BIG INTERVIEW: A place for those in care - Susanna Cheal, chief executive of The Who Cares? Trust

By Anthony Burt

| 18 February 2004

People tend to think young people in care either have been, or still are, troublemakers," says Susanna Cheal, chief executive of The Who Cares? Trust, a charity concerned with the interests of young people who are separated from their families and living in residential or foster care.

"We need to keep underlining that 98 per cent end up in care because of family breakdown and not because of a crime they committed."

Cheal's experience of psychotherapy for young people with mental health problems and disabilities led her to conclude that the media's depiction of young people in care has been stereotypical in the past. Breaking the perception that most young people in care are young offenders is one of her biggest challenges.

Young people in care are often moved from one care home to another - one in seven moved three times in 2001/2002 alone. This results in a range of issues experienced by many young people in care: educational problems, poor support networks, isolation and estrangement, and difficulties in making and maintaining friendships.

There are 60,000 children and young people in care and The Who Cares? Trust wants to promote a positive picture of them, enable them to talk to each other and share experiences in a secure environment to help them achieve their potential in life.

To this end, the trust approached the Government in 2001 and asked for funds to give young people better access to information and communications technology. The Who Cares? Trust was allocated a 25m Capital Modernisation Fund grant, jointly administered by the Department for Education and Skills and Department of Health. Of this, 1m was used for the development of The Who Cares? Trust's CareZone web site, with a further 1m of matched support coming from the Community Fund.

Developed over a period of 16 months, CareZone is a secure online web environment where young people in care can access "information and fun".

It has been piloted by nine local authorities, including Birmingham and Liverpool City Councils and the London boroughs of Hounslow and Haringey, which have each put a further 75,000 of development funding into the project. Twenty-two more local authorities are signed up to run the scheme.

Once in the zone, young people can choose a character that they want to become (see picture), while accessing a range of relevant information. This character device means each young person can remain anonymous to everyone else using the service.

If CareZone gives young people in care an environment in which they can feel safe, network and plan a future, Cheal hopes that the BBC's Taking Care season of programmes will change perceptions of this disadvantaged group.

Cheal was a member of a steering group for the TV drama, documentary and radio season covering stories of young people in care. She has been impressed with several of the rough cuts she has seen. "They are very well-made case studies," she says. "Getting the opportunity to promote young people in care in their true, positive light is a great achievement."

While Cheal believes the media needs more background understanding of what "in care" means, she is impressed by the Government's approach to improving services for young people in, and leaving, care.

She still reserves judgment, though, on whether the general public has changed its views of young people who are in care. As she points out: "The measure of our society is how well we deal with our most vulnerable young people." And there is still room for improvement on this front.

FYI

- After becoming an adviser at The Who Cares? Trust in 1992, Cheal went on to take over as chief executive in 1995 following the death of the organisation's founder Tory Laughland

- BBC's Taking Care season runs from 15 to 26 February

- The Who Cares? Trust's CareZone was officially launched on 17 February

www.thewhocarestrust.org.uk/carezone.htm.

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