Ian Dickson @IDickson258 & Dr Cat HugMan's @notjustanumber Speech @ #GMCareLeavers Care Leaver Event
I’m Ian Dickson, Chair of the Conference for Care Experienced People.
This is my colleague Dr Catriona Hugman – Cat to her friends. Cat and I are the Little and Large, the Laurel and Hardy of the Conference team.
We want to speak to you for a few moments about our conference for care experienced people, and about the messages that emerged from it and what they might mean to you.
Firstly, may I say what a pleasure it is to be back in Manchester.
As a tiny boy, I was taken into care by the old Manchester Children’s Department. My family lived in Ancoats, here in Manchester. Obviously, that was before Ancoats went up market and poor folk couldn’t afford to live there anymore!
For most of my childhood I was in care here in Manchester in children’s homes and foster care across this city.
I truanted from school here in Manchester, and me and my mates used to go drinking in a pub in Manchester city centre we knew who served underage drinkers. To us, it was Tib Street in Town – Nowadays it is exotically called “The Northern Quarter”!
For a while as a teenager I was homeless here in Manchester - Manchester was not so attractive then.
It was here in Manchester where I became a social worker, at the old Area 1 office on Mosley Street in the city centre. For many years I was the only care experienced person I knew of in social work and it was a lonely isolated existence, like living in a foreign country without being able to speak the language.
Years later, I learned that the Director of the Manchester Children’s Department when I was in care - Dr Ian Brown – was himself care experienced. How I wish I had known that as a young social worker!
To have had a kindred spirit, a role model to look up to would have been such a comfort.
It was here in Manchester where 11 years after I left school, I went to University – this university – and started my journey into the wonders of higher education. Manchester will always be a very special place for me.
Life has been good to me since. You see before you a fat old bald bloke, utterly unremarkable in appearance. I am a retired professional, a family man, university educated. Some may even mistakenly describe me as “middle class”.
Cat might stand out in a crowd more than I do, but like me, she is just an ordinary person.
But there is that “me”, that both of us, that you cannot see. We are care leavers. There are a lot of us about - and we look just like you.
Yet to Society today, we care leavers are an invisible minority. To the care system that I grew up in we disappear at 25, or 18, 16, or even younger- the state does not recognise that the care-experience continues even long after we left “care”.
Yet still we exist, and our collective experiences span decades, but nobody ever seeks our views or our expertise on what “works” and what doesn’t work about the care system. Care experienced people are experts whose voices have been excluded from conversations and consultations about care systems.
The outcomes of care-leavers are measured, quantified and used to predict our outcomes in the future (education + mental health). Yet, despite all this there is very little research or knowledge in wider society about what really happens to care-leavers as they enter adulthood.
Assumptions are made. Even this year we have seen examples of how this can play out in areas where petitions have been mounted by NIMBYs to prevent the opening of children’s homes citing crime, anti social behaviour and noise.
To the media, we care leavers are negative stereotypes.
Research highlights time and time again how care-experienced people fill the prisons, are homeless, NEET, are over represented in the sex worker population.
Public attitudes and research combine to create this view that we care-leavers are workshy, feckless and untrustworthy.
That we will amount to nothing in our lives.
That we will grow up to abuse our own kids.
This is not true. Such generalisations, if there is any truth in them, are based on research and public knowledge about only a small proportion of the estimated 400,000 care-experienced people in UK society.
Although we care leavers are overrepresented in the national disadvantage statistics, most of us like me and Ian are utterly unremarkable.
We move through the statistics unnoticed and disappear quietly into adult life. From my own experience and research a young person who is deemed to not be thriving during the formative young adult years may on the surface appear to be evidence that the statistics are valid representations of care-leavers.
But this current evidence is problematic in two ways:
Firstly, How the context of these ‘poor’ outcomes hide the trauma, instability and challenges young people face on a day to day basis. E.g. in my research, I never forget how one woman told me all about her life at the age of 16- she was living independently for the first time, struggling emotionally, experiencing poverty-these are things we would not expect our own children to do successfully- yet because this woman didn’t achieve academically she was not deemed to have done OK.
Secondly, what is lost is how people with care-experience do not live their lives as static statistics and the life course does provide opportunities to grow and flourish.
How many adults with care-experience return to education when their lives are more stable, when they have a roof over their head and a loving partner?
How many care-leavers choose to become social workers to help inspire, encourage and support other young people in care?
How many adults with care-experience are determined, and succeed, and not reproducing the challenging childhoods they themselves experienced.
Most of us lead ordinary lives. Indeed, some of us lead extraordinary lives. Most of us make our way in life without fuss, often in spite of being in care, and not because of it. Care experienced people are well represented in all branches of the arts, sciences, professions and trades. We are to be found wherever ordinary people like you are to be found. We care leavers as a community are creative, compassionate, resourceful and deeply experienced in life.
To care experienced people, coping with care and after can be a daunting task. So many issues that need to be addressed, so many questions we want to ask …and yet nobody seems to be listening. It seems that nothing ever changes. Thankfully, that’s not true.
Care has improved radically since I was in it of course. When I was a kid in care, physical abuse was commonplace and an accepted disciplinary tool. Like most kids, I took my share of beatings as an occupational hazard. Some I earned, some I didn’t. Being beaten by a housefather when I passed my 11+ and his son didn’t is one of my clearest memories.
I never knew hugs or kind words as a kid in care, but I could see punches coming at 20 yards and knew when to run very quickly! Thank God, those terrible days have gone and physical abuse in care has been largely eradicated.
Institutional abuse was also commonplace back then. Being made to stand in front of a staff in only underwear to ensure that I had washed properly before bed was another childhood memory. Or being made to sit alone in a room all evening away from the group if I had irritated an adult. Ah! The joys of childhood life in care in the 50’s and 60’s! Those abuses have gone.
And who remembers when children in care had their clothes bought for them on town hall order books? Or when children were not permitted to attend their own reviews? Or when a girl could be taken into care because she was considered to be “in moral danger”?
Who remembers when there were no complaints procedures? Or independent advocacy? Or access to files? Those battles have been won, those awful days long gone, and they have gone within my time around the care system. Good, decent, caring people worked very hard to make those changes and we owe so much to them.
There is so much to be thankful for – and yet? I left care to become homeless at 18. I was lonely and isolated. I was emotionally, practically, educationally and socially unready to cope on my own and there was no real support to cushion me into adulthood safely. Decisions were made about me, without me, to move me about in care.
In my 40 odd years as a social worker I kept seeing the same things happening to other kids and it disturbed me. How can kids be moved about without their consent, or be discharged from care when they were unready, and be offered so little support for so short a time? Half a century after I left care, some of those same issues that affected me are still happening! That clearly can’t be right!
Some years ago, a group of us felt it was time to challenge the negative stereotypes of care experienced people and seek to get their voices heard. We were optimists, and we knew the appetite for change was there. We hoped that if we could bring the voice of the care experienced community to those who make decisions and deliver services, they would listen.
We spent two years raising money and support, and arranged a conference at Liverpool Hope University that brought care experienced people from all social backgrounds, of all ages from across the UK and Ireland together as one. We even had careleavers from Australia sharing our day. In April this year, the care family came together as one big community in all our glorious diversity.
It was important to us that care experienced people of ALL ages attended, because one of the strongest lessons we’ve learned over decades is that care does NOT end at 18, or 21, or 25, just because statutory support does. It is a continuous lifetime experience.
There is no single truth about growing up in care. Every individual experience is unique, and can vary based on age and changes in life experience. If you asked me about care at 10, and again at 18, and again at 30 years of age, you would have got very different answers. If you want to know what growing up in care is like, you need to ask all of us – or as near to all of us as you can manage.
Care experienced people aged from 14 to 82 attended our conference, over 150 of us. It was a happy, optimistic affair. The day included wonderful exhibitions of art, music and literature by care experienced people. We had workshops where the care family shared their thoughts, feelings and experiences of being in care. We had feared that the day would be “triggering” for many of us, but it was a positive, loving and cathartic experience. Some of those there described it as “life changing”. For the first time ever, they felt they could be free to be themselves, amongst others who, for all their differences, shared that common fellowship of care experience. They said that they felt safe to speak of their care experience and share their views about what needed to change, some for the first time in their lives...
And share their views they did! We listened, and promised to get what they said “out there” so that others could hear, and having heard, make changes.
Alongside those workshops, a group of academic colleagues including sociologists, historians, criminologists and social policy academics, many of them care experienced, ran parallel workshops, engaging in discussions to guide future research that might be co-produced with care experienced people to improve how children are cared for.
The conference management team has kept its word. From the wisdom and experience shared in the general workshops and the academic stream, the team produced two conference reports about what happened on that day. Those reports have now been published and presented to the Secretary of State so that those with power to make changes know what was said. They are a gift from the care experienced family, given to you freely so that you can make care better.
The conference team were not a pressure group – we existed only to give the care experienced family a voice. However, some of the messages from the day were SO powerful we needed to share them. Some were SO urgent we needed to ask for immediate action.
There was so much care experienced people shared with us to share with you…
People from care backgrounds wanted to feel like other kids do. They wanted to feel wanted, to feel loved, to get hugs, to be shown and know genuine affection. Was that too much? Delegates shared with us that their basic human need to be loved, understood and engaged with compassionately was often forgotten.
People from care wanted to be seen and respected as other people are, as individuals with feelings, strengths and weaknesses. They wanted to feel valued.
Parts of practice need to be reflected on: what is the symbolism, the messages we are sending to children and young people about their worth? We were told that greater attention must be given to the symbolism of care system practices like bin bags that send negative messages to young people that affect their sense of their worth.
Care experienced people also told us that negative messages about young people in care in the media and research a negative effect on their sense of identity and that this needs to change so that care-experienced people are represented and valued in public- not something shameful that needs to be hidden away.
Again, is this too much to ask?
They wanted recognition that relationships are as critically important to them as they are to everybody else – they don’t want to be moved around and compelled to break relationships that are important to them. They want those significant relationships accepted, valued, encouraged and protected. Delegates explained how vital meaningful relationships that nurture a sense of belonging and connection in childhood are not limited to family, and can include friends, teachers, carers, social workers, other professionals and animals.
Your relationships are important to you and you value them. Well, so are theirs! They want to decide the quality of their own relationships and keep in touch with their friends and relatives as you do, and also with those professionals and carers they cared about. Their choice. Doesn’t seem much does it?
They wanted stability and continuity in their lives. So often they were moved around, social workers changed, the carers in their lives changed, they changed school, they moved home, they changed communities. They want to feel safe to lay roots. The impact of this instability could last a lifetime.
An important part of that stability is heritage – the importance of family, heritage and history. Every child’s heritage is theirs, a unique thing that must be protected. Care experienced people need to know and understand their past and what happened in their lives. They want you to talk to them, share with them, make their records accessible to them, written in plain English, without jargon and with honesty. Family and community connections are so really important for care-experienced people to understand and negotiate a sense of who they are.
Care experienced people told us they wanted to have their say. It is their life and they’ll be affected long after carers and professionals have moved on. This also included people telling us that there needs to be an appreciation that for many Care Experienced People the care experience doesn’t end when they leave care. They want to be kept informed, to be consulted and their views respected in decision making about our own lives. Part of that is being kept informed of their legal rights and entitlements, including access to independent advocacy. I thought this came in with the ’89 Act, but it seems not for everybody.
The care experienced community expressed a real interest and willingness to contribute to research, policy and practice learning and development. They just need opportunities to be heard and to speak with those who can affect change. During the conference we were told that more work needs to be done to improve direct practice and participation, as well as work to challenge stigma and address the loneliness. There is so much potential for partnership, greater consideration needs to be given to how groups facilitate engagement of a broader intersection of children in care, care leavers and care experienced adults.
Let tell you a simple truth - Nobody knows more about what it means to be in care than care experienced people do. Collectively, they have a deep reservoir of wisdom, experience and knowledge about care, more than any other group. They really are experts. They want to be involved, consulted and listened to, in care settings, locally and nationally.
Imagine how much will be learned when they are!
There were four very pressing issues that came up again and again, so much so that we felt they needed immediate action if young people’s lives were not to be damaged whilst in care. We called those the “Four Asks”
Firstly, we felt we must ask the government to recognise in policy that the care experience is a continuous life time process and does not simply cease at 16, 18 or 25 years of age.
Secondly, we needed to ask the government to recognise in policy that many care experienced people enter higher education later in life as a result of their childhood experiences. They need financial support after the age of 25 in order to complete their education.
Thirdly, we needed to ask the government to address urgently the lifetime mental health and emotional wellbeing needs of care experienced people of all ages as a single issue. The poverty of mental health support was a massive issue at conference.
Lastly, but by no means least, we needed to ask the government to take steps to improve the quality and transparency of case recording, and to improve access to care and health records for care experienced people.
Support should be available for us to access and explore our records. They are a major part of our personal history and identity.
Those four asks are critically important
We have included all these messages in the modest pledge that we invite you to sign here today. There is nothing in the Pledge that would not be instantly recognised by any social worker as good practice and it can only be a first step towards introducing the changes that are SO necessary if the decades long cycle of disadvantage for care experienced people is to be eradicated for ever.
When we organised the conference for care experienced people, it was an act of faith. We believed that if those who made decisions heard the voices of care experienced people, they would respond and make care a happier experience for those coming tomorrow than it was for those who lived it yesterday.
Today, we put our faith in you and ask you to hear their voices! Please don’t let us down.
Ian Dickson &Cat Hugman