21st October 2021

Conversations with care leavers: the importance of trusting relationships

Next week is National Care Leavers Week, a vital time for us to focus on care leavers, and how we support them in transitioning from care into adult life. Next week I’ll be focusing on this, and my team’s work to bring about these changes. Ahead of that, I wanted to focus on what we can learn from care leavers about the care system, and how we can empower care leavers to bring about improvements in how we treat children in care.

Last week I met care leavers in Plymouth. The young people I met were honest and open, they gave up their time to share their experiences with me, and told me many things which were both personal and painful to recount. They did so in the hope that I could use my position to prevent the next generation of children in care going through the same experiences they had.

However, these young people were also frustrated – frustrated that they had had to recount the same stories so many times, to so many people without seeing anything tangible change in the system.

I came away from this meeting more determined than ever to help support the seismic changes to social care these young people wanted to see. For those of us in positions of power and influence we must do more than listen, we must act.

I also feel we need to re-frame our conversation with children in care and care leavers. We need to ask not just about their experiences (important as this is), but also about their ideas for the system. We need to bring them in to the process of changing the system. One of the most frequent issues I hear, from both children and families, is how disempowering the care system can feel when you are subject to it. We must ensure the process of reforming the system does not fall into this trap.

Before coming on to the reforms the young people were advocating for, I want to emphasise the experiences young people shared with me, because this has to be the motivation for bringing about change. We know that many children in care have experienced trauma, but what continues to shock me is how many children have experienced additional, unnecessary trauma since coming into care. The stories I heard from young people last week were profoundly upsetting. While I have, sadly, heard enough similar accounts to know these issues are not confined to Plymouth, hearing these stories continues to shock. We cannot allow ourselves to become  immune to this type of suffering.

These are extremely serious issues: children separated from siblings they would never see again; children made to stay at home, stigmatised and bereft as their foster families went on holiday with their birth children. Children experiencing placement move after placement move without ever getting the support they were begging for, or being able to build one trusting relationship. Recent care leavers described periods of homelessness as if it was routine. None of this is acceptable.

The two strongest themes to come out of the discussion were the lack of trusting relationships, and a sense of dealing with a system that assessed, but did not assist.

This was perhaps best encapsulated in the discussion about the support available to care leavers who become parents. The young people I spoke to talk of the ordeal created by mandatory assessments made of care leavers with young babies, and the lack of support available. The system wanted to know whether they were ‘good enough’ parents, but was not forthcoming in providing the help needed to make them better parents. The assessment may conclude that young parents needed certain items, such as a cot, but did not empower the parents to ask for this help themselves, let alone giving them the resources to make the best decisions for their children. Hearing these stories, I could not help but remember my own time as a young mum, the desire to do the best for your child, and the help that extended family provided. The state needs to try and replicate this help, without the judgement.

Making these changes is not easy. The social care system supports hundreds of thousands of families, tens of thousands of children in care. Ultimately, its success depends on the quality of each individual relationship. When I ask young people ‘what works?’ they don’t describe an assessment, more often than not, they name a person. Our job is to provide a system that allows these relationships to succeed.

The young people I met in Plymouth were clear they did not believe the system was doing this, and they were insightful as to how to change it. In particular, they contrasted the type of relationship they were able to have with youth workers and advocates as to those they had with social workers.

Some of this was very practical: relationships with youth workers tended to sustain over time (in contrast to the near constant churn of social workers), they were given the opportunity to develop relationships with youth workers in informal settings (such as being taken out for milkshakes) and they also met with youth workers in group sessions, benefitting from both the professional and peer relationship. I know that most social workers would love to be able to develop these types of relationships, so perhaps the solution is ensuring they have the time, space and consistency to do this.

However, the young people I spoke to felt the issue was more fundamental than that. Ultimately, they felt that the dual nature of the social worker’s role, both supporting and judging them, was creating too much conflict. They wanted to see a separation between the ‘legal stuff’ social workers had to do, and the person with whom they have a relationship. The next day I was encouraged to see a new team in Plymouth attempting just such an approach, with a multi-disciplinary team (including youth workers), attempting new ways of engaging with families. Attempting to ask ‘what do families need from us’ rather than ‘what does our assessment of the family tell us about their needs’.

Tellingly, one of the families involved in the programme contrasted her experience with the support she felt social workers provided. Of course, it turned out that the woman being described was also a social worker, but a re-framing of the way the system worked meant that the family saw her role in a totally different light. Sometimes small changes to how teams operate can make big differences to the experiences of children and families, and that is what we are all striving to do.

This doesn’t mean that there is an instant fix. I want to see us listen to those with care experience and re-design services accordingly, but I also know that splitting up the role of the social worker can have unintended consequences. I often hear from children in foster care about the frustration that parental responsibility doesn’t sit with the person with whom they have a relationship. Giving young people a youth worker, as well as a social worker may just increase the number of adults they have to negotiate with. Instead, what we need to do is look at different solutions in different situations. Engage with children and young people, understand their needs and shape services accordingly.

This will mean trying different approaches; some will work, some won’t. Getting it right, all the time for every child, will not be easy. But, I believe that by listening, by changing how we do things and by being prepared to try things differently we can bring about big improvements. Ultimately, services for children and families need to be local, agile and relationship based. There will be no one-size-fits-all approach.

What we cannot do is listen to the stories that I heard last week, and think we can carry on the same. We owe it to children who have been in care and want to change the system, and to the children in care now, to strive to do much better than that.