Those care leavers who survive into their adult life without having been homeless, in prison, used illegal substances or admitted to a psychiatric ward may consider themselves to be fortunate and arguably even exceptional. Far too many care leavers have not been so fortunate over the last forty years as the government’s own disadvantage statistics starkly illustrate.
Some care leavers write books about their experiences, but most don't. Yet every care leaver has a story to tell that illustrates an often very difficult and traumatic struggle through challenge and adversity to survive into the world of adults. Here is Hannah's.
By any measure, Hannah is an exceptional human being. She is a care leaver, although that would not be obvious to the people who see her daily and depend upon her. They see Hannah as a busy manager in a service providing support for adults with mental health difficulties. However, it might so easily have been different, and Hannah might so easily have been on the other side of this relationship, had it not been for her fortitude and resilience and the fact that in her latter years in residential care she came across two women who simply refused to ‘go away’.
Hannah’s earliest memories are not happy ones. It is only comparatively recently and with the aid of counselling that she has been able to understand and accept that the reasons for her unhappy early years are not her fault, but the responsibility of others. Put simply, her mother didn’t protect her as she should have done, nor did she protect Hannah’s brothers and sisters.
Hannah knows now that if she had been protected by her mother, as children have every right to expect, then she wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to the abuse she suffered. Her mother’s selfishness manifested in part by her “just keeping having children” who each in turn were not protected.
At an early age Hannah knew that her life was different from most of those who lived in the area. ‘Social Services’ were regular visitors but Hannah does not blame them – “It was hidden from them” she explains.
A harsher critic may ask “How hard did they look? Aren’t they supposed to be able to see through lies and look at the evidence before them?” Hannah does not ask this question. She does not blame Social Services.
Hannah was about two years of age when she first remembers Social Services coming. She was four or five years old when she first went into foster care. For several years things just seemed to get worse as Hannah became more and more angry, and more and more detached. In successive placements she never felt that she fitted in and had no confidence that she could fit in anywhere.
That’s where the vicious circle for children in care comes in. The child can’t make attachments because she is guarded and fearful of rejection. Because she is guarded, withdrawn, suspicious and maybe even rejecting of carers approaches, she is written off. This causes her to withdraw further and protect what she has, however small that may be, because it’s better than risking further rejection. Tragically, further rejection is often what she gets. As Hannah says “You think you’ve got a heart that swings like a brick – but its protection.” Naturally as a child she can’t work any of this out and by the time she can in later life –for those who can – it’s too late.
Hannah was eventually moved into a children’s home where staff imposed their will through physical restraint. This provoked further anger in her. She earned a growing reputation for fighting back – except that’s not how it was interpreted. To the ‘professionals’ she was just violent and aggressive. She was told by one staff member “No wonder your mum dumped you”.
She was now trapped in the vicious circle and her life was spiralling downwards. She wanted to be allowed to withdraw into her own space but that wasn’t acceptable to the adults around her. They wanted her to conform. She warned staff of the consequences if they tried to impose their will on her by moving her to where they wanted her to be but they seemed to find it important to be in charge. This could end in explosive outbursts, and Hannah is not proud when she recalls that she pushed a door in the face of a member of staff, and was responsible for another ending up at the bottom of the stairs with a broken leg.
On the other hand, staff members didn’t spend the night in police cells for restraining Hannah even when at times the line between restraint and assault was a fine one. Hannah did.
School didn’t help. Hannah was and is extremely bright, as the string of qualifications she now holds testifies. However, to her school was “…a load of crap”. How might it have been if, at an earlier age someone had, in Hannah’s words “pushed me”. How would she have viewed school if someone encouraged her and believed in her? It didn’t happen. She was just trouble.
Hannah didn’t engage in school. She “bunked off” at every opportunity she could. She found it hard to be different in school – different because she was in a kid’s home. She was difficult and found herself at a Pupil Referral Unit and thereafter an even smaller ‘school’ run by Social Services that was more like some form of day care where there were no qualifications to be had. For a bright girl this seemed even more meaningless so why go at all? Another self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hannah got lucky. A new manager arrived to run the children’s home. Hannah understandably had very little time for her but became increasingly puzzled that the new manager seemed to have all the time in the world for her. She spent time unconditionally sitting with Hannah perhaps drinking coffee but often in total silence. No questions, no expectations and no judgements.
Over time she began to develop something approaching trust in this woman who seemed to expect nothing from her except what seemed to be in Hannah’s own interests. As the relationship grew Hannah’s excesses appeared to diminish and she began to start thinking of the future for she was now approaching sixteen with every expectation that she would have to leave her children’s home that remarkably seemed to have become her home.
Hannah knew she was not ready to leave but there was no choice, that’s what happened.
Then amazingly for one who had not had too much luck so far Hannah got lucky again. A new social work team had been formed and Hannah had a new social worker who the manager said was OK. That was enough for Hannah not to instantly dismiss her.
Her new social worker recognised that Hannah was not ready to live entirely independently and started pushing for her to be considered for a new scheme that had been developed that provided care leavers with their own independent accommodation but within a supported project.
It was also suggested to Hannah that she apply for an exciting though challenging project to go to Africa to help others. Why, perhaps, she wondered did people suddenly feel that she was worthy of such support and care when previously it was absent? She started to believe in herself a little more - if other people believed that she could do it then maybe she could?
And she did. She passed through the demanding selection processes, played her part in the considerable fund raising necessary for the trip to take place and found that, as a bonus she made friends along the way. No longer burdened by the label of being in care, she was simply another committed young person desperate to help others whilst finding herself.
It’s not been easy for Hannah since then but then it’s been no harder than it is for many young people making their mark in the world. Crucially she has people behind her - people who believed in her. Most significantly she had begun to believe in herself.
Hannah shouldn’t have needed to be lucky to find care professionals who actually cared but the reality is that many care leavers and those approaching the abyss that leaving care can be don’t have that kind of support.