What does it mean to be a care leaver?
In policy terms it means a relevant child or former relevant child who has been under the care of their local authority as a young person. For the purposes of our everyday lives I will discuss what being a care leaver means on a practical, emotional level and what it means within society. These discussions may not be confined or limited to purely legal definitions depicted in government policy.
The experience(s) of young people in care is one of the most important measurements of society’s values.We need to talk about our experiences in care, because they shape who we are after care. We are taught how and where we fit into society whilst in care. But we also learn about how society functions in relation to us because being in care means you are very aware of how the state treats some of its most vulnerable citizens. The entire country’s ideas and values are built around the government and politics of the time (whether people agree or disagree with them is less important than the fact they exist.) And because so much of our interactions with the local government are taken up by initiatives and new schemes (does anyone remember free laptops?), we understand which parts of our lives society sees as important and which parts it chooses to forget or ignore.
Abuse, representation and reality
For example of young people in care being yardsticks of values I will discuss a time paedophilia and child abuse were less discussed, engaged with and investigated. An instance of this is the widely discussed case of Jimmy Savile, whose celebrity status and power gained him entry to the homes and lives of vulnerable young people in care. In the 2012 documentary produced by the BBC entitled ‘Jimmy Savile What the BBC knew’ the investigators spoke with people who were in care and abused by (or witnessed abuse by) Savile. Young women were often taken out in Savile’s car and didn’t realise that his actions were abuse, some even believed them to be romantic. In a lot of cases it seems safe to say that the lack education on relationships that these young women received contributed to them believing the interactions they had were healthy, and the abuse they endured was a ‘trade off’ for escape from their homes and for getting some attention that made them feel important. This, along with the workers in the homes being in awe of Savile, and the Police dismissing the young people's reports meant that many of these young people, now middle aged and older have never spoken about their experiences.
So celebrity culture, the police and the care system created a free pass for Savile to abuse young women.
So celebrity culture, the police and the care system created a free pass for Savile to abuse young women.
Obviously some things have changed now. There is policy in place by for both the police and local authorities that should prevent this situation from happening. It is worth noting that this policy is often overlooked, or ignored by the police in situations relating to rape. Sometimes those who work with care leavers and young people in care don't get given the practical skills to put the policy into practice. This isn't the fault of those people, but rather a result of policy being written with lots of jargon and little understanding of how we live our lives. Thus we see that the power dynamics of young people in care (with little or no power and understanding of the love and care they're entitled to) and adults with power over young people means that abuse occurs often. And just as often is goes unrecognised.
Most recently there was the representation of (again sexual) abuse in the Channel 4 drama The Unloved, this time they showed a young women being abused by a member of staff. The media often uses young people in care as a story, they sensationalise our experiences and turn us into statistics to scare their readers, but the media is often silent on other forms of abuse and the rest of the difficulties that face young people in care and care leavers.
Why abuse. why now?
I’ve had many interactions with other care leavers, at special events, and just personal chats and what seems most common is the widespread experience of abuse, before, during and after they have been taken into and left care. Obviously sexual abuse is important, but I’d like to define a few other kinds and open discussion about one. Physical abuse is violence and physical harm, neglect is failing to meet a persons care needs, emotional abuse is bullying a person verbally, psychological abuse is more commonly understood as ‘mind games’. Abusers can be people in authority or our peers, it can happen at any point and all abuse is wrong.
Most of the people in care I have spoken to and all of the care leavers I have gotten to know (and myself) have experienced at least one of these forms of abuse, usually more. I’ve never attended an event for care leavers that didn't turn into those present talking about their horrible experiences. Drunken foster parents, possessions stolen, or kept, physical harm, blame, lies told to social workers. I think one of the most important things I can say is- I believe them all. Care leavers and young people in care are so often not believed, so often people tell us that we ‘must’ have done something to provoke abuse towards us, but abuse is always the choice of the person committing it. We are not responsible for their actions. Because of the poor resources and structures that aren't effective we often have to work very hard to keep ourselves safe. That may be one of the reasons why so often care leavers live with a fight or flight response. We have strange habits, we may appear unusually protective of our possessions or unusually relaxed about them.We may get very upset when certain topics are mentioned, or seem very detached when we talk about topics that other people think are sensitive. We might feel scared that our homes and our things are going to be taken from us, this isn't because we're unnecessarily paranoid, but because we have been taught that this is what we deserve and should expect.
Our experiences of abuse are real, they are difficult to process and we carry them with us as care leavers absolutely every single day. This is not to say we are weak, or we can’t let go of the past, or we can’t form healthy relationships, but that we have a very different experience to our peers who have not been in care. Of course other people can encounter all the forms of abuse I have listed above, so what’s the difference?
Being 'looked after' by the state/government means we are automatically at the mercy of whoever is in power. And the people in power may change and have different ideas about how to run the country, and how much funding the local authority(/ies) should have. In fact, from what I have seen, funding problems are more consistent than any scheme or project. Funding is reallocated or the terms of receiving it are changed, it's suspended, lessened or replaced with alternatives but this usually means the same thing- less money for those who need it. This is the same for all who need the help of the government, from people's benefits to hospitals to libraries. Very often care leavers are seen as an unnecessary expense.
I don’t want care leavers to feel oppressed or like they have to put up with endless suffering, but I feel it’s really important that we name the harm and sadness caused to our lives by the ever disappearing funding and the bureaucracy we encounter in just trying to live our lives. I think we should call it 'administrative neglect'. Our needs as care leavers are being ignored by the administration the people high up who run the government.
This is not about the people who have cared for us, or social workers, it’s not a personal problem, it’s a problem with the system. It's a problem with the people who decide that our local communities can cope with millions of pounds less. The problem becomes real when the local government decide us, care leavers, are the best place to start cutting that money from. This is offensive and unfair because the person deciding to cut funding has never lived in a kids home, has never run away from foster parents, doesn’t understand that university funding is sometimes the only reason some of us consider university. They are not qualified to make decisions about our lives, (but, just like the examples from before) because they hold power over us they are able to make choices about our lives that negatively effect us.
Why does it matter?
There’s a very important reason for us to recognise the failures and abuses that have happened; they impact our quality of life and our mental health, our aspirations, our physical health, our living conditions, our opportunities and self-esteem. Without understanding how these problems have changed our lives we can't begin to think about recovery. Much of the time care leavers attempt to go on with their lives like other people do, we get jobs, have families, or form relationships, but there’s always something that seems different. Often these walls of a life that we’ve built for ourselves fall down, and we feel unable to perform the average tasks to keep our lives flowing normally. It can be as simple as being scared to open letter, or as complicated as being scared to interact with the state via the NHS and not seeking adequate medical help. When this happens, we blame ourselves. Self-blame can tear lives apart, can make us believe that we didn’t try hard enough, or that our interactions with drugs, or with the judicial system are just incidents we’ve brought on ourselves. The reason we need to recognise administrative neglect is that these cuts often mean that there's not enough resources to teach us how keep our lives going, and how to mend them when they break. If that is the case, then the system of one person holding power over another is harming people. If, like I said earlier, young people in care and care leavers are the yardstick by which we can measure the values of society then what does that say about those values? It often seems like the media who were so interested in reporting about how many of us are 'victims' of sexual abuse don't want to report when powerful people in our country make cuts that make our lives worse.
So where does this leave us?
Well often care leavers will find solace in another community, it might be friends we’ve met through college or university, it might be a community based around drugs, or other young parents, or a political community. I’m not here to say that any of those are wrong, we do what we need to do to build ourselves a family, to make decisions for ourselves, to get support.
One of my communities is feminism, (women’s rights) which is tied up a lot in children’s rights too. In feminist discussions people who have experienced abuse aren’t called ‘victims’, they’re called survivors. If there’s one thing I would encourage all care leavers to do it is this- the next time you think about how you have been treated, or any abuse received and begin to feel weak remind yourself that being stood where you are now means that you survived it. You have overcome it. And though there might be nights when you feel anxious or scared, though you’re not always managing to juggle adult life just you, getting out of bed this morning (or staying in bed for a rest) means that you are surviving.
I don’t believe that there will be big changes to the government structure that will allow young people and care leavers to exist free from administrative neglect. But I do believe that the idea of a society where people in care are treasured and not condemned to suffering through administrative neglect is an idea worth hanging on to. After all, we’re all allowed to hope, right? Until the point when this is a reality I’ll stand tall with all of the other people who have suffered abuse in care and as care leavers and say- I’m not a care leaver, I’m a care survivor. Because you can take the kid out of care, you can't take the care system out of the kid, and if I'm going to carry so many experiences with me, I want to do it as someone who is still standing, I want to do it as a survivor.