Maria Catterick, 42, has been a short-term foster carer since 2004. She is single and lives in the Tees Valley
A week after I’d been approved as a foster carer I had my first placement, so it was a bit of a baptism by fire. A social worker turned up with a little girl and thrust some paperwork into my hand. I remember feeling absolutely terrified that this child was now my responsibility.
She was 11 but dressed in age-six clothes and carrying a red handbag with swear words written on it. She wore a little skirt that had never been ironed and her hair was so long you couldn’t see what colour her eyes were. Together we put away the few clothes she came with and I tried to get to know her. She ran away constantly and she was partial to self-harm. She stole the first-aid box and hurt herself badly enough to need all the bandages and plasters. I didn’t sleep well for the first month. But gradually we built up a relationship, and over the year she stayed with me she became the joy of my life.
For more than 20 years I worked with adults and children in the vol-untary sector as a community development officer on short-term youth projects, but foster care seemed to me the place where you could make the most difference to the course of a child’s life. Children who come into care always have low self-esteem, so one of the first things I do is try to find something they’re good at. I have no electronic games in the house, only board games, and I throw them into every club and activity I can find – their behaviour turns around once you fill their lives with exciting things.
I’ve had families of two, three and four siblings. It is a lot of work, but if I’m asked, how can I not keep them together? I’ve had a very beautiful four-and-a-half-pound baby and his teenage mum; I enjoyed helping her towards independence. And I’ve just had a three-year-old with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (if a mother binge drinks during early pregnancy, it can result in lifelong physical, behavioural and learning disabilities in her baby). This little girl was disconnected from the world and herself. When she arrived she ran up and down my sitting-room until her legs gave out.
The agency I work for [Team Fostering] insists that if you’re the main care giver, you mustn’t work outside the home, because the children should be your priority. I look on it as a career. Sometimes I’ve earned very little, but at times I’ve earned more than I used to in the voluntary sector. Occasionally, I need to take a breather between children, so I budget. The children and I don’t often go to the cinema, but it’s just as much fun watching DVDs with a big bowl of popcorn at home.
You need to have a passion for children and an ability to overcome problems. Children push and push, but I’m not someone who easily loses the plot. My job is to help them on their way to a permanent home. If you grow up in an ordinary family, family stories are passed down; so when they leave I write a 'love letter’, setting down all the things we did together, what it was like living with them, how much I gained from them. If they’re babies, I put it on the social worker’s file, so when they’re older they’ll be able to say, 'Yes, I was in the care system, but I had a good life and I was loved.’
My first child left me after a year to join her adoptive family, where she was very happy, but when she was 16 she called, and she’s been in my life ever since. It’s the daftest things she remembers. Bubble baths, cooking together, the car-boot sales where she found the Famous Five books she grew to love. She was challenging but she taught me such a lot. I always sign their letters, 'Love always and forever’. She said, 'I called because I knew you meant it. I always knew I could come back and find you.’