When I was 13 I put myself into care after having an argument with
my father. I had stolen a chain and he hit me. I had a friend in
care who told me it was really great and that you could do whatever
you wanted. So I took myself to the police station, explained what
had happened and went straight into foster care.
For two days I was with an emergency carer and then I went to a
children’s home, where I was looked after very well. Like me, my
key worker at the home was black and this helped me discuss the
issues I had. I was shoplifting and getting on buses without
paying. The staff were interested in my schooling and I loved the
freedom as my father was way too strict.
But all that was about to change. Mrs Joseph, my prospective foster
mother, came to the home to speak to the staff about me. My social
worker discussed foster care with me and what it meant. I visited
Mrs Joseph for dinner and was nervous. She seemed nice and it was
agreed I would move in. I spent some of the best years of my life
with her and she was, and still is, loving, kind and patient. I was
never made to feel inferior because I was fostered and all of her
family made me feel welcome. She was just like my mum. At every
review my views were listened to and I knew I never wanted to leave
her home. At times I was very stroppy teenager but she coped
brilliantly with me.
After finishing college I moved into a flat and took my first job
in a nursery. I went on to work for local authorities and
Barnardo’s. I saw an article in Community Care asking care leavers
to undertake foster panel training with the Fostering Network so I
volunteered. The training was brilliant and it was lovely to meet
other care leavers. In the spring of 2003 Ena Fry, the
organisation’s development worker, asked whether I’d be interested
in being a speaker at a conference on the future of fostering.
Little did I know that I was about to find my niche – I really
enjoy talking about my experiences to other care leavers and
professionals. Mrs Joseph came to the event and heard my speech go
down well. Soon after, Foster Care Associates approached me about
sitting on their fostering panels.
Now I have sat on three panels, attended a conference in Dublin and
spoken at another fostering conference. My experience in care was
positive and I like to encourage other care leavers. I tell them
that, even though being looked after was the best experience of my
life, you still have to work hard in all you do. Don’t ever let
people stereotype you just because you were in care.
I have been approached about the possibility of becoming an
inspector of children’s homes. This would be my dream job. No one
knows what to look for in a children’s home other than someone who
has been in care themselves. And that someone is me.
Sheryl Penrose is a 28-year-old care expert.