This is the story of Natalie. Natalie is a care leaver who experienced a massively disrupted and unhappy childhood, but with support, hard work and determination successfully left custody and misery behind her and became a successful university graduate.
As a result of family disruption Natalie was taken into care at 13 years old. She was a very angry, frightened young woman, who quickly focused her anger on those who were in authority. She was abusive and aggressive towards the police and other young people and often difficult for the staff at the assessment home to control. She had been placed in a short term children’s home for assessment which did not offer the care or stability she yearned for at that time. Although she admits that any carer would have struggled with her, she remembers wanting to be placed with a caring working class foster family who would offer her care and affection. She was clear that they needed to be ‘working class’; she was once placed with foster carers who had expensive cars and a big house, where she felt inadequate and excluded and didn’t settle. As it was, she was in a short term residential placement which quickly broke down and so began a series of care placements, 25 in about eight years. None of them were able to help or manage her behaviour and inevitably, police became increasingly more involved with her. Natalie began to accumulate criminal convictions related to her violent and aggressive behaviour.
Even though her care career was deteriorating, Natalie formed a close relationship with her social worker, who eventually became a personal friend and mentor. Initially, she had six social workers in 12 months of coming into care, adding to the chaos of her life. But her next social worker and Youth Offending Team (YOT) social worker formed a positive relationship and continued to support her into her adulthood. Natalie believes that she would not have broken the cycle of despair without the support this worker has given her over the years, even when things appeared at their most hopeless.
Drifting through failed placement after failed placement, Natalie was eventually discharged from care without prior notice on her 16th birthday, because her behaviour was so challenging. She was discharged on the street with nowhere to go, with her possessions in bin bags and went to stay with friends overnight. She was later placed by Social Services in a B&B, which quickly broke down. She had no coherent care plan or pathway plan at that stage and was quite unprepared to cope with living alone.
Natalie did not have any consistent formal education in a school during her care career. She blames herself for this, recognising she was out of control. This altered when she spent time in secure children’s homes. There she attended school and found she enjoyed it, successfully taking GCSE’s and enjoying the praise and encouragement of her teachers, her social worker and YOT Worker, who constantly reassured her that she was bright and could do well academically.
Her education quickly became disrupted once she left custody, with no planned placement to support her. No supported lodgings would take her because of her record, and she drifted between friends and inevitably back into custody.
Whilst in prison, Natalie witnessed another prisoner take her own life. She heard the officers joking and talking about it in a matter of fact way, and resolved that she would change her life when she got out. It took a little longer, but Natalie kept her promise to herself and eventually managed to work her way through ‘Access’ courses and eventually to university, ready to fulfil the academic potential she knew she had.
Natalie does not blame the staff or carers for her failed placements. She blames herself, even though she was a child. She reflected though that if she had been placed in a caring foster family at admission, she may not have failed so dramatically in care. Even had she been placed in a settled long term children’s home, it would have been better than the short term assessment placement she endured.
Natalie regretted her education being disrupted, even though she again quickly blamed herself. She sees education as the route that eventually led her away from a life in prison. She feels that she might have coped better with care if she had had a stable educational placement and support throughout. Only her achievements in school in the secure children’s homes, reflected her academic potential during her childhood.
Natalie saw her social worker and YOT worker as the constants in her life who had the most positive influence on her. Nevertheless, she identified poor discharge planning when she was in custody as adding to her problems. She was never consulted or advised where she was going when she got out. She did not blame her social worker or the secure units for this, but regarded social work managers as responsible for failing to allow resources or opportunities for her social worker and carers to support her.
Looking back, Natalie knows she must have been very difficult for her carers to manage and does not seek to blame them. She does feel that children and young people should be more involved and consulted in decision making than they are, even if they are presenting challenging behaviour. She also feels that young people are moved too quickly and too often, instead of being supported properly in planned placements they have agreed to. Also, that the right to a good and continuous education is too easily put aside when children are difficult for carers to manage.
Natalie was able to break the cycle of despair and create a successful and fulfilling life for herself and was fortunate to have people prepared to support her to do that when she felt strong enough. Too many care leavers are not so fortunate. That is why the ECLCM campaign demands equal aftercare support for ALL children leaving care now, no matter where they are placed.