Interviews with Working Mothers
Meet Margaret Cunliffe who has gone from Foster Child To Foster Carer
Margaret Cunliffe has not enjoyed an easy life, not by any means. Taken in by the Salvation Army as a baby, she was abandoned by her single mother, then at the age of eight months was placed in a cottage home, originally built as an alternative to the workhouse.
Perhaps she was fortunate not to have been sent to Australia or Canada, as happened to tens of thousands of ‘child migrants’ from this country’s orphanages. Instead, she was fostered out to a couple she now calls ‘mum and dad’, not really understanding the arrangement and sharing her new home with one long-term foster child and a succession of displaced youngsters, before eventually being adopted by her foster parents.
She had a ‘difficult’ first marriage and was left to bring up two daughters alone, before much later marrying ‘a good man’ and having two sons. She even tracked down her birth mother eventually, but was rejected once again.
After giving birth to her youngest, no-one would have blamed Margaret if she’d put her feet up and considered that, after her early struggles and heartache, she had done quite enough. But no, she and her second husband John, decided to become foster carers and got in touch with independent agency, Perpetual Fostering.
Having experienced all the uncertainty, fear, confusion and occasional upheaval of her early life, Margaret believed that she could empathise with children in similarly distressing circumstances and help to make a difference.
“Once Aaron was born, John and I talked about fostering and agreed that if we didn’t do it now, we never would,” she says. “Having been fostered myself, I thought I might have a bit of an insight into how foster kids feel and thought we could offer someone a good, loving home.”
Now approaching 49, Margaret lives in Skelmersdale with her husband John, sons Andrew (14) and Aaron (6), and an eleven year old foster child ‘Dean’, who she hopes will stay on a long-term basis.
Her grown-up daughters Hayley (26) and Michelle (25) are regular visitors, then there are her much-treasured grandchildren (James 2), Shaun (2½) and Alicia (7). Joining this cheerful household on occasion have been other fostered youngsters, including Dean’s brother, ‘Darren’, a troubled teenager ‘Marcus’ and a high maintenance young lady ‘Sarah’, described by Margaret as ‘fifteen going on fifty’.
Looking back on her own traumatic early years, Margaret can fully understand the distress, unease and issues that today’s foster children experience: “As a baby I was placed in the Fazakerley Cottage Homes, a children’s home known locally as ‘the orphanage’, where they could accommodate hundreds of unwanted children.
Even at that tender age, it was scary and unsettling, especially as my mother simply disappeared from my life. Although looking back, at least I wasn’t farmed out to Australia, which happened to so many children in my circumstances, even then.” she recalls. “Fortunately, I was later sent to live with Edwin and Elisabeth May in Formby, although nobody actually told me I was being fostered and no social worker ever sat down and talked to me about the situation. Happily, there was another foster child, ‘Janet’, who was almost exactly a year older than me, and we became very close.”
“Edwin and Elisabeth formally adopted me when I was fourteen. I’d been there so long, I was definitely ‘theirs’, although before the adoption I was always fearful that my own mother might suddenly turn up and claim me. Sadly, Edwin and Elisabeth have now both passed away, although I shall always regard them as mum and dad.”
Much later, Margaret and John did manage to track down her birth mother, beginning with the surprisingly simple expedient of looking up the family name in the Isle of Man telephone directory (there were only four eligible entries). But upset by such seemingly reasonable questions as ‘how could you desert me as a baby?’, her mother found the reunion too painful and broke off contact once again, since when Margaret has been understandably reluctant to get in touch.
Meanwhile Margaret and John progressed matters with Perpetual Fostering, having gone through an initial interview and home assessment to gauge their suitability. Perpetual is an accredited fostering agency, able to accept placements from across the North West, or indeed the whole country, and employs its own administrative staff, social workers and foster carers, paying more generous weekly care allowances than average.
The assessment process is standard for all would-be foster carers and, as might be expected, is pretty extensive in scope, with an independent social worker carefully vetting applicants and their families. Margaret and John also attended a ‘skills to foster’ training weekend, have gone on various specialist courses since then and now been assigned their own dedicated Perpetual social worker, Steve.
“The people at Perpetual have been great,” she says, “and if you’ve got any problems you can just ring up. There’s always someone on duty and Steve, our social worker, makes himself available to pop round.”
Fostering is unlike adoption in that it is a temporary home provision, lasting perhaps a weekend or several weeks, possibly a holiday period, even months or years. As is usually the case, the Cunliffes had to wait a few months for their initial placement, so that Perpetual could match them with the right youngster, and troubled teenager Sarah, ‘whose family life was a shambles’, was their first foster child.
They bonded well, Margaret drawing upon the experiences of bringing up her own daughters, and other young people followed, Perpetual feeling that she was particularly adept at dealing with older, often more problematic, children.
Margaret has given up work to become a full-time foster carer, although John still brings in a salary through his job in logistics, and she is on hand to look after Dean, getting him ready for school, attending ‘personal education plan’ meetings, cooking meals and generally caring for him as a surrogate mum.
She’s also on hand to look after him during the school holidays, along with her own sons, and to go on outings, like a trip to Torquay with John and the three boys this summer. After previous periods of difficulty, Dean is getting on very well at school under Margaret’s care and she is keen to extend the placement, to give him the stable, settled home life he clearly needs.
There is a weekly care allowance to cover costs like food, clothing and heating, as well as pocket money and trips, and Margaret regards this as essential: “You couldn’t manage without financial assistance. Quite apart from the cost of everyday living, these kids often have no idea about looking after personal possessions, because of their difficult upbringing, so you also have to pay for losses and breakages.”
Margaret and John are both studying for a Level 3 NVQ in Health and Social Care, through distance learning with a local college, and she looks forward to gaining a useful qualification, should she ever consider progressing further and becoming a social worker. For the present, they intend to continue fostering for the foreseeable future, since they believe it’s vital for all children to have the opportunity to grow up in a normal family environment.
“People are interested in me being a foster carer and sometimes I say to friends ‘you’d be alright, perhaps you should give it a go’, but often they feel it might be too intrusive,” says Margaret. “It is a shame more people don’t go into it. Fostering can be quite challenging and a lot of the kids do come to you with issues, but you can help turn their lives around and that can be very rewarding. In this country, a lot of children go into care because they’re abandoned, abused, neglected or whatever and they need to be looked after too.”