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?”
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