Thursday, 23 February 2017

'Don't judge - We're no different from you' - powerful message from care experienced young people

Nothing beats getting the story direct from those who have lived it. And that’s what we got in a moving and revealing presentation from a group of care experienced young people at the Scottish Parliament today as they launched their “Don't Judge - We're no different from you” campaign.

The campaign booklet and DVD was produced by Aberdeenshire’s Young People’s Organising and Campaigning (YPOC) Group of young people working alongside the council’s children’s rights staff. It follows a previous campaign on corporate parenting.

With the young people writing the scenarios and taking on all the main roles, the DVD forms part of a guide for staff on supporting looked after children in schools.

While it points the way to how issues can be better handled, its power is in stressing the need to recognise the back stories that young people in care carry with them.

Gillian Martin MSP had met the YPOC group in her Aberdeenshire constituency and invited them to the Parliament. The audience included, among others, MSPs, councillors, social workers and education staff.

If that wasn’t daunting enough for the young people, gasps from some of them turned our eyes to the door to see First Minister Nicola Sturgeon make an unannounced visit and stay for almost the whole event.

The first part of the DVD re-enacts bullying scenarios with good and bad ways of addressing the problem. One young woman describes how when conflict arises in school between pupils, her experience is that the pupil who is not in care is the one that is believed.

Having had bad news about contact with her parents she is late into class, singled out by the teacher, and insults are passed round by other students. When she reacts, she gets the blame. The DVD goes on to show how a bit of willingness to hear her life experience could have seen this handled much more positively.

In the ‘Our Stories’ part, the pain of complex and tragic real life histories told by the young people strikes home all the harder through the simplicity of the telling.

You could feel the emotion in the room. The eyes were filling. The First Minister spoke of how powerful the DVD had been for her. Others followed, congratulating the group.

The First Minister assured the young people that the ‘root and branch’ review of the children in care system announced last October would listen to their views. She had pledged to personally listen to “1,000 care experienced voices”.

While some of the young people had a positive care experience, many hadn’t. As a social worker it was hard to hear so many say that life had not been made better by coming into care.

Of course there are complexities in interactions between social workers and young people but there was a theme we hear over and over again of young people not feeling listened to. Not being told what is happening to them (sometimes because the social workers won’t know themselves) and not being reassured that coming into care was not their ‘fault’.

In a lighter moment, one young person said that young newly qualified social workers were the best because they hadn’t got set in their ways or into the system like the older ones. Head down for me at that moment trying to become invisible.

But where I work, we have put huge efforts into consulting young people, asking how we are doing at getting their views and involving them in not only decisions about their care but about what kind of service we should be striving for in the future.

We can listen. We can very often make significant changes in light of what young people tell us. But all too often we can’t deliver. We can’t match a placement because there is only one available. We can’t plan a placement because we can’t identify one soon enough. We can’t get one close enough to keep the young person realistically in the same school.

The stories in the DVD of multiple placement moves, changes of schools and separation from siblings remain a day to day reality for many young people. That’s not due to a lack of will to do better, it is a reflection of years of trying to match scarce resources to unmet need.

Of course it is not all money. I see, day to day, staff at all levels planning and finding imaginative ways to avoid children coming into care and, if that can’t be avoided, to make the care experience as positive as possible, despite financial constraints.

There is a resource issue in recruiting more foster carers but it is also a societal challenge to encourage more people – and the right people – to come forward. Only when we have enough carers will there be a real chance to properly match, to keep siblings together if that is what is best, and to avoid long journeys to school or changes of school.

But foster care is not for every young person’s needs. So we need more money to build modern units suited to young people’s needs and that can give continuing care into young adulthood. We need money to pay the skilled staff these units need.

Most of all, we need the resources to ensure social workers have the time to spend with young people, to build trusting relationships, to really get to know them. In a world of increasing, and in some places unmanageable workloads, that time is under more and more pressure. That lack of time is the main reason people leave the job.

Those are all resource issues. And they are resource issues that are coming more critical after years of local government cuts. The ‘root and branch’ review will have to address that reality too.

See the video and more about the YPOC campaigns at

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