Interview - Joy Allen
It's Foster Care Fortnight, and in honour of foster carers and the work they do, we focus today on businesswoman, foster carer and Harley rider, Joy Allen.
Thank you for meeting me today Joy. Can you give me a wee bit of information about how you got involved in fostering?
Fostering had been something that I had always wanted to do and I remember thinking about it even when I was a teenager. Our school had a volunteering programme and we were offered the opportunity to either go and help an old person with their gardening or go and walk a dog for somebody who wasn’t well enough, and my friends and I chose to go every Saturday for a while to visit what was then called a “borstal”. So it was girls the same age as us who were in juvenile justice accommodation and it absolutely bowled me over when they told me some of their stories about their background and how they had been parented and so on. And I remember thinking, if it was possible to do anything for a young person like that, I would always want to do it. So I had always wanted to be a foster carer since then, which I suppose was about aged 15.
That’s quite a young age to be getting involved in something like that.
Well, it was in my mind since then.
How long have you been fostering and what kind of kids did you take on?
I’ve been fostering now for about 20 years and I started off just doing respite, having a young girl of 13 one weekend every three weekends, just to give her long-term foster carers a break because they had her and her siblings and she was of an age where she wanted to be out doing teenage things and they weren’t free enough to be able to provide that for her. So I started doing respite. I then did a number of longer term placements and full-time placements and I’m now back to just doing respite again. I’m fostering this weekend, a young boy who’s been coming to me for two and a half years. He comes once a month, again, to give his foster carer a break. He has learning difficulties; he’s 14, he looks about 17 but mentally he’s probably a lot younger than 14. He’s a lovely young boy but he has had probably the worst background I’ve ever known about as a foster carer, so he does have challenging behaviour sometimes.
What would you say has been the high point of fostering for you?
The relationship I have with my first full-time foster daughter. She came to me at age 16 and was with me for a couple of years, but we’ve stayed in close contact and she’s now a really good mum to two fabulous girls who are doing really well at school. And the girl herself is at [university], on track for a first class honours degree in social work and she has a very happy marriage, a very happy family life and it’s just lovely to see her succeeding on all fronts and yet when she came to me she was about to be thrown out of school. So I like to think I at least had some influence in helping to think through what was going to be the best future for her. There are going to be times that she’ll think social work isn’t the future for her, but at least she’s applying herself and she’s getting lots of good experience. She has wisdom way, way, way beyond her years and helps me when I have problems with foster kids. She can come up with insightful thoughts about them.
Did you normally keep the kids well past their 18th birthday or did they tend to move on when they were 18?
They’ve all moved on when they’ve been 18 because they’ve all wanted to. The first one had to move on because my parents were both ill and I became a carer for my elderly parents for several years, but she was going to be moving on soon anyway. And then the others I’ve had have wanted to move on.
Have you been able to keep a good relationship with all of them?
They don’t all stay in touch and I certainly leave it very much up to them. I would be in regular contact with just two of them, the first one and the most recent one and they would be in regular contact, especially if they need something. But some of the others, you wouldn’t hear from them for years and then you would suddenly get a text and they’d want to meet for coffee and gossip.
So alongside your fostering, what do you do for a day job?
That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. My career has been very, very bizarre and people sometimes ask, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I don’t think I ever did grow up, nor have I any intention of doing it. I’ve never known what I wanted to do. I’ve kind of lurched from one thing to another and yet it all comes together nicely. I have been a chief executive in the charity sector for 12 years in two different roles and the most recent one I spent five years as director of a thing that was then called ACOVO, Association of Chief Officers of Voluntary Organisations. It’s now called CO3, and it was a network of about 150 chief executives of charities. The biggest issue that they always brought to us was around governance and how their board operated and relationship breakdowns between them and their board or among board members and all that. So I became really curious above governance and about the same time I was caring for my elderly parents. I’m very angry about the lack of care that they got and wanted to influence the health and social care system, so I went on as a non-executive director to the Ulster Community & Hospitals Trust and then became really passionate about how boards worked and how you could make a difference on a board. Then I became involved in delivering board training. I got approached by CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, to deliver their ‘On Board’ programme to new non-executive directors. That was all starting to evolve and I ended up setting up my own business, called Focus on Governance Limited which is about training and development and review processes for boards and most of my experience has been in the charity board sector but I now am working with boards from all sectors. It’s really interesting.
My burning question is, as a foster carer, having a career and holding fostering in tension, how do you manage and do you have any advice you would give to anybody who’s trying to do it as well?
For me, it works and it has always worked. Now, it’s easier now that I’m just doing respite but even when I was doing full-time foster care I think it actually helped me not to take the traumas of fostering too seriously, because I couldn’t, because I had to move on to ‘what’s my next job?’ pressure. So I think the balance worked for me and I’ve also been lucky in the young people that I’ve got. In the vast majority of cases it has been young people that I got on really well with and lived very easily with; not to say you never had traumas but they tended to be on a Saturday night rather than during the working day. So I’ve had very few really difficult fostering experiences and that’s partly because I was very clear who I wanted matched with - I only wanted matched with young people that I could offer an opportunity to and that it would work with my career because my career had been in place first and the fostering came next, so I never wanted to give up my career anyway.
Right. So good boundaries then─
And clear expectations, I think, all round with the fostering organisation about what you can provide and what you can’t provide or you don’t want to provide. I think that’s important. And for the young person as well.
I know that fostering and Focus on Governance are just two aspects of what you do; can you tell us more about your voluntary posts?
Yes. When I started to get interested in governance I wanted to develop my board experience, so in addition to going onto the Ulster Community & Hospitals Trust I also went onto the board of VOYPIC, Voice of Young People in Care, because I was very interested in the work that they do and the support that they give to young people in the fostering system. And I then chaired that board for a couple of years and that was a great experience and great learning. And when that was complete I then went onto the board of Simon Community because some of the young people that I have fostered have ended up using the services of Simon Community when they’ve needed accommodation, so I was passionate about that as well. So I’ve been on the board of Simon Community since 2007 and I now chair the board. I’ve been chairing the board for the last two years and again, that’s been great learning and a great opportunity to make a contribution to something that matters. I also was on the board of the Fostering Network for about four years, I think, and I was vice chair of it for the final year. The problem with it was it met in London so it was a really big time commitment, because you had to fly over for board meetings and committee meetings, but I did give the commitment for four years and it was very good.
Excellent. And you’re also a non-executive of the Belfast Trust as well?
That’s right. I was on the Ulster Community & Hospitals Trust until the review of public administration and then I moved onto the board of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust which has been a huge learning curve because it’s such a big and complex organisation: 20,000 staff and over a billion turnover, so it’s constant learning really and finding ways that you can add something from your background and your experience that will help.
What areas do you specialise in there? Are there any particular sub-committees you sit on within the Trust?
Well, my interests, are particularly in the areas of fostering and adoption, but as a non-executive director it is important that you take an interest in all of the work of the Trust. So I sit on the audit committee and the assurance committee and attend, obviously, all the normal board meetings. And we would also do things like chair consultant appointment panels. Those have to be chaired by a non-executive director. So again, it’s good learning and it’s a good way of touching base with what’s really happening at the coalface in the Trust.
Outside of all that work/voluntary work, what gives you energy and what challenges you and inspires you?
I walk my dogs every afternoon along the Lagan [river]. I have two mad, enthusiastic dogs who give me great energy and I love getting out into nature with them. And I would tend to do that in the afternoon for an hour and then go back to work and work a bit longer in the evening; so it suits my lifestyle.
I ride motorbikes. I used to teach advanced motorcycling for the Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists.
What’s your bike of choice?
Harley. Yesterday I did outrider at a friend’s funeral, which was very sad, but a privilege to ride as an outrider for his last journey. And I’ve been round Europe on a bike and I rode in Milwaukee in the parade for the hundredth birthday of the Harley Davidson company. But it says on the back on my biker jacket, “Don’t tell my mum”. God bless her. She’s now deceased but she would have put me over her knee if it was the last thing she did!
Any plans or goals that you’d like to achieve?
Not really. I go to Donegal a lot and I’m in the process of buying a wee cottage up in Donegal to spend a bit more time walking the dogs on beaches up there.
Just to finish off, Joy, what would you say is your greatest vice and your greatest virtue?
My greatest vice is not being able to say no and taking on too much and I’m really working on that, putting boundaries around how much is possible rather than being enthusiastic and taking it all on and not being able to do it or run yourself ragged. Greatest virtue? I’m a straight talker. I’m honest. There are no back doors. You know where you stand.
Excellent. Thank you very much.