From The Times May 24, 2010
In many ways Curtis Moore is a normal 17-year-old. Shy, not yet sure who he is, surgically attached to his phone, doesn't like getting up in the morning. Fortunately, it is past 11am when I arrive and he opens the front door, inquires about my journey and offers me a hot drink.
This may seem unremarkable but such social niceties were beyond him a couple of years ago when, as a disturbed young offender, he met his foster carer, Elaine Medford (pictured right with Curtis). Even last year, when he reached the final 50 on The X Factor, he came across on TV as a confused teenager who didn't know how to relate to people. He took refuge in swagger and fell silent only when Simon Cowell told him that he needed to learn to listen. There was no doubt he could sing, but it was his attitude that people noticed.
"He didn't know how to behave," says Elaine. "He was vile to the producers."
"I was nervous," Curtis says quietly. "I didn't know what to do. I couldn't really have a conversation."
"Eighteen months back I didn't know where I was going," Curtis says. "I was making bad decisions. I know what I want to do now. I don't want to get back into trouble. Haven't since I came here. I just want people to listen to my music."
Elaine looks at him. "I'm not saying that fostering is easy," she says. "Each child comes to you as an individual and you have to work with them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Curtis always showed a certain amount of respect, we liked him and he liked us."
They are talking to highlight an unprecedented rise in the number of children needing foster care, and the subsequent shortage of foster carers - 10,000 more are urgently needed in Britain, especially to care for teenagers and children under 4.
The increased number of children living with foster families relates to the Baby P tragedy, which has made social workers reassess their response when a child is at risk; and a recent clarification of the law called the Southwark Judgment. This requires local authorities to assess homeless under-18s in England and Wales as children, rather than referring them to the housing authority, and results in more children coming into care.
Elaine is a competent and articulate former nurse with a clear, open face. A youthful-looking 52, she has three adult children of her own and has fostered more than 20 children over the past 12 years. She lives in a large, tidy house in Walsall in the West Midlands with her partner, her youngest daughter, Curtis and another looked-after child, and a young footballer.
Curtis is the youngest of four children and lived with his mother until he was 11, when his 19-year-old brother was killed in a car crash. "I started getting into trouble," he says. "Living in a bad area wasn't great but it was just me really, being stupid and thinking it was the way to go, being all bad and that. I didn't go to school."
By the age of 15 he had received his second custodial sentence for burglary, and was released after a month only because he had already met Elaine and her partner, who offered him a home. A traditionalist who believes in setting firm boundaries for children, Elaine is fiercely protective of Curtis, whose lack of confidence and expectation of failure create a tendency to sabotage himself. When the local authority acknowledged his musical talent by paying for extra music lessons, he twice refused to get out of bed to attend. Elaine was incensed, as was Curtis, when the opportunity was passed to another child.
"It was weird because initially Curtis inside the house was great - housework, he's brilliant. Outside the house he was a nightmare," she says. "Sometimes he just gets lost in himself. It's things for himself that he finds hard to get the incentive to get up and do. Even getting him to apply for The X Factor, we had to download the form and practically hold the pen."
"I was scared," says Curtis. "People told me that I was rubbish. I never got involved in much for anyone to say I was good."
He rubs his hands over his face and twists his fingers together.
"He has probably been told most of his life that he's no good," says Elaine. "If he gets knocked down, he'd rather stay down. We've tried to build him up, to get him through each stage, to prepare him for knock-backs and make him see that they are not the end of everything. When we met him all the adults had abandoned him. But we took a different view. Having had children ourselves, we know that young people sometimes make bad decisions. Beating them over the head won't get you anywhere. All you can do is offer them as much support as possible. I'm not saying let them walk over you, but here was a child who needed adults to help him to make the right decisions.
"We are working on empathy at the moment. He has been permanently put down and he has the attitude ‘why should I do that? It's not doing anything for me'. He fails to see how other people feel. I'm just trying to show him that people are more likely to help you if you come across as a nice person."
The biggest threat to the placement has been Curtis's habit of staying out at night. As a foster carer, Elaine has to report him missing to the police, who then search the house, disturbing the other residents.
"I've had to talk to him about how what he's doing out there is having an effect on everyone else in the house," she says. "I'm not standing for it. I gave him ultimatums, made him apologise to people in the morning."
It took time for Curtis to understand this. "I didn't really see that I was disturbing other people," he explains. "I've had the worst consequences, so whatever you're going to do to me isn't going to bother me. My brother dying. Going into custody. What can you possibly do to me that's worse than that?"
Elaine hopes that his music career will develop successfully; otherwise, when he is 18 in December and no longer eligible for foster care, he could find himself in a hostel.
"Which I wouldn't want to see happen," says Elaine. "You don't throw out your own children the minute they get to 18. Looked-after children are the most vulnerable; how can they function without support? Curtis can look after himself but he is uncomfortable on his own. He gets depressed and moody, and then there's the opportunity for outside influences to come in."
Curtis knew straight away that he wanted to live with Elaine, he says. "No kid wants to be fostered but I actually wanted to be here."
"We wanted him here," says Elaine.
Foster families needed urgently
There are 65,600 children in care in England and Wales; 47,800 live with 40,000 foster families. New research by the Fostering Network indicates that, in the past year, four out of five local authorities have experienced a rise in the number of children needing foster homes. This builds on a 5 per cent rise in 2008-09. Six out of ten authorities found it more difficult than usual to find the right homes for children, meaning that children were sometimes sent to areas away from their school and friends or to foster carers who didn't have the skills and experience to deal with their specific needs.