How fostering teenagers with Islington Council can transform their lives and enrich your own
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“With teenagers there’s a lot of banter, and you can really establish a relationship. You have to trust teenagers to make their own decisions.”
When she was a child, Debbie May’s neighbour was a foster carer. She was someone Debbie always admired, and was her inspiration to take up the role. Since then, she has cared for more than 15 young people from Islington over the last two decades, and it was a decision, she says, that has enriched her life.
“One thing to remember is that there’s no easy age group,” she explains. “You can be up all night with a baby, or at a police station with a teenager.
“The difference is, with teenagers there’s a lot of banter, and you can really establish a relationship. You have to trust teenagers to make their own decisions.
“We treat them as our family. When they come in my house, whatever they’ve done is left at my doorstep. It won’t work to lecture them.”
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While some of the young people her and her husband Terry have cared for were only looked after for a matter of weeks, one boy was with them for 10 years, from the age of nine.
“He’s 28 now and we still see him,” she says fondly.
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Living outside London, in Norfolk, has meant taking young people from Islington and caring for them in the countryside. While this can be a culture shock at first, involvement in local sports clubs and community groups can quickly help young people to settle.
“They’ve got such low self-esteem when they come into care. A big part of the role is re-building that self-esteem, and letting them take it at their own pace.
“We don’t put them in school for two or three weeks after they arrive; we let them settle.”
Providing support, therefore, is essential, she explains.
“A lot of these children haven’t been to school much. One young lad struggled with maths, so we got a tutor in. After a couple of months he could sit in a class and put his hand up. That made him feel really good.”
Entering a supportive environment, where personal development is encouraged, is also identified as important by 20-year-old Filmon. He went into care when he arrived in Islington, from Eritrea, at age 11.
When I speak to him, he has just moved in to his own property in north London.
“Getting the keys felt incredible. If I look back to when I first arrived here, I never thought I’d be living in my own place.”
Placed with carers who were Eritrean themselves made a real difference, he says – their shared cultural background helped him to settle more easily. His carers had two younger children of their own, and welcomed Filmon and his sister into the family.
Secondary school was a time when he blossomed, with sport being a particular passion, and he was selected to play for Islington and Camden’s district team. At home, he learned to cook and helped out round the house.
“That made me become more independent, and able to move out,” he explains.
So does he have any advice for prospective carers?
“Don’t do it for the money; do it for the love. Make them feel like they’re part of your existence.”
Support from the fostering team is extensive too, Debbie points out. As well as financial assistance, the council run regular training in specialist subjects, such as how to help young people who may have been involved with gangs, or suffered from sexual exploitation.
And though there are going to be difficulties along the way, she is clear that the emotional reward from seeing a young person thrive is unparalleled, and there will be plenty of happy memories.
“When a teenager comes to you and they want to sleep with the light on, and all of a sudden the light’s off – that’s when you know you’ve cracked it.”
Trips to the cinema and meals out at Nando’s are particular highlights, too.
“We have laughs and we have tears, but the most important thing is you’ve got to make life fun.”
Click here for more information on becoming a foster carer, email email@example.com, or call 0800 073 0428.
Benefits of fostering with Islington Council
• Monthly supervision and support
• A dedicated social worker
• 24-hour expert advice
• Educational support
• An active foster carer’s association offering representation and peer support with weekly coffee mornings and an annual ‘thank you’ event
• Training, social worker support and support groups
• Close working with professional teams, including child social workers, and health and educational specialists
• Free membership of the Fostering Network
• Legal protection, insurance and public liability cover