Last year, my wife and I found ourselves without a foster placement, when a supervising social worker with our local council called to check in on us. We expressed surprise that we hadn’t been contacted recently about any placements and declared an interest in fostering unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, given that we had both worked in humanitarian contexts. She said the placement team would call us right back; a 15-year-old boy had arrived in a lorry the day before.
They knew next to nothing about him except that he didn’t speak any English. There were no other carers in the county who could take him. The only other placement they could find would be hours away from his social worker. If we took him for a few weeks, they could at least do the initial meetings and get to know him, and he could do a local orientation programme.
We didn’t expect to foster a teenage boy. As a same-sex couple in our early 30s, we’re on the younger side for foster carers and have few friends with teenagers. We’re happy taking pre-teen or younger children. In an earlier placement, we had looked after a 12-year-old asylum-seeking girl for a week’s respite. But a 15-year-old boy? Honestly, the stereotype can be a bit scary. And how would he react to two female carers, coming from a culture often described as patriarchal and homophobic? Still, we said yes. He arrived within the hour.
We read up on his cultural background and what makes unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people feel welcome, but we wished our social worker had handed us a guidebook to fostering teenagers. Yes, there were cultural and language barriers. But our conflicts were more about boundaries, nutrition, reckless cycling, the overwhelming scent of his body spray, friendships and the Nike Air trainers he wanted – in other words, typical teenage behaviour.
Another thing they didn’t tell us is that fostering a teenager could be that fun! We played bumper cars, card games and football. He appreciated that we bought his favourite foods and cared about his interests. We created jokes, particularly around language. We laughed so much. So much.
He stayed for two months and then moved on to a family in town, who could speak his native language, for long-term foster care. It was hard to see him go. He still comes back to visit now and then. He came with one of his friends to our neighbourhood Halloween party, and they loved pretending to scare the four-year-olds – and the four-year-olds loved pretending to be scared by them.
The UK faces both a lack of foster carers for teenagers in general and a lack of carers for unaccompanied asylum-seeking teenage boys in particular. As of March 2016, the number of looked-after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children rose 54% to 4,210 children, representing 6% of the looked-after children population. This was before the increase in young people arriving from Calais. It is a small number compared with the number of refugees and asylum-seekers globally.
Many of these young people are placed in semi-independent living, particularly if they are 16 or older. But more carers are needed to allow these teenagers to thrive, to grow up and to work through their traumas in a supportive family environment.
No two teenagers are the same. But they are all young people, and they often face similar challenges: separation from family, risk-taking, puberty, building relationships, boundaries and preparing for independence.
Last year, I also switched jobs and became a researcher at the Rees Centre for research in fostering and education at Oxford University. My colleagues, led by John Coleman, have compiled the advice of researchers, practitioners and foster carers into a new handbook, Teenagers in Foster Care, to assist foster carers like my wife and I. It is available online for free, and covers education, resources and support for foster carers, sexual health and wellbeing, migrant children in foster care, and access to post-care support.
One young person featured in the handbook observed that adults “judge you by your age; they don’t judge you by the person you are”. The young man who lived with us faced common challenges for a teenager, but he also challenged the stereotypes and is a courteous, delightful young person. Fostering him was a rewarding experience. We feel we can now see him for the person he is. He may be able to scare a four-year-old, but he cannot scare me.