As someone who has first-hand experience of the care system, I’ve seen the challenges that the system faces … but also the hope.
By Latoyah Walker: @latoyxh | Image by Meagan Hutchinson: @meagan_s_h
(Names have been changed to protect identities)
When you think of a teenager in care, what do you imagine? A kid with behavioural problems? An emotional mess? Someone who’s bound to end up on benefits at best or in prison at worst?
I have spent the last year and half in the care system, and I have first-hand experience of people automatically assuming I’m a bad kid just because of my situation. People are often shocked at the fact I’m in care – my appearance and attitude don’t fit in with their stereotypes.
But it is true that sometimes it feels like we’re set up to fail. And when I recently read that only 7% of teenagers in care make it to university, and 1 in 4 end up homeless within the first few years of leaving the system, that feeling grew stronger. But having just turned 18, and finding myself on the brink of living independently, I’m more determined than ever to not just be another statistic.
Despite the stereotypes, the care system has done a lot of good for me. When I first went into care I was so low and unmotivated and felt so lonely. After being in care for a while I managed to find myself a job, went back to college and my mental health and mindset improved. This was all thanks to the help I was receiving from the support workers; they helped me learn life skills which settled my nerves and made me feel more prepared. I am excited for my independence and now feel ready for the next step.
“Care has helped me put goals in place for the future”, says Lucy, a 17-year-old who joined the care system four months ago. “It minimises the things that could go wrong.”
Having come from challenging and unpredictable backgrounds, stability is important to all the girls in care I spoke to. Like me, 17-year-old Morgan is also on the brink of living independently. She feels excited, but also nervous as she feels she hasn’t had enough support with the “emotional side and with education”. It’s crucial that the care system continues to improve here, because emotional wellbeing and educational success are key factors in a care leavers’ future chances.
Speaking to kids in care and their support workers, these themes come up time and again. And without them, things can go very wrong. For example, did you know that care leavers represent between 22% to 27% of the adult prison population despite less than 1% of under 18 entering the local authority care each year?
Care leavers make up 25% of the homeless population. The struggles they face adapting to independent living is a key factor in this. 25% care leavers have sofa surfed and 14% have slept rough.
“Life is short and you only get one go at it,” says Heather, a supervisor at a semi-independent living facility in Nottingham. Heather feels that the key to a successful life for a care leaver is not to let hurt from the past ruin the future.
But the problem is, this is a lot easier said than done. As a teenager in care it feels as though you’re expected to fail before you even get a chance. Being in care should be normalised, and there should be no difference from us and the rest of society. When I shared the statistics about care leavers, university and prison with Dwayne, a support worker at the same facility, he appeared devastated. “There must be something we can do to lower it” he stresses. Dwayne believes that children in care need a “new vision” to what they had. “Finding a new career path that interests you is vital” he says. “It’s about who you surround yourself with and realising who’s your friend.”
Due to these statistics it’s clear that when you’re a care leaver and you do well people are surprised as the system supports you when things go wrong but not when things go right. There should be no judgement..
As a care kid, one of the biggest things that has helped me has been education, as it has helped to show me the importance of hard work and at the same time helped me grow and develop. After realising only 6% of children in care attend university and half of these consider dropping out, it made me realise I can’t give up as I wont allow a statistic to determine my future. After looking into why this was the case, I found out that due to the lack of support we’re more likely to drop out, therefore university is inaccessible due to health problems, money worries, personal and family issues.
I shared my research with care leavers and they believe it’s a small chance of them beating the system due to such a low percentage. “There’s a lot of injustice” Heather points out . In order to change this the government launched the care leaver covenant which is a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers.
Due to the lack of support and absence of a supportive adult/ role model, vulnerable young women in care continue to fail as almost 25% of girls in care become teenage mothers. This is also due to care kids not having a stable environment and having to move placements, not attending school and being unsettled. It is clear that the biggest factor around teenage pregnancy is the need to feel loved. I believe we need to understand what is driving them to get pregnant and try to fill the gap. It’s also known that the majority of girls don’t even look into the option of a termination. Teenage mothers are more likely to be living in poverty than women who delay becoming mothers. Being a young girl in care and having all these factors against me is overwhelming and nerve wracking, but I’m lucky enough to be educated and have the right support around me.
Kate, a Care Manager, explained to me how all this can be avoided as from the moment you come into care “we should be providing a better service so that the child can trust and confide, as when many leave care they no longer want any help from the local authority” explaining how life skills have been put into place in order to help with money management.
My journey is yet to begin and I’m as confident as ever. After researching this, I am aware of the possible barriers in my way, however, until we’re looked at as individual people and not just ‘care leavers’ the same opportunities will never be given to us . We will forever be stuck in a constant vicious cycle.
We need to be given a chance.