More and more people in their 20s and early 30s are becoming foster carers. Here, younger Guardian readers explain why
Growing up in a fostering family, Natalie Wainwright always planned to become a foster parent. But she didn’t think she’d be doing it in her 20s.
Wainwright, who lives in Sussex, is at 23 one of the UK’s youngest foster carers – well below the average age of 45 to 54. After working full-time as a teacher for a year, she chose to go part-time, believing she could have more of an impact as a foster carer as she felt drawn towards looking after vulnerable children.
Wainwright says people are often surprised at her decision, thinking she should favour the relative freedom of her early 20s over looking after children. But she says she still enjoys meeting friends, listening to music and reading books on the beach – only now she’s doing this with her seven-year-old foster child.
“I sometimes wonder about what I would be doing if I wasn’t fostering, but missing out is not a worry for me,” she says. “There are so many experiences I’ve had because I’m fostering.”
Concern over her age has mainly come from older generations. “It’s been older people questioning my decision,” she says. “More people appreciated it of my generation. I think millennials are quite open in general; they’re not sticking to how things have always been done.”
Wainwright is one of a growing number of millennials choosing to foster or adopt children.
She was driven to do this as growing up in a household with looked-after children, she “came to understand very quickly that children in the care system have stories characterised by pain”.
She adds: “It was difficult to grapple with these things as a child, trying to understand the behaviour of the new sibling I had gained. But I realise now that those experiences cultivated a deeper sense of empathy and resilience in me.”
Connie Robertson-Gurie, 27, was driven by altruistic reasons to become a foster parent at the age of 24, after her eyes were opened to the challenges facing vulnerable children when volunteering abroad for a charity during her gap year. On returning, she and her partner realised “what a dire state we were already in at home”, with more than 70,000 children in care in England and Wales.
“The [care] system is broken,” Robertson-Gurie says. “People have now realised that we need to do something a little bit sooner and we need to be helping these children as children, rather than repair them as broken adults.”
For Robertson-Gurie, it’s up to young adults to do something. Foster care in the UK is facing a “looming crisis” because of a lack of government funding and support, the charity Fostering Network warned earlier this year. The sector is already facing a deficit of more than 8,000 carers, meaning children and young people can be put in “risky” and inappropriate accommodation.
A spokesperson for the charity called for increased recruitment of foster carers from all sections of society to reflect the children and young people coming into care in need of a foster family. Some 164 respondents to a Fostering Network survey in 2018 were between the ages of 18 and 34, compared with 106 in 2016.
Tact, the UK’s largest fostering and adoption charity, has seen a three-fold increase in millennials applying to foster this year, from 10 approved in the 23 to mid-30s age group in 2018, to 36 applicants undergoing assessment now.
“Our younger foster carers tell us that they see fostering as a tangible way of giving back to their community and making a positive difference. Tact has long recognised the skills and abilities that younger adults can bring to fostering,” says chief executive Andy Elvin.
“One couple who began fostering with Tact at just 22 had a teenager as their first placement, and they all agreed it worked really great because the smaller age gap meant they could relate well to each other, and that created a more trusting and open channel of communication.”
Age and perceived inexperience don’t have to hold people back. Legally, people over the age of 18 can become foster carers, and while the assessment process is understandably rigorous, people can consider fostering as long as they are in stable accommodation with a spare room, and enough financial security.
“I was honest with my social worker about how I felt inexperienced,” Wainwright adds, “but she said in some ways it’s better I hadn’t been a parent because a lot of the time people have to relearn a way of parenting, because it’s a different, more therapeutic approach.”
Krish Kandiah, a foster carer who runs the fostering and adoption charity Home for Good, has called for a “radically different approach” to recruitment. He wants people of all ages and demographics to consider it, in order to reflect the varying needs and culture of looked-after children.
When the Guardian asked readers if they had considered adoption or fostering as a millennial, Rebecca, 23, told us she was driven by ethical and environmental concerns to foster or adopt over having birth children. “I have always wanted to become an adoptive parent – [my family] fostered my sister when she was a few months old, and adopted her when she was two.
“Over the last few years I have begun to educate myself on the ecological climate crisis that we are facing, and have made a number of changes in my own life to reflect that – going vegan, package-free, giving up fast fashion.
“I’m not sure if I can reconcile that with the knowledge that I would be bringing an extra human into the world who would consume resources, and also that I would be bringing a child into the world who will have to deal with the consequences of our over-consumption.”
Robertson-Gurie adds: “The world is changing and we need more now in terms of the younger generation stepping up. Millennials think we’re eco-warriors and can change the world. We like to think we’re doing our bit to repair what the generation before us has left behind, and [fostering] gives you the perfect opportunity to do that. We have the future in our hands. We can make a change and I think that’s the most appealing part about fostering.”
Do you work with children and young people who want to change public services, or give voice to the experiences of other children and young people?
We're looking for young people aged 13 - 21 to lead the next phase of the ChildFair State Inquiry: research and development of a new vision for the welfare state by children and young people themselves, with support from a sounding board of policy experts.
This team of Young Leaders will be supported by the brilliant Leaders Unlocked to design and deliver the research project, engaging a total of around 2,500 children and young people from the communities they live in.
They'll be able to challenge issues in areas like education, housing and public spaces, and come up with creative proposals for putting children's needs at the heart of local and national policy and practice.
The team will:
No formal experience is required! We'd like to hear from children and young people from as wide a range of backgrounds and life experiences as possible, and Leaders Unlocked staff can discuss with you what each young person's needs are and how we can support them to participate.
All reasonable expenses relating to the project will be covered for young people. We will also cover the costs of chaperone travel for under-18s and participants with a need for additional support.
If you work in a setting where you feel it would be more appropriate to host a research session by the Young Leaders once they've designed their plan, or otherwise discuss a more tailored activity to enable children and young people you work with to contribute their views, we would also love to hear from you.
This will be a huge journey for everyone involved – for the young people who want to start shaping the state they live in; for the professionals who will hear what children want from their schools, hospitals, streets and housing developments; and for the welfare state, which is strangled by marketisation, managerialism and austerity and desperately needs a new direction.
- Read the full description of the work and the role here, and download materials you can circulate to practitioners and young people themselves.
The deadline for applications is Friday 27th September.
Contact Chloë with any questions about the overall project, or Anna with questions about the Young Leader role.
One woman shares what you need to know if you're considering fostering, too.
Foster carers can fall into a stereotype: middle-aged couples, perhaps retired, perhaps with kids of their own, who are looking to nurture another child.
And the stereotype isn’t untrue. Statistics show the average age of people willing to foster is 45-55. New applicants are, generally, those whose kids have left home – and who have made the decision to dedicate the next chapter of their lives to taking in some of society’s most vulnerable children.
But there’s a type of foster carer who rarely gets mentioned. She’s young, single and in the prime of her life and career. One such woman spoke candidly to HuffPost UK about taking on this role and how rewarding it has been for her.
Veronica, a mother of one from east London, decided to foster more than 10 years ago. Now 46, she has fostered four children long-term and many more for shorter periods. Here she tells her story.
Veronica says: I didn’t fit the stereotype of a ‘typical’ foster carer. I was a single parent who worked full-time – and still went out and socialised. My son and I had a great relationship when he was growing up, but when he left for university at 18, my house was suddenly very quiet. Gone was the hustle and bustle of family life, disputes about housework, music blaring and his friends coming over. In their place was a sense of tranquillity and calmness.
At first I loved it. I was 36, single and had the freedom to come and go as I pleased. But the novelty soon wore off and I felt like I needed to fill a void. It was only then that I really started to think about fostering.
I’d always been interested in it, but thought it was something I’d consider when I was older. The urge to take the plunge and go for it spiralled and, after few months, I decided to look into it properly.
The Process Took Around Five Months
I contacted my local authority to find out whether, as a single woman who worked full-time, I would even be eligible. Invited to interview, they questioned me about my interest in fostering, my skillset and my family history.
I didn’t know what to expect – but I was told soon after that they’d happily welcome me as a carer. I was over the moon. I was allocated a social worker to work closely with me and overall, the process took around five months.
From the onset, I always knew my preference would be to foster older children. I had recently gone through those years with my son, so my mindset was still in that phase of parenting. And I felt I could give more to a teenager. They’re often seen as the age group who are ‘difficult’ to place – problematic, or the ones that cannot be moulded. But I was ready for the challenge.
Even though my son had left home, he was involved from the start. He was interviewed as part of the recruitment process – and was happy to welcome a child into our family when he was visiting from uni.
I Worried I Wouldn’t Be Able To Handle It
My first placement was nerve-wracking. At the last minute, I found myself worrying I wouldn’t be able to handle challenging behaviour in my house – I’d heard horror stories about what happens when fostering goes wrong.
The first young person who came to live with me was 17. English was her second language, so a lot of our relationship was built around teaching her about different cultures. I got her into education to build on her language skills, and the placement went really well. She felt “safe and secure” with me, she said.
I learned very quickly that children of that age have complex needs – anything from serious trust issues to being wary of authority. I was told beforehand that many had witnessed the breakdown of their family, or had victims of serious mental, physical or sexual trauma. With each child, the situation has to be handled sensitively.
Some of the children – especially those from an eastern European background – had never met a black person before, let alone a black person who was born and raised in the UK (me). It was great to dispel the negative stereotypes a lot of these young people held about people of colour.
All the while, my birth son would play an active role. When he was home, he would take it upon himself to make time for the foster children, talk to them and this turned out to be very productive and beneficial to all of us.
I Can’t Deny There Were Struggles
One of the hardest things about fostering is getting too attached – and I learned this the hard way. One teenager was placed with me for 14 months, and it took a long time to build up a bond. She was young and had been through a lot, so found it very hard to trust people. But it just worked, and she stayed with me right up until she was 18.
For her birthday we threw her a small party and she was so happy. As an adult, we both knew she was on the next journey in her life and, a few months after her birthday, she was given her own place.
It was difficult to see her go, it really was, but I was so proud of how far she had come – and what she had achieved in such a short space of time. After she left, it dawned on me how close we got and forced me to make the decision, from then on, to only take on short-term placements. I still see her from time to time, and she always tells me that she has very good memories of her time with me.
Going forward, I knew I had to be wary of getting too attached. I started to tell each foster child I was there to prepare them for their future – it was my way of ensuring they didn’t get too attached, and it protected me emotionally as well.
You Remember The Laughs And Tears
It’s been a journey – and it still is. But I don’t regret a thing. Becoming a foster carer is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I’ve met and nurtured some amazing young people, preparing them for the next chapter in their lives. I’ve established great relationships with them, too.
In the past few years, I’ve started doing much shorter placements. The longest a teenager is placed with me now is about two weeks – and these are emergency placements only. I’ll get a phone call asking if I can take on a child and often the child will arrive with nothing – just the clothes on their back and a sheet of paper with their details.
There are always essentials in my house now: toothbrushes, underwear, and nightclothes. The next working day we will go shopping for a list of things they need. I make them feel safe and secure until we have the placement meeting and, once that has gone ahead, the teenager will be placed with a long-term foster family within a week.
It’s been 10 years since I made the decision to become a foster carer to teens: and I look back now and remember both the laughs and the tears. Changing perceptions and teaching young people about acceptance is a positive and powerful thing – and one of the things I am most proud of when it comes to fostering.
As told to Michelle Martin.
If you are interested in Foster Caring, contact your local council or a fostering agency in your area for more information.
Stella, a Southwark foster carer shares her experiences of opening her home to vulnerable children
Stella has been fostering for nearly 18 years and has looked after over 60 children. Here she shares an insight into what it takes to open your home to a vulnerable children.
“If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me about the children I’ve cared for, over 60 children, I can tell you each ones date of birth and why they came to me. I can tell you that, but ask me what I had for breakfast and I can’t remember! That’s how they are to me. I always want to know what they are doing and how they are, even after they leave me. This Christmas we had over 20 of our children back. This time they came back with their partners and their children. Seeing them now and remembering them how they were- that’s the reward.
“Over the years I’ve cared for unaccompanied minors. When they arrive they can’t speak English and then later I’ll hear them calling 'Auntie, auntie I’m going out!' I cannot explain the feeling to hear that! When they first arrive I’ll buy a good dictionary and we used the phone to translate what each of us was saying. My grandma used to say, ‘Food is the heart of the child!’. It brought us together because we are in the kitchen together and we learnt things from them too. By listening to the child about what the type of food they want to eat for example it helps them feel more settled.
“One night a one boy showed me his home in the Middle East and how it had been destroyed. It took a long time for him to trust me and show me this. He told me about how his home and family were gone and everything he had been through since. When he arrived he was very anxious and kept saying he had a headache. We took him to the doctors but the headache medication didn’t work. I could see how on edge he was, on the bus he would always stand by the door ready to get off. I spoke to a Southwark social worker and was referred to Care Link. We had a very nice person who worked with his to get him the help he needed. People said to me ‘why do you keep him?’ but we developed a relationship with him, we couldn’t tell him to go. This experience helped me feel more confident in opening my door to someone else with mental health problems.
“I always say, fostering is not just a young person or a child coming into your home and you providing a roof and a safe environment: its love. Especially with teenagers, they need someone to love them. You show them this tiny bit of love will help a teenager go a long way.
“The best thing about fostering is seeing the child thrive in their own way, not comparing them to anyone else. To see them out there, being independent and coping with life- that’s the reward.”
The Together Trust’s very own Wendy Coomer has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday 2019 Honours List.
Wendy has volunteered for over 22 years in various governance roles, supporting the Together Trust in its vision to see people thrive because they are valued within their communities. During this time, she was chairman of the board of trustees for five years until 2018. Wendy has been awarded her MBE for services to young people in Cheshire.
Wendy first became involved with the Together Trust as a manager in one of the charity’s special schools in Stockport. In 2012, she was chairman of Bridge College’s governing body when it moved to state of the art facilities in East Manchester, and was a crucial part of the team who lead the campaign to move the charity’s specialist further education college to Manchester. Today Bridge College supports over 80 young people with profound learning difficulties and complex health needs.
“Her support has been crucial over the years and Wendy has been a loyal advocate for the young people we support. Her Honour is well deserved.” Mark Lee, Chief Executive
Although Wendy has now retired from the board of trustees, she continues to support the work of the Together Trust as a volunteer member of its fostering panel and supporting people subgroup.
Chief Executive, Mark Lee, commented: “Wendy has made an enormous and valued contribution to the Together Trust and we are delighted that this hard work and commitment has been formally recognised.
“Her support has been crucial over the years and Wendy has been a loyal advocate for the young people we support. Her Honour is well deserved.”
"This has always been important to me and I hope to continue supporting and volunteering at the Together Trust for many years to come.” Wendy Coomer
Wendy said, “I am surprised, delighted and honoured to receive this MBE. It has been a privilege to work with a fantastic group of staff, volunteers and young people over many years. The team at the Together Trust continue to support me thus enabling me to champion care and independence for people with disabilities, complex needs, autism and their families.
"This has always been important to me and I hope to continue supporting and volunteering at the Together Trust for many years to come.”
Fostering News: Foster carers are used to the insults, but it’s rewarding to take in children who are hungry and neglected
The girl I have in placement is suffering from chronic low self-esteem and in her worst moments crumples on the floor in a heap, which is very distressing to see. Today I spend three hours in the garden talking to her, going over everything she thinks about herself and disproving it. There are tears and snot everywhere. This used to happen three or four times a day, but now it’s just twice a week. Since being with me for almost a year, her school attendance has gone up from 50% to 100%, and doing better academically has raised her self-esteem.
I spend the morning comforting another foster care worker who is concerned for the wellbeing of two children who were recently taken out of her care. She took them to see their family and then got a call saying they weren’t coming back to her again. She tells me she asked the social worker how they would cope without their belongings, which had all been left at her house, and the social worker replied that she hadn’t really thought about it.
I help another foster carer bleach marks made by a permanent marker off her bathroom walls.
My placement is in tears when I pick her up from school, so I spend most of the evening trying to help her deal with some very complex trauma. I get a call late at night from the local authority saying there is a teenager who has beaten up members of his family and they have refused to let him stay at home tonight. I wait for them to bring him to my house but I get a call a few hours later saying he has refused to go into foster care.
I meet up with a support group for foster care workers that we have set up. We all feel unsupported by our local authority. They don’t pick up the phone, so we can’t get hold of our support workers when we need them. When we do get to speak to someone, they are often young and inexperienced, and have not had the adequate training.
I don’t blame the people who work in local authorities, they have suffered huge cuts. Because of this we are, for the most part, alone with children who have complex needs.
I’m so tired. A boy was dropped off at my house at 1am. He arrived with absolutely nothing so after tucking him in, I went to the 24-hour supermarket to buy him a school uniform. He wakes up at 5am wanting to put the TV on. I give him a long wash as it’s obvious he hasn’t had a shower or bath for some time.
As I arrive with him at the school gates, friends of his parents shout abuse at me. One of the mothers screams in my face, telling me that the child was safe with his father. As I walk back to my car, they hurl insults at me.
I arrange to pick him up slightly earlier from school, so he doesn’t witness that abuse. I’m used to the insults, it’s something you learn to cope with.
My new foster child slept well last night, so I did as well. Children are little sponges and soak up their new environment – he wants to know and do everything. This is the really rewarding part of my job: taking in children who are hungry and neglected, cleaning them up, buying them uniforms and sending them to school happy. Seeing him smiling this morning makes it all worth it.
We are so excited to announce that Voices, our creative writing competition for children in care and young care leavers is back for 2019 and we are open for all your incredible entries until midnight on 10 February 2019.
Find out how to enter Voices 2019 here
Voices national writing competition
If you are a child or young person up to 25 years old and have experience of the care system, our annual creative writing competition is for you. It's designed to promote a positive image by showcasing young people’s creativity and improving understanding of their experiences.
The theme for 2019's competition is 'Growing up' and you could win a tablet device and up to £100 in shopping vouchers. Shortlisted entries are also showcased on a special app featuring writing from children in care.
Read our Voices 2018 winners and shortlisted entries here
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Local authority children's services departments and schools must increase their focus on educational outcomes of looked-after children, the government has said.
An interim report of a government review on the issue concludes that poor educational outcomes for children in need are not inevitable, but agencies supporting them are not ambitious enough.
"Our findings through the review so far, provide an assessment of why the educational outcomes of children in need are so poor, and what is needed to improve them," the report states.
"Without delay, the leaders and practitioners who work with children in need - in schools, social care, early help, health, police, and beyond - can start to put these findings into practice.
"This is not a change in direction, but an injection of aspiration; safety will always come first but is not an end goal."
The report contains findings on how professionals who work with vulnerable children can better identify children in need, understand the impact of traumatic experiences, and what schools and children's services can do to help them achieve more educationally.
The government plans to support professionals to do this by producing more evidence on what methods work when trying to improve educational outcomes for children in need.
Part of this will come from an already announced pilot project being managed by the What Works Centre for Children's Social Care, involving the co-location of social workers in schools from spring 2019.
It has also asked the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to analyse its existing evidence to assess the impact of interventions for children in need from the start of next year.
The DfE said results from another EEF scheme - the Home Learning Environment trials in the North of England - should also be available from autumn 2019.
And the government has committed to expanding its longitudinal dataset and analysing how child, family and school level factors make a difference to outcomes over time.
DfE statistics show that attainment for looked-after children is much lower than for non-looked after children. However, it is slightly higher than the attainment of children in need.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: "There is no reason why we should have a lower aspiration for a child in need of help or protection than we do for their peers.
"Whether it is making sure a child has a consistent and trusted member of staff or taking the time to speak to a child the morning after they have witnessed domestic abuse, I hope this practical advice can help those leaders in schools and social care, alongside our hardworking teachers and social workers, understand how we can collectively do to more to support these children."
Sam Royston, director of policy and research at The Children's Society, said that while addressing the challenges children in need faced in education is important, the government also needed to help councils support young people's health, housing, employment and safeguarding needs, as well as consider extending key services to the age of 25.
"Vulnerable young people who have had difficult childhoods need better help as they prepare for adult life and too often, the help they do get falls away when they turn 18 - even though their difficulties do not," said Royston.
"It is crucial that the government also looks at what support children in need require beyond the school gates."
The charity also wants the government to consider making the pupil premium available for all children in need.
Plans to increase support for children in care featured in the Conservative Party manifesto for the June 2017 snap general election. The findings in the report were based on evidence submitted in March by more than 600 school and social care professionals.
Following the publication of the Care experienced children and young people report by the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly for Wales, Jackie Sanders, communications and public affairs director at The Fostering Network said: ‘We welcome the recommendations of this child-focused report and its concentration on ensuring that there is an emphasis on improving stability and outcomes for care experienced children. We also welcome the focus on prevention and investment in edge of care services and CAMHS.
‘We are pleased to see that the report recommends developing a set of indicators to assess the outcomes of care experienced children as this will enable an assessment of the value for money of various interventions and activities and allow better comparisons across geographies.
‘One of things we raised with the committee through our evidence was the lack of end of placement reviews, which is statutory requirement in Wales. We believe end of placement reviews are key to improving stability and to ensuring the voice and wishes of the child are heard. We therefore welcome the recommendation that the Welsh Government should evaluate how often end of placement reviews take place and how effective they are, with a particular focus on the impact on looked after children.
‘We also raised the funding and implementation of When I am Ready arrangements which allow a young person in foster care to remain with their former foster carer beyond the age of 18. We would have liked to have seen a recommendation specifically linked to When I am Ready. Recommendation 7 of the report does suggest that the Welsh Government commission a review of spending on looked after children, but we are concerned that When I am Ready will get lost within this review and that the other implementation issues will not be addressed in such a review.’
Almost half of four- to seven-year-olds in care had not had the reason they were in care fully explained to them, while a third of eight- to 11-year-olds also hadn't
Almost half of four- to seven-year-olds in care have not had the reason for them being there fully explained to them, a survey of more than 2,600 children has found.
The survey, carried out by Coram Voice and the University of Bristol and published as part of the Our Lives, Our Care research series, found a third of eight- to 11-year-olds likewise felt they hadn’t had the reason they were in care explained to them. Among 11-18 year olds meanwhile, 18% hadn’t.
“I would like to know more about why I am in care and why I am not living with my mum,” one child was quoted as saying by the survey.
Throughout the study, respondents were broken down into school ages, four to seven (key stage 1), eight to 11 (key stage 2) and 11-18 (secondary school).
The report said one in five of four- to seven-year-olds didn’t know who their social worker was, but that these younger children were still the most likely group to trust social workers.
More than a quarter (27%) of 11- to 18-year-olds had had three or more social workers “in the past year”. Trust in social workers was nonetheless high – 88% or above – among all children surveyed, researchers found.
Responding to the findings, Brigid Robinson, managing director at Coram Voice, said it was “concerning” so many children interviewed “lack a stable relationship with their social worker”.
‘Lives are improving’
Professor Julie Selwyn CBE, director of the University of Bristol’s Hadley Centre for adoption and foster care studies, said: “While there is still much more local authorities can do to improve services, it is important to recognise that most looked-after children and young people felt that their lives were improving, felt satisfied and were positive about their futures.”
Selwyn referenced wellbeing scores from the survey which, while identifying groups of vulnerable young people who needed additional support, represented a positive picture for young people in care.
Of 11- to 18-year-olds, 15% had low wellbeing, while 34% reported “very high” life satisfaction scores, compared with 36% of 11- to 17-year-olds in the general child population in England.
All in all, more than four in five (82%) of children and young people who participated said they felt life was getting better – though 59% of those in the two older age groups said they often worried about their feelings and behaviour.
Selwyn said that young people with levels of low wellbeing need to be identified and additional support provided to ensure their self-esteem improves and positive relationships can be built with adults.
“Those with low wellbeing were disconnected – lacked friends, had no trusted adult in their lives and felt unsettled and unhappy,” she said.
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