THEY say they are just an ordinary couple but Aghagallon husband and wife, Brian and Elaine McManus have the unique accomplishment of fostering 60 children over the past six years.
It isn’t an easy job, as Brian and Elaine freely admit, however, it is clear they have a huge amount of love and care to share.
As they play with the latest additions to their family, a couple of little boys who are just delightful, it is apparent how natural they are as parents.
It is clearly a happy and typical family home with lots of photos of many of the children the couple have adopted and plenty of toys strewn across the floor in the side extension Brian built to cater for his growing family.
It was difficult to hear some of the stories Brian and Elaine had to tell. Police or social workers have dropped children off in the middle of the night, many in just their pyjamas and nothing to wear. They have had to take a new born baby while the mother was sitting crying in a car. Listening to the heart-breaking events some children had to endure such as watching their mum being stabbed by their father during a drunken party. These children are innocent parties to families who have perhaps alcohol or drug problems, or perhaps their mum or dad has a mental illness.
“You never get two stories the same,” explained Elaine adding that not all children are from broken homes. She said some parents get sick and just need their child to be looked after for a short time until they recover.
The couple have three children of their own, aged 24, 18 and 16. The youngest was ten when they first started fostering.
When asked how they got into fostering, Brian said: “I was thinking about it and Elaine had been thinking about it but neither of us knew each other was thinking about it. Then something came up on the TV and we just started talking about it.”
Elaine explained she always looked after children and when her mum died she took on the responsibility for her siblings. “Me and my siblings could easily have ended up in care,” she said.
Elaine said a neighbour had been fostering children. “She had the most beautiful little girl with her one day. She was so lovable and we just got talking about fostering,” she said.
Elaine said it was a full time job, seven days a week, never off duty. She had been mostly on her own for years while Brian worked as a builder, however, the economic downturn has meant Brian losing his job and he is at home helping out full time now.
Regarding anyone thinking about fostering Elaine advised them to think long and hard about it ‘because you are responsible for someone else’s child’.
“But it is very rewarding,” said Elaine, adding the couple have a good family network.
“At Christmas and Easter everyone is included. We are not supposed to get attached to the children but we treat each child like our own. They get as much love and attention. You can’t treat a foster child differently as it wouldn’t work.”
Brian spoke of the personal story he had to write during the assessment to become a foster parent. “I had never reached my depths and I had never looked at how I thought or felt before.”
Elaine said that in writing her ‘life story’ she laughed and cried and it was like a catharsis sorting out all the good and bad stuff.
“I had to say my likes and dislikes of Brian in front of him and an assessor which I found very hard,” she said.
“We were very lucky. The girl we had as our assessor was very good - easy to talk to,” said Brian.
Speaking about life as a foster parent, Brian said: “Everyone has their ups and downs but you have got to soldier on through it.”
Elaine said they were ‘just an ordinary couple’.
“It is hard work and it can be very stressful and you want to do your best for every child,” she said.
Elaine explained foster carers do not normally get 17-year-olds as they usually take part in the Stay Project which helps them learn to live and manage on their own.
“Teenagers get a bad press but we were all teenagers once. When I was a teenager I did get into a bit of trouble but, as I said to the social worker - ‘you can’t point someone in the right direction when you have not walked the path’,” said Brian.
He said teenagers still have the same problems as they did in his day but added the drug culture now is a lot worse.
Elaine said: “If you are not used to teenagers it would be hard to take on an older one. We have gone through it with our own teenagers. I think they all need a chance.
“If they were giving me stick, I would ground them or take their mobile phones from them. If they step out of line they have to suffer the consequences. It is all part of being in a family,” said Elaine.
She said there is a shocking need for foster families. “You have to take the good with the bad. In our experience we have had more good than bad,” she said.
“It is very rewarding. Especially when you see a child who has come to you and who wasn’t able to feed itself or a teenager with low self esteem and you can help them.”
Brian explained that sometimes the police would arrive in the middle of the night with a child with no clothes. “If we don’t have something to fit them ourselves, our neighbours have helped out with track suit bottoms or something until we can get into town to buy clothes the next day,” said Brian.
Brian said it was great to have a good relationship with the parents. “It makes it so much easier.”
Elaine said often the children regard them as ‘them uns’ almost as the couple are regarded as the bad ones as the children have been taken off their parents.
“We have face-to-face meetings with the parents. It is easier for everyone and the child doesn’t have divided loyalties,” she said.
Brian said that when a child goes it is almost like a bereavement. “There is a big hole left,” said Elaine. “A wee photo or a wee letter telling us about the child makes all the difference. It means the world,” said Brian.
“One boy who lived with us from he was about eight to 14 was the same age as my son and they are like brothers now,” said Brian.
The day to day running of the house can be a big operation but Brian is pretty laid back about it. “It is mad for about an hour in the mornings and then again after 5pm but you have during the day to yourself to get organised.”
It is clear that both Brian and Elaine have made a huge impression on those they have looked after and those kids have carved a niche in their hearts too.
“Out of 60 youngsters only about two ever gave us a bit of lip,” said Brian.
When I asked about a pretty blonde curly-hair little girl in the photo in their family room, Brian was welling up with tears.
“We had her from she was a day old,” said Brian. He revealed she was brought to them as a day-old baby by social services. The now six-year-old was adopted at Christmas and it was heart-wrenching for the couple to let her go.
“It was the hardest of the whole lot,” said Brian. However the couple said her adoptive parents had been very good at sending photos.
“We see the progress she is making. It makes it all worthwhile when you see positive milestones,” said Elaine.
“Some of the kids we have fostered have now their own kids who call Brian and Elaine granny and grandad.
Elaine spoke of her pride that one girl she had fostered for just six weeks kept in touch with her and is not pregnant herself. It was to Elaine she came and asked to accompany her to her first scan.
“It was very emotional for her but also emotional for me,” she said.
The couple, who have been married for 24 years, have taken in children from all across Northern Ireland and even as far as Limerick and Drogheda. They also get children from across the water.
More foster families, like Brian and Elaine, are urgently needed to provide safe, stable and nurturing homes for vulnerable children and young people across Northern Ireland.
As we are in Foster Care Fortnight the Southern Trust wants to emphasise how a regional shortage of foster carers is reaching emergency levels.
Foster homes are needed for children of all ages who are unable to live with their own families. This may be a result of family breakdown, relationship difficulties, neglect, abuse or parental ill health.
There are currently 1,916 children and young people living with HSC foster carers across NI, of which 337 are living in the Southern Trust area.
The Southern Trust needs foster carers to look after children of all ages and backgrounds but at the moment would particularly like to recruit more carers for older children and teenagers.
“Trusts want to find the right foster home for each child/young person, first time round. A shortage of foster carers may result in children/young people living with foster carers outside their local area, having to travel significant distances to school, being far away from their family and friends, and sometimes split from their siblings,” said a Trust spokesperson.
“By recruiting a wide pool of foster carers, Trusts can place children/young people within their own areas with trained foster carers who best meet their individual needs.
“There is a particular need for foster carers who are willing to offer children/young people a long term home. There are currently 46 children/young people waiting for a long term home across Northern Ireland.
People may apply to foster whether they are married/co habiting or single, own or rent their home, work or are receiving benefits, or if they have children of their own.
There is no upper age limit to who can foster as long as they are healthy and have the energy to care for a child/young person. Applications will also be considered irrespective of sexual orientation or religious/ethnic background.
HSC foster carers receive financial allowances, ongoing training and 24 hour social work support.
Trusts are looking to recruit people who are patient, understanding, compassionate and flexible and who have time and space in their lives to devote to a child/young person.
For further information contact: Craigavon and Banbridge Tel: 3833 7181