For foster carers Emily and Simon, there is no better demonstration of the unwavering, unchanging, unconditional and radical love of God than opening up their home to a child who is in difficult circumstances. The couple, based in the north-east, know that foster care is their calling rather than a job.
Emily was clear right from a very young age that she wanted to become a foster carer. “I have no idea where the original desire came from, but I have always talked about it, since I was a little girl. Simon and I were friends before we started dating, so he knew what he was getting into. We were married for six years before we started going down the route of fostering.”
A year and a half into their first foster placement they had a child of their own – Ivy – who they describe as an “unexpected blessing”. “Ivy wasn’t part of the plan. She’s a blessing that we didn’t know we wanted. A lot of people think fostering or adoption is a second choice, but for us it was really our first choice.”
Ivy, now five years old, has played her own part in welcoming the foster children into the family home. With a special ability to empathise, she is a vital part in the “therapeutic” role of fostering. The couple had a seven-year-old who was uncontrollable until Ivy was born and everything changed. Where he had previously been violent, he was no longer. They also had a one-year-old who did not speak. The first time she interacted was with Ivy.
When they started out six and a half years ago, they had considered going with Christian agencies, but felt it was right for them to work with their Local Authority. “It was a long process,” says Simon. “And rightly so. They go into a lot of detail about your personal life and your home life to make sure you are able to fulfil a need in the child’s life rather than your own life.”
Both Emily and Simon had backgrounds in working with young people. Emily, who worked with young offenders, said: “You hear stories of foster homes that are nightmares and make children feel they’re just there to pay the bills. We feel we have a unique opportunity to show a child love – loving them when it’s hard; when they hurt you or when they’re destructive; or when other people are unable to love them. It’s a unique calling.”
But what happens when it’s time to say goodbye? When the children you have nurtured and shown love to, and have come to love yourself, have to leave your home?
“We know that we have a specific role and that’s for a specific time,” says Simon. “We know that there’s something better for them, but when your heart gets involved it’s a wrench. But our role isn’t to be their parent for the long-term. We love them – if we didn’t love them then we wouldn’t be doing our job right.”
Emily adds: “We see our role as to enable the child to bond and attach and to love somebody. The key difference between adoption and fostering is in fostering you have a very therapeutic role. You teach them how to love, how to play, how to eat, how to interact. You’re preparing them to be ready for a family.”
The couple’s church family have helped support and comfort them through the times when their foster children have left. But the church has also been a great place of stability and friendship while the children are with them.
“A lot of our great friends are in church and so are able to support us and love the children as well,” says Simon. “The leadership have also been really supportive. They get the fact that for us, it’s a calling, it’s our role. Our church also has lots of other young children and babies. Our foster children – who otherwise may have been quite solitary – have found friends in church. They have also built really healthy relationships with adults which for some of them has been a novelty.”
Ultimately, Emily and Simon open their home to children because it reflects something of the nature of God. “Fostering gives us a fascinating insight into God. God is dealing with humans all the time who are destructive and violent. But He is that constant love. And that gives us a great comfort to know that the God of everything is experiencing some of the things that we are on a much smaller scale. It’s a wonderful opportunity to pass that love on and instil in them something of what God is.”
This article has been updated. It first appeared in the Evangelical Alliance’s idea magazine, March/April 2013 edition.