Friday 21 November 2014

Are politicians really in touch with what life is like for care leavers?

This week I exchanged opinions on social media with a well-known Member of Parliament with a special interest in looked after children. It’s not important to say which MP because his views appear to be widely held by many national politicians. Like many politicians, the MP was keen to impress upon me what great developments and improvements had been introduced for young people leaving care in recent years, and how much better things now were.

I was reminded by this conversation of those who say that we ought to be more positive and celebrate how well some care leavers have done, how more get to university than did a generation ago, how aftercare has improved, the Care Leavers’ Charter, Children in Care Councils, and so on. I hear what they say, but then I look once more at the statistics which show starkly how care leavers remain over represented in all the disadvantage groups for young people. That being so, how can anyone claim things are better?

In contrast, I also spent time this week with a group of young care leavers. I guess they were aged between 18 and 22. The members of this group had a wide range of care experience; foster care, residential care, supported lodgings, and even custody.  I met with them at a group run by a small charity dedicated to supporting young care leavers.  It was obvious that they relied heavily on the support they received from the dedicated workers from that charity, and I realised how they would struggle if that support wasn’t available... but I digress.

I struggle to celebrate the alleged improvement in the lives of care leavers because I think much of it is illusory, an impression strengthened every time I meet with young care leavers as I did this week. Of course there were great initiatives (often initiated by young people from care and care leavers) that are trumpeted widely by politicians to show how well they have done. 

I think back to the ‘A National Voice’ bin bag campaign some years ago, and lots of local authorities signing up to declare that young people in care would never have to move from home to home with their possessions in plastic bin bags.  The young care leavers I spoke with this week told me that many of them still did not have suitcases, and they had relied on bin bags as so many care leavers did before them. Some were provided with suitcases or ruck sacks by the hard working charity. Little change there then!

Then there was the ‘Care Leavers’ Charter’. Once again, local authorities queued to sign it and declare how well they would support children and young people leaving care. Again, politicians were quick to cite this as a major development for care leavers.  It was obvious talking to the young care leavers I met that the Charter was not being implemented ‘at the sharp end’.  In spite of requests, the government was very clear that they would not make the Charter mandatory or offer increased funding to enable local authorities to implement it. So, we have another initiative that looks great on paper and politicians’ speeches, but is often simply ignored where it matters most – in the lives of care leavers.

The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was a piece of child care policy that was made law, and should have improved the lives of care leavers immeasurably. Pathway plans, consultation and participation, ongoing support and assistance with education, accommodation etc.  Was this this the support that we care leavers had campaigned for for generations? Sadly no, because it was simply not implemented in full and hidebound by mind boggling restrictions and definitions…. Young people might be eligible, relevant, former relevant … what’s all that about? Surely being a care leaver in need of real support from the corporate parent should be enough?  - But no.

Then we had ‘Staying Put’, loudly celebrated by many as a major breakthrough in child care policy to meet the needs of care leavers. Now care leavers might stay on with their carers until they were 21 and would no longer be compelled to leave home at 16+ and fend for themselves (something  that the children of politicians and decision makers would never be forced to do).

Whilst some celebrated, many including the ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ (ECLCM)  team, realised this initiative excluded 9% of all young people leaving care, including all those in residential children’s homes.  Not only had the needs of care leavers not been met, a completely new element of discrimination had been introduced into service provision.  Discriminatory practice will never be acceptable and ECLCM will continue to oppose it until all care leavers receive the same full ‘Staying Put’ support.

Even so, we were led to believe, young people leaving foster care would now be able to ‘stay put’ until 21 in their foster placements?  Apparently not it seems.  It seems to depend upon where the young person is living and who they are placed with whether they are able to remain with their foster carers until they are 21. They kept quiet about that bit.

I listened to the young care leavers I met this week. One spoke of living in a foster home from being 6 years old, and when they were 16 being told they would need to leave and go into supported lodgings. They were made to move against their will. The young person said that they were exploited and abused in their supported placement, and their foster carer was so horrified they demanded the young person be allowed to return to live with them.  That rang a bell with me - a carer sticking their neck out and representing and supporting a child when the corporate parent failed to do so. But if carers cannot or aren’t prepared to do this – what then? It reinforced the centrality of positive long term caring relationships in good care, and the lottery that is care. That was the same when I left care 47 years ago.

The young people spoke of constantly changing social workers, of not being made to feel  welcome when they had to visit ‘Social Services’, of having decisions made for them rather than with them, and of having information about them shared with teachers and others without their consent. It all sounded depressingly familiar. Two young people who had been in custody whilst still in care spoke of being refused housing support when they came out.  That was supposed to have changed long ago. This all sounded much the same as leaving care has for years.

There appears to be a significant ‘disconnect’ between politicians and decision makers and those at the bottom end of the chain who depend upon the corporate parent. In spite of the rhetoric of some MPs, Life for too many care leavers has not improved greatly from that we experienced generations ago.  Care leavers don’t need surveys, more research or political rhetoric. They want practical help, stability, security,  support,  people who care, a safe place to live, prospects and reasons to hope…Do you still wonder why the ECLCM team campaign?

Sunday 16 November 2014

A letter from ECLCM to Ed Miliband

Dear Mr Miliband (or May I call you Ed?)

I really do appreciate the fact that it must be incredibly hard to lead a political party that is seeking to win the next General Election – particularly when you seem to have so many people sitting in ‘the wings’ merely waiting for you to make a less than perfect decision or say something that might be scurrilously misinterpreted by the media.  I am a social worker and I have lived with this type of pressure for the last 40 years – less publicly certainly but perhaps on even more critical issues than at times you find yourself talking about.

You probably don’t even know that I have written to you a couple of times and even – despite my rather aged fear of social media – tweeted to you? I feel sure that given the pressure under which you work there are other people who deal with your correspondence and as such I wonder if perhaps this open letter might find it’s way into your busy schedule rather more effectively than my previously and self evidently poor attempts to engage you. Please don’t feel that I am targeting you for special attention or criticism – I have written and tweeted to many of your Shadow Cabinet colleagues too and haven’t heard from them either.

I need to say that I listened to your speech this week and I thought it sounded rather splendid. I agreed with so much of what you said about inequality in our society; how those who appear to need help most do at times seem to be the ones who struggle to get it and how we seem at times to be a society in which the chasm between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ appears to be growing faster than the polar ice sheets are shrinking. Bravo!

I would though like to mention a group in our society who my friends (or should I say like minded individuals in relation to the group I am referring to? Luckily I seem to have well over 8000 who have formally declared their allegiance) and I feel you really could do with thinking about.
This group are comprised of children and those approaching adulthood - well, in chronological terms anyway – they have all had really bad starts in life and have been brought up through at least some of their childhood by you, me and the rest of our society, their Corporate Parents. ‘My group’ are children in residential care. Great kids, wonderful individuals who now and for the last two or three generations have been disadvantaged by our society.

Regardless of how busy you must be I am certain that you have been aware of the discussions around ‘staying put’. You may well not have heard about Every Child Leaving Care Matters but that’s OK. Last December the Government announced that children in foster care would be able to have the option to stay with their foster carers  until they were twenty-one years of age – Great news we all thought and waited for the rest of the announcement which would surely ( we wrongly thought) extend that option to kids in residential care. It didn’t come, it still hasn’t come. What do you think about that Mr M? We know many of your colleagues in Labour's parliamentary group are shocked, disappointed or horrified at this inequality as they have told us so, though it might be considered invidious if we were to name them. We would, however, ask that if you do win that General Election in May 2015 and are looking to fill your Cabinet that you look toward Mr Bill Esterson as someone who seems to understand more than most about children’s social care.

We have only one request to put to you. Will you please say that you support the recommendations of the Education Select Committee ‘Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options’ and specifically that the option for ‘staying put’ in their placement should be available to all children not just those in foster placements.

Obviously I could go on and there is so much more I would like to tell you about children in care but I realise that you are busy. If you do want to learn a little more about children in care I know many such children and adults who have survived or worked with Care survivors who would be delighted to talk to you.

If you could just take 30 seconds to do as I ask I would be grateful to and respect you.

Best wishes

Ed Nixon

On behalf of the ECLCM Campaign

Sunday 2 November 2014

The View of a Residential Child Care Worker

When I tell people I'm an Residential Child Care Worker, there are certain questions I can almost guarantee what I'll get asked.

'So. What is an RCW?'
'Well, it's like the kids TV program Tracy Beaker but not really.'
'Oh ok!'

Actually it's nothing like Tracy Beaker but that might just be the closest they are ever going to get to understanding without actually working in a childrens home.

When I first applied to work in a residential childrens home, I had no idea they even existed. I thought they where huge 40 bedded homes that only existed in horror movies or old black and white photographs. Little did I know.

'So are they like disabled or naughty?'

This is a tough one so the easiest answer is sometimes - yes some have disabilities but not always and yes some can be naughty, but not always. Naughty to me is when someone jumps out from around a corner and shouts BOO! Which happens. A lot.

'It must be such a hard job, I couldn't do it.'
Maybe you could, maybe you couldnt. I was once told that residential carers have the shortest shelf life. I'm not sure about that. I know people who have been there for 15 years, and I know people who have been there a few months.

'What do you do with them?'
What I certainly don't do is 'fix' these young people. But what I do do, is, as part of a team, try to help them in their every day lives. Helping them learn the tools they will need to survive in this scary world. But that's sometimes hard when you have less then a few months to do it in.

That's why, when at 16, 17, or 18, it is ridiculously tough to watch them go off into the world. The big bad scary world where they are 'too young' even to hold a tenancy agreement. Which makes no sense. Not equipped socially to say No to the so called friends that ARE going to take advantage of their situations. Not able to stay at college because they can't afford the bus, new clothes, or a backpack to carry their books in. Not able to apply for jobs because they can't afford the Internet or a Laptop to apply, or even a newspaper. They go from 24 hour support to nothing. Zero. Sounds unbelievable and people say surely there's something. In cities there a very few charities that might be able to help. In the middle of nowhere for example, the deep dark depths of Devon? Not so much.

Outreach support does exist but it's down to 'funding'. Not every young person knows what they are legally entitled to when they leave care, and what funding is strictly to be used for. I once got told that a young person had to pay for their moving van out of their leaving care grant. That money is strictly for setting up your home, not moving to your home!

Most of these things are out of an RCW's control. Sometimes the best you can do is let go, let them move on, remind them how far they have come and to keep in touch. A quick hug or hand shake and wipe away the tears before they see. What is in our control is making the transaction as smooth as possible: visits, a leaving party, cards with messages, gifts and scrap books full of happy times and good, positive memories. Tokens they can keep and look back on. I might not be able to help the ones who have already moved on, but hopefully by helping support ECLCM I can somehow go on to help the next one, and the next one.

Sarah Jury