Having been foster parents to 160 children, Susan and Barry Shearman have more christenings and weddings to attend than most people.
Susan, 53, says that the couple keep in contact with a lot of the children and love seeing them grow up and have children of their own. “Some of them still come back once a month for a cup of tea and a chat,” she says.
Last month the Shearmans, who live in Maryport, Cumbria, received MBEs in the New Year’s Honours list in recognition of their foster caring career, which has spanned 28 years.
“I thought it was a wind up,” says Barry, “until I saw the official stamp on the paper. It was a bit of a shock.” Susan adds that it is wonderful to be recognised for doing something that is not an easy job.
The couple are currently looking after five young people aged between 11 and 21. They have been with them for up to 10 years. They also have three children of their own, one of whom, who is 18, lives at home.
The pair began fostering after Susan’s mother heard an advertisement for foster carers on Radio Cumbria and suggested Susan give it a go. She was initially sceptical, thinking that she would need “lots of money and a big house”. But after going to an introductory meeting at Cumbria Council she changed her mind. They started off looking after babies and young children but now look after children of all ages and are approved to provide both short- and long-term placements.
Susan acknowledges that fostering isn’t right for everyone but says that, even if people feel able to help only one child, then that is enough to make it worthwhile.
“All you need is lots of time and lots of love and you can make a huge difference to these kids’ lives,” she says.
Some of the children the couple have looked after have suffered sexual or physical abuse and others have mothers who misuse alcohol or drugs. “Some kids walk in with nits and scabies,” says Susan. “They have nothing other than what they are stood up in. They just need a chance and then they can achieve.”
Fostering has gradually become more professionalised over the years, something Susan endorses. She approves of carers having to undergo training and take qualifications.
She praises the social workers and family placement officers she works with at Cumbria Council, adding that she has worked with other agencies who haven’t been as supportive in the past and that it makes a huge difference.
“At the end of the day, we know these kids,” she says. “We live with them and we know what will work and what won’t, and our views are valued.”
The Care Matters green paper, published in October 2006, proposed giving looked-after children a veto on leaving care before the ago of 18 and allowing them to continue living with foster carers until 21. However, the pilot projects announced last year will test only the idea of foster children staying in placements until the age of 18.
Barry and Susan stopped receiving payments from the council for the 21-year-old girl they look after at 18 but decided to continue supporting her anyway. Susan believes most children aren’t ready to live independently at 18. “The kids have said it’s such a shock to be in a family environment and then to be dumped in a flat on their own.”
With foster carers effectively expected to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Susan says you wouldn’t do it for financial reasons. But she insists the real rewards are so much greater.
“When you have got six teenagers saying ‘can I have this’ and they all want designer clothes you really don’t do it for the money,” she says. “But I get the delight of seeing the kids get on and become decent, honest human beings.”
New Year 2008 Honours List
Social care stars in New Year’s Honours
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This article appeared in the 14 February issue under the headline “Sheer devotion: MBEs for top foster carers”