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'The care experience - the art of buying a car' - Ian Dickson

“The conference for care experienced people of all ages” (Careexpconf) – Some people have asked “Why is that necessary when kids in care and careleavers are routinely consulted already about decisions made about them?” That’s the point – they’re not!

Consider – if you were wanting to buy a car that was reliable and value for money, what would the important considerations be and who would you ask for advice? Well, you might start by considering what you personally wanted from the car – its make, colour, performance, cost, etc. You might sensibly seek the advice of someone who knew how cars work who could check the engine and make sure everything was working properly and it was value for money. It would also be really useful to check with someone who had driven a car like that and could tell you how reliable and comfortable it was, how it drives and what its strengths and weakness are. Indeed, these considerations would be a vital part of your decision-making process. All makes good sense.


These are common sense principles. Oddly, these common-sense principles are not always followed when planning or making decisions about children in care, child care policies, strategies and practices. As we would when buying a car, ‘experts’ are usually consulted who can advise on possible initiatives, priorities and costing. These are usually experienced professionals involved in planning and delivering existing services who can design models of care that meet current legislation, national guidelines. These experts can advise about currently accepted good practice and what was considered to be value for money.


Just as in buying a car, the views of those likely to use the service would usually be sought about what they wanted from the service. Focus groups of selected young people are a common way of eliciting their views. Because of the age and status, it is probable that few if any of the young people consulted will have much if any prior experience of using the service they are being asked about, but they are able to say what they think they might like much as they might when buying a new car without ever having driven one.


Unlike the car buying analogy, what rarely if ever happens when formulating new child care policy is any significant consultation with care experienced people who have actually had experience of the service being planned and understand its strengths and weaknesses. They understand the realities of using the service through first-hand experience of having ‘lived’ it. This group are the only ones who have actually experienced “outcomes”. These are the people who have “driven the car” and understand how it performs in the earlier example. Their input is critical.


“Outcomes” are a popular term in child care practice. They are occurrences that professionals speak of a great deal and indeed, regulators have standards that when considered together, can apparently predict them. However, it would be very rare for any professional social worker or regulator to follow up on service provision by routinely consulting those how have lived the experience, care leavers and care experienced adults of all ages, to learn how effectively the service is in practice and what are the real outcomes, born of lived experience.


“Outcomes” determined without reference to direct first-hand experience are in reality judgements about service outputs. Consulting only children yet to receive a service and those experts who deliver services does not offer any opportunity to realistically assess the effectiveness of the service.


One of the major objectives of the “CareExpConf” conference is to provide that “missing link” in considering the effectiveness of current and future service provision. Decision makers need to know about what young people in care aspire to in their future after care so they can seek to provide it. They also need to know how effectively the care they currently provide prepares young people for their future after care, enabling them to take advantage of opportunities they are given.


“CareExpConf”, more fully, the conference for care experienced people of all ages is a platform for the care experienced family to come together as one. They will be supported to join together and jointly consider the realities of care from their collective perspective – care in years gone past, the care being offered today, and what sort of care they would like to see tomorrow. The care family will bring a perspective of care unique to them, led by lived experience, one which the experts who know about models, systems, statistics and value for money can only speculate about.


However, knowing what care is really like, and knowing what care should be like, are not enough alone. Like the car analogy, the “mechanic” is needed to join the team to provide the vehicle for change. This partnership of care experienced people of all ages and child care professionals in all their guises has the capability to change the way that care is provided radically. It has the potential to improve real outcomes for children leaving care whilst challenging stigma and discrimination. “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished”, as someone much cleverer than me once said. CareExpConf will be the first step towards achieving that.


But CareExpConf is so much more than an initiative to improve an ailing care system. So very much more. All care experienced people know the feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt, isolation, “differentness”, and so many more negative feelings. Being talked about, being excluded from real decision making, being seen as a ‘case’ and not a person are all feelings known to care experienced people. These feelings are reinforced for so many by how they are treated by corporate parents, those who care for them and Society at large. That is a hard message for many to hear – but it remains true.


CareExpConf will bring together care experienced people in all their glorious diversity, confidence, creativity, passion and optimism. It will include members of the care experienced family from the professions and trades in Society – Doctors, lawyers, university professors, social workers, plumbers, engineers, artists, writers, and so many more. Ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things in life in the face of disadvantage.

CareExpConf will celebrate the creativity and imagination of the care experienced family – their art, music, poetry, passion and optimism. For possibly the first time in their lives for some, care experienced people will be in a positive environment where they are celebrated and treated for what they are – ordinary people who can achieve anything with support, encouragement and opportunity. At its best, CareExpConf will offer more than just an opportunity for care experienced people to come together as one. It will offer a loving family experience.

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