When Brian Harrison was working with troubled teenagers he would often say to his wife Helen that he wished he could bring them home with him and give them a happy, stable life.
Four years ago, at the age of 60 he finally took the step that would change the couple’s lives and became a full-time foster carer with Barnardo’s Cymru.
Since then the grandparents from Bridgend, South Wales, have fostered a number of children and teenagers, providing the love and stability they need after their difficult starts in life.
Brian and Helen were one of the most experienced partnerships to approach Barnardo’s Cymru about fostering. Brian had a long career supporting children and vulnerable adults in residential homes as well as working with young people with serious drug and alcohol issues. Helen works in the nursery sector and during her career has worked with toddlers on the child protection register.
Because of their experience they have been able to foster a number of children with complex needs and although challenging, they have found it hugely rewarding.
Brian said: “You need patience, resilience and you need to listen to the child. Their behaviour is a reflection of the trauma they have been through, you cannot judge them for it.
“They can arrive very tense and may have really disappeared within themselves. They may be much younger emotionally than their true age.
We try to create a calm atmosphere and over time we build a relationship and develop trust. Boundaries are set and tested and we provide role models of how to behave.
“We get our reward when we see a child’s true personality emerge, when we see them making friendships, perhaps for the first time, and see the joy they discover in those friendships. When they go to the skate park for the first time, when they learn to cope when they don’t win at football. People remark on the difference in them and we can see them growing in confidence. Fostering has been a very positive experience.”
The couple have two grown up sons and two grandchildren of their own and initially thought of providing respite care but Barnardo’s persuaded them to consider long-term foster care and they haven’t looked back.
After a thorough assessment, they received training and still have ongoing support from Barnardo’s staff and other foster carers who create their own informal support network.
Brian said: “You need to be non-judgemental of both the child and their family. We work on developing good relationships with the families who often carry a lot of guilt after losing a child to care.”
Helen added, “You need to be patient and resilient. When a child reacts because of the trauma they have been through you can’t take it personally, you have to detach yourself and understand that their behaviour is a result of that trauma.
“I’ve had chance to do a lot of training, everything from emotional literacy and speech and language to safeguarding and first aid and it certainly helps.”
The couple chose to foster with Barnardo’s Cymru because they felt the charity offered the best package of support. “Barnardo’s are good at matching the right child with the right foster family, they won’t overload you. They place responsibly and you get good support from a social worker and other foster carers,” said Brian.
Lockdowns have proved a challenge for many families but the Harrisons feel they have been really positive for them. They were able to spend more time with their current foster child while schools were closed, developing his coping skills and encouraging him to talk about his feelings so he was able to return to lessons better able to cope.
Helen said: “We took up fostering because we wanted to make a difference to children’s lives and that’s what we are doing. It’s very rewarding.
When a child begins to develop robust self-esteem, confidence, and resilience, our own self-esteem rises too, because we know we’re being successful.
“Seeing a positive change in their ability to handle their emotions is very satisfying. We believe that children’s lives can be transformed by giving them unconditional love.”