Care-experienced children given a voice

Young people have made podcasts about growing up in the care system - children's commissioner highlights how they can educate practitioners.

As children's commissioner, I often find myself surrounded by adults talking to other adults about how adults should do things for children.

This is inevitable and often important, but what focuses minds is when we are informed by asking children directly.

With my particular focus on children in care, it is even more vital we hear from them, as too often they've been the least heard.

We have interviewed a number of teenagers with specific experiences of the care system for a new series of podcasts for our website IMO - a peer-led website for children in care and care leavers.

Frank, direct and powerful, they expose the lived reality of the concerns we have about the level and nature of the support we as a society offer them. Here is a summary of what they talk about.

Ella on criminalisation

Ella talks to us about how she feels she was criminalised to manage her behaviour in children's homes. She chats about bouncing back from results that don't go your way and holding workers to account by turning up to care reviews with a copy of the legislation.

"I initially lived in a local authority-run home. I was there for 10 days. I was then kicked out; my behaviour wasn't the best. I got charged with and convicted of two counts of assault and criminal damage. In real terms what that meant was I ripped up paper into little bits, because that's always been a really calming thing for me, and I smashed a banana and rubbed it over a staff member's face. Then I was taken into police custody, I was there for over 24 hours. I was 15 years old… I wasn't aggressive, I was just really sad."

Ryan on reading case files

Ryan tells us why he chose to read his case files and how it's changed his perspective on being in care, and we hear about his voluntary work in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) community.

"When I first asked for my files, it was really difficult… I was in care for 15 years. That's a huge chunk of my identity and I wanted to know. I think I underestimated it, I didn't really consider how much personal stuff would be in them and, looking back, I wish I'd got more support in reading them when I first got them because it really hit me more than I thought it would."

Nathaniel and Victoria on being siblings in care

We met Nathanial and Victoria through an organisation called Siblings Together. Nathaniel and Victoria are not related, but they were both separated from their brothers and sisters when being taken into care. They tell us what that separation feels like and give us an insight into contact arrangements.

"Sibling contact is important because it brings normality back into people's lives. It means that they can grow together and, when they eventually leave care, they will have those connections there. A few months ago, I was given the wrong contact day. I arrived on the day to be told that it's not that day, it is in fact tomorrow. It's embarrassing, it's frustrating, and it makes you angry and upset." (Nathaniel)

Rihanna on fostering support

Rihanna tells us what it's like to grow up with HIV in England. She tells us about the change

in support when she turned 18 and we hear about the challenges and excitement of leaving foster care to go to university.

"Before I went to an adult clinic, my foster carers would go with me and we'd go on lunches and everything to make it more comfortable. Then every day, they would remind me - if I forgot, they were always there to remind me. In the beginning, after I left care, it was quite difficult because there was no longer anyone there to remind me."

Steven on career aspirations

Steven is a care leaver who is currently training to be a social worker. He tells us how growing up in care has shaped the kind of social worker he wants to be. We discuss how little time families are given to change when they are under social services assessment and reflect on the lack of aspiration on behalf of care leavers from those who are supposed to inspire them.

"I still think there's a lack of aspiration given to the young people. The other day, I saw this billboard of jobs for care leavers and it was KFC. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but why weren't they saying stuff like university? You wouldn't put that up in a school, so why is that in place for care leavers? It's symbolic. Why can't we aspire to do more than that?"

The purpose of the podcasts

The podcasts shine a light on the experiences of children in care. We wanted to give a voice to their experiences, not only so we have a better understanding and more empathy, but also so we can improve a system that when it goes wrong can do more harm than good.

These interviews paint a picture that is inspiring, but sometimes troubling.

It is telling that the children we spoke with often remember the names of the workers who have helped them the most - it shows us how important these trusted relationships are, and how long they can take to form.

In these interviews, we hear of some incredible work from talented and caring professionals.

It strikes me that much of our response to children in care is practical advice on how to manage the care system itself.

So when Ella talks about going to a meeting equipped with legislation, or Nathaniel advises kids to fight to get the contact arrangements they want, these are things no child should ever have to say.

Being in care should not be about fighting for your rights in a bureaucratic system that is failing you, it shouldn't be about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

It shouldn't be about ending up with a criminal record simply because parts of the system don't know how to help some children cope with very complex and overwhelming emotions and experiences.

Putting children first

I want a system that puts children's life chances at the heart of decisions and lets professionals lift children up.

There are many practical things we can do such as council tax exemptions for all care leavers, guaranteed apprenticeships or university places, improving home, school and social worker stability, and doing more to make sure children in care are not criminalised.

But we also need to get the basics right, like spelling a child's name correctly. Because, as we hear in these podcasts, these things can stay with you for years.

Listening to children's experiences is an excellent way to have professional practice reflected back at you. It's important not to be defensive but to be as open and as fearless as the children themselves.

You can listen to the podcasts via the IMO website

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