Ethel and I have fostered 67 children for Hampshire County Council, and provide emergency, short-term placements. On average, children have spent about three months with us, but we’ve had three siblings for about 18 months.
It all began over 20 years ago, when we had four children of our own, aged seven, nine, 11, and 13. We’d felt called by God to adopt or foster when we had been blessed with our lovely birth family, but, being in the Royal Navy and moving home every few years, it wasn’t really feasible.
Then, during the first period when my work was stable for a reasonable time, my wife and I independently heard radio advertisements from Hampshire County Council seeking carers for over-tens. After praying, we felt the Lord was calling us to take on this challenge. Fortunately, when we discussed it with our children, they were equally convinced that this would be a great idea.
Naturally, the family dynamic was significantly changed whenever a new child joined us. Our four coped extraordinarily well. We believe it was because they were covered with much prayer. They were totally secure in their understanding and feeling that, no matter how much love we gave to our foster children, that didn’t mean that there was any less for them.
Since we regularly had lots of other children playing in our house, having children living with us probably wasn’t as big a shock for our family as it might be for some.
Challenging behaviour is significantly difficult, but having to compromise, and not being able to do everything that we’d like for our birth children because of fostering constraints, was difficult in a different way. But seeing children blossom, begin a new life, develop their potential, and realise that they are loved — that’s been the most rewarding thing.
What’s most surprising to us is that “looked-after” children are so incredibly loyal to parents who haven’t — for whatever reason — treated them well. In some cases, they’ve neglected or abused them, and perhaps it might be said they don’t deserve much loyalty. The “blood is thicker than water” adage is astonishingly true.
We’ve always had good, or, at worst, satisfactory relationships with birth families of “looked-after” children. Indeed, we’ve trained some of them in parenting skills, which are so often lacking.
It’s very important to maintain a positive outlook, and our faith has helped enormously. God’s given us the strength to love the children and their families even though, on the odd occasion, we might not actually have liked one or other of them.
I’ve overcome that naval punctuality thing. My wife and I run cubs’ and scouts’ groups, and they never run rigidly to time. But people always know that I will turn up on time.
But foster children come with chaos, indiscipline, no routine — and need love and discipline more than anything else. You can’t impose too much in one go, but giving them sensible boundaries and guidelines helps. When I was in command of HMS Raleigh, which is the RN’s entry training establishment for people as young as 16, my aim was, rather than issuing orders, to suggest things, and to get them to have self-discipline.
We offer “therapeutic parenting” rather than normal parenting. You might say: “You want to go out — what time do you think it’s sensible to come back?” Generally they’re harder on themselves than you would be; so you can be more generous. If they’re late, you say: “Well, we’ll make it a bit earlier next time, so you’ll find it easier to hit the target.”
With one boy who came in late demanding his roast dinner, we had to say: “Your dinner’s gone, all gone: we’ve eaten it — though here’s some food for you.” He never missed another meal. He’d quite often go out afterwards, but that was fine.
I’m a member of the Magic Circle, and the Fellowship of Christian Magicians. My first paying show was almost 50 years ago.
And I also collect mechanical puzzles. I’ve got well over 10,000 of those. They were featured in the Daily Mail five years ago. It started when I was about nine, saving up to get a puzzle, and I saw a magician on my father’s ship, so I had a David Nixon magic set. And I like games of all kinds: I was the RN chess champion a few times.
This enables me to engage with the children very well, because I can give them ability-appropriate puzzles. I do magic for them, sing, juggle, play the guitar. I’m a mathematician by my first degree, and isn’t this what life’s about? Challenges, problems — finding the best way of addressing them?
I lead and preach at my local church, and help to run two toddler groups for about 50 children, and play guitar and sing. I also help run a monthly “Who let the Dads out?” group, a national father-and-toddler initiative, and an after-school club and evening youth group and drop-in for teenagers.
I’m determined to wear out, not rust out. We’ve cycled one and half times round the world so far. We cycled across Canada this summer. Our next cycling adventure is to pedal and tent around Ireland, then up Norway to Nordkapp and down to Paris. I’m 63 and Ethel’s just 61. Yes, foster parents do retire, but they usually go on long past standard retirement age.
We’ve certainly considered adopting some of the children, and prayed about that on a few occasions. Each time we’ve felt that we’ve not been called to do that, though, and that our particular skills and situation in life, and our family, better suit us to fostering, and that was what the Lord wanted us to do.
Before we went into it, we realised that saying goodbye to our foster children would be an issue. It is for anyone looking after anyone else, caring for and loving them. So we prepared ourselves mentally from before the start, and prayed about it. That didn’t, and doesn’t, make it easy. But we’ve always considered that “success” would be to give children a different view of things, show them love and discipline, and either get them back with their birth family — the ideal; or into a “forever family”. That’s worked for us, although babies do attach so much that it is indeed a huge emotional wrench for all foster carers. More than a few tears have been shed by foster parents over the years.
The children’s attitude to our faith varies from no interest at all, through general curiosity, to enjoying finding out a bit. Some teenagers say they’d like to come to church to “see what it’s about” — most never having been near a church — and then they meet the teens at Holy Rood, come with me to the youth clubs, and enjoy being with Christian children.
Mine wasn’t a Damascus Road experience. Rather, I grew up in a nominally Christian home with Christian standards and ethics, often praying by myself at bedtime, and reading my children’s Bible when I felt moved to do so. So I got a bit of head knowledge, and called myself a Christian, but because the local church thought that little children were a bit noisy, smelly, boisterous, and so on, our family went to church only on high days and holidays. But God didn’t let me slip away. When I was 13, we moved, and I was prompted to attend church on my own, singing in the choir, then taking my brother and sister, and getting us all confirmed. Faith’s been a long, slow development all through my life, from mustard seed to a much larger tree — and still plenty of growing to go, I’m sure.
I was blessed to have a very happy childhood in a loving family. Dad was in the Royal Navy, and served in the Far East during my first two-and-a-half years. There were no foreign trips for us, nor visits home for him, in those days. My mum made the family home, and brought up my younger sister, brother, and me. We had both sets of grandparents near by, so we saw them regularly, too.
A silly driver made me angry last. There was almost a very serious accident, and he or she only narrowly avoided killing a number of people by such appalling, enormously dangerous driving.
I’m happiest when I’m worshipping God, and when I am with my loved ones.
Jesus is the greatest influence on my life, but also my parents; Charles Dobbie — from a time when he led one of my prayer triplets, in the MOD main building in Whitehall; and my wife.
I pray most for the increase of God’s kingdom, and for specific folk to come to faith. A lot for peace, my family, and, more intensely, at any particular moment, about what’s most on my heart.
Since Jesus is always with me, I don’t need to choose him if I were to be locked in a church. But I’d love to chat to St Paul, since there are so many questions that I’d ask about what he wrote. I’m already enormously excited at the very thought.
Laurie Brokenshire was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.