SHAHNAZ MALIK has strongly personal reasons, rooted in a family tragedy, for becoming a foster carer.
The event that led to her looking after some of society’s most vulnerable children was the serious assault of her own son, Zohel, who was left with severe mental health problems as a result of the attack.
Zohel, now 26, was just 17 when he was beaten with a crow bar by a gang of youths. He’d been a promising student at New College in Huddersfield and was a member of the college basketball team.
His head injuries were such that he has endured long-lasting psychological trauma and is still cared for in a specialist hospital in Nottingham.
Shahnaz, 49, who lives in Ainley Top, gave up her job as a regeneration consultant for Wakefield Council in order to visit Zohel and help to care for him.
She still visits him regularly, but after a couple of years went by and there was little sign of Zohel being able to come home, Shahnaz realised she had to find a further purpose in life.
“I wasn’t doing myself any favours,” she says, “I was just looking forward to visiting time every day and I thought I must be able to do something else.”
Several years before the attack she had applied to become an adopter through the Barnardo’s charity. “I only had two children of my own and I am one of seven siblings, so adoption was always in the back of my mind, I just put it on a back burner,” explained Shahnaz, who also has a daughter Zara, 29, and two grandsons.
“One day I was going through some papers and I found the form from Barnardo’s and decided to make enquiries. Then I read an advert in The Examiner about foster carers being needed and thought ‘this is what I’m going to do’.
“I was very excited by it. I had a house, nobody at home and I thought I could give some children a chance in life. This is one of the requirements I have as a Muslim, to help others.”
Shahnaz registered with Foster Care Associates (FCA), the UK’s largest independent fostering agency. It has 70 foster families in West Yorkshire and works alongside local authorities to provide homes for some of society’s most needy and challenging children.
Since becoming a foster carer over three years ago, Shahnaz has cared for a number of children of all ages and from all backgrounds, including two teenage refugees from Afghanistan, a teenage mum with a baby and several children with disabilities, including autism. She is currently caring for a brother and sister who were formerly adopted.
“You can’t help but get attached to the children,” she says, “and it can be hard when they move on. I was the birthing partner for the teenage mum and I think of the baby in the same way I think of my grandsons.”
Laura Ross, commercial manager for the FCA in Yorkshire and Humberside, says all foster carers need and receive thorough training.
“Children are always in care for a reason and there are some with challenging issues,” she explained. “We are always up front about the type of children someone might get and the problems they might face. But we also have so many positive stories. There are people fostered as children who still return to their foster parents’ home every Sunday for lunch and who have become part of the family.
“It can be tough but it is also extremely rewarding.”
Shahnaz, who is divorced, says her entire extended family has welcomed her foster children “with open arms.” In fact one of her brothers has now become a foster carer as well.
“Fostering is a 24-hour job, you have to be there all the time for the children,” said Shahnaz.
“Rejection tends to be a common theme in the lives of the children. Even after two years mine follow me around all the time, like they’re afraid to let you out of their sight. When they first came to me they were angry and didn’t know how to express affection. Now they leave me little notes on the fridge saying ‘You rock my world’.
With her Asian Muslim background Shahnaz is a rarity in fostering. Her ability to speak Urdu was immensely helpful when it came to caring for the Afghan refugees, although she insisted they use English wherever possible to enable them to adjust to life here. Her current foster children are of mixed race.
“I can give them the best of both worlds, east and west traditions and culture,” she says.
“But it’s very important to me that I foster children from all backgrounds and religions.”
Shahnaz hopes that one day Zohel will be able to return to Huddersfield but until then her home will always be open to youngsters in need.
Foster carers working for FCA range in ages from 21 to 70 plus and come from all walks of life – including single people and gay couples.
Carers are paid from £300 a week, depending on the type of placement.
Carers of severely disabled children, for instance, receive more.
Everyone receives training and the support of a dedicated social worker, education officers and therapists.
Fosterers must provide each child with their own bedroom and at least one carer in a home must be full-time.
For more information call the FCA on 0800 023 4561 or check out www.iwanttofoster.co.uk
Kirklees Council’s Fostering Service also needs foster families – contact firstname.lastname@example.org