Striving for children to have happier lives

Chrysalis fostering manager Sarah with daughter Jessica Allkins (right) and friend Abi Ballentine, who have been busy fundraising all month with the prize teddy.
Chrysalis fostering manager Sarah with daughter Jessica Allkins (right) and friend Abi Ballentine, who have been busy fundraising all month with the prize teddy.

Sarah Allkins was Britain’s youngest foster carer at the age of 23. Now 35, the Sheffield mother of two runs her own foster care agency and specialist therapy service for children and families.

The death of her father when she was just five is what drives her to help children be happier.

Q. What do you think fuels your desire to help children in care?

A. My dad died when I was five of a brain haemorrhage – mum’s friends were there for us. I think my experience of childhood loss has created this desire to support others. My mum was a single parent at just 22 with three children under five to support. I was the eldest and felt responsible for my younger brother and sister. I always knew I was going to do this – it’s in my record of achievement, right from leaving school. I love helping children to be happy and giving them an opportunity to have a childhood again – hopeful futures, rather than chaotic lives. They didn’t ask for their life experiences and we see every day how therapeutic intervention can help.

Q. Why did you leave home at 16?

A. I moved out of home whilst at college. I didn’t get on with my mum at that age. I think I felt too much responsibility for my siblings. I was striving for independence, so I went to a youth charity and applied for housing benefit. I had a private tenancy in a bedsit on Ecclesall Road which I loved. I moved in with my boyfriend of two years, Glenn, when I was 18 and we had a flat above a wet fish shop in Crookes. We married in 2000 the day after my final health and social care exam at Hallam. I remember my last answer said, ‘I don’t care about this question. I am getting married tomorrow!’

Q. How did you end up becoming Britain’s youngest foster carers?

A. In 2003, Glenn and I became approved foster carers. I was 23, Glenn was 25. There were two reasons for doing it: firstly, every child I worked with in residential care didn’t want to be there. They would much rather have been in foster care, but placements had broken down because of the past traumas they had experienced, plus there’s a shortage of foster carers. Our aim was to get more children out of residential care and into homes. We realised we needed to recruit professional people with additional skills and resilience – and pay professional fees. A specialist fostering scheme was created and we became carers. A TV company were looking for an angle for National Fostering Fortnight and discovered we were the youngest foster carers in the UK at that time. We ended up on GMTV and being featured in Woman’s Own. We wanted to raise awareness that all sorts of people can make terrific foster carers. A lot of people don’t realise that officially you only need to be 21 to foster.

Q. Tell me about your first foster child...

A. He had been in residential care since he was seven, living with teenagers who often set fire alarms off all night and got up to all sorts of extreme teenager behaviour. He stayed with us for three years before he eventually went back to his birth mum.

Q. How successful has your foster-parenting been?

A. Another girl we took at 10 did incredibly well after a very difficult start and is now training to be an accountant. A 14 year-old stayed with us for a year and Tommy, who was seven when he came to us after living with six sets of foster carers has only just left.

My husband Glenn is a joiner, but stopped work for two years to home-educate Tommy as his needs were very specific and he was struggling within the education system. After Tommy, we decided to give ourselves a break and support other people for a while. During our time as foster parents we’ve had two children of our own.

Q. Why did you start your own children’s therapy centre?

A. I was a residential social worker for Rotherham Borough Council, where I won a young achiever of the year award, and I left to specialise in child and adolescent mental health (CAMHS) in the town.

But I soon became frustrated with being unable to deliver the right services to children on the long waiting list. The timescales, government agendas – it was so frustrating having the skills and still not being able to do what was needed.

So aged 28, in 2006 I left to set up Chrysalis Associates Therapy with former colleagues Dr Jaqueline Lynch, Helen Freake and Sarah Terry. We had a meal in a pub after work to discuss doing some private work and all invested £200 to register with Ofsted and get the ball rolling.

We offered a peripatetic service, offering child therapy sessions out of rooms at The Source Meadowhall or in people’s own homes, plus running intensive therapy schools for troubled young people during Easter and summer holidays. All the children we saw were adopted or fostered, experiencing complex trauma, with parents or carers trying to deal with their enormous emotional and behavioural needs.

The practice grew through word-of-mouth referrals. We decided to expand and provide truly therapeutic foster placements for vulnerable children. There’s no-one else in the UK doing this work, we are the only specialist treatment centre outside London.

We moved to Nether Edge and in 2012 Chrysalis Consortium fostering was born as a social enterprise which could re-invest in looked-after children and their needs.

Q. Do you have any remaining ambitions?

A. Our vision is to open a residential home to meet the therapeutic needs of kids who cannot live with a family. And I’d like to do some work in prisons.

As a teenager I did some voluntary victim-offender mediation and I’d like to become a magistrate.

I’d send people for therapy instead of giving them counter-productive sentences! It’s a nonsense and not cost-effective.

The cost of the care system from beginning to end can be £1 million per child. That needs to stop.