Farmers who foster – a case of transferable skills
On every sheep farm, there will be times when a lamb needs to be fostered by an ewe that is not its mother, a situation that mostly has a positive outcome.
Allison Silk uses this analogy to illustrate some of the similarities between her work as a sheep farmer and as a foster carer to children whose parents cannot take care of them at that point in time.
“On the farm we get animals that are poor at mothering but it doesn’t mean they are bad animals,’’ says Allison, as she reflects on some of the circumstances that have brought children into her care in the 28 years she has been fostering.
Allison farms near Camrose where she runs two pedigree flocks of Hampshire Downs and Torwens and breeds Section A and B horses and poodles for showing.
This rural idyll and the old-fashioned family values synonymous with farming are a nurturing environment for the children she looks after.
“I have always believed that the first team you are in is a family and everything we do, we do as a team. It might be taking a cup of coffee out to someone who is nursing a sick ewe or finishing some of the farm jobs so that I can get the evening meal on the go,’’ says Allison.
Her decision to become a registered foster carer was prompted by meeting a girl in foster care.
“Her placement broke down and I thought we could offer her a home, but hadn’t realised that we had to qualify first!’’
Although they couldn’t help that girl, it was the catalyst to Allison and her husband Brian, deciding to become foster carers, opening up their farmhouse they shared with their daughters, Nadine and Hayley, to children and young people aged from 5 to 25.
They have since fostered so many children that Allison has lost count but many are still part of the family, returning with their own children and partners.
“There are 12 who still look at this place as their home, if there is a big job happening on the farm they will all turn up,’’ says Allison. “It gets a bit rowdy when they turn up because they now have partners and children of their own, some even bring their own mothers.
“With most of the mums and dads you end up having a really good working relationship with them which is good because their children will return home eventually.
“I feel I am doing a job for those parents who for whatever reason can’t look after their children at that point in time. I am going to do the best I can for them and their children, I can’t sit in judgment even though some of the children arrive very damaged and traumatised. If you got caught up in the situation you couldn’t do the job.’’
Brian sadly died but Allison, who is now 61, continues to foster. “I’ve not even thought about giving up yet,’’ she insists.
She encourages other farmers to consider fostering because she believes they have the right personalities and environments to care for children.
“Farmers who throw in the towel if a cow has kicked them in the milking parlour that morning or if they can’t harvest their crops because the weather is terrible, they get up and face the day and that is what must be done when you foster children.’’
Farmers can offer qualities and skills over and above the basics requirements of a foster carer.
Pembrokeshire County Council, which has five farmers and smallholders registered as foster carers, says farms provide children with experience of a rural family life and a strong sense of community.
“Farmers are resilient, they work through challenges and don’t give up,’’ says Cheryl Morris, a social worker with the authority’s Family Placement Team.
The structure and routine synonymous with farming and a strong network of family and friends are also valued.
With a shortage of foster carers both locally and nationally, Pembrokeshire County Council is urging people to give it a go.
“A farm can offer a rural retreat for these children,’’ says Ms Morris.