Gay dad explains the simple truth of being a foster carer: ‘It’s hard, but I feel lucky’
To mark LGBT Fostering Week, we spoke to a gay dad-of-two who’s also a full-time foster carer.
When Stephen was offered voluntary redundancy at the start of the pandemic, he knew it was an opportunity for him to fulfil his lifelong dream of fostering.
He and his husband Colin jumped at the opportunity, and they haven’t looked back since. Stephen has now been a full-time foster carer for over a year, and during that time, nine children and teenagers have gone through their home.
It was between the years of 2014 and 2016, when the Essex-based couple were adopting their two children, that they first started to think about fostering. Both men were keenly aware of the challenges facing so many young people in the care system, whether they’re there for short term or long term stays. They knew they had the resources and the passion to help some of those children and teenagers weather a difficult, often traumatic time in their lives.
“Working with young people has always been a passion of mine,” Stephen tells PinkNews. “I met so many children along the way throughout our adoption process that were in foster care, and it just resonated with me that I could do more than just adopt these children – I could also foster them and look after them.”
Stephen and Colin quickly discovered that the care system is relatively straightforward. When a child or teenager enters the system, a local team will decide where is best to place them. If selected, Stephen and Colin then have the chance to decide if it’s right for them.
“I’ll discuss it with Colin and we’ll work out if that’s the right fit for our family, because as much as it’s about the foster children, it’s also about our other children as well and making sure that fits and there’s not too much clashing,” he explains.
Stephen and Colin still maintain relationships with teenagers they’ve fostered
They’ve been approved for both short and long term stays, but so far, they’ve only cared for children and teenagers temporarily. While the stays have been short, they’ve formed powerful bonds with the young people they’ve helped.
“All the children or young people we’ve had, they’ve either gone back to their families or they’ve moved on to different placements that are more suited to them,” Stephen says.
That comes with its own challenges, of course. Inevitably, foster carers become attached to the young people they’re caring for. If and when they move on, whether that’s to return to their own families or to a new family, it can be difficult to adjust.
“I think to be a foster carer you need to have that attachment,” Stephen says. “It does hurt when they leave you – of course it does, because you’ve had these people in your home for months or years sometimes, and you build that connection with them. Any child or teenager that comes through our doors, once they’re here, they’re part of this family unit. That’s not to take them away from their family unit, but they’re treated like they’re one of our children – they’re treated the exact same, so you do build a bond with them.”
I still have that relationship with them – we’ve got one coming around this weekend because it’s her birthday.
Luckily, the end of a fostering placement doesn’t necessarily mean that that relationship has to end. Stephen and Colin have kept in touch with many of the teenagers they’ve cared for.
“I still have that relationship with them – we’ve got one coming around this weekend because it’s her birthday,” Stephen says. “I still get Instagram and Facebook messages from them, some turn up when something’s not gone right and they want some support.
“It is hard to say goodbye, but also I’ve been on the other end of that where I’m taking a child from foster care and I now know how that feels, so when you’re leading that child on to adoption or back to where they want to be, you know they’re going to the right place. It makes it a bit easier to know they’re going back to mum or dad if it’s the right option for them, or they’re going to a family member.
“It is hard – I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘No, it’s not!’ because actually if I did say that, I probably shouldn’t be a foster carer.”
They’ve helped young people feel ‘safe’ for the first time
It might be hard for foster carers to let go, but Stephen mostly just feels lucky that he’s able to have a positive impact on a young person’s life.
“People say, ‘These kids are so lucky to have you,’ but actually I feel quite lucky to have them come into our lives. Each of them teach me something and I respect all of them because they’re so resilient – especially the teens, because of what they’ve been through, they build up this wall and you have to slowly start taking the bricks out for them to trust you.”
Stephen recalls one powerful conversation he had with a teenage girl who spent just one week living with them.
“She said to me, ‘For the first time in years, I felt safe. You’ve made me feel safe.’ That was probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever heard throughout any of the career choices I’ve made, to know that this young, vulnerable person felt safe just by us opening our doors and cooking her a meal and showing her affection. It will stay with me forever.”
Stephen knows that countless other LGBT+ people out there are likely considering going down the fostering route but might feel unsure about whether or not they’re the right fit. He has some simple advice.
“For anybody to come into fostering, what you’ve got to have is a massive heart, you’ve got to have a spare bedroom, and you’ve got to be resilient. Sometimes you’re called some not very nice things and you might witness some not very nice things, but none of it is personal to you – it is to do with what that young person has been through. It’s their way of showing you, ‘I’m hurt and I need your help and support.’ So you do have to be resilient, you have to pull your big boy pants up sometimes and get on with it and say, it’s not about me, it’s about you.”
A lot of our children are identifying as non-binary or trans or gay or lesbian – I think it’s great for them to have someone who understands what they’re going through.
Stephen is also eager to dispel some myths about fostering. He still meets LGBT+ people who don’t know that they’re eligible to foster – many wrongly assume that queer people are excluded from the system.
“It’s really important that we dispel that myth,” he says. “What’s great is we’ve had children that identity within the LGBT+ community and they’ve taught me all sorts of things about what it actually means to be non-binary, for example. So they feel welcomed and we probably understand their story a little bit more because we’ve been through something similar with coming out.
“A lot of our children are identifying as non-binary or trans or gay or lesbian – I think it’s great for them to have someone who understands what they’re going through.”
If you’re interested in fostering in Essex, you can find out more information here. If you’re elsewhere in the UK and would like to know more about fostering, you can visit the UK Fostering website here.
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