Ric Flo is a lived experience leader, rapper, and founder of Mantra Music, the world’s first record label exclusively for care-experienced artists. For the latest episode of our ‘In Conversation With’ series, Luke Rodgers BEM, founder of The Care Leaders, chatted to Ric to learn more about his background, his passion for music, and how he’s supporting talented care-experienced young people through his work.

From rapper to teacher, over the past five years, Ric Flo has been facilitating rap workshops for care-experienced young people, helping them to grow in confidence and “tell their story to the point where they’re on stage and they’re just owning it.” 

What initially started as help with songwriting has grown into getting care-experienced young people into a studio and creating a label where care leavers can meet. They can also talk to booking agents, who act as mentors, about the music industry and all that goes with it.

“On my journey of rapping about my experience, I found it to be really powerful in connecting with the community and I feel like I need to help the next generation and support them with their music careers,” says Ric. 

Ric and Luke previously worked together on an ‘Introduction to Songwriting’ workshop at Birmingham Library.

“The workshops you created were powerful,” said Luke. “I remember your incredible ability to be able to get a young person, who had no experience in the music at all, to [rap] and perform this music. It’s a rare talent and it requires incredible skill.”

What Ric is trying to do now is more than just a workshop of words – it’s creating an experience for young people.

After facilitating various workshops, Ric found that a lot of the time, the young people he was working with didn’t have laptops or somewhere they could record their music. Seeing this, he decided to create a dedicated space for them.

“The young people that are signed could be leading their own workshops. I’ve found a particular way of teaching and writing but when I started out, I had imposter syndrome. I was like ‘I know how to do my thing but I don’t necessarily know how to teach it’. But going to poetry workshops and seeing how other artists do their thing, it gave me more confidence about my process. 

“Overall, I feel like as long as you’re creating a safe space where young people are able to share what they want, that’s really all that matters.

“Music was my therapy. It gave me that license to be honest, even if I [didn’t] put it out to the world. I want [young people] to have that experience to know that this is a way of expressing your feelings in an honest way and just letting go of the emotion you’ve [been holding]. This was therapeutic for me, and if you love music, it’s going to be beneficial to you, [too].”

“That’s so powerful,” says Luke. “In the space that I work in, I’m all about youth voice and asking ‘how do you get young people involved in sharing their views of how things should be done differently?’ 

“There’s always a lot of pressure in this space and what I see when we work with young people is constantly [asking them to] share their view. But you look at that sometimes and think ‘no, just have fun’.

“What you’re saying here is that your voice isn’t just valuable to be shared – your voice is valuable for you to be able to understand and to process the experiences that you’ve been through. There’s obviously something in music and in writing, where you are not necessarily just directing your thoughts into sharing your past – you’re thinking of a creative way to express [them].”

Ric agrees, adding that he’s been learning along the way. His first album, ‘A boy called Ric’ was “inspired by A Child Called it.” 

“At the time – 2012 or 2013 – I didn’t really know any representation of someone who is care-experience within media, let alone music. [But I thought] ‘oh, you know, it’s quite inspiring’. Regardless of traumatic experiences, this is turning trauma into triumph. Let me get that message across in my music. 

“Regardless of your past, you can make a positive future. Although I was quite vulnerable in the album, I felt like hip hop gave me that license in the sense of ‘this is my truth’. I had no other way to say it so I was just literal and raw. 

“Phoenix Rising, which was created by the Big House, is a theatrical show that’s by care leavers, for care leavers. It was done in a real professional way and that gave me more inspiration.

“The next EP I did was called The Rise of the Phoenix and it’s almost been like a feedback loop, seeing inspiring stories from other care leavers that I’ve fed into the music to have more of a metaphor and to make sure my story resonates on a bigger level.

“I just want to make that feedback loop bigger. I just want to share more stories from care leavers that are inspiring.”

Luke talks about the societal narrative that says the best way to involve a care-experienced person in service delivery is by asking them to come to a conference or event and to share their story. “You’re saying, well, actually, no. There is so much more impact that can be created for our young people here if we just think of a different way to do it – and your method is through music.”

When he first started out, Ric didn’t know if he had talent but he knew he was passionate about music. “I was like, by any means necessary, I need to do this, I need to tell my story. And it wasn’t for any success externally – it was for a goal for myself. I said before I was 25, I would write an album about my life, I would see my dad for the first time, and I would go skydiving. My most successful song Before I’m 25 goes into that story and that’s why that was so powerful for me.

“I realised that this is bigger than me – this is for the community. I want to give that same feeling and that same support to the next generation. They might not be sure if they’ve got talent but they know they love music. 

“I want to hear what their voices be like ‘regardless of what everyone else is saying, regardless of not getting support from elsewhere, I’ve got talent’. I want to give [them] a platform.”

As the world’s first record label exclusively for care-experienced artists, Ric is dedicated to supporting care leaders and is proud to “champion people like us”. In terms of where he sees the record label going, Ric says “the sky’s the limit”. He would love to collaborate with Goldie, a care leaver and legendary drum and bass producer. 

“I’d love him to be involved in collaborating and just being a spokesperson for the label. Talent-wise, if we found the next Adele, that would be incredible. We could do our own festivals. It’s so open that anything’s possible.”

Ric emphasises that the label is for positive representation of care leavers within the music industry, and that he doesn’t want them to feel like they’re pigeonholed in terms of how they tell their story. 

“They can share whatever they want. I’m just looking forward to the journey of meeting the talent and really helping them with their career however they see it. Half of the journey is going to be informed by these artists.” 

Luke says we are often challenged to think about real long-term success, especially when it comes to young people in care, because that’s the way that the sector works. “How do you measure outcomes? How do you do this? How do you do that? [But] how do you just improve a young person’s life today? How do you get them to engage in something that is fun?

“Everybody’s experiences inform what they do today – and it’s exactly the same for these care-experienced young people. Their experiences inform what they do today and if what they’re doing today is making music, they don’t need to talk about their story. What you’re creating here is that safety net [and a] community that’s got a clear vision to set up this record label and create this product which you give them ownership of.”

Ric says that the purpose of the label is to act as “a pillar of inspiration”. 

“I just want to fill in that space of curiosity that I had. I want to know other people in the community that are talented that I could potentially collaborate with. That’s that’s the main point – they have a space where there’s literally no representation within the music industry.”

Ric currently has funding to facilitate a Mantra Music programme with five young people aged 18 to 25, with the aim to secure additional funding to grow the programme and offer it to more care-experienced young people. 

The Mantra Music programme will run for nine months, starting with some writing development in February. The young people will work on developing their own songs, with Ric providing mentorship when it comes to instrumentals and general confidence. 

In March, the label will record music at The Premises Studios, a prestigious studio in Hackney, London where the likes of Skepta and Arctic Monkeys have recorded. Then in April, they will start to think about branding and “how they’re seeing the world as an artist”. They will be looking at everything from branded logos to music videos. 

From July to late August, there will be a marketing rollout of the five artists, with the plan to release a compilation album released by the end of September. There will also be funding for two events, including for an album launch party.

Along the way, four industry mentors, including a producer and distribution manager, will share their experience to give each young person a better idea of how the industry works.

“To actually have a record label that has the ability to get young people into a space that is the only care-experienced record label in the world just shows you [are] an incredible leader,” says Luke.

“It came from a space of ‘be the change that you want to see in the world’,” says Ric. “I saw zero representation of care leavers within music or media, so it just felt right.”

If Ric had just one message to share with people reading this blog, it would be for care leaders to use their experience to help the next generation. “I hope that the next generation – the talent I have on the label – inspires the next generation.

“I want to see care-experience leaders really change the world through their experience.” 

Part of Bournemouth-grown hip-hop collective, Jungle Brown, Ric Flo has shared the stage with the likes of De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, Lowkey, Akala and The Pharcyde, and played major festivals including Glastonbury, Boomtown, and Lovebox. To find out more about Ric and Mantra Music, visit the website. You can also email them directly at info@mantramusic.co.uk

When young people enter care, it can seem like the system takes a young person’s identity and gives them a new one, projecting them into a confusing world with new terminologies and often leaving them with little understanding of what’s happening. In this article, The Care Leaders, together with Madlug founder, Dave Linton, discuss what really happens when a child or young person enters the care system.

            “It involves so many different things,” says Karylle, a lived experienced leader who has worked with The Care Leaders. “Had you asked me what it was like entering care [back then], I’d say it was the worst day of my life. It was traumatic. But now, looking back, I don’t think I had a real concept of what that first day felt like. I had had so many placements leading up to that – 15 by the time I was five – so before I was even made the responsibility of my local authority, I had already experienced care. My understanding of that first day is not as memorable as it would have been for other people. The change for me was going home after short periods spent in care and then [suddenly] not going home. You soon realise ‘I’ve been here a lot longer than I usually am.’ It just feels like your freedom has been taken away. Although you haven’t committed an offence, you [start to wonder] ‘what did I do wrong here?’ ‘Why am I being punished?’” 

            For the benefit of listeners who are not care-experienced, Dave asks how much is explained to you as a child or young person entering care. “I can’t talk about what it’s like for everyone now – I would hope that it’s changed,” says Karylle. “However, I do work with looked after children and care leavers today who still tell me that they don’t know why they are in care.”

            Karylle says there seemed to be a time when nobody wanted to talk about it. “That’s one of the hardest things to comprehend as a child because then you make up your own version of events and your own story – one for survival and protection but also just to make sense of the not making sense part of entering care.”

            In her case, Karylle says that her mum didn’t want to tell her and her sister what was going on because she was dealing with feelings of guilt and in her own way, believed that her children were coming home too. Foster carers also felt like it wasn’t their job to tell Karylle and her sister what was going on or they could have assumed this was something the social worker would have mentioned. 

            “From a social work perspective, they probably never broached it because plans change all the time and they [didn’t] know what was happening. Even when we were on full care orders and the plan was not for us to return home, because there were so many people coming in and out of our life at that point, it’s just assumed somebody else has done that. I think they also probably assume children just know – and that assumption is made because of behaviour in those initial months of entering care.”

            Luke Rodgers BEM, founder of The Care Leaders, says he has no specific memory of the day he entered care. Instead, he remembers several different points where it was due to happen. “I remember meeting a guardian,” he says. “And at that point, I only ever knew a guardian to be a guardian angel. It all seemed a bit surreal. I knew there were serious issues at home. I was living between mum and dad’s and I had run away to a friend’s house because of something that was happening at home with my mum.”

            Luke remembers being at a solicitor’s office and sitting at this computer. His office was across the road from court and he had to go without Luke so told him ‘you’ll be fine here’. “I could see that he was really anxious about me being in his office and I made a joke that I was going to delete files from his desktop. But I couldn’t see the seriousness of what was happening. That’s why I said I entered a few times because it then became real when I had my first foster placement.

            “[I remember] playing a board game with people who spoke differently, who looked different, and I could really see that their son was a little bit scared of me. It was sad I suppose, because it felt like there was no going back. I’m in this new world now.” When he entered care, what was communicated to Luke was that his family was struggling to cope with him. But while he remembers being a ‘bad kid’, Luke was simply responding to the circumstances of his environment. 

            He remembers being told he was wrong when explaining to a foster carer that he entered care because of difficult family experiences. After telling a wider family member what had happened, he was again questioned. “[I started to think] to myself ‘I’ve got it all wrong here’. Was stuff that hidden in my family that it was recorded that I was brought into care because of me and my behaviour?’

            “It’s really hard to communicate a coherent narrative to a child because there isn’t one. If a child comes into care for abuse, no one is saying ‘yes I’m the one who did that’ – it’s not as easy as that.” Luke says the only thing you can communicate is that the child or young person is going to be safe now.

            Karylle says that her perception of social care was that these people were out to get her mum. “My mum was innocent and these people were so nasty and horrible. I kept feeling like these people were against me – and I suppose that stemmed from not being spoken to and not having anything explained.” 

            “If we really say we’re child focused and the child is not the problem, that they’ve been let down by adults predominantly, then putting a file together and reporting, for me, is not child-first,” adds Dave. “The child-first approach is doing whatever it takes to make sure the child understands and processes rather than the social worker simply getting the job done.”

            Luke says there is definitely another conversation to be had about what we record and what impact that has. “I completely agree that social workers should put children first but I don’t think the system allows it. Social workers are not the enemy here. Don’t get me wrong – there is some terrible practice, just as there is with every job, but they actually want to keep children first. They actually want to sit down, spend time and build a relationship. But realistically, social work is [there] to safeguard a child.

            “The system is broken. You have to write things in particular ways to make the child seem like they need more support than maybe they do so that they can access services because they’re overwhelmed. Social workers are having to play this really mindful game where they’re like I know what this child needs but they don’t meet that threshold. 

            “Recording and all of that stuff is never about the child. Filing and reporting is how we hold ourselves accountable. Is that the space where a child’s story should be written? Probably not. I think there’s an element of removing the child’s narrative from statutory recording and putting it in a different space which is why things like life story work and creating scrapbooks with foster carers about your life are really important. That’s the nostalgic stuff that you want to look back on as a care leaver and an adult.

            “But what happens when a care leaver gets their file and they read this stuff? It unearths so much more trauma. That’s such a big system to try and change. To close my thought on this, I think social workers do want to share authentic narratives. They do really care and they would love to do all of that stuff but the system doesn’t allow any of it. Unfortunately, because we’re a people-based organisation, people get blamed in that space – not the system.” 

            Dave founded Madlug, a buy one, give one bag brand, in 2015 after discovering that most children in care transport their worldly belongings in bin bags and plastic shopping bags. He asks Luke and Karylle about the impact this has on children and young people moving through care.

            “Now I see it as a problem but at the time I didn’t because I didn’t value myself highly enough to think that I deserved more,” says Luke. He says that black bin bags were definitely present during his experience entering care. “Looking back now, it was sombre. ‘Okay, you pull that out of the boot, take it into the house, these people will show you where your room is’. I think there’s a piece of work around enabling young people to see their value and see that having a bin bag is not okay.

            “Some young people will go ‘well I’m fine with moving all of the time’ and we’ll say ‘oh they’re okay with it – it’s fine’. But it’s not okay that they’re okay with it. Where is their initial point of value upon themselves? Is it that low that they think this is okay? I think the important work that Madlug is doing is challenging the perception around the black bin bag.”

            “I lived my whole care life in black bin bags,” says Karylle. “And just like Luke, I didn’t see it as an issue. The reason was because from the moment that I knew I was here for the longevity – nothing was mine anyway. 

            “And that’s what we fail to realise – that we’re continuing to [reiterate] to young people that nothing here is yours. You turn up there with a black bag that doesn’t belong to you with bits of things that nobody really packed properly from your house. Nobody really considered the things that would matter. They may have picked up the teddy off your bed or a blanket and a couple of pyjamas but everything is like you have to restart. ‘We’ll get brand new pyjamas, we’ll get bedding’ but I just want the things I already had.

            “Then you’re in this new house and whilst they’re telling you – and they’re meaning well – ‘welcome to your new room’, this isn’t my room. I can’t take anything from here when I leave. You’re not gonna let me take this bed with me. At the next placement, they’ll get another new bed and I’ll have new bedding again. So the attachment to things becomes less and less as you get older and your journey through care.”

            Karylle says the issue she has in terms of how we view young people is that when they reach a particular age, we almost do a 360 on them. “While we’ve been promoting this lack of attachment to items, when they reach teenage age, we then see that as a problem. ‘Oh they don’t have pride in any of their belongings, they don’t value anything’ and actually nobody had any respect for any of my items as a child when you threw them into that black bag.”

            Dave recalls going to speak at a conference in Oxford and the organisation said they would put him with a host family. “Normally you’d stay in hotels or BnB and I remember getting on the train from Birmingham to Oxford and the whole way on the journey was this butterfly feeling in my stomach that went ‘I wonder are the people going to be friendly, are they going to talk to me, is the house going to be clean, is it going to be awkward getting breakfast in the morning?’ I remember thinking if I feel like that as a secure adult going into a new environment, how must that feel for a child or young person who is sitting waiting to be placed in an emergency foster care home coming straight out of trauma?”

            “I’m glad you mentioned that,” says Karylle. “Amongst the black bin bags and losing family, when you’re not being told why you’re here, there’s that sinking feeling that you cannot control. Keeping those things bottled up every time, that first experience of ‘who are they, will they like me, will I like them?’ goes deeper and deeper every time you do it. It becomes ‘why am I here, how long will I stay for? Or ‘this is somebody else I need to feel embarrassed around because they now know what my mum’s done?’ All of that shame and guilt and trauma you have to experience every time someone opens that door.

            “I don’t think you ever get over that feeling, and you get it now in adult life sometimes, [Starting] a new job, or [going] on stage like Luke and I sometimes do, there’s this trigger. It’s not because it’s something new or your brain hasn’t figured out what’s going on – it’s just about safety. How do I protect myself in this space, while having zero control over what that looks like and being completely dependent on these new people to do that for me?”

To listen to the full podcast, please click here.

The information we write about a child is either a passport or a barrier to them being able to access services they need and deserve. In this blog, we speak to the founder of The Care Leaders, Luke Rodgers BEM, about why children and young people in care have records written about them, when this happens, and the process of accessing their records. 

            Whether it’s a social worker’s case notes or a foster carer’s diary entries, we have a statutory duty to record information about children and young people in care. “Schools will also record information about young people and pretty much any other professional that comes into contact with them,” says Luke. “So that could be meeting with a social worker, a looked after children’s review, or an education review, for example. What we write about young people will either be a passport or a barrier to them accessing opportunities.”

            Luke gives a placement request as an example of something that is recorded in children’s social care. “What is written in that placement request form will influence a foster carer’s decision to welcome that young person into their home. If the placement request form says things like ‘the young person is at high risk of absconding’ or ‘they are a persistent young offender’, the foster carer is could worry and think their home is not right for the young person.”

            It’s important to unpick what all of that means, otherwise we run the risk of falsely assuming what the young person could be like. For example, ‘a high risk of absconding’ might mean that the young person has been reported missing at Christmas because they went home to their parents. Similarly, ‘a persistent young offender’ might mean that the young person is engaged in something as minor as a public order offence, which is swearing in public. “When you hear things like that, you’re immediately going to assume that these young people are hardened criminals when they might not be. It’s essential that we contextualise what we write about young people so that we really understand who those young people are, and so that we know what has happened beyond the things that have been recorded.”

            Young people might choose to access their care records for a number of reasons – the most common being that they are looking for answers. For young people in care, a lot of decisions are made for them without them understanding why. “You realise there’s recording taking place about you every single day, and I think there’s a deep interest for young people to know what’s been said about them. As a young person growing up in care, you can often feel judged and stigmatised, and I, personally, had a big lack of trust. I always thought that everybody thought the worst of me. Accessing your records can answer some of these questions.”

            While it is possible for young people to access their records, it’s not easy. There is also the controversial subject of redacting case notes and files for young people. “You can legally redact if it’s third-party information or sensitive information but I suppose the question is what is the process of a local authority redacting information and who redacts it? How is it redacted? Who has oversight of that?”

            Luke says the other thing to think about is that once information is redacted, you don’t know what’s behind it. “You’re putting a lot of trust in the local authority that they’re going to redact and ethically, and that they’re not going to try and hide things that they shouldn’t. That’s why I think it’s such a controversial space because lots of care leavers often feel like the things that have been redacted shouldn’t have been.”

            Speaking about his own experience of accessing his records, Luke says there were lots of things written about him that were not reflective of his situation. “I remember living in a residential children’s home and I a young person had a disagreement with me. It escalated quickly, they accused me, shouted and started being aggressive. I was no saint, but in this situation it was uncalled for and I was the one at risk. When it was presented to me in my looked after children review, it was presented as a ‘serious incident’ as if I was the aggressor, which in that situation, I absolutely wasn’t.”

            Luke explains that he became defensive in response to the other person being aggressive to him but when he tried to explain what happened, nobody believed him. “That is the problem with recording, a lot of the time it’s someone’s interpretation of a situation. The people doing the recording have more power than you and if they don’t believe you, then it’s recorded in the way they want.  Also, let’s say it was recorded when I was 11. The social worker picks up that case note when I’m 13 and says ‘oh, this ‘serious incident’ happened when you were 11 – that’s concerning’. They then start thinking I am a risk and it’s a safeguarding concern to keep an eye on. It doesn’t matter that I had spent the last two or three years trying to communicate with professionals that their record of the event was not what happened. Why does nobody believe me? Why is it that it was recorded wrong?

            “Every time I had a meeting, that was then brought up as if it was a risk when the risk was never there in the first place because it was recorded incorrectly.”

            Luke says the other thing to recognise is that we inherit words and phrases in social care. “It’s normalised within our world to say things like ‘that young person has challenging behaviour’ but that doesn’t tell us anything. What you’re left to do is interpret what that means to you – and you can only interpret what things mean to you based on your own experiences and who you are. 

            We all know what it feels like to be judged and we all know what it feels like if people hold unrealistic expectations of us, so we need to be really mindful about what we read, what perception that creates in our mind about this young person, and how that perception informs how we communicate with them.

            “If we enter a situation and we think this young person is going to be challenging and then they become challenging, I think that we are partly responsible for that because of how we communicate to young people with that preconception. In our mind, we are saying to them, ‘I’m waiting for you to be challenging’. So they go, ‘okay, I can see that, have some challenge. They’re just living up to your expectations’.” 

            Luke says that one of the most effective techniques to use when recording case notes is if you imagine a young person in care is going to look back on their life and read the things that you wrote. “Some things we have to write will seem challenging, e.g. if we want young people to access mental health support, we have to talk about their mental health, and that’s difficult to read.” But Luke says we can do better by communicating directly to the young person’s future self. So, for example: 

Dear Luke, the reason why I’ve written is because I really care about you and I can see you are struggling. I want you to have the right support and I need to write these particular things so that CAMHS will give you that support. I hope if you’re reading this in the future, you understand why I used this language the way I did and a really hope you recognise how incredible you are.

            Since statutory records can hugely impact a young person’s access to services, Luke believes we have an absolute duty to encourage everyone to consider the language that they use in recording. “Give each young person a chance and do the work you need to do to ensure that case notes and records truly show who this young person is so they can access opportunities. This is more than changing the language, in my opinion, most of the work in this area is poor and tokenistic. Just changing words is a really ineffective thing because it doesn’t change the meaning, to do that we need to recognise and challenge the preconceived stigmas we hold.”

            Luke mentions the subject of unconscious bias affecting how we see children in care. “One of the biases that exists in society is that children in care are bad. So the way to overcome that is to challenge people that we think believe that by saying, ‘children don’t come into care because of what they do, they come into care because of what’s been done to them’. 

            “It’s really important that we’re aware of the subconscious beliefs that we hold because that is what’s going to influence the way that group behaves. We need to see these young people for who they are so we can approach them where they are. That is a much better foundation to build a relationship.”

            Luke says that one of the interesting things to think about is what would the world look like if at any point a child in care could access their records in real time. “Ignoring for a second the challenges that come with that, think about if, at any point, the young person that you’re working with can log on to their computer and read what you’re writing about them, how that would influence your behaviour. What does that do for our accountability? 

            “We don’t have much accountability when it comes to records because young people will not read them until the services are ended. So when that service is ended, if they’re uncomfortable with something, what do they do with that? Because social care are no longer responsible.” 

Find out more about the impact of recording in our popular training session.

An estimated one in three children is exposed to at least one traumatic event by the age of 18. In this article, Luke Rodgers BEM, founder of The Care Leaders, explains why minimising the impact of trauma starts with recognising messages in behaviour.

“When people talk about messages in behaviour in our sector, what they’re actually saying is that trauma is presenting itself in behaviour, and we need to understand the trauma to be able to understand the behaviour,” he says.

If a young person’s behaviour is related to trauma and we don’t understand it, Luke says we risk retraumatising them. For example, many young people in abusive situations experience adults in their life using authority to discipline them. “If a child’s behaviour is presenting trauma and we respond to that with authority, we are somewhat enabling the reliving of an abusive situation they might be in.” 

Around 70% of children come into care because of abuse and neglect – usually from adults that they rely on, who take advantage of that by being abusive.

If we look specifically at learned behaviour and relationships, there is one key area to focus on – young people learn behaviour through mirroring. “Theories suggest that all children will learn through mirroring. Mirroring being that they mirror the behaviours of those in their immediate environment such as their parents’.

“Children will mirror their parents behaviour, meaning that if their parents are abusive, they could mirror that. A message there is that children being unkind in school might be because that’s what they’ve learned growing up.”

Luke emphasises the importance of responding to that message in behaviour in a way that breaks the cycle, so that young people know that there are other ways of being. 

He says that the other message in behaviour is when children copying relationships they have learnt at home. Young people in care that have had traumatic upbringings will usually see several relationships break down. When they come into care, they will expect a lot of instability in relationships and behave in a way that communicates this. This can be exacerbated especially if they experience professionals coming and going. 

“They might push them [relationships] away and they might be challenging because they don’t think they’ll stay. They might also be scared of the relationship because relationships in the past have hurt them.”

There are also practical things to consider in terms of schooling. “Schools have a timetable for young people to commit to which might be starting school at 8:30, having their first lesson at 9, and homework at the weekend – that school’s expectation of a child. 

“Social care also has an expectation that the child might have to go to a review or meet their social worker – often this is something that will happen at school. If that meeting causes the child to be absent from the lesson and it’s not communicated to the teacher, that teacher sees that behaviour as the young person not showing up.

“They might ask the young person in the corridor where they were. If they were at a social care review and the teacher didn’t know, conflict can happen.”

A young person may also be late in the morning because they might just be having a hard day and talking to their foster carer, or even, trying to ring their social worker. If they start school at 8:30 and the social worker starts work at 9, the young person is then waiting until 9 to call, and the school might not be aware of that. 

“Again, with homework, most children will see their parents at weekends so their homework isn’t a priority. Teachers can fall into the space of saying things like ‘oh you were probably seeing your friends this weekend when you were supposed to be doing your homework’, and that can really trigger a young person.”

Luke believes the best way to avoid this outcome is for teachers to know which young people are in care and be trained to understand how adverse childhood experiences can affect behaviour so that they can respond to them appropriately, ultimately to become trauma-informed and attachment aware. 

“It’s an interesting thing to say because people will come back with an argument and say ‘well what about young people’s privacy? Maybe they don’t want teachers to know that they’re in care – or they are worried it could cause stigmatisation’. 

“While this a fair statement to make, I think we have two options – and I think these options need to be communicated to children.

“Option one is that we don’t tell teachers and staff who their children in care are because we want to protect young people’s privacy and prevent stigmatisation. I think if we do that, it communicates we don’t think our teachers can be responsible for respecting a child’s privacy. We’re also kind of saying ‘okay , we won’t tell the teachers because we actually agree that you’re going to be stigmatised by them’. 

“Or the second option is we go back to the young people and say ’in no way whatsoever will you be stigmatised in this school, I’d like your teachers to know you’re in care so they can make sure you have the proper support’. 

If teachers are given the appropriate training and a young person is late on a Monday morning, or is absent from a lesson, rather than immediately disciplining them, the teacher might wonder if something has happened in their ‘social care timetable’ and think ‘maybe I should ask first’, or say ‘I’m just checking in as you were late this morning. Is everything okay?’ 

On the other hand, if a young person is deliberately not turning up to lessons because they’re smoking outside and absconding, or arguing with teachers over nothing, for example, Luke believes teachers should take a different approach.  – 

“There are two different types of schools: behaviourists and nurturers. A simple explanation is the behaviourists have strict behavioural management policies which say if a young person is late, they are in detention. Then you have nurture schools that will have completely compassionate approaches and say ‘all behaviour is communication’. If this was on a spectrum I sit about three steps away from the nurture approach and seven away from the behaviourists. My opinion is that children who have experienced trauma need a lot of nurture balanced with clear boundaries.

“A teacher can have a nurturing approach and say ‘ah it sounds like you’re having a really bad day’ but if that young person is just swearing at you, why do we need to give them that grace? You need to separate behaviour from emotion in these scenarios.

“What is actually a behaviour that just needs to be dealt with, and what is an emotion that we should to be compassionate to? How do we separate them because they both need different responses.

“In the situation where the young person comes into school and is having a bad day and swears at the teacher, I wouldn’t respond to that with nurture. I’d say ‘it’s completely unacceptable to speak to teachers that way, irrelevant of what’s going on. However, if something is going on, I’d really like to know because I care about you, but in no way whatsoever is it okay to talk to teachers like that’. 

“You’re starting to separate the emotion and behaviour there. You’re saying this behaviour is unacceptable whilst at the same time trying to understand if something is beneath it”

Luke says the second thing which is more challenging is when a young person uses their experience as an excuse for their behaviour – something he remembers doing while in foster care.

“My science teacher pulled the bunsen burners out of the cupboard, and when he went back into the cupboard to get the matches, I lit the bunsen burner with my lighter. The teacher came in and asked who did that, and when I smugly told him it was me, I got sent outside. 

“He came outside and when he told me to hand him the lighter, I said ‘sir, my mum bought me it, I’m in foster care’. This wasn’t true but it was a good tactic to make him feel guilty so he didn’t take it from me. 

“I got to keep my lighter but what he should have done is said ‘okay, I hear that you’re in foster care, I was not aware of that, but there’s absolutely no way I can let you have this lighter and walk around school with it. What I am going to do is give it to your head of year and you can pick it up at the end of school and let them know what you have told me’.” 

The teacher can go on to be compassionate and say something like ‘if you need to talk you know where I am’ or, ‘If you want to talk to someone about that I can help you find support in school’. You’re holding people accountable for their behaviour whilst being compassionate by responding to the emotion.

Luke says that when a teenager is genuinely behaving in a way because of what they have been through – for example, if someone said ‘why did you slap that kid around the head’ and the young person replies ‘because I was slapped around the head when I was younger’ we need to recognise and respond to the emotion and the behaviour. 

This means saying something like ‘what I’m hearing you say is that you went through a difficult experience when you were younger, and we really want to find someone for you to talk to about that. But slapping other people around the head is not okay and you need to apologise and not do that again’. In other words, I’m going to have to deal with that behaviour separate to the reason why you do it. 

“What you’re doing there is severing a young person’s ability to make excuses for their past. If we don’t sever that, then we run the risk of young people turning into young adults and saying ‘the reason that I’m an alcoholic is because I was abused as a child and I do it to numb the pain’, or ‘the reason I beat up my partner is because I was beat up as a child and I just lost my temper’. 

“We absolutely need to say to young people ‘the fact that you know being slapped around the head when you were a child has led you to slap somebody else around the head means you’re aware of it. I want you to recognise how amazing it is that you have made that connection but that tells me you can do something about it’.” This gives young people power and agency over their actions. We are not telling them they can’t do something, we are telling them they are aware of the reason for the behaviour so they have the ability to do something about it.

Luke recently listened to a podcast episode on ‘Hidden Brain’ about ‘conversational receptiveness’. It’s a piece of research about communication that has been done that follows the model ‘HEAR’. People who use this model of conversation tend to have reduced conflict, are reported to be seen as more trustworthy, and have better professional judgement. People are also more willing to approach them. 

The ‘H’ stands for ‘hedging’ – using words that hedge your point of view, like ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘sometimes’. So instead of saying ‘you should have done this’, instead saying ‘maybe there’s another way to think about that’, or ‘perhaps this wasn’t the best way to behave’.

The ‘E’ stands for ‘emphasising’ areas of agreement. So saying ‘I think we can both agree that that experience you just communicated was quite difficult, and ‘I think we can both agree that slapping people around the head is not okay’.

‘A’ is acknowledging the other person’s point of view. So saying ‘you’ve had really difficult experiences and I’m really hearing that’.

‘R’ is reframing the positive. Instead of saying ‘I don’t like how you behave’, say 

I enjoy seeing when you doing things you enjoy’. ‘It’s not okay to slap kids around the head – it’s better if you play nicely’. It’s telling them the positive.

Luke says the other way of de-escalating is around questioning. “If someone is in a space of conflict, if you ask them challenging questions, you’re likely going to get challenging answers.”

“So asking ‘why are you doing that?’, ‘What do you think you are doing!?’ In that moment, we don’t know a lot of the time, especially if we are angry. To avoid further escalation, avoid challenging questions, and instead ask people ‘why?’, i.e. ‘tell me what’s going on’. 

“You can also use elaboration questions, so ‘I’m curious why you’re doing that’, or ‘I’m curious why you think that way’. Then ask a follow-up question based on their answer. This shows you are listening.

“If someone says ‘I’m doing this because I’m angry’, ask ‘well what is it that’s making you angry?’ Showing that you listen always deescalates because you’re showing that you’re somebody really there and on their side.” Once the situation is de-escalated you can then speak about the behaviour in more detail.

To prepare ourselves to be able to listen, Luke says we need to actively put our point of view and opinion aside and tell ourselves, okay for the first 10-15 minutes, I’m just going to listen. I think if we can do that one thing, it will go a long way.

“I think all members of staff in a school should be trained on understanding how trauma and adverse childhood experiences impact child development, for two reasons – one because it will help them with the children that they work with, but also because we all go through adverse experiences and we all go through trauma, so it helps with personal self-development. 

“So they’re not just doing this because they’re trying to help the kids they’re working with – they’re doing this for themselves.”

Luke also emphasises the importance of learning about attachment. “For example, a member of staff who is a blonde-haired man might make a child feel threatened because they were abused by a blonde-haired man. 

“If that member of staff is able to think ‘maybe what I represent in my attachment with this young person is fear’ that will reduce conflict.” 

Luke says that understanding attachment also benefits relationships with colleagues, since it creates better mutual understanding. “We’ve got to be respectful of each other to create really meaningful working spaces, and we want to keep those working spaces meaningful and happy because that’s the environment in which children will learn.”

In children’s social care, systems are often set up to ‘manage’ the behaviour children and young people display, rather than helping us to understand the reasons behind their behaviour and what it communicates. In this article, The Care Leaders, together with Madlug founder, Dave Linton, discuss supportive foster carers, recognising triggers, and the importance of trust without conditions.

When it comes to communication between adults and children, language is of utmost importance. An adult working with a young person who uses terms like ‘complex’, ‘challenging’, or ‘risk taking’ to describe their behaviour risks creating a barrier between themselves and that young person, who may feel unheard or misunderstood as a result.

Luke Rodgers BEM, founder of The Care Leaders, says we should stop seeing behaviour as ‘challenging’ and instead recognise the behaviour as a young person being emotionally overwhelmed. 

“When young people [from difficult family environments] start to display similar behaviours to [their parents being violent, for example], we tend to label them as being violent,” says Luke. “They may be displaying a behaviour that is undesirable but often there’s a reason and a message behind it.”

Karylle, a lived experienced leader who has worked with The Care Leaders, adds that we only tend to label young people with negative words and phrases. She says that we tend to automatically assume that the default behaviour has come from the family home and that therefore, as a system, we’ve played no part in this. 

“There’s almost this self-denial as the adults who have been caring for this child or young person for a considerable amount of time that we’ve played no part in how they’re behaving,” she says. “Whilst we can link some of those behaviours to early childhood experiences, we have to understand the dynamics in which these young people recognise their adults play. 

“I’ve been in many foster placements and heard my foster carer being very frustrated with my social worker. Likewise, I’ve seen the remarks or rolling of the eyes or huffs and the puffs that my social worker has made in regard to my foster carer. So we have to understand that at times young people are picking up on our behaviours, too.”

Dave asks about some of the main issues that are creating the behaviours.

Karylle explains that growing up, she preferred living in a children’s home to a foster placement. 

“My reasons were poor really when you broke it down. I suppose I had this gang mentality in the sense that being in a children’s home provided me with some level of safety that a foster placement didn’t. 

“I mean that in terms of ‘we’re now a collection of people and regardless of our backgrounds, how we got here, we all single-handedly know one thing – it’s us versus them.’”

Karylle and her sister grew up in care together but were separated when their social worker found different families that matched their individual preferences.

“They’d put in a lot of work to make sure that both [foster] carers had kept us having regular contact because she was my younger sister and I had built this strong need to want to protect her.”

Karylle says it was rare for her to come home on time but her new foster carers didn’t react in the way she expected to this ‘behaviour’.

“Instead of the first thing being ‘where have you been?’, ‘why are you late?’, or ‘we’ve waited up all night for you’, they would just open the door and ask if I had eaten, and did I need anything. For Karylle, this was a new experience. One day, she returned home around an hour and a half late. “I’ll never forget the foster parent saying to me ‘do you know what a great sister you are?’ 

“She said ‘I’ve noticed the reason you’re late is because you make sure your sister gets home to her placement and then you spend the 30 minute walk from her placement coming back home’.

“In that moment, it was more than just her recognising the message in my behaviour – it was also her affirming to me that I was a nice person, that I was a good sister, and I do nice things. For the longest time in my care experience, nobody had ever said that.

“I think that’s the key thing here in terms of messages in behaviour. It’s more than just recognising the behaviour – it’s recognising what it means but also, what skills can you put out there? What  behaviour is a positive that you can highlight from that for this young person?”

Dave emphasises the importance of listening, stopping before you speak, and stepping out of the victim mindset as an adult in this type of scenario.

“I can learn from that as a parent. There are times I get that wrong where you’re straight into ‘you shouldn’t have done this’ but it’s about asking ‘why?’”

Luke references a story of a young person throwing a bowl of food across the room on their first day of a foster placement. He says that while adults tend to feel, reflect and respond, young people usually just feel and respond. “I feel this way, how am I going to respond to that particular situation?

“This young person is [in their] first foster placement with people that they don’t know, so the environment is overwhelming them. But what can we do about that? We can’t necessarily see if that’s true or not. We can’t really change the environment, so what do we do with that message? 

“The food might look different and it might taste different. Do the new ingredients make them feel a little bit strange inside? Has there been a time in this child’s past where they have maybe experienced abuse around food and around a particular situation that’s presenting itself now? 

“One of the key points here is for adults is to really hone in on that reflection space. If it seems bizarre and strange – why has this young person just done that? – it’s probably because they’ve been triggered by something. 

“There’s something within that space that needs to be nurtured and [responded to] with compassion, empathy and understanding.”

Luke explains that responding with authority in this type of circumstance doesn’t work since “authority gets met with authority”. This is particularly true in a space where the young person is feeling unsafe or unsettled. In other words, “you’re being authoritative, I need to get rid of that, I need to get rid of you.”

“A space that reflects compassion and empathy gets mirrored.” 

Luke says that we also need to be aware of and pick up on what we inherit in these systems and challenge the things that don’t seem to be right to advocate on behalf of the child. 

“The message in that behaviour to your young person is that I, like you, don’t agree with this system. I, like you, feel powerless to change it. But I, like you, have a voice and I’m going to speak.”

When he was 13, Luke wanted to stay over at a friend’s house. At this time, it was a requirement for parents to be DBS checked before a care-experienced person could stay over so Luke’s foster carer called his social worker and asked if he could spend the night. She said no, and Luke’s foster carer pushed back.

“[She said] ‘that’s absolutely unacceptable. Staying over at a friend’s house is a completely normal thing. I’m going to go [over on] Friday and I’m going to shake the hands of the parents, I’m going to check their details and Luke is going to stay there for a weekend. If something happens, you can blame me for it.’

“What I saw my foster carer do in that position [reiterated the] message that I was valued and cared for.”

Luke says behaviour is a form of communication. “There’s a reason why we’re behaving in a particular way, there’s something that we are trying to communicate. And I suppose that’s the thing that we need to try and work out.

“It’s the process of the discovery that shows that we care about people. We’re not trying to say, I need to work out why you behave like that so I can write that down, and then in the future, we’re not going to do that behaviour because it’s about experience. 

“It’s about saying I’m going to make the commitment to try and understand [the behaviours].”

Karylle adds that we need to be aware as adults that we reinforce behaviour. By the time she was five, Karylle had had 15 different foster placements. By the time she was seven, she was on a full care order – something that allows a council to take a child into care for the foreseeable future (typically until the age of 18). But nobody told Karylle that. 

After the breakdown of each of her 15 foster placements, Karylle went home. “In my mindset, this was the pattern of what children’s social care was.” 

Feeling frustrated, Karylle’s behaviour started to change. It was at this point, a social worker told her that if she kept breaking down these foster placements, she would have nowhere left to go. 

“I heard ‘white flag S.O.S’. This is it. If I keep doing this and there’s nowhere else for me to go, the only other place for me to go is home. 

“In my mindset, my goal moving forward was to keep breaking down these placements. One, because now I know I can, because she’s already confirmed for me that I have the power and control here in an instant, and two, [because] there will be no alternative option but for them to return me home. And so I played this game of cat and mouse until I was probably about 13 or 14 when somebody actually asked me, why are you doing this? Do you realise you’re never going home?

“Until somebody was brave enough to tell me that, it continued to reinforce my behaviour.”

Karylle says it’s important to give young people the messages that support a change in behaviour if that’s what’s needed, or that help them understand what the behaviour is. 

Luke recalls telling one foster carer he was going to run away, and instead of telling him they were going to call the police – something that had become a pattern with previous foster carers – this foster carer said “oh really? But we’ll be worried about your safety”.

“When I said ‘I’m not gonna come tonight’, she’d ask me ‘why? It’s freezing outside. You’ve got a really warm bed. Why would you do that?’ She’d say ‘if you’re adamant about doing it, then go for it but we’ll still be here when you arrive in the morning’. 

“It was these kinds of interactions that you never expected.”

Luke said that as a young person, he worked people out and how they would respond to his behaviour. “I would do particular things to get particular responses, and these foster carers would be like I can see what you’re doing there, mate.

“This particular foster carer [said something really powerful to me]. She said, ‘we trust everybody and we trust you, actually’. And I remember being really taken aback by that because I’ve never been told before that I was trustworthy – I was told the opposite – that I had to behave in a particular way to earn trust.

“But this foster carer said ‘we’re not going to ask you to earn our trust because people have broken your trust in the past and you’re not going to value it. Why should we make you value something that has been broken for you? Who are we to say you should earn our trust?’

“They said ‘most people will ask you to earn their trust because they’ve been hurt in the past, just like you have. And to ask you to earn their trust is a self-defence mechanism. If I know that you’ve earned my trust, I know you won’t hurt me. I’m just willing to take that risk because the reward outweighs the risk of having relationships with people based on trust.’”

Luke concludes with the message that we need to stop simply seeing behaviour as being challenging, and instead seeing as young people becoming emotionally overwhelmed. “I’ve got a saying that says you don’t have to sharpen the pencil to improve its ability to draw a fine line – you just change the way you hold it.”

To gain more insight into the real experiences of care, join our FREE online training session Tuesday 6th December at 15:30pm: ‘Living a Careless Life’ – An inspiration story about living in care and the power of relationships. Book your spot here.

Rebekah Pierre is a care-experienced social worker, campaigner and writer, who has written about the care system for publications such as The Guardian, The Independent, and more. She is currently editing ‘Free Loaves on Fridays’, an anthology which will invite care-experienced people to share their stories with the world. She is one of 14 young people on The Care Leaders Fellowship.

Rebekah had two social workers as a young person – one of whom didn’t treat her with the respect she deserved. After receiving her care files and seeing that this social worker was responsible for much of what was written, Rebekah wrote an open letter to her.

“I also had one positive experience with a social worker who actually did take the time to listen and encouraged me to go to university,” says Rebekah. “I saw social work at its worst and at its best so I wanted to go and be like the positive social worker that I’d had for other young people.”

In her work, Rebekah hopes to change the narrative about who care-experienced people are. “When you hear the term ‘care-experienced’, there are negative stereotypes that come to mind for lots of people. Their idea of care might come from Tracy Beaker which is really damaging. 

“I want to raise awareness about what being care-experienced is in reality and talk about the fact that it’s diverse and has many forms. I also want to create a platform that allows us as care leavers to speak for ourselves. It’s always damning headlines, damning reports, patronising cartoons, but we never really have a chance to say who we are and to claim being care-experienced as a positive identity.”

Having worked in children’s social care for several years now, first as a Frontline social worker before moving into policy and campaigns, Rebekah reiterates that each child has individual needs that should be catered for. “There’s no one size fits all solution.

“Being trauma-informed and compassionate must be at the heart of absolutely everything that we do. I think that each child has so much untapped potential and with the right support, everyone can thrive.

“There’s no such thing as a challenging child. There are only challenging systems.”

When it comes to talking about potential improvements in the care system, Rebekah stresses the importance of treating it in the same way that all other public services are treated. “Cuts to social services are usually the first to happen, it seems. 

“I also think there needs to be a focus on humanity. The reason I say that is because at the moment, we’re marching towards privatisation and a system that could be selling off parts of children’s services to people who will make profit.

“We need to move away from profit and towards people.”

Despite being, in her words, from a “deprived small town where education wasn’t valued at all,” Rebekah always had a dream to learn another language as an adult. One day, she decided to move to Chile and spend a year travelling in Spanish-speaking countries. 

“It was the roughest, most difficult, but rewarding thing I’ve ever done and I’m really proud of myself.

“I had to put myself in extremely vulnerable positions and start something completely from scratch. Now, all these years later, I can just be walking down the road in London and accidentally overhear a Spanish conversation and I can’t believe that. 

“I feel like it was a real gift myself.”

Besides putting yourself out there and trying new things, Rebekah’s best advice for care leavers is to “get to know what your rights are and believe that you deserve them”.

“I felt so disempowered and grateful for any scrap of hope I got that I never had the chance to seek out what my rights were. But there’s so much more support available than you realise now. Go to your local authority or university and find it. 

“It’s a shame because it shouldn’t have to be your responsibility but so much of this stuff goes under the radar.”

Rebekah’s other piece of advice is to not let your past define you. “That might sound really cliche but often the adverse experiences that you’ve had will give you insight into life that you can never receive from a qualification or a course.

“Believe in what you have to offer because it’s more unique than you think.”

When she left the system, Rebekah recalls feeling isolated and unsupported. “It was like ‘bye, see you later’ and I never heard from anybody again.

“I think young people need to be empowered from day one by being told about the support they can receive and the fact that they can access their care files.”

Rebekah also believes that care-experienced people need to be engaged in more meaningful ways. “Don’t just expect them to come into a clinical, white-walled room and be able to immediately engage with you. 

“If this is a system promoting equality, care leavers need to be met on their own terms, too. Don’t just think of care-experienced people as being tokenistic, bringing them in to sit on the odd panel or participate in the odd event. Instead, see them as partners in everything that you do.”

With statistics showing that care leavers or care-experienced students are at a greater risk of dropping out of higher education, we ask Rebekah what her experience with traditional education was like.

“I studied my A-Levels in a horrible hostel I was living in at the time where I didn’t have electricity half the time and there was noise all hours of the night. I did my A-Level English exam with a candle in one hand and a pen in the other.”

Rebekah says this impacted both her attendance and her mental health. “I think it’s a miracle that I managed to get any A-Levels at all. 

“Then, when I went to university, I remember my housemates had family members filling their fridges, supporting them, and I was there on my own. It was quite an isolating and difficult experience but it was also a golden ticket out of a life that I wanted to escape from. 

“I think other people take education for granted or are maybe pushed there by their parents and they rebel by slacking off uni but I was rebelling by being there in the first place. It wasn’t what was expected of me.”

Rebekah says there needs to be more practical support for care-experienced people at university. “Don’t assume that a care-experienced person has the money to get on a coach or a train to actually visit universities. Do they have enough money to buy kitchen equipment, or do they have enough money maybe for a tutor?

“Support is definitely needed over the holidays, too. Many of us have to sofa surf or get live-in residential jobs. I also think just having a consistent person that we can turn to as well, even if it’s just someone to chat with when things aren’t going so well, or who can be an advocate for you. 

“I had a lot of privileged friends who knew instinctively how to act at a dinner, or how to organise themselves in lectures – but I didn’t have any of that.

“I’d gone from survival mode to an environment where you’re supposed to thrive.”

Rebekah feels strongly that this support should extend beyond education, too.

“As well as paying for pots and pans and other basics, I think it’s important to give them a budget to go to the theatre or to go out to dinner or to pursue learning an instrument or a hobby, too. These are all things that most people would have as standard.”

If you’re a care leader wondering what support you are entitled to, Rebekah recommends looking at The Care Leaver Offer website. 

She also recommends finding a community. “I didn’t start talking about my experiences until my late 20s but now I look at this new generation of care-experienced people and they’re all friends on Twitter or part of a forum and that’s amazing.

“My final piece of advice would be to get used to having a voice. This is a hard thing to do when you’ve been disempowered for so long but it’s so valuable to document your experiences – both positive and negative – and to find people who will champion and support you. 

“Just don’t be around people who merely tolerate you. Be around people who will celebrate you.”

Rebekah’s anthology, Free Loaves on Fridays is currently being crowdfunded with proceeds going to Together Trustand Article 39

“The heart of this anthology is to give care-experienced people of all backgrounds the chance to write and share their story. It’s being published with Unbound, a publisher that promotes underrepresented voices.”

The inspiration behind the title for the book was Rebekah’s time living in a hostel as a teenager in the care system. “I lived in poverty a lot of the time, and every Friday, we’d get a sliced white loaf – the most horrible bog-standard loaf you could imagine.

“Whilst I was kind of grateful for that, it just felt like we were never given a choice. We could never choose what bread we wanted, we’d just get whatever was left. This book is about giving care-experienced people a choice.

“We’ve had a major review into the care system and there are lots of other people writing about us, without us.

“Now it’s time to have our say.” 

Calls for submissions for Free Loaves on Friday will open in mid November. 

You can find out more about the book or order a copy here. You can also follow Rebekah on LinkedIn and Twitter.

“What you go through doesn’t have to define you, and you can choose to look at it differently.”

This is the message being driven home to girls and young women between the ages of 14 30 years old by the organisation Daddyless Daughters run by Aliyah Ali. The organisation provides vulnerable girls and young women, who have been affected by family breakdown, abuse and adversity and particularly girls in care and custody settings, with physically and emotionally safe spaces in which to explore their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Daddyless Daughters offers one to one mentoring, weekly therapeutic group sessions, and creative expression projects with a focus on storytelling. They are also working on developing documentaries, short films and writing scripts to share the experiences of these women.

​The aim is to create effective and therapeutic support derived from first-hand lived experiences, so that girls and young women can develop and sustain healthy relationships, not only with their families and communities, but more importantly with themselves, to prevent further exploitation in the future.

As well as direct work, Daddyless Daughters  provides training to professionals, parents and others in the community, with a focus on children’s services and the youth criminal justice system, giving them insights and information to help improve practice and have a greater impact.

“A lot of our training is about reconnecting professional back to why they got into this line of work”.

What sets the organisation apart from others is the lived experience of its leaders, they are relatable.

“We’ve built our own system within the system, which seems to be working”.

This lived experience gives professionals insights into how to understand why young women may be presenting with complex social and emotional needs and how to teach them to communicate effectively and develop the people skills they will need in life. Many of these girls have grown to mistrust adults from their layered experiences of trauma and Daddyless Daughters aims to re-build relationships.

 “When I went into the space of exploring what professionals’ experiences were like working within the system, I was able to identify, you know, these guys are not all demons”.

A major part of the training offered by Daddyless Daughters consists of creative expression, conversations and reflection on personal experiences and professional practice to enable more effective relationships. The aim is to Support professionals to build resilience and encourage open dialogue and a shift into bridge the gaps between lived experience and professional practice.

“Creative expression is kind of rewiring the brain, rewiring how we react to different types of disclosures and how we react to young people telling us certain stories”.

There is a huge focus on the need to be self-aware, as people tend to shut down in response to hearing about trauma, because they are overwhelmed or do not want to cause further harm. This response projects anxiety which then triggers the flight, fight or freeze response in young people and a breakdown of trust.

“Many come into our sessions feeling anxiety, quite fearful about or reserved about what they actually want to share. By the time we get to the end of it, they just say they want more.”

As a multi skilled and experienced entrepreneur, Aliyah came up with empowering clothing designs which she sold online to make money to create these safe spaces. These spaces then bought partnerships and opportunities to the company. Now it is funded by two other organisations, who also work to protect women who are at risk of being abuse and exploitation.

Sadly, many of the girls Aliyah works with have experienced sexual abuse as children and can have complex emotions of shame, guilt and judgement, which is a heavy weight to carry into adulthood. If support is provided at an early stage between 14-17, these feelings can be re-framed and emotional intelligence and self-confidence can be nurtured through this process. Aliyah calls these safe spaces, “brave spaces”; brave spaces are for professionals. Safe spaces for our girls and young women where trauma can be discussed without prejudice or blame.

The organisation is passionate about helping professionals to become trauma informed and skilled in the subtleties of therapeutic engagement with these girls and young women. The training is facilitated to support an empathetic approach and engagement with the real experiences of the young people, for example via therapeutic parenting, for which creative expression is really important.

Aliyah prides herself on knowing most of their referrals come from previous referrals; girls are referring themselves to the organisation; they are becoming more aware of their challenges, needs and solutions to their problems.

“I’m most proud that I’ve been able to create a life that I’m proud of: that feels like freedom to me. I’ve been able to create a space where girls thrive in that trust, that bridge. I’ve also created opportunities for young women in my community to be able to level up, get paid and use their lived experiences as well for the right things.”

You can learn more about Daddyless Daughters and the work they are doing on their website https://www.daddylessdaughters.co.uk, and find them across various social media platforms.  Also look out for their first documentary, filmed at HMP Holloway, where they took a group of girls back to prison to explore their trauma. They also have a national exhibition which will take place early next year displaying the hidden stories of HMP Holloway.

Interview Highlights

What is Daddyless Daughters and what do they do?

Daddyless Daughters is an organisation that provides fatherless girls and young women between the ages of 11-25 years old, physical, and emotional safe spaces. Many of these females are at risk of being groomed or being exploited and these spaces give them an opportunity to explore their thoughts, experiences, and feelings. They offer one to one mentoring, weekly therapeutic group sessions and creative expression projects with a focus on storytelling. They are also working on developing documentaries, short films and writing scripts.

Why is type of training provided?

A trauma informed lived experience training experience that begins with an icebreaker leading onto specific activities. A major part of the training consists of creative expression, conversations, reflecting and exploring personal experiences. There is also focus on the professional practice and how this can all be reframed. Aliyah provides consulting and professional mentoring supporting organisations to reshape their services and project delivery to improve outcomes for girls and young women with complex social and emotional needs due to layered trauma.

What is their main focus?

To empower vulnerable and marginalised young women to build and sustain healthy relationships with themselves, their home lives and their communities, with a focus on children’s services and the criminal justice system.

What makes this organisation different to others?

It is led by people who have lived experiences and realise the importance of self-awareness when dealing with trauma in a hope to re-frame the way it is being dealt with. To remove associated feelings of guilt or shame and empower girls and young women to foster healthy relationships.

Where do their referrals come from?

Most of their referrals come from referrals, girls are referring themselves to the organisation, who are self-aware of their problems.

How are they funded?

The organisation was originally funded by profits from selling their own clothing line of empowering designs online. Now it is funded by two other organisations who also work to protect women that are at risk of being raped and exploited.

How to get in touch with Aliyah Ali

To find out more about the services that Daddyless Daughters provide or to get in touch, you can visit their website for more information, https://www.daddylessdaughters.co.uk.

As part of National Care Leaver Week, we spoke to lived experience leader and director of strategy for The Care Leaders, Luke Rodgers BEM about what a lived experience leader is,  what first inspired him to make a change in the system, and how The Care Leaders are helping other lived experience leaders to do just that.

Luke defines a lived experience leader as someone who has personal experience of something – usually a social issue – and as a result of that experience, has decided to do something positive about it. 

“I have an experience of care and because of that experience, I’ve decided I want to work in care,” he says. 

Luke believes a lived experience leader comes in two parts: there’s a lived experience leader who just shares their story, and then there’s a lived experience leader who has professional experience. 

When it comes to ensuring we nurture and develop lived experience leaders in care, Luke stresses the importance of recognising that a lived experience leader is not solely their story. 

“Lots of people will think a lived experience leader is just somebody who’s got a story to share, and will only ever give them an opportunity to share that story, for example, on stage. But what they’re failing to realise is that these lived experience leaders have got talent, skills, and abilities like all of us.

“To nurture them is to therefore give them opportunities that enable them to go beyond their lived experiences. That’s just someone asking ‘what are you good at?’ or ‘what are you interested in?’ Is it marketing, is it writing, is it filmmaking? And then giving them the experiences to be able to develop that.”

“A lived experience leader also needs to be nurtured because if they’re working in the space they have personal experience of, this comes with unique challenges. It’s important that organisations to recognise they need particular therapeutic safeguards, to understand intersectionality and be open to change – to make them feel psychologically safe working environments.”

That being said, Luke believes that it’s that unique lens that gives lived experience leaders an advantage when working to improve social care. “They have direct experience of care so they understand the nuances of it, they understand the stuff that you only understand by living in it every day.”

Like many lived experience leaders, this same lens led Luke to first consider a career working with care-experienced young people. But there was one moment in particular that stood out for him.

Luke, who previously worked as a personal trainer, was asked by a former foster carer to speak at an event about health and fitness for children in care.

“When I went to the event, lots of the kids couldn’t speak English because they were asylum seekers. There were foster carers and young people there, so I didn’t really know what audience I was speaking to either. I just felt quite overwhelmed and quite scared at the prospect of speaking to such a large group of people without the support to doit.”

Luke instead decided to talk about his life story. “While doing the speech, I remember being absolutely petrified and I felt the eyes of one foster carer who was just really engaged. He was welling up.

“All I was talking about was relationships I’d had with people – I didn’t really think it had any value. But the foster carer came up to me afterwards and was blown away. He said ‘you’ve reminded me why I do what I do. I often get bogged down by the system but it’s hearing powerful stories like that that remind me I am making a difference.’

“I remember sitting back and thinking ‘wow, sharing your story can really have an impact’.”

The event Luke was asked to speak at was a statutory event — in other words, something that has to happen by law. The focus was youth engagement.

“The idea was we’re going to get young people to engage in health and fitness activities so they had a photographer there and they took lots of photos. I remember just thinking how tokenistic it was because I was a personal trainer that did a talk on foster care – I didn’t even talk about health and fitness. 

“After that speech, I wondered how they could host events that had zero impact whatsoever on children in care but then communicate and make it look like they were.

“Kids deserve to be properly engaged so I decided to do something about it. Since sharing my story seemed to have the biggest impact, that’s what I chose to do.”

The Care Leaders Fellowship is Luke’s most recent venture, together with the rest of The Care Leaders team. It’s a 12-month leadership programme that gives lived and professional experience leaders the opportunity to develop an idea, project, or business that supports children in care in some way. 

“There’s no power dynamic and there’s no professional saying “you’ve got lived experience, come and take this opportunity that I’ve defined for you.

“We’re just bringing people together and helping them to develop their ideas.”

While lived experience leaders have lots of great ideas, they are rarely given the skills to develop those ideas in social care.

“Innovation is stifled in children’s social care – it’s a scary word. So giving our fellows the space for 12 months to develop their idea, project, or business, is something we’re really passionate about.”

Fellows on the programme have four residentials that they attend and 24 online workshops and training sessions. Included in the seven modules in the programme are workshops on self-leadership, storytelling, and digital marketing.

Among the Fellowship’s facilitators are Sir John Timpson, CEO and founder of Timpson’s Shoes, Benjamin Perks, head of campaigns and advocacy at the UN, and Maggie Atkinson, former children’s commissioner. 

“We’ve got some really big names involved in the programme and their support reiterates to our lived experience leaders that their ideas are valued.”

Luke is also particularly proud of The Care Leavers National Movement, which started as a forum to direct the National House Project (NHP). 

Despite local authorities often struggling to get young people involved in things locally, this national movement was a huge success. 

“We created a really simple structure to get them involved which was us saying to them ‘this is your forum and you’re going to have full ownership over it. You decide what you want to do, what you want to talk about, you can give it a brand, a name, you can plan a conference to launch the NHP charity, and you can go away on a residential that you’re going to plan’.

“We really just gave them ownership of everything. We had no agenda whatsoever.”

After going on their residential, the young people decided that this was a movement, and so, The Care Leavers National Movement was born. 

As well as launching the NHP at a conference that they planned and managed, they decided that the purpose of the movement was to challenge systems. They also wanted to celebrate success stories because they didn’t feel that the perception of care was right.

After working with this group of young people for 18 months, Luke recalls around 14 people on the board in total. 

“I think that’s now grown from six local authorities to about 18 local authorities. The most impressive thing, though, is that they lobbied Government for the Digital Poverty Campaign.”

The Digital Poverty Campaign aims to ensure that all care leavers are given access to digital resources when they leave care. This includes having access to a year’s worth of WiFi and a laptop. The group reached out to charities including Catch22 and the Care Leaver Covenant, as well as signing up over 30 organisations to the Keeping Care Leavers Connected Campaign.

“What I really like about that is that lots of these forums start off as a group of young people just getting together and having conversations and people always ask ‘how that is sustainable?’ But they were so strong as a group that they went and lobbied Government.”

Local authorities are now offering digital access to young people when they leave care.

While the campaign was a huge success, Luke says that the challenge continues to be people overcoming their idea of what youth engagement is. “The young people gave authentic feedback, which, at the start, a lot of people in leadership roles found very challenging. They had to overcome their anxiety of young people speaking to their trustees about the reality of what was and wasn’t working.” 

Part of the solution to that problem is to change the narrative for care-experienced people.

Lots of them will say they feel stigmatised, labelled and judged in some way. We need to change the narrative because those young people deserve to not feel that way.

Expanding on why that is a problem, Luke emphasises the societal narrative that says care leavers are “challenging” or “badly behaved”. “If people believe that, then this is a barrier to care leavers accessing things like housing, schools and jobs. We need to have a new narrative which is that these young people have got absolute potential and they just need meaningful and loving relationships with people that genuinely care. They need to be given opportunities to develop skills. They deserve to be represented for their individuality, not for their pseudo labels.”

Luke also says it’s important for people to realise that kids in care don’t come into care because of what they’ve done – they come into care because of what’s been done to them. “People in care have exactly the same experiences as many of us – it’s just that we highlight kids in care. We make a big thing of it so that’s partly where the stigma is created but they’re like everyone else. We all experience trauma in our lives at some point.”

If Luke were to give his former self any advice it would be to be more persistent. “Don’t worry about upsetting people in the pursuit of getting what you want. I was a people pleaser and would often just go along with what was happening. But I got into a space where I thought ‘I don’t care if I annoy people because this is what I deserve and this is what I want.’

“My next piece of advice for care leavers is to believe in yourself. This is a difficult one because not believing in yourself comes from a lack of self-esteem, and a lack of self-esteem comes from going through previous experiences where you’ve been made to feel bad. So just know that those experiences will pass, the shame will leave at some point and things will get better.

“It’s also not someone else’s responsibility to make your life better. You have a lot of agency and power in that.

“My final piece of advice is to remember that things can happen later. There’s a lot of pressure care leavers specifically, to think about education and work, whilst thinking about finances, housing, mental health, relationships, and all of a sudden you feel like you have to do everything now. 

“Take it from me, you don’t. Take one day at a time, get your feet on the ground and recognise that when you leave care you have agency. It’s not always easy, you are not always dealt a fair hand, but you have choices.”

You can find out more about him Luke on our website and on LinkedIn.

Originally from East London, Jerome Harvey-Agyei is a lived experience leader and co-founder of The Topé Project, a volunteer-run organisation supporting care leavers “who may not see beyond their circumstances to understand their life potential”. For the latest episode of our ‘In Conversation With’ series, we chatted to Jerome to learn more about his story.

Jerome introduces himself as a person of love, humility, passion and balance. “I embrace the darkness like Batman,” he laughs, “but I also embrace the light.” Despite, like many children and young people in care, experiencing trauma growing up, Jerome also describes this as “really beautiful” time for him. Being part of both worlds going through the care system is a big part of what he says has enabled him to understand his journey and to pass on what he has learned.

The Topé Project was formed after Jerome’s close friend Topé, also a care leaver, sadly took his own life. The project has the motto “turning pain into positivity”, and aims to help reduce the feelings of loneliness among young care leavers. They created the UK’s first large-scale Christmas Day event in 2012 to support vulnerable care leavers who are alone, which has continued to run every year since.

The success of the event led Jerome and his team to look into more ways in which they could add value – not only to care leavers – but to the system as a whole, including how social workers could be better supported, and ways in which to better influence policy makers.

Together with The Topé Project’s co-founder, Shalyce, Jerome has created various tools and games that can be implemented into strategies, drawing on their personal experiences of growing up in care.

“What I realised reflecting on the care system – unconsciously, through the workers I observed – was that I was given permission to access trauma quicker than I was to access love,” says Jerome. “And that was because everything is reinforced by unconscious language. The meaning I would generally link to my experiences growing up was around shame, guilt, anger, frustration, all feelings that didn’t necessarily serve me all the time. It was that ‘what am I going to do next?’ which was not as easily available to me.”

Jerome says that a particularly positive message he took from growing up was that “not everything is about me, it’s about we.”

“We experienced the value of participation,” says Jerome. “I felt like I had a voice and I was exposed to different experiences. We had a service that was amazing and broke all sorts of barriers, and that gave me new meaning and a new understanding, while also enabling me to understand solutions.”

A large part of Jerome’s role is “facilitating”. In other words, giving children and young people a lens to look at their experiences differently and giving them ownership over their lives so they can ultimately be responsible for them. “It’s not to say that things don’t go wrong,” says Jerome. “But in terms of the darkness, feeling it, but not staying in it”.

To help people in professional roles better communicate with young people in care and feel that there is value and worth in their work, Jerome and his team run a training session called “What Would Love Do?”, which reminds participants of the simplicity of giving space to care.

He gives an example of social workers keeping in mind questions like ‘who am I writing this document for?’, ‘what is this young person going to read 18 years down the line?’ ‘am I long-term thinking, or short-term thinking?’.

“But first we start with you,” says Jerome. He explains that someone considering a career in social work who has unprocessed trauma themselves may not yet be in the best position to help. “If you’re not okay and you’ve got to deal with a load of different trauma, it’s probably not going to be manageable,” he says.

The Topé Project’s approach to training doesn’t tell participants what they need to do, instead providing them with the tools they need to gain good self-awareness and respond to a child’s specific needs, rather than making assumptions.

Jerome ran another training session “In Power” with a group of young people in Hertfordshire. He recalls one particular young person who talked about her experiences of trauma.

“She went from not really wanting to be there on the first day to standing up in front of everyone and speaking with passion,” says Jerome. “It was something that not only helped her but the whole room.”

“What was especially interesting was that she physically had a change. Something happened because she let go of that burden and she took her power back. She asked me what I did and I told her ‘I just gave you the right questions to ask yourself’ and then we held the space. That has been one of my most beautiful moments helping young people.”

Jerome has also worked with a team in Moldova to help them to set up the first care leaver service in the country, as well as running online sessions with the Centre for Public Impact. “We ask questions that will help them to move from pain to ‘how do we make workers feel valued?’ and ultimately enabling beautiful conversations, deeper connections, and a better working environment.”

In addition, Jerome has begun working closely with Lumos, an international charity that promotes an end to the institutionalisation of children worldwide.

“A lot of that international work came through them as well around supporting kids in care from other countries – in Kenya, Haiti, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Australia, New York.” Jerome and the team advise their advocates on how to engage meaningfully with young people and get them involved in the design, development, and delivery of services.

He says that if he could give one message to young care-experienced people it would be “you are important”. “I’d always say to people if you’re struggling to fit into this world, go in within your own world. Once you start to understand who you are, the world will become easier because you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone. You understand that your darkness serves a purpose and your light serves of purpose, and you don’t need to be ashamed of them.”

Jerome has plans to open an empowerment centre to help bring together the skills and knowledge he’s gained from people on his journey. He hopes to build an environment that creatively empowers young people to pursue their own paths and helps to support amazing communities that nourish future generations to come.

In addition to co-founding The Topé Project, Jerome works as a youth participation lead at The Mayor Of London’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). He also works as a radio host and is a One Young World Ambassador. You can learn more about him by visiting The Tope Project website or by watching his videos on YouTube. You can also contact him via email, or reach out to him on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter.

Aren’t we all born to love and be loved? This is a question we discuss in the first session of our ‘Journey Through Care’ training, and together with Madlug founder, Dave Linton, in this article. How do we better support young people in our care? What constitutes a child in need? And how can we ensure consistency within the system? Read on to hear our thoughts.

Since founding Madlug, a bag company helping to eliminate the black bag issue from the care system, Dave Linton has met some truly incredible care-experienced young people – most recently, through the launch of the Madlug Innovation Academy, which saw care-experienced young people learn transferable business skills through the setup and launch of a new social enterprise.

Despite not being care-experienced himself, Dave is passionate about improving the care system and reiterating the message of the Madlug movement: that every child in care is incredible and has huge value, worth and dignity.

“[At The Care Leaders], you guys are so well placed because you’re leading from lived experience,” he says. “[You’re] helping to shape and mould the care system to have greater impact so that incredible children are listened to, and leaders are developed from it. [That’s] amazing.”

Children in Need: Born to Love and Be Loved is an introduction to our six-session ‘Journey Through Care’ training, and the subject for this podcast. The session, developed by The Care Leaders, helps practitioners to understand the issues for young people before they come into care and how this impacts them.

Karylle, a lived experienced leader who has worked with The Care Leaders says there is often a misconception about what actually constitutes a child in need. While we often home life has been destructive, abusive or neglectful for looked-after children, that’s not always the case.

“For a lot of young people who enter the care system, there’s been a history of things that have taken place. There were times before the abuse, and before the neglectful situations where parents were struggling, and children and young people were showing signs that they needed help. [Unfortunately] their voice just wasn’t always heard.

“So when we think about children in need, especially, from a care leaders perspective in our training, we try to really uncover and start to unpick some of those myths about what it is to be a child in need. Children become in need at different ages and stages [and] for a variety of different reasons – and some of those reasons aren’t always home-based. They can be out in the community, at school, a range of different things.” This is a key focus in the training.

The session begins with the concept that we’re all born to love and to be loved, and we see the world through that lens.

‘’Twenty percent of our population go through some form of neglect as a child,” says Luke.

Luke reiterates that this training is useful for everybody that works with children. Schools, for example, may not know there are nearly 400,000 children in need that have had the same upbringing as a lot of children in care but who just cannot be moved into the system.

“If a child’s perspective is that ‘this is my parents, this is my carer, this is how they love me’, being taken into a system must be hard to get your head around as a child,” says Dave.

One of the key messages The Care Leaders share in this training is that even when children and young people have entered care from challenging families or difficult households, it shouldn’t be assumed that they have a dislike or hate towards their parent(s).

Karylle says that there is a tendency for the parent-child dynamic to reverse in the case of looked-after children. “[They might be] concerned about their parent’s well-being. So the love is more than just ‘this is my parent, I love them and this is what I perceive as love’. To see then how your parents or carers are treated in that process is bigger than you just being removed and coming into care. I still feel a sense of protection for my parent.”

Comments such as ‘your parents shouldn’t do this’ and ‘oh, you poor thing, that must have been dreadful’ can often be red flags to children and young people, and while the intention is most likely coming from a good place, this might not always be clear.

“What we hear is, ‘oh, so I need to stick up for Mum or Dad even more now because you guys have this misconception of them’.”

While the behaviour that can come from that will often be pinned onto the young person, e.g. ‘I was just talking to him about his mum and he had an outburst, I don’t know what happened’, Luke says it’s usually quite clear what happened. “We need to reflect on ourselves and be aware of this,” he says.

Having worked for 22 years as a youth worker, Dave says that while he’s met young people that might be displaying behaviours that maybe aren’t appropriate or they’re challenging, he’s never met a bad young person.

“One of the findings that came out of the care experience conference last year was that the number one need for children and young people is to be loved, to be hugged, and show compassion, and that’s what young people and children in the care system are looking for most,” he says.

“Every child who enters care purely just requires love,” agrees Karylle. “And if you give them that, then that’s enough.”

“I felt absolutely loved by my mum. There were systems and things that were taking place outside of our relationship that were impacting on her lifestyle and on her ability to parent but yet I never questioned whether or not she loved me.

“So when I entered the door of care I wasn’t seeking love or looking for another parent, nor was I looking to replace my mum. I completely felt as though she loved me, I just realised as I got older, that she wasn’t able to necessarily meet my needs.

“Biological need tells us we need that feeling of love and a sense of belonging, and when it comes to looked-after children, especially in the early stages of entering care, we [can] forget that those children have [also] loved and lost.

“When they’re losing their temper and they’re not building a great attachment with their carers, [we like to say there’s an issue] and actually the issue is, and ‘I don’t know how to love or be loved’, the issue is ‘I don’t want to be loved in this environment, in this situation’, and ‘I’m not trying to seek to love you in that same way’.”

“It’s the whole thing of what is love and how do you show love?” says Dave. “Love is safety and love is caring and it’s more than just a hug. Often we say we love people with a view to be loved back because it’s more about the feelings you get from it.

“I think in the system, there’s an element where we want to be feeling that we’re doing the right thing and so if the response isn’t right, then we feel wrong. But actually love is about doing something without getting anything in return, by opening your doors as a foster carer, by saying this young person deserves to be loved, they have huge value and worth.

“In terms of children in need, there’s obviously practical needs and safety needs but if you’re talking about the ‘born to love and to be loved’ [part of this training], is that not the default for every human being on the planet?”

Luke says that if you love with the idea of receiving something in return, that’s a transaction. “Love comes with the caveat of it being unconditional and so to get something in return, therefore makes it conditional.”

He recalls someone saying to him as a child, “we care but we don’t care”. While that wasn’t an easy thing for Luke to hear as a child, he says that on reflection he views it differently. That person was showing him that their love was available but whether it was received wasn’t for them to care about – that was Luke’s job.

“I think the best thing we can do is have intention over expectation. Intend to show love with the expectation of nothing in return.”

While Dave didn’t grow up in the care system, he faced his own struggles as a child, having lost his dad at the age of five and experiencing financial difficulties within his family.

“I know what that feels like,” he says, “but I also know the feeling of having a consistent adult, the person who’s still there, who says hello to me. So as a youth worker, I always wanted to be alongside the ones who were perceived as the most troublesome. It was that kind of ability just to see the underdog.”

It’s this that led Dave and his wife to become adoptive parents, as well as to provide short-break fostering. An eight-year-old girl they cared for is now a 27-year-old single mum with three children under the age of seven.

“If she wants her kids looked after for a night, we’re here,” says Dave. “And that consistency is the love.”

Karylle nods, “we forget when we’re using these terms like ‘permanency’ and ‘long-term foster care’ and ‘looked-after child’ that what the child is hearing is ‘this is consistent’ – and actually in practice, we know it isn’t.”

She knows from personal experience spending weekends with long-term foster carers and a year to two years with short-term foster carers, that this can be very confusing for children and young people.

“The reality is that we talk about entering the care journey and then leaving care as though it’s a lifelong thing but actually it’s a very short window we’re talking about in the span of life.”

“We need to be honest and let children and young people know from the beginning. ‘We are a community and I am here for you, and my whole team is here for you’.

Luke believes we put too much pressure on consistency being a forever home. He says the fact we have temporary care and we have the ability to leave our jobs means it’s not permanent. “What we need to recognise is that we can have an impact on a child’s life in an instant.”

“I have a saying that ‘we value what we do, and what we do is what we value’,” says Dave. “Too often we say we value children in the care system but our actions are different from what we say.

Madlug exists to show every child and young person in care that they have huge value, worth and dignity, and Dave says if we have that in our care system and we take the time to listen, our actions are going to be better.

Asking the child what they feel they need is vital.

“Having a way to approach a young person, which is always based on putting them first, is always the key,” says Luke. “It’s about what they need more than what and just accept actually that children need us for guidance, and we’re a guide in that story. They’re communicating to us through their behaviour that they’re wanting things from us.

“Ultimately, don’t be scared of the word love. Be open and honest with your heart and give what you would want to get.”

Scott King is a Lived Experience Leader and now, the founder of training company, Section 31 Training. For the latest episode of our In Conversation Withseries, we chatted to Scott about his time in the care system, his involvement in change-making movements, and being an advocate for care leavers.

Scott was taken into care when he was six months old, along with his brother who was three at the time. After a failed adoption, Scott went on to have a rollercoaster journey involving 36 placement moves – two of which were in residential care.

During this time, Scott’s traumas were compounded as he suffered many letdowns, a split from his brother at the age of seven, and abuse from foster carers. After spending the entirety of his younger years growing up in the care system, Scott officially stopped receiving services at 21.

“I left the care system as quite an angry young person,” says Scott. “I had some very strong views, which I don’t have now, but I think it’s important to reflect on that. I hated social services, I hated foster carers, I hated anything associated with that system. I was angry, I was bitter, I was frustrated. I felt a whole load of negative emotions and I wasn’t happy.”

Now 31 years old, Scott has since dedicated his life to educating foster carers and social care professionals about the importance of stable placements and the deep traumas that result from multiple moves.

“That anger was translated to a passion that drove me to basically tell my own local authority what’s what. In the beginning, it was about me and I got mad because [I thought] ‘you’ve ruined my life. What are you going to do?’ Through that, I got involved in the children in care councils and various different things.”

The more he did, the more Scott realised he wasn’t just making a difference for himself, but for other young people as well.

“I met people from all walks of life, from the care system and on the other side of it, and over time, I started to realise that although there are a few rogues, 95 percent are good people. I started to realise that the issue is not because people don’t care.”

Scott continued to learn about the complexities of the care system and the challenges faced by social workers and foster carers. “The issue really is a lack of understanding and a lack of care.”

“I can now look back on myself from the perspective of a foster carer and realise how it must be for them. And when you look at it like that, it does make sense. I was trying to tell them things, but the language I was using is quite hard to decode. I was speaking the language of trauma where ‘f off’ could mean ‘I love you’. That’s hard to get your head around.”

As well as being involved in a range of change-making movements, Scott now runs his own training company, Section 31 Training.

A passionate advocate for care leavers, through his work, Scott hopes to reduce the amount of moves children in care are subject to by providing care providers and caregivers with a new level of understanding and new ways of thinking.

“Having had 36 moves in foster care and knowing the damage that that alone can do [it’s clear that] this is an issue that still remains in the care system. So that’s been my fire and passion for a long time now.”

Scott now spends much of his time giving people the tools to understand the emotions and behaviours of young people so that they can better respond. This, in turn, he hopes will help to secure and maintain placements.

“Kids need to be enjoying their childhood, not thinking about the bureaucracy of terror. When a social worker doesn’t turn up or doesn’t do something. Children don’t sit there and go ‘she must have an extremely high case load, bless her’ – and they shouldn’t be expected to think like that.”

Scott describes the day he and his brother were separated as one of the most traumatic days of his life. This experience, in turn, changed his view of social services.

“I thought everybody was a liar. If someone could take my brother away like that, what else could they take?”

“The reality is they were trying to keep us together but because none of that was communicated to me, it left me with a narrative which was actually untrue.”

Often, children are placed with foster carers who don’t have all the information they need about a child or young person, meaning they are not always equipped to help them. This not only leads to a breakdown in placements but a loss of foster carers in the system, too.

Since leaving care, Scott and his brother have made steps to track down the foster carers, social workers, residential care staff, and other significant adults they remember from this period of their lives.

“We went back and we found all of them, and that was probably one of the most therapeutic things we could have ever done.”

Scott and his brother found the pieces they were missing. “There’s our narrative as children, what we remembered at the time, and then there’s the files, which is the social work narrative.”

In his training, Scott shares his experience as a complete journey. “The more I work with foster carers and social workers, the more I realise there’s so much more to teach, and so many more tools to [help them] be the best they can be.”

“What really makes a difference to me is when individuals get in touch and say things like ‘I was going to move this child on, but now I’m not. Thank you.’ And really that’s what it’s all about –stopping these [young people] drift from home to home.”

“If I’ve been a part of that, that’s that’s why I carry on.”

As well as founding Section 31 Training, Scott has also worked in a number of different fields including residential key working, advocacy, mentoring, parliamentary advisory work, and youth work. To book a course, contact Scott, or access his e-learning platform, visit his website here.

Maggie Atkinson is an English educator and the former Children’s Commissioner for
England. After a career in teaching, she moved into public service administration, initially
in education, but later in children services. For the latest episode of our ‘In Conversation
With’ series, we chatted to Maggie about the importance of empathy when working with
children and young people, ‘silence the room’ moments, and her plans for the future.

With a wealth of experience behind her, Maggie now works as a self-employment consultant
and a scrutineer in the English safeguarding system and children’s services. She is also a
UNICEF trustee and chairs a charity that runs arts, education and culture for children and young
people in London.

“I’m also a grandma and I’m married to a great guy who’s got nothing to do with children’s ser-
vices and keeps me grounded,” Maggie laughs.

Throughout her career, Maggie has been helping people to understand that childhood is not just
a phase waiting for adulthood – “it’s the period of opportunity to make citizens who will lead
parents, teach and deliver services, heal you, sweep your streets, and dig your gardens to the
very best of their ability. But only if you give them what you need.”

She explains that as adults, we all had somebody who opened doors for us at some stage and
now we need to pay that forward for the next generation who will be leaders.

Maggie says that we have an obligation and a duty to help young people develop but that we
need to work alongside them.

“This work is hard because it’s hard. You are working with human lives.”

“One of my well-used and well-worn phrases – and people hate it when I do it – is when I smile
across the table and go, when are you going to get this? It’s not about you. Somebody did
things for you to get you where you are now, and they may be long gone. As most of my former
mentors are. But it is it was never about them.

“The teachers who went the extra mile, the people who did fantastic residential, the folks who
introduced me to live classical music in their shows, they weren’t doing it for them much as they
might have loved Johann Sebastian Bach. They were doing it for me. And if you come and work
in a people business. It is not about you.

“Whether you’re a doctor, a teacher, a nurse, a social worker, a youth leader, a Duke of
Edinburgh awards person, it’s not about your glory. Somebody else gave you your glory. It’s
about the people you are bringing out and leading on.

“This is your chance now to pay forward what somebody did for you to make you the person you
are. And if you’re a leader in the system, it’s even more incumbent on you that you put your ego
in your backpack and concentrate on the people you’re there to serve.”

We discuss the importance of changing young people’s perceptions of what an adult is and
should be. A young person coming out of care, for example, may have had difficult relationships
with their family and professionals moving in and out of their life. That young person’s percep-
tion of what care then becomes that people don’t stick around.

“There are particular cohorts of children and young people who will come into a relationship with
you as a professional adult with all of their defences up. They think ‘if I let this defence fall and
you then leave, then I’ve lost’.”

Maggie talks about a care-experienced young person who spoke at the All-Party Parliamentary
Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers.

“She said “what none of you understand is that when you suffer loss – and you may well have
expected it, for example, somebody may well have been desperately ill or very elderly – as hard
as that loss is, you were starting to be ready for it the day you found out about it.  

“My personal adviser who I’ve had an amazing 18-month relationship with and who I trust,
casually puts her coat on and says, ‘by the way, this is the last time you’ll see me’, as she
leaves, she takes part of my heart with her.

“I am not exaggerating when I tell you that’s what happens, and every time that loss happens,
part of my heart goes out through the door with the retreating back of the person concerned.

“And until you understand what that does to the interior of somebody like me who was already
abandoned and already lost – that’s why I was in care – you will never understand what you
need to do to reach me and to reach others like me.”

At The Care Leaders, we are trying to create more spaces for people like this young woman to
communicate that this is the reality and ‘this is how it makes us feel’.

We discuss the impact of trauma and loss on adults, too – teachers, like Maggie, for example,
who have had a class of 30 students for a year and have to face the reality of never seeing most
of them again.

“Every leavers group is the leaders group that you never want to say goodbye to. It’s very raw.
Working with people strips you of at least one layer of armour, and it’s very, very tiring.”

Maggie said there is a tendency for professionals to get caught up in the compliance and caught
up in the process of what they have to do but they rarely get the opportunity to ask themselves
what they would want for these young people if it were their son or daughter.

“You have to step away from your professionalism and into your humanity to answer that
question – and that’s what keeps me going.

“I do see work that is immensely human and sensitive and empathic with children and young
people. And I do see people who put their hand on the shoulder of a young person at university
that say ‘if nobody else is coming to your graduation, I will’.”

Maggie talks about her time working as children’s commissioner throughout the Munro inquiry.
Eileen (Munro) helped to bring children and young people into the space with her researchers
where they could tell the story.

Maggie said there was a respectful silence in which those stories were heard.

“The eight-year-old who sat with his social worker holding his hand so that he was brave
enough to say what he had to say, said ‘I haven’t seen my brother and sister for’ – I can’t re-
member how long but in the lifetime of an eight-year-old it was an eternity – ‘and what you did
as social workers was you came to our house and you saw how messy it was and the fact that
there wasn’t food in the fridge and that we weren’t clean, and you decided that it wasn’t doable
anymore and you had to take us away’.

“He said ‘but when you took us away, you didn’t take us to one place, you split us up. I need to
tell you that if what you’d done instead of doing all that and all the time that you wasted looking
at us and writing things down, if you’d sent somebody to really get tough with my mum and dad
about the house and the garden and the fridge and the bedtimes and the bath times and all the
rest of it, we’d probably still be together’.

“What they could have done was different from what they chose to do.”

One of the questions that we asked Maggie to reflect on before our chat was ‘what would you
change in the system?’ She uses the example above to show that empathy needs to be a re-
quirement if you’re working in the system.

If we’re inviting young people to tell their stories, we need to be able to support them to be able
to do that – and that’s what we’re doing at The Care Leaders. There are lots of individuals that
have gone through the system that have become professionals in their own right, and they can
communicate a narrative that doesn’t have to be about them but can be about the narrative

that’s informed by their experiences and by the experiences of other young people that they’ve

To bring empathy into the space is saying ‘we don’t need to teach you anything – we just need
to remind you what you’ve got inside and who you already are’.

Maggie says that every now and then in her career, she has had ‘silence the room moments’,
and another one of these was in one of the partnerships she worked in. They had been hovering
around the question of mental health difficulties and navigation of the system for children and
people. Unbeknown to the partnership, the youth forums there had also been working on these

“They’d created an infographic that was like a thicket. You walk in at the beginning and the sun-
light is still with you, so you can kind of find your way in, but the deeper in you get and the more
difficult your mental health journey, the darker the woods, the more crowded trees, the more
wayward the pathways.

“One of the young men said, if somebody said ‘you don’t need it, you don’t need a label, you
just need somebody to talk to’ right at the start, I would have been on the edge of the woodland
where the sun was still shining and I’d probably have been OK, but instead I’ve been in this im-
mensely long queue to talk to somebody for a very short time who was already over pressured
and who said ‘you shouldn’t have been out here in the first place, you should have been dealt
with before you got in’.”

As far as Maggie’s plans for the future go, she’s not ready to retire just yet.

“There’s part of me that knows that you wear out your doormat, you wear out your welcome, you
wear out your ability to contribute to a system that you only work on the edges of, or in partner-
ship for, rather than directly and daily with children and young people themselves. And I do think
that you need to be gracious and graceful enough to say there are other ways that I can influ-
ence. I would love to be a member of the House of Lords, I would love to be a crossbench peer.
And I would love to think that I can take my lifelong experience, including my life story, into that
sphere of influence.

“But I do have that sense of needing now to move into the phase of my life where I find my joy
as well as what drives me purposefully, is something I’m really conscious of in my mid-60s.”

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