All you need is love and a village?

(This article first appeared on the website of The Howard League For Penal Reform)

A few weeks ago I wrote an article that set out to explain why almost thirty years after the Children Act became operational many care experienced young people still find themselves on the receiving end of a patchy ad hoc service that all too often fails to deliver. The article seems to have struck a chord with many people but I was especially moved by the feedback from older care experienced people who shared feedback:

“Spot on Kieran..made me cry…we\were are not disposable…it is about love and support…throughout the good and bad times….consistency…knowing someone’s gonna be there always…advocate for the best in us ….trials and failures…the whole system needs to change…patience is so important allowing us to make mistakes staying with us throughout… and yes fostering is a business for some should be a life time guarantee with regular support for the family…unconditional love is so important….truth is I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for the good kind loving people I met along the way…that stuck their neck out went against the system…and loved me from a distance within the confinements of their role…well done…!”

“Totally agree with both of you, support should be tailored for individual needs but treated equally which will show the young person self-respect, each young person should feel they are valued and their idea also valued, young people and children need to feel safe. Getting support workers to stay is also important for the growth in confidence of the child or young person. So true the services are old it needs to change and be consistent with today’s environment, love and feeling wanted does play a big part and it’s ok not to succeed the first time round but someone needs to be there to help and pick the child or young person up so they can try again. Money does play a part but commitment is vital. Children and young people should feel a part of the community.”

The more I have discussed the article with policy makers, practitioners and care experienced people young and old, the more we all seemed to agree that children and young people need love not red tape, the challenge being how do we deliver that within a bureaucratic system that increasingly has to ensure children are ‘safe’. Add in what can appear to be a never-ending succession of cuts, rapid staff turnover and the task can appear impossible.

Yet there do seem to be things we know based on numerous successful projects and our own experiences of growing up as children or bringing up our own children that might help.

Firstly, the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is especially true for care experienced young people. All too often, especially for children in residential homes, there is a tendency to ghettoise and cut these young people off from the community. The community in turn can hold harmful stereotypes about care experienced children, which can often lead to people not wanting a children’s home in their neighborhood. Compare this to the way older people’s homes are often in nice neighborhoods and often have a wide range of community links with schools, arts groups and business all seeking to help and support the elderly. So we need councils being proactive in letting the public know these are ‘our’ children, they need ‘our’ support and we want your help and support.

This is not a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 job

We need to look again at the backgrounds and experience that those working with care experienced young people need. I would argue that care experienced children often need support from staff who have a community development background. Rather than being perceived as individual cases that need to be sorted, we need to have an asset-based approach, where skilled staff can work with young people to identify their strengths and inspire them to bring about change.

This is not a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 job, it requires staff that are willing to work evenings and weekends, who have entrepreneurial flair, can spot opportunities and support young people to access and benefit from them. This is what countless parents do every day for their children, they are there for them, they constantly have their well being at the front of their thoughts and when things go wrong they are there to help their children pick themselves up. It has always struck me as strange that care experienced young people often find their corporate parents work set hours which often do not fit in with the ones they keep. Surely personal advisers should be working shift patterns covering evenings and weekends and yes they even need to be around over holidays.

Linked to this is the idea that at a set age the care system will drop you. Many parents will tell you that children opt in and out of family life and as they get older if and when things go wrong, they often return to their family for help and support. So why would we expect care experienced young people to stop having access to their corporate parents when they are 18, 21 or 25? Why can we not say to the state’s children we will love and care for you for life. If and when you fail as you will, we will be there to pick you up, if at times life seems too much we will be there for you and if you are doing well and want someone to share your success with, we will be there for you. This is what children aged 5 to 65 do every day and this is the support that parents give to their children throughout their life.

Knowing that people are there for you, have your back, will always let you in and be happy to see you is a building block of emotional security and one that is often lost in the care system. All too often the emphasis is on processing children and young people and closing files. Do we really think anyone is ever sorted enough that they do not need the unconditional love that families can offer? Of course, many children not in the care system do not get unconditional love. Families come in many shapes and sizes, but I would argue strongly that children who are offered unconditional love are far more likely to feel secure and to be better able to deal with the issues that life throws up, than those who feel judged, marginalised and unwanted.

We need a root and branch system review

I am aware as I write this that some might think this is a lot of hippy ’60’s speak or all very well in theory but not just workable in the real world. Well our job is to change the real world and in the case of care experienced young people it is just expecting that what we offer them is the same as we offer our own children. We should not hide behind professional boundaries but be open to new ways of working. We need to build on the vast commitment that many care experienced people and staff in the care system have and seek to build a much more empowering and inspirational work culture. We need to get away from 9 to 5 Mon to Fri relationships and have staff who are committed, flexible and there for you.

We can ensure that our communities understand the needs of care experienced young people and tap into the vast reservoir of goodwill, talents and generosity that is within every community. We can strive to ensure that in ‘our village’ whether we call it London, Leicester, Basingstoke or Stow on the Wold that we are all committed to bringing up ‘our children’.  Our council leaders need to be encouraged to step up and speak out for the children in their care. Like all proud parents, they should be willing to defend their children and argue their corner as they seek the best opportunities for them.

We can and we must do this, and the starting point should be a root and branch system review of the care system where care experienced people young and old have a lead role. Together we can make this happen.

Kieran Breen is the CEO of Leicestershire Cares. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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