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.