Cwmparc siblings Leon and Louise Griffiths were just 10 and 8 respectively when they were taken into care.
They left their home for school one morning and never returned, instead going straight from their classrooms into the Ton Pentre home of foster carer Susanne Smith and her partner Martyn.
Being taken into care so suddenly can be hugely distressing for children, which is why it is vital there are local foster homes willing to provide the comfort, security and stability they need – for as long as they need it.
Leon and Louise both say their move to Susanne’s – and the warm, traditional upbringing she gave them – has changed their lives for the better.
Susanne, in turn, says the pride she feels as she watches Leon and Louise bloom into confident, ambitious young adults is the reason why she fosters.
Leon and Louise have spoken out to support the Council’s ongoing campaign to encourage more residents from all walks of life to consider a new career as a foster carer.
Without local foster carers, the Council has no choice but to place children in independent sector care placements, which can be hundreds of miles away, removing the child not only from their family, but their friends, school and the only communities they have ever known.
Susanne was Leon and Louise’s former childminder. When she heard Leon, Louise and their two younger brothers were being taken into care, she knew she had to do something and made the decision to become a foster carer – a role she has continued to this day.
Leon and Louise were raised within Susanne’s family, alongside her birth son who was the same age as Leon, and another foster daughter who was the same age as Louise. Leon and Louise’s two other brothers were moved into an independent sector placement in Cardiff.
Being welcomed into a “traditional” family in the same community they had always known made all the difference to Leon and Louise.
They say the fact they were raised the same as other children – with rules and consequences as well as nurture and support – made a big difference to their confidence and ambitions.
Leon has recently graduated from Swansea University and Louise is enjoying a two year work placement at Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, as part of its important Step in the Right Direction programme, now in its 10th year, which provides training and employment opportunities for young care-leavers making their first steps into independent living.
Both are living independently and have built a relationship with their birth mother and other siblings, while remaining close to Susanne and her family.
Their story is one which once again highlights the importance of foster carers and the difference they can make to the life of a child or young person – especially those who are a little older and need care and guidance the most.
Leon said: “We wouldn’t be where we are today without Susanne. We enjoyed a normal family life with someone who had ultimate consideration for our past and how it had affected us, but allowed us to overcome it and become the people we wanted to be, simply by caring and being there.
“It was a traditional family with Sunday dinners, family walks with the dogs over the mountains, posing reluctantly for pictures for the family album, Christmas celebrations, going to school every day and getting our homework done.
“Everything that we did was ordinary and what most consider normal, but all of it was also so very extraordinary because of the way Susanne stepped up and raised us. She didn’t just accommodate us or give us a roof over our heads, she raised us.”
Louise added: “Living in a traditional valleys family was so important. Thanks to Susanne and Martyn we were able to stay in the same school, keep the same friends and continue to enjoy our community.
“Of course there were issues to address and additional support needed as a result of our start in life, but there was no special treatment or exception to the house rules for us. Susanne respected and trusted us in the same way she did her own son and allowed us to enjoy growing up.
“Our brothers were moved into a private foster care placement and we stayed in contact with them. Their experience was different to ours. They lived in a big house and enjoyed expensive things, but they didn’t have the same place in the family we did. It was that acceptance and normality I will forever be grateful for.”
Susanne, who now fosters said: “Martyn and I enjoyed all the years Leon and Louise lived with us. They are and always will be part of our family.
“They were such lovely, pleasant, easy-going children that were a continual pleasure growing up. We were a good fit, the six of us, all living in one house. We like to get out and do activities and they all went along with us (until they were teenagers).
“I showed them all my favourite places, we had trips to Oxford, Bath, London and all of South Wales - Tenby and Saunderfoot were favourites. I wanted to show them as much of the U.K. as I could, with the hope they would have the confidence to travel and study when they were older.
“Not many foster children get to university, but what they learn in your home equips them for their own life. Your daily routines, knowing you are there for them and how kindly you manage their behaviour will nurture them and inspire how they manage their own children in the future.
“Seeing Leon at his award ceremony getting his degree was one of the best experiences of my life.
“As a childminder in the local community, I met children who faced a lot of trauma. By Fostering a child and staying with them through the difficult years when they are trying to find out who they are and what they want their lives to be is so worth it in the end.
“We are so proud of Leon and Louise, they have worked hard and tried hard and we take no credit for how they have turned out. It is all their own doing and they were a joy.”
Cllr Geraint Hopkins, Cabinet Member for Children’s Social Services, Equality and the Welsh Language at Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, said: “Every child in RCT, regardless of the start they had in life, deserves to be raised in a nurturing family. Leon and Louise are testament to that.
“I thank them for speaking out about how local foster homes make a difference to the lives and futures of the children who need us the most.
“We need more foster carers, especially for children who are a little older and desperately need the care, support and opportunities other children have.
“Susanne didn’t just accommodate them, she raised them and that is what makes each and every one of the Council’s foster carers so extraordinary.
“I know there are so many more people in this county borough who have so much to give to a young person and I urge them to consider joining this incredible army of people.
“It’s a rewarding, challenging role in which you stand shoulder to shoulder with social workers and health workers to deliver a professional, nurturing service that fosters the futures of children.”
Find out more at www.rctcbc.gov.uk/fostercare or visit the Foster Care Facebook page
Posted on Friday 18th December 2015