Own two feet


Same curve of a smile
November 24, 2011, 12:44 pm
Filed under: APPG, leaving care | Tags: , , , , ,

Billy stood up, put his hands behind his back and began to fill the silence of the room. At first he stumbled through his words, but then quickly pulled them together and with them the attention of the crowd. ‘I have been in care for 13 years and have had 16 placements’.

It should have been shocking, but a collective understanding flooded through the room. He was one of us. Many had walked in those polished black shoes. It was in the nods and the murmuring.

He talked about being in one placement for two and a half years. ‘I was neglected’. More nods. I, like many was hanging off his every word, while at the same time hanging off my own memories of my time in care.

It hurt, but at the same time here was a stranger who knew me and I knew him and yet we had never ever spoken. The fact that over fifteen years separated us seemed of little importance. His story, so familiar, but still no less powerful then took a turn. He found the Lodge. ‘I feel safe there…all my needs are met…they support me’. We were all with him. All on the same curve of a smile.

It may not have been us that had found the Lodge, but he gave people hope that such places existed. But then he took another turn. ‘They want to close it’…’There was no consultation with any of us [young residents]’. Saving pounds and pence seemingly more important than people’s futures. The place where he felt safe was now under attack and Billy was standing there in his dark suit fighting for himself and probably without even knowing it, for many others in the room and beyond.

At times, as I stood leaned up against the wooden panelled wall of the Boothroyd Room at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, it felt like  war. On one side and showing in force young people living in care and with them the people that fight by their side. The care workers, social workers, volunteers, charity reps, care leavers, even the slick and humorous Edward Timpson MP. But there is no escaping, this side is outgunned and out manned.

On the other side, and far away from the room (even though it was in the heart of Westminster), the great hulking faceless machine. A machine that hides behind the overused words of ‘the system’. A machine that seems to have no real accountability. It doesn’t matter who is in government. This machine doesn’t care about political colours. Every now and again it gears up and spits out policies and slogans of what it might do, could do, but then sinks back into the safety of anonymity and shrugged shoulders, blaming the ‘necessary cuts’ we all must accept and how ‘we’re all in it together’.

If all that fails then the machine switches to the finger pointing game that goes on between central government and local government. Like two kids fighting over a toy, except neither wants it. The excuses and the faces have changed over the years, but not much else it sometimes seems.

Unfortunately this war that most in the room had come to fight is not one that is fought in the full glare of the media (even Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to make the news these days). It is fought behind closed doors, on phones and in forms and in offices and in bedrooms and in doctors surgeries and sadly often in silence.

I look down at the notes I made on the day, some are hard to make out now because of the state of my writing, but I see ‘care system lets people down…they fall through the gaps’. Further down the page, ‘lack of rights and entitlements…lack of remedies’. Hanging off the bottom of my page is ‘there is good practice going on out there, but people are not sharing it’.

Later on a care worker stands up and says he is happy to share what works for his area, but people are unwilling to come and see. Another care worker stood up to talk about a film he had made about the successes Hackney had achieved, but hardly anybody came to see it. ‘Why won’t they come?’ he asked.

But even in the darkest places hope can always be found if we go looking for it. Success stories were scattered throughout the room with people entering higher education, further education, finding families, finding flats and ultimately finding their voices (more than once I was in awe at the eloquence of how people spoke).

There is no doubting that the struggle for people in care will go on on so many levels. In heads and hearts. In schools and colleges. In the attempt to hold family relationships together. In the constant fights for funding. The fights for stability and consistency. The fights for good social workers. The fights for more foster families. The fights for good accommodation and so the list goes on. But being in care has a way of making you battle hardened and you learn quickly how to fight, but is this really what this system should be about? Is this really ‘care’?

In the end more is needed across the board and it is not just about money. It is as much about good organisation and serious accountability. The ‘decision makers’ must stand up and be counted. Too many good ideas are following too many young people down the gaps that exist in the system. The room all night demanded better than the recycled words that we’re so tired of hearing. We need action. As a man said towards the end ‘we need people to stop passing the buck because it’s been going on for too long’. Everyone agreed.

I left the meeting with Billy at the forefront of my mind. I had clapped hard for him after he had spoken. It is not easy to stand up in a crowd and tell your story. I was proud of him, proud of his will and proud of his eloquence.

In the end I was most proud to be on the same side as Billy and everybody else that had come to be acknowledged in the Boothroyd room that night.

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I may have left care, but it has never left me
September 14, 2010, 2:45 pm
Filed under: leaving care | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

My positive side says that going into care was ultimately for the best. I can see the path that was being plotted for me. All my school reports before I left home talk of wasted potential (this counts for secondary school too) and constant fighting. On one occasion my care file talks of me being restrained for an hour and a half at school before the police were called. I was ten.

At home violence was familiar to the point that when I saw my mum have her nose broken I thought it was her own fault. She just wouldn’t shut up, didn’t know when to stop and one of her male drinking partners thought he would show her how. Of course, even with the blood streaming down her face, it showed her nothing and they probably hugged and made up in seconds. That’s just how things were.

Those of you who have experienced stuff like this will understand what I mean when I say that I just got on with things. It wasn’t even that dramatic. It was the rough edge of normality.

But this life, and what I was seeing, was seeping into me and I was becoming it. Telling whoever I wanted to ‘f*** off’ at the drop of a hat, breaking into schools, fighting, generally not caring about anything or anyone. And if I had stayed I know it would have been hard not to go down the route that my home life was offering me.

In care, one set of issues was exchanged for another. Over time lots of memories from those days have faded away. The faces of carers and children I lived with have disappeared. But I know this is me remembering to forget because it’s often easier that way.

Unless you’ve been there you will never understand what it’s like to be abandoned in this world. When both your mum and dad turn their backs on you that cuts a hole that can never be filled.

As an adult I can now rationalise what happened to me, but the heart is not rational and the pain still remains. There are days when the positive side wins out and I’m happy that I managed to go to university and that my working life has been relatively successful. In my battle with my experience I win out mostly and refuse to let it dominate me, but it is still a big part of me. Take that part away from me and I will lose much of my identity. It’s the bitterest, and yet sweetest side of who I am.

I intended for this post to be about leaving care and it is, but it’s hard to find the finish line. And this can only highlight the desperate need to support young people when they leave care. Going from a controlled daily existence to then being put out into the world to fend for yourself is a scary thing.

Thinking back I’m not sure when I actually left care. Was it climbing out of my last foster parents’ car window and running away? Was it saying goodbye to Lee’s mum (see July’s post) in my university halls bedroom? I’m not sure because I did get a £500 cheque each year from Social Services while I was still at university, which I quickly spent on essential studying equipment… alcohol!

But seriously, I guess I was still part of the system because I also received a letter about independent living. No phone call, no visit, just a letter. Something so important deserved so much more. I had been in care since I was nine.

Recently I’ve been reading about the experiences of young people in care today and it saddens me to see that very little has changed. Support can be sketchy and there is often a lack of understanding from some of the people who are part of the system that provides this support.

Also I see a tragic fatalism that says that this is just the way it is. Complain about the dirty flat you move into as you make the transition from care into the real world and you’ll be told that it’s tough and that you should be grateful. I still feel like people leaving care and those who are in care are squashed into statistics and budgets and reports… people need to remember that we are often people with complex needs who need a solid support system.

I appreciate that we are living in a world of cuts at the moment, but the money and effort put in to support people leaving care could ultimately save money in the long run (not that decisions should always be made on a monetary basis).

The statistics concerning people who have been touched by the care system relating to academic achievement, the likelihood of becoming homeless and the likelihood of going to jail, alongside other statistics scream out that more has to be done. There are care leavers who go on to lead productive and happy lives. But I don’t need a statistic to know that this number is far too low.

I think the final letter I ever received from Social Services was to ask me if I wanted to stay on the independent living scheme, and that if so I needed to take up a flat soon. By then I was living in the Midlands and still had another year of studying. Time was moving on and the truth is I wanted to distance myself as far away from Social Services as possible, so I said no.

I was lucky because I had built a support network around me by then. But that was the last I heard from Social Services. For so long they had been this great hulking thing that had controlled my life, and then they were suddenly gone.

I’ve blagged my way through a lot of my life since then, but there are times when I wish I had been offered some kind of emotional support. Sometimes leaving care can be an elating experience, you can go through a honeymoon period, but down the track the demons can catch up with you. People need help in this department just as much as the everyday things like budgeting, filling out forms, paying bills, writing CVs etc. I never got that help and many others don’t seem to either.

I actually did some research for this blog for a change and there are a lot of great ideas that can be found in various reports and articles about improvements that can made to support the transition from care to independent living. (Such as Ofsted’s report, Support for care leavers). Also the young people this affects are full of great ideas and practical ways to make the transition easier. For example, at the Associate Parliamentary Group for Looked-after Children and Care Leavers.

But, if there is nobody to coordinate these ideas and take responsibility in the higher echelons of government and the related departments and agencies, then the sense of abandonment many feel coming into care will only be further reinforced when they leave it. 



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