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TV review: Fostering and Me - seeking a kind heart and a spare room

The programme opens with the most homely scene: a woman and child baking a cake. They laugh about how the boy has never baked a cake before. He wonders if it'll be as good as those his mum makes.

Lorraine Pascale
Lorraine Pascale

So, who is this woman, if not his mother? She's the TV chef, Lorraine Pascale, and this documentary is about her experiences as a much-fostered child. The boy she is baking with is currently in care. As he barrels around the kitchen, excited and happy as all children are when a cake is being made, he says his first night in care was frightening. You don't know why you're there, he says, and it's like 'a big old question mark in your heart.'

So within the first few seconds, Fostering and Me had debunked a myth: children in care are not feral or brutal: they can be thoughtful and intelligent and they can jump up and down at the worktop, wanting to lick the spoon - so they're just like children everywhere, then, except they've had terrible luck.

There are 60,000 children in care in Britain, and a constant shortage of foster parents. In fact, the very phrase 'foster parents' may be a contributing factor to the scarcity as there persists the misconception that you need to be a conventional, heterosexual couple in order to foster, whereas the only criteria are that you be over 21 and have a spare room. Of course, you are then carefully assessed for suitability, but you needn't be white, married, Christian, straight or any other cliche of the traditional British family unit. Really, it boils down to having a spare room and a kind heart.

But misunderstandings persist and so the campaign to reach people is ongoing.

We see the social work team in Lambeth out on the streets distributing leaflets but, instead of being asked to save the whales or the forests, the shoppers are asked to consider fostering; an unorthodox approach, but one which shows how great the need is.

However, a surge in applicants wouldn't necessarily be good news. 'In the current financial climate,' says one of the social workers, 'we need to check they're doing it for the right reasons.' Foster carers receive £390 per week for their efforts and some people might see it as a way to make a fast buck.

Of course, the social workers, no doubt trained to speak carefully to the most fragile and troubled of people, would never say anything as blunt as 'they're in it for the money.' They seem to operate in wandering, roundabout language. Perhaps if they were more straightforward some of the mystery surrounding fostering would begin to recede? A prime example of their tippy-toe language came when we visited the toddler, Shania, in her new foster home. The social worker said the birth mother was 'not able to meet Shania's needs because of her lifestyle choices'. I appreciate she can't blurt to the camera that she was 'a bad mother' but if this person has opted for 'lifestyle choices' - and the crucial words is 'choices' - which made life awful for her baby then she is simply and plainly 'a bad mother'. She's not necessarily a bad person, but a bad mother, evidently. So, a prospective fosterer is required to work their way through that delicate version of politically-correct jargon which social workers indulge in. If you want to attract more people, who are unsure of what's required, then start by calling a spade a spade. Abandon this daft skirting of reality. We don't need people to 'meet Shania's needs', we need people to love her and care for her, to give her decent meals and clean clothes and assure her, every day, that she's safe.

Throughout the programme was the personal story of Lorraine Pascale. She was fostered after birth and went through a series of short-term foster homes before being adopted. Then her adoptive parents divorced and she was fostered again.

She had to leave the room in tears upon reading that her mother walked her down a busy street and, as a lorry approached, imagined throwing her under the wheels as it would 'solve all her problems.'

But foster parents stepped in, time and time again, to offer Lorraine a home and she acknowledges the debt she owes each of them.

The most inspirational figure was Audley, a middle-aged black man from London who wished to foster the children no-one else wanted: the older boys, rough and in trouble, who may be lured by gang culture. It was a hard task and he went through extensive vetting by the council and attended workshops with worrying titles like 'Restraint' and 'De-escalation'.

We saw him with his foster child, Thomas. They were at the gym and Thomas was jumping and bouncing in the boxing ring. He told the camera he really enjoyed his 12th birthday with Audley as it was the first one he'd had which went well. He said his birthdays were 'usually shouting, screaming, leaving.' Indeed, the only fault he could find with Audley was that he didn't swear at him, as every other adult had. 'I want him to curse me back so I can see what curses he's got,' he smiled.

This programme was an uplifting celebration of fostering and how it can change a life, or even save a life. Most importantly, it showed that under the wearying bureaucracy and the paperwork and the vetting and the workshops and the forms and the folders, real love and goodness exist.

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