Living in a camper van in her son’s garden, Francie Hansell thought her ‘less than ordinary’ life might have stood in the way of her becoming a foster carer.

It was only the soul searching she experienced during her training that made her realise that her life experiences were just what she needed to help teenagers in the care system.

“I thought, they won’t want me, I’ll never be eligible,” recalled Francie, from Northumberland. “I thought it was just couples who did fostering and I was single, divorced and hadn’t had an ordinary life.”

Francie’s mum died when she was 12 and she had to live with her aunty. Her father was an “Edwardian” and, according to Francie, lacked emotion. When she was in her teens her aunty passed away as well and she had to lodge with a cousin.

“When mum died I was bereft and it made me think about what it is like to be dumped,” she said. “I spent a lot of time on my own as a teenager and it made me appreciate how important it is to have support because I didn’t have any.”

At 17 she became pregnant and a single mum to a daughter Roz, who later transitioned to become a man.

Francie also lived with depression, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence. But when she was 40 she went to Northumbria University to study human organisation and later worked in student support at Northumberland College, as well as caring for people with disabilities.

“I didn’t take education seriously when I was young and didn’t believe I was clever at all,” she said. “But later on I loved learning and I want to foster that in young people.”

During the first lockdown Francie lived in her van but managed to secure a bungalow with two bedrooms.

“The moment I got the house I applied for foster carer training and it was marvellous,” she said. “I’d wanted to do it for at least ten years but didn’t have the room. I always loved teenagers and enjoyed it when my son’s friends used to come round – it was such fun.

“And that’s my approach to fostering. I want it to be fun rather than strict. My attitude is that you have to learn what they need and fit around them.”

Francie was 61 when she underwent her training which she felt was life changing. “The process of becoming a foster carer is in-depth,” she said. “You talk about your life and experiences and reflect on how you have coped with them. I realised I had a lot of experience to draw upon and that there are an awful of children out there who need looking after.

“Age is no barrier as long as you are reasonably fit and healthy, have energy and the willingness to compromise, like you do in any relationship. In fact, when you retire you have more time to fit around the children’s lifestyle.

“I did my six months training online during the second lockdown and it was fascinating. It was lovely to meet other people. There were other single women there and I thought this is going to be okay. The soul searching is fantastic as it really makes you think and helps you live life, to have fun and enjoy every moment, rather than just worrying all the time.”

In the past four years Francie has fostered two teenage girls, the latest a refugee from Africa.

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“She came to me one Monday, about three days after the previous girl had left and it was a bit unnerving at first getting someone who does not speak your language,” Francie recalled. “She had only been in the country a couple of weeks and it must have been scary for her.

“It was impossible to get a translator but her second language was French. I speak a bit of French and with Google translate on my phone, sign language and lots of giggling we managed. We used to watch Netflix films with French subtitles.

“I took her to the supermarket and her eyes lit up. She also loves clothes and it was so lovely seeing her face.”

The teenager managed to get three GCSEs at school and is now studying English for Speakers of other Languages at Newcastle College.

“The college has transformed her English and she is socialising as well,” said Francie. “My home was a safe place for her but a little isolated. Newcastle has been a revelation, and she has lots of friends including a family from Africa. She is amazing. She came to me scared and reserved and has absolutely blossomed.

“It is like teaching children to swim. They need the supporting hand on their tummies to start with and you gradually take that away as they gain confidence. But the supporting hand on their back is there all the time.”

Francie is also helping a campaign to break down stereotypes and misconceptions around fostering as a new regional support hub launches in the North East of England.

Foster with North East aims to recruit more prospective carers from a range of different backgrounds and circumstances at a time when there are 6,000 children currently in care but just over 1,500 approved foster carers available, a third less than a year ago.

Recent research reveals 64 percent of people would be inspired to help change a child’s life through fostering but are put off by misconceptions about who is eligible to foster. Foster with North East represents the 12 council fostering teams to help anyone considering becoming a foster carer through a single support hub.

Led by Sunderland City Council’s children’s services partner Together for Children and supported by the Department for Education, the hub supports prospective foster carers from different backgrounds through their full journey, from initial enquiry to application and beyond.

The North East is also the first whole region in England to be fully signed up to The Fostering Network’s Mockingbird programme which nurtures relationships between cared for children, young people and foster families, bringing them together as an extended family.

Foster with North East also benefits from a new buddy mentoring scheme, linking prospective foster carers to experienced ones from across the region during the application process and beyond.

Chair of the Foster with North East Project Implementation Board Jill Colbert OBE said: “We recognised that something needed to be done to encourage more people into foster care. We want to bridge this knowledge gap, dispel myths around who is eligible, recruit a diverse range of carers and ensure every child gets the love and care they deserve.”

The project also follows commitments set out in the Government’s Children’s Social Care Implementation Strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, published this year. The Department for Education is providing £27m to deliver a fostering recruitment and retention programme, with a £3.3m investment for the Foster with North East project.

Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing David Johnston said: “Fostering can be challenging but is also hugely rewarding and can help change young lives. We need more foster carers from all walks of life to open their hearts and homes to children and young people who have often had a difficult start to life.”

For those interested in fostering in the North East, visit