Neil and Ann Innes, from Staffordshire, began their fostering journey when he was 30 and she was just 27. Thirty-four years later and the couple have been foster carers for more than 20 children, including three who stayed with them on a long-term basis, and still have strong relationships today with many of them.

Neil said: “We always wanted to have a large family and for a while that didn’t happen for us. We focused on our careers, Ann was training to be a nurse and I was a business manager, but we wanted to do something worthwhile. 

“One day we saw a fostering advert for Barnardo’s, which was calling for people to get involved with a programme to support young people who were leaving secure units. It involved helping them transition either back to living with their families or supporting them before they moved on and gained their independence. 

We applied and were absolutely delighted to be approved as foster carers and that was the starting point for an incredible thirty-plus years of fostering.

The first young person Neil and Ann fostered was a teenager called Derek who had some special needs and came to them after spending time in a secure mental health unit. He stayed with the family for a few years, even after their son Alistair was born and the couple still receive Christmas cards from his family now.

Neil said: “We were quite nervous before he arrived. Although we felt really prepared by our training and the support we had from Barnardo’s, we obviously had never had any parenting experience so weren’t sure what to expect. 

“He did get into a few scrapes and could be a bit of a handful at times but that could be said of any child - he was a member of our family and we looked after him as if he was our own child. We were able to draw on the brilliant training we’d had and knew we always had support from Barnardo’s if we needed it.

That’s just what happens. They become a member of your family. Our son Alistair and any foster children always very much treated each other like brothers; they would have their fallings out and squabbles but would always stand up for each other.

Being there

Fostering can be a challenge at times, but Neil strongly believes that this is outweighed by the rewards. He said: “There are times when some of the children and young people had behavioural issues or got into a bit of trouble. But our training with Barnardo’s has always given us the confidence and skills to deal with tricky situations and they are there for us when we need advice or support.  

“But a big part of it is just being there for them. One of our foster children once got into trouble at school and was so worried about coming home as he thought he was going to be really screamed at and told off. Instead, what he got was a hug. It’s so important they know they have a loving family to go home to, who will listen to and support them, even if they have messed up.

“At the end of the day, you have the chance to make such a positive difference to their lives and are rewarded by seeing them move on in their lives and grow into confident, happy adults. We’re still in touch with many of the children who came to us - the front door doesn’t close just because they aren’t living with you anymore. 

“It’s so wonderful to see how well they are doing and what they have achieved in life, especially bearing in mind the difficult starts some of them have had.”  

No regrets

Neil and Ann, now 64 and 63, say they have “no regrets at all” about dedicating their lives to vulnerable children for the past 34 years, during which time they have also been emergency foster carers and have spent time as specialist carers for children on remand and cared for those who have been exploited.

Neil said: “Fostering has been truly life-changing and a wonderful experience. It enabled us to achieve our dream of having a large, loving family and help some really vulnerable children too. 

“To anyone considering it, I would you’re serious about changing young lives then all I’ll say to you is do it. Get in touch with Barnardo’s, find out more about fostering and you’ll never look back. 

“Even if we were to retire from full-time fostering at some point, I think we would still consider the possibility of doing short-breaks fostering – we love it so much and think it might be too quiet for us without any children around!”