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.