Foster parents tell of ‘best job in the world’

Tina and Graham Wallace. Picture: Julie Bull
Tina and Graham Wallace. Picture: Julie Bull
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THE tot wrapped in Tina Wallace’s caring arms grins a toothy smile, reaches out with stubby little fingers and gurgles happily.

Tina’s husband, Graham, is by his wife’s side, a healthy baby – a little younger – tucked close to his chest, while on the cream sofa in their living room there’s a dark blue and white carry cot, its contents barely a few months old, snuggled under the crisp covers in a deep slumber, little arms raised above a head of downy brown hair, tiny fists clenched tight.

“There’s four,” says Tina with a nod to indicate that yet another tot is somewhere upstairs in the family’s four-bedroom Corstorphine home, sleeping peacefully, content and, above all, perfectly safe.

Four little babies, among the most vulnerable of Edinburgh’s citizens, each with different parents and each brought to the home of two complete strangers to be given sanctuary and that most vital of baby requirements – love.

Tina whisks the two wide-awake babes off for a morning nap and remarkably they settle within minutes, not a cry or a whimper between them. Whatever technique foster care
“supermum” Tina has with babies is clearly working.

And that’s just as well, for with two primary school age children of her own to care for as well as four infants, life in the Wallace household could be quite fraught.

Instead it’s remarkably ordinary. And it’s to a quite normal home just like this one and to a devoted foster family similar to Tina and Graham’s that abandoned baby Charlotte – found, hours old, on a park bench in Wester Hailes – is now settling in.

The 5lb 7oz dark haired little girl with the rosebud pink lips, naked underneath her blanket, was discovered four weeks ago in Hailesland Park on a bench behind Kilncroft Stair. Passer-by Lawrence Liddell picked her up, took her to the concierge at nearby flats and called the police.

Pc Charlotte Work was in the car that drove the oblivious little passenger to hospital, later it seemed logical to hospital staff given the task of caring for her that rather being known forever as just “Baby”, she be given the officer’s first name.

Of course, Charlotte has no
surname as yet.

No-one has so far come forward to confirm that they are her family. No mum and no dad, but now, at least, a foster family who, like Tina and Graham, in a remarkable display of selflessness, have thrown open their ordinary home to a little stranger.

Precisely which foster family Charlotte is with is being kept secret.

What is known is that unlike some of the 118 babies under the age of 12 months taken into foster care
during 2012 – among them 35
regarded as so vulnerable and at risk they were placed “in care” while
still in the womb – she, at least, showed no signs of alcohol or drug addiction.

Sadly, some of the tiny bundles that have arrived in the past at Tina and Graham’s home straight from the maternity ward did bring with them their mother’s addiction to drugs or to alcohol, leaving them shaking violently, sneezing constantly and pining for whatever fix their little bodies craved.

“Some babies come to us with withdrawals,” nods Tina, 38, originally from Ireland and a former children’s nanny to a couple in London.

“Every baby is different. One or two had withdrawals but they didn’t show huge signs of it other than the sneezes and the shakes, so it wasn’t too difficult to deal with. But we know others can be affected much worse.”

A shortage of foster families plus ongoing demand for their services means there is a constant need for families like Tina and Graham to come forward.

Shocking figures from last summer revealed the equivalent of nearly one child every day is taken into care in Edinburgh amid fears that they are at risk of harm, leading to a new drive over the next fortnight for more foster families.

Tina was a new mum to son Ross, now ten, when the couple first considered throwing open their doors to other people’s children.

She applied to Edinburgh City Council, undertook a short training course and after extensive background checks was accepted as a foster mum, her role specifically to care for infants from newborns up to four years old.

As the couple got into the swing of it, Graham, 37, quit his job working in customer services at Standard Life to join Tina as a full-time carer.

It’s a role he says not only means the family has a better life-work balance, with more time to spend with their children Ross and Katie, aged eight, but is far more satisfying: “We are both at home now, so we can share the work.

“If there’s something on at the kids’ school, one of us can go and the other can look after the ones at home – it actually means Ross and Katie have us around more and not less,” he explains.

And while foster caring can often mean dealing with children who have gone through terrible neglect and abuse in their short lives, the pair agree they have learned to focus instead on the positive elements of their role – and the knowledge that they are helping to making fragile little lives better.

“You can’t help but be emotionally involved,” says Tina.

“You read what has happened to bring them here and treat it like a book that you then close.

“You don’t dwell on it because the whole point is to bring them forward, not back. You learn to be professional.

“Some of these children have a horrific start in life. Sometimes, so have their parents.

“To see families pull themselves through it and then get their kids back is absolutely amazing to watch.

“You work with families at the worst period of their lives, they are in trouble and they need help to get out of it,” she adds.

“Some families have to find incredible strength to get through, and when they do, it is fantastic.”

There are other families, points out Graham, who simply need a little support during troubled times – fostering can involve looking after a baby to help a mum through post natal depression, for example.

In one case, a baby brought to them for care spent all day, every day, being played with and looked after by its own mum who, unable at that point to devote everything she had to her baby, then left in the evening content in the knowledge that her child was in safe hands.

“One thing you learn is to have more understanding of what other people go through,” says Graham.

“Sometimes you can see the pattern developing, you see the parents have had a tough upbringing and are struggling as well. Some people might think ‘oh, it’s just a junkie’ but then you find out about their background and see they have had a life of problems, too, sometimes drugs is their escape route.”

Naturally it’s impossible to spend so much time and effort with the children they care for not to develop feelings for them. But Tina insists handing them over at the end of their stay, anything from a couple of months to a couple of years – is the best part of being a foster carer.

“People often say they’d find handing a child back would be too difficult. But it’s one of the nicest parts of what we do,” she adds.

“We get to meet the family they’re going to before it all happens, we see the trust building up and we can see that it’s good for them.

“Then once they leave, quite often we get Christmas cards and little letters from them afterwards.”

And while the couple struggle to add up exactly how many babies they’ve cared for – they reckon it’s currently running at the mid 20s – that’s not to say children who come and go and are forgotten.

Each leaves with a carefully compiled “memory box”, a collection of photographs, a first tooth perhaps, a favourite toy and little diary notes to remind them of the time they went to live with the Wallace family.

“I get up every morning with a smile on my face, I love our job,” says Tina, laughing off suggestions that fostering must surely be hard work.

“This gives us the freedom to be there for our own kids and to care
for them as well as other people’s kids. It’s the best job in the world.”

Demand for carers almost insatiable

THE number of children in foster care in Scotland is at its highest since 1981, leading to a constant need for more carers.

Figures for January to December 2012, showed 118 children under the age of 12 months were placed into social work department care. That compared with 143 the previous year. Of those, last year 35 unborn babies were considered to be at such risk that they were placed under an order to be immediately taken into care as soon as they were born.

The equivalent of nearly one child every day is removed from their family amid concerns for their safety and care.

Edinburgh City Council says it needs 50 new carers by December to meet the urgent need for homes for vulnerable children, and has launched a major foster carer recruitment drive.

Social worker Sean Dunn, who works with carers Tina and Graham Wallace, says foster carers from all kinds of backgrounds are needed.

“It’s nothing to do with the size of your house or where you live.

“There are different kinds of foster carers and there is support from the social work department so carers can

have time off to go on

holiday or to talk things through.”

Foster Care Fortnight runs until May 26 and involves a high-profile campaign on radio and billboard adverts, as well as a drop in event at the city council’s headquarters at Waverley Court tomorrow, when foster care recruitment staff and carers will be available to discuss what the role involves.

For details of events and guidance on how to become a foster carer, go to www.edinburgh.gov.uk/fostering, call 0800 174 833 or text FOSTER to 88600