Being named Melton’s 2016 Woman of the Year is a well-deserved honour for Leonie Patterson, who has been a long-term foster carer with Salvation Army Westcare. Julie Houghton caught up with this remarkable woman who has fostered 285 children over the past 31 years.
What motivated you to become a foster carer?
I had four kids and always wanted more, but you have to stop because you can’t afford to go on having kids! I was working as a courier but had an accident and was off work when I saw an advertisement looking for foster carers.
I love having babies and toddlers around me all the time and I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than bringing up children.
How long they stay varies a lot—it can be overnight or three weeks that ends up being four and a half years.
How did the dynamics of having foster children work with your own children?
I had four children at home initially and in general, the dynamics were fine. But I got a sibling group of three, with one about the same age as my daughter Amber who was nine, and she felt very threatened and said I loved those girls more than her.
So I had to make a few different rules where she stayed up an extra half an hour to have some one-on-one time with me. After that I tried not to have girls her age, unless it was an emergency. The older kids didn’t mind but she felt it the most.
Although she agreed to it when we were considering becoming foster carers, agreeing to it and living it are two different things. She shared her mum, she shared her room and she shared her toys.
What do you think a foster carer needs to be successful?
Patience—lots of it! The children come in with baggage and when they act up, being nasty to you and destroying your house, you have to be able to step back in your mind and know it’s not about you. They don’t know how else to express themselves, so the anger isn’t about the carer, it’s about the situation.
It takes years to get to the stage when you can think, oh, he’s smashing up things or there is paint on the walls, but those things can be replaced and painted over.
You have to be able to step into their shoes a little bit and know that when they are getting aggressive and verbal, it’s only because they don’t know any other way.
You need patience, love, and to let it be water off a duck’s back and have it go over your head as much as you can.
Over time, did they respond to you and change their behaviour?
Oh yes! A lot of these kids really do want boundaries; they want to know that someone worries about them and cares about them.
No matter how long they stayed, all my kids eventually settled down. Your arms need to be open for cuddles and your ears open for listening.
I’ve always tried to meet the parents at access visits so they know my face. Sometimes it can take months, but I make a point of getting on with the parents so that the children don’t feel they have to choose or are being disloyal.
You might not like the parents or what has brought the child into care, but I’ve always tried not to judge them because I haven’t walked in their shoes. It’s important that the child isn’t torn, and feels he can love both Aunty Lee and Mummy.
What is the most rewarding part of fostering?
Just seeing these kids blossom. They come in scared and frightened and they learn to be independent, free to express themselves and not be scared any more. It’s like watching a flower open.
Do you keep in touch with any of your former foster children?
My last nine foster kids have been longterm, and I am still their Nanny. I’ve had sleepovers at their house, we do birthdays, Christmas, they send me photos by phone and we get phone calls. I’ve been blessed that they have kept me in their lives.