Black bin bags ? a symbol of how we view children in care. By Jenni Randall

Black bags are for rubbish. I use black bags for storage sometimes and when I have moved house for the less accommodating or bits and pieces that are left over and I don’t know how to fit into the usual packing boxes. None of these images fit well with the symbolic attachment that is made with young people and children moving from one placement to another carrying their world in black bags. Recently there was a campaign on Twitter about stopping the use of black bags as an alternative to suitcases and boxes in moving young people in care to new accommodation. I was dismayed, perhaps that is an understatement. In the late 1970’s when I was  a newish social worker in Basildon I was part of a Who Cares group together with the rather wonderful Charlotte Lodge who had been part of the Ad Lib group in Leeds with Mike Stein . Ad Lib was a group that became the forerunner of the Who Cares Movement  which ran from 1975-78 and then became the National Association of Young  in Care. These were young people led rights groups and among many issues they identified for change was “the bin bag move”. Since 1999 A National Voice has been campaigning  on the same ticket. In the late 70’s the Basildon Who Cares made a short training video and one image that will stay with me was a lad going up the path of New Century Road Children’s Home with two black bin liners full of his belongings. It was staged but the script was written by the young people. We wanted it to stop then! So why is it still an issue??

It is, I fear, the tip of an iceberg . The iceberg that is how we feel about and therefore treat our children and young people in public care.For certain there have been improvements, order books are no longer used for purchasing clothing, overnight visits with friends are easier, reviews are marginally more child friendly, placement moves are improving slowly, there are far less large institutions and we are much better at detecting and dealing with abuse in the care system. But…  and it is a big but, there is so far to go and it will not be solved by inspectors making dictates or pressurising for more boxes to be ticked on time. Quantitative not qualitative data is not the way forward.Nor will it be helped by politicians passing new pieces of legislation and attempting to take control of every aspect of the profession  because it is about attitudes. The attitudes of both the general public and of professional staff  the latter who are ,of course, also members of the general public.  We are subject to the same societal norms, values and beliefs as everyone else and we bring them into our work. Much of how we behave towards these youngsters for whom the state is responsible still owes more to the Poor Law than to 21st century values. There continues to be an element of deserving and undeserving in judgments made, and I have heard far too many times carers and social workers talk about how “they should be grateful”. The often stated public view that “they get everything given them and are still not grateful”. Really!! They see the school trips paid for, the new trainers bought by foster carers and equate that somehow with the council tax they pay. Some will choose to measure these material purchases against what they can afford to buy for their own children. What price would they put on having their own caring and safe family?  In times of austerity these attitudes harden. They also harden in times of political chaos when we all feel that we want to protect that which is ours in the face of difficult times. So now is not a good time for those whose childhood depends on the public purse and the resources of the public care system. So when cash strapped councils are debating cutting rubbish collections to fortnightly to save money no doubt cuts to childcare budgets are on the same agenda.

So what is to be done to move this debate on again.

There are 70,440 children in public care in England according to government statistics( as at 31.3.16) and the figure is rising steadily  year on year. Many have a good experience of their care childhood but for so many both their childhood and their adulthood are damaged further by public and corporate parenting experience. Lives that are already damaged by  their experiences prior to the states intervention. This is, in the great scheme of things, a small number of children and young people and easily put to one side in a political numbers games. But everyone is a precious life and everyone will continue on to hopefully a productive adulthood as part of the wider community and as part of their own family. They should have a future and currently outcomes are not good, they provide a higher  proportion of the homeless, of the prison population , of those struggling with addictions, of those suffering mental ill health. The picture is very poor and yet we still consider that they should somehow because of having been rescued be grateful and industrious. History has shown us that systems designed to make the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised   grateful and industrious have been singularly unsuccessful.

So we have to have a sea change in how we deal with this most vulnerable group of youngsters, quick political fixes do not work when attitudes are so embedded in our collective consciousness. We must challenge every time we hear views which are misinformed or misunderstood. We must look to the language we use to describe children in public care  and their families. Professionalization of our language patterns frequently both discredit and demean our children and their families. Think about the word contact for example. What is wrong with ” meeting up with Mum”, “visiting Dad this afternoon” or “going to see his Nan”. It is as sad for me to hear a child use the word contact for visit as it was to see the young man travel that path with his black bags. We must come out from under our professional cloak and learn to behave towards these children as we would our own, with general humanity, care and friendship. None of this means that we cannot continue to be boundaried, ethical professionals with a clear role and job in relation to  our clients and the community we serve. We must be their advocates , their protectors, their temporary parent. We must believe in them and fight against the system and our employers for them if that is what is needed. We must become politically aware and active. We must be their champions and act as though they were our own children. Nothing less will change their world and the public attitude toward the public care of children and young people. We can then lose those black bags for ever or perhaps just keep one for moving the duvet!

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