The title for the three year New Belongings project, which was funded by the Department for Education (DfE) between 2013 and 2016, came from the shocking use by care leavers in more than one setting of the term ’segregated’ to describe their experience of leaving care. Not just isolated, marginalised, neglected or unsupported. Segregated. Deliberately set apart like some disposable creations of humanity that were no longer needed. Puppies thrown out of a moving car on the motorway. No longer needed, no longer relevant. In official terminology a ‘former relevant child’.
Children don’t come into care as happy well socialised infants, stolen by the wicked state from their families and their lives destroyed. They come into the care system because they are already traumatised, emotionally bruised if not physically, and have already suffered at the hands of the institution that should nurture, love and protect them, their family. Whether they are fortunate enough to spend the next five, or ten years of their life in a therapeutic environment that can help reshape their negative early programming and instil trust in others and belief in themselves, attributes almost certainly missing when they first encounter the care system as bewildered refugees from harmful families, is down to the luck of the draw. At the Foundation we encounter care leavers who report this kind of excellent experience in a long term placement, whether with a loving foster carer, or a stable and able residential facility. For these youngsters the continuity of care and the sense of belonging to something and someone for the duration means a great deal and enables them to begin to unpick who they are in the world, to solve the life stage challenge that Erikson labelled ego identity vs role confusion. We come across many others for whom the experience of three, five, ten, twenty placements is still not uncommon.
We note that for all of those who must rely on the state as their substitute parent for some of the most formative years of their lives, there are common experiences, though of course every care leaver is a unique individual with their own story and their own individual attributes and vulnerabilities that shape their response to the journey they travel. For many of them hardship begins before they enter the world proper. They may have to absorb alcohol, drugs, nicotine, emotional violence and stress while still in their mother’s womb. A significant proportion will not form a healthy attachment to their mother or primary care giver. They will begin their life’s journey already handicapped by a view of the world that programmes them to believe it is a dangerous place where their safety is not guaranteed. They will begin to develop a range of coping mechanisms in response to this dark world view which society will later go on to label as challenging behaviour.
For some, their experience of care will allow them to explore and reframe these early beliefs and they will begin to rebuild trust in others and confidence in themselves; for others the very experience of being not only separated from their families and subsequently separated time and time again from every adult they begin to make an attachment to will simply reinforce their negative programming. Then just when things are starting to look a bit better, Wham! Rejected and ejected again, suddenly they find themselves thrust into the adult world, where they are expected to take on all the responsibilities of a householder with bills to pay, shopping to buy and the whole noisy, busy, crazy, demanding world of being an adult to negotiate with woefully little preparation and inadequate support. What they do get is a flat and some money to buy new belongings to fill this empty space. No amount of white goods, fluffy cushions and wide screen TVs can fill the utter void and emotional emptiness that many care leavers express, the terror of the first night alone in a strange place.
When Alice asks “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”, she is speaking for us all as we all have to make a stab at answering that question at some stage in our lives. When the cat retorts, at the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party “Oh, you can’t help that, we’re all mad here.” perhaps he is also expressing something very true and very profound when we look at the world of leaving care, and the expectations that we place on those who have to do so. What sane society would take the most vulnerable cohorts amongst its number and expect them to leave what substitutes for a family structure five to ten years earlier than the majority of their family-reared peers, to make that a one way street where they are condemned not to look back once they set on their journey. What kind of system would ensure that in addition to the enormous task of becoming more responsible, more able, more self-reliant and more able to protect themselves as lone individuals, separated from the herd, than any of their contemporaries from the non-care world, they are likely to experience real financial poverty and often homelessness en route to finding employment, permanent housing, or rewarding study opportunities? Why would anyone stop ‘looking after’ these young becoming adults and thrust so much instability on them when they have already been passed around like parcels, with sheets or wrapping and protection ripped off them at every stage?
The negative story we all know. Bewailing the inadequacies of our ‘care’ system and all that follows changes nothing and one of the most remarkable facets of those who do survive this system is the resilience and creativity that many of them develop. This creativity led to the proposal by a group of care leavers supported by The Care Leavers’ Foundation to go into the heart of local authorities themselves and educate the leaders, the managers and the ground floor workers about what they could do better to support them into young adulthood and that they could do this with the resources already available by changing mindsets and putting themselves in the shoes of those for whose lives they held corporate parenting responsibility. New Belongings set out to bring the voices and experience of care leavers into the centre of the town hall and the social services Department, to convey a real understanding of the hardships that care leavers face and the absolute simplicity of some of the measures that could make a big difference in their lives. Unsurprisingly the most prominent theme throughout the project was human support, emotional backup, knowing someone was there that cared about them. The project set out to develop leaving care services where care leavers were cared for, cared about and able to care for themselves. It challenged local authorities to create a culture where those leaving care felt that they had a legitimate place in the community and continued to be held in mind by their Corporate parents so that they truly belonged to their communities and their communities belonged to them just as much as to any other young adult citizen. They were no longer to be condemned to ghettos of poor housing and written off but understood, embraced, supported and encouraged to develop a positive and worthwhile future as part of those communities.
The New Belongings project sent teams of consultant care leavers, young adults in their twenties and older care leavers who had a career and a life behind them, led by a steering group, in to the participating local authorities to explore their current thinking and practice and turn it around. The full findings and achievements of the 23 Local Authorities who participated can be found in the various New Belongings reports available at www…… and the project won an Award at the 2016 Children and Young People Now Awards last November. All of the learning and methodology from the project is available for others to use.
We are extremely grateful for the sponsorship provided by the International Centre for Therapeutic Care that enabled the members of the New Belongings panels to attend the Awards ceremony and receive their well earned Award in person.