One of them was a seven-year-old boy who’d been known to social services since he was born.“He’d seen an immense amount of domestic abuse and drugs and alcohol abuse, he’d been left on his own a lot, and he’d been expelled from three schools – even from a lock-down school.Debbie is still in touch with dozens of her former charges who phone and email her with their news, and even some of the birth parents she’s tried to help over the years.She’s been known to go round to their houses to teach them cooking and parenting skills.“When Lydia went to sleep in her bunk bed, she never knew who would be there in the morning – maybe a new baby in a cot or maybe one of the other foster kids might have crept in during the night,” laughs Debbie, who is proud that her children accepted their foster siblings so graciously.There are currently six children living in this handsome 1930s detached house in Woodford.When I see the amount of food other people throw away, I can’t believe it.
One of them has lived there for 10 years.“There’s always chaos, but also a lot of love,” says Debbie, who admits she’s so chaotic she recently had a 55th birthday party complete with 55 balloons and candles before realising she was actually 54!
The large wooden farmhouse table at the centre of the homely kitchen is where TOWIE viewers see Debbie hand out advice and tissues to younger cast members, and where the whole family gathers for crisis meetings and noisy mealtimes. On the teapot sits a much-treasured knitted purple tea cosy, which her 12-year-old foster son bought for her with his pocket money on a school trip.“There were times at this table when I had two babies in high chairs at each end, a toddler and four, five and six-year-olds, and I’d be ladling pasta or minestrone soup out of a giant cauldron,” recalls Debbie, who comes from a big Italian-Irish family.
On the table today, there are signs of a busy family life: a little girl’s fluffy pink secret diary, a pile of shirts waiting to be ironed and tea and fruitcake from Fortnum & Mason. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of food we get through in this house.” To prove the point, she drags a cushion-sized 5kg bag of pasta out of the larder: “This won’t last the week.
Some still call her when they’re having a crisis.“Mum definitely goes above and beyond the role of foster parent – she’s exceptional and I’m so proud of her,” says Lydia.
“Reality shows come with this stigma that we don’t work hard and are just interested in partying and bitching, so I really hope we can show people the other side of our life.” Lydia hasn’t ruled out fostering one day, too.