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