I’ve been paid over £100K to foster more than 30 children – but I’d do it all for free
Tina Bird, 59, is a foster carer from Derbyshire. She and her ex-husband Paul, 60, have fostered over 30 children over the last 12 years but she admits during Foster Care Fortnight (15-28 May) that some people are going into fostering for the wrong reasons…
Standing in my ten-bedroom house, I knew exactly what my friend was thinking. She had long admired our spacious home with its mod cons and ensuite bathrooms, not to mention the new cars on the driveway.
So when she mentioned that she was applying to be a foster carer because it seemed a good way to earn decent money, my heart sank. A few days later an agency asked us for a reference for this friend. But we refused.
Like other friends who have expressed an interest in fostering, we knew she was doing it for the wrong reason. Too many people think it’s a quick way to earn good money and all you have to do is put a roof over a child’s head and give them somewhere to sleep at night.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Fostering can break your heart, put family dynamics at risk and even break up your marriage, as I recently discovered
Rewarding highs and devastating lows
But I will be honest. Fostering can be a lucrative career. Some agencies pay up to £400 a week per child, so if you’re caring for say, six children at a time – which we have done – you will earn over £100,000 a year, although not all of that is salary and some is allowance.
But if you think it’s an ‘easy’ job, think again. Because while there are many rewarding highs it can also have some devastating lows. Fostering can break your heart, have a lasting impact on friendships, put family dynamics at risk and even break up your marriage, as Paul and I recently discovered. But would I do it all again? Absolutely.
Read more: 'My foster family changed my life'
My journey into fostering
It was 12 years ago that the idea of fostering first popped into my head. I was working at a little pre-school and there was a young mum who would bring in her son who had Down’s syndrome. She didn’t seem to be coping very well.
She was under the impression that he would ‘get better’ somehow and would often ask me to look after him after pre-school ‘for half an hour or so’ which always turned into longer. He practically lived with us for the first two years of his life and people would say to me: ‘I don’t know why you just don’t adopt him.’ But I couldn’t, he already had a mother.
As foster carers, you can never give up on these children. Too many people have done that already.
But that sowed the seed of the idea of fostering. Paul had a good job as a company director and we already had our large home, which we’ve now extended. Our eldest son Joe was 27 and had already moved out and our eldest daughter Bridie was 17 while our youngest daughter Nonie was seven.
We wondered how having another child in our family home might affect her but she was already the centre of our universe and a little bit spoilt so I thought perhaps it would be good for her to see that other children didn’t have the same kind of upbringing that she’d had.
Read more: Girl, 17, who spent 10 years in 24 different foster homes has finally been adopted by a loving mum
Paul was skeptical but we put our names forward to a fostering agency. Within three days, they had contacted us, asking us to train. We were surprised at how quickly things moved.
Within weeks, our first foster child, a 15-year-old boy arrived on our doorstep. He was an absolute dream and got on with Nonie like a house on fire. We had a lot of fun and he stayed with us for three years before moving out to independent living at 18 but he still keeps in touch now.
The boy didn't get on with our daughter but we had to make the best of it
Our second foster child was a boy called Tim*, who was five. It was a completely different experience. Tim was a very damaged young boy, as many foster children can be. He could be sneaky and manipulative and although he didn’t get on with Nonie, we had to make the best of it.
As foster carers, you can never give up on these children. Too many people have done that already. He is still with us today and has turned into a wonderful young man.
I was offered the first of many mother and baby placements. We have a mother and baby currently with us now. These are young women who have problems of their own – perhaps alcohol, drugs or domestic violence – and their baby is at risk of being taken away if they don’t get more support.
We look after mothers and babies too – young women with problems perhaps involving alcohol, drugs or domestic violence
Sadly, two of the mothers I’ve cared for have had their babies adopted since. I’ve had some very painful experiences but one that sticks out is a young mum who was a heroin addict but she was a fantastic mum.
However, she couldn’t give up the drugs and eventually her son was taken away and adopted. We still keep in touch with him and his new family, who are wonderful, but it breaks my heart that this young woman never got to see her son grow up.
Children coming and going
Over the years, dozens of placements would come and go. I’ve lost count of how many, but it's more than 30. Sometimes I’d have children for months, other times it would only be days. But I’m proud to say that I keep in touch with every single child I’ve ever fostered and also many of their parents. Every child feels like they can walk into the house and be welcomed any time, even now.
But it was 10 years ago, two years into our fostering career that a call came that would change our lives. Five siblings, all aged under eight had been found abandoned in a derelict house and could we take two of them? These little boys aged around six and seven arrived and even now thinking about what they looked like brings tears to my eyes.
Victims of neglect
It turned out that their mother had been deported and put in prison and DNA tests later found they had multiple fathers, but the man they had thought was their father had left them too, without any food, money, gas or electricity.
These children arrived and had nits and cold sores, their feet were sore and they had marks on them where they had been burnt by the man they called their father. They had no carpets, curtains or bed in the house. I distinctly remember that when they arrived in our house they couldn’t believe that they would have their own bed and bedding.
The following night we discovered that two of the other siblings had been put into another foster home, but could we take them too? Of course we could. Two little urchins – a boy and girl – arrived aged two and three, both with head lice and their bottoms sore from full nappies. Neither of them cried. They were simply silent, too traumatised to make a sound.
Then we discovered that there had also been a newborn baby at the house, who had gone to another foster carer. As we already had a baby placed with us for foster care, we couldn’t take him yet. But after a couple of years, we were allowed to foster him too.
Building a rapport
We had been warned that he was a traumatised little boy and he’d be lots of trouble but from the moment he walked in, he took off his shoes and bag and didn’t give us a moment’s trouble. He went to bed at 7pm, he ate his meals and was polite, kind and gentle. I think he sensed he was safe here.
One thing that most people don’t realise when you foster children is that it’s not like having your own children. You can’t grab them for cuddles, or tickle them or blow raspberries on a baby’s tummy. You can’t even get their hair cut into a different style without asking permission (although you can take them for a trim).
Read more: How to spot anxiety in a child – and how to help them
Many children have been abused at home and social workers often can’t tell you the extent. A simple cuddle might be a trigger that would make them think they are going to be abused. It’s heartbreaking and even today, one of my children has never had a cuddle from me.
You can only cuddle them if they initiate it, but even then you have to be incredibly careful. You don’t want to expose yourself to allegations of ‘he/she touched me’ etc and foster children can be manipulative and do unspeakable things.
Protecting the children
And you have to be wary when visitors – even family members – come round to the house. Again, you may trust them implicitly but you can’t risk leaving them alone with a foster child who might make up something about being touched.
After 10 years of fostering these siblings, we were told by social services that they needed to be adopted or moved to a cheaper care home. Not many people realise it but the sad fact is, that’s exactly what can happen.
The pressure of our foster careers was massive and Paul and I separated last year
Children can be settled with a foster parent for many years but if the Local Authority needs to make cutbacks and they decide that paying an agency – or a carer directly – costs too much, the child can be uprooted and sent to a different family or a care home at the drop of a hat. It trashes every kind of attachment they have ever formed so is it any wonder that so many children leave care, totally damaged and trusting no one?
We couldn’t bear for that to happen. We didn’t want these brothers and sister to be split up so we started the process to adopt all six siblings. Each of the children spoke to the court and told them why they wanted to stay with us and when it went through, the judge said he had never been so pleased to pass an adoption order. We were thrilled. They were now our children.
But the pressure of our foster careers was massive and Paul and I separated last October. We are still firm friends and love each other to pieces and he still lives here but we wanted different things out of life. He is still fostering with me and the children adore him.
We're now proud parents to our three biological children, six adopted children, plus other foster children that come in and out of our lives.
'Best mum in the world'
Mother’s Day is an emotional one for me. I don’t stop crying for most of the morning. They write the most beautiful cards to me – ‘You are the best mum in the world’, ‘Without you, we are nothing’ and ‘You are the kindest person we know.’
Don’t get me wrong, I have a house full of teenagers and pre-teens now and we have big arguments like any other house. But they know that I will always love them and always be there for them.
Read more: Couple ‘unschool’ their children, don't believe in medicines and let their kids make all the decisions
For anyone thinking of fostering, I’d warn them that it’s not an easy job. Go through a reputable agency such as the one I do like Banya.co.uk who provide good training and support.
There will be many lows but it’s worth it. I watch my little team of children go off to school each morning, all smart in their clean uniform and their packed lunches and my heart soars. I love them so much and I’m so proud of them and yes, although the money has always been useful, to give them the upbringing they need, but I absolutely know that I’d do it all for free.
*The name Tim has been changed to protect identity.