If siblings can’t be placed together, they should have the same rights to have contact with each other as they do with their mothers and fathers, writes Emma Lewell Buck MP.
I can say from experience there are few more traumatic experiences for a social worker than having to split up families. Nobody wants to do it. It is the response of last resort. The law protects the rights of children to have contact with their parents, but it makes no such demands to ensure brothers and sisters get to see each other too. The system is overwhelmed. In such circumstances naturally the letter of the law is followed first and everything else comes a distant second.
A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice suggests more than 70% of looked-after children with a sibling in care are separated from a brother or sister. For those being cared for in children’s homes that number is a staggering 95%.
Too many times I remember sitting by the side of the road in a car with a child who has minutes earlier been removed their family home, telling them that wherever they are going to stay that night it won’t be with their siblings. For many children this feels like the end of all their family relationships. The sense of loss, of bereavement and of sudden isolation is palpable.
Lawyers for parents quickly get to work ensuring their contact but without legal insistence those other close family ties are deemed less of a priority. This is where the law needs to change. If siblings can’t be placed together, they should have the same rights to have contact with each other as they do with their mothers and fathers.
Separating brothers and sisters can have a devastating effect. In families where there is harm or abuse, brothers and sisters are often the ones who comfort each other, encourage each other, protect each other. The bonds forged in sometimes brutal situations are often even stronger than those made in more stable environments. However terrible the experiences they have shared, it is precisely because they have such nightmares in common that they depend on one another so deeply. Being placed apart can cause extreme anxiety as the children worry about not only their own situation but that of those closest to them. It is important to remember that these young people are the victims, the blameless ones. They have endured a chaotic family life only to have more trauma inflicted upon them by the failure to keep them in touch with each other.
So why is this happening? Not only is there no legal enforcement, but also a chronic lack of foster placements available for family groups of children. The average number of sibling foster carers is one per local authority and some have none at all. Again, because there is no legal requirement there aren’t even figures available for how many siblings those few places can take. It’s a vicious circle; with no compulsion to keep children together, there’s less pressure to find places for them, which again, makes it harder to prioritise the issue. Anyone who has tried to help children in these terrible circumstances knows how important it is to them. A recent Ofsted study found that 86% of all children in care said it was important to keep siblings together, while more than three quarters thought councils should help brothers and sisters stay in touch with each other.
Nobody is blaming the professionals, in under-resourced environments they do what they have to do first and then try to do what should be done if they can. There is existing guidance that brothers and sisters should be kept together where possible but it doesn’t have the force of primary legislation.
Children whose families have been split up for their protection have already suffered a most terrible loss. It cannot be right that we continue to punish them for a tragedy not of their making by keeping them apart from the most important people in their lives, the ones they love and trust the most.
Emma Lewell Buck is Labour MP for South Shields.
Research finds that half of care leavers consider dropping out of university due to a mix of health problems, money worries, high workloads and personal and family issue
“I felt totally alone again” explained Joe, a care leaver who’d hoped university would be a transformative experience for him. Shortly after leaving for university however, Joe’s foster parents, with whom he’d been settled and supported since he was 15, separated. This devastated him and increased the sense of alienation he first felt as a child when he was taken into care aged nine.
In a new and unfamiliar setting, and struggling to maintain his studies, Joe discussed his anxieties with his personal tutor but says this provided no relief. “He was nice enough but couldn’t relate to my experience. In fact, he told me that he’d never met a student with my background.”
He was advised to contact the university’s counselling service, and admits he lost heart. “I had to go on a waiting list and you were offered five or six appointments with a counsellor. After two of these I realised I still felt low and it affected my studies. I would lie in bed and miss lectures and not care. I failed my first set of exams and then I left.”
Half of care leavers consider quitting university
Joe’s experience is not unique. Recent research highlights the need for enhanced support for students like Joe, who have been in care. It found that 51% had seriously considered dropping out, with the most common difficulties arising from a mix of health problems, money worries, high workloads and personal and family issues.
Care leavers face many challenges as they go into adult life and attending university can bring its own set of issues. In 2018-2019, only 6% of care leavers were known to be in higher education, and with half of these considering dropping out, what can universities do to help support, encourage, and improve outcomes for care experienced students?
The research, ‘Battling the Odds: Pathways to University from Care’, was funded by The Leverhulme Trust and the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account at the University of Sheffield. It recommends that universities provide a dedicated care leaver champion – who must have specific knowledge of the needs of care experienced students – to help care experienced students navigate the unfamiliarity of university life.
Having researched the experiences of 234 care leavers at 29 universities in England and Wales – 80% of whom had been in foster care – research lead Dr Katie Ellis, lecturer in child and family wellbeing at the University of Sheffield, says that while many universities have a care leaver contact students can talk to, this service can be sporadic.
“During our research, we rang universities using the contact number they advertised for care leavers and were sometimes directed simply to the university switchboard. We then had to explain to the person on the other end of the line what a ‘care leaver’ was. Imagine doing that as a new student.”
“That just isn’t good enough. Universities should provide care leaver champions, who are familiar with these students’ issues and can advocate for them. And while generic counselling services are available at most universities, they generally offer only short term support.”
Mental health and university life
Of course any student, irrespective of their background, can suffer with their mental health or find university life demanding and difficult, but these issues can prove more acute for care leavers, maintains Ellis.
The research found that 68% of these students had experienced mental health problems while studying, but just 44% had received counselling. It also showed that while some students were aware of the availability of counselling, others were worried they’d be stigmatised for seeking support.
And although 71% received details of a care leaver contact, for those who hadn’t, university felt large and faceless. Add to this the 28% who arrived on campus bringing only what they could carry on public transport and the 41% no longer in touch with their carers, and it can make for a less than ideal start to university life.
“[Care leavers not being in touch with their carers] is often driven by the young person who sees university as a new chapter and a chance to start again. Many had experienced care which was less than ideal, and in those cases, students were keen to close the door and leave their care experience behind them,” adds Ellis.
An emotional burden
Having been in care remains an emotional burden for many of these students in other ways too. While 70% reported that they found it easy making friends, they were still aware of being different from their peers and reluctant to discuss their care background with them.
“In fact, over 50% found it difficult to share their past with fellow students, while 20% wouldn’t even confide in close friends they’d made at university,” says Ellis. “And this shows again why it is important for universities to offer a specialised care leaver contact.”
There need to be better lines of communication between local authorities and universities, she insists. “Both need to be much clearer when advising young people about what support is and isn’t available”.
Can care leavers expect their local authority to pay their fees?
The short answer is no. Ellis explains that students reported receiving very different levels of funding. “While one student had all of her expenses paid, including accommodation and fees, others received next to nothing.”
“Council support can be inconsistent and, accordingly, young people don’t know what they are entitled to. While some care leavers have their financial needs met – others don’t.”
Indeed, more than 25% of respondents reported that their local authority gave them inconsistent information regarding the financial support available, with some even saying they were denied assistance after initially being promised it.
“In one case the social worker told a student that should they achieve the required grades, all the financial support would be put in place,” explains Ellis. “When the student got the grades, the social worker backtracked on what he’d promised. Luckily the foster carer had kept their own copies of all the monthly meetings they had with social workers over the years. They were able to provide a signed copy of meeting notes that confirmed their claim and so the student received financial support.”
The study also calls for the option of alcohol-free accommodation, reflecting the recent decline in youth drinking, to make the transition to higher education easier for students who would prefer to live with other non-drinkers. This of course recognises that a drink culture still exists in universities.
“This would mean that like-minded students were able to live together without having to deal with behaviour that they find unacceptable,” Ellis says. “One girl explained that on returning to her room, there were piles of rubbish everywhere and sick in the kitchen sink. She had experienced the effects of alcohol abuse before going into care and didn’t feel able to manage living in that kind of environment. She needed a safer place and moved out to live with her boyfriend, which isolated her from the university experience. And this is an issue for 27% of these students.”
The study advises that universities register students with care experience early, so they are better placed to access the practical and emotional support they need.
“It can’t be right that someone struggles to afford Freshers’ week activities, which are an important introduction to the university environment,” Ellis explains. “These students have overcome significant barriers to fulfil their dreams of pursuing further education, and it’s vital that universities do all they can to make them feel welcomed and supported.”
Encouragingly, Joe is considering giving university another go.
“I got to thinking that I’d worked so hard to get there and I had no other options. There must be other students who have come from a care background who make a go of it. I’m still nervous at the prospect of returning but it feels like it’s now or never.”
Care Day is the world’s biggest celebration of people with Care Experience. The term “care experienced” refers to anyone who has been or is currently in care. This care may have been provided in many different settings, including: Kinship care – living with a relative who is not your mum or dad; Looked after at home – with the help of social work; Residential care – living in a residential unit or school; Foster care – living with foster carers; Secure care – living in a secure unit and Adoption – living with adoptive parents.
Who Cares? Scotland has joined with organisations across the UK and Ireland to make a joint request to the UN to make the event, which has been going since 2016 and originated in Scotland, an official occasion to help support and promote people from the Care Experienced community.
According to the UN, “international days are occasions to educate the general public on issues of concern, to mobilise political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity.”
Each international day offers opportunities to organise activities related to the theme of the day. Organisations and offices of the United Nations system, and most importantly, governments, civil society, the public and private sectors, schools, universities and, more generally, citizens, make an international day a springboard for awareness-raising actions.
Duncan Dunlop, CEO of Who Cares? Scotland said
"There is a global community of Care Experienced people who deserve to be championed, cherished and connected to each other. We are hopeful that the UN will support our call to make Care Day an international day to help do just that, forever."
To join in with Care Day 2020 follow #CareDay and #Reimagining.
New research shows big gains over a short period of time for care-experienced pupils – if they have the support of a trusted adult
We have known for decades that looked-after children do worse in school. In more recent times, there has been a real will to do something about it. The result has been some improvement but the pace of change has been glacial and there’s a long way to go before the results of looked-after children are on a par with their peers.
The latest statistics, for instance, show that 39 per cent of looked-after children gain one or more National 5 or equivalent, against 86 per cent of all school leavers.
In other words, the challenge schools face is that when you have lived through the trauma of being taken from your family – irrespective of how dysfunctional that family was – and having multiple placements and schools, qualifications can take a back seat.
But a report – published just ahead of the Care Review – indicates big gains are possible for looked-after children over short periods of time. It was published by MCR pathways mentoring programme, which is now established in 10 Scottish councils.
What the figures show is that around nine in 10 (87.8 per cent) care-experienced mentored pupils achieved at least one National 5 qualification or equivalent, compared with 6 in 10 (61.0 per cent) care-experienced pupils with similar characteristics who received no mentoring. The MCR Pathways pupils were also more likely to stay on in school when they were no longer legally obliged to do so (70.7 per cent versus 58.8 per cent) and to end up in a college, university or a job – 81.6 per cent versus 62 per cent.
So how does MCR Pathways do it? The charity – set up by entrepreneur Iain MacRitchie – carefully matches looked-after children and disadvantaged pupils with volunteer mentors who come into school once a week and meet with the child for an hour.
I spoke to a mentor and mentee a few years ago. The mentor, Mary Hunter Toner, was a retired primary headteacher and the mentee, Billy McMillan, was formerly an “unambitious, scared wee boy” from Easterhouse, who had gone on to blossom into a first-year student studying society, politics and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland.
Billy didn’t think he would have got there if it hadn’t been for his meetings with Mary, which took place over the course of three years. Mary helped to build his confidence and ambition, he said. For him, the power of the programme lay in the volunteer mentor having no agenda other than to “help you do what you want”.
Many other heartwarming stories and some other impressive statistics have been published by MCR Pathways but this latest report answers an important question: was it the mentoring that made the difference?
We know that looked-after young people have worse attainment but they are, of course, an amorphous group. Children who are living in foster care are around four times more likely than children looked-after at home to gain at least one National 5, or equivalent. So was it these looked-after children – the ones who were destined to get better results anyway – who were ending up on the programme?
This latest research checked that “the impact was not the result of differences in characteristics between those pupils who decided to take part in MCR Pathways and those who have not taken part”.
It found that the young people who took part in MCR Pathways from 2015 to 2018 were, if anything, “among the most deprived groups”.
They were more likely to live in the most deprived areas of Scotland than the non-mentored care experienced youngsters (60 per cent versus 51 per cent) and to be claiming free school meals (38 per cent versus 30 per cent).
The researchers – ScotCen Social Research – cautioned the sample size was small but ultimately concluded: “These findings clearly indicate that MCR Pathways participants were more likely to stay on at school, achieve at least one SCQF Level 5 qualification and move on to a positive destination after leaving school.”
It would seem therefore something powerful is happening and as of earlier this week (Monday) Glasgow City Council announced it was going to permanently embed MCR Pathways mentoring into its education system. The independent care review also advocated mentoring as a means of improving educational attainment.
Interestingly, though, the ScotCen research also found one of the main barriers to mentoring meetings taking place was arranging suitable meeting times; part of the problem was convincing classroom teachers the mentoring was worth missing their lesson for.
French, English, maths, history and music are all important, but so is having a reliable, supportive adult in your life, motivated by nothing more than a desire to see you do well. Many have the luxury of taking those adults for granted – but if you don’t, surely that’s something worth skipping class for?
Emma Seith is a reporter for TES Scotland
Industry News: Independent Care Review: Charities and campaigners welcome cross-party commitment to keep the promise
Care sector charities have welcomed cross-party commitment to deliver improvements after a review found the system in Scotland “serves its own convenience” and failures cost £875 million a year.
The Independent Care Review, chaired by Fiona Duncan, looked into the economic and human cost of the system’s failures for the first time.
It outlines a “radical blueprint for a country that loves, nurtures and cherishes its children.”
Following Wednesday’s publication of the review, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged to “keep listening to and working with care-experienced people, because the case for transformational change is now unarguable.”
Ms Sturgeon said she felt “very emotional” when reading the main premise of the report, adding: “The Scottish Government has already made some changes while the review has been doing its work — for example, by introducing the care-experienced bursary — but today’s report leaves no room for doubt that we must do more, and we must do it more fundamentally, more systematically and more quickly.
“A radical overhaul is what the review demands, and that is what we have a duty to deliver.”
'The cross-party support in the chamber was jaw-dropping'
Dundee-based charity Breakthrough partners care-experienced young people with trained volunteer mentors “to provide the guidance and opportunity that can transform lives.”
A spokesperson for the charity welcomed the cross-party support the review received at Holyrood, saying: “That the First Minister accepted the findings of the review and made her own promise to implement the necessary level of change was positive; that she declared that tangible changes would be initiated ‘at pace’ on the back of the review was amazing — but the cross-party support in the chamber was jaw-dropping.
“Breakthrough promises to work closely with others in schools and local authorities who have a parenting responsibility for young people and we will get behind collective change — however challenging or scary it may feel.
“We will hold each other to account and we will always strive to do our best for our young people because they deserve it. It really is that simple.”
Care groups welcome review
Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland said what the Scottish Government chose to do next is a “matter of life or death”.
He said: “Care experienced people are capable, thoughtful and have enormous potential. What we have seen, unfortunately, are generations of people living with the consequences of a care system that focused on containing them then leaving them, rather than ensuring that they are loved and supported forever.
“We have also seen Scotland struggle to connect with how it can support care experienced people. With that in mind, we will now take the necessary time to reflect on the findings that have been published today and consider in what ways the recommendations realise our ambitions for change.”
Mr Dunlop added: “In January this year, the Care Inspectorate published figures on the early deaths of care experienced people. They said that between 2012 and 2018, 36 people in the care of the state died unexpected or untimely death.
“We know from our own networks that this is an under-representation, with six young care experienced people in our network dying in December 2019 alone.
“The evidence shows that what the Scottish Government chooses to do next is literally a matter of life and death. We expect to see urgent action, in the next few weeks, that makes a tangible difference to young people’s lives. Any further delay would be unacceptable.”
"We have long had concerns that children are not being put at the centre of our hearings system and are being let down, and believe changes to its operation are critical.”
— Joanna Barrett, NSPCC Scotland
Joanna Barrett, of NSPCC Scotland, said: “We are extremely heartened by this thorough and insightful analysis of our care system, with a wealth of important recommendations for its overhaul.
“We have long had concerns that children are not being put at the centre of our hearings system and are being let down, and believe changes to its operation are critical.
“We work with very young children in the care system and know that understanding early childhood development and behaviour is crucial to making the right decisions. And so, we are greatly encouraged that the review recognises the focus needed on this age group, which makes up the greatest proportion of those entering care.
“It is now vital that there is the will and the resources for us all to work together in implementing these changes.”
Drug addiction and care
During the First Minister’s debate, Dundee-based MSP Jenny Mara asked how the national drugs task force would work to prevent parents with addictions succumbing to their illness and forcing children into care.
She said: “Many Scots and children in Dundee find themselves in the care system because of a parent dying because of drugs.
“Indeed, I heard of one such case just before Christmas. Is the national drugs task force looking specifically at what can be done to prevent drugs deaths among parents? What can be done to increase the number of supportive care places in areas with high numbers of drugs deaths?”
The First Minister responded: “That should absolutely be a key focus of the drugs task force, although it has to decide its priority areas.
“More importantly, we must make sure that there is a proper link between the work that we are doing here and in other areas of work, such as the work that is being done around drugs deaths.
“Jenny Marra is right to point to the number of young people who will end up in care because a parent has died from drugs, so the connections between those vital pieces of work are important.
“One of the key priorities of the work that will be done over the next few weeks in getting the process right is to make sure that those connections are properly understood and happen as we want them to.”
'Care Review ‘is a remarkable effort’
Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray, said: “The First Minister is right that we have, over generations, let down far too many of the children in our care.
“We can indeed hear that in this report in the voices of those children and that is why it carries such power.
“Well done to the review chair Fiona Duncan, all her co-chairs and everyone involved. It is a remarkable effort.
“And well done too to the First Minister whose personal investment in this issue is very clear and much to her credit.
“I welcome the creation of the delivery plan team and agreement to the independent oversight body.
“But it is not the process of change which must start immediately – it is actual change.”
Speaking following the First Minister’s statement, Scottish Conservative North East MSP Liam Kerr said: “Although we will always offer robust challenge, the First Minister can be assured of our support in delivering the recommendations of this ambitious and vital report.
“Above all, I, too, extend our thanks to the more than 5,500 people who contributed—it cannot have been easy.
“Young people in the care system need a great deal more than simply the best wishes of this chamber. They need concrete action to transform their lives for the better and to live up to the promise that I expect and hope that every party here will rightly make today.”
In Re A-F (Children) (Care Orders: Restrictions on Liberty)  EWHC 138 (Fam) the court gave guidance on when Art 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is engaged in relation to a child in the care of the local authority, and the procedures necessary to ensure the deprivation of liberty is lawful.
The test cases concerned seven children, aged between 11 and 16. A final care order was made in each case in favour of the same local authority. Each had health difficulties such as autism, severe learning disabilities or global development delay. Each was in foster care or a residential placement. Some were in locked environments, and all were heavily supervised.
Munby P set out the legal framework in which the issue arose, including:
(b) The subjective component of lack of valid consent; and
(c) The attribution of responsibility to the state.
Munby P held that where a child was subject to a care order, the critical question would be whether there was confinement, ie Storck component (a). If there was, the state would be responsible, and neither the local authority nor a parent could exercise their parental responsibility so as to consent.
He took care at  to distinguish between a “deprivation of liberty” within the meaning of Art 5 and a restriction on liberty of movement governed by Art 2 of Protocol 4.
Many aspects of the normal exercise of parental responsibility that interfere with a child’s freedom of movement do not involve a deprivation of liberty engaging Art 5, even if they are a restriction on liberty of movement (Re D (A child) at ). Whether particular accommodation is locked or lockable is not determinative of whether there is confinement as described in Storck component (a), (HL v United Kingdom (Application No 45508/99) (2004) 40 EHRR 761 at ).
Most eight-year-old children living with their parents at home would be living in circumstances amounting to confinement that satisfy the ‘acid test’, but common sense would plainly indicate that such a child is not, within the meaning of Art 5, deprived of his liberty.
For a child in care, the inquiry would focus more on supervision and control, rather than freedom to leave.
He held that where the placement of a child involves a “confinement” for the purpose of Storck component (a) but is not secure accommodation within the meaning of s 25 of the Children Act 1989, there must be judicial authorisation in order to comply with Art 5 and this can only be provided by the High Court, in the exercise of the inherent jurisdiction or in some circumstances if the child has reached the age of 16, by the Court of Protection .
He held (at ) that whether a state of affairs which satisfies the ‘acid test’ amounts to a confinement for the purposes of Storck component (a) has to be determined by comparing the restrictions to which the child in question is subject with those that would apply to a child of the same 'age', 'station', 'familial background' and 'relative maturity' who is 'free from disability'.
Although each case had to be determined on its facts, as a rule of thumb, a 10-year-old under constant supervision was unlikely to be being deprived of his liberty, an 11-year-old might be, but the court would more readily conclude that a 12-year-old was.
Article 5 compliant process
He dealt with the requirements of an Art 5 compliant process at - which includes that:
He also dealt with the requirement of review by a judge at least every 12 months [55 – 57].
This case provides much-needed guidance as to when care arrangements for children in the care of the local authority including in foster care amount of a deprivation of liberty, and steps that must be taken to ensure compliance with Art 5 ECHR.
The President was at pains to state throughout that whether there is a confinement for the purposes of Art 5 will turn on the individual facts of the case, emphasising a child development-based approach.
He gave some useful guidance to the comparative approach required at -, citing Re B  EWFC B93, as providing an 'insightful' and 'compelling' analysis of a typical 11-year-old’s life: comparing a child with his peers and distinguishing commonplace restrictions such as limited access to games consoles and being accompanied on journeys in the community, with much more significant restrictions like 24-hour supervision, restricted contact with parents and siblings and use of physical restraints.
https://www.familylaw.co.uk from an article originally published by Garden Court Chambers published 13 March 2018
The care review promised in the Conservatives’ manifesto should start as soon as possible, and peer into all the troubling gaps
The number of children in care in England is at a 10-year high: there were 78,150 at the last count. How they are looked after and educated should be a matter of general public concern. There are few more serious responsibilities for a government than that of corporate parent – particularly when such an arrangement is reached because a child or young person is particularly vulnerable, or has previously been let down.
Yet the mounting pile of evidence that the system is flawed has just increased again, with the addition of the criticisms of aspects of the children’s social care sector contained in Ofsted’s annual report. Problems with England’s 14 secure children’s homes, unlicensed “semi-independent” provision for over-16s, and three secure training centres for young offenders, must urgently be addressed.
But ministers should look beyond the specific failures regarding particular institutions or age groups. A review of the care system was promised in the Conservatives’ manifesto. This should start as soon as possible, be fully independent, and have a remit encompassing all the children and young people in the care of the state – including the awkward details of their exit from this care into adulthood. Simplistic answers such as increasing the number of adoptions must be given up for good. The impact of poverty caused by benefit cuts on vulnerable families must not be ducked.
The problem of adult social care – both how to provide it and how to fund it – is widely recognised as a key public policy issue, even if politicians have yet to come up with a solution. England’s 151 local authorities are likely to be just as exercised by the challenge of providing for children. While budgets face further cuts, demand for services that they are statutorily obliged to offer keeps rising, with an £800,000 overspend last year. There were 3,000 more over-16s in care in 2019 than four years earlier. In a recent survey, 64% of councils reported that the number of cases or complexity of need had increased “to a great extent” over the same period.
Almost three-quarters of looked-after children live with foster carers, and 92% of agencies are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. The number of local authorities rated inadequate has fallen from 22% to 12%. The situation, according to the inspectorate, is improving. But as well as specific problems such as the unacceptable use of “pain-inducing techniques” on young offenders, and the high turnover and low qualifications of children’s home workers, the bigger picture needs a hard look.
The dysfunctional market for residential care would be high on any list of concerns. It is morally wrong, and demeaning, for profits to be made out of the provision of a home life to vulnerable children. But principle aside (and changing the law in this area cannot be done in a hurry), the market has failed, producing profits for private-equity investors and poor and often damaging experiences for children.
Belatedly, awareness is growing of how moving children many miles from the people and areas they know can make them susceptible to criminal exploitation. A coherent strategy must take on board such unintended consequences of cost-cutting, and recognise the appallingly high price of failure – both in human and financial terms. It must also be realistic, with the “overoptimism” of professionals highlighted by Ofsted as a weakness, as well as a lack of national leadership. This is surely related to the number of Whitehall departments involved: not just education but health, justice and communities. Finding a way to work across government to improve the experiences and life chances of these children is the least we owe them.
Coram Voice provide tips for talking to children about past experiences and why they are in care, after many told survey they had not had a full explanation.
By Linda Briheim-Crookall
In 1920, my grandmother went to live with her foster carers in rural Sweden. Her mum was a young single mother at a time when society did not readily accept or support unmarried mothers. My grandmother was lucky – she had regular contact with her mum and, as she got older, being able to speak about what happened helped her understand the reasons why she couldn’t live with her. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many children in care and care leavers.
We know from our Bright Spots research programme in partnership with the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford that for children in care and care leavers, having an adult explain why they are in care directly influences their wellbeing. We have found that as many as half of the youngest children (aged four to seven) do not feel that they have been given a full explanation of why they are in care.
Similarly, a quarter of care leavers feel that they don’t know why they were in care or they would like to know more. A lack of knowledge about the reasons for going into care was associated with children feeling unsettled in their placements and having low subjective well-being.
"…I have asked why I was put into care, no one will tell me!!! I only have bad memories and therefore am left being very scared of my biological family and yet no one will/can help me…” (care leaver)
Talking to professionals has also revealed systemic barriers to making sure that every child has a full explanation of why they are in care. Life story work, which is a legal entitlement for all children who have been adopted, is not required for children in care.
Sadly, social workers and carers change too often and some professionals may assume that a young person will already have received an explanation as to why they are in care. Professionals may also feel that they don’t have the skills to explain difficult realities to children for fear of upsetting them.
They call it life story work… but they don’t really do it. I have a memory box, but I want information and facts… To know more about how I came into care. I think I should have been told years ago.” (young person in care)
However, we found that in some areas of the country, young people had a better understanding of why they were in care. In East Riding, a higher proportion of care leavers than our survey average reported feeling the reasons why they were in care had been fully explained. East Riding explicitly includes a question in pathway plans about whether young people have any questions about why they became looked after.
In Southampton, the local authority responded to the survey findings by developing a new training workshop for social workers called ‘finding the right words’. The training offers a ‘reflective space to try out and work together on ways to communicate difficult experiences’.
In other local authorities, the survey has contributed to renewed focus on life story work with children in care and care leavers.
Nine key messages from children and young people that social workers should consider:
Once children understand why they are in care they can begin to process those experiences and deal with the feelings that emerge. We have also found that creative writing can be a particularly powerful tool to help young people explore their feelings and take control of their own narrative.
As a result, Coram Voice runs Voices, an annual creative writing competition for children in care and care leavers. It is only when children are given a chance to understand why they are in care and the opportunity to express what they feel that they can settle into their new reality.
Linda Briheim-Crookall is Head of Policy and Practice Development at Coram Voice. The Voices creative writing competition runs until 12 February, find out more at coramvoice.org.uk/voices.
Voices is our creative writing competition for children in care and care leavers who are 25 or under. The competition is now open! Click here to enter now.
Voices is a celebration of your creativity, talent and imagination. The competition gives you a chance to tell people what you want to say about your experiences. Every year, young people write inspiring stories, poems, raps, and articles, hoping to be shortlisted for our awards ceremony in the Spring. Could you be one of them this year?
The theme for Voices 2020 is ‘Dreams‘.
You could write about a dream you’ve had in the past, what your hopes and dreams are for the future… or anything you can imagine! We’re excited to see what you’ll come up with!
Competition will close on 12 February 2020.
The rules can be found in our Voices T&Cs. If you have any questions, please take a look at our Frequently Asked Questions and if you can’t find your answer there, you can send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get inspired by Voices from years gone by. Head over to our previous winners page to watch videos and read the winning and shortlisted entries for Voices 2018 and 2019.
The adverse experiences that led to children entering the care system remain with them through school, says Fiona Aitken
In Scotland today we have a much greater understanding of the needs of care-experienced individuals. Along with our growing understanding of the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), research from the University of Stirling’s Permanently Progressing study informs us that over 80 per cent of children entering the care system in Scotland have experienced significant abuse and/or neglect (Cusworth et al, 2019).
To fully understand the impact of early childhood trauma is to recognise the lifelong impact on a child, and the areas of vulnerability and disadvantage it creates. Regardless of the child’s permanent placement – whether this involves returning home, being permanently placed in foster care, with kinship carers or an adoptive family – the adverse experiences that led to them entering the care system remain with them. These experiences lead to needs displayed in a variety of ways requiring support.
Supporting children in care
Social, emotional and behavioural difficulties most often show evidence of children’s needs – particularly inside the classroom, where particular skills are expected and peer comparisons obvious. These difficulties can come from a variety of different reasons; impact of early trauma, attachment difficulties, sensory processing challenges or behaviour typical of children who are living with the impact of alcohol taken during pregnancy – those living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). For children who are care-experienced or adopted, it is extremely common to be managing one or more of these issues.
Responding to the acknowledged need of children in our classrooms, the Scottish government created a specific funding opportunity in 2018 to improve the educational attainment of Care Experienced Children and Young People. This funding has led to an increase in specific project delivery for this marginalised group of children, whose additional support needs can, at times, go unrecognised or unsupported.
Across Scotland, we are increasingly aware of a variety of creative and impactful practice that is making a real difference. The implementation of "virtual headteachers", schools becoming more attachment-aware, trauma-informed and the increasing facilitation of outdoor learning opportunities are contributing to the creation of learning environments that are more attuned to the learning needs of our children.
Adoption UK Scotland’s upcoming conference, Thinking Differently About Education, offers an opportunity for the showcasing of successful approaches, and for attendees to learn more about the benefit to children and schools of applying this different thinking. Chaired by Nicky Murray, former headteacher of Burnside Primary School, which is renowned for its attachment-aware principles, the day will also feature a headline talk from author Louise Bombèr, expert on educational approaches for children affected by trauma.
Attendees at the conference in Falkirk on Friday 6 December will also benefit from hearing directly from the minister of children and young people, Maree Todd, about the Scottish government’s hopes and intentions around the Care Experienced Children and Young People’s funding stream use. We are also joined by the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Advisory Service, which will be launching an innovative education resource at the event.
The conference is for anyone working with, parenting or caring for a child who is care-experienced, and keen to learn new ideas for supporting their education. Tickets can be found here.
Fiona Aitken is director of AdoptionUK Scotland
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