Picture a child you know and love. Now, picture them in the care system. The number of children being taken into care has been rising for a decade, while funding for children’s social care has been steadily falling. We are your neighbours. We go to school with your kids. We could be your kids. We could have been you.
Imagine – at six years old, your single mum gets ill. Your dad was a veteran and passed away before you remember and now your Mum has a thing called cancer. Before you know it, you’re in care, being passed from pillar to post in sad, off-white rooms with broken toys, odd smells, and strangers talking in a language you don’t understand. No-one looks at you. No-one really talks to you. Everyone talks about you, often in front of you, but not to you. Everytime you enter a room, you feel like you’re interrupting. You live with strangers and a kid who keeps kicking you when they’re not looking. Doesn’t feel much like a safety net, parent or a ‘care’ system, does it?
Now, what if your Mum doesn’t have cancer, but instead, she is a drug addict, a prostitute, or suicidal. You love her deeply, as a child naturally loves their mother, so imagine being ripped from her arms and taken into the same soulless system with no-one ever explaining why. We know that children are often taken into care due to abuse or neglect, and that many do not understand why they’re in care.
There is not much difference between these two children, though undoubtedly one will suffer more prejudice than the other through no fault of their own. One child will likely act very differently from the other given the difference in their early experiences of forming secure attachments, but honestly, both could easily end up acting out, dropping out of education and giving up on themselves. Both could end up as another statistic – low literacy, interacting with the criminal justice system at a young age and pushing away anyone who tries to help. Emotions are difficult to process at the best of times, let alone in a situation like this. I know this from personal experience, and years of connecting with many care experienced people.
Did you know that many of us, including those who go on to university, manage one way or another to drag ourselves through the care system while being neglected by the very people who say they are helping us? What we’re legally entitled to is often withheld from us, unless we do a tonne of research or get a well-informed advocate. You don’t know what you don’t know, so most of us just don’t ask.
`’I think the voices of people who are affected by the system should be at the heart of reform.“
For those of us who pull through and get out into the world as ‘successful’ young adults, professionals working in the interest of care experienced people will often ask us to help make a change. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it – I think the answers to what a community needs lie within it. I think the voices of people who are affected by the system should be at the heart of reform. However, time and again I hear of this being done in ways which are not safe, or fair. 18-25 years olds are drawn in on the premise of ‘changing the system’, ushered into rooms which are often not professionally facilitated, and asked questions so enormous that PTSD symptoms trigger off in quick succession. Many shift to attack, monologue or stare at the floor mode, and the room fills with tension so intense our collective blood pressure feels as though it might boil – all so that we can produce pieces of paper that create little to no change, at least to our knowledge. Sometimes we don’t even get paid (but there’s pizza…).
‘I reflect on these rooms feeling just like the off-white rooms I grew up in, surrounded by adults wearing lanyards and using a strange language, forgetting to ask me how I felt.’
I’m 31 now, and I got drawn into ‘fixing the system’ around the age of 22. I had a sense then that something was off in the way these rooms were run but I couldn’t articulate what was wrong – I just knew we shouldn’t be crying in the pub after a long day of answering vague questions that brought up all kinds of painful memories. Now working as a full-time social researcher and engagement practitioner, supporting and enabling people from all walks of life to inform policy, I realise those rooms were deeply unsafe and we were let down by well-meaning professionals trying to make a change. I reflect on these rooms feeling just like the off-white rooms I grew up in, surrounded by adults wearing lanyards and using a strange language, forgetting to ask me how I felt. Once you’re over 25, you no longer qualify for these types of projects, and so the cycle continues with the next cohort of care leavers who don’t know any better.
I now focus my energy on supporting other care experienced people (CEP), building their skill-sets and confidence. I make a point to encourage the CEP I work with, and am friends with, to set boundaries and help them recognise unsafe spaces or an ill-considered request when they see one. Not so they can walk away, but so that they can ask for the things that we need to do a good job of driving systemic reform without hurting ourselves. So that we’re not endlessly re-traumatised while we tell new people about the hardest experiences of our lives and obsessively say yes to every opportunity, because we so deeply want to be valued by someone, for something – anything.
The strongest theme that came through in the call for evidence for the care review was support for children and young people, well, the lack thereof. This was closely followed by relationships and working with professionals, nodding to the need for more transparency, listening and involvement of young people in decisions about them.
The research on relationships done by the CEP young people’s network I facilitate, which will be launched in November 2021, repeatedly reflected our own experiences back to us. CEP can struggle to form healthy relationships. I struggle to form healthy relationships. It’s taken me years of trial and error to figure out how to behave at work, and I’m still figuring out how to have a long-term close friend or partner without everything catching fire because we’re both riddled with trauma and can’t cope with intimacy – and believe me, it’s hard to connect with people who can’t relate in some way to your life experiences. But I work at it, and with each year that passes I wear my wounds with more skill and awareness. On the plus, my experiences make me a solid friend and colleague in hard times and I handle stress better than most these days.
So, I’ll leave you with this – we are in your community. We might be angry, and doing things you wish we wouldn’t. We might be well hidden and doing things that make it seem like we’re doing great when really life is a foggy distressing struggle. Reach out, be kind. This could have been you.
About the Author
Chloe (@clohesion) started out in community arts alongside government co-production projects focused on developing social care policy. She is now a qualitative research and engagement practitioner, enabling the public and service users to feed into complex policy decisions. She is a passionate and active member of the care experienced community, having recently facilitated the CEP young people’s network to set their own agenda and deliver three research projects alongside a series of podcasts, and is now a member of a new spokesperson network run by sounddelivery media.