions, like Levi and Lucas, who have life-threatening epilepsy and use it to alleviate the severity of their seizures.
Over the years, Michael has also been at the forefront of the battle to ensure equal rights to marriage for all couples, regardless of their sexuality; he has set up support groups to help foster families; and, with Paul, he has raised thousands for charity.
Michael was just 21 when he started fostering, and as a gay couple he and Paul have suffered discrimination, including being told by one foster agency that they could not foster girls.
But he says a lot has changed over the last 17 years, with one in five UK adoptions now going through a same sex family and LGBTQ+ foster carers being much more common.
“There are always some people who will protest or who will troll you online but we tend to just block them, ignore it and move on,” said Michael.
“We’ve had so much support from the community in Thurnscoe, which is an old mining village. When we were raising money for new chairs for Levi and Lucas everyone here really got behind the appeal. People just see us as two dads. It’s a bit more normalised now.”