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“Having a foster carer for our disabled daughter has not just enabled me to be a better mother, but made a huge difference to the whole family."

Martha with her parents Georgina and Alistair

Tuesday 2 February 2021

The impact of COVID-19 has been overwhelming for us all, but a year of restrictions and lockdowns has seen the pressure facing those living with disabled children increase even more. Being physically isolated from friends and family, less practical support from community groups and cancelled special events have all taken its toll on families who may need some respite from their daily routine.

One such family is the Tweeds from Chelmsford who have a 12-year-old daughter Martha, with disabilities.

Georgina (49) and Alistair (55) are grateful for the support they receive from local foster carers Sally and Barry Wood, who have been providing respite care for their daughter over the last three and a half years.

“It’s not easy to ask for support, as you feel like you have failed as a mother, and it really is a leap of faith to put your trust in someone else with your daughter. But my husband and I were at breaking point in our relationship - and indeed as a family in general.

"When Sally and Barry first took Martha so we could have a respite break and she could have the 24-hr care she needs, it felt like a weight had been lifted. It meant we could spend quality time with our other three children and give them the extra attention they need and deserve.

"It has enabled me to be a better mother because sometimes you just can’t give your all. You need a break for yourself and your family to come back refreshed. It’s been the best thing we ever did. Not just for us as a couple but for all four of our children, including Martha”.

Martha was diagnosed with a genetic disorder when she was 6 years old, which affects the protein for brain and muscle growth. She is not able to speak and needs help dressing, washing, feeding, and going to the bathroom.

Sally (56) and Barry (66), who live in Mayland, near Chelmsford, acknowledge that Martha has her challenges, as she cannot verbalise how she is feeling which often leaves her feeling frustrated and impacts her behaviour. She also has difficulties in sleeping. However, Sally and Barry credit the support and specialist training they have been given by Essex County Council to give them to tools to better support Martha. The rigorous matching process of children to families also mean carers can are able to confidently meet the child’s needs.

They have learnt to work around Martha and have adapted their routine to suit her; citing a willingness to be creative and resourceful as key to fostering. 

Sally says: “We were unable to see Martha over Christmas because her family had to isolate with COVID-19 and that was very hard for us; we know how exhausting it was for Georgina and Alistair too not having that additional support. It certainly felt like there was hole in our lives.

“The joy we get from fostering Martha is enormous. It really is the best job in the world, but it doesn’t feel like a job. She feels like part of our family”.

Essex County Council, who have been successfully matching children with foster parents for more than 50 years, are today urging more people to consider opening their homes and changing the life of a young person with disabilities. In the next 12 months, over 7,000 new foster families are needed across the UK to care for a range of children.

There is a need for more Essex foster carers who can provide homes for children with disabilities, as well as for older children and sibling groups.

Foster carers can be single, married, from a same-sex family or retired. It can be undertaken on a part-time basis alongside a full-time job or offered as a full-time role, both with the full support of Essex County Council.

Cllr Louise McKinlay, Cabinet Member for Children and Families at Essex County Council, said: “Our foster carers help build better, brighter futures for hundreds of children across Essex every year. We desperately need more people, like Sally and Barry, to foster those with both physical and learning disabilities.

"Our foster carers have a wide range of previous experience, from personal to professional, and some of them have transferrable skills. Nobody should discount themselves if they feel they don’t have the right experience or a suitable home to accommodate someone. Give our friendly team a call if you are unsure.”

Essex County Council provide high-quality bespoke local training to all foster carers and provide ongoing support. They have adapted quickly to the pandemic to ensure that much needed support is continued by running training and information events virtually. There is also an active network of support groups providing opportunities to meet and learn from other foster carers, with many going on to make long-term friendships.

Georgina, who lives in the family home with her husband, Alistair, and their four children, aged 18, 14, 12 and 9, are pleased that they can see Sally and Barry once again after their period of isolation.

“Sally is an absolute angel; she means everything to us a family and we class her as another mum to Martha. Martha just adores them. It is so comforting for us to see that she is happy and safe with them. She will even wait by the front door when she knows that she’s going to see Sally and Barry!

“I can also see the joy that it brings Sally and Barry too. By coming forward to foster you will not only be helping to make a real difference to families, like mine, across Essex, but make a difference to your life too.”

Find out more on our website. The phone line is also still open: 0800 801 530.