Thursday, 14 July 2016

The ECLCM Westminster Pop In Day in July 2016

When ECLCM was formed in December 2013 we couldn’t really have imagined how our journey might unfold. The naively optimistic might have thought that the omission of children in residential care from the entitlement to ‘stay put’ was just an oversight by the Minister or his DfE advisors; one that would be quickly rectified. Others seemed to think that we had no role to play, that ‘they’ were there to represent all care leavers and that ‘staying put’ for children in foster care was as much as could be hoped for and a small, inconsequential group of volunteers should stop interfering in a world that they knew nothing about.

Let’s pass over the last two and a half years and just concentrate on the last couple of months. We’re still here. We have been actively involved in Sir Martin Narey’s review of children’s residential homes in England, we have had a very cordial and useful meeting with the Children’s Commissioner Ann Longfield, we have a meeting with the DfE scheduled for 24th July to talk about our vision for children leaving residential care and hopefully how we may remain involved in their planning for the introduction of pilots in preparation for a much improved (on what is currently in the public domain) version of ‘staying close.’ Then there was our ‘Pop in Day’ in Parliament last week and that is what this blog wishes to mark.

The marvellous Emma Lewell-Buck MP for South Shields, who along with Kriss Akabussi, is patron of ECLCM offered to organise a Pop In day for us in Portcullis House. Frankly we didn’t even know what it was but as ever with ECLCM we accepted! As the time approached we began to get to know the equally marvellous Michelle Gribbon who is Emma’s Parliamentary Assistant (and now considered to be a Super-Hero by members of the ECLCM team, peerless save for our own Jane Billows).

With all due respect to matters of State it could not have been worse timing for a day in Westminster for a small group like ours. Despite Emma and Michelle inviting all MP’s, Peers and researchers and our own Paula Doherty undertaking a marathon mailshot to all MP’s we did not and really could not have anticipated that not only would the Brexit vote have just occurred but that both major parties (in England at least) were in the midst of leadership battles. – indeed the Tories were voting on the day. However, as we have come to accept in ECLCM ‘You play the hand you have been dealt with’.

The team (Ian Dickson, Rob Gillespie, Jane Billows and Ian Gould) set off at ungodly hours from various parts of the country and gathered at Portcullis House at 11.00 to meet the redoubtable Michelle. Emma (no doubt with Michelle’s agreement) most generously made Michelle available to the group all day and despite pressing parliamentary business devoted hours of her own time to hosting our group – we shall forever be grateful to both. In fact, as far as I can judge, it was very much ‘Ladies Day’ as Ian Dickson, Rob and Ian Gould simply did what they were told all day by Jane, Michelle and Paula. And how well it worked.

The following decision makers attended on the day and save for Catherine McKinnell and Baroness Fiona Hodgson, all pledged their support for the campaign (some, as regular readers will know, had already done so but it was nonetheless pleasing for them to come to meet us). All were happy for us to use their photographs – which will be on our website very soon if not already.

Catherine McKinnell                        Labour

Lucy Powell                                        Conservative

Mike Wood                                         Conservative

Sir David Ames                                  Conservative

Jim Shannon                                      Democratic Unionist

Jeff Smith                                            Labour

Lord Tom McNally                            Liberal Democrat

Khalid Mahmood                             Labour

Sarah Champion                               Labour

Baroness Fiona Hodgson               Conservative

Alex Cunningham                             Labour

Bill Esterson                                       Labour

Holly Lynch                                         Labour

Robin Walker                                     Conservative

Andy McDonald                                Labour

George Howarth                              Labour

Emma Lewell-Buck (of course!)  Labour

We are also aware that the following individuals had planned to come but were unable to do so:

Lord Mike Watson                           Labour

Lord Jonny Oates                             Liberal Democrat

Lord John Bird                                    Cross Bench

It is wonderful to have so much cross party support for the campaign and we will as time allows be in regular contact with all of these supporters to thank them individually for ‘Popping In’.

This is a key time for the campaign with the changes in Government and indeed Her Majesty’s official Opposition coinciding with the transition of Sir Martin Narey’s report from recommendation to enactment and we are pleased and grateful that his recommendation that ECLCM be invited to discussion with DfE has already been acted upon – we have an initial meeting on 24th July and hope to be involved, as recommended, in the progress towards the development of ‘Pilots’ and thereafter. Our vision of Staying Close is very clear and supported by what Sir Martin has indicated in recognising that those children leaving residential care at 18 (and not all should) must continue to receive the guidance and support from their residential staff who they have come to trust and to whom they have an attachment.

Where does ECLCM go from here? Our belief is that we continue as we are. We have lots of positive indications that change for the better may occur but until those indications become reality then our job is far from done. It would be wonderful if we can plan to bring this campaign to a close but we are not even close to thinking about that yet. Care Leavers, whether they are leaving residential or foster care have been badly treated by our society for decades and that same society is in many ways represented by those we elect and others who are selected to govern us. We met probably as many of those elected and selected representatives as we could have coped with on the day and we were thrilled and delighted that they chose to come to us. Others could not, due to understandable prior commitments which we fully appreciate and told us so in advance, but the reality is that we met 16 of 650 M.P.’s, 2 of 760 Peers– if change is to happen then initially we need at least 325 M.P’s to support us. Please do contact your MP and seek their support. We are continuing to meet with local councils but our time and resources are so very limited that this is a massive task and one that we can (and will) only ‘chip away’ at. Your support by asking your M.P does (s)he support @rescareto21 would be invaluable – especially if they, too, can pledge their support and perhaps allow you to take a photograph of them demonstrating that support. ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ but to achieve this please understand that every single one of you getting such a pledge matters too.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Living the dream

How to start this blog, it's something I have been thinking about writing for a while now but haven't found a way to express myself and how to write it. I decided to just start and see where it takes me.

I was a child in care and drifted through just about every sort of placement there is to be placed in. Good, bad and many in between the only consistent thing was being moved. My responsibility,
I know, but like so many others from care I ended up in custody – it made no difference that many of my crimes were for survival they were still crimes, mainly associated with thefts to feed myself and eventually drug use.

In the time before going into custody I slept in the places used by many care leavers and those who have not formally left care but have left the thinking of those employed to support them. Bus stations, sofas, public toilets, wheelie bins – tried them all as I wandered around the streets high (or low) on drugs, alcohol or other substances. The secure children’s home had provided nothing more than a break from these habits a short respite for my body before starting up again. Was I ill? Probably, certainly I spent time in hospital. Did I care? No, why should I nobody else seemed to. But I am getting just a bit ahead of myself here.,

Over the years I was committing crimes, taking drugs, drinking alcohol and smoking. My mental health deteriorated. I had started to self-harm and take solvents. I was in and out of hospital pretty regularly for a while from getting myself in to awful states and nearly dying a couple of times because of my risky behaviours. I was sleeping rough, in wheelie bins, bus station toilets and other homes of young people in care. I didn't like my social workers, I didn't really like many people but I did have respect for my youth offending worker and sessional worker.

I was moved to all sorts of different placements including foster care, residential care, structured units and then to a secure unit. My mental health was a mess, it was like I got hooked on not giving a fu*k. I didn't care for myself and didn't really care or think about anybody else, the damage I had caused a long the way, the hurt caused to the victims of my crimes. I was cutting myself and trying to strangle myself and take overdoses of paracetamol. I had stitches for the cuts, charcoal for the overdose and some good staff and police officers who intervened and saved me from myself a few times when on another day I would probably be dead. This is caused from the damage and trauma from the experiences I've had. The feelings of not being wanted and un loved.

After the secure children's home I went straight back to my friends who were taking drugs and committing crime, a full psychological assessment was supposed to of been done on me whilst I was residing in the secure children's home, but it wasn't. It was a missed opportunity to help me with the trauma and damaged caused over previous few years. Instead I was locked back up again within months and sent to the first ever secure training centre in Britain. I was the first from my area to be sent there, they wanted to make an example out of me and send a clear message out to people that crime is not acceptable and you will be punished no matter how old you are! The secure training centre was no help for me other than the education. I learnt more in there about crime and disorder from other young people than I knew before going in, in fact we were children. The place was always kicking off, staff mistreating the children. I got the impression that some of the staff seemed to enjoy what I considered to be mistreatment of inmates. The restraints were illegal and looking back very dangerous and could of caused serious injury.

I was back out on the streets after a few months and back committing crimes and taking drugs. Needless to say I got looked up for a 16 month sentence.  I came out and carried on with the drugs and crime, I was hanging around with people who took them and were funding it by committing crimes. I was involved, I hold my hands up, I had a mind of my own. I deserved to get locked up, maybe for even longer than I actually got with hindsight but this was where I had my 'light bulb' moment. I said I wouldn't get in trouble again to my friend who had also been locked up with me. He was a very good friend to me, we were like care brothers.
Once release from custody I was nearly 17 years old. I was told I was going to my mom’s house to live. I told them I didn't wasn't to, did anyone listen? Sadly not. It broke down after a couple of weeks, I was then moved to a bed and breakfast miles from anyone I knew with no money or support other than my youth offending worker when I had appointments. I was eating cornflakes with water because that's how bad it was. Isolated, lonely and desperate.

Over the next year I did manage to pass the course at project challenge but I was struggling with my mental health. I was depressed, isolating myself and just generally lonely and desperate for some help and support. It didn't come, I found myself in hospital because of my mental health, they were dark days and traumatic ones. I struggled for a while in hospital trying to come to terms with the severe depression and flash backs of things that would be unthinkable to most people. I managed to get more stable and ended up being in a relationship before I knew it. I had a son, it was the most proud day of my life. Then in the afternoon I found out my care brother had died from an overdose the same day he got out of prison and on the day my son was born. My head went west, I didn't know how to deal with it, I was overjoyed and proud that my son was there but I had lost one of the people I was the closest to growing up in a tough system. I struggled on with my relationship but after a couple of years it all got too much and decided the best thing was to leave my son and his mom. I ended up back in hospital for seven weeks. My head was going at a million miles an hour, I couldn't eat or sleep and I didn't want to be alive. I didn't eat anything solid for a few weeks, just those special milkshake drinks. I didn't think I was going to come out of it, I thought my life was over but it wasn't, after a couple of months I started to make progress, I was out running and playing sport. I was getting healthy, mentally and physically and not letting the depression win.

That's when I thought, I can be someone. I don't have to just exist anymore. I wanted to make a difference for children and young people who are in similar positions to what I was in when I was in care. I did volunteering, wrote a book and did many presentations and events meeting so many leading professionals, children and young people in care and care leavers. I got to work on European projects and other national things and speak at many amazing events, AGM's, conferences and even in Parliament. More recently I was invited to a royal garden party. Very strange and surreal, at times way more surreal than when I was on drugs. It wasn't for me though, a nice experience but not sure I would go again, I live in the real world with real people. People that are struggling to survive, people who can't afford gas and electric, disabled people not getting the help and support they deserve, children and young people homeless at sixteen plus, isolated, lonely and in desperate need of support. Millions of people using food banks and struggling with mental health. Standing in the Buckingham Palace just proved to me that we live in different worlds. I'm stood there with pence in my pockets but surrounded by so much wealth and security. When you haven't got ‘a pot to piss in’ then it doesn't sit right eating peppermint cucumber sandwiches and other posh food. When there are children and young people being discriminated against and denied adequate aftercare support to at least 21, these are our most vulnerable in Society. I felt out of place anyway, I just don't feel like I am part of this big act.

After working with the children and young people for a few years many would ask me - can't you come and work with us at our children's home? It has always been the dream to work in residential care. I tell them maybe one day, well that one day came. I have now been working in residential care as an intensive support worker with children and young people who display complex and challenging behaviour for about nine months now. It has probably been the toughest nine months I've ever had, adapting and learning. It was surreal to start with, I was on the other side now as a staff member. It did take me some time to adjust, as a friend said to me, you are looking at things 80% from a ‘child in cares’ point of view. He was very right as with all his advice and guidance. After a few months that evened out with the experience I gained. I just want the children and young people I work with to be as prepared for independence as possible, I want them to be successful and lead a positive life after care. I believe independence skills should be started at the earliest opportunity. Care doesn't define who we become, we do, and if I can do it I don't see why anyone else can't do it. It just takes a lot of hard work, determination and resilience but eventually it is possible to achieve your dreams, I just have!

I have developed a whole new respect for and understanding of social workers and residential support workers. I now understand what a tough job it must be and how difficult. No social worker trains and goes to university to be a bad social worker. They do it because they want to make a difference to the lives of children, young people and their families. Not all of them are great in my opinion but that can be said of any profession or trade. I now as an adult have many friends who are currently social workers, plus a few social workers who have retired now but still making a difference for children and young people. Support workers I have a whole new respect for, I didn't understand how difficult their work could be. Sadly I feel they are under-valued, underpaid and under-respected for the brilliant work they do with children and young people. In my opinion these people are amazing. As difficult as the job can be its way more rewarding and there are many more better days than bad days.

I love my job working with the children and young people, the chance to give something back to society and really try hard to make a difference for children and young people. I may have made many mistakes when I was a young damaged and traumatised child and young person, but should I be punished for that all my life? I don't think so. People can change, and do. I'm just glad I was given the opportunity to prove I can do this job. I don't plan on letting anybody down. I aim to be one of the best in the country not just in my company.

Without the support of a few individuals I wouldn't have been able to achieve my dreams and become an Intensive Support Worker and studying for my Diploma in Child Care.

Onward and upwards.

Thank you

Monday, 25 April 2016

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Lies, damn lies and statistics…

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (Merchant of Venice)

It has long been recognised that statistics are merely numbers, neutral collections of data accumulated to offer an indication of specific trends or events. It is what is done with statistics, and as importantly, how statistics are presented that make them important.

Take me. Statistics would probably identify me as a male, aged over 65 years, a graduate with a distinguished professional career. I was happily married for over 40 years and have children and grandchildren. Statistics might classify me as ‘middle class’, and indicate that I had never been involved in drugs, alcohol abuse, crime, unemployment, and so on. (I have been homeless, but let’s put that to one side for now.) My data would identify me as boringly normal and of no particular interest and the statistician and data gatherer would quickly skip over me looking for more interesting people to study. I have four older brothers who also have long stable marriages, large loving families and successful careers. Boring!

Like my four brothers, I am also a care leaver. To me, this is just another piece of data, much like being male, over 65 years old, etc. I look forward to the day when it does not elicit interest and can be followed by the phrase ‘So what?’, but we are not there yet.

Politicians, policy makers and people involved in campaigns for policy change (like me) use statistics about care leavers to make their case.  That is because they provide evidence and give a clear indication of the situation that care leavers find themselves in, or some even suggest how care leavers think, react or achieve in certain situations. But do they?

Let’s look at care leavers who go on to study at university from care. Statistics show that about 6% of care leavers go on to study at university. When I went to university, the figure was only about 1%. Clearly, 90% + of care leavers do NOT go on to university. Statistics show about 37% of young people who are not from care go on to university. Clearly then, this must indicate that care leavers are not as bright as other children? Of course not. It indicates an issue for many young people from care being unable to enjoy and access education and higher education compared to other children. It is not the statistic – it is how it is presented and interpreted.

Let’s look at a few more. In a recent article, a young person from care cited the following statistics

“Fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but looked after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody.”

“In 2011 just 13.2% of children who had been in care for at least six months left school with five GCSEs grades A*-C including English and mathematics, or the equivalent alternative qualification, compared with 57.9% of all children.”

34% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training at age 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population”

The author continues:

“Perhaps even worse is that these statements neglect to highlight the positive side of every statistic. They do not celebrate the 13.2% that did achieve 5 GCSEs at A*-C standard. Or the amount of children in care that have never been in custody. Or the people that are not NEET”.

This is an absolutely valid point to make.  It is clear that statistics are sometimes presented bluntly and insensitively, and clearly this young person feels strongly that the statistics add to the ignorance of the public about young people from care and potentially fuel discrimination and stigma. This can further demoralise young people from care who may already be struggling with their care identity.

I accept that, but take the view that it is the presentation of the statistic, not the statistic, that fuels that ignorance. If fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but looked after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody, the question is WHY? Are young people from care more criminally inclined than other children. Of course not. As the article author points out, most of us do not graduate from care to crime. Are children from care less academically able than their peers? Of course not! I left school with no qualifications. But I am now highly professionally qualified, and have graduated from two universities including gaining first class honours on my last venture into higher education – but I am still me.

If 34% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training at age 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population, this tells me that over twice as many care leavers as other young people are not getting the opportunity to engage in Society and develop their skills and aptitudes. These young people are not getting the opportunity to meet their dreams. The question must be WHY, and how can we correct this?

If statistics reveal a difference in achievement between care leavers and other young people that difference must be the focus, not the statistic itself in isolation.  If we look closely at why the statistics show such significant differences, we see layers of disadvantage and inequality of opportunity faced by care leavers compared to other young people, much if not most of it resulting from the way care and support is provided to these young people and societal attitudes – not any inadequacy on the part of the young people from care themselves. As a care leaver, that offends me and is unacceptable and I have spent decades challenging the inequalities young people from care and care leavers face. I will and do use statistic to make my case, but never as a stick to hit care leavers with.

Statistics do not cause stigma - the misuse and misinterpretation of statistics does that.  After many years as a senior manager in social work, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people say that people who are abused as children grow up to be abusers. Believe me – we don’t, and that misuse of data from research is insulting and offensive. Only the other day, one commentator referred quite blithely to children in care as ‘damaged’. Really? It is from such language that attitudes form, and from the attitudes comes the stigma. This is an area that needs closer attention

I always say that I ‘graduated’ from care, I did not ‘survive’ it. Language is important and there remains much careless language used about young people from care and care leavers, much of it within social work itself.

Most care leavers are boring like me. We haven’t been to prison or in trouble with the police, we don’t spend our lives deliberately living on benefits, we are not alcohol or drug dependent, and indeed many of us are actually very successful in our chosen professions. The statistics show that only a minority of care leavers fall into those unfortunate categories.  We care leavers are just ordinary people. Indeed, many of us are extraordinary people and I have had the privilege in my life to know and work with some supremely talented and inspiring care leavers. Care leavers are successful in all professions and the arts, many making leading contributions in their fields in spite of the extra pressures presented by disadvantaged backgrounds.  Coal is a form of carbon. However, as one care leaver said, put carbon under intense pressure and it can transform into a diamond. For so many care leavers, the pressures of their childhoods has transformed them into diamonds.

When I described myself as a middle class male aged over 65 years, I might easily have inserted care leaver in that description, and sometimes I do.  It is a descriptive term and carries no stigma or shame. I am a ‘graduate’ of the care system, a ‘diamond’ formed by the pressures I faced as I grew up.  I am proud of myself and who I am.  I think every other graduate from the care system should be proud of themselves as well.

Friday, 1 January 2016

A care leaver’s Christmas tale

I have a story to tell. It is a story that is a large part of me and no matter how I try, no matter what I say, it just won't go away. It's a story that might shock, anger or just simply case this reading it to say 

"There but for the grace of God go I" 

I was put into care at three months old although apparently I was already known to social services, under scrutiny and on a watch list for regular visits from them from shortly after the day I was born. Obviously I don't remember a great deal of my early life. Whether that's peculiar to me or whether it's my mind is simply putting a block on difficult memories...who knows?
In fact, when I reflect upon it, there are large parts of my life I just don't seem to remember. I think the mind has a way if dealing with trauma and as far as I can see it’s probably a good job. I couldn't wouldn't want to remember some things I've been told about.

I recall being put with my first foster parents at a very early age probably around the age of four. For some reason that placement didn't last long. I’ve no idea why, but its not for me to question.

I was moved into a nursery in South Wales but I don't think I was there for too long. I do recall my next placement with foster parents. It was on a farm in north Wales. I remember it was a particularly bad winter but I seem to think I liked it there. I can even remember the school I attended because it had a thatched roof! That tickled me because it the school had ‘VP’ in its name. I just assumed VP meant ‘very poor’ because of the thatched roof. That placement didn't last long either and I was moved into another children's home, once again in north Wales.

At this point we can skip ahead a few years. As crazy as that sounds, if you bear with me it will all become clear. My life for the next few years was utter chaos because I was repeatedly moved between different children's homes, time and time again. When as an adult I had the chance to see my social work file, I found out that up until the age of eight I was moved around thirteen times.

I should stress at this point two issues that come into play. One is of no particular importance other than for the purpose of clarification. The other one has destroyed every Christmas I have ever had and is also the point of this blog.

My first point is to clarify that I never did actually view my files (although under law it is my right). I went as far as meeting the head of children's services in the town hall on at least three occasions in order to assess my state of mind and what I expected to learn by viewing my files. I thought that I wanted them and that they would clarify things. In reality, I know recognise that I didn't want them, and the information that they contained simply would not answer the many question I had about my childhood. I realised that they would be of little value. So we can pretty much put a line through that. The head of children’s services had little to share with me anyway. He said that in retrospect, some of the actions taken by social workers were mistaken, but it was before his time so there was little he could do. No real help there.

My second point relates to the episode in my brief but eventful life that was probably the most upsetting cruel and traumatic I have experienced. I must have just turned eight and I was in my umpteenth children's home when Christmas came around. Usually the kids who had any family went home or to relatives willing and able to take them in. My previous Christmases in care had often found me to be the only child in the home on Christmas Day. On one or two occasions I was taken home by a member of staff. It was always a beautiful time and I'm truly grateful.

One Christmas there was to be a dramatic change in my life. I was to be sent home to my parents! These were parents that I didn't know, had never met .and to be honest I wasn't even sure existed. So there I was, two days before Christmas sitting in my social worker’s car at the tender age of eight. It's something I was used to because as you've seen by now it was quite a regular occurrence. The difference was that this time there was a feeling that was new to me. I think (and I stress think!) that I was looking forward to it...Jesus how wrong could I be?

We drove only a few miles I guess because we were only in the car around half an hour when we pulled up to quite a large house which stood on the corner of a large estate with gardens to both sides if it. Gardens that were strewn with bins,bin bags,old bikes and even a car behind the fence parked on what would have been the front lawn. It was minus wheels.

With trepidation we walked up the pathway. I couldn't help but notice the broken window and a lower pane in the front door cracked and painted green when the rest of the door we black.
The social worker knocked on the door we waited. We heard loud talking, possibly shouting. Someone was shouting at the dog to ‘Shut up and lie down’. I was now well and truly scared. I mean seriously scared. I heard kids shouting and after what seemed an age the door opened. A large woman stood in the doorway. “Who is she”? I thought to myself. We entered into a littered and scruffy hallway. One thing I do recall to this day was the smell of petrol or something very close.

They obviously exchanged pleasantries and the next thing I knew the social worker had gone. I was alone. The woman opened the door and gently pushed me inside. My heart sank. It almost brings me to tears to try and convey to you what happened next. The room seemed as though it was full of screaming children and a big dog.. Next thing I knew the dog came bounding toward me and pinned me up against the wall. I'm ashamed to say that I wet myself! I was so scared and worst of all, I began to cry! I don't know why but it just seemed inevitable and they laughed. They laughed at me in my best clothes short trousers (albeit they were now wet) and a blazer. They were all pointing laughing and the dog was pulled off me and pushed into the hallway.

I had a carrier bag with a present from the local steelworks with me. The steelworks always bought the kids in homes toys every Christmas. One of the kids ripped it from me, I didn't try to take it back. I was far too scared, far too traumatised, by what was happening and worse of all was what was going to happen.

I had a teddy. I know an eight-year-old with a teddy is a bit sad but you have to remember I had few possessions of my own and what I did have I cherished, and still do. A girl grabbed it and threw it in the hallway where the dog was. “That is the end of that” I thought and inside...I confess, I died a little.

I won't go into details about sleeping arrangements, food or anything else. It was was truly bad and if an eight-year-old could know the meaning of degraded I would have uttered it. These kids were my brothers and sisters. I had six brothers two sisters.  I didn't know I had them and I didn't know anything about them.

Christmas morning came around. There were a lot of presents brought down from upstairs and placed under a threadbare tree next to the television. They were duly handed out and I watched and waited for my turn. I waited and I watched. I watched and I waited. Nothing for me. Absolutely nothing. I felt absolutely destroyed! No one even spoke to me. It was as though I didn't exist. Ok, I agree that may not seem such a big deal, but to me it was. It really, really was. I tried to think it was unimportant but it totally screwed me up.

Christmas Day went and Boxing Day came around. I'm not going to go into detail about the degradation and heartache I endured during the previous three days. I can't and I don't want to relive it and besides the worst is yet to come.
Time came for me to leave thank God. I never wanted to see these people again. Looking back now as I often do. I'm so pleased for my time in care. I hated it but it made me who I am. And I'm slowly getting used to just who I am too.

I waited for my social worker but she didn't turn up. My ‘Dad’ put me in a car and we drove off. There were no goodbyes, no farewells and I didn’t care. I was glad to be leaving. It was then I noticed something. It took about half an hour to get there but we had been travelling for at least double that. I was scared, very very scared. The car stopped and for the first time. He spoke, he seemed almost gentle in his manner. Almost as though he was someone who cared about my plight. My life of emptiness. Then it happened.

I have nothing to add. I have nothing I can say. I thought it was my fault because I was an outsider.

Can you begin to understand what a child feels like to be unloved? Abused and generally screwed over by life? I do, but try as I may, I just can't find the words to express it.

 You have my Christmas story. Do you see why we must make a point of raising the residential leaving age? Do you see why we must cherish children in care? Do you see why we need to spread love and understanding and not hatred and greed throughout the world? The campaign to get fully funded ‘Staying Put’ rights for all children leaving care until they are old and secure enough in themselves to cope on their own is not something trivial. It can change or even save lives.

I hope you can understand how I feel

Have a Happy Christmas and please spread joy through the new year.

Thank you.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Two busy years

‘Two busy years’
The ECLCM campaign has now been going for a little over two years. Did we anticipate this being a marathon? Probably not. In our naiveté, we were probably remarkably naïve at the outset. I think we imagined that the campaign might be over in the course of a few months. Surely (we assumed,) when they reflected on the draft Children and Families Act that was eventually to become law in 2014, they would realise that there had been either a catastrophic mistake or that someone had overlooked the fact that the plan to allow children leaving care in foster homes to ‘Stay Put’ until they were twenty-one years old was wonderful but the omission of those care leavers from residential care was blatant discrimination?

Very quickly it became clear that this was neither a mistake nor had it been overlooked. The word ‘anomaly’ has been used much in recent times to describe this omission. In the view of the ECLCM team, this is the wrong word to use. If it was an anomaly then why, in the two years since, has it not been addressed?

Our ECLCM team includes some experienced campaigners but probably not with the expertise and resources sufficient to challenge the Coalition Government effectively, or the Tory government that followed. We were very willing, rather angry and highly motivated amateurs – but still amateurs.

Two years on and with approaching 10,000 signatories on the petition we are more battle-hardened. We are more determined than ever to challenge the government on behalf of our petitioners. We are determined to make this government take note of the views of the care leavers of yesterday who do not wish their experiences to be suffered by other care leavers, today, tomorrow or in future years.

ECLCM has grown and developed somewhat over the last two years, but we need to take our campaign to yet another level if we are to succeed. We know that and we are addressing it. The team has changed a little – though all our original members remain either in the (rather grandly titled) ‘Board’ or as fervent supporters of the campaign. We have a website ‘donated’ to us by a generous designer. We have more structured meetings and we have forged a closer working relationship (perhaps partnership?) with the Care Leavers’ Association. We have made presentations and attended many different forums of ‘the great and the good’ in the field of children in care but we still find that most things don’t change. We are still volunteers, we remain politically unaffiliated, and we have no funding. Through the course of the campaign we have experienced many ‘ups and downs’ but recent events have been very encouraging.

On 8th December this year Bradford City council became the third local authority to pass a motion effectively supporting the ECLCM proposition that calls on the government to amend the Children and Families Act 2014 to ensure that all care leavers are given the option to "stay put“ until age 21 regardless of their placement, and furthermore that local authorities who have had their budgets decimated by years of austerity receive adequate funding to enable them to offer this option for all the children. Warrington and Sefton preceded Bradford, and other local authorities will almost certainly follow over the course of the next few months.
On 9th December this year, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Looked After Children discussed ‘Staying Put’ and we were fortunate enough to be present through the discussion.

This blog will be in the public domain and as such be subject to scrutiny by others who attended that meeting. They are warmly invited to contest this article, as our recollection and judgement could be wrong – but we don’t think that it is.

 The panel at the meeting comprised well-informed and lauded individuals who recognised that there was no sustainable argument to oppose the extension of the ‘Staying Put’ option to children in residential care. They were not unanimous in this view but neither, I suspect, were the Education Select Committee in their report " Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options."  That report was of course ignored by the government and who are we to argue with a government?
We might say that ECLCM is comprised of care leavers and social care professionals who have been or worked with children in care for tens of years and as such have a valid opinion. We might say that we are supported by a very significant number of older care leavers, leading academics, social workers and care practitioners in the country. We might say that every council that we have had time to approach has, or is in the process of. formally supporting children in residential care. We might just say that discrimination against one group of vulnerable young people based solely on placement is simply wrong.  

More important than what we might say are the views of the many children and young people who spoke at the ‘Staying Put’ APPG. They supported ‘Staying put’ for all care leavers to 21 too, just as ECLCM do.

We heard from one young person who had been in a foster placement for 12 years but was compelled to leave because the foster carer couldn’t afford to keep them there on the ‘Staying Put’ arrangement. We heard from young people who had been happy in residential care but had to switch to foster care if they wished to ‘stay put’. We heard young people share that they knew that they were being discriminated against because they were in a children’s home not a foster home and were made to leave their placement.

We heard from young people who no longer had any ongoing CAMHS support, and young people who know that the only reason they were able to remain in their foster home was because their foster carers had subsidised their care.  We also heard from young people who are personally doing well but were appalled that others were being so blatantly discriminated against.
These are children and young people, not commodities but ECLCM are concerned that they might feel like commodities. If there was a voice of a child or professional in that APPG meeting who spoke in favour of the current exclusive arrangements for ‘Staying Put’, then we must have missed it. We were told that our Minister for Children Edward Timpson is a good man who cares a great deal about children leaving care and is looking at alternatives for children in residential care. ECLCM accept that, but the point was made that he has now been looking for over two and a half years. 

Why is he looking anyway? ‘Staying Put’ as an option should be for ALL children in care. Mr Timpson, sadly you had to send your apologies to the APPG and what a great shame that was. You could have heard children and young adults telling you for themselves that the government were wrong, and will continue to be wrong until fully funded ‘Staying Put’ for all care leavers to 21 is an option offered to all children leaving care at 18. Fine words do not make it possible – Government need to fund it.
One remarkable young man who asked possibly the final question of the night suggested that if the government made more effort to secure the tax liabilities of several well-known global companies they would easily be able to afford to implement the ‘Staying Put’ policy that he was unable to access.  Do you have an answer for him Mr Timpson?

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Ben reflects...

In 2013, I was honoured to be invited by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering to travel to Bulgaria and take part in a project called the ‘Daphne Project’. It was a European project looking at alternatives to custody.  I was invited because of my background as a care leaver who had extensive first-hand experience of the criminal justice system in the UK.

 I was invited to facilitate focus groups of young people from residential care to explore with them the realities of the care system and how easily young people from care could find themselves sliding into the criminal justice system.

 I was asked to invite some of these young people to join me in London when we returned home to give a presentation to our European partners about the project. Most of the young people I invited had shown themselves to be very confident and articulate. They were very keen to have their views heard and to be listened to and I was equally keen that they should be.  

 I gave my presentation and the young people joined me on the panel. Together we exchanged views with our European counterparts. The young people were very impressive and I was very proud of them. They demonstrated what I know – that given a chance to speak and be listened to respectfully, young people from care had much to offer.  

 After the panel was over the subject of ‘Staying Put’ for fostered children came up in our conversation. This was the same day that the news was released about the new proposed amendment to the Children and Families Act 2014 being introduced. This amendment would allow fostered children to ‘stay put ‘with their carers after the age of 18 and up to 21 years of age. I was not aware that day that this amendment did not include the 9% of children in care who were living in residential care.

 The young people with me were all living in in residential care. “What about us?” they asked me. “Why aren't we included?” They were visibly upset and could not understand why they were not being offered the ‘Staying Put’ option too. I didn't know what to say. Not knowing about it, I simply assumed it must include all children in care. How could it not? Of course, it didn't. I told the young people that I would do what I could, although I was not at all sure what if anything I could do. I was as shocked at this amendment as the young people I was with.  

 It didn't sit well with me. On the way home, I thought about it and read as much about it as I could to ensure I understood properly what was being proposed.  No matter how I read it, it presented as blatant and deliberate discrimination not simply an anomaly.

 I spoke to several people I had got to know and learned to I respect because of their knowledge and experience of working with children and young people in the care system. We decided that we were going to start a campaign. We approached other like-minded people until we had a team of caring and committed people. We agreed to launch a petition to the Children’s Minister Edward Timpson to ask him to extend the ‘Staying Put’ option to include ALL care leavers, irrespective of where they were placed when they were due to leave care. This was the only just thing to do. We decided to call ourselves the ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ (ECLCM) campaign, and began campaigning at once. That was December 2013.

 It is now October 2015 and we are still campaigning. We have over 9,000 supporters who have signed our petition and extensive support from care leavers and most of the social work profession. We are widely supported by many local councillors and some Members of Parliament have openly advocated on our behalf.

 I strongly suspect that if we hadn't started campaigning, the needs of young people leaving residential care would have been quietly side lined and everyone would have just celebrated ‘Staying Put’ for fostered children and young people. I am thankful and proud to have worked with such amazing young people when we decided to start the ECLCM campaign. We have never lost sight of the fact that it is ALL young people from care and all care leavers that we are campaigning for - no matter where they live. 

 On a personal note, I would like to say a massive ‘Thank you’ to each and every person who has helped ECLCM. All the people who have supported us and signed our ‘@rescareto21’ petition asking for justice for all care leavers. No matter how big or small, every shred of support and encouragement has been greatly appreciated by the ECLCM team.

 Finally, a huge ‘Thank you’ to the young people who had that first conversation with me in December 2013.  Without them, we may not have realised as quickly as we did how unjust and discriminatory the way the government intended to implement ‘Staying Put’ really was.  

I told the young people in 2013 that I would do what I could.  I meant it then, and I still do. The ECLCM team will continue until we achieve what we came for – the option for ALL care leavers to ‘Stay Put’ in their final placement until they are 21. We ask that you support our ECLCM campaign. Why? The reasons in the name - Every Child Leaving Care Matters!

 Please sign our petition and share amongst your family and friends. We should never accept discrimination of any kind. We are talking about some of the most vulnerable children and young people in Society. They are just like other children, they have thoughts and feelings, fears, hopes and aspirations. They need love, support, stability and someone to be there for them, just like any other children. The ECLCM team have been with them since day one. Now we ask you all to join us. Please sign the petition and why not join ECLCM as a member?
Ben Ashcroft
Every Child Leaving Care Matters


Thursday, 3 September 2015

The space between.

The space between.

I’ve called this short article ‘The space between’. This is simply because that's how I believe many children who leave care feel - sort of "not quite here and not quite there" - lost in the space between. 
It’s a state of personal limbo -wanting to belong and wanting to share, but unable to belong because quite simply you don't feel that you have a lot to share. Whether that’s actually true or not, it was true in my case, but then I spent a great deal of time in care being me

Upon leaving care I felt full of anticipation and excitement mixed with a feeling of what is best described as fear a fear of the unknown, of a future that includes only me with no offers of support or certainties of a safety net if I fail. My head swims with questions: What's going on out there? Is it easy? Am I going to be on my own to fend for myself?

Years later, I can now answer those questions. Firstly, no it isn't easy. Secondly,  yes you’re on your own and you will be expected to care for yourself. In fact, you will have to care for yourself, because you will face very serious difficulties if you don’t.

When I came out of care in 1970 I was able to simply walk out of one job and into another in the same week! In those days, it was quite simply that easy to get a job. Nowadays though, I'm not sure I could cope. Kids leaving care now almost certainly won't walk into a job. They will certainly struggle to get and pay for a roof over their heads too. It's hard, very hard and that’s why it is simply wrong to put children out onto the streets to fend for themselves at 16+ after being in care. It's quite simply wrong and in my personal opinion with government cutbacks and such its borderline criminal.

Why would you invest a great deal of time and money on children and young people in care protecting them from abuse and untold horrors only to throw all of that away by not giving them a chance? Not giving them that few extra years – at least until they’re 21 years old or, as the Children’s Commissioner recommended, 25 years old? These kids can and I believe will be a great bonus to society if only they're given that chance – A few more years of stability, emotional and practical support, education and training. Just those few extra years….

There's my case for extending residential care to the age of at least 21 but even better 25. So please sign our ECLCM petition to help make that change for thousands of children. Give them the chance that most of you probably had and the same chance you will want to give to your own children.
 After all, its only fair don't you think?

Thank you.

Kev Edwards.