How to improve care, by those who have lived it


Those who have been in care are uniquely placed to identify how well services for looked-after children are working. Here five care leavers share their experiences and set out what needs to change.

TIANA ASHFORTH-GRAHAM, 23, LONDON

I entered care at 16 in July 2010. I had just completed my GCSEs so was home more than usual. An already fragile relationship with my mother became increasingly strained with every passing day we spent in the same space as each other.

The tension grew over period of weeks and ultimately snapped. There was a physical altercation, which resulted in me being removed from my mother's care. I was placed in supported lodgings, where I stayed until just after my 18th birthday.

Just getting in contact with my social worker was difficult and after a few weeks of phoning the office, I gave up. It wasn't until September that I met my allocated social worker from the local authority's 16+ care team.

She casually remarked that she'd wondered how I was getting by as she had yet to set up the payments for my allowance. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't believe the adult responsible for my welfare could be so careless. I assumed it was because she was massively overworked. I knew that was often the case for social workers. Nevertheless it did not give me much faith in the system.

Perhaps I could have pressed harder to gain access to my allowance. But I was emotionally broken from the recent experience that had led to me being placed in care and feared what could be seen as complaining would jeopardise my chances of receiving my allowance promptly.

I could have been saved weeks of despair, had I met my social worker in the first week I moved into supported lodgings. A sense of security at a time like that is paramount - the absence of my social worker meant I had none.

The way social workers review performance needs to evolve and their relationship with the children they are assigned to should have greater bearing. Children should be asked - more regularly than just at their looked-after children reviews - whether they feel their social worker is accessible, understanding and considerate. It is so important to encourage an open dialogue where children feel they can tell their social worker if they are unhappy.

After a shaky start, my confidence in the 16+ team grew when I began sixth form. From the start, there was regular communication between my sixth form and social services, and when it came to my education I was always considered and listened to.

My sixth form made sure I got extra academic and pastoral support. Meanwhile, my social worker made me aware of the help I was entitled to as a full-time student and I received home tuition, a laptop and a printer. I felt invested in and was championed.

However, my experience was quite unique - I entered care with 10 A*-C GCSEs. While I was in care it became clear that generally there is a long way to go when it comes to the quality of education looked-after children receive. There was an undeniable disparity between the qualifications and grades attained by children who had grown up in care, compared with those who entered care after 16.

All children require incentives and encouragement when it comes to education. It must be a priority to make sure education continues at home - whether that is at a residential or foster home. Carers should be given the support they need to help children with homework.

Education is not just about school. Children in care need to have their interests nurtured. They need to be persuaded to participate in extra-curricular activities and hobbies, so they have the passion, motivation and social skills they need to successfully navigate life.

BEN ASHCROFT, 34, HALIFAX

When I was 11 I was taken into care because my mum could no longer look after me. I was placed in a children's home a couple of miles away from where I was living. I was frightened and confused among many other emotions.

The thought of being separated from my mum and sister was awful. They were family, the only people I'd ever lived with. Me and my brother were kept together as we entered the care system.

Within the first week, I had been arrested and charged with breach of the peace - for refusing to go to bed. I spent hours in a dark police cell without even a blanket to keep me warm. After being released I was separated from my brother, who stayed in the children's home, and moved to foster carers 11 miles away. I was now alone, miles from home and living with strangers. My life had been taken from me. Would I see my family again? Friends? The only thing I knew for certain was an upcoming appearance in court to face a Section 5 public order offence.

This was the start of dramatic changes in my behaviour. I felt unloved, unwanted so I started running off, going missing. I was a confused boy; angry and on a mission to self-destruct. I began drinking and taking drugs and committing minor offences.

Over the next few years I drifted around and I wasn't very good at engaging with my social worker. When she did visit me, I was angry and would throw stones and mud at her car and abuse at her. There was one man who did sessional work with me and took me fishing. He was the best. He never let me down but it only lasted until I was moved out of authority. I had a couple of placements where I would have liked to stay but my behaviour ended that. I was out of control and instead of helping me I was moved around. Passing the problem - and the problem was me.

Over the next few years I spent a lot of time in police custody for breaching curfews and committing offences. I ended up in secure units, secure training centres and finally a young offenders institution.

At 17 I was abandoned by the state. I'd had 51 moves, 37 different placements and gathered 33 convictions. I was left in a bed and breakfast, miles from home eating cornflakes and water for a week. No support, no help. Everyone had washed their hands of me. After a week of loneliness and isolation my mental health slipped and I was very depressed. I was then moved to a hostel where I carried on isolating myself and barely eating. Eventually I had two weeks in a mental health hospital until considered "stable enough" to leave.

I then isolated myself as a positive choice as I didn't want to get in any trouble or take drugs with the people I knew from the area. I had to make a fresh start and meet new people who weren't getting in trouble. I became a bit of a recluse and didn't leave the hostel as I knew I would soon be back to my old ways if I did.

I was lucky as I was offered the chance to join Project Challenge. It offered me a chance; hope, stability, a purpose and opportunity to meet new people and work as part of a team. I don't think I would have made a clean break without the help of all the staff there who helped me and never gave up on me. It wasn't easy but I was resolved to finish the six-month course. I did and was rewarded with a trip to Italy to walk the Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites. It was the best experience I'd ever had.

In 2012, I wrote my book 51 Moves and soon after that was involved in local, national and European projects working with children in care. I finally felt part of the community and was giving something back.

In December 2013, I was on a European project with young people in care, the day after Staying Put was announced for foster care. All the young people I was working with lived in residential care. They were visibly upset and angry that they had been left out. That's when six of us founded the Every Child Leaving Care Matters (ECLCM) campaign.

The volunteers behind ECLCM have sought to ensure that children in residential and leaving residential care have equality of opportunity and support. Garnering the backing of MPs, local councils, leading social care academics and many others we have created irresistible "noise". After almost four years we have been consulted by Sir Martin Narey and are working alongside the Department for Education in developing Staying Close as a stepping stone toward our ultimate goal of achieving an option for all children in residential care to remain in their placement until they are 21.

We have found no-one willing to disagree with our proposal that all children leaving care should be treated equally and have the same option to remain in their placement until they are 21. Nor when considering the question "Would this be good enough for your child?" have we found anyone who thinks it acceptable to evict their child at 16, 17 or 18 years of age. Do you?

CHLOE*, 23, EALING

I first entered care aged seven. My case was officially closed after finishing university at 22. Social workers changed frequently when I was younger but when I was transferred to the leaving care team at 16, they stayed for longer. I was pleased about this, because 16 to 18 is a crucial period of time for care leavers. There were lots of decisions to make about my future. Where was I going to live? Was I going to continue with education? How would I survive financially? Having a social worker for a more consistent period of time helped me make a stable transition into adulthood.

Social workers in the leaving care team were direct and gave detailed responses to my queries. When I was younger I felt social workers did not always take my concerns seriously. This made me lose trust and I thought twice about opening up to them. I can now see this was probably a result of high caseloads. What is important to a child may not be considered important to an adult with tons of cases. However, a child in care needs to feel their opinions matter.

I really started to feel supported when I became a teenager. Ealing Council's Horizons Centre opened and became a community for children and young people in care. There were trips during school holidays and I got to meet other young people just like me. The centre also ran study support sessions on Wednesday evenings for us to catch up on homework. I attended regularly and got a lot of support during my GCSEs. Mentoring was another weekly activity targeted at teenagers who were paired with a care leaver at university. We could talk to this mentor about any worries we had. The most important thing was that I could relate to the mentors because they had all been in care.

When I left care at 18 there was a lot of support available. I was given a worker from the Horizons Centre who met me regularly to prepare for the transition. She helped me get a flat. When it was time to move she went shopping with me to buy furniture. Whenever I had an issue I could always call her to get advice. The fact she went the extra mile will always stand out to me.

Overall I had a good experience leaving care with lots of support. But there are still some things that could be improved for young people in care. Social workers change very frequently. I know this can't always be prevented. However, it is difficult for a child in care to build a level of trust when it seems like everybody is always disappearing. Family disappear, friends disappear when they move schools, and social workers are constantly disappearing. Can you imagine how it feels to have all these changes? The least social workers can do is say goodbye.

*Name changed

ED FOX, 22, LINCOLNSHIRE

I've known lots of social workers, ever since I was five years old - at least 10 before I went into care. I had one I remember well when I was about seven who was with us when my dad went to prison. She dressed really eccentrically and was a fantastic person.

My dad made it hard for social workers. He had been in care himself, was a big cannabis user and was violent with all of us - me, my mum, my brother and my two sisters. Our family was not one people would want to work with. There were serious threats of violence and ultimately my dad was sent to prison.

While he was there it was great - the packed lunches were made, the washing got done and my mum got support from friends. But when he got out it went back within a week and it was like nothing had changed. My mum really couldn't cope with my dad's violence and because I was brought up with violence I became violent myself.

In one way going into care was the best thing that ever happened to me. We were all taken into care on the same day when I was 15. I'll never forget the day it happened. My mum went to the court but my dad wouldn't go as he didn't like courts.

I was at school - it wasn't a mainstream school, it was for children with particular needs. They wouldn't let me out during the day even though we were supposed to be going to the chippy for lunch. One of the teachers took me in the school bus and we sat in the shed to eat. I had no idea what was happening. I would have liked more involvement and to know what was going on but when my lift home was due it didn't come and I was just in the dark.

They dumped it all on me at the last minute when the social workers came to get me and it was tough. I had a reputation for kicking off - which is what everyone was worried about - but just ran out of the room. I wanted to be left alone. I didn't want to talk to anyone, I didn't want to see anyone except my mum and that wasn't allowed.

The way I saw it at the time was they ripped me out of my home environment and put me into care without even consulting me. It's not a happy memory, but I've learnt to live with it. It took about three weeks to find out why I was in care. No one ever asked me if I wanted to go into care and I didn't feel involved in the process but there was nothing much anyone could do. It might have made me feel worse.

I don't remember there being any particular support for me except Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). At CAMHS we talked about issues and it partly helped me not be violent. But what helped most was living with my foster carers and after that my supported lodgings providers.

In some ways I've been really lucky to have just the one placement with foster carers and then go into supported lodgings. Going into care helped me by putting some structure into my life and being able to see a normal family environment. My foster carers are like my family now - I was with them for three years until I left care.

I met my supported lodgings providers through the Barnardo's leaving care service just before I was 18 and I thought they were great, cooking for me and taking me on holiday with them all over the country, even though they could have put me into respite care.

I met Helen, who runs the Care Leavers Apprenticeship Scheme at Barnardo's, nearly two years ago. She was very easy to talk to and be with. I started on an apprenticeship to get a qualification doing "multi-skills operations" learning five trades - joinery, plastering, plumbing, bricklaying, painting and decorating and also Maths and English.

If I have any advice for social workers, it's to listen to kids and make sure they have an opinion. Keep them informed and don't let them be "clients". Treat them like family if you can because social workers have so much involvement in your life, you feel like they are part of your family. Sometimes you are glad to see the back of them, but some you'd want to see again.

CARRIE WILSON-HARROP, 29, SHEFFIELD

A "care journey" rarely starts when you walk into a foster home or residential home and my journey was, and still is, unclear, even after reading my care records.

I lost contact with my dad when I was almost four and grew up thinking he had abandoned me. I lived with my mother who had struggled with drug addiction from her teens. Aged 11, I knew home life was not great. Me and my two brothers were on the "at risk" register, and me and my older brother would be taken for milkshakes by a lovely social worker called Lynn, who asked all sorts of questions about living at home. I remember Lynn clearly because of her lovely long blonde hair, however, she is not mentioned in my "care records".

Home life felt settled for many years - as settled as it could be with a mother and a step-dad with heroin dependence. At some point Lynn "moved on" and I had a new worker, who would meet me after school to speak to me about how I felt and life with my mum. I remember being annoyed that I couldn't see Lynn anymore as she was kind and friendly. Having a new worker meant getting to know them, and she didn't take me for milkshakes like Lynn.

It all started to fall apart when my step-dad left with my younger brother, who was one and a half at the time. My older brother and I would spend most weekends with family friends. In early 2000 my brother left our family home after a fight with mum and moved in with them.

That Easter I went to stay with them for half-term and just didn't leave. I remember clearly being asked if I wanted to go home and feeling guilty that I didn't want to, but I felt like I wanted my mum to "get better" before I could move back. My records have it down as "voting with our feet". From this a private fostering agreement was signed and from there my "care journey" officially/unofficially begins.

There were issues with the private fostering agreement. An agreement generally entered into if a family member wishes to "take on" a child. The main issue was that my "foster parents" were not family and were not getting paid anything, which was a strain. While my brother and I had left our family home, we had never been to court to change parental responsibility and so did not have the same entitlements as a looked-after child. I had yet another social worker, or maybe two at that point. Following a lengthy court case (none of which is mentioned in my care records), the local authority admitted fault and me and my brother were officially looked-after children by the time I turned 14.

My time in care was pretty undramatic in terms of change - bar the many changes of social worker - as I spent my whole time in care with the same family. I still see them as family today, over 10 years after leaving care.

I maintained contact with my birth mother on and off during this time, but it was not a healthy relationship, as she enjoyed to be parented by me. I no longer keep in contact with her, which is really difficult at times, but for me it's a choice I have had to make for my life to be a positive one.

Just before I turned 16, my foster parents and I succeeded in finding my dad. We travelled down to meeting him the day before my birthday and we have had a positive, healthy and meaningful relationship ever since. Finding him and finding out he hadn't actually abandoned me healed hurt I did not even know I had inside.

The one thing that affected me the most through my time in care and beyond was my damaged mental health. I was depressed for years without anyone taking any notice, with me often thinking "If I committed suicide would anyone care?" Ultimately, I knew the answer would be "yes" and that would be enough to steer me away from those thoughts. It took years of struggling and several rounds of counselling to heal the trauma of pre-care experiences, which were re-ignited in and after leaving care.

Through all this, I did well at school then college and went on to study at university. My depression had a big impact on my success at university, with me spending most of my second year not leaving my bedroom, apart from to eat and to go to my counselling sessions and sometime classes. I somehow got my degree, mostly through the support of my friends and my course manager; succeeding even when in my final term my younger brother came into my care after his dad died from cancer.

Those years now feel like a different lifetime. If I were to put my successes through the turmoil down to one thing, it would be pure determination on my part that I did not want a life anything like my mother's. My mental health was finally healed in a meaningful way, through self-compassionate cognitive behavioural therapy. Treating myself and my experiences with compassion changed my life completely and healed a dark hole that for many years I thought I would have to live around and pretend to be happy.

I now work with young people leaving care around the world to help them to understand their experiences in a healthy way and to fulfil their potential in life, which is always a humbling experience and a constant reminder of the amazing skills and personalities they have, through such adversity and difficulties.

Today, almost 20 years after going into "care" I am happily married, in a stable, successful job, own my own home and have a baby of my own on the way. I wouldn't change my experiences, because they have made me into the person I am today - a person I am proud of and happy to be.

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