Being foster carers for children with complex needs comes with its challenges, but MICHELLE and MICK BEST never wanted to do anything else. We spoke to the long term foster carers and Fostering Excellence Award winners about living with their two boys and why more people should open their homes to look after children with additional needs.

When Michelle and Mick started fostering 10 years ago, the idea had already played on their minds for quite some time. After their three birth sons had moved out they eventually decided to look into it more. ‘We felt we had the free time now so wanted to see how this would work for us as a family.’ There was plenty of things to consider, but one thing was clear from the start: They wanted to open their home to children with additional needs.

‘One of our sons has cerebral palsy. He lives independently now, but in his earlier days we attended lots of community meetings and medical appointments with him’, Michelle recalls.

It soon became apparent to the couple, that most of the other children there were in foster care. ‘It was baffling. We saw back then how many children with a disability need a foster family, so when we started our own fostering journey years later, it was without of question that we would want to provide for children with additional needs’.

Give a child a helping hand as a long term foster carer

The first long-term placement

Since Mick and Michelle became foster carers, they have looked after children on short breaks and for a short-term but their passion is long-term foster care. The first child that came to stay with them on a long-term basis arrived a decade ago as a five-year-old boy with health conditions including Down’s syndrome. ‘He might not speak but understands simple instructions,’ says Michelle. ‘His favourite pastime is being surrounded by his musical toys and home comforts and he may greet new people by sitting behind them and touching his head against theirs. He also loves to spend time in the garden on his swing. Besides that, he is turning into a typical teenager and enjoys using his iPad’.

Over the years, the teenager has become an integral part of the family. ‘Our six grandchildren have a great bond with him. To them it is normal that he lives with us. Some of them have been born after he arrived so I don’t even know whether they know where he came from’, Michelle chuckles.

Extending the family further

Four years ago the Bests opened their home to another child. The five-year-old also has complex needs and requires elaborate care. ‘He came to live with us straight from the hospital when he was just one year old. And when he was three, we had to resuscitate him for the first time’, the couple remembers. Incidents like these can be worrying and stressful, but exactly what Michelle and Mick have prepared for: ‘Our boy had a tracheotomy so we had to undergo intense training in the hospital with nurses and paramedics before he could come stay with us. At first we didn’t know what it would take to look after him, but we learned how to perform emergency tube changes out on the street for instance, so realised quickly what it would mean. We are also doing refresher trainings now to keep up to speed.’

Michelle and Mick Best

Since coming to live with the Bests, the boy has made immense progress, as Michelle and Mick elaborate proudly. ‘He is such a clever boy. He does what everyone else does in class, he just doesn’t breathe the same way… Yes, he breathes through his neck and every day is a struggle for him, but he is the happiest boy alive – he usually impresses new people with his smile and almost constant happy face’.

A day at the Bests

‘On a normal day the eldest boy goes to school and the youngest remains at home. Due to the pandemic he is home schooled as he hasn’t been able to return to school just yet’, Michelle explains when asked how everyday life looks with their two boys. ‘On a weekend we enjoy going to the seaside, visiting family or going bowling or to our local park.’

Of course, Coronavirus has made it more difficult, says the couple. ‘The pandemic has brought additional challenges as we care for children who have special health needs and are vulnerable. We spend lots of time together and at home but the boys have missed their usual routine and short breaks from one another, as did we.’

Challenges and family support

Finding short break carers has always been challenging for Mick and Michelle. Both children’s needs are complex and many more foster carers are needed to look after disabled young people across the UK. ‘I remember one situation where we had a short break planned for our older boy,’ says Mick. ‘The foster carer called the day she would have picked him up and cancelled. She had received more information about his additional needs and decided she couldn’t do it.’

Luckily, the Bests have an extended family that is very supportive of their fostering and happy to go the extra mile to help them out. ‘Our daughter in law has recently decided to become a short break carer. She had to go through the same intense training we did. For six weeks she went to the hospital besides working a full time job, just to be able to look after our younger one.’

‘It saddens me to think back to when we started fostering 10 years ago. We were the only carers in our service who wanted to look after children with additional needs’, Michelle remembers. ‘When you look at the class one of our boys is in now, six out of eight children with a disability live with a foster family. I wish more foster carers would come forward to care for children with additional needs’.

Of course it’s not always easy and Michelle is keen to make that very clear. ‘Caring for children with a disability is so hard to do and you certainly have to go into it with your eyes open. But at the end of the day, they are just children. They still need love, care and affection. And the good definitely outweighs the bad. It’s hard to put into words what fostering a child with special needs means… It’s just so rewarding.’