I grew up in care, and spent some time homeless, but I eventually made it to university and became a journalist and author. Why is it that so few people in care share a similar journey? Instead, too many are in the criminal justice system, lost to addiction or off the map. It’s something I set out to explore in a video for the Guardian looking at the system and what’s changed in the 20 years since I left.
After a decade of austerity, the government has stripped provision for kids in care to the bone. In a sense, I was lucky. I lived in regulated children’s homes run by local authorities, where experienced staff were on duty 24 hours a day. Now, 75% of homes in England are run by private companies.
The situation is not much better for kids when they begin their transition to independence after turning 16. At this age, looked-after children usually move into semi-independent accommodation to prepare for life on their own. A 2019 report by the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults found that local authorities were placing children over 16 in a “frightening, twilight world of unregulated semi-independent homes”. The report stated that young people living in this accommodation were easy targets for sexual exploitation and drug running.
Children in care homes are criminalised at 20 times the rate of other children, and that figure is probably an underestimate, as it only counts children who have been in continuous care for at least 12 months. Moreover, according to a Guardian investigation, children in care are still being arrested and taken to court for trivial offences that would earn most others a grounding. In August 2019, 128 youngsters passed through Greater Manchester’s youth court – 17% of them were in care.
When I was in care, I was arrested several times for minor outbursts. When I left the system, I experienced long stints of unemployment, housing precarity and, ultimately, homelessness. This pattern continues for many. My fellow care-leavers comprise 25% of the homeless population and 25% of prisoners, and almost 50% of under-21s involved with the criminal justice system have experienced care.
One of the reasons for making the film was trying to find hope among the depressing statistics. I met Lucy, not her real name, a childhood friend I shared an Oldham children’s home with in the early 2000s. “I never used to cry, but I never stop now,” Lucy said after our interview. She has many reasons to cry.
Lucy was a victim of sexual exploitation during her time in care. Men would pick her up in their cars, and you wouldn’t see her for weeks. The last time such an incident occurred, she returned to the unit pregnant.
I don’t recall staff lifting a finger to prevent Lucy or other girls I knew from leaving and getting in the cars of older men. For those of us who’d been in the system and witnessed this, sexual abuse scandals such as the one in Rochdale didn’t surprise us.
Social services took her baby daughter from her. After that, Lucy struggled with homelessness, drug dependency and mental illness. “I’ve slept in bin sheds and all sorts. I just looked around for somewhere that looked warm, and I’d just get in there ’till it was like morning or summat.”
“What was going through your mind at the time?” I asked.
“Do you know what, Danny, I was so hard-faced back then, and I’d been through so much that I don’t think it fazed me. I think I just got my head down and was like, ‘Whatever.’ I didn’t even cry back then. When I lost my baby, it changed me. I was cold. Cold. I had no fear. I mean, I had no fear. I didn’t like anyone; I was angry at the world.”
In response to these allegations, Oldham council has said: “While we can’t comment on individual cases, we cannot begin to understand what Daniel and Lucy went through. The type of abuse they’ve described has never been acceptable and we do accept that at times the care system in Oldham has not sufficiently protected vulnerable young people.” They encourage anyone who has experienced child sexual exploitation to reach out to them.
Lucy is damaged but not broken. She is now working as a caregiver for elderly people and while her resilience is inspiring, it doesn’t fill me with hope; all of her success happened in spite of social services.
I also met a fellow Danny, a 19-year-old care leaver from Blackpool. Like me, Danny was placed in care when he was 13 and prone to angry outbursts and rebellion. However, he has sorted his life out. He works at an Italian restaurant just off Blackpool’s promenade, which also doubles as a soup kitchen, and he has ambitions to travel abroad to train in restaurants. Danny got lucky. His foster carer, a kind man who runs the restaurant and soup kitchen, invested time in him; he could have easily been placed with someone there for the paycheck.
I’ve been using my personal history to inform my journalism for six years, and I have excavated the well of me. Every time I dig into my past, there’s a cost to my mental health. I decided to revisit the worst moments of my life again and again because no one else with my background is doing it, and my experiences inform my reporting. I’m not an exceptional journalist, but if you haven’t felt this stuff, it’s unlikely you will ask all the right questions. I don’t want to do this any more, but who will if I don’t?
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