The emergency phone calls tend to come late on Fridays. Will my wife and I take a child into our home while social workers try to find longer-term solutions for them?
If we say ‘yes’, we cancel plans and brace ourselves for an arrival.
It might be a neglected child born addicted to drugs, a child removed abruptly from home due to violence or a suspicion of abuse, or sometimes even a refugee from Syria or Afghanistan, hollow-eyed and smelling of campfires and sweat.
A report on the child, outlining circumstances and history, is hastily emailed to us, and there are sometimes warnings about self-harm or even suicidal tendencies.
But experience has taught us to be open-minded. No child we have looked after measured up to the grim picture outlined in the pre-arrival reports.
Haven in a troubled world: Benedicte and Martin Newland in their garden
Close: Left to right, Martin, Otto, Gabriel, Evelyn, Benedicte and Raphael in Canada in 2012
Left to right: Otto, Gabriel, Evelyn, Benedicte and Raphael together in Abu Dhabi January 2009
My wife Benedicte and I are short-term or emergency foster carers. We can take children for up to two years (indeed, one of our first stayed for this period), but most of those we look after are with us on average for a couple of days to a few weeks.
Friday is a key day. With the weekend approaching, social workers struggle to find placements.
The hardest thing is saying ‘no’ — Benedicte in particular hates to turn away a child, feeling somehow complicit in their suffering — but sometimes we have plans that cannot be cancelled. And children in care can take up most of your day (and sometimes night). You need to make space for family commitments and, sometimes, emotional and physical recuperation. Still, the disconnect between what little we two can achieve and the growing scale of the children in care crisis can, at times, be difficult to accept.
Six years ago, after our training and vetting was completed but before receiving our first children, I wrote in the Mail about the reasons behind deciding to foster.
Our four children had for the most part left the nest (one 15-year-old son was still at home), so we had the time. We also had the resources and the space at our Suffolk home and felt we had little excuse not to help.
Today, we have fostered 30 different children, many returning for weekends or holidays if their longer-term carers need respite, and are considered veterans. So what does the landscape look like now? How have we been affected?
How were the children we looked after affected?
What’s clear is that sadly our skills are more needed than ever. Experts predict there will be 100,000 children in care in England by 2025, up from 70,000 in 2015.
The pandemic was a major factor. After lockdown, when vulnerable children were almost abandoned to the mercies of dysfunctional, violent or addicted parents, step-parents or guardians, the calls from social services increased exponentially.
We get requests for up to three children a week from social services, up from around three a month before lockdown.
There is also a chronic shortage of foster carers, with fewer volunteering and more dropping out. Fostering will never make you rich, and the cost of living crisis has resulted in more and more carers giving up and fewer coming forward.
We were far from naive going into fostering; our training left us in no doubt as to the challenges taking a child into your home can bring.
Despite this, our debut was still, at least at the beginning, a baptism of fire.
With just five hours’ notice, two sisters aged five and two arrived at our house in their pyjamas, having been removed by police from their home. We were terrified, but swung into action with me rushing around the shops buying pushchairs, clothes and car seats while my wife bathed, fed and held them through explosive convulsions of anxiety.
I adopted a night-time routine that was to become common with the more unstable and distressed children we take in. I would read a story to them, turn out the light, and lie on the floor in the corridor outside their room (with a beer to make it enjoyable for me) where they could see me until they went to sleep, reassured they were protected and not alone. (In one case it made siblings we hosted feel safe in case the police came for them again.)
While the younger sister left after a few months to stay with long-term carers, the older girl stayed with us for two years.
It was gratifying to watch her flourish. Her reading age shot up as my wife introduced her to books, to the rhythms of family life that do so much to make a child feel safe.
Martin Newland with his family when they started taking children in in 2017 (left to right: Raphael, Martin, Benedicte, Evelyn, Gabriel and Otto)
My wife Benedicte and I are short-term or emergency foster carers. We can take children for up to two years (indeed, one of our first stayed for this period), but most of those we look after are with us on average for a couple of days to a few weeks
We always knew there would not be the same easy, physically affectionate relationship with the young people we fostered that we have with our own children: Evelyn, now 32, Raphael, 29, Otto, 26, and Gabriel, 20. With some children, especially those whose legal status is still before the courts, you can be discouraged by the authorities from too close physical contact.
There are dangers, especially when sexual abuse of a child is suspected or proven, associated with a middle-aged man giving a vulnerable child a bath. A child in care can be angry, sexually precocious, and false allegations against foster carers are a constant danger.
In truth, the only way to cope is to use common sense, to give a hug if needed, to say goodnight with an ‘I love you’, to hold them while they sob their hearts out.
As for bath-time, I cannot always leave my wife to these duties. I bathed my own kids and if these children are to feel properly at home their treatment should be no different.
Many of the children who stay with us have never witnessed normal family life. A husband and wife who are civil to each other, who have been together for years, can be a revelation for them.
Their experience often involves violent men rampaging through the household, fists flying, drunk or high, while a mouse-like or addicted mother cowers or, beholden to an abusive partner via various addictions, becomes complicit in neglect.
Nor have they experienced families who sit together for meals, insist on set bath-times and bed-times, who treat each other with respect.
Joining in with these routines allows the child to escape a near permanent state of fear and anxiety — the ‘fight or flight’ instincts that have until this point governed relationships at home.
Their natural gifts are allowed to come to the fore. Freed from uncertainty, they have the space to learn how to trust — the goal for any foster carer when it comes to their charges.
It might not be fashionable today to admit it but, in our case, traditional gender roles have played a key part in caring for our foster placements, although I have found myself spreadeagled on the kitchen floor playing with Barbie dolls when this is called for.
I’ve found the ride-on mower is an effective means of getting a young boy to abandon fear when he arrives. Many boys love tractors and I always ask them if they would like a ride. They sit on my lap, joy on their faces as we mow the grass for the umpteenth time.
One lad, seriously abused and neglected, stared longingly at the tractor but refused to go near it. The engine was too loud. It was only when I sat an adult-size orange hard hat with built in ear protectors on his head that he would come and perch on my lap.
I have a picture of us both zooming around the back field — it was the first time he smiled for us.
My wife uses baking to help settle our girl (and sometimes boy) visitors. They love churning out brownies and cupcakes, mixing icing, chopping strawberries.
Against this backdrop, many children talk about their lives. My wife has special powers of emotional discernment, comforting and counselling as they bake.
And there are other tasks that have been beyond me as a gruff male. We were asked at short notice to take in a teenage girl and her little brother. Police were waiting at the airport for them as their flight from Africa landed. They had received a tip off that the girl had been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM).
Benedicte took this poor girl to medical appointments, playing a role that was beyond me — that of a mother and confidante to a girl who had been violated.
We still have a letter from this girl attached to our kitchen noticeboard. It reads in part: ‘Thank you for comforting me like a mother… You guys made me feel at home.’
Amid the trauma there are also moments of levity. Once, my wife had to step out, leaving two of our sons in charge of the girl’s little brother. She returned to find them hunched cluelessly over the boy on the kitchen floor trying to figure out how to change his nappy.
Which brings us to our children.
My four are fine people, but they have led lives of privilege — private schools, global travel, ready access to the bank of mum and dad. We obviously consulted with them before taking the leap and they have never, ever, complained. In fact, while they have all now left home, they return for holidays and visits and happily join in caring for a child we might be looking after. Sometimes they have returned for the specific purpose of helping with a placement.
They have been so important to the children we take in.
My youngest, dubbed the ‘rugby god’ for his stature and looks, is literally stalked around the house by some of the boys we host. Another son entrances the children with his singing and guitar playing. A third can be found constructing fantasy worlds with them on the kitchen floor in the shape of three foot-high Lego towers. Evelyn, my eldest, has work and family commitments of her own now but she nevertheless joins the fray whenever she has the chance.
As observant Catholics, my wife and I — together for over 40 years and married for 36 — are ‘old school’ believers in the family.
Many will say that the decline of the traditional family is behind poor outcomes for children. I agree up to a point, but have found that many of these families are too dysfunctional, too lacking in resources, to even recognise the theoretical benefits of family life.
Children often come from backgrounds where parents and guardians have never worked, where drugs and alcohol dominate daily life, where a single mother is preyed upon by a succession of abusive men looking for a place to live, sealing the deal by getting her pregnant, but later absconding. We have looked after children with as many as 14 siblings, usually by different fathers.
Martin Newland at his daughter’s wedding at their French home (left to right: Son Otto, 26, wife Benedicte, 61, son-in-law John, daughter Evelyn, 32, Martin, 61, Raphael 29 and Gabriel, 20)
The family dune surfing together Dune surfing in the Empty Quarter desert in Asia. Pictured: Gabriel (front), Evelyn, Benedicte, Raphael and Otto
Left to right: Raphael, Gabriel, Benedicte, Evelyn and Otto, together in July 2012
Amid the psychological and social wreckage of the household, children born to provide diversion and comfort soon become victims.
And underpinning all of this is something relatively new: the twisted influences of social media that have allowed so many to detach cause from effect, to believe that life is a movie or play which, if found wanting, can be simply re-written or reshot.
Smartphones and social media play a sinister role in family dysfunction and neglect, my wife and I have found. They provide easy access for those who prey on young children and a faux-romantic context for those parents wishing to escape their predicaments by playing ‘happy families’.
We’ve been shocked to see saccharine social media posts by mothers, depicted with abused and neglected children we have subsequently cared for, containing retouched, soft-focus images — all pouts and cuddles — under captions such as ‘mum of the year’.
We are a society that increasingly places our children in the crosshairs of adult neuroses and social posturing — as with, for instance, the current row about self-identification in schools.
If there is one thing my wife and I have learned after years of fostering, it is that the surest route to healing is for a child to be allowed to become what they are: children, rather than an extension of the obsessions of increasingly infantilised adults.
The whole experience has brought us to a stark awareness of child-suffering beyond the parameters of our middle-class comfort zone.
I wrote in the Mail all those years ago that children in care represent the ‘coal-face’ of human misery. We have realised together that we can do little to affect the broad picture, but we believe that we have been able to change some lives.
Many children we looked after as emergencies are happy to come back to us under respite arrangements so have stayed with us multiple times. They are now part of our giant, extended family.
A few months ago we travelled to Ireland to be reunited with our very first foster children — those once-traumatised little girls.
It was a delight to see them now happily ensconced with their permanent family. They sail, play rugby, ride horses and are awaiting Irish citizenship.
On our mantelpiece is a collage of them engaged in these activities, given to us by the older girl. On the back is written: ‘Thank you for everything you have done for me.’