The following article has been provided by David Graham, National Director, The Care Leavers’ Association
James is 22 and has had his HE bursary withheld by his local authority. Lucy is 18 and has been told she can’t get her leaving care grant. Jim is 21 and in prison. He hasn’t had any visitors and doesn’t know where he is going to live when released. Joan is 55 and wants to find out why she was put into care. Emma is in her 30s and is having relationship issues but cant get the right support from her GP.
These are just some of the care leavers who turned to The Care Leavers Association for support in the last week. We are a national user-led charity that was set up by care leavers to support other care leavers. At the heart of what we do is understanding the care leaver experience and ensuring that the voices of care leavers are heard and placed at the centre of policy and practice.
We currently deliver 4 key project areas – Leaving Care, Criminal Justice System, Access to Records and Improving health as well as offering advice and guidance to care leavers. We also provide training and awareness raising to organisations and seek to influence national and local government policy and practice.
Our Young Person’s Project covers all aspects of the leaving care process. Young people with care experience are often left feeling alone, isolated and abandoned when they leave care. Our dedicated Young Peoples Project aims to work with these young people, and also professionals all the way up to policy makers to improve their life experiences. Often we are contacted for help because a young person does not have a ‘trusted adult’ they feel can support them to get what they need and are also entitled too in terms of support. The young people are able to find a safe space to share their experiences and learn they are not alone.
Our GOAL project encapsulates the essence of the Young Peoples Project and the support available. The project provides peer mentoring, alongside teaching key skills for independent living using holistic care. Before coming to the Calderdale GOAL group Jo was living with long term foster parents, with no confidence in living independently and few skills to even start the process of living independently. In the space of a year, this young person has gained over 30 points on her Outcome Star score (showing growth in confidence in ability to be more independent), and has completed 8/10 of her SMART action plans she planned while carrying out the activities in her workbook. She is now moving to independent mentoring sessions to further enhance her skills and confidence. She is taking a major step by applying for work, something that felt overwhelming when she first started the course. When asked what she thought of the group she said “It’s like a family really isn’t is? We all support each other, I love it..it’s a safe space for us”. The young people and mentors have formed a positive support group, where they know they can share their deepest fears, while also being relaxed enough to laugh and joke with each other. The group is ran out of a local radio station; Phoenix Radio, who have not only provided an open and supportive atmosphere but also provide opportunities to mentors and young people alike. A mentor was offered free recording time for their singing, an opportunity many aspiring artists would be very lucky to obtain. The young people have been taught about the process of how you put together a radio show, and been given air time to speak about things that interest them.
Peer support is a key plank of our work in the criminal justice system. We have established peer support groups in prisons across the country. Some of those in the groups have been trained as mentors so they can support people as they come into the prison and provide advice and guidance on entitlements and support.
Another area of focus for this work is our Clear Approach program. This is an empowerment intervention delivered to care leavers in youth offending, probation and in prison. Its aim is to help the individual develop their voice. We help them make sense of their care experience and support them to make better sense of their own life journey. They grow in confidence and self-esteem and are better able to engage with probation and prison staff. In the longer term we are helping to develop a new more positive world view, where decisions and behaviours predicated on previous traumatic care experience can be challenged and rewritten.
The criminal justice system is too large and cumbersome for us to be able to work everywhere. So we also work strategically to improve policy at government level. We work closely with the MoJ and Youth Justice Board and have been successful in getting them to improve their systems to identify care leavers. And as part of the MoJ Care Leavers Forum we are working to ensure that the whole system has a better understanding of the needs of care leavers and it can respond to those needs in the right way.
An element that often comes up in our individual work is identity. “who am I” and “where do I come from “ are obvious questions to ask when looking back on a fragmented childhood. One way of shining a light on the past is by accessing the social care file. We support over 100 care leavers of all ages each year to access their files. The process itself can vary enormously from area to area. So we also work at a policy level to improve practice. Accessing files can be a transformative experience. One care leaver expressed that “I was glad I found the courage to face my past. It has given me a good start for my future life.”
A constant issue throughout all our work is health and wellbeing. It’s a term banded about a great deal, but in reality there is not a lot of focus on the health and wellbeing of care leavers within society as a whole. We are working in 10 areas to support the NHS to commission better health services for care leavers. But its not just a case of needing better services. What is clear is that despite the good intentions of the care system it can actually cause more damage to a person. This damage is generally not picked up or supported even later into adulthood. Therefore a lot of our recommendations for improvement in this area will be focused on preventative work in the care system. We must help young people develop a good sense of self, foster good relationships, experience love and kindness and develop a whole host of other emotional wellbeing markers. But you cannot do this when young people are placed miles away from friends and family, or when they are moved from placement to placement on a regular basis. It cannot happen if they are labelled as failures when something goes wrong at the first attempt. It cannot happen if we do not create the supportive environment that will help them to overcome the situation that led them into care in the first place.
This is only a small part of the work that we do at The Care Leavers Association. It’s a real roller coaster of a ride working here. On some days we talk to care leavers who have been inspirational in their ability to get on and live life. On others we here of appalling practice where the wishes of care leavers have been ignored by the system. As a care leaver said “lets not call it the care system until t does what is says on the tin”. We will continue to work every day to make this happen.