On the day Bryleigh Flack was due to welcome her first foster daughter, she was terrified. For weeks she had been going over the various ways this meeting might go. Social services had sent some information about her 13-year-old placement’s biological family, but the report included nothing about the type of person she might be. Will she be chatty? Will she be anxious? Does she like Chinese takeaway?
There was another worry too: at 22, Bryleigh was about to become one of the youngest first-time foster parents in the country.
The set of criteria to become a foster carer in the UK is relatively straightforward: you must have a spare bedroom in your house, you must be over 21 and you and your social network must be DBS approved. Bryleigh and her partner Grace ticked all the boxes. And they were about to be given care of a teenager.
On the first night together, they let their new daughter, Sam*, pick her favourite takeaway and watched Madagascar on the sofas. Eventually, Sam fell asleep in front of the TV. “We just realised then, she must have been so worried and exhausted these past few weeks,” says Bryleigh. “Even more so than us.”
Despite the couple’s weeks of preparation, friends were worried about Bryleigh and Grace’s decision to become foster parents so young. “When you decide to do something like this at my age, you face a lot of judgement, especially if you’re taking on teenagers,” says Bryleigh. “But I actually understand what it’s like to be a teenager. It wasn’t that long ago for me.”
There are more than 70,000 foster carers in the UK and the vast majority are over 50. But the dynamics are changing: in the last year alone, thousands of zoomers (Generation Z) and millennials have decided to join this ageing cohort.
“We’ve certainly seen more twenty- to thirty-somethings coming through now than we have done previously,” says Andy Elvin, chief executive of foster care charity Tact. In 2020, 1,480 foster carers were in their twenties, while 4,240 were under 35 – a notable rise from several years ago.
For foster care agencies, the rise of millennial and zoomer parents is a godsend. “Often children coming into the care system have lots of energy and having younger foster carers can be really beneficial in meeting these needs,” says Kevin Williams, chief executive of the Fostering Network. “We have a shortage of foster carers in the UK. Millennial carers could really help fill the gap.”
As the age profile of carers is changing, so is the way they communicate about what they’re doing. A quick search of #fosterparent on TikTok will show you over 500 million views’ worth of foster care videos. From tips on dealing empathetically with the various emotional hurdles foster children face to myth-busting stereotypes, thousands of young people are using the platform to advocate for a new perspective on foster care.
“I think a lot of millennials are realising that we actually need to do something to step in and help the next lot of kids,” says Bryleigh. “We’re a very hyper-aware generation and we know the sort of mistakes that our parents have made raising us, so we have more of an activist view on things,” she adds.
Charities representing foster parents are struggling to pin down a single reason for the increase in younger carers, but the pandemic may have a role to play. “It has really highlighted the primacy of caring professionals and just how important they are,” says Elvin.
“It’s still early to say in terms of the numbers, but I do think that lockdown has made people think about their lifestyle and their lifestyle choices,” agrees Williams. “I think the people who were interested in a career with children were looking and thinking, ‘What opportunities are out there?’”
If you choose to become a foster parent you never know who you are going to get. For some millennials, this is part of the attraction. Marie, 29, from Yorkshire, has fostered a whole range of placements. Some were groups of siblings who needed to stay with her for years; some were children who arrived on their own and stayed for just a few days. “Our last placement we had for two years and they left in March. When they came to us they were four, six and seven. Watching them grow for two years, it’s just amazing. Like the children that left us were not the children that came,” she says.
Marie and her husband Braden became foster parents three years ago, when Marie was 26. Braden’s parents are also foster carers, so the pair were well aware of the sacrifices they would be making. “You do get pushed and the kids are going to test you. You have a honeymoon period, when everybody moves in. It’s brilliant for the first few weeks and then they push you. They’ll say things because they want to test you, to see how much you care about them. They are testing to see if you’re going to stick around.”
It isn’t easy to navigate these complex emotional battlefields but Marie says things get more straightforward with time. “It’s about figuring them out and doing it in the right way. You have to let them know: ‘You know what? We do care about you.’”
There are other challenges to consider. Marie’s second placement was a five-month-old baby. “I haven’t got any kids of my own so it was a bit of a shock. The first time I changed a nappy was in front of two social workers, so it was a bit scary but you adapt very, very quickly,” she says.
Eventually, the baby returned to her biological mother days after her first birthday. Marie was there for her first walk, her first shoes, her first teeth popping through. “She was a lovely baby. It’s tricky when it comes to the end, but you walk away knowing you did what’s best for them,” she says.
The couple work with their foster children’s biological parents before they are reunited with them. “When it gets close to reunification the kids have a lot of sleepovers. We show Mum our ways and she shows us hers, just so it’s an easy transition.”
None of the foster carers I spoke to considered themselves stereotypical twenty-somethings. “I think there’s this big misconception about people my age,” says Bryleigh. “People think we love going out, partying and drinking. I think you get pigeonholed but it’s so far from the lifestyle I’ve ever had,” she adds.
“My lifestyle hasn’t changed too much now I’m a foster parent, if I’m honest,” says Sally Ann, from the Midlands. When she was assigned her first placement, aged 26, she was worried the small age gap would be a problem. “She was 15 years old and I just didn’t know how she would take to me. I thought because I was young she would just completely have no respect for me, or maybe we wouldn’t form an appropriate relationship.” But Sally Ann found the opposite to be true. “I think we actually had more of an understanding. I felt like we were much more open with each other and were able to talk through problems, whereas that might not have been the case had I been older.”
One thing that unites all of the young people I spoke to was a desire to break away from old-fashioned parenting styles. “I truly believe that some parenting styles are so dated,” says Bryleigh. “The strength in younger foster carers is their empathy. The more I can show the child that I’m there with them through whatever they do, [the easier it is to prove] that I’m not going to sort of pull the reins in as soon as they do something bad. I remember what it was like to be a teenager; I did silly things too.”
For Bryleigh, Marie and Sally Ann, the most surprising thing was how easily their foster placements fit into their families. After six months, Sally Ann’s first foster child became a bridesmaid at her wedding. “I actually have a book that’s got all the children I have ever looked after with a photo of them, just so I always remember them,” she says. “It sounds silly but I have this dream of a big family birthday party, maybe for my 40th, and there are all the foster children there that have been part of my family. That would be really nice.”
At 23, Bryleigh’s foster care journey is just getting started. “It’s difficult, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “Especially teenagers. But I think it’s the most rewarding thing you can do by far.
“You could be having the worst day but when you go to pick them up from school, you have to sort of put your parent’s hat on and be ready to listen to their day. It’s really crazy because you are there to make a difference to their life, but you don’t realise just how much they add value to yours.”