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Becoming a care leaver: my life without a safety net

The transition period of leaving care was very sudden and abrupt – it’s challenging because security gets pulled from under you like a rug. It especially feels that way when your foster carers and social services have made your options seem so limited.

My foster carers wanted me out as fast as possible and social services were not there to support me. I was panicking because I didn’t secure my university choices and no one was there to help make that transition easy.

I came to the University of Bradford through clearing – I turned up with no money to buy food, and I didn’t realise I needed things like a duvet and pillows. I was so embarrassed - because I was the only person who wasn’t practically equipped and I didn’t fit in.

I wish I had social workers and foster carers who had educated me on how to navigate this world, encouraged me to explore my interests, given me access to services for my mental health and taught me how to manage my money or invest. However this wasn’t the case, and many care-experienced young people are held back by their social workers and support workers. 

A lot of survivors of the system have had to mature and adapt a lot quicker, sometimes before the age of 18. Unlike our peers, who are able to still live with their parents, some up until well into their 20’s, we have to deal with all of the practical implications of having to look after ourselves with far less support.

There’s not a lot of breathing room between trying to survive the day-to-day difficulties of adjusting to living on your own and managing your childhood trauma. When trying to explain this to professionals, our experiences are often dismissed with blanket responses such as “you should consider antidepressants” or “you have to help yourself”.

It’s tiring not being listened to or understood: healthcare professionals need to be better informed about the particular struggles that we are dealing with. Professionals on the whole also need to take into consideration that foster children from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds have a harder time navigating through the system due to institutional racism, which also impacts us enormously.

There needs to be more accountability from everyone. Social workers need to hold foster carers accountable, local authorities and the Government need to be more transparent about their current plans. A lot of work needs to be done around making the transition to early independence easier, and young care leavers should be provided with better emotional and practical support.

Since leaving university, I’ve been moved into supported housing – it’s not necessarily where I would choose to be at this point in my life, but I’m really grateful to have a roof over my head, especially considering that the pandemic has made people’s living situations so precarious.

When I think about my future, it can be hard for me to imagine what that looks like sometimes, especially after losing my job as a result of COVI-19. My career options have started to look really limited. At times, I fall into the trap of comparing myself to the people around me who have security: a stable job, a loving family and a home. I often forget that just because I don’t have these things the same way as everyone else, it doesn’t mean I don’t deserve them.

I came across the UK charity Become on Instagram and started joining their weekly virtual link-ups in June during the national lockdown. It was the first time that I met other care-leavers, other survivors of the system, who had an amazing sense of humor. They are really wise, strong and talented individuals, who I’ve connected with on a level that I haven’t with non-care-experienced people my age. This is because we have shared experiences and similar frustrations. A lot of my peers who aren’t care-leavers don’t really understand how and why my experiences inform how I view things - especially now that I am in my mid-20’s: there’s a constant feeling of playing catch up, but never really catching up.

Through Become, I met Sophie, the Senior Advice and Support Officer and Tasha, Become’s Advice Officer: they've both really helped me in different ways. For the first time in my life, someone explained to me what my rights and entitlements as a care leaver were. I was informed about the leaving care grant, for example, or the fact that I had a right to receive support during university holidays. Not only have Sophie and Tasha supported me practically, but they have offered me emotional support too; especially around understanding certain trauma, or just simply encouraging me to not get too overwhelmed about things like my career and finances.

Things have changed since the pandemic – and I truly believe we’re not going to go back to normal. Services are doing the best they can by providing online face-to-face counselling, such as Become’s virtual Link-Ups and workshops.

Our transition into adulthood is a lot more complex than just moving from school into further education or a career: we have to fight to keep a roof over our heads and sometimes need to survive without a few meals throughout the week. I hope that local authorities and the Government are held to account for putting in place the right support, so that future care leavers don’t have to go through what so many of us had to. I also want to encourage current foster children and care leavers to not give up on themselves, we are a lot stronger and capable than we realise - only gold gets through the fire in one piece.

Samara is 25 and a care leaver who lives in Bradford in the UK. She is supported by the national charity for children in care, Become and is supporting the charity’s campaign to End the Care Cliff during National Care Leavers Week (26 October – 30 October 2020).