A COUPLE who cared for more than 600 children have retired as foster carers.

Roger and Pauline Fitter, from Camelsdale, just north of South Downs National Park, spent 56 years of their lives looking after vulnerable children at their West Sussex home.

The couple, who also raised five children of their own, said their household was often “chaotic”, but the fond memories will continue into retirement.

Roger, 86, and Pauline, 81, began fostering before the formation of social services in the 1970s.

Pauline said there was a freedom to fostering and an “anything goes” way of working in the early days.

“There was no training, regulations, anything,” she said. “Social services regulated, trained and eventually introduced a financial reward element.”

The couple made the decision to begin fostering in 1965 after Pauline, a nurse, worked in a residential nursery with young children and babies awaiting adoption.

"It really hurt me to see these babies becoming institutionalised and I promised myself at the age of 19 that when I married, I would foster," she said.

Three months after their marriage in September 1965, the couple welcomed their first foster child - a new born boy who had bronchitis.

Pauline and Roger nursed the baby at home in a handmade steam tent and cared for the child until he went on to be adopted.

The Argus: Pauline and Roger Fitter, of Camelsdale in West Sussex Pauline and Roger Fitter, of Camelsdale in West Sussex

Over the years, the pair specialised in fostering children whose futures depended on the outcome of a forthcoming court case.

Pauline said the children were “usually traumatised” and “very sad”.

"It's quite emotional work, but we've always worked on the understanding that the children have been through a lot, we are grown up, we can manage it too,” she added.

Pauline recalled one girl, aged three, arrived at their home “silent” and unwilling to make eye contact or be touched.

"It was a long process with her and then one day she just put her very tiny little hand inside mine," Pauline said.

"She must be in her 30s, but that has stayed with me because she was such a damaged little girl. It sounds a small thing, but actually it's not, it's huge."

Alongside fostering, Pauline and Roger raised five children of their own - including an adopted child who they had previously fostered - and now have 11 grandchildren.

To commemorate the pairs commitment to fostering for West Sussex County Council, a celebratory tea was held at County Hall in Chichester.

Jacquie Russell, of West Sussex County Council, praised the the couple's "extraordinary" commitment, but urged others to follow suit.

“Pauline and Roger’s commitment to children is quite extraordinary. Their love and dedication has changed the lives of many hundreds of children, we can’t thank them enough for 56 years of love and devotion,” she said.

“We are very lucky to have wonderful people fostering with West Sussex County Council but the need for more is huge. So, if Pauline and Roger’s story has inspired you, please give our fostering team a call.”

Pauline said like the rest of the country, the funds in West Sussex are “limited”.

“Carers are much needed, as is the rest of the country – we’re possibly 9,000 carers short,” she said.

“But it is very rewarding and fulfilling.

“Now, as we drive around West Sussex, it is full on memories of ‘our’ children who lived in a village or town as we pass through. Those memories will stay with us, and sustain us in our retirement.”

Those interested in becoming foster carers are encouraged to call 033 022 27775 to speak with West Sussex County Council.

No previous experience is needed and full training, support and a new and enhanced financial allowances package is available.