Hannah Perry is used to people looking surprised when she tells them she’s a foster carer. She signed up to it when she was 18, and although that was 10 years ago she’s still a good deal younger than the majority of people who foster – three-quarters of whom are over 45.
“I’d have applied even earlier if I could,” she says, explaining that she was initially inspired by her own mother. “My mum used to work in care homes, and when I was a young teenager she and my dad started taking in adults with learning disabilities. I loved it because their mental age was similar to mine and so we enjoyed the same sort of things, like bowling and going to the cinema. A few years later, Mum got approached by Barnardo’s to do some respite work for children with learning disabilities and I enjoyed it even more. We were already a close family, but the house just came alive.”
Hannah, who is one of a new and growing breed of young foster carers, was by now studying at college for a childcare qualification, but she spent most of her spare time with the foster children. “I played with them, helped dress and feed them and took them to places like soft play and the park. They were happy days. Mostly, they’d stay a few days to give their families or other carers a short break; but one boy, who is very autistic and severely epileptic, stayed and became my foster brother.”
Despite her youth, nobody in Hannah’s family was surprised when, just a few days after her 18th birthday, she registered with Barnardo’s to become a foster carer herself – although it was when she moved out a couple of years later that she was able to take on children overnight.
The application process was long and arduous, admits Hannah. “It’s a big responsibility, so you have to be prepared for a lot of paperwork and digging into your family history. And, of course, there were extra questions about my age. But I think there are benefits to being younger: I have more energy and it’s still relatively fresh in my mind what it’s like to be a child. I relate to the children well because of that.”
Since then, Hannah’s seen it all – kids hurling their food around restaurants, full-on tantrums from children who look old enough to know better and aggressive behaviour that can make other parents twitchy. “Sometimes people are nice and give you a supportive smile; other times, especially with the autistic behaviours, you get ‘the look’. They don’t understand why a 13-year-old is sitting in a two-year-old’s car or why they’re banging their head against a wall or biting themselves. But it goes over my head, if I’m honest. I draw on my training – of which you get a lot as a foster carer – and instincts to focus on the child and find ways to calm them down, making sure they feel safe and secure.”
There are those who are disparaging when Hannah tells them she’s a foster carer. “Many say things like, ‘Aren’t you a bit young?’ or they ask why I haven’t settled down with my own family first. But I don’t even want my own kids: the rewards of this are too big. Seeing these children achieve things you never thought possible – signing so they can communicate at last or seeing them bounce properly on a trampoline for the first time, for example – are unbeatable for me,” explains Hannah.
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