JESSICA Berg knew her family life wasn’t like most of the other children she knew.
She didn’t spend her time playing with other kids – she was busy looking after her siblings as a result of a fractious home life.
“I knew my family life wasn’t normal but I didn’t know any different so I didn’t think anything of it,” says Jessica, 16. “It was horrible – I was looking after my brother and sister all the time.”
She was removed from the home six years ago as a result of a care order and placed with her foster parents Sue and Phil.
Now she has the ‘normal’ life she never knew.
“We do things that families do and I could never imagine going back to where I was before I came here. We do things like watch films together and go to the cinema.”
Before being placed with the Bergs at their Greasbrough home Jessica was attending school only once every two weeks.
But now she’s studying health and social care at college and wants to work with special needs children when she qualifies. She also sits on the interviewing panel for fostering agency Team Fostering, which found Jessica her home with the Berg family.
She calls the Berg household ‘home’ and has become part of the family and sees the Bergs’ two children – Megan, 10 and Cameron, 13 and one other foster care child – as siblings.
“It is hard when you first go into another home and you do get bullied at school but you have to remember that life can only get better. There are ups and downs and you don’t find the perfect carer straight away.”
But this wasn’t the first time Jessica had gone into care. She was taken away from her family when she was a child.
And her experience is by no means unique.
The number of children going into care has reached 10,000 for the first time, a 10.8 per cent increase on last year.
In Sheffield, however, the number of care applications has actually decreased in recent years. Where nationally there has been a 10.8 per cent rise in care applications, in Sheffield there has been a nine per cent drop.
This – according to Matthew Sampson, manager of Sheffield City Council’s children and families department – is because the council’s children’s service is keen to intervene with problem families as early as possible.
“We work hard to identify issues early on in order to resolve them and to support and maintain the family unit, says Matthew.”
According to Matthew, evidence suggests that children fair better if they remain with their families. “Research shows that children do better when they stay with their families – as many as 25 per cent of offenders are young people who have been in care.”
Early intervention also cuts costs. Sending a child into state care costs a local authority tens of thousands of pounds.
Yet, despite evidence that children remaining with their families is beneficial, there are cases such as that of Jessica that suggest otherwise.
Sue Berg, Jessica’s foster mum, says that since has been in a loving, secure and stable home she has flourished as a young woman. “She has grown up to be a bright girl now and I don’t see her any differently from my own children. She likes the family life and all the things we do together as a family.”
Sue, who has been fostering for seven years, believes that children do well when they are given a routine, stability and a steady family environment.
“With Jessica, as soon as she settled in her grades improved at school – she really put the work in and really wanted to learn and make something of herself.”
Paul Dempsey, assistant manager at Team Fostering’s Sheffield branch, said. “There is a push to keep children with their families because people perceive care to be very bad. But Jessica is evidence that young people can do well in care.”
And, in line with what the council has reported, Paul says that Team Fostering have had fewer care applications for children in Sheffield than other parts of the country. “The number of requests for foster placements has doubled this year but not as far as Sheffield is concerned.”
The increase in care applications follows the publicity of the Baby Peter case in 2007. “That definitely had an effect on the number of care applications,” says Paul.
But in Jessica’s case, going into care has been a good thing. “You just have to stay positive – things can only get better.”