I'm not sure what your experience of teenagers is. For those of us of a certain generation we find it difficult to shake off the image of Harry Enfield's Kevin the teenager character and his constant refrain of 'it's SO unfair'. Indeed, some of us may even remember behaving like Kevin more than once!
But as the depiction of Kevin showed, teenagers have somewhat of an undeserved negative reputation. I recently read this description of teenagers: 'A mammal found extensively throughout the planet, often clustered in groups in front of television sets. Thought to be a member of Homo Sapiens due to physical similarities, though social and emotional behaviour leads many researchers to consider teenagers to be a completely different species altogether. Very territorial.'
A double whammy of misunderstanding
Looked after children often carry a similar reputation - they're perceived as difficult to 'manage', disruptive, damaged and damaging. So teenagers in care face a double whammy of misunderstanding and misconception. As Kevin would say, 'That's so unfair.' It's unfair on them and their carers and simply doesn't reflect what I hear, in my role as chief executive at The Fostering Network, from those foster carers who look after fostered teenagers.
Across the UK 60 per cent of children in care are in their teens. That means we need more foster carers for teenagers than we do any other group of children. Our recent survey of fostering services - the organisations which recruit, train and support foster carers - shows that 97 per cent of all services identify foster carers for teenagers as a top recruitment priority.
Urgent need for more foster families
We have just released new figures showing that there is an urgent need for over 7,100 new foster families this year to ensure that fostered children and young people are placed with the best family for them at the first time of asking. A staggering 97 per cent of fostering services that responded to our survey told us that have a particular need to recruit foster carers for teenagers.
Without more foster carers for teenagers, young people have to be placed with foster carers who live far from their families, friends and schools and are being split up from their siblings. Other teenagers are being placed with foster carers who, despite being excellent carers, are outside of their comfort zone when it comes to caring for teenagers or may not have the specific skills or experience to meet the needs of a particular young person.
All this means that the stability of foster carer placements for teenagers is being undermined, which in turn affects their educational and other outcomes - a survey we carried out in 2015 found that 40% per cent of fostered teenagers were already living with their third foster family since coming into care.
While more can be done by fostering services to target the right sort of people to foster teenagers (youth workers, armed forces members, teachers and so on) we also need to challenge the misconceptions and stigma surrounding teenagers, and especially looked after teenagers.
Of course, caring for teenagers can be challenging - as many parents will tell you. Fostered teenagers, like all fostered children, may have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect, or may have witnessed domestic violence or substance misuse - and foster carers will need the skills to deal with this. That's why training and support for foster carers is so vital. But fostering teenagers can be incredibly rewarding and many foster carers wouldn't think of doing anything else.
Matthew, a foster carer of teenagers for five years, said:
'Seeing a young person enjoy their life will forever leave an impact on mine. I suspect most teenagers seem "difficult" at some point - that is what makes them teenagers - but there is a sense of achievement when you see a young person's life being transformed after a difficult beginning.
'I would encourage anyone thinking about fostering to come forward because there are so many more teenagers out there who need a secure home environment to help them stabilise their lives and move forward.'
Could you foster?
This Foster Care Fortnight (8-21 May) and beyond, we need many, many more Matthews up and down the UK. Could you be one of them?
Foster Care Fortnight is the UK's annual campaign, run by The Fostering Network, to raise the profile of fostering and encourage more people to foster. To find out more about becoming a foster carer, visit www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/couldyoufoster