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Adoption Week 2019: Couple share powerful experience of caring for babies ‘pre-adoption’

15th October 2019

Mandy and Billy Johnston

Adoption week runs 14 – 20 October 2019. Adoption is the legal process by which a child who cannot be brought up within their birth family becomes a full, permanent and legal member of their new family.

Most people understand that adopters become the child’s legal parents with the same rights and responsibilities as if the child was born to them. But many are not aware of the foster families who care for babies and children before they go to live with their adoptive family.

Mandy and Billy JohnstonHere we meet one couple who do just that. Mandy and Billy Johnston are foster carers with Belfast Health and Social Care Trust who share their experiences of caring for ‘pre-adoption babies’.

Having just said goodbye to our lovely cuddly one year old foster daughter, who we have had with us since 12 days old, I felt compelled to write down some of our experiences in moving children on – especially to adoption.

We have fostered for over 35 years starting when our oldest two daughters were six and three. We had some struggles with having our own babies and felt very blessed and privileged to have two healthy girls.

After a period of childminding we took the plunge, initially caring for ‘pre-adoption’ babies. In those days that was generally for around six months.

Over the years, our greatest pleasure (and pain) is in welcoming a young baby, sometimes from the day of birth, or toddler into our family and preparing it for a stable and secure future with an adoptive family. The knowledge of giving that child a firm attachment, which they can successfully transfer to a forever family, is extremely rewarding.

The most common statement that I hear from people who speak to me about our babies is, “I couldn’t do what you do as I could never part with them”. My response is, “I never part from them in my heart but I have the satisfaction of knowing they are growing and thriving after having the most difficult start in their lives.”

Preparing a child for a move is never easy. Babies are totally dependent on their ‘carer’ and form a natural bond because that’s what they do. We love them and nurture them just as if they are our own. Preparing young babies for a move is more about preparing ourselves and then the new family. We work hard on the relationship with adoptive parents so that we can transfer the little important things about their new baby. Writing details down in a little notebook about routine, types of cry, sleeping habits, brand of bottle, how they like to be held– all these help everyone with transferring the little bundle with as little trauma as possible.

Nowadays having devices that take photographs anywhere, any time is a big plus for us as we can have a very good record of baby’s development and progress. These provide the picture history that is vital for the child’s life story.

Memory boxes are very useful. It is a good idea to keep cards, letters or anything that will be a link to their birth story.

Building a good rapport with the incoming family is vital. We have found acting skills that we didn’t know we had! When we are aching inside with the thought that this child that we have grown to love will be leaving us is a few short weeks, it is hard to pretend to be happy and excited.

We have been so impressed over the years with the support from our adoption social workers who are very in tune with all the different strands involved with making a successful adoption placement. They will take time to get to know the child and our family.

Welcoming adopters is very often much easier than we think. We have made some lifelong friends and have been very touched by the obvious joy that these children bring to people who have lots of space in their hearts for a child who deserves a happy life.

When the final day comes to say goodbye we are at a point where we need it all to be over. It can be very draining and holding it together is exhausting. It is so important not to look upset. It is also important to still show how much you love the child. They need to feel a sense of permission to love their new family but still know they are loved by us.

We will never forget any of our children. We are thrilled to still have many of them coming to visit and many others whose adoptive parents write or send cards at Christmas. We have been to weddings, welcomed new babies and been invited to some special birthday parties.

I am writing this in between placements so probably, that’s why I can! I could write dozens of stories about the happy and not so happy experiences of our fostering career but I’d rather have a bundle of gurgles, burps and everything else that comes with a small human.

If you are interested in fostering babies and young children who are preparing for adoption, contact Belfast Trust Fostering Service via 0800 0720 137. There are many additional types of fostering including emergency, respite and long term and there are children and young people of all ages in need of foster families. Click here to find out more.