I have been thinking about what it is that pushes care leavers to desperation or even self-annihilation. It’s the rupture of leaving the system itself. Those scars create a haunting sensation of feeling ignored, overlooked, and demeaned. And they are often confused for weakness.
Care leavers are not weak!
They are some of the most creative, tenacious, and resilient people you’ll ever meet. They – we – must be. Having been abandoned by our families as children, when we reach eighteen, we are abandoned (again!) by the state. Left peering over the precipice of the care cliff, conscious if we don’t jump, we’ll be pushed.
I am a care leaver. For years these words have felt like foreign objects in my mouth. It’s not my identity but an inescapable part of who I am. Ten years ago, I had a meeting with my twelfth and final social worker. I assumed this was a routine meeting, but when we sat down, there was a subtle shift in his breath that I had outstayed my welcome. He graced me with a pirouette of words, used to disguise their true motive. Because this was the meeting to inform me I had been officially discharged from the care system. No preparation, discussion, or appeal. Just a bombshell. A statement of fact. And I had to accept that.
Was I ready? To be honest, it didn’t matter. Nothing I could have said, should’ve said, would have changed the outcome. I was left feeling isolated. Petrified. Abandoned. From that moment on, I have lived in a constant state of fear that if everything went wrong, I would have nowhere to go. No door to knock on, no kitchen floor to collapse on, no bed to sleep in. I had no place of last resort. I was thrown off the care cliff into a climate of uncertainty. Being held back while other people my age had the freedom to flourish.
Unlike many, many others from the care system, I was lucky. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, I moved from children’s homes to supported lodgings, or in English, Social Services paid for a room in someone else’s house for me to live in. Over that time, I built a friendship with the woman who owned the place. So when I left the care system, she agreed to let me stay and helped me set up my housing benefit, so she could continue to be paid. The stability she provided at that volatile time has been invaluable. Having that small semblance of security allowed me to follow my passion for music and pursue a career in recording studios.
Fast forward to today, I have won awards for my recording work. I’ve had the privilege of working with some fantastic artists like Frank Turner and Amy Wadge. I have been elected to sit on the board of the Music Producer’s Guild, sit on the policy committee at UK Music, have a literary agent at the iconic Curtis Brown, and am currently studying for a master’s at the University of Oxford. I’m not listing this stuff to brag but to point out that all of this has only happened to me in the last three years – since 2019. I was discharged from the care system in 2012. This is what a climate of uncertainty does. It held me back. It took seven years to create a place of last resort, so I could take the opportunities and flourish.
Yes, I got there eventually. And I’m grateful. But I am not a usual case. Although I may have found a way to anaesthetise the trauma and soldier on, many don’t. The Care Matters: Time For Change policy paper from 2007 said, ‘a good corporate parent must offer everything a good parent would’. This was the policy I grew up with. This was the pinkie-promise the state made to me – caregivers with care to give. But, after spending years trying to trust adults again, as soon as I became one, the ones who tried so hard to earn that trust, shattered it.
A good parent doesn’t expect their children to do anything. They certainly wouldn’t expect them to be independent by an arbitrary age, to deal with trauma on their own, or just ignore them. Instead, a good parent provides guidance, continuously offering a hand to cross the street whether it’s needed or not. They are someone (or something) to tut over the mistakes you’ve made. But they provide that stability by keeping that hand out just in case you need it. A good parent ultimately offers the freedom of choice. And that’s the difference between kids from stable family backgrounds and those from the care system – choice.
How do we change it so future generations leaving the care system are not held back by a climate of uncertainty? Well, I think we should go back to that ideal that a good corporate parent should offer everything a good parent would. Ending the ‘preparing to leave care’, because, in the real world, people don’t prepare to leave their parents. Understanding independence is a journey; good parents don’t decide when to let go of their child’s hand. The child does. So the state must recognise that it will have to hold some hands longer than others.