Question time with Chris Leaves

Was your own childhood a happy one in a loving family?

I went into care when I was five years old, and stayed until I was ten, when I was moved to an adoptive home. I took a long time to settle, as I thought I was staying there for a holiday, and then returning to my friends in the children's home. It was a Children's Society home, and they were the only family I knew. I was devastated when eventually I realised I was not going back. The family I was with had three children- two boys older than me and a girl two years younger than me. I always felt that I was meant to be a play mate for their daughter, but in fact we were very different. I was a sporty tomboy and she was a dainty girlie girl. No one asked me how I felt or told me what was happening. I felt that I was always trying to placate situations rather than have any confrontation. Like most people who look back on their childhood, we always want better for our own children, and maybe for me it was more so. I just wanted to allow any children we may have to have opinions, a voice, be listened to and be happy.

What job did you do when you left school and why?

I could not wait to reach my sixteenth birthday and was adamant I would return to the Children's Society to work with children. I was at my happiest when looking after and entertaining children. My adopted mother wanted me to do secretarial work or hairdressing, but I was adamant in my choice. I was very excited about going off to do my residential training and, although looking back it was regimental and institutionalised, I loved it. It was at this time that I met my husband Colin. His sister was also training with me and we became firm friends. I also got to know Colin's family and his mum and dad treated me like their own daughters.

After my two year training doing my NNEB (Nursery Nurse Qualification) I left the Children's Society and moved to a local authority residential home. What a change that was. The Matron and Sister were very homely, caring people, and were very forward thinking and ahead of their time, really. The children were placed in family groups of six with one staff nurse and one trainee. It was like a little family.

After the institutional ways of the Children's Society where the fifty children all played, slept and ate together, it was a breath of fresh air to see these little family groups.

I got married from this home, with the domestic staff waving potties on their broom handles to form a guard of honour. Colin, meantime, had become very much loved by Matron and Sister and enjoyed helping me with the children at weekends.
After our wedding we moved away and I got a job as a Nursery Warden in a local authority day nursery. During this time we still collected our two "special children" from the home and they spent weekends and holidays with us, until they came to live with us permanently once our baby was born. In those days you couldn't formally foster unless you had a child of your own. So we went from none to 3 children living with us within a few weeks after I gave birth.

For five years I did child minding, worked in playgroups, children's wards, and nursery schools to fit in around the children. Later, when the children were all at school, I worked in an Assessment Unit for Children with Special Educational Needs. Then finally I got a post as a Manager of a day nursery, with the local authority. I went off to Bristol University to do my Social Work training and returned to open a purpose-built family centre, where I remained until nine months before my retirement, when I transferred into the Adoption and Fostering Team, doing form assessments until I retired.

What made you consider fostering?

Ever since I had started working with children, I always felt I wanted to help children who were unfortunate enough to live in care. I figured my own experiences would help with dealing with the problems that children in care experience. Over the years Colin and I have fostered more than 20 children, most of them were considered "difficult to place" children. Two of those children came to live with us permanently and have remained in our family others went on to adoptive homes. Several still keep in touch. Most of the children were with us for long periods and our birth son accepted these children readily. We were asked to take a terminally ill six year old West Indian boy with Sickle Cell Anaemia. He was a very poorly child and spent much time in hospital but we really connected with him and the other children enjoyed his company for six years until his death.

How did you find out that your daughter was struggling?

We were very involved with our first granddaughter, as our daughter and her husband had learning disabilities and we knew they would need a lot of support. She coped fairly well for the first two years with huge input from Colin and I but when she fell pregnant the second time, it all became too much and things went downhill rapidly, until eventually she was hospitalised and our family began to fall apart. We still kept having the girls, and wanted to help their father keep them but he did not cope and eventually the children came to us permanently on a Residence Order.

Did you hesitate at taking the children?

Never, but we so hoped their mother would recover and their father would accept our help. Sadly that didn't happen. They separated and later divorced.

What challenges did you face on becoming grandparent carers?

Well, Colin and I were working full time. So covering before school, after school and school holiday care was a nightmare. Not only did it cost a fortune but the girls did not like going. We had no dealings with the local authority so did not receive any financial or emotional support from them. We were very lucky to have such good friends and family to support us. Both girls struggled at school and it was a constant battle to get the help they needed. Alongside all this was the continued worry about their mother, and attending ward rounds for her mental health meetings was another challenge we dreaded. The girls refused to see their father after many rejections from him, although we invested a great deal of time trying to make this right, but it was not to be.

We knew of no others in our situation and despite their kindness, we felt isolated from our friends. Our busy social life, meals out with friends, holidays and theatre trips, all came to a halt, as we began caring full-time again.

What helped you and Colin cope as grandparent carer?

Our friends and family were important, as was resuming fostering again. We felt that it would be good for the girls to see how lucky they were. They enjoyed having foster children in the home. These were mainly under fives, and they responded well to their sad situations.

Through my work at the Family Centre I received some referrals for grandparents who were raising their grandchildren and needed respite care. I was so excited to find people who really understood our situation and decided to start a support group. I eventually found the Family Rights Group charity. I went to London to their meetings and conferences and was amazed to find such wonderful people who understood, and were actively working to improve our situations. Their advice line has been invaluable. Whenever we need an answer to any queries regarding kinship care, they are only a phone call away. I guess that having been in care, having worked with children in care, being a social worker and foster carer for thirty years, stood me in good stead when it came to starting a support group!

What happens at the Support Group?

So our little support group grew slowly. It's called the "Second Generation", and consists mainly of grandparents but of course is open to any carer raising other people's children, be they aunts, uncles, siblings or friends. We hold weekly meetings during term times, and in the school holidays the children get together as well, maybe going bowling, having an outing, or a picnic in the park. It is amazing what a terrific bond these children have, when they realise they are not alone in being raised by family members other than their parents.

Our weekly meetings vary, some days we sit and chat, discuss topics of interest, offer each other advice and support. On other days we will have speakers on topics that we want to know more about, and on others we will have a trip out together, maybe for a breakfast or lunch, or visit a place of interest. We also sometimes have days where a member is very down about their situation and we will all discuss their difficulties and provide copious amounts of tea, coffee, biscuits and sympathy.

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