Volume 18 Number 3
A Very Extended Family
01 June 2005

Ann Rignall meets Pete and June Pemberton, who have fostered 360 children over the past 40 years.

Fifty thousand children and young people in England and Wales live in foster homes for anything from a few days to some years. The aim is always to return them to their own families, so however attached the foster parents may get, there is always the likelihood that the children may leave. It is a most unselfish act and perhaps that is why there are still 10,000 children waiting for a foster home.

June and Pete Pemberton, who live in Birkenhead in North-West England, have been foster parents for nearly 40 years. They have the names of 360 children who have been through their home (and they think they have missed some). Their house is always full, with their own children and grandchildren, their foster children and grandchildren, or both. On Tuesday evenings, when they all come to tea, there can be 20 or more-all wanting something different to eat.

They got into fostering almost by accident. Just before their marriage 39 years ago, Pete was working on the buses. One night a young lad on the bus was taken ill and Pete took him to the hospital. He then discovered that the boy lived in a children's home. 'We befriended John and after a few months he came to live with us,' says June. 'He was 16. He had a friend who also needed a home. So he came to us too. That was how we started married life!' June was 19 and Pete was 22. At one point they had six teenage boys living in the house.

When their first baby arrived they gave up fostering for the next 15 years, during which time three more children were born. Then they had a real sense that God was asking them to take it up again. They planned to take smaller children, but the authorities only gave them approval for teenagers. So, they asked God for signs that they should continue, and felt that these were given.

For five years they did emergency fostering, which meant that the social workers could call them any time from 5pm to 9am during the week and all during the weekend.

Once, a boy arrived with a social worker just as they were going out for the evening. They left him with the babysitter. They returned home about 1am. At 5am the telephone rang. Could they take two young children who were sitting in the police-station? Pete collected them. At 7am the phone rang again. A young boy was sitting in a police cell. Could Pete please fetch him?

Returning the children to their own families can be difficult, even though they always stress to the children that their own families are the most important people to them. Chloë came to them when she was 22 months and stayed for two and a half years. When she went back home, Pete and June kept in touch and supported her mother by having Chloë for weekends and taking her on holiday. Then suddenly all contact was broken. For two years they had no idea whether Chloë was all right.

Life also has its upside. One young boy left a poem to them on the computer saying that they had been like parents to him. Another was brought to them after being removed from his home by seven policemen. 'He had been with us before,' says June, 'so I reminded him of how we expected him to behave. When he left two weeks later, he gave me a big hug. I thanked him for behaving so well. He replied, "You and Pete treat me with respect and that is how I treat you." '

The Pembertons have never intended to be long-term foster carers, but they have taken on two sisters, whose family is unable to look after them. 'It is a commitment for life, not just until they are 18,' says June. 'This means their going to university, getting married, having children-all the implications, including financial. That is the commitment we have made to them.' What have the Pembertons tried to do for all these children? They usually arrive from difficult situations, the younger ones tearful and upset, the older ones often resentful and angry. Pete and June set out to make their stay the best it can be.

'Some of the children had never been on holiday, never walked in the woods or on a beach, never played football or gone on a bike ride,' says Pete. 'Sometimes you don't know what is going on inside them, but you love them just the same.

'We have tried to give them all a taste of normal, good family life, so that they have something on which to base their own lives; to help them overcome their negative experiences. We've wanted to give them good role models.' In this their own two daughters, now married, and their two sons have been a great support.

Fostering has its downside-such as having ten teenagers in the house over one weekend-and its good times-such as when youngsters come back and thank Pete and June for having them. The Pembertons never seem happier than when they have their very extended family around them.

The children's names have been changed.

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