Ten years ago this week, I had a phonecall from a social worker, a call I never thought I would hear. "We've found a house, are you still interested in fostering?"
Rewind a little.
Fourteen years ago I hit the magic age when I was finally old enough to adopt and foster. And shortly after that, I hit an immoveable wall of "you're too young/too inexperienced/too naive/too single/too recently ill/too unlike our ideas of what a foster or adoptive parent should be". Several years of talking to agencies, sometimes getting past the first stages, starting to talk about specific children, only to be faced with another "sorry but" door slamming firmly shut. And then, back in November 1998, I had had enough. This time it had been closer. We'd been talking about an actual real child, a baby with a rapidly progressive condition and a very short life expectancy, who needed to leave hospital and experience home life before dying. And we started on the world's fastest fostering approval process. And then it happened; a more experienced (and already approved) fostercarer became available, the child went to that carer, and the urgency faded and all the problems which had been "I'm sure we can sort this out" became "oo I'm not sure what we'll do about that" again. And I told the social worker that was it, I couldn't do it any more, and the only way she would ever have me as a fostercarer was if she somehow solved the biggest stumbling block and found me a suitable house.
I went back to work, applied for a promotion, started a distance learning course, cancelled subscriptions to my adoption magazine, shelved fostering as a dream.
And then, out of the blue, the phone call. Was I still interested? Would I come and look at this house, and how quickly could we get the fostering application sorted out?
The story behind the house varies a little according to who is telling it, but this is the version as I understood it, ten years ago. The house belongs to a housing association - formerly Christ's Hospital but since sold on. The previous tenant had died. An elderly woman, the house had been partially adapted with a through-floor lift giving her limited access to parts of the upstairs. She had lived the past ten years in two rooms - the sitting room downstairs and her bedroom upstairs.
On her death, the housing association had hunted for other tenants waiting for an adapted house. And had found none - the house not being suitable for an independent disabled person, and not being popular with families with active children due to its location. So, they were in the process of arranging for the lift to be taken out and the various holes in the floor to be repaired. They made a phone call to adult social services, to see if anyone would be interested in a secondhand lift. My social worker happened to overhear, or perhaps the person they spoke to knew she was looking for an adapted house, or perhaps the messages she had left with different people did finally get through in the nick of time. However it happened, she became aware of the fact this house was empty and adapted, and remembered me.
She called the housing association and asked them to hold off on removing the lift. She called me to check I was still interested. Together, we went to see the house, to assess its suitability. And I signed a lease, conditional on my approval as a fostercarer.
We spent the next few months completing the form F (homestudy). As I plodded through work, which was going through some major changes and adjustments, she raced around visiting my referees, filling out the necessary paperwork, sizing up potential fosterchildren. And then the forms were filled in and submitted to panel, there was no panel in August, and so we waited for the beginning of September.
I was approved on the 3rd of September 1999, and my first foster child moved in the following day. Respite care; I was then working my notice up in Cambridgeshire, so I spent weekends fostering, then dropped the child off at one end of the county before driving in the opposite direction back to work. Days off inbetween spent driving home to paint and decorate and rid the house of the smell of incontinent old lady - an impossible task as it turned out, eventually the housing association removed the offensive floorboards and replaced them with ones which were not saturated in stale urine.
Eventually my notice period ended and I settled down. My first fosterchild was most disappointed when our new cooker arrived; he had assumed I was cooking on a Trangia through choice. Friends, family, and social workers combined to help furnish the house, and then a grant came through to complete the adaptations and make the place more suitable for physically dependent children. It felt as though that process took forever, but considering we moved in properly in September it can't have been that long, as in May 2000, nine years ago, my approval changed from respite and short term care to long term fostering, and my Goldie moved in, a small, thin eleven year old with wild, wild hair and a wicked grin.
She was my first girl; in the six months before her arrival I'd had four very different boys. The computer genius, the potato masher lover, the kite runner, and the physio king.
Ten years since the door to fostering finally opened. And ten children fostered in those ten years. It's not a huge number; I've fostering friends who have taken forty or more children in that same time period. But it it's enough for me. For now at least...