A PAIR of big-hearted couples in north Essex have been making sure children have a place to call home during lockdown by stepping up as foster parents.

Foster families are in high demand across the UK with more than 7,000 new families needed in the next 12 months.

Samantha and Stuart Ockelford, from Sible Hedingham, decided to become foster parents in lockdown.

It’s been a time of transformation for Samantha, 44, and Stuart, 45, with the couple also losing ten stone between them.

The couple decided to take in their first foster child during lockdown.

Despite Samantha having three adult children from a previous marriage, the couple knew they wanted a child together.

However, after years of unsuccessfully trying for their own child with miscarriages and unsuccessful IVF treatment, they decided it wasn’t meant to be.

Now the couple have turned to fostering and took in their first child in the first week of lockdown.

Samantha is now a full-time foster carer having left her job as a safeguarding officer.

Samantha and Stuart said: “Our journey was instead to help children in need. We discussed adoption as a possible option but felt more drawn to short-term fostering so we could help more children feel wanted.

“When the middle of my three daughters went off to university, we felt that it was the perfect time to progress our fostering journey as the house was emptier and quieter.

“When this little girl arrived on our doorstep the mothering instinct in me leapt into action.

“It was quite sad in those initial stages as we had to teach her how to eat with a knife and fork.

“She hadn’t even experienced that. As the weeks went by and she became more settled, we saw a positive improvement in the whole situation and she also started to learn to read.

“It was lovely seeing her play in the garden. She was learning to be a child again and enjoying being part of a family.”

While Samantha and Stuart started as lockdown began, many families have been doing foster care for years.

David and Marie Bullock, of Frinton, have fostered eight youngsters since starting in April 2019.

David, 56, was made redundant just before lockdown but with Marie, 50, the pair decided to embrace foster parenting, looking after several children during the pandemic for short term emergency placements.

David said: “Upon reflection, being made redundant has had a positive impact as I’ve been able to afford these children my time and I’m more relaxed than ever.

“I think many of us took for granted going to a restaurant or taking the children swimming until lockdown happened.

“It has made us realise just how important these seemingly little things were.

“The same can be said for spending time with family. Many of the young people who come into our care have not been afforded this before, so just spending time with them can make a big difference.

“All they really want is to have safety and a structured environment. And maybe a little fun.”

He added: “If anyone is concerned that they can’t foster because they already have children in the home, then I would definitely share our positive experience.

“Having other children in the home often serves as a good icebreaker because a new child tends to respond more quickly to another child.

“They help them to see that we are kind people, and this makes them feel more comfortable in asking for something.

“We just have to take one step at a time though and be led by them when they first arrive.”

As lockdown continues to evolve, Essex County Council are stepping up their calls for more foster carers.

Cllr Louise McKinlay, Cabinet Member for Children and Families at Essex County Council, said: “Our foster carers help build better, brighter futures for hundreds of children across Essex every year.

"We desperately need more people, like Samantha and Stuart, to foster on a full and part-time basis for either short or long-term placements.”

For more information, visit essexadoptionandfostering.co.uk/fostering or call 0800 801 530.