THERE are two wicker chairs in Kath Cuthall’s garden, strategically placed next to a trickling water feature, the soothing sound of which instantly cools on an unseasonally hot spring day.
They are, she says, the “time out” chairs. “It’s where we would send them for a calm down – mind you, not in the middle of winter,” she laughs. “It seemed to work. Being outside, the sound of the water and, of course, Cassie would sit with them too. It helped ease the anger or whatever was troubling them.”
Cassie is Kath’s pet black labrador, who came into Kath’s care after she had failed to become a dog for the blind, twice over. But then collecting waifs and strays seems to be the 59-year-old’s job in life.
Kath has been a foster carer for 18 years, looking after young boys for incredibly long periods of time. She and her late husband Bill decided to open their comfortable Kirkliston home to children in need after their own son Colin turned 16, and she is now part of a group of carers spreading the word about the benefits of fostering, in the hope that more people will follow in her footsteps.
Edinburgh City Council needs to sign up 30 more foster carers this year to deal with the growing numbers of children who need looked after – when their own homes are too chaotic because their parents are alcholics or drug addicts, or simply not able to cope with having children.
“When Colin reached the age of 16, Bill and I just thought, we’ve got an opportunity to offer other children a home,” says Kath. “It was a big step to take but we were giving sufficient training before we were given a child, and then we’ve had training all through the years since.
“Also, right at the beginning, we would have a child for a few hours, then they might come for dinner, so it was a slow process to allow them to get used to you and vice versa, before they came to stay full time.
“And, once we had them, they just seemed to stay,” she laughs. “Of course, there’s always the idea that they could well go home to their own families, but we had our children for a long, long time. We’ve had four long-term boys, although I do respite care for one girl.
“Johnny was nine when he came.We had him for nine years, and he lives in Hong Kong now. Wayne was just eight when he came to us. He’s 21 now and has just gone to work as a gardener in the Hamptons, and is loving it, but this is still his home. He’s really like our own son.”
But how did her real son, Colin, adapt to having other children come to stay in his house when he was in his formative teenage years?
“He was always really supportive,” says Kath. “He has grown very fond of the children who stayed with us, he was a real help to them, and to us.
“He really helped them through some difficult times. In fact, he and his wife Elaine are now thinking of becoming foster carers themselves because they know the impact you can have on someone’s life.
“To me, fostering is all about letting a child know that they have a future, giving them back their self-esteem and self-worth, to let them feel part of a stable, secure family and part of a community. Everyone in the village knows Wayne, he’s become a big part of this community, and when he was going to the US the phone never stopped.”
She adds: “It’s all about listening. Listening to the child, not placing expectations on them. Giving them time.
“I think having Cassie also helped, because they would take a lot of comfort from her, because animals never judge. I also found that, by taking her for a walk, that’s when the boys would open up a bit and talk about their worries.
“With Wayne, who was very quiet and withdrawn when he came, I would get him to help me when I was gardening, and that’s when he would talk. I think it’s where he got his love of gardening from as well.”
Although Wayne has left and Bill died three years ago, Kath’s house is far from empty. She been caring for 15-year-old Tony for several years and has a young girl to stay at weekends.
“When Bill died the children were all very affected by it,” she says. “They all talk about him and miss him a lot. They all feel part of a family with us.
“When they arrive, we show them what family life is about, sitting round the table for dinner together, talking to each other, that kind of thing. They’ve never had that before in their own homes. Without a doubt, it’s a challenge, but it’s so rewarding. To see the change that you can make in a child, to see them become happy – there’s nothing better.”
Those are words with which 52-year-old John Perry from Liberton would agree.
The former brewery man has been a full-time foster carer for the last five years along with his wife Jane, who also runs a company caring for the elderly in their own homes.
They’ve had around 20 children in their care already. “I worked with a brewery for 20 years and left that to work with a friend, which never worked out, so was wondering what to do,” he says.
“My brother was already a specialist foster carer and I saw the satisfaction he got from it, and I thought this could be something I could do well.
“My own two lads, Nick and Adam, were 24 and 21 and long gone, so we had the room in the house and, before I knew it, a year had passed, all the checks had been done, we’d had the training and it was all go.”
Originally, the couple were classed as short-term fosterers and as a result had, as John says, “a whole load of different kids over the summer, some for a fortnight, some for a week”. It gave them a “good flavour” of what to expect from fostering.
Then one evening a social worker turned up with a boy with a bag full of clothes. “We were supposed to have him for three months, but it turned out to be two years,” says John. “To be honest, that wasn’t a pleasurable experience. He was a real challenge.
“He had a fairly chaotic background and there was a lot of outside influence from his family and he never really settled.
“Then we had another kid arrive about six months later, and he too stayed for two years. In the end, the first boy was moved on to other carers as being with us wasn’t doing him any good, or us. There were many difficult moments but we kept trying, hoping that we could get through to him, but it wasn’t working.
“The second boy was a completely different situation. He was more responsive to us and, when he moved on, it was to long-term fosterers and is extremely happy. But that’s fostering, you don’t know who you will get, or how it will turn out.” The couple have now been passed to foster siblings, but up until now it’s only been boys they’ve had in their care.
“I don’t know what I’d do with a girl,” laughs John. “To be honest, we just treat them all the same way we did our own children. A lot of it is about boundaries and rules – which many of them have never had – and talking to them.”
In fact, John says, two pairs of siblings had been to stay with them at different times and had taken away their list of written rules so their own mum could use them.
“It was just a list saying ‘no fighting, brush your teeth, make your bed’, that kind of thing, but they had never seen anything like it before.”
Now, John and Jane are in the process of becoming permanent carers to an eight-year-old boy.
“We’ve had him for a while now and he’s fantastic,” says John. “He’ll stay with us until he’s at least 18. We really love having him.
“Every kid we’ve had, no matter how much they’ve liked being here, would go back to their mum in a heartbeat. You have to understand that and not get too involved emotionally – and that can be hard. This time, though, we’re hoping this lad will get to stay.”
John admits that fostering might not be for everyone, but he would recommend it.
“All in all, we’ve had a great time doing it. It’s full-time and full on, but it’s incredibly rewarding. And it is a great feeling that you could be helping to change someone’s life.”
Kath Cuthall agrees: “It is a big commitment and takes a lot of time and effort. There are times I think I will take a break, but then I hear of another child needing help and I open the door. It’s the most natural thing in the world to do.”
Providing a stable environment
• The number of children in foster care across Scotland — not including those fostered by extended family — is the highest since 1981 at 4697. They are looked after by 3300 foster families.
• In Edinburgh, the number of “looked after” children has increased from 850 in 1999 to 1350 at present — with around 30 per cent in foster care.
• The city has seen a severe shortage of foster carers — last year it was revealed that only 50 people had looked after children throughout 2010. This year the council aims to recruit around 30 new carers.
• To become a foster carer you must be over 21, but you can be single, married or part of a long-term relationship, a tenant or homeowner, a parent already or not, employed or unemployed.
• The aim of the recruitment campaign is to take on new people who can provide a stable environment for young people, helping them take part in activities which support them as well as promoting their confidence and independence.
Professional approach in varied circumstances
THE vast majority of foster carers give temporary help to vulnerable children, although there are times when fostering can lead to permanent adoption.
However, temporary can mean different things – an emergency weekend, some months, or even years depending on the child’s needs and how long it takes for the family to resolve its problems so the child can return home.
Whether short or long term, right now Edinburgh needs more foster carers because the number of children needing such care is increasing, and statistics prove that foster carers can make a difference for children in need – as those without consistent and stable foster care are more likely to leave school without qualifications and become abusers of drugs and alcohol.
The reasons why children require fostering are many and varied, but the approach to caring for them is increasingly professional. Foster carers are no longer volunteers, but are fully trained by council social workers in how to deal with children who have problems – and they are paid. In some cases, carers can earn as much as £30,000 a year.