WHEN you tell someone you foster it takes about five minutes for The Question to be asked, says Andrea.

And the question is always: “How can you give up children you’ve looked after?”

It IS hard, she says, especially the first time, but it was her husband who pointed out that: “We went into fostering not to adopt and we are the middle people who’ve made a difference. After us they move on to something a lot better for them.”

Andrea, a jolly, smiley mum of two who started fostering 20 years ago can’t even list the number of children who have passed through her Ferndown home. But as a child she says she suffered physical and emotional abuse from her own father and ‘always knew that I would have something to give to a child that was suffering’.

She and her husband started fostering 20 years ago after inquiring at Bournemouth Borough Council. “I was working in a shop and my husband is in finance and they said they could arrange for someone to talk to us from the fostering team,” she remembers. “We started the training and then, at the end, I received two phone messages – one to say we’d been accepted and the other to say they had two little ones and could they bring them round now?”

No foster carer has to take any child they feel unable to cope with, says Andrea, and while the social services team try and give as much information as possible; “They don’t always know a lot about the children, either.”

This can be because the children have been removed because of immediate danger – a lone parent has been arrested or sectioned, or they are believed to be victims of physical or sexual abuse or neglect. Other children come into care because their carer – perhaps a single mother, has become ill or has to go to hospital and they need temporarily looking after.

The social workers try and stay for a while but may have other cases to work on and so, says Andrea: “You are left to use all your parenting skills to make the new ones feel at home.”

This can be hard if the fostered children are too young to communicate. “Sometimes they arrive in their pyjamas, you don’t know what they like eating, that kind of thing.”

Andrea gets round that by filling her freezer and fridge with familiar and comforting food: “Fish fingers, sausages, ice-cream, things that a child might find easy to eat but you take it from there,” she says.

And her opening gambit is nearly always to offer a drink and a biscuit, whatever time her new charges arrive. “We try to reassure them,” she says.

Andrea sets up family contact – when allowed – very quickly. “I’m always aware that it must be horrendous for them, they are sometimes traumatised,” she says. “But it does mean you’re always having to think on your feet.”

She says foster carers are trained well by social services and they do receive money but: “These kids can have so much baggage when they arrive – we’ve had children with just the clothes they arrived in, running noses, some covered in head-lice.”

Her first two foster children are in their twenties now and successfully making their way in the world, she says. “I think it was more a case of neglect – of the parent not being able to do what most people need to do for children.” Almost immediately she took on her first two she was asked if she could also foster a baby. “Suddenly there were seven of us – so I went out and bought a Chrysler Voyager!” she laughs.

You get the feeling that little fazes her, even the horrific situation where one parent whose children she was caring for threatened the family physically. “I think the mother had serious mental health issues but we had to have a police number because she escaped from hospital and wanted her child back and threatened to kill them.”

She remembers another child who suffered from terrible headlice and another who was ‘the sweetest, loveliest child’ who just didn’t seem happy to sit down. “When we examined her back it was so infected there was hardly any skin,” she remembers.

She noticed, too, how many of her children would comment on her home: “They’d say how clean it was or how nice it smells,” she says. "From little comments like that you begin to understand what their lives have been like."

She was puzzled by one child who seemed to create an endless pile of washing, even when her clothes were clean. “I found out that she loved the smell of freshly-washed clothes so much, she used to sniff her clothes when they were on and once the smell disappeared, she’d just put on some new ones!”

Another baby made her laugh out loud when Andrea mistakenly left her alone for a few seconds and when she returned: “She’d pulled the lid off some cocoa powder and managed to get it absolutely everywhere. She put her hands in the air as if to say ‘ta-daah!’ and I just had to laugh,” she says.

She’s learned to ‘expect the unexpected’ but even she was amazed by the elderly lady who leaned over and asked if she’d ‘ever heard of birth control’ because she was accompanied by five children.

Over the years she’s seen fostering change, especially the diversity of the children now being looked after and it's changed for carers, too. “You can foster if you’re single, gay, even, on some occasions if you have a disability,” she says. Likewise a very minor criminal record might not be a bar and you can also foster part-time, at weekends. "It’s always worth getting in touch just to see what you can do,” she says.

It’s also worth realising that foster-carers are not supermen or women. “Sometimes you do question yourself and wonder what you are doing and you just want a sit-down with a cup of tea,” she says. “But you realise that regardless of what they are throwing at you, you ARE the difference to them.”

And of course, she, more than anyone knows that. “I am the proof, standing here that you can move on from your childhood, that you can learn from your past to help others with theirs,” she says.

*For an informal chat about fostering, call Bournemouth 0800 009 3084.