GUEST POST from Ian Dickson
I looked at the disadvantage statistics for people who have left care yesterday. They’ve changed little over decades, but I check them a lot to remind myself why I campaign for change for the care experienced community. The same depressing reading e.g. 34% young care experienced people not in employment, education or training compared to 15.5% of the general population; children in care four times more likely to have mental health difficulties; only 6% of care experienced people in higher education; over 40% of young adults in prison and up to 30% of homeless young people have care experience, and so on. Yet we are told routinely that support for young people in and leaving care is improving all the time. It seems to me then that if that is the case, the operation was a success, but the patient died.
How can we break this crushing cycle of failure? It occurs to me that we can start by turning these statistics on their head. Dreadful as they are, when looked at another way we see that the majority of care experienced people do NOT fall into these statistics. Most are absorbed into the wider adult community notwithstanding the extra challenges they face. I guess that demonstrates that in spite of adversity, most care experienced young people can achieve and many punch above their weight.
That reminded me of two other statistics I saw recently. One from Coram’s recent study that suggested 83% of young people in care that they surveyed felt life was better, and the other that 94% of young people from care do not get involved in trouble with the police. Why are we not hearing more about this? Probably because we are not asking enough care experienced people.
What might we hear if we ask care experienced people? Decision makers usually take into account the views of care experienced people when making future plans. In my experience, these people are normally aged up 18, or 21, or in some cases 25 years of age. This is commendable as well as vital, but not sufficient to address the challenges that young people will face whilst they are in and leaving care I suggest. Views and experiences change dependent upon age, experience and the length of time since young people have left care – and this variation is important. Let us look at a few examples.
Take a 10-year-old child living for the previous 3 years in a children’s home. He is intelligent and enjoys school and takes solace in books, but the home is emotionally sterile and only physical contact he has ever enjoyed from adults there is violence. He is withdrawn and distrusting of adults.
Take a young man aged 16 in a foster placement. He has no emotional bonds and has spent the last 12 months truanting from school and hanging around in pubs the city. He is invariably angry and frightened and has no idea what lies in the future. He feels lonely, alienated & living with his foster parents is a necessary nuisance. He communicates poorly, is shy, unsure, distrusting and unable to articulate his thoughts because he has no idea what they are. He knows he just wants ‘out’.
Take a young care experienced man aged 18. He left care to nothing. The arrangements made were inadequate and unsupported and quickly broke down. He is now homeless and sofa surfing. He left school with one GCE O’ Level, so has little to offer employers. He is unemployed, depressed, penniless, and looks in through windows at a world he does not feel part of and cannot share. He feels invisible.
Take a care experienced man. He is 21 and has a stable home with foster parents. He has a steady job and is doing well. He attends college on day release and is winning college prizes for his work. He is in a loving relationship and saving to marry. He is confident and self-assured, optimistic that life will get better.
Take another care experienced man. This man is 27 years old. He has just started at university, married with a child. Life is tough being a full-time student on a grant, but he feels very positive about the future and incredibly lucky to have people who care for him backing me up.
Take one last care experienced adult. He is 30, happily married with a family, a home owner, a graduate, professionally well qualified and on the management ladder. Contented, self-assured and optimistic about the future.
All of these people are care experienced, yet if they were asked to comment on making provision for young people in and leaving care, the enquiry might receive very different answers from the very different people. Except they are not different people. They are one person. They are me.
Care is not a static system. It is dynamic, and the same people who are today’s statistics can be (and frequently are) tomorrow’s success stories. Care experienced people are not inadequate products of the care system to be pitied, stigmatised and discriminated against. They are real and ordinary people at different stages of life. Sometimes they will need help and support. Other times, they will be able to offer that support to others. The ‘trick’ is to offer the right kind of support at the right time to enable them to achieve.
I refer frequently to the ‘care experienced community’. This community includes all care experienced people. The 10-year-old in the foster home, the 16 year old in foster care, the homeless 18 year old and the adults at various ages are all members of that care community. They can never meet of course, and even if they could, it would exceedingly rare for this to happen. Imagine if older care experienced people could have a dialogue, exchange thoughts and ideas with their younger peers, and could offer encouragement, advice and positive role models.
Imagine also if those who made decisions about care had access to the massive experience and understanding of not just one band of care experienced people but could speak with care experienced people of all ages and in all their diversity, including those still in the care system and those who have successfully negotiated it and are now in the community. How services could be improved!
I believe we can do this, and the means to achieve it would be the conference for care experienced people of all ages – “The care experience – Past, present … & future?”
That’s why I support the conference.