A single foster parent who gave a home to a child in 2020 has said other prospective carers should not feel put off by the pandemic.
Following a “childhood dream”, Sarah Smith, 37, from the outskirts of Stevenage in Hertfordshire, began her application to become a foster carer in February last year.
Within a matter of months, during which the coronavirus crisis had taken hold, she would find herself locked down with a young child she had only known for a few weeks.
“I’ve always wanted to do it, ever since I was really little,” Ms Smith told the PA news agency.
“My grandad on my dad’s side of the family was in foster care, and then on my mum’s side, her mum and dad fostered, so that may have had an influence.”
Ms Smith said the process moved on “so quickly” after she applied through Hertfordshire County Council – something that unknowingly made it all possible.
“The next week, someone came to see me here… without that, I wouldn’t have even been able to start the process in lockdown.”
In September 2020, Ms Smith welcomed four-year-old Matthew – not his real name – into her home.
The change became even more dramatic for both of them when, due to a combination of rising coronavirus cases and difficulties with Matthew’s behaviour, Ms Smith made the decision to take him out of his nursery and keep him at home full-time until restrictions eased.
“I really didn’t understand how unique the situation was,” she said.
“I didn’t really understand how much of an impact it can have on the child as well… obviously, their routine was completely changed.
“(It) was in a way really difficult, because obviously, he was suddenly with me a lot more – however, I felt that I had a much better connection to him.
“I just felt it gave me more time to do things with him, and to make different memories.”
Ms Smith has experience looking after children, having spent 15 years as a childcare manager for the holiday company TUI, before setting up a childminding business attached to her home in 2018.
She has now reduced the number of children she minds to five, to help her to focus her attention on Matthew.
Ms Smith lives in a home on her family’s farm, which means she has support at hand when needed.
Matthew had issues with tantrums as well as trouble speaking and sleeping when he first arrived, making the early months a challenge even before considering the difficulties presented by the pandemic.
“The hardest thing is he sometimes says to me, ‘I want to go on the train’ – he’s never been on a train, he’s never been on a bus,” said Ms Smith.
“The first time when the shops opened I took him to one that had an elevator – he didn’t know what it was.
“He hasn’t experienced things yet – I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges to explain to him, why we can’t just jump on a train.”
Despite the challenges they have faced, Matthew’s behaviour and happiness have since greatly improved – he is now able to write his name, recite the alphabet and is beginning to read.
“This child is incredible,” said Ms Smith.
“I remember during the last lockdown, Matthew running to me and literally just jumping into my arms and hugging me and I thought ‘this is what you read about when you learn about fostering’.
“I didn’t think it would be a reality, but it actually was, it really made me well up, I realised he had made that attachment I’d always dreamed about.”
Matthew is still with Ms Smith, but is in contact with his birth parent and was always a child for short-term fostering.
Inspired by her positive experience with Matthew, Ms Smith is now looking to commit to foster a child on a long-term basis, and encouraged others to get involved in foster care too.
“Even if you’re a single person, as long as you’ve got a room – do it,” she said.
“Don’t be put off by the pandemic, if anything, it’s probably been a plus to do it (during) the pandemic.”