Couple who fostered over 600 children retire after 56 years

Pauline said: ‘When a quiet child who won’t let anyone touch them lets you give them a goodnight kiss, or you hear them singing and laughing – those are the real rewards’ (Picture: Simon Czapp/Solent News)

A couple in their eighties who spent 56 years fostering a total of over 600 children, from babies just three days old to teenagers, have retired from caring for kids.

Pauline and Roger Fitter, 81 and 86, reached this massive milestone after deciding from an early age that they wanted to help as many parent-less children as possible.

The pair have fostered children from places as far away as Belarus and Lithuania, and have looked after hundreds of foster kids in addition to five children of their own, one of whom they adopted.

They continued to foster children through the pandemic, but after over 50 years and caring for an estimated 620 kids, they’ve decided it’s time to retire at last.

They keep the memory of all the children they’ve cared for over the years alive in photo albums, which are filled with pictures of every single one of their foster kids.

Pauline says the four-bed detached house in Haslemere, West Sussex, will finally be quieter to return to for Roger – who still works as a private forestry consultant.

Pauline said: ‘My parents used to tell me that aged five I knew I wanted to look after children’ (Picture: Simon Czapp/Solent News)

Pauline, who is originally from Yorkshire, said: ‘I came down south to look after Roger’s two children because he had lost his wife suddenly, who was a childhood friend.

‘They were both two, and I had only intended to stay for a month – though it didn’t quite work out that way.

‘I was a children’s nurse before I began fostering and my parents used to tell me that aged five I knew I wanted to look after children.

‘I was born in 1940, during the war, and I didn’t see my father for the first five years of my life – but I also knew a lot of my friends’ fathers never came back at all.

‘I decided as early as 19 that I wanted to look after children who didn’t have mummies or daddies – I knew I wanted to stop as many as I could from becoming institutionalised.’

Pauline and Roger married in September 1965, and took in their first child later that same year.

‘In December we took our first child from West Sussex Social Services and rushed out to find something to put under the Christmas tree for a three-day-old baby,’ Pauline said.

‘He was with us for ten weeks. He suffered from bronchitis, and cared for him in a handmade steam tent.

‘Then one day he was suddenly taken away and found a foster family. That night as we stared at the cot at the end of our bed we could still see the divot where he had slept.

‘I just sobbed and sobbed and Roger said, “if this is what fostering is like, we are not doing it again”.’

However, Roger was soon proven wrong, as hundreds more children would come through their door over the following decades.

Pauline said: ‘Almost immediately after that first child we had five newborn babies in one year, one after the other, which meant a lot of night feeds at two in the morning and not much sleep.

‘Times have changed now; back in those days if you said yes they didn’t ask many questions. There was no training, no real checks.

Pauline and Roger with their children, children’s partners and grandchildren (Picture: Solent News & Photo Agency)

‘Now it can take up to nine months to get approval from social services and we are something like 9,000 foster carers short.

‘One summer – it just happened – we had 11 kids at once. Our four and two from a boarding school, then another came, and another… it just built up out of nowhere.

‘I was a Girl Guides leader at the time, so we turned the back garden into a camp; sleeping in tents and even doing morning inspections which the girls always won.

‘Roger used to joke that he’d count the heads at the dinner table when he got in from work – just to check if anyone else had arrived.’

Roger joked their home was a ‘production line’ over the years.

She said: ‘We handed our last child to his permanent foster family earlier in May this year.

‘He had come to us at the beginning of the first lockdown – a lively but lovely little baby of 20 months – and he followed a four-year-old who left us just before that lockdown in March.’

Pauline rarely cries when it’s time to say goodbye to the children, saying: ‘We used to have a rule that when I bought them a suitcase it meant their future was about to begin, and we always treated their exits like celebrations.

‘It’s like climbing a mountain: we take them up and walk back down to take another child up.

‘But seeing the last child leave in May was especially hard, because I knew no more children were coming to replace him. I usually strip the bed, remake the room and get ready for the next.’

Many of the children the Fritters cared for kept in touch over the years, with some sending photos of their wedding days from foreign shores, and others returning to visit in person.

Pauline said: ‘One time a woman I didn’t recognise said hello to me in a caravan park in Chichester, saying “Aunty Pauline?”.

‘She was there with her husband and kids, and it was only after I saw her children’s faces that I knew who she was – they looked just like her when she was a child.

‘She had come to us when she was just three years old and stayed for around 18 months.

‘We have met up with her adopted parents since, who tell us she’s a great mother. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that.’

Now, the couple are encouraging others to become foster parents, saying the rewards outweigh the efforts.

‘A lot of people think they wouldn’t be able to do it, Pauline said, ‘but there’s so much support and training that all they really need to do is apply.

‘I really wish a few more people would try it and see if it’s for them. It’s surprising our house is still standing after 600 people have called it home, but the rewards are well worth it.

‘When a quiet child who won’t let anyone touch them lets you give them a goodnight kiss, or you hear them singing and laughing – those are the real rewards.’

The West Sussex County Council commemorated the couple’s impressive achievement with an afternoon tea at Chichester County Hall earlier this summer, and presented them with a plaque commending their efforts for the children.

Daniel Ruaux, Assistant Director of Children Services at the local authority said: ‘Pauline and Roger are amongst the most caring and loving foster parents I have had the privilege to meet.

‘Their commitment and nurture to help our children reach their potential is extraordinary and so very inspirational. Their love and devotion has changed and influenced the lives of over 600 children, and we can’t thank them enough for over 50 years of fostering with us.’

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