Young people make just as good foster carers as their middle-aged counterparts

Susan Wilson was 21 when she started fostering. Five years later, she is now established among a new breed of young foster carers. That's not to say that older foster carers are no longer welcome – far from it – but the enduring stereotype of a Caucasian, apron-clad, middle-aged mother has given way to backgrounds as mixed as those of teachers or social workers.

Wilson's mother had fostered, so she'd witnessed the benefits first-hand. "I saw children getting to see how a family should be, instead of the life of violence or drugs they might otherwise have had," she says. "When I became aware of the massive shortage of foster carers, I decided to do it myself. I have two young children of my own and am separated, but that didn't stop me."

Like many of today's foster carers, Wilson decided to specialise – in her case, in short breaks, providing other carers with respite for a week or two at a time. "I'd have one set of children for a couple of weeks and when they left, the next set came. I got plenty of training and support, so I've never felt isolated," she says. "Now I foster a child on a long-term basis, and that has been equally satisfying. When she came to live with us, she was 10 years old and 14 stone. She had a lot of health problems and issues with food. Her confidence was so low she could hardly leave her bedroom. Now, we've got her weight down and she's kickboxing three times a week. It's incredible seeing her come out of her shell and communicating so well with other children."

Other specialisms for foster carers include remand fostering, emergency care, neonatal care and mother and baby placements. Social workers help prospective foster carers work out which types will best suit their lifestyle and skills. The carers get a say in the ages of the children they take on, and while some opt to do as little as one weekend a month for one child, others take on large sibling groups and more for months, or even years.

Wilson's age goes in her favour, she believes. "I've had boys come here ranging from age one to 16 and girls from one to 12. With the younger ones, I have the energy to run around with them and with the older ones, I'm able to relate to them. Older carers might see them as children, but it's still fresh in my mind how it feels to be that age – wanting independence and all the identity issues – it makes fostering them easier."

Foster carers are divided over whether fostering is a career. Some believe it's wrong to think it's a job when it's about family life and love, and involves round-the-clock commitment. Others see it as a profession, helped by the fact that 60 per cent of foster carers now receive a wage, as well as an allowance for the child. Foster carer Cathy Glass, author of Happy Kids: The Secret to Raising Well-behaved Contented Children (HarperCollins), says: "Nursing is a profession and nobody suggests that detracts from the standard of care they give patients."

There's no doubt that fostering requires certain skills and character traits, including observational and communication skills, optimism, confidence, patience, stability, energy and teamwork. Carers are increasingly expected to write reports and attend meetings about the child and their future – after all, you might wind up knowing them better than anyone.

"Nearly 30 years ago, when I started fostering, I used to sit in meetings where professionals such as social workers would refrain from saying something about the child because it was 'confidential', but a child's needs can only really be catered for if everyone involved in their care is filled in," she says.

Glass also favours the growing trend towards foster carers receiving comprehensive training and support throughout the time they foster. Increasingly, foster carers are taking NVQs and even Masters degrees, if they so desire.

There are more than 72,500 children and young people in care on any given day in the UK. Over 71 per cent of those live with 43,000 foster carers. But while that sounds like a lot, there are still 10,000 too few foster carers. Helen Clarke, spokesperson for the Fostering Network, says one of the reasons is the huge rise in the number of children coming into care in the past 18 months. "Some cite the Baby Peter case and it's true that social workers are increasingly likely to identify problems in families earlier on. But that's a good thing. Foster carers are usually the right kinds of people to step in and help, with the hope the child can go home once the problems are sorted. Some won't be able to, but foster carers can still help prepare them for adoption or by taking them in for the long term."

Clarke is particularly excited by new areas of fostering that are emerging. "Support care involves foster carers working with families at the point where there is concern that the child might end up in care. The foster carer helps the family prevent that happening – by giving a parent a break for a weekend here or there and offering advice on how to deal with some of the issues. Foster carers who do this tell us it's incredibly rewarding. Another area is therapeutic fostering, which involves someone with in-depth knowledge and experience of children – such as a former teacher or child psychologist – using that to help a child reach a particular goal within a certain time frame."

The Fostering Network welcomes the interest from younger people. "We want people who might be considering becoming a childminder or a youth worker to think about fostering as an alternative. It has so many benefits, such as flexibility and being able to work from home."

Older carers remain the core age, however. "Many people come into fostering once their own children have grown up, but that experience is no longer a must – younger people are just as welcome."

'Being young is good, you have more energy and can really have fun with the kids'

Vicky Robertson, 29, has been fostering for three years.

"My husband and I tried to have our own family, but it didn't happen. One day, I saw an article about fostering and asked him if he'd be interested. We have decided we'll continue to foster even though we're about to start IVF.

We've fostered seven children so far. The only kind of child we said we couldn't take was one with disabilities and that's only because our house isn't equipped. We also said we'd prefer younger children, but we also said we wouldn't turn a child of any age away and we have one boy with us now who is 12, who will stay with us until 18. We currently have two toddlers as well.

I don't think of fostering as a career. That said, there is a wage and I've learned that you do have to stop yourself getting too attached. Also, it makes sense for us to be treated as professionals. I had one experience where I wasn't. We had a little boy who wanted to remain here and I fought to keep him at six children's panels, but he was moved anyway.

He went downhill when he left us, having done so well here. I was listened to the next time round though and a boy who was placed with us two years ago is still living here, which is absolutely the right thing for him.

People are often surprised I foster at my age and without children of our own, but being young is good. You have more energy and can really have fun with the kids.

Seeing babies grow into toddlers has been very special and taught me a lot for when we have our own family.

I think the child that stands out in my mind the most in terms of flourishing is a girl who was very poorly when she arrived. She has thrived into a really healthy girl. The toddlers have flourished too. When they came here, they were underweight, pale and had no speech or reactions.

Now they run around healthy and vocally. It's lovely to watch. I get great support in my role – courses ranging from first aid to child protection and support group meetings with other carers where we exchange stories and experiences. My supervising social worker helps me too."

'There is legislation to get your head around. The good thing is I get plenty of support'

Marcia Gordon, 51, has been fostering for nine years.

"When my son reached 15, I asked him if he'd be OK with me fostering. I'm Rastafarian and believe in giving back to the community. Also I was struck by learning that children from African descent are over-represented in the care system. I have a big heart and an even bigger sense of humour, so felt that was a good starting point.

I chose to do long-term fostering and had a sibling group placed with me – a girl of 12 and a boy of six. I work full-time and, in any case, long-term fostering is one step away from adoption, so I felt there was more scope to ensure the children fit in with our family.

My job is with the London borough of Ealing, where I help identify learning and development opportunities for the workforce. I foster for the same local authority and consider that just as much of a career.

When you parent your own children, you don't think of it as a profession, but with fostering, you have legislation and policies to get your head around, and there are all sorts of working relationships you need to develop with the school, medical professionals, social worker and more. The good thing is I get plenty of relevant support.

Neither of my children call me mum, but last year, my daughter read out a moving speech at a presentation for foster carers about how I was the nearest thing she had to a mum and when I think back to how resentful she was initially of being placed in foster care, that's very heart-warming.

Another special moment for me was her asking if she could wear African dress like me. When they arrived with me, they had a thing about not wanting to be black. The people who had hurt and neglected them were black, you see. So there were big issues around identity. But increasingly I see African influences in her life, which is wonderful in terms of her identity.

There have been so many great moments with both children. I feel very lucky to have fostered them."