Lancaster couple hope their foster care experiences will urge others to do the same

Foster carer Dianne Fenna-Winder with partner Bev Fenna-Winder
Foster carer Dianne Fenna-Winder with partner Bev Fenna-Winder

Up to 20 vulnerable children are looking for a safe new home in Lancashire every week.

Unfortunately, there’s a desperate need for loving families to help out the many youngsters urgently in need of foster care placements.

Harry, Tia and Alesha.

Harry, Tia and Alesha.

But, as one foster carer says, “if you’ve got a spare beroom you can do it”.

Dianne Fenna-Winder, who lives in Yealand Redmayne, describes becoming a foster carer as “the best thing she’s ever done.”

Along with her partner of 23 years, Bev, she is a permanent foster parent to a brother and sister aged 12 and 13, who cannot be identified.

The couple are also special guardians to three other siblings aged five, four and three.

Harry, Alesha and Tia.

Harry, Alesha and Tia.

“[The brother and sister] came to us three years ago,” Dianne, 59, said. “They were very nervous and scared, it was the first time they had been in care.

“I remember it was very cold and dark the day they came, and we rushed around to make the house as cosy as possible for them.”

Dianne admits it was initially a struggle as the new family all got to know each other.

“Social services match you up as much as possible otherwise it will fail,” she said. “You need to know they will fit into your family.

Catrina Dickens, practice manager in Lancashire County Councils fostering and adoption recruitment and assessment team.

Catrina Dickens, practice manager in Lancashire County Councils fostering and adoption recruitment and assessment team.

“I think you have to be adaptable and have no preconceptions, just take the children on their own merits.

“Children are so vulnerable whatever their age. I will be honest, it can be hard at the beginning; there’s a getting to know each other period.

“The children were free spirits and it was obviously causing problems because they didn’t know where they stood and we were trying to give them some boundaries.

“They hadn’t been used to this kind of living, so we had a family meeting and it was such a turning point, we never looked back.

“After that they completely let their guard down.

“All we can do as foster carers is hold our hand out and do a bit of guiding and let them blossom.

“I will never forget the first time [the girl] reached up and gave me a cuddle.

“[Her brother] was an angry young boy when he came to us, but he now admits that what helped him was having those boundaries.

“After 12-18 months it was agreed they would stay permanently, and they have since been christened.

“We are very close. We are not the Waltons, we have our ups and downs, but communication is the key thing.

“So many people say to us that they couldn’t do our job, but anyone can do it,” Dianne said. “It’s just about understanding and communication.”

Two years ago, Dianne and Bev also became special guardians to three other children.

“I am their great aunt, and I heard they had gone into care and were going up for adoption and would be split up,” Dianne said.

“We couldn’t let that happen but it was a long process to get them here.”

The youngsters – Alesha, five, Harry, four, and three-year-old Tia – are all thought to have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, caused by their mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

The couple – who also have seven older children of their own between them, along with eight grandchildren and a great-grandaughter – first became foster carers in 2014.But when Dianne retired from running a fashion shop in Kendal, they decided the time was right.

“It’s something we had always wanted to do but life took over,” Dianne said.

“We knew we enjoyed all the family being around and having the hustle and bustle.

“One day I noticed that all the tins in the cupboards were lined up and the grass in the garden was perfectly cut, and we decided it was time for a change.”

The couple underwent six months of rigorous training and assessment before taking in their first children, a young brother and sister being removed from a domestic violence background.

After 12 months they were returned to their mother, having given her the chance to move to safety.

“It was a massive success story and we are still in touch with them,” Dianne said.

“People ask how we don’t get upset when they go home, but we have just held them for a little bit. They want to be with their mum if they can be and to see them go back is a success.

“It can be tough but it’s so wonderful to see the children are so happy now.

“We watch these children that have come with their problems and to see them blossom is quite emotional.

“You can’t judge the parents; I always think ‘there but for the grace of God’.

“The children will come with problems but those problems can be resolved with patience and support and boundaries and communication.

“As a foster carer you have got to be an advocate for them because you are the one that knows the children.

“It’s about fighting their corner.

“It’s the best thing we have ever done. We know we will do it forever, I can’t imagine a house not full of kids now.

“It’s a nice life and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Bev, who is 66 and works part-time as a fee-paid tribunal member, added: “Anyone can do it but only they will know if it’s right for them.

“If you are thinking about it then there’s a seed there. Explore that interest, talk to other foster carers.

“You might find it’s not for you, but if you have got a spare bedroom then you can do it.

“Social services work very hard to match you a placement that fits your family.

“You integrate the children into every aspect of your family.

“At the end of the day foster families are like any other family, and we are privileged to be able to do it.”

Catrina Dickens, practice manager in Lancashire County Council’s fostering and adoption recruitment and assessment team, advises anyone considering fostering to get in touch with her team.

“The process can be quick and easy, it’s usually four to six months from enquiry to approval,” she said.

“It’s very detailed, there are lots of statutory checks to make sure people are suitable to look after our vulnerable children.

“But speaking to people it’s quite an enjoyable process. Our social workers are quite sensitive when doing the assessment. It’s a supportive process and preparing them for the role.

“It’s about making sure you are fit and well and able to look after children. There’s lots of ongoing support for the families. There aren’t any barriers to becoming a foster carer and it’s a very supportive process.

“If anybody is unsure about their family circumstances we can offer any advice and guidance.”

County Coun Susie Charles, cabinet member for children, young people and schools, said: “In Lancashire, we have 1,923 children in our care and we need more people to provide the support and stable homes that these children and young people need to really thrive.

“We are always looking for new foster carers to look after the range of children who come into our care each week, with the greatest need being for foster carers for older children, sibling groups and children with additional needs.

“We have increased our allowances to foster carers this year in recognition of their valuable role in providing loving homes for the children in our care.

“No formal experience or qualifications are needed, all we ask is that you have a spare room available and a desire to make a difference to a local child’s life.

“People have a lot of preconceived ideas about why they might be ruled out as foster carers but the only thing that matters is the support you can offer the child.

“Whether you are older, single or never had children, you can foster. Foster carers don’t need superpowers, they just need to be able to provide a solid and reliable foundation for children and young people to find theirs.

“We know that fostering doesn’t just improve the lives of the children and young people who are fostered, it also has the potential to enrich the lives of foster carers, their families and all those who are involved in fostering.”

New foster carers can expect to receive between £241 and £300 per week for each child they care for.

A package of support is available 24/7 to help foster carers in their role, including local support groups, their own social worker, a dedicated helpline and flexible training.

For more information about becoming a foster carer, or to find out more about the campaign, call the fostering recruitment team on 0300 123 6723 or visit the website www.lancashire.gov.uk/fostering