"I remember one time we were at the zoo, and this random woman asked me if my son was 'the way he was' because I was such a young mom. I was so shocked, I asked her to repeat herself, but I think she suddenly realized what she had said and got really embarrassed and walked away." Gina, from the seaside town of Margate, UK, has been a foster carer for Ben*, an autistic and epileptic child with multiple complex needs, for the last nine months. He is 12 years old. She is 23.
A child is taken into care every 20 minutes in the UK, and there is a constant and desperate need for thousands more foster families, particularly to home disabled children and teenagers. There are currently 55,000 foster families in the UK, but young carers are a rarity. A recent survey published by the Fostering Network found that, of the 2,530 foster carers who responded, just 4.2 percent were aged 18-34, compared to 80.3 percent who were aged between 45 and 54 years old.
In some ways, this is unsurprising. Kevin Williams, chief executive of the Fostering Network, says that lifestyle and financial restraints can make fostering trickier for people in their twenties. "Relatively few 25 year olds have a spare room or the financial independence which fostering requires," he says, "but age, in itself, should not be a barrier."
Gina believes that her youth has actually helped her with caring for her boy. "There's no way I'd have been able to look after him if I was 50 years old. I mean, physically, I just couldn't do it." Both Gina and her husband Michael had already worked professionally with challenging children for years before they began the process to become foster carers. But even they found the first few months with Ben tough. "He was completely non-verbal when he got to us and could only communicate through Picture Exchange Communication," she explains, referring to the communication aid commonly used by children with autism.
Ben has had moments when he physically lashed out at the couple, but Gina is quick to dismiss the impact of these incidents. "I think the violence is hard for everyone, but we wouldn't have been given a kid with those needs and those challenges if we didn't know how to handle it. He's also only about four foot tall, so he was never going to hurt me badly."
Because Ben's needs are so complex, it is unlikely that he will ever live on his own and will stay with Gina and Michael for the foreseeable future. They're even planning to adapt their house to accommodate him. Despite the responsibility of becoming a long-term foster carer, Gina has never doubted her choice. "For us, it's the best decision we've ever made," she says. "There are more young people who would be willing to foster but I think they just don't know that they can. People think you need to be married, or heterosexual, or own your home or something, and none of that is true."
Thirty-year-old Amy from Essex, UK has been fostering for five years and currently cares for three sisters—aged 14, 17, and 20—as well as housing a vulnerable young mother and her baby on a short-term basis. She says that being so close in age to her foster children helps her understand them better. "It seems like everyone fosters when they're older," she explains. "Obviously it's good because there's a shortage of carers, but I think they're coming from a different perspective. There's only ten years between me and my eldest girl, and the older we get, the smaller that gap feels."
Amy's parents have cared for disabled children for as long as she can remember, and growing up she was "always the birth child in a foster family environment," an experience that encouraged her to follow in their footsteps. She was just 24 when her and her husband began the process of becoming a carer.
One common preconception of young carers is that they foster because they can't have kids of their own. Amy became pregnant 18 months after the girls first moved in, which came as a surprise to some of her acquaintances. "I think lots of people thought we couldn't have children because we'd taken in the girls. People were really shocked—they had just assumed that I was fostering because I couldn't get pregnant."
He was five when he came to us but was very violent. He'd think nothing of trying to kick me down the stairs.
Having a young child of your own while caring for three teenagers might sound complicated, but Amy insists things have been mostly smooth sailing. Similarly, when the young mother—who is only 22 herself—moved in five weeks ago, the girls responded well. "They were quite anxious before she arrived, but it's been great. The girls have really stepped up and taken on more responsibility around the house."
Amy is aware that her positive experiences with the sisters are somewhat unusual. The situation with the first child she cared for was very different. "He was five when he came to us but was very violent. He'd think nothing of trying to kick me down the stairs." After 18 months with Amy, the boy was moved into a secure home for boys. Despite the problems they had, it's clear that Amy still misses him. "I didn't want him to leave, it wasn't my choice. It was really hard to say goodbye."
Rachael, a 27 year old from Sheffield, UK, has only ever had fostered children with violent tendencies. Both the boys she looks after—David•, aged 10, and 14-year-old Michael*—have significant behavioral issues and came to her from other foster carers who could no longer manage them. The youngest one arrived when Rachael was 24 and has now been living with her and her husband for almost four years. His progress may seem slow, but from her perspective they are beginning to see positive changes. "He's not assaulted anyone since Christmas, which is good, and he's now in mainstream school and doing well academically. He doesn't swear in the street anymore and he remembers to put pants on most days—it sounds like such a small thing, but it's not."
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She acknowledges that dealing with the boys has been tough at times. "Particularly as a female carer, it's been challenging. When they're being aggressive and violent towards you, it's quite hard to take. You want to be the mother, you want to be loved and have that warm bond, but when it's not there it can difficult."
Rachael's mother has been fostering for almost 20 years, and although Rachael and her husband Sean had always intended to become carers, their initial plan was to have children of their own first. When the couple were told they might have significant problems getting pregnant, they signed up to a fostering agency that specialized in children who couldn't be placed by the local authority and who needed therapeutic intervention, which is how they came to care for David and Michael.
The boys will now stay with them for the long term until they're ready to live independently. Rachael says she would still like to have children of her own but, having met another foster carer who is currently pregnant, now has doubts about how a baby of her own would fit in. "It'd be incredibly difficult at the moment, because of the level of need these two boys have got."
In some ways the challenges, and rewards, of fostering children are the same, whatever age you are. "Children who are placed into foster homes can be unhappy, distrustful or angry and may suffer the consequences of abuse and neglect," says John Simmonds OBE, who is the director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF, an organization that supports adoption agencies. "Foster carers must be fully prepared for these challenges and be properly equipped to care for children who may have had difficult experiences."
What's more important than age, however, is having the emotional strength, patience, and understanding required to open your home to those who need it. As Simmonds puts it, "The emotional rewards of fostering, seeing children and young people thrive in your care, are equally relevant—whatever the carer's age."
* Children's names have been changed.