Whose children? Talking to young people in care was a real eye opener!

On 20 February 2016 Robert Brown wrote:

Whose children? Talking to young people in care was a real eye opener!

Last night, I attended an election Hustings organised by Who Cares Scotland, a voluntary organisation which provides independent advocacy for young people – to help them have a say in what is happening to them, to make them feel respected, included, listened to and understood. If that isn’t the essence of what Liberalism should be about, I don’t know what is.

After the formal event, I lingered for quite a long time to talk to some young people individually or in smaller groups. It was a real eye opener, even though I know many of the statistics and the policy background.

The life chances of young people in care are a scandal. Around 2005, I recall an inspectorate report stating that “there is nothing inevitable about poor educational outcomes for young people in care”. It came as a revelation to me. There are something like 15,000 who are “looked after”. Admittedly, there are others beyond that at risk. Nevertheless, 15,000 is not an unmanageable number and it should be possible to make a substantial difference to their life chances.

Children and young people in care have the same dreams as any other young people – and should have the same right to fulfil their potential in life. Yet only 7% who leave care go on to higher education (39% generally); 50% of the Scottish adult prison population are care experienced; nearly half of 5–17 year-olds in care were diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

The reality is that young care leavers have some of the worst educational, social and employment outcomes of any group of young people – and it need not be like that.

The recent raising by the Scottish Government of the age at which young people leave care is a praiseworthy move and needs to be built on. I learnt for example that it doesn’t cover children who are adopted where the family relationship breaks down. Many adoptions work out well but some do not – and the trauma of a changed name, a fresh sundering of bonds, and sometimes further homelessness was an unfamiliar aspect brought home to me very sharply by my conversations.

The idea that society at large is a corporate parent to young children in care is a powerful one but often not achieved in reality.

Consider the position of a young person in a family unit. They may go off to college or university or work away from home – but they usually are able to come home when things go wrong, or just for a bit of TLC or to get their washing done. Quite possibly their parents will make sure they learn to drive, there may be family holidays and other common experiences. If their relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend founders, there is a shoulder to cry on.

Some of the young people I met last night – and indeed on many other similar occasions – told me they did not have these supports. They want to be loved but there may well be no one to love them. A small example but telling – they want Wi-Fi where they live to support their studies and enable them to keep in touch with parents, notwithstanding sometimes difficult relationships there. But there was no Wi-Fi in the Glasgow home they shared with other young care leavers.

The trauma of moves between different places, the problems because GP records take 6 months to catch up; the repeated bureaucratic questioning of the same personal information which is already in the records – this is the day to day reality of life in the care system.

Even worse I was told of 9 month waits in temporary accommodation – one girl separated from her baby because of this.

If anyone asks you to justify the Liberal Democrat support for a penny for education, for a pupil premium to support children with substantial additional needs like children in care, tell them that is a scandal in a civilised society that some young people are blighted from birth, have poorer life chances by far than others and that society loses a huge resource of talent it can ill afford to waste. Tell them too that our plan to get Scotland fit for the future needs a step change in the treatment of mental health.

This is not about statistics but about people – every one a young person with as unique and individual story; every one a child or young person entitled to a fair deal in life.

And tell them that there is nothing inevitable about poor life chances for children in care. For my part, it seems to me that the purpose of political power can only be to change things for the better. This is one of the key things I would like to influence should I be re-elected as an MSP.


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