When their foster child tells them he’d like to stay with them until he is 35, carers Geoff and Stuart Norton can be reassured that they are providing a good home.

The young boy came into their care two-and-a-half years ago and they would be the first to admit ‘he wasn’t in a very good place’.

“He’d been cared for by other families previously they had all broken down and he was struggling with his mental health,” recalled Geoff, of Redcar, a former taxi driver, who gave up his work three years ago to foster full-time.

“We used to get calls from his school virtually every day until we managed to secure him specialist provision with smaller classes sizes. He is also now much more integrated into our life and that of our extended family. He feels safe with us and knows he can come and talk to us, whereas before he used to shut down and was very angry.”

Darlington and Stockton Times:
Stuart, a former Ladbrokes manager, added: “It is so rewarding for us to see how much of a changed boy he is. We have spent a lot of time supporting and caring for him making him feel safe, and under the Staying Put initiative he can stay with us until he is 21. He tells us he’ll still be here when he is 35 and he’ll probably have a wife with him.”

In the past three years Geoff and Stuart have looked after dozens of children either in their home or in other accommodation caring for emergency cases. Demand is high and as one child leaves another often finds a place with them the same day.

“We have been together 10 years and one of my children was living with us,” recalled Geoff. “When she left school and started going out all the time the house seemed so empty. There was a lot on the TV about fostering at the time so we began to talk about whether we could do it. We contacted the council’s foster team who came out the following day to explain the many options, from relief to short and long term care.”

The first child they cared for followed a call one Saturday teatime. Two unaccompanied asylum seeking young people from Morocco, needed help for the weekend. “It was a bit of a shock to the system, but it went remarkably smoothly,” said Geoff.

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Stuart added: “They couldn’t speak English but with Google translate and a lot of hand signals we managed, and we realised if we can get through that then anything else would be a breeze. It is fun but it is challenging.”

Most of the children are facing challenges themselves. “It is so hard for the kids who come into what is an alien environment. They don’t know the rules; for instance, even something as simple as are they allowed to flush the toilet if they get up in the night. So we try and make it feel like a relaxed home.”

Their house is also home to a 17-year-old boy who for the past year has been learning to be independent. “It’s a difficult age, very challenging, but we are coping well,” said Stuart.

“In the past, his life had been chaotic and I think he appreciates the calm in our house. He’d never been out of the North East either so we are putting that right. We have taken children on their first ever cruise and while we were a bit apprehensive at first they were better behaved than many other children there and they loved it.

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“With the older children we have to help them get ready for independent living. So we make sure they get involved with washing, cleaning, cooking. They also have to think about a job, getting a driving licence and housing, which is a hard slog if they haven’t done it before so we’re always on-hand to help.”

Geoff and Stuart have the support of a network of other foster carers and friends. “The foster carer friends understand it but it’s also important to go out with other friends so you aren’t talking about work all the time,” said Stuart. 

When the couple look back at their time before fostering life seems more simple, but less rewarding. “It is 24 hours a day now, even Christmas day, but we do feel proud of what we are achieving,” said Geoff.

Stuart added: “I wouldn’t go back and anyone can get fostering to fit around their lives. The fostering team are very flexible, which is important. You can do short break care for other carers, which may only take up a few hours, or a weekend, or holiday cover, which opens this up to a lot of people. Even if it’s just for one night it’s the start of a journey.”

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Geoff added: “We are not the same people we were and are now calmer, more accepting and have learned a great deal.”

The couple are helping a campaign to break down stereotypes and misconceptions around fostering as a new regional support hub launches in the North East of England to represent the 12 local authorities in the region.

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.  Foster with North East hub works alongside the fostering teams from local councils to support prospective foster carers all the way from enquiry to approval.

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.

For those interested in fostering in the North East, visit fosterwithnortheast.org.uk.