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Sunday, 21 December 2014

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West Cumbrian couple have fostered 170 children

How many children is too many? It’s an age-old question, but it’s unlikely many couples consider 170 a reasonable number.

Sue and Barry Shearman photo
Sue and Barry Shearman

Safe to say then that Sue and Barry Shearman do things a little differently.

It began when Sue’s mum had heard an advert on the radio encouraging listeners to get involved in foster care.

She recommended to her daughter that she and husband Barry look into it, and after a some encouragement the couple went to an information evening.

They have since both received MBEs for their long service to fostering, and the happy atmosphere in their home is palpable.

So what’s their secret?

Sue, 59 says: “You’ve got to have a lot of understanding and patience – we are chilled.

“If you get uptight you’re onto a loser. If they are angry it isn’t at you but they take it out on you.

“We are a big family for talking and we have meetings. We will get round the table and sort it out.

“It’s hard but we are good because we have got good support.”

Currently there are a total of nine people living at the Shearman residence in Maryport.

Every Sunday no fewer than 24 members of the family get together for dinner, and last year 17 went on a summer holiday.

As you might expect, after nearly three-and-a-half decades the family have been through some dark times.

But these are outweighed by the happiness they get from and give to the youngsters who pass through their home.

Barry, 61, explains: “There was one who came and we thought; ‘what have we done here?’

“But now she’s one of the nicest lasses you could ever meet.

“The best bits have got to be taking them on holiday.

“Some we have had were terrified of water at the start of a holiday, wearing life jackets.

“But by the end of the first week they were jumping in and out of the pool.”

Sue adds: “That was just through time and talking, and it didn’t take that long.

“We don’t expect instant results.”

The couple are both retired now, but when they started Barry worked for the gas board.

Despite their prodigious capacity for caring, they still needed help from Sue’s mum and dad.

And they both keenly believe that employers should help when it comes to fostering.

Barry says: “When I worked for the gas board it was like a family, and if you were struggling they would help you.

Sue explains: “If anything cropped up like if one of the children had to go to hospital they supported us. A lot of firms don’t but they did.

“Fostering is a valuable vocation and they have to look to the future. If we fail our kids we are failing future generations.

“A lot of them come in and I think they wouldn’t get anywhere, but we are making a change in their lives.

“They are going to contribute to our society.”

Barry and Sue both insist that fostering has brought them so much joy that they cannot pick out a single happiest moment.

But there are certainly highlights.

One of Sue’s proudest achievements was taking in a young girl who refused to go to school, and turning her life around. After help and encouragement she flourished in education and left college with a distinction.

Their influence has been so great that Sue’s daughter took up fostering and has three foster children, as well as four of her own.

After taking in 170 children the pair admit that there are occasions when they have to hold up their hands and accept that they’ve done everything they can. Sue says: “You can’t win all the time.

“Sometimes you don’t get through and sometimes you are not the right couple.”

Barry adds: “You can think you’ve failed, and they come back and say; ‘it wasn’t your fault’.”

As foster children often come from violent, abusive or chaotic backgrounds, there can be a culture shock when they are brought into a loving family.

Barry says: “Some kids haven’t got anything.

“We have had some and they would whisper; ‘we are getting breakfast’, and; ‘we are getting supper’ behind their hands to each other.

“You try to take them for a bath and every other word is the f word.”

The process to get involved in fostering has changed since Sue and Barry put their names forward.

Some prospective foster parents are daunted by the prospect of going through a lengthy procedure before being approved.

Others are simply apprehensive about fostering itself, worrying that they will not cope.

But Sue can’t stress strongly enough how fulfilling it is in the end.

She say: “I have got cards from people we’ve cared for and when I read them I cry. They say; ‘I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for you’.

“The best bit is when they’ve gone on to independence and it’s a job well done. I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t foster. Our house would be empty and boring.”

Their argument is that the satisfaction outweighs the strain and the dividend is worth the difficulty.

The evidence is plain to see, and Sue and Barry are visibly delighted with the life they have chosen.

After 34 years Sue maintains that she will carry on fostering for as long as she is physically able.

She explains: “There are lots of happy memories. With my first pre-adoption baby I was very sad to see her go but it was really good for the people who adopted her. It completed their family.

“The kids we’ve had all say they didn’t know what a normal family life was until they came here.”

HAPPY HOMES ARE NEEDED...

The publisher of the News & Star – CN Group – is the first fostering-friendly employer in Cumbria.

Now we’ve teamed up with Cumbria’s fostering authority – the county council – to urge other employers to take simple steps that could help their employees become foster parents. The campaign reflects the growing need for new carers to take up fostering and give children a chance of a happy home.

There are 639 children in foster care across the county. There are 46 under the age of one, 142 aged one and four and 147 from five to nine years old.

The average age of Cumbrian carers is 52, meaning that a large number are nearing retirement.

The county council is holding a drop-in day on Saturday, February 8 at the Crown & Mitre Hotel in Carlisle from 10am to 2pm for anyone who wants to sign up or learn a little more about what it takes to be a carer.

Alternatively, call the county council on 0303 333 1216 or visit cumbria.gov.uk/fostering.

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