‘All anyone wants is love and security’

Foster carer Jan Bacchus

Foster carer Jan Bacchus - Credit: Archant

Everyone knows that fostering children is a worthwhile thing to do but how many realise what joy it can bring? Sheena Grant went to meet Jan Bacchus from Rougham, near Bury St Edmunds, who says the experience has changed her life in many wonderful ways

Fostering - offering love and security to a child in need - is immensely rewarding

Fostering - offering love and security to a child in need - is immensely rewarding - Credit: Getty Images/Hemera

It all started with a teenager who stayed in Jan and Dave Bacchus’s guest house as he moved from living in care to gaining his independence.

“He was really shy,” says Jan, remembering the 16-year-old who arrived with his head down and spent most of the time in his room. “He wouldn’t mix with anyone and wanted his breakfast separately.”

Jan, who has always loved children, wasn’t having that. She started chatting to him and asked him to come down from his room.

“He opened up a bit after that and began to tell me about his life,” she says. “By the time he moved on he was making eye contact and was totally different to when he arrived. It made me realise that a bit of time invested could make a real difference.”

That chance encounter was to prove life changing for Jan and Dave, who between them have six children, 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren of their own.

When they left the guest house to move to refurbish and extend a house at Rougham, near Bury St Edmunds, they decided to find out about fostering. Five years on, they haven’t looked back.

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They are currently caring for two brothers, aged 11 and 14, an arrangement they expect to continue long term. They have also had babies and toddlers staying for up to a year-and-a-half at a time.

Of course there is heartache when their charges leave but Jan and Dave console themselves with the thought that they are helping those children move on to the next stage of their lives.

“We’ve developed our own way of dealing with it,” says Jan. “We lock ourselves away for a couple of days, look at photos, have a little cry and chat about the times we’ve shared with them and then we’re ready to carry on. Not a day goes by when we don’t think about the children we have cared for.”

And anyway, it’s never really goodbye. They’re still in touch with all the children who have become part of their family, receiving photos and updates and even meeting up occasionally in their permanent, adoptive homes.

The only thing that really saddens them is that they can’t do more. According to the Fostering Network charity, at least 650 new foster families are needed across the East Of England this year.

Jan has no hesitation in recommending fostering. “You don’t know unless you try,” she says. “All sorts of people can be foster carers - younger people, older people, single people and couples. The only vital needs are that you have people skills, are open minded, non-judgemental and a good listener.”

It took Jan and Dave about a year from applying to being accepted but Jan says that’s as it should be.

“You have to open up your heart to share your life experiences and how you deal with things like bereavement because when children move on, it is a bit like a bereavement. But you have lots of support. And it has to be rigorous. Dave and I always say that if we were in the shoes of people whose children are taken into care we would want those foster carers to be thoroughly checked out. A lot of the time the parents of children in care could just be ill or have problems they need help sorting out before their children can go back to them.”

After Jan and Dave were told they had been accepted as foster carers, Jan quit her job in sales.

“It’s a full time commitment for me,” she says. “Although Dave still works it’s something we are equally committed to. Our family hasn’t been without problems and worries but we have got through them. When Dave and I got together my children had to accept Dave and his children and vice versa. It is similar when you have foster children.”

Once accepted as foster carers, the couple didn’t have to wait long for their first arrivals.

“I left work on the Friday and was clearing out rooms when I got a call to ask if we would take two children,” says Jan. “One was only a year so I had to rush out and buy nappies. We were so excited.”

“When they got here they just ran into a corner behind the settee and hid. You can’t imagine how scary an alien environment must be for them. You’ve got to let them come round in their own time. If you are a child person you’ll know. It is always quite quickly that they start to respond. They get to know there is food and warmth and love. Most of the time that is all anybody wants - security and love.

“Those children were with us 18 months before being adopted. We are still in touch with them and they are doing fantastically well. It is traumatic letting go. You nurture them through so much and start to see them shine. But letting go is part of the process. We help to build them up so that hopefully they can go on to have a fulfilling, fantastic life. We have learned something from every child we have had. Children are very flexible and, with younger children especially, you can be surprised how quickly they adapt.”

Jan and Dave provide clear boundaries. “With older children we tell them the rules of the house and explain why those rules are there,” says Jan. “One said to us: ‘If you get boundaries you know someone cares’. We treat our foster children as we did our own. Where we go, they go, although you also get respite time if you need it.”

Jan and Dave have so far run into no major difficulties but know that support is always available.

After the first youngsters left, they took on another baby and slightly older sibling, who stayed for about a year before they too were adopted.

Foster carers, who receive an allowance for each child they care for, always have the option to refuse any youngsters they are offered. Initially, Jan and Dave thought they would prefer to take in only younger children but soon changed their minds and have even given refuge to an 18-year-old mother and her baby.

“That obviously calls for different skills,” says Jan. “You have to advise in a very subtle way that isn’t overbearing.

“Like many people we envisaged problems with teenagers but have not found that to be the case. There are challenges, as we all know from our own teenage years, but Dave and I always present a united front.

“People often say that they couldn’t foster because the kids will be difficult. In our experience that is a fallacy. You will get the most kind-hearted, generous, loving children who are so grateful for the love and security we give. We see the turnaround in their lives. They give us so much joy. It is life-changing.

“To see their confidence grow is like seeing a flower bloom. Some of the children have never had a holiday or a pizza or been to the cinema, things other children take for granted. We have been able to introduce them to a whole new world.”

There are currently around 750 children in care in Suffolk, most of whom are living with foster families.

The Fostering Network reckons an extra 650 foster carers are needed across the East of England in 2014, not only to replace the 12% who leave each year, but to ensure that children who come into care find foster carers who are right for them, have the skills and qualities they need, and are available now.

Myths abound about who can foster or adopt, and the children needing families.

People who foster or adopt may:

Be any age over 21

Be married, single, divorced, or in civil partnership

Be lesbian, gay, bisexual or heterosexual

Rent or own their home

Be disabled

Be of any ethnicity, race, religion or culture

Already have children or not

A spokesman for Suffolk Fostering and Adoption Agency said: “We know many people can be hesitant to come forward and take the next step to either foster or adopt, and need some encouragement or answers to any queries they may have.

“Suffolk Fostering Service needs carers for all children of all ages, but is particularly interested in hearing from people able to care for sibling groups or children over the age of 11. Foster carers receive ongoing and regular supervision, support and training and are part of the childcare workforce.”

Foster carers can provide short term care whilst plans are made for children to return to their birth family, to an adoptive family or another permanent foster family or they can provide long-term or permanent care.

For more information contact the Fostering Service on 0800 328 2148 or visit www.suffolkfostering.com. For adoption services visit www.suffolkadoption.com. For information about fostering services outside Suffolk visit www.couldyoufoster.org.uk