Monday 26 May 2014

Hannah's tale

Hannah’s Tale

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.

What of Hannah’s family? Well she has the unconditional support of two people who she describe s as her ‘adopted mum and dad’. The ‘mum’ part of that couple being the now retired manager who many years earlier had just sat with Hannah and expected nothing but has been rewarded with so much. ‘Every Child Matters’ but only if someone decides that they matter to them

Friday 16 May 2014

The student's view.

These comments were shared with the ECLCM team by a social work student following a placement with a care provider. We show them exactly as they were made: 

‘THIS ISSUE (the differential treatment of children in foster and residential care) IS A CLEAR CUT EXAMPLE OF A SOCIALLY MORAL AND ETHICAL DILEMMA and the manner in which it is resolved will serve to determine our belief in democracy and equality of treatment.

As with any socially moral/ethical dilemma, the question of social justice can be raised and discussed. But, little needs to be said before drawing a conclusion that injustice is apparent in this case.

Ultimately, the life chances of the children in residential units will be stifled to a greater extent than those in foster care - it makes no logical sense that a child who generally presents with greater complexities and requires more attention is entitled to less supported years in care than a child in foster care, who will generally present as less complex and yet is entitled to more supported years in care.

In my humble opinion, there exists a clear case of discrimination against children who reside in residential units and a callous disregard towards their healthy growth and development which is being unjustifiably limited in comparison to their fostered counterparts.

We live in a socially unjust society characterised by oppression, segregation and marginalisation, making it increasingly difficult for disadvantaged children to claim a respectable stake in society. The least that can be done to alleviate this problem would be to show some compassion to the most vulnerable children in society who reside in residential units and offer them similar rights to those children in foster care. In the spirit of humanitarianism, this would be the moral and ethical way forward’.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Natalie's story

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.