In the latest of our Father’s Day blog posts, Ron Head tells his remarkable story of being an adoptive and foster father to children with special needs.
The adoption and fostering journey
My wife and I started to foster when the youngest of our birth children was a few months old. That was in 1982. We had Fiona, Georgina and baby Ronnie. I was a fireman with the London Fire brigade and with my shift work fostering was ideal for our family. Through personal experience with friends and family, we knew how difficult it was for families with children with special needs. We started by giving respite to children with disabilities to help parents have a break.
The first child we adopted was Simon. He was placed with us at seven months old. We had then already then been fostering for nearly five years. Simon had come from a very young mother and an abusive father. Because his short life had been unsettled, he was a difficult baby, but lively and intelligent. We soon fell in love with him. Simon's birth mother and father made an attempt to have him returned home. Sadly the court agreed and he went to live with them, but a month later he ended up in hospital injured. He was returned to us and we started to try and heal the damage done. 18 months later he was ready for adoption.
At four and half years old he was placed with a family for adoption. Simon's new family seemed unable to bond with him and after two years, and just before his final adoption hearing, they suddenly withdrew the application and Simon remembers coming home from school and being told he was leaving. It took us nearly a year to get him home. By that time a huge amount of damage had been done. Simon was nearly seven years old when he came home and it took many years for him to come to terms with what had happened.
Simon is now in his 20s and has settled well. He found that after many difficult times that he we will stick by him no matter what. He knows he is one of our much-loved children and an important member of our family. He gets on very well with all of the children and is working and in a steady relationship, hopefully getting married in a couple of years. We were on emergency duty the night Dominic came into our lives. He had been found at his home after the police were called to a 'domestic'. He was found on a settee with no clothes and an obviously very special needs child.
He had been born 10 weeks premature, a very sick baby with a life threatening heart condition. After we had taken him home we found out that both his parents were heavy drinkers and that all his problems were due to his birth mother drinking whilst she was pregnant - Foetal Alcohol syndrome. Nearly every organ in his body was damaged. We cared for Dominic over the next few days and weeks and he started to do very well. He quickly became a very much loved member of the family and was smiley and happy despite all the treatment he needed. He had a tube down his nose to feed him, he was attached to a heart monitor and needed constant care. It took over two years to free Dominic from his parents so that he could be adopted. All of our children came up to us saying that did not want Dominic to go. Even Simon came to us and said:‘Dad, Mum, you say you love me and adopted me, but we all love Dominic so how can you let him go; why can't we adopt him too?’ This really affected my wife Avril and it didn't take long for us to say that we had both been thinking the same thing.
Dominic was still very frail and in need of major heart surgery. We knew that Dominic's life was in the balance anyway, but we felt that if a new family had been found and he moved before his surgery he would be unlikely to survive. We knew our love for him would help him keep strong. His surgery was put on hold, the adoption process started and the adoption went ahead. Just a few weeks later Dominic was called for surgery and we went through the most traumatic time of our lives when Dominic had his surgery. It was a long day but he came through it. He was 3 years old then. Further heart surgery followed, as well as surgery to save his sight.
Dominic is now 15 years old. He is an amazing young man. He is still very small; the size of a 10 year old and behaves in many way like a much younger child. He will have a life time of difficulties and disabilities. But he gives us all such a lot of pleasure and love. He is loved and cherished and is in an absolutely amazing little boy. We decided then that it would be best if we fostered children with special needs; needs maybe that had similarities to Dominic.
Soon after, we were given information about a little baby boy in hospital. He was born very prematurely and needed a lot of care included oxygen and tube feeds. We took him in and he has now been here for over 9 years. He is a big boy, lovely character and great fun but has no communication, cannot walk, he is tube fed and is totally dependent on us. He is also a much-loved member of the family. We decided not to adopt him because we need a lot of support to enable to care for him properly. We know that one day he will have to move into some sort of residential care but want to give him to be in our family for a long as possible.
Our last (but not least!) long-term foster child is a little girl who has a rare genetic condition. She came to us after she had been in hospital for the whole of her first year of life. She also needs feeding by tube, and needs a lot of care. It is wonderful to watch a little child who starts off life in such a bad way and see them begin to grow develop and form bonds with all the family here.
We have now been fostering for over 30 years, caring for nearly 140 children! Our parenting has to be as good as it can get - security and family life and love is often what puts thing right in a child's mind. If they can know what real family life is like it will stand them in good stead. The most important thing is to have had the support of our birth children. We started fostering when our young son was a baby, he has never known life without someone elses child in the house. But over the years they have accepted other children with love and kindness. We have been very fortunate that they have been so happy and generous with their ability to share - not only their parents, but their home, toys, relatives, everything!
For the last 40 years we have always had nappies and buggies or wheelchairs in our lives, so the friends we started off with 40 years ago maybe are not the same now! Some have found it hard to understand; as their own families have grown and left home we no longer 'fit' the friendship, but we have made new friends who are supportive and understanding. We don't go out much to friends’ homes as we take up so much room! But we often have people round - it's a busy house! We have also had our home completely changed to enable lifts, hoists and a wet room to be installed, plus many other adaptations.
Having fun as a family
We have a caravan and love to go off in the summer months for weekends and holidays. Every year we go to Ireland and have a great time. It's like being abroad without language and other problems that we might get if we took our medical needs children to other countries. However we are determined that our three youngest will have every opportunity to live active lives and go places that they will enjoy. They have great fun. We like going out for meals, walks and outdoor life.
One of our daughters now lives in New Zealand but she comes home each year to help us with the children, come on holiday with us or give us a few days’ respite. Then 18 months ago we made a trip over the New Zealand ourselves! It took 18 months of planning and we flew over for a month, taking all three little ones with us! It was a logistical nightmare setting up but in practice it worked really well! The children loved the flights and they behaved so well.
Our daughter had a van ready for us to drive around in so we camped, stayed in motels and we had the most fantastic holiday you could Imagine!
Being a father to children with special needs
Fathers seem to find it harder to stay with their child with disabilities and this can leave a mother facing a lonely and difficult life on their own. There are more and more children needing special care. We are hopeful more people will come forward and help. Our children have been so rewarding and lovely to care for. We have had support in training to care for them, how to get the specialist equipment and the schools help but especially the support we have had from our fostering agency, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. We cannot thank them enough for the support that have given us.
Finding that we had a 'talent' in caring for children with disabilities was wonderful. We love our life, love the children and cannot think of anything we would rather do. We have always hoped that our story and lives would inspire people to care for the special children that need that special kind of parenting. Being an adoptive or foster father has been no different to being a biological father. We have always said that each child is an individual and we love each child for who they are.
Once the social workers have gone home and the front door shuts, it is important that the child staying with you is at home and part of the family they are living with. They must be loved and cherished as you would love your own children. They must not miss out on many thing just because they are a 'looked after child'.
Once you get used to it we think it is a great life and you are really making a difference - managing perhaps to change the course of a child's life and giving them something they may have otherwise missed out on.
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