Gena and Steve Driscoll fostered with Falkirk Council for 29 years. They were registered for long term fostering and mainly looked after teenagers, but they also took on children or young people in emergency situations. They have two grown up sons and a granddaughter. Gena has always loved her pets and has an Alsatian and a cat. Rumour has it Gena is an expert at making wonderful truffles!
Gena has given a lot to the task of fostering, not only to the children and young people in her care but she has worked with many parents in offering advice and guidance through challenging times.
Last year, Gena and Steve decided to stop fostering with us to focus on their granddaughter and themselves. Their expertise is a great loss to us, and the young people of Falkirk, however, we are grateful for their dedication through the years. Gena shares her thoughts with us on her fostering journey…
How did you start fostering all those years ago?
I had two young boys and my husband was working. I just wanted a better quality of life and to go out and work. I saw an advert for fostering and realised this was something I could do from home, as well as look after my boys. My boys were 4 and 6, so it was just a nice age to let someone in to our lives.
I started off fostering the younger age groups, both girls and boys. I found it a bit of a challenge to put in place the structure and boundaries that foster children need alongside my own children at a similar age. So I then went on to the teenagers, which I felt worked a lot better because they were more independent. It was trial and error really in the beginning, to see what dynamics worked well for our family.
What did you like about fostering teenagers?
I felt that it was easier to care for teenagers alongside my own younger children. Teenagers did have their challenges, but I felt better about dealing with their challenges and because they were older, it was easier to explain to them why they were behaving the way they were. Whereas the younger age group don’t understand as much and it’s harder to explain to them why they are behaving the way they are and things are happening the way they are.
In your 29 years of fostering you’ve looked after 117 children…
As many as that?! I’ve never really tallied it up. I’m in touch with a lot of them, especially on Facebook. I met up with one girl the other day, she’s doing quite well and wanted to meet up. She’s got 5 kids of her own now so it was nice to see her. Another girl I met up with, she was going through a hard time during the lockdowns.
You never ever turn them away when they come to you. Sometimes through the grapevine you hear how they’re doing.
How did your own kids find it growing up?
They were fine. My kids moved out when they were 18, and I’ve got to say they weren’t any different from my foster kids when they got their own places – they had their friends in, they had parties, the house was a tip. They went through all that too, but I was there to pick up the pieces and help them straighten up. Now my kids our grown up with their own families, they want us to prioritise ourselves. They felt we should have some time to ourselves, but that’s what they wanted not what we wanted!
if at any point it wasn’t working for my children then I had to be honest and say that it’s not working and to find another carer for the child. My kids were always, and always were my priority.
How did the children and young people settle in to your home?
It’s not easy for anyone to adjust to a new house. One person when they came to us, I’ll always remember that she was worried about using someone else’s shower and someone’s toilet. She was a wee lass, her hygiene was spot on, but that was her worry, she wasn’t comfortable using someone else’s toilet and shower.
The young people have each got their own wee ways of working when they come in. You know when someone’s settled in, is when they come down, go to the fridge and help themselves to something to eat. Or to the cupboard. They would never just come in and empty my cupboards or anything like that, so it always a nice feeling when they feel comfortable enough to help themselves to something.
One thing that I’ve always said, they’ve got their room and that is their own personal space. I’ve not gone in there unless I’ve had concerns. It is always their room and it felt like it wasn’t a room in my house because I never went in there. If I did have to go in it felt like I was intruding. And since my last young person has left, it’s taken me a while to go into that room and it feels strange now that it’s become a part of my house again. They needed that private space when they came in.
What was the most challenging thing about fostering?
It’s looking after someone else’s children. You’re not just dealing with the children, you’re dealing with their parents as well. I noticed that often you’re working with the parents, educating them as well as the child. Sometimes the parents have had a trauma in their life that hasn’t been dealt with and so they’re unable to take on that parental responsibility. Sometimes the children come to us because of neglect and the parents don’t know how to take care of the children.
You’ve got to think about the chronology in the children’s lives. They might have feelings of rejection and anger. If they have challenging behaviour, they weren’t born that way. They’re not wanting you to be their mothers either, what they need is you to be an example of that motherly role.
What kept you going for over 29 years?
Because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the challenges, I enjoyed helping young people out for them to move on. You’re working with them, educating them, and trying to teach them about how to care for themselves, what it’s going to be like when they’ve got their own family, and prepare them for moving on. At the time, it seems like they might not be interested, and it’s not until later on in the years when they say ‘Ah Gena, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be doing this, or I wouldn’t be doing that’.
It’s nice to get the feedback from them, but it’s probably not until adulthood when you get that feedback. They don’t understand at the time, why we want them to clean their rooms, brush their teeth and make that doctors appointment – they have the knowledge, but they’re not using those skills until much later on. They don’t use the tools you’re giving them because it’s not a priority for them – it was the same with my boys when they were teens.
How supported did you feel by your social workers
I’ve always been supported. Over the years if I haven’t, I always made it clear. For fostering to work, you need a good team around the child. It takes good communication to support the child, so it’s important to be honest and open with your workers. Having had a chance to reflect I miss it now. Foster carers might not have the letters behind our name, but what we do, we’re good at.
What tips do you have for anyone thinking about fostering?
The most helpful thing is hands on experience and listening to other people. You can read as much as you want, but it’s a bit like being a parent. There’s not a notebook. How you work with one person is completely different to working with another one. Anyone that’s coming on board, stick at it and don’t give up at the first hurdle. For anyone that’s thinking about it, you don’t need to jump in at the deep end, just start slow with taking some children for short breaks. The more experience you get, the more you’ll be able to take on.
It can be hard having people in your house, especially if you’ve got children of your own. For new carers to thrive, they need to go to the support groups and talk with other experienced foster carers. It’s hard for new carers because they don’t get the feedback from the children instantly. Never think you’re not making a difference at the time, because they are listening and taking it in – they probably just won’t appreciate it until much later in their lives.
Do you have a funniest or fondest memory?
It’s all been funny! No, I’m just happy to see the young people moving on and doing well in their lives. We don’t really get our feedback until they’ve moved on. One of my earlier foster children, her mum had died, it affected her really badly, her aunty couldn’t look after her so she came to me. She had a lot of anger towards her mum at the time for dying. It hit her really hard and she could not communicate with an adult. A lot of the time I spoke to her and all you would get was ‘aye’, or ‘no’. But that wasn’t her being rude, that’s how she was having to deal with things – she shut herself down from other adults. She’s now moved on and got two beautiful wee girls. I met her up the town and she thanked me, verbally, about what I’d done for her and how I looked after her. So that was nice.
It’s always been worth it. I’ve never looked back and thought it’s not been worth it.