Learning from Adult Care Leavers

I realize that “adult care leaver” may be a term that some of you may not have encountered before. Let me explain. Adult care leavers are generally given/claimed by someone who is completely out with the scope of child social services. For example, someone in their early 20s may define themselves as a care leaver as they can still have access to some services. Whereas, a care leaver in their 50s would not. Nor would the law recognize them as a care leaver. So we can use the term adult care leaver to claim an identity and experience history of the care system.


I am an adult care leaver. I am an adult care leaver. I am… an… adult… care… leaver… Erm. Um. Not sure how others within the sector see me when I use this term. I'm not sure people know what to make of, do with my experience/identity as an adult care leaver. It doesn’t make my experiences any different than when I was officially a "care leaver," but I know that others don’t recognize my care experience because I am that little bit older than how they would define a care leaver.


When I first became involved in working with young people in care, care leavers and the residential child care sector I was 24 years old. I had been out of care for five years, had lived a little, loved??? a lot and grown somewhat in my understanding of my childhood experiences. I started to meet with other care leavers and I attended a conference where a number of leading academics, researchers and policy makers were presenting on the leaving care system. I didn’t think anything of it. I went. I saw. I left. But I was left with a very uncomfortable feeling. It’s often quite uncomfortable to hear “the experts” talk about us and our experiences with an unfettered authority. The speakers were (not purposefully) talking about individuals similar to me in a way that I didn’t recognize myself or my experiences. They were talking “above” and “at a distance.”


When I try, in debates and discussions, to share my experience I am sometimes quickly dismissed as being “too old” and told that “the system has moved on since your time in care” – “I am 33” I SCREAM! Why do we cease to recognize that having been in care is something that an individual carries with them throughout their lives? There isn’t a best-before-date, where all those experiences and memories suddenly evaporate. Like any important experience in any individual's life, it may not always be at the forefront of their mind or way in which they identify themselves to others, but we cannot escape the experience of it.


The work we do with young people in care today has life long ramifications for the care leavers they become tomorrow. But we don’t engage with the future, with the long term. As practitioners we tend to live in the literal yesterday, today and tomorrow of a young person’s life. We tend to want to see immediate results or dismiss work has been deemed “unsuccessful.”


We focus what we know about the care system on those in it or who have recently passed through it. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, this is like asking a young person at the funeral of a loved one what they feel about the death of that person – it’s going to be raw, immediate, unprocessed, littered with emotions and complications. Secondly, many of the care leavers involved in research or consultation are actually still involved with child care services even though they have left their last placement. As such they may not have technically left the care of the local authority and still be embedded in after care services. The term care LEAVER is a little problematic here.


I wonder if there is fear? Asking a 16 year old what they feel about the system is very different from asking a 40 year old with a PhD – someone who could actually raise real challenges to a world that has been dominated by individuals, many of whom have never worked in let alone lived in a care setting. It is important to have lots of different perspectives around the table – particularly the rise in practitioner writing and research – but the voice of those who have lived in it is severely lacking.


When others, like myself, come along and challenge the status quo by raising questions that those authors won’t/don’t, we get criticised for “not being on message” or for being too forth right or challenging in our questions. The reality is that although there are individuals within any community who are fundamental in their thinking and approach which may alienate people, the majority want others to take off their blinkers, look through a different lens and realise that they need to be cautious in their interpretations of what they see. It is inevitable that this will be uncomfortable for those who have become dogmatic in their thinking but if we do not allow the community of which we practice and research to speak and lead for themselves we could be deemed as controlling and naïve.


I share these thoughts because I experience a feeling of unease at times – and I’m quite a strong and strident woman. I feel I have to be careful about what I say and how I say it. I feel my opportunity to partake in the debate is more fragile than others – more fragile than those without a care background. I have certainly experienced being quickly dismissed because I asked questions that others did not want to hear (that’s not to say I’ve always been able to say things in a way that people have been able to hear – Mea culpa). I often go to conferences in this area and there seems to be only enough space for one adult care leaver on the podium and there’s a feeling amongst us (sorry for bringing some of you into this!) that we almost take it in turns depending on who is flavor of the month.


There are so many avenues not yet explored here. So this, in essence, is a provocative blog to get us thinking about adult care leavers. This is quite a journey of awareness to undertake but I urge you to get adult care leavers involved, provide space within your thinking, discussions and organisations to share their experiences, to mentor young people, to educate and train your staff. We have a rich array of experiences that are useful to current practice.


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