ADVICE FOR CARERS
What’s it like fostering an unaccompanied minor?
At a glance
- What’s it like caring for a young asylum seeker?
- Did you have any hesitation about fostering an unaccompanied minor?
- What special considerations come with fostering an unaccompanied minor?
- How do you overcome those barriers?
- How do you help your young person settle in?
- Were you worried about your young person and your birth children getting along?
- Were you worried about the trauma an unaccompanied minor from a war-torn country might have experienced?
- What advice would you give to a foster carer considering matching with an unaccompanied minor?
Young people enter the foster care system in the UK for many reasons, but in recent years there has been a big increase in the number of “unaccompanied minors” (asylum-seeking children).
These are young people who have fled terrible conditions in their home countries, often war, and who have made their way to the UK under their own steam, without an adult. When they get here, and their age and status is confirmed by the Home Office, these young people find themselves in foster care.
According to Home Office figures, in the year ending 31 March 2022, some 5,540 unaccompanied minors (as these young people are often called, particularly in the media) were being cared for in England, up 34 per cent on the previous year.
So, given more foster carers in London and the UK are now caring for an unaccompanied minor, we wanted to find out what that experience was like and what advice these carers might have for other carers.
We spoke to Eritrea, a London-based foster carer with Lika Family Fostering.
Eritrea is a psychotherapist who has a long professional history of working with young people, including as a support worker and settlement worker. She became a foster carer in December 2022 and her first placement is a 15-year-old unaccompanied minor who has come to the UK from a country experiencing war. He has been living with Eritrea and her family, including her 14-year-old son, for six months.
Lika uses a thoughtful matching process to ensure every child is matched to the right foster carer. Eritrea said that, as a result of that matching process, and because of how well the Lika team had gotten to know her and her preferences during the assessment process, she was comfortable that the young person would be a good match.
“I wanted to have a young person who is independent because I work full-time, so they sent me the referral and I read it and checked it and said, ‘okay, this seems to be a good match’,” she said.
During a normal matching process, a foster carer is provided with a lot of background information about the young person—their personal and medical history, any mental health or behavioural information, and much more.
“With an unaccompanied minor it’s all unknown, so you have to take a chance, really,” Eritrea said. “The good thing with Lika is that you have a lot of support. My social worker is very active.”
There are some complicating factors. Eritrea’s young person barely spoke any English at all when he arrived. Like all young people entering foster care, he had experienced trauma and sometimes that reflects in his behaviour. In particular, Eritrea said sometimes he goes quiet and uncommunicative.
Eritrea said it was important to find ways to connect with a young person. While she and her young person come from different countries, cultures and religions, they were able to bond over cooking food. She said important differences were accommodated. For example, the young person is Muslim, so the family fasted during Ramadan, and changed their diet to exclude pork products.
Eritrea said ultimately, as a foster carer, you find solutions that work.
“In the beginning the language barrier was really difficult and we used Google Translate a lot,” she said. “But since he started going to school, and then sitting down in the evening with him and helping him read, he can speak really well. It’s still broken English, but I get it.”
While all young people entering foster care are entering a new environment, unaccompanied minors are also in a completely new country and culture. We asked Eritrea how she helped her young person settle in. She said getting them into school was key.
“The other thing is activities,” she said. “He likes kickboxing and physical exercise. There’s a gym across the road from my house so he and my son sometimes go to do gym and boxing. We tried football and he didn’t like it but he loves cricket. He’s a very keen and talented cricket player, so goes to training, matches and to practice with a coach.”
Taking her young person to cricket means driving an hour, but Eritrea said it was worth it because her young person is flourishing.
Foster carers with birth children at home often have questions around the impact fostering might have on their own children. Eritrea, who has an adult daughter at university, said she waited until her son was old enough and independent enough for her to have time to dedicate to fostering. Her young person is just a year older than her son.
“He’s very used to young people because of my previous work and he understands what a refugee or an asylum seeker is, and he’s very supportive—both my children are.”
As it turned out, her son and her young person get along quite well. Eritrea said if her young person is having one of his “quiet” moments, her son sometimes takes him to the gym and they work out together.
Obviously, between the horrors of war and then crossing continents under their own steam to get to the UK, unaccompanied minors have experienced a lot—and some of those experiences are likely to have been traumatic. We asked Eritrea if she was worried about helping her young person process that trauma.
“These are smart kids,” she said. “They are resilient. That is the background of coming from this kind of country.”
Eritrea’s unaccompanied minor had negotiated war, employment, human traffickers, gangsters, missing his family back home, and the logistics of cross-continental travel in order to get to the UK.
“For people like me, who came from Ethiopia, who have seen war and killings and political problems, these sorts of things don’t shock me because it was normal for me growing up,” she said. “It’s the same for him. It’s not shocking for him. The resilience is already there. He may express what he’s been through, but not in a traumatic way. He’s grateful now that he’s here, that he’s safe.
“There are still times when he shuts down and doesn’t want to talk, so we give him his space,” she said. “But some of that is just being a teenager! I see that in my son as well.”
“There’s a lot of stigma about the fact they travelled here by water and that stigma is not a good thing,” Eritrea said. “But they’re just a young person, the same as our young people who were born here, with similar interests and behaviour. My foster child is just like my son: they’re both always on TikTok or playing (video) games. Everything is similar except the journey and the trauma they’ve been through. They are just like our own children, but they’re more resilient.”
Lika foster carers receive excellent support from Lika’s professional team, including their supervising social worker, but Eritrea said what had been most helpful to her was the support from the agency’s network of foster carers. The carers have their own WhatsApp group and meet once a month to share information and swap experiences.
“The network is amazing,” Eritrea said.
When another Lika carer was matched with an unaccompanied minor, the Lika team connected Eritrea with the other carer, so she could share her experience and advice.
If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.
We’re in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea.