Monday, 31 March 2014

What will be the impact of discriminating between care leavers?

The “Every Child Leaving Care Matters” campaign began its life in December last year. Although the campaign team are from very different walks of life, we share one single belief that unites us. We believe that all children in the care of the state should be treated equally, according to their needs. They should be given the same opportunities, the same consideration, the same attention and the same support.

When we heard that the government were proposing to differentiate between children leaving foster care and those leaving other settings, we were puzzled. Our own knowledge and experience told us that the children in foster care and residential care are the same children – indeed many of them are siblings. We know that many families are separated and some are fostered whilst others are placed in residential care. Ideally, this will always be based upon an assessment of their needs. The only difference between the kids in foster care and the kids in children’s homes is simply that – some are in foster care whilst others are in children’s homes.

We have listened carefully to government ministers and their advisors and none have yet given a clear commitment to give children in children’s homes the same support when they are due to leave. We have had vague comment that when children’s homes reach a certain standard government may consider it – even though Ofsted inspections show a large majority of children’s homes are good or better.  (Incidentally, no such quality test was introduced for foster care).

We were told that there were regulatory difficulties and even safeguarding issues.  The regulatory difficulties can be easily overcome if the government wants to do so, and the safeguarding issues are exactly the same as they are now. Even so, still no commitment from government to address these perceived issues.
We were told that the Care Leavers’ Charter will meet the multiple needs of care leavers.  As evidence from councils around the country and our own recent blog demonstrate, this is simply not true.

The bottom line is that children leaving foster care will be supported until they’re 21, and may indeed stay on in placement if it meets their needs. Children leaving residential care won’t.  Ministers have given no firm commitment to address this discriminatory anomaly, only to ‘look at it’ at some time in the future when they consider conditions are right.

They are going to have pilots of course which will look at support arrangements for kids leaving residential care.  The pilots will report back in a few years and the government have not given any commitment to act upon their recommendations, if indeed they are still in power.  Many care leavers will have struggled and some significantly failed by then. Some may even have died.  Still, we are told, these things can’t be rushed.  Young people leaving care have waited since at least 1948 for good support when they leave care.  Many will have to go on waiting.

ECLCM believe that for some children to be given enhanced aftercare support until they are 21 whilst others are excluded based only on placement introduces a blatant discrimination that even we older campaigners and care leavers  never imagined would one day slither into social policy.
Recent ECLCM blogs have looked at what it means to be a care leaver. We have looked at how it feels to be a care leaver, whether to regard the term as a label and fight to eradicate it, or embrace it as a badge and wear it proudly so younger care leavers feel supported facing the stigma and shame so often associated with the term.  Stigma for children from care is a big issue.  As our blogs identified, not only are care leavers discriminated against, they are stigmatised too. 

A number of our blogs, including Ben’s most recent moving contribution, have demonstrated what can happen to care leavers when they are not supported.  Poverty and uncertainty, loneliness and apprehension are daily companions of many young care leavers seeking to cope when they are not given consistent practical and emotional support.  Under such pressures, a combination of anger, despair, poor self-esteem, hopelessness and vulnerability leads so many care leavers to seek the support or solace they so desperately need wherever it is offered.  Not surprisingly, this so easily leads to their being exploited and abused, slipping into misuse of drugs and alcohol, getting involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.

As Ben demonstrated, it is not enough to be provided with a flat and a few bob to furnish it. Many of us older care leavers remember well the pipe dreams Ben described - parties, loads of friends staying, freedom and independence.  However, it is just a pipe dream and too often merely a stop on the road to homelessness and becoming a ‘problem’ for local authorities.

All of our blogs by care leavers like Ben and others in the team show clearly that care leavers can only make a transition to independent living in their own time, when they are emotionally ready and have consistent support and opportunity to do so.  The new government policy towards children leaving care recognises this basic fact for fostered kids.  No such recognition for children leaving children’s homes.

We are told by people we respect that this is regrettable, but if we work with the system, we may achieve this objective, or some of it, a few years down the road. That is unacceptable for many reasons, but two of the main ones are:
  •       That many children leaving children’s homes now and until change is achieved will suffer greatly and may be irreparably damaged whilst they wait for equality;
  •       That the introduction of this discriminatory piece of social policy will add to the already heavy burdens of children leaving children’s homes, making their plight even worse. 

Our blogs by care leavers have illustrated the positive impact on self-esteem, confidence, coping skills, attitude and resilience that giving a child good consistent emotional and practical support can bring.  We would argue that there is another darker side of that coin – that publicly failing to give that support, deliberately excluding children leaving care from support, and even suggesting they are well supported when they are not,  actually risks further damage to care leavers’ self-image and confidence and retards their development and chances of success.

ECLCM has consistently argued that failure to treat all children leaving care in the same way has created a ‘two tier’ care system.  We fear that the lack of support and the uncaring message given to children leaving children’s homes will actually increase the likelihood of their failing to make the transition to the community safely. Please join us and complain loudly to MPs and decision makers.  Many care leavers do very well, but some don’t. With your help, we can make that number of young people who struggle smaller.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

6 Days, 23 Hours.

When I was nearly 18 years old I was released from a young offenders institution after serving eight months of a 16 month sentence. I had graduated to custody following a very difficult time in the care system.

I deserved my sentence for the crimes that I committed and as justice for my victims. I take responsibility for my own actions. I committed offences and I won't blame someone else. I won't seek to blame "the system" or adults in my life for the decline in my behaviour and mental health. I choose to be better not bitter, and to take full responsibility for my own actions.

I made a choice not to be one of the many hundreds if not thousands of young offenders who become trapped in the revolving door of re-offending and drug abuse and who just can't seem to break the cycle. It is hard to break that cycle when you have lived that life for years.

It is often very difficult to avoid re offending. In my case, when I was released from custody, the youth offending office placed me back with my mother against my will.

Living with my mother had failed before and I made it clear that it wasn't what I wanted or needed. I knew that within a short space of time I would run off or be taken back in to care. They placed me anyway. I was a upset that my view was simply ignored as though I was invisible. It felt like my voice didn't count and the decision wasn't based on my needs, thoughts or feelings.

As I feared, within two weeks of being back with my mother I was arguing with her and clashing about the smallest things. I knew it wouldn't work and had said so, but they didn't listen.

My mother never took responsibility for her actions towards me and even denied I was in care. She told people I was lying. My dad was never around and had never supported me. He was locked up when I was two years old for beating my mother.

After two unhappy weeks with my mother, I was moved to a hostel. Very little support was offered to me. I did not have a social worker or care leaver services. I felt truly vulnerable and alone.

My YOT worker offered as much support as he could but that was limited because I only got to see him for one hour each week. I then had six days and 23 hours to survive on my own until I got the chance to talk to my YOT worker again.

It was a lonely time with no money or family to support me, I was at serious risk of re-offending whilst I was living in a hostel. At times I was very tempted to give up. It would have been easy to overcome my loneliness by returning to my old friends who were still committing crime and taking drugs. Some of them were to die through drug misuse or suicide. 

I didn't want to carry on taking drugs and being locked up.  I wanted to lead a happy and successful life but knew the odds were against me.

I got lucky though. My YOT worker managed to get me a place on Project Challenge, a project for unemployed young people aged between 16 and 24 years old. I joined with 17 other young people who were just like me. 

The project lasted for six months. We had to learn first aid and navigation skills. We had to learn to improvise rescues, to ski and do lots of walking. 

It was exactly what I needed at that time. Project Challenge for me personally was a life saver and I still can't thank my YOT worker enough for that opportunity. It offered me the consistent support, guidance and structured routine I needed in my life.  It helped me build my confidence and self esteem, and provided a friendly face to talk too if I had any problems. I had never had this level of support before.

I had many problems but with their support, I was determined to succeed. I made a promise to myself that this time I would complete the course and would not fail myself or those who supported me. I completed the six month course, one of only three young people who did. it was gruelling but I never gave up .. and still haven't. 

I was rewarded with an expedition to Italy spending 16 days walking across the Dolomite's. I completed that too. It was one of the best experiences of my life.  

So what I am saying? I am saying that with the right consistent support from the right people in the lives of vulnerable young people, many more would be successful. Young people need that support for as long as it takes to help them to cope. This is why it is vital that ALL young people leaving care are supported at least until they reach 21.

There are a lot of 16-21 year olds in custody who have been in care. A recent estimate was about 40%. That is a lot of wasted talent. With the right people supporting and guiding them and offering positive role models,  many of these young people could stop re offending as I did. 

After April 2014, that will be so much harder. The implementation of the discriminatory aftercare policy included in the Children and Families Act 2014 will create an underclass, and will make young people in children's homes feel different and less valued than their peers and siblings in foster care. This added stigma will make their lives much harder. 

I had to survive the care system and the criminal justice system and have the emotional scars to prove it.  Now I try to use my own experiences to help young people whose lives are similar to mine when I was that age. I am able to do that because of the confidence I gained on Project Challenge. I probably would not be here today if I hadn't joined them when I did. I have been to their last two graduate presentations, and was honoured to be asked to present graduates with their certificates, over 10 years after I earned mine. I will be there again this year.

Now I can say I have been out of trouble for over 12 years. I have stayed away from crime and I am drug free. Because of the help I got when I needed it, I am now able to campaign for children and young people leaving care to get the same after care support up to age 21 that young people from foster care will be from April 2014.

All children and young people in care  should be treated the same no matter where they live. If not, what message is being sent to young people who are excluded? It is unacceptable. 

We at ECLCM will be here for as long as it takes until all care leavers are given the same opportunities. We are happy to work with and engage with all those individuals and organisations who feel the same.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Does the Care Leavers’ Charter address the needs of care leavers?

In 2012, the government introduced the Care Leaver’s Charter.  The Charter isn’t law, but a voluntary code for local authorities, a series of pledges towards children in their care intended to ensure that they are properly cared for and their needs are met when they are ready to leave care. 

The Charter includes some wonderful principles that we at ECLCM support wholeheartedly. The local authorities promise young people “to respect and honour your identity” and to “value and support important relationships”.  Under the Charter, councils pledge to believe and listen to young people. This has been a long term aim for all those campaigning for the rights of children and young people in care and is very welcome.  It gets better:

“We will help you push aside limiting barriers and encourage and support you to pursue your goals in whatever ways we can. We will believe in you, celebrate you and affirm you.”

We will take time to listen to you, respect, and strive to understand your point of view. We will place your needs, thoughts and feelings at the heart of all decisions about you, negotiate with you, and show how we have taken these into account”

As the comedian Jimmy Cricket used to say “and there’s more”… Under the Charter, the local council will also offer young care leavers practical and financial help as well as emotional support. They will be a “lifelong champion” and be there for them when they need it to be. All wonderful stuff!

Recently, Edward Timpson, Minister for Children and Families  reported that  123 councils had signed up to the ‘Care Leavers’ Charter’  each “pledging to provide young people leaving care with the vital help and support they need as they take their first steps into adulthood.”
Mr Timpson reminded us of the plight that young care leavers can find themselves in. “Too often I hear stories about young people leaving care feeling isolated, unsupported and facing endless barriers when all they are trying to achieve is the routine, everyday things that others take for granted - such as applying for their first job, getting information about college or university, or finding their first home.”
He even helpfully shared statistics reminding us that:
        Over 1,100 care leavers aged 16 or over are now living in independent accommodation without any formalised support
        34% of care leavers aged 19 or over are not in education, employment or training
        just 6% of care leavers aged 19 or over went on to higher education

It will come as no surprise that we at ECLCM agree with the Minister that these low levels of achievement are not good enough for care leavers. We also support the Charter and all the aspirations it contains.

Clearly, given this confident fanfare at ministerial level, might care leavers now expect that their needs will be addressed by the Charter?

Sorry Minister, this is where we part company. ECLCM do not share your optimism.  We DON’T see the Care Leavers’ Charter in its present form as a safeguard for children leaving care.  It cannot work unless there is legislation requiring government and local authorities to ensure that all young people leaving care receive the support they need at least until they are 21. This must include young care leavers being allowed to remain in their placement when it is in their interests, agreed by the provider and what they wish to do – in fact, the same rights bestowed by the Children and Families Act 2014 on children leaving foster care.

We have repeatedly asked, but so far, nobody has been able or prepared to explain to us what the differences are between children in children’s homes and children in foster care. We are willing to wager if we placed a mixed group of kids from foster care and children’s homes in a line, the minister and his advisors would not be able to identify which children were which.  Similarly, nobody has explained to us what the differences are in the needs of young people leaving foster care and residential care. They can’t of course … because there aren’t any.
The government places a great deal of faith in the Charter to meet the needs of care leavers.  The cynical amongst us might believe that this is because it shifts the focus on the local authorities to support care leavers without giving them any increase in government funding.  However, it isn’t working. We see reports in the social work press of local authorities seeking to save money by  persuading older children to leave care, or by moving the young people to cheaper 'supported accommodation' rather than keep them in children's homes until they turn 18. The councils cited in those reports were signatories to the Charter, and we suspect they are not alone.

ECLCM suggest to the minister that the Charter be:
  • Amended to include the right for all children to remain in their placement until they are 21 when it is consistent with their assessed needs and wishes and agreed by the provider;
  • Enshrined in legislation to mirror arrangements included in the Children & Families Act 2014 for fostered children;
  • Be appropriately funded and supported;
  • Be included in the inspection and regulation regimes used to inspect local authorities.
We suspect that then the number of young people from care who appear in the national disadvantage statistics would fall significantly within 3 years.


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Personal reflections of a care leaver...

I have been thinking a lot recently about my childhood in care, and about the life I could be leading now if things had been different. I had 37 different placements during my care career. That included 51 moves by the time I was 17 years old. I also had 33 convictions.

I could have taken the other direction when I was released from custody. I could have carried on committing crime, and taking drugs with my mates. Many of my mates were young people I had grown up with in care who were also "looked after" before they became care leavers at 16 or 17 years old.

Many of the lads and girls who were in care with me were provided with flats and £2000 to set them up for a 'life of independence' with some support from leaving care services.  Some of my other friends from care had little or no support, and had not acquired the life skills to cope in the big bad world of independence.

For many of these young people leaving care was an isolating and lonely experience, and a struggle at the best of times that sometimes led to drug or alcohol abuse. Drug and alcohol costs more than young care leavers can afford, and often led to crime to pay for the drink and drugs. This ultimately led to many of my care leaver brothers and sisters getting custodial sentences or being in and out of mental health units.

Some of my friends were given flats when they were 16 or 17, and granted money to furnish and decorate them. It seemed a great idea to them at the time to have a flat and no-one telling them what to do.

After a few months went by they were lonely and isolated. Many had got into debt because they couldn't budget their money. Others had caused problems for neighbours because of anti-social behaviour. Many of these young care leavers would have their friends round and party. This often got out of hand as they couldn't control their friends’ behaviour, which led them to being evicted and homeless. Some committed suicide.

Many young care leavers have died from drug overdoses and will never get to see the good things life has to offer other than the pain and trauma they experienced as children.

Most young people in care have been abused or neglected and have had a very poor start in life. Under existing arrangements, many of those now placed in children's homes will be expected to leave care at 16-18 years old. At that age, £2000 and a flat will be very appealing to a lot of these young people. Some will successfully make the transition to adulthood through their own resilience and through being lucky enough to get sufficient support from caring people. Many will not.

Many will want to come back in to care after they experience time in independence and the loneliness this can bring for many young care leavers. They realise then how much they would benefit from extended support and a chance to gain in maturity and life experience.

Given the chance to remain in care until they are 21, to develop more life skills and to become better prepared for independence, more care leavers will cope. Instead, they are being set up to fail on a regular basis. This is unacceptable.

I am convinced this opportunity would reduce the number of care leavers so frequently represented in the cold disadvantage statistics published routinely by government.

This is why the 'Every Child Leaving Care Matters' campaign is so important to keep this injustice in the public eye and demand equality of support for ALL care leavers to be supported to 21.

How many more care leavers do the government need to see fail? How many more care leavers have to commit suicide because Fate decreed they would be a lonely young isolated care leaver with no support?

It costs less to support some of the most vulnerable young people/adults in society than let them fail, costing the tax payer so much more in benefits, mental health support, housing, crime and custody. With 71% of offenders released from custody re-offending within a year of release, custody is very expensive and ineffective. It does not meet the needs of the young people incarcerated or the public at large.

It is time this government had some vision and started consulting with more young people in care and who have just left care. The more young people are engaged and consulted about decisions in their lives the more successful it will be. Young people from care can say what needs to change and help with change. This is more likely to succeed than only listening to experts who think they know what is best for young people but don't have the experience or insight, and are too detached to know what young people really want.

Care leavers can and are successful with the right support, practical help, guidance, and with a positive role model whom they trust and will help them through the good times and the bad.

We all need support from time to time. We can't help everybody, but everybody can help somebody

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

I am a care leaver and I'm proud of it

The other day, an earnest young writer, who grew up in care herself, asked me, “Why at your age do you describe yourself as a care leaver?”  The question surprised me, as it is not something I have ever thought about. To me, it was like asking me why I describe myself as a Mancunian, or a grandfather, or a university graduate. It’s an integral part of what I am.  I grew up in care. That is a fact. At 18 years old, I left care and became a care leaver.  The status of care leaver did not disappear when I reached a certain age, got married, got a degree, a career or any other threshold. It is what I am and will always be.

The question then caused me to wonder why another care leaver would ask such a question. Is there some internal measure that suggests that as soon as one becomes successful or independent, one should stop calling oneself a care leaver? Similar perhaps to when one recovers from an illness and no longer needs the doctor one ceases to be a patient?  Or when one pays one’s debts to another, one ceases to be a debtor?

It occurred to me that my earnest interrogator  viewed  ‘care leaver’ as a negative and transitory stage in life, one to be experienced before we move into full maturity, and certainly not one that a successful retired professional family man should include in his self-description. Care leaver is a ‘label’ that should be discarded as the label adolescent would be discarded as we grow up.

Care leaver means more to me than that. I grew up in the care of the state. I grew up in a random collection of children’s homes and foster homes, and experienced different carers and placements.  I experienced the powerlessness of being moved around whether I liked it or not, and having to change schools, even though I was happily settled where I was.  I experienced a sprinkling of physical abuse and a liberal helping of emotional abuse at the hands of some of my carers. I met some unpleasant people in care, and I also met some lovely caring people who had a real impact on my later life. I left care with nowhere to go, few resources, a large chip on my shoulder, lots of unresolved issues and unmet need.

Whereas other kids can enjoy their adolescence and higher education, I needed that time to sort myself out, and I was in my late 20’s before I finally found my way to university. By then, I had also found myself a professional career and married a wonderful woman who was my wife for 41 years until she died. That ‘sorting out’ process was a collection of lucky breaks, being in the right place at the right time, bloody hard work and resilience on my part. It was also attributable to some key people being prepared to commit to me, support me and give me the chances I needed to develop though the disadvantages I had accrued in the care system.  I ‘survived’ care. 

By my 30’s I was an ordinary middle class professional with a developing career with prospects and a loving family. We care leavers do not wear a badge on our foreheads, so I was just another unremarkable member of the community. I think that this journey into social invisibility is true for a majority of care leavers.   We are a pretty resilient bunch, and if care has not damaged us too much, and if we get the lucky breaks and have the practical and emotional support, most of us disappear into Society as we grow older.  I think it is largely a lottery rather than the result of any carefully considered master plan.

But there’s the rub. Not all of us escape as lightly. Not all of us get those lucky breaks in the care lottery, or have people who are prepared to love us, or to go the extra mile to support us. Some of us suffer such abuse in care or experience such a level of disadvantage that they are unable to make that transition from care to invisibility. This is not the place to insert statistics, but there can be little doubt that the dice are loaded for many young people and adults coming out of the care system and they will not enjoy the journey into comfortable invisibility that I made.

I am a care leaver. I crossed that bridge to social invisibility successfully.  I have proved many times that I am as worthy as anyone else, and that being a care leaver need not mean that I cannot achieve my wishes. To me, being a care leaver is not something to hide or be ashamed of.  I have no need to be invisible, and if my not being invisible helps other care leavers who are struggling, surely I have a moral duty to declare my status and show my peers that if this clumsy old man can ‘make it’ then so can they.  More than that, I have a moral duty to challenge the inequalities and disadvantages that my care leaver peers are suffering to help them on their journey to happiness and independence.

I am a care leaver, and I am proud of it.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

6000 Young People, 6000 Signatures!

About three months ago, on the 4th December, 2013, the government announced that children who were in foster care would be allowed and supported to remain with their foster carers until they were 21 years of age.  At the time, many caring people genuinely felt this was a massive breakthrough in the fight for support for young people leaving care that had been going on for many years.  As we noted at the time, there was much celebration amongst campaigners when the announcement was made.

Some of us did not celebrate unequivocally.  We saw that this breakthrough was only partial; it only offered enhanced support to one single group of care leavers but not to others.  Whereas a large majority of children in care are in foster care, about 9% of children in care, about 6,000 children, are in residential children’s homes and other settings.  There was to be no enhanced provision or right to stay put in their placements given to these children.

Strange and incongruous as it seemed to us, children in residential care were to be excluded in this change even though arguably the residential sector cares for possibly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people who may be unable, or indeed choose not to be fostered. In the celebrations this group were invisible.

We struggled with this so checked carefully, but there was no obvious child care centred reason based on good practice for this. How could this be? How could one vulnerable group of children simply be left out? These children had the same needs and presented the same challenges as children in foster care. Indeed, they were often their siblings.  They were at least as vulnerable and faced the same disadvantages as their peers in foster care.  The shocking reality dawned on us that the decision was not based on any other factor but where the child was placed when they were due to leave care.  This was clearly blatant discrimination. The campaign to gain equal aftercare support for young people in children’s homes to that given to young people in foster care was born, and the “Every Child Leaving Care Matters” petition was opened.

Today, that petition has been signed by over 6000 people – one for every child placed in residential care who would be and as it stands will be excluded from this discriminatory government policy.  We know from our contacts with signatories that many are social workers and social work teachers who are unhappy with being asked to discriminate between vulnerable children based on placement rather than need.  Some are psychologists who struggle with the idea that support will be based on geography rather than assessment.  Some are lawyers who see the injustice in the policy the government are seeking to pursue.  Many are care leavers who have struggled leaving care and don’t want any more children to have to struggle.  Many are care providers, and we are proud to include foster carers and adoptive parents in our ranks who want equality for all children.  The campaign’s aim for equal support for all care leavers until they are at least 21 years old is now openly shared and promoted by major child care charities as well.

We welcome all those who put the needs of children and young people first. We are people from all walks of life bound together only by our determination to see all children and young people leaving care treated equally, treated without discrimination and based on their needs and wishes.  It just seems obvious and basic to us. 

The government has presented a range of reasons why they say equal care cannot be given at this time.  We have responded to them in our blogs in recent weeks.  Please have a look at our blog library and hopefully you will agree with us that the excuses don’t hold water and can be addressed fairly easily with good will and cooperation.

We have consistently offered to meet with ministers to discuss how to amend their discriminatory policy and give all care leavers equal opportunities and support until they are 21. They have declined to date. The offer remains open. For the sake of the next generation of children and young people leaving care, I hope they accept it this time.  

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Have we lost hope?

It’s all about need really isn’t it? Well, perhaps need and labels.  Ok, need, labels and narratives. 

For the decision to have been made to separate the care pathways of young people in foster care from those in residential care I assume that it has been decided that the needs of both of these groups of young people differ.  I’m assuming this.  I mean, this MUST be the case right? This is how services are run surely?  It’s common sense.

I am used to working in a way that focuses on need.  I asses clients to find out about their needs, together we formulate an understanding of how their needs developed, what is maintaining the status quo and what role I can play in supporting them to address their needs.  It’s not ludicrous to suggest we do this with young people in/leaving care is it? I mean if it is tell me and I’ll stand corrected. But really, let’s not overcomplicate things (even though I know that can be a FANTASTIC distraction technique for those not wanting to address these issues).  Can we understand how the needs of young people in residential care have developed? Yes we can.  Can we work together with them and those important to them to put together a plan for how those needs can be met? Yes we can.  Does this differ from how we should work with young people in foster care? No it doesn’t. Right then. Oh, and the final, to me pivotal, question – do we really want to explore and acknowledge the needs of young people in residential care? Hmmmm.  Possibly not.

Which brings me on to labels and narratives (Hurrah I hear you cry….right?!) and an issue I’ve been considering for some time.  So, for example, you get a (typically) young child who has been subject to abuse or neglect and whose difficult behaviour is understood in this context as an understandable, albeit challenging, response to their environment and experiences.  Then at some point, and I don’t know when or how, the child them self is then labelled as the problem.  So the narrative and understanding of the (now) young person has switched from one which acknowledges and prioritises systemic and contextual factors, to one where individual factors, and individual labels, are prioritised. 

There’s a saying in narrative therapy: “the person isn’t the problem; the problem is the problem” (I’m pretty sure Michael White is credited for this). At some point with looked-after children, the young person seems to become the problem.  What also seems to happen, perhaps simultaneously, is that we (both as professionals and at, I believe, a societal level), begin telling young people that they “need to start taking some responsibility” and “need to start acting (their) age”.  And I hold my hands up – when I was a residential care worker I said these phrases or words to that effect many a time. So I guess once these socially-constructed age-based narratives and expectations of young people become dominant, or even exclusive, we are shifting responsibility of and for these young people from ourselves (and services) to them.  And if that is the case, then conceptualising these young people as needing – and deserving – support becomes very difficult as it does not fit with the dominant narrative of individual responsibility.

Why do we place so much stock in our socially constructed ideas of what young people should be capable of and should be doing at certain ages – 16, 18, 21? We KNOW that the brains of children who have been neglected and/or abused develop differently – WE KNOW THIS. We KNOW the potential functional implications on these brain differences on young people. So we would of course conclude that due to biological, social and psychological factors many young people in care are not where we would ‘expect’ their non-care based counterparts to be. So why are we remaining so fixed on AGE and using this to dictate our expectations of and demands on young people in care?

I guess the point I am trying to make is this – is there something about the narratives that exist about looked after children, particularly those in residential care, that are creating a barrier to their being able to access post-18 support? Do we believe that it’s about time they pulled their socks up and started taking some responsibility? Have we storied their behaviour, and indeed their lives, in such a way that they have been put in a box labelled ‘too far gone’ or even ‘menace to society’?.  Or, and perhaps even worse, have we lost hope for young people in residential care? I believe that a significant part of the role of those around children in care is holding the hope when they cannot.  If we don’t care for them after 18 what message are we giving them? Are we telling them that we too have lost hope?

By Helen Williams
Trainee Clinical Psychologist