As someone who grew up in care, I’m used to people telling me they have low expectations for me or those around me. In fact, my care records are a catalogue of comments turning my behaviour into problems.
I didn’t always notice it at the time, but when I read my care records and noticed the nonchalance with which my foster carer used phrases such as “acts smart” and “asks too many questions” and a variety of others which turned what my school teacher described as a “passion for learning” into a problem. It wasn’t always said as clearly as this. They didn’t ever really say it outright but it was felt. Lots of things told me that the sky was not the limit. That the adults around me didn’t dream particularly big for me. From the forms about my progress in life where there was no option for saying I was at university, to the teacher who laughed when I said I wanted to be an author. It’s something I was keenly aware of during my time in care. I remember being asked to tell social workers how I felt using smiley/sad faces rather than being expected to convey how I felt in words. I understand that some young people benefit from this approach. It wasn’t a person-centered approach though, it felt like a box-ticking exercise.
Feeling like those around you have low expectations isn’t restricted to my experience. It’s quite common.
It’s easy then, to see how those low expectations follow care-experienced people throughout their lives and how we, at times, can come to have low expectations for ourselves and what we’re worthy of. When your life is made of broken promises I understand why we as a group can celebrate even the smallest things in life. The smallest things in life, seem to be what care-experienced people are routinely offered and expected to celebrate. When I see each new initiative, I usually keep my head down and let it pass. After all, if someone is able to carry their belongings in a nylon bag rather than a plastic one, that’s an improvement, isn’t it? If you’re expecting to be alone on Christmas Day, the local authority-organised “Christmas Lunch” on the 22nd of December could take the sting out of the loneliness of the day. I can put my head down and ignore all of these things that people do to abate the symptoms of the systematic oppression that comes with being Care Experienced. The reason I keep my head down harks back to my time in care. I don’t want to seem ungrateful that someone is trying to patch over the problematic areas. I don’t want to upset the people with good intentions who have done something
On the other hand, I believe that continuing to let things like this pass will ultimately stand in the way of progress and mean people only ever try and fix what’s in front of them. We can only patch a puncture for so long before we have to replace the tire.
Today, a straw broke the camel’s back. Dorset Healthcare launched its “Dorset New Adults Kit”, billed by Wessex FM as a “survival kit” for “vulnerable teenagers”. The dictionary defines a survival kit as “a package of basic tools and supplies prepared in advance as an aid to survival in an emergency”. The kit contains “a box full of essentials that will help them in adult life”. The essentials it contains are foodstuff, vitamins, hygiene/health products, blankets and information signposting them to a range of support. It is intended as a way to stop those with experience of care from being so “reliant” on health and social care services. Whilst this sounds like it could prove useful, I struggle to see why it’s something to celebrate. In each news item about the box, we can plainly see that it contains items with low nutritional value such as Koka Noodles. Care-experienced people already have enough issues with food, as a veteran of a Scotch Pie and Beans every day of the week for a month, I should know. It’s such a low expectation that those “leaving care” are worth what amounts to a packet of instant noodles and a sack of toiletries.
This has to stop. Children aren’t leaving care, care is leaving them. A decision is made by a human being that once they reach a certain age, they have support cut off and that they should move as “vulnerable teenagers” into the “adult” world. In fact, the very same local authorities celebrating initiatives like this are the same ones that render the decision that means they have to offer a box.
That isn’t the worst of it. The absolute worst part of all of this for me is when care-experienced people are drafted in to give a supporting comment and to design the box that the system has decided has to happen. In one article, a woman with experience of care is quoted as saying:
“It can be really scary leaving care and living on your own. The DNA box is a real helping hand. I’d recommend the box to any young person about to leave care — it really is like a big hug on your first night alone.”
A box with Koka Noodles and some basic toiletries is not a big hug. That “big hug” was taken away by the system because the person they have given the box to has reached a cut off age. An age at which, they understand they aren’t prepared to live alone, or they wouldn’t be giving them a box, but an age which the system tells them to cut the cord and jettison them into an unforgiving world. If you work in social work, for a care provider or some other area of the “care system” please, make a human decision and stop celebrating these initiatives.
We need to make a decision to stop celebrating what is essentially failure and instead turn our attention to transforming the system.
The Independent Care Review in Scotland’s report, “Follow the Money”, speaks about the human economic cost of the care system’s failures. They tell us that the more money we spend now, the less we spend later. If we work to lessen the negative lifelong impact of care now, then that’s what solves the over-reliance on health and social care services. Not instant noodles. Everyone knows that the current provision is not working and we should do everything we can do support care-experienced people to survive. We should not, however, celebrate the bare minimum. We should be ashamed that it has come to giving people boxes with instant noodles and multivitamins and telling them it’s a hug.