This year National Pet Month and Foster Care Fortnight have followed on from each other over April and May and have highlighted the benefits that animals at home can have on children in care.
Clifford House fostering agency, based in the West Midlands, has celebrated the magical impact that animals can have on foster children by bringing together a number of foster parents and their creature companions to look back over their fostering careers.
This year’s Foster Care Fortnight theme is ‘fostering communities’ which, to children in care, can come in lots of shapes and sizes, including the animal community. If you are an animal lover it will come as no surprise that there are a multitude of benefits to spending time with our furry companions, which can be even more important if you have previously suffered trauma, and are finding your feet with a new family.
Lesley Greenfield is the Regional Manager for Clifford House fostering agency, whose head office is in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. She is a huge advocate for children spending time with animals where it is appropriate and safe to do so.
Lesley said; “Working in foster care you meet and spend time with children from difficult backgrounds – there’s really a huge spectrum of situations which might mean a young person has to leave their biological parents and live safely with foster parents. Often, when our foster parents have pets we see wonderful results from the children. It can really bring them out of their shells, and allow them to feel safe and protected in their new homes, especially in the early days of a new foster care placement.”
According to mentalhealth.org, our pets can have a significantly positive impact on our wellbeing, these include increasing the amount of exercise we do when taking care of our pets, providing companionship which can help people, and children in particular to feel safe and valued, and reduce anxiety levels.
Lesley continued: “We’re seeing more evidence from research that animals can even benefit the victims of trauma. We all know how lovely it is to spend time with something furry and cuddly, but to know that there can be real healing qualities as a result of this is fantastic. When we have foster parents who have pets, we see such incredible progress and bonds being formed between animal and child, that it brings real beauty to our day. And the pets aren’t complaining about some extra snacks and scratches!”
Meet three of Clifford House’s foster parents who are celebrating their animals this Foster Care Fortnight:
Linda Bridgewater, Birmingham
“We have hens, a canary, and a dog. Our pets provide a wonderful relationship for our looked after child. We find that they teach young people about responsibility, sensitivity, needs and unconditional love, and these are lessons that often children in care don’t learn until they are fostered because of the circumstances that they have come from. To us, animals are a way of life and they provide us and our children with so many benefits. Our pets are mostly rescued animals and had a previous home which is something that foster children can relate to, it helps them feel at home, and like they are not alone. Animals also help us to tackle more complicated issues and even to talk about our feelings, which is something that looked after children can really struggle with.
“Each of our animals has taught our foster child a different lesson. Our dog Milo teaches him about brotherly love, they continue to help each other and show each other love. And through caring for our hens, he has learnt about food – from not wasting the scraps that the chickens can eat, to taking care of the eggs that they lay, which are a product of our happy chickens. He also finds it funny to watch them run too, which is a pleasure to witness.”
Hilary Jones*, West Midlands
“They say you can see your soul in a horse’s eyes… We know that our horses pick up on people’s feelings and are quick to react. We find it so useful when the children spend time with the horses as we often end up with a good indicator towards the children’s mental or physical health.
“I have schooled horses who are often very understanding of children and their need to learn, which can be so beneficial to the children who need patience and support. For children who don’t want to ride, they have happily spent time in the stables grooming horses and having a chat. That one to one time forms beautiful relationships between the children and the animals and it really is a lovely community for them to be a part of.”
Lisa Hunt, Hereford
“Animals are such a huge part of our lives, and therefore have a huge impact on the children that we foster. Our current foster child has been with us for 7 months, and he had never spent any time with pets before, and he was a little bit overwhelmed at the start of his placement. But now, this little man spends all his time helping us with the dogs and horses. All four of our dogs are loving and kind, and really help to keep our foster son calm, even when they’re demanding a cuddle from him. We feel confident that we are teaching our foster son what responsibility means as he helps out with everything, and best of all, he now loves spending time with the animals and feels confident in their company.”
Linda, Hilary* and Lisa are just a handful of foster parents whose pets are supporting their foster children to learn, recover and flourish, and ultimately become parts of communities that can really help them to lead normal and fulfilling lives. Across the UK, there are approximately 80,000 children who are in the care system. Registered Manager Lesley said: “It’s a common misconception that people with pets are not able to foster children who need help and support, but that is simply not the case. We welcome and encourage pet owners to come forward, pets in hand, to provide loving homes for foster children. We see time and time again the incredible bonds that children and animals can form, and it is even more heart-warming when you consider the backgrounds of lots of looked after children.
Clifford House currently supports 61 children, across 43 approved foster homes throughout the West Midlands. For more information on their foster service, or to enquire about becoming a foster parent visit their website www.cliffordhousefostering.com or call 01527 559 366
*Name changed to protect the identity of looked after child and family