Casey Armstrong, 23, is in her first year studying Astrophysics at Dundee University. Here she describes her experiences of reaching 18 and facing the ‘Care Cliff’.
At 15, I was taken into care for the second time and placed with the people I now refer to as my parents. I got really lucky with them. The improvements I’d shown were so significant that social workers were happy to fight my corner to keep me with the family and at the same school.
I’ve known I wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember, but it was a documentary I found when I was 12 that sold me for life on astrophysics. Going to university was always a big goal for me, it was a guaranteed way to get out of my situation, especially before I’d gone into care. But when I got to 16, the spiral started. I was introduced to a Personal Advisor (your support worker when you leave care), and the gradual phasing of ‘Well you’re in care now but you won’t be much longer,’ began. My mental health took a nosedive.
I ended up getting in with a crowd at college that used drugs, and I eventually dropped out a couple of months before my exams after a particularly bad suicide attempt. I nearly broke the relationship with my foster family, and basically everything went into care crash mode. Dropping out meant no university which meant no accommodation to move into after leaving care. Social services offered me supported lodgings – a room in a woman’s house – before my 18th birthday, but I didn’t get a chance to meet her beforehand. I was rushed into it. I was told these get snapped up really quickly and I didn’t have time to wait. I read her brief profile on a small bit of paper and agreed to move in.
That placement quickly broke down and social services helped me move into private renting. They paid the deposit and the first month’s rent. I then had a series of minimum wage jobs, working in warehouses and offices, none of which lasted more than a month. My mental health and drug use were getting worse, I just wanted to live like a normal 18-year-old no matter how much my circumstances were against me. When I was 19 I got a Debt Relief Order.
I then met my abusive ex, who convinced me to give up work and as it took a while for my Universal Credit to come through, my landlord kicked me out. I was homeless, jobless, and my only option was to move in with this new boyfriend. I became completely dependent on him.
That relationship came to an end as quickly as it began, and I was left with nothing. Throughout the course of the relationship, I’d lost my home with all of its belongings, most of my friends and my source of income. I’d hit a new kind of rock bottom. If it wasn’t for my old estate agent offering me a bedsit, I don’t know how I would’ve come back from everything I’d lost.
I had to rebuild my life from scratch while healing from the trauma this relationship caused and resurfaced from childhood wounds. I took it day by day, starting off with small bits of work, some paid and some voluntary, advocating for the care system. With time, this brought my confidence back and gave me a reason to carry on. After all, if I couldn’t find the will to live for myself then I could at least find it for the children my work was helping.
A year after the break up with my ex, I was still fighting against the consequences of my life events up until that point. Things were easier but far from what they should have been for a 21-year-old. At my absolute lowest with nothing to lose, I realised the only direction things could go for me was up. So I took a leap of faith and returned to college, 5 years after I’d nearly succeeded in taking my own life and had to drop out the first time. While the advocacy work was fulfilling, it wasn’t what I’d planned to do for the rest of my life.
I got accepted onto Loughborough College’s Space Engineering course, delivered in conjunction with the National Space Academy. In August of this year, I passed my A Levels in Maths and Physics and Level 3 BTEC in Engineering which confirmed my place studying Astrophysics at the University of Dundee. By September, I’d moved up to Scotland to finally pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a physicist.
My life has not had the easiest start but now I am at the point I wanted to get to. It’s not perfect – I live in a caravan because I can’t find a flat due to the current housing crisis – but for the first time I feel my life is my own. When I was in Leicester everyone always knew I had been in care one way or another, but here my care experience doesn’t define me. Finally being at university signifies so much to me, it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life but my circumstances have made it such a monumental task. I’ve got the independence and resources to do whatever I want to do. My life is really my own.”
What would you have liked to have happened when you were 18, instead of what did happen?
Staying Put (the scheme that operates in some councils, which allows young people to stay with their foster placement until they’re 21) is becoming more of a thing now but I think it should be mandatory. You should have the option to sign yourself out of care when you’re 16 or 18, but I think it should be mandatory to be in care until you’re 21.
No one moves out at 18. No one does that. No one is ready for that. So many people are going through apprenticeships or college, leaving school and stepping up. Those are the most basic foundations of starting adulthood. I couldn’t focus on those foundations because I was so fixated on my 18th birthday. I didn’t have the mental energy to set myself up and look beyond that.
It took me until I was 21 to get myself back into education. If I had been in care until I was 21 I could have completed my degree earlier and not gone down the mental spiral that I did. I feel that one of the biggest problems of the care cliff is forcing children into being adults.”
If you’ve been affected by the contents of this post, please contact our Care Advice Line (open Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm). We are here for you.