Petrina Banfield is a writer and foster carer whose passion for adoption and fostering was shaped by the discovery that her father was an identical twin who had been separated
from his siblings during the Second World War. It was her father's experience of growing up in care that led her to become a foster carer in 2003.
Her fostering service has introduced a letter writing scheme from foster carers to the children they are looking after. Here she explains how the scheme works and some top tips for letter writing.
Imagine not having a single photograph of yourself as a baby, no threadbare teddy with one of its arms hanging loose, or trinkets from long summer days at the beach.
My father has no souvenirs from his childhood, nothing to spark memories of special anniversaries, no anecdotes about mischievous toddler antics or achievements at school. He was taken into care soon after war broke out in 1939 and spent his early years with his siblings in a children’s home on the south coast.
When he was four, the manor house he was living in was commandeered as a listening and command centre; all of the children accommodated there were packed up and transported to foster homes across the country, and dad was separated from his identical twin and all of his belongings in the process. The various nursery nurses and foster carers that looked after him during the rest of his childhood were mostly kind, but little thought went into preserving memories back then, and when he joined the army as a teen, he literally only had the clothes he was wearing to call his own.
Thankfully things have changed – foster carers are now encouraged to keep memory boxes for the children they look after, preserving the items that those with loving parents are able to take for granted, like school reports, ticket stubs, badges earned at Brownies or Cubs – but there is still a risk that precious mementos are lost, particularly when children have a history of disrupted placements and multiple carers.
That’s why I was so intrigued to hear about a new letter writing scheme that has been initiated by my local children’s social care team. The idea is that all of the borough’s foster carers write a letter to the children in their care every six months, sharing their thoughts about the time they’ve spent together, charting trips and special occasions, recording anecdotes and achievements and including photos to illustrate the narrative and bring it to life.
A copy of the letter will be given to each child at their LAC review, with a copy also being stored in their file by their social worker. That way, if a memory box is lost in transit when a child moves on, or photographs are accidentally deleted from a carer’s phone, the child will still have a record of their early years to look back on when they’re older.
I think it’s a brilliant scheme and one that is likely to be rolled out across the country in the future. It’s nice to think that children’s memories will be safeguarded by the people who care for them; my father’s earliest trinket is a photo of himself taken on the day he joined the British Army. I know it means a lot to him because he’s still got it, and he was 80 this year!
Helpful tips when writing to children
- There’s a good chance that the child won’t remember anything about where they lived, so you could start by telling them a little about your home – is it near a park or a railway line? What can you hear and see around you – are they particularly interested in watching the trains go by, for example, or the squirrels hopping onto the tree at the bottom of the garden? Just one or two lines can help to give them a sense of place, and a photo of the outside of the house would be even better.
- If you’re writing to them for the first time, it might be nice to include something about your impressions of them when they first arrived – how long did it take for them to settle in? What items meant a lot to them – perhaps they had a cuddly toy they carried around? If they were very young, how long was it before they slept through the night? And if they were older, were there any particular challenges that you experienced early on? Remember, negatives can always be reframed! If they displayed challenging behaviour, how about saying that they were ‘determined’, or ‘forthright’?
- Talk about the fun times you’ve shared together; some of the days out/places you’ve been. Milestones can also be included as well as anecdotes. Try to personalise the letter as much as possible to give them a sense of themselves and their place in your family.
- Looked after and adopted children often harbour a deep sense of toxic shame, so sharing memories of their achievements is a good idea, even if it’s only a positive comment that one of their teachers has made, or some improvement that someone has noticed about them during their time with you.
- It might be nice to end the letter with your wishes for them in the future. Are they particularly fond of animals, for instance? If so, you could say that with their love of pets, you’re wondering whether they might become a vet one day. Try to add some of the more positive elements of their character here, so that they know not just what they were interested in, but what they were truly like.