Fosterers who give refuge to troubled teenagers

Chelsea with foster parents Gordon and Sandy''Photos: Steve Ellis
Chelsea with foster parents Gordon and Sandy''Photos: Steve Ellis
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Teenagers - who’d have ’em?

It’s the familiar chant of parents being driven up the wall by adolescent offspring pushing the boundaries.

They grit their teeth and get on with it. But what happens when the teens in question should be someone else’s problem?

There are thousands in care, desperately in need of the stability, support and normality of family life, at a crucial stage on their journey to becoming adults. Yet many never get it because foster carers are reluctant to taken them on.

A new survey of 128 fostering services found that finding families for teenagers is now their top priority. Almost all of them cannot find enough foster homes for teens, with 11 to 15-year-olds -who make up two fifths of kids in care - being the hardest age group to place.

“Teenagers have has always been one of the most difficult age groups to find homes for, but these figures show that the situation is getting worse,” says Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, the UK’s charity for all involved in foster care.

“Teenagers are missing out at a stage in their lives when a good foster family could make all the difference, helping them to achieve at school and prepare for adult life.”

A major UK-wide recruitment campaign to promote fostering and highlight the urgent need for more foster carers has been launched in Foster Care Fortnight.

And in Sheffield, City Council bosses have introduced a new salary scheme to create a new breed of ‘career foster carers’.

Says Liz Spaven, Sheffield City Council’s Fostering Service Manager: “We have a dedicated team of more than 230 foster carers, but with 600 plus looked after children we urgently need more, especially for children over 10 who need a longer term home and for brothers and sisters who need to stay together.”

The new scheme, which is linked to a foster carer’s skills, pays on average £20,000 and up to £30,000 a year.

Coun Jackie Drayton Council Cabinet Member for Children and Young People’s Services, said: “There are hundreds of children who desperately need help so that they can have a roof over their heads and the potential to grow up in a happy, loving home.”

For more information, go to or call (0114) 273 5075

So why would you take on a teenage boy in court more times than he is in school - seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction?

What would make you share your home with an angst and hormone-ridden girl who thinks she’s so unloveable, she slashes her arms and believes the boy she hardly knows who wants sex with her in the park is showing her affection?

Because you wholeheartedly believe that every child deserves a caring childhood - and you have the courage to help the ones who never had such a thing on the journey to becoming a well-adjusted adult.

Grimesthorpe couple Sandy and Gordon have fostered 18 children, mostly teenagers. That is what drives them, even at the hardest of times with the most troubled of children.

You might think you’ve got it rough with your teenager, but imagine having a relentless succession of them, arriving at your door with a fresh set of troubles and issues. If the walls of their stylish semi could speak. Sandy, just 5ft 2ins, has been on the receiving end of many a violent teenager’s outburst while Gordon has had to deal with truanting and tantrums. The pair of them have had to cope with hundreds of rows, sulks and strops - and must be on speed-dial to the local police station, so many times do foster children run away. Yet they insist: “It is so rewarding. You can’t win them all and you won’t. But when you do make some progress, it makes you feel you’ve given a child a chance they wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t come to you.”

Gordon, a straight-talking 64-year old, adds: “Children end up in care through no fault of their own. If no one no one shows them what normality is, they are highly likely to end up as prison fodder. Somewhere along the line, we have to stop that happening.”

It sounds like it’s their vocation, yet that is not why they became foster parents.

“It was never our goal in life,” says Sandy, a mum of one. Rather, it was about looking out for several young members of their own family who needed a stable home.

“Once they had either grown up or been adopted, we thought we could relax. Only, we found that too boring.”

She decided to leave her well-paid job as a medical secretary and be a full-time foster carer with private agency Foster Care Associates.

“Colleagues thought I’d lost the plot. I was 53. They thought I should be winding down, not taking on troubled children,” she grins.

The pair decided to specialise in teenagers. “We’ve always felt we can get on better with older children. We are good at problem-solving, reasoning and talking things through,” she explains.

The couple make no bones about saying fostering changes your life totally. “It IS full-time, which impacts on your social life,” warns former Thornbury Hospital worker Gordon.

“You can’t leave a 16-year-old foster child home alone while you pop to the supermarket, like you could your own. You might even lose friends Some of ours didn’t want a child with problems impacting on their lives.

“They dwindled away, leaving the good friends who embrace what you do.”

There are no regrets, though. “Children come to you with so many issues; we see them as challenges,” says Sandy, now 63. “Some children have come from loving homes but with personality problems their families couldn’t cope with. Many more have been subjected to terrible neglect or pain. Their emotional scars are so very difficult to heal.

“We have been given extensive training on coping with attachment disorder; that really opens the door,” Sandy explains. “Children whose cries have gone unanswered and their needs un-met become unable to form attachments in the way nurtured children do. Neurons in their brain actually die.

“But there are ways of gaining their trust and helping them to form bonds with people.”

Much of a faster carer’s skills involve managing to remain calm in the face of provocation. “The reaction they got from their parents is what they want to replicate, even if it was violence or abuse. They want it because it’s what they have known from Day One,” adds Sandy.

Sandy tackled one teenage girl’s tantrums by one day throwing herself to the floor and mimicking her.

“I screamed and wailed, banged my head and pulled my hair. She stood up and told me how ridiculous I looked. I said: “I know. I’ve seen you doing it often enough.” She never did it again.” says Sandy.

She has now penned her own story, the book Angels Do Tell Lies, available from

Foster Care Associates ( or call 0800 023 4561) is the UK’s largest independent fostering agency, with offices in Sheffield and Doncaster. It often specialises in placing more challenging children and its carers are given a higher fee, FCA carers of all ages and backgrounds are needed across Yorkshire.

Chelsea’s anguish revealed in letters

A trade of handwritten letters, posted under bedroom doors in the dark of night helped Sandy unlock one little girl’s sadness.

She realised the letters were the only way Chelsea Wilkinson, the quiet child who had arrived with them at the age of ten, could express her feelings.

Her mother had struggled to look after her seven children.

Chelsea was one of five in care and had been labelled with “behavioural problems” at the residential home where she spent four years.

But at Sandy and Gordon’s, she blossomed. She learned to read and write, got 11 GCSEs and those little letters under the door helped her to express her fears and sorrows. They have gone right through her teen years with her.

Now 19, she is back with them - she moved out at 18 but discovered independence also brought loneliness and huge responsibilities - and with their support, is preparing to go to university in Doncaster to study criminal justice.

I wouldn’t be the person I am to day without Sandy and Gordon,” says Chelsea.

“And I still have Sandy’s letters.

“I remember sliding mine under her door and waiting for her replies. It was like having a penpal - and helped me to tell her how I was really feeling.”

One of Chelsea’s best friends is brother Shaun, 22, who also considers himself supremely lucky to eventually find caring foster parents.

Shaun is now a hairdresser and works for the Foster Care Association.

“We are the proof that fostering works,” he says. “I don’t want to think where I would be without mine.”