With thousands more foster carers needed throughout the country to take children into their homes, the need is greater than ever. AASMA DAY talks to Jon Powton who fosters despite having muscular dystrophy
FOR Jon Powton, the idea of fostering began as all good things do with an argument.
Jon was complaining to his wife Denise about his boredom with being stuck at home all day and he grumbled that he was an educated man watching his life dawdle by.
Jon recalls: “My wife argued that I should stop moaning and find something meaningful to do.
“She then suggested that as I loved children and got on well with them that maybe I could go work with them or something.”
It was the catalyst Jon needed to give him the push to lift himself out of a frustrating period in his life.
Jon, 41, who lives in Burnley, has muscular dystrophy. He has the Becker form of the disease which is a much milder form than the more commonly known strain of Duchenne.
But Jon knows the condition will end his life at some point and he says when he was first diagnosed, he felt as though his world had come to an end.
Jon explains: “I was 17 when I was diagnosed and it was a bit of a bombshell.
“I had just left school and was studying architecture and had started an engineering apprenticeship.
“At that age, you think you are invincible so it really affected me.
“I didn’t have any symptoms so it came totally out of the blue.”
Jon says his diagnosis came almost by accident. His grandfather had muscular dystrophy and Jon remembers him being in a wheelchair. He passed away when Jon was 11.
It was only six years later when Jon’s sister became pregnant that she wondered if there was a genetic link and she asked Jon and his older brother if they would be tested alongside her for the condition.
Jon says: “The way muscular dystrophy works is that it passes from father to daughter and then daughter to son.
“My grandfather had passed it on to my mum who although she didn’t have any symptoms was a carrier and she passed on the defective X chromosome to myself and my brother.
“However, my sister got the unaffected chromosome so she does not have it.
“My older brother had suspicions he had it as he was already starting to struggle and tests and biopsies found we both had it.”
Jon says he faced some difficult times but he managed to pick himself back up.
He “It was a bit soul destroying but you fight your way through it.
“It was a personal battle with myself to psychologically get through it.
“I was told it was a life limiting condition but it all depends on how the condition progresses.”
Jon finished his apprenticeship and began working for various companies over the next nine years.
He says: “I worked so hard to distract myself, I actually managed to excel.
“I even managed a fairly successful career in my field for a while and worked my way up into a very senior position.
“Then I lost my job. Though I must add through no fault of my own.
“People talk about downturns in workload and overstaffing. I even wondered if my disability had anything to do with it.
“Either way you end up out on your ear.”
It was at this point Jon found myself with the beginnings of noticeable muscular dystrophy symptoms.
The illness exacerbated what was already a very difficult and frustrating period where he was having little luck finding suitable employment.
Jon says: “I am not bitter about it. I was told I was a very highly skilled engineer. But I did not feel I could lie about or hide my condition so I was very upfront about it.
“I can see from an employer’s point of view that they would see it as a risk.
“I had to accept it. I had no choice.” Jon then went into self employment and became a fairly successful property developer.
He says: “The project got nicely off the ground - and then the whole world went into a financial meltdown.
“The property market fell off a cliff.”
Jon then found himself at home all day while his wife, who was a manager of an estate agency, was at work.
Jon says: “It was at this point that we had the argument with me complaining about being bored and the conversation led to us talking about fostering after my wife suggested I do something with children.”
John says that he had decided at the age of 18 that he didn’t want any children of his own.
He explains: “I decided that I was going to let the illness stop with me as I knew that if I had a daughter, she would be a carrier.
“It was a conscious decision and I felt that for me, I did not want that.
“But years later, I was realising that maybe I had missed out.
“I felt that I had a lot to give in terms of patience, time and skills and I decided fostering was an avenue I’d like to try.”
Jon and Denise found the National Fostering Agency and right from the initial home visit, felt the fit was right for them.
Jon says: “They were honest with us, professional, but most of all didn’t prejudge me on my condition.
“I went through exactly the same process as every other carer. There was no bias or judgment.
“I became a carer on my abilities, not my disabilities.”
Jon is now four years along the road from his first placement – which was 10 weeks with an alleged teenage offender.
He fostered mainly on his own for the first and then his wife was made redundant and she decided she would love to foster as well. The couple are now both full time foster carers for two little brothers who have been with them for three years.
Jon says: “If I was to go somewhere and pick out two children I wanted to look after, I would have picked these two.
“They are lovely, happy children and are funny, cheeky, normal kids. They are a remarkable testament to themselves.
“Fostering is the single most rewarding thing we have ever done without a doubt.
“It is also the most difficult.
“It’s the most rewarding for the small triumphs that we get. The things you never expect, the child that tells you that you saved them, the child that tells you that they love you and means it, the child that smiles and laughs for what might be the first time ever.
“The little moments that no one else has experienced with that child. The changes you see over time, providing a safe and happy home, the protection, the being an advocate and challenging the wrongs these children have faced.
“All of those elements and so much more make being a self-employed foster carer the best thing in the world.
“The reason it is one of the most difficult things I have ever done is that it isn’t a nine to five job.
“We operate within a fragmented and imperfect system and people are the most complicated and difficult of task masters.
“For me part of the problem is that we are trying to please everyone, all of the time.
“The children, the social workers, the birth parents, the courts, your own children, the siblings of the children you look after, even their carers to an extent.
“It’s a hard task to navigate keeping all of these people as happy under the circumstances.”
Jon says he has considered if his disability affects his role the children he looks after. However, he can’t find any reasons.
He says: “I get them up, get them dressed, take them to school and nursery, pick them up, do the homework, take them all over the place, play with them and make their meals.
“I do the bath, the bedtime, the meetings, the doctors and the contact,
“I battle and fight for what is best for them and most importantly, care for them like they are my own - all the same things that my able bodied wife does.
“Being disabled doesn’t change any of it. I may be more tired sometimes and maybe I can’t run round the park and play football with them, but I try and when I fail at playing football, I compensate for it in other ways.
“My whole adult life has been about overcoming, striving, getting on with it.
“If you saw me sitting down, you would not know I had muscular dystrophy.
“But if you saw me walking up a flight of stairs, you’d know.
“I cannot run or walk long distances and I struggle with steps.
“But it’s not that I can’t do things but that I just do them differently. I walk up steps one at a time.
“Disabled people are not different. They just do things differently.”
Jon believes having a disability has made him a very different person to who he would have been and feels he is more thoughtful, introspective and proactive than he was before.
He says: “I think having my own life struggles and obstacles has made me resilient and stronger mentally.
“I personally think that this inherent resilience makes me well placed to not only genuinely understand children and young people who have had difficult backgrounds, but also makes me able to offer another perspective on their worries and problems.
“Fostering is about people. I have learnt so much from it and it has made me a better person. I hope that maybe a little bit of that can be passed on.
“Fostering is the hardest, most frustrating, annoying, difficult, wonderful, rewarding, amazing job in the world.
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do though.
“I have never felt the children are missing out on anything due to my illness. It’s my illness not theirs.
“If I can do it and love it and honestly put my hand on my heart and say being disabled and a foster carer is the most uplifting and life changing thing I have ever done, then that’s got to count for something.”
l Jon is a foster carer with National Fostering Agency, the UK’s largest independent fostering agency.
If you are interested in finding out more about fostering in the North West, call them on 0845 200 4040 or by visiting www.nfa.co.uk