The other day, an earnest young writer, who grew up in care herself, asked me, “Why at your age do you describe yourself as a care leaver?” The question surprised me, as it is not something I have ever thought about. To me, it was like asking me why I describe myself as a Mancunian, or a grandfather, or a university graduate. It’s an integral part of what I am. I grew up in care. That is a fact. At 18 years old, I left care and became a care leaver. The status of care leaver did not disappear when I reached a certain age, got married, got a degree, a career or any other threshold. It is what I am and will always be.
The question then caused me to wonder why another care leaver would ask such a question. Is there some internal measure that suggests that as soon as one becomes successful or independent, one should stop calling oneself a care leaver? Similar perhaps to when one recovers from an illness and no longer needs the doctor one ceases to be a patient? Or when one pays one’s debts to another, one ceases to be a debtor?
It occurred to me that my earnest interrogator viewed ‘care leaver’ as a negative and transitory stage in life, one to be experienced before we move into full maturity, and certainly not one that a successful retired professional family man should include in his self-description. Care leaver is a ‘label’ that should be discarded as the label adolescent would be discarded as we grow up.
Care leaver means more to me than that. I grew up in the care of the state. I grew up in a random collection of children’s homes and foster homes, and experienced different carers and placements. I experienced the powerlessness of being moved around whether I liked it or not, and having to change schools, even though I was happily settled where I was. I experienced a sprinkling of physical abuse and a liberal helping of emotional abuse at the hands of some of my carers. I met some unpleasant people in care, and I also met some lovely caring people who had a real impact on my later life. I left care with nowhere to go, few resources, a large chip on my shoulder, lots of unresolved issues and unmet need.
Whereas other kids can enjoy their adolescence and higher education, I needed that time to sort myself out, and I was in my late 20’s before I finally found my way to university. By then, I had also found myself a professional career and married a wonderful woman who was my wife for 41 years until she died. That ‘sorting out’ process was a collection of lucky breaks, being in the right place at the right time, bloody hard work and resilience on my part. It was also attributable to some key people being prepared to commit to me, support me and give me the chances I needed to develop though the disadvantages I had accrued in the care system. I ‘survived’ care.
By my 30’s I was an ordinary middle class professional with a developing career with prospects and a loving family. We care leavers do not wear a badge on our foreheads, so I was just another unremarkable member of the community. I think that this journey into social invisibility is true for a majority of care leavers. We are a pretty resilient bunch, and if care has not damaged us too much, and if we get the lucky breaks and have the practical and emotional support, most of us disappear into Society as we grow older. I think it is largely a lottery rather than the result of any carefully considered master plan.
But there’s the rub. Not all of us escape as lightly. Not all of us get those lucky breaks in the care lottery, or have people who are prepared to love us, or to go the extra mile to support us. Some of us suffer such abuse in care or experience such a level of disadvantage that they are unable to make that transition from care to invisibility. This is not the place to insert statistics, but there can be little doubt that the dice are loaded for many young people and adults coming out of the care system and they will not enjoy the journey into comfortable invisibility that I made.
I am a care leaver. I crossed that bridge to social invisibility successfully. I have proved many times that I am as worthy as anyone else, and that being a care leaver need not mean that I cannot achieve my wishes. To me, being a care leaver is not something to hide or be ashamed of. I have no need to be invisible, and if my not being invisible helps other care leavers who are struggling, surely I have a moral duty to declare my status and show my peers that if this clumsy old man can ‘make it’ then so can they. More than that, I have a moral duty to challenge the inequalities and disadvantages that my care leaver peers are suffering to help them on their journey to happiness and independence.
I am a care leaver, and I am proud of it.