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Glenda's house of hope for children

PUBLISHED: 13:00 22 September 2001 | UPDATED: 10:33 03 March 2010

GLENDA Norrington fought back from a breakdown aged 16 to become one of the strongest and most inspirational women you will every meet.

Over nearly 30 years the East Bergholt mother has fostered more than 40 children.

By Tina Heath

GLENDA Norrington fought back from a breakdown aged 16 to become one of the strongest and most inspirational women you will every meet.

Over nearly 30 years the East Bergholt mother has fostered more than 40 children. Some swore and stole, others battled, blossomed and won through against all the odds – and almost all came back.

As her book chronicling her years as a foster parent is published she spoke to TINA HEATH about her heartbreaking and hilarious journey through motherhood.

Glenda Norrington was bottle feeding an orphaned lamb in the grounds of her Suffolk country home when she had a thought that would not go away.

With 12 acres of land, dotted with outhouses and filled with farm animals and a comfortably scruffy house with plenty of space, her children were thriving in a setting that seemed to fulfil their every need.

The family's unpretentious attitude and generous open door policy already saw a small army of school friends trouping through their home, then in Capel St Mary, and getting up to innocent mischief in the secret hideaways the property offered.

Glenda wanted to share the haven she and her husband Colin had created, and when he returned home she told him that she wanted them to start out as foster parents.

"As a child I was always picking up stray cats and bringing them home. They were usually flea ridden and horrible but I always had this feeling that I needed to look after things," said Glenda.

But a year later, when the first in a long line of children arrived on her doorstep she couldn't help but have doubts about her decision.

"These two little blonde girls pulled up. It took us ages to even get them out of the car and one of them goes, 'I'm not going in there it looks like a bloody pub'" said Glenda, who has just published a book giving a frank and heart warming account of her years as a foster parent.

"We had this beautiful Dalmatian and one of the girls looks at it and says 'and I don't like that bloody dog either', and I thought 'Oh Glenda, what have you done'."

Nearly three decades on and she has fostered more than 40 children, adopted two and taken on a case load of increasing difficult and traumatised youngsters.

She has welcomed drug addicts, terrified teenagers and tearaways who flounced through her home cursing and swearing. Persistent runaways fleeing from abusive or violent backgrounds have been scooped off the streets and brought to her "for as long as they will stay".

"It seems ludicrous but we had a note up saying 'please shut the door behind you'. We took a boy once, Social Services found him sleeping rough in a porch. He stayed three days, longer than anybody thought he would. I asked him why don't you stay longer, I remember his words, they are still ringing in my ears. 'No I'm not getting close to anyone. I'm my own boss out on the street. No one can bash me around.' He left and I never saw him again."

There's something about Glenda. Her easy manner, warmth and refusal to judge are almost immediately recognisable and visitors are made to feel quickly at ease. Her "knack" with children is perhaps less a gift than a hard won triumph, the product of her own troubled childhood – including suffering a breakdown at the age of 16.

"I was a really odd child, so withdrawn and timid, mostly it was to do with my height. I'm under five foot (she'll admit to 4ft 11.5ins when pushed) and found it hard to keep up. I had a breakdown at 16 when the whole world just didn't seem worth living in anymore.

"I remember my mother walking me up and down and saying 'you'll be alright, you'll be alright'. Maybe that's why I started fostering, maybe I have sympathy with the kids. I'm a very strong person now, my mum can't believe the way I have turned out."

Born in Canvey Island, the daughter of a lorry driver, Glenda married when she was 20-years-old and moved to Capel St Mary with Colin, now 66, where they set up their own gardening business, Essex Turf.

The couple's two children Karen and Clay were eight and eleven respectively when they made the decision to start fostering.

"The most we every coped with was ten children," says Glenda, now 63. "I even had to put a mattress on the floor for my own kids. One day I stood them up and said do you mind it, and they said all their friends at school thought it was brilliant to live here because it was always so chaotic."

With little training or advice on how to cope with the increasingly demanding stream of youngsters flooding through her doors, Glenda devised her own rules as she went along. Instinctively she asked to take only children younger than her own, to "keep the peeking order" and avoiding a situation where older foster children were lauding it over her own.

"You are sent the easy ones to start with but as you go on they send you more traumatised kids. Damaged ones who have been through the most horrific things" she explains. "You're told very little about the history of the kids you are taking in and it sometimes can cause problems."

Like the time she sent her son upstairs with glasses of water for two newly fostered girls only to hear him greeted with ear piercing screams of sheer terror.

"It turns out they were abused by a bunch of bully boys, had their heads flushed under the toilet and all kinds of terrible things. They were terrified of men as a result. Some of the things those kids have been through only I will know."

Glenda had been fostering for only two years when a phone call from Social Services changed her life forever.

Someone was needed to take on new born twins and Glenda, who had quickly developed a reputation as a reliable and experienced foster parent, was asked to accept them.

"I said yes but I had my worries. It was ages since I'd had new born babies I wasn't sure how I would cope but I said I'd do it, I almost always did.

"They were 12 days old when they came, the sweetest little things you could imagine. They were so lovely," said Glenda telling how she cared for the two girls for five months until they were deemed "independent" enough to be introduced back to their natural parents.

"The day they went I cried, I paced the floor, I was in a terrible state. I packed them off with six or eight bottles to give the parents a head start but I was so worried.

"I had bonded with them. They were mine. I knew it was wrong. Everyday I had told myself they are not mine, they are somebody else's children but I couldn't help it."

Desperate to ensure the girls were being cared for Glenda travelled from Capel St Mary to the town where they lived nearly everyday to help the girl's parents with the feeding, washing and mothering she had become so accustomed to. And when Social Services suggested it was time she took more of a backseat Glenda obliged, forcing herself to whittle down the visits to once or twice a week and allowing the girls' parents to take over.

Two major incidents over the following months saw the girls, Samantha and Emma, now both aged 28, back in Capel St Mary and later adopted into the delightful Norrington clan.

The first was a call in the middle of the night alerting Glenda to an unfolding nightmare in which the girls' father had locked himself inside the flat, was wielding a shot gun and claiming he had sold the twins. Using her established relationship with the troubled couple Glenda strode past armed police officers and other massed emergency services demanding that the father tell her exactly what was going on.

The father was bluffing, the girls safe and almost hilariously the gunman turned gift giver and handed the firearm over to Glenda suggesting it might come in useful on the farm.

But Glenda knew that the children, despite being less than one year old were suffering under the strain of their troubled environment. She talks of visiting and watching in horror as one of them rocked obsessively on her knee, a sign that all was not well, and when trouble flared a second time she was adamant that the twins were coming home with her to stay.

The adoption, she says, broke every rule in the book. Foster parents are warned away from adopting the children they care for; Glenda was considered too old and was further hampered by her close relationship with the girls' natural parents – but she won through. Sam and Emma took on the Norrington name and later played their role as foster sisters to the steady stream of youngsters who continued to arrive at the family's door even after they moved to East End, East Bergholt.

Glenda gave up fostering and wrote the book, Can You Take Another? for her children, so "the four kids can hand it down to their children so they can know what's been going on".

And also for others, a tract calling for a better understanding of the struggles and prejudice foster children can find themselves up against.

"Everybody thinks foster kids are second class citizens. At school they are not treated with the same respect and care," said Glenda, now a grandmother and consequently five years after giving up fostering still never far from the patter of tiny feet.

Repeatedly she was told her foster children would "never amount to anything", that she would "end up with egg on her face" and she fought hard to win them the rights they deserved.

"I took two children once, one was brain damaged after being thrown through a window and they wanted to send them both to special school. I fought the authorities tooth and nail," she said, proudly listing the careers her children have taken up.

"The worst thing would be when they go and then come back in the same mess again and you have to start all over again building their confidence up.

"Some of the kids were so scared they would hide under beds. They don't trust anyone. I don't know how they did it some of them against all the odds, they have really come through.

"Almost all of them have come back to see me. One lad turned up on a motorbike, I hadn't seen him for years. He robbed me blind and there he was sitting at my kitchen table again. Well, at least he had made the effort to come and find me."

Glenda's book, written under the pen name Marion Rowe can be found at Capel News, The Street, Capel, L and T Premier Stores, Brantham and The Grange caravan site, Mile Straight, East Bergholt. Or you can call Glenda on 01206 395775 to order a copy priced £6.99 plus £1.30 p&p.

WEBLINKS

The National Foster Parent Association website can be found at www.nfpainc.org

For another useful site with lots of links try www.fostercare.org

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