Children in care review: We've got our revolution
Laura Beveridge writes about her own journey in the care system, and how change is informed by those that have the experience
Image - Laura Beveridge/Holyrood
The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 came about at a time when I was working in residential care as a senior member of staff and becoming increasingly frustrated, and at times disillusioned, by the work to be done.
I had been working in the care system for 10 years and although I worked hard to ensure that the children that I cared for got a fair and equal chance at life, I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t really doing the job in the way I wanted to.
I had had my own experience of being in care and yet the moment that I stepped into the system as a worker, I was told two things: never share your own experience and never use the word ‘love’.
I did what I was told because I was scared; scared of being judged and scared of the stigma of having been in care that I’d always faced but never faced up to.
2014 was also a poignant year in my personal life. It was the year that my nana died and it was the year that my own daughter, my beautiful Maia, turned one.
It was the happiest and most devastating time of my life. My nana had been the most loving and consistent relationship that I’d ever had, and as I embarked on my own journey of motherhood without her support, lots of feelings that I had buried very deep resurfaced.
I remembered the frightened little girl that I had been, the guilt that I felt, and I relived the painful experience of being in care that had then prompted me to set out on a mission as an adult to make a difference to the lives of other children and young people in that same situation.
In February 2015, I phoned a care worker that used to look after me in a children’s home in East Lothian and I told her that I was thinking about sharing my story. She told me that if there was ever a time for me to do that, it was now. She said there was a meeting taking place the following evening regarding a new children’s home being built in Musselburgh and that I should attend.
The church hall was so busy, around 300 people had turned up, and on the wall there were plans for the new build. Many people were stood staring intently at the plans, with crossed arms and looking cross. Others waved their arms about, pointed at the plans and shook their heads in annoyance at them. There was a lot of noise and what was painfully clear was that they didn’t want ‘these children’ living near them.
I quietly walked around until I found a carer from the children’s home that I knew and he introduced me to some people from Who Cares? Scotland. Two of them, a girl and a boy in their late teens, were ready to speak out and challenge the stigma that surrounded them.
As the meeting commenced, there were some valid points being made about the large grassy land that the residents didn’t want to lose because that’s where their children played, but then there were contradictions being made about it being marshy land that couldn’t be built upon. It soon became clear that this meeting wasn’t about a building, it was about the five children, who through no fault of their own, were in residential care.
The comments being made by angry residents hurt me to the core: ‘will we be safe?’, ‘will there be wardens?’, ‘how dangerous are these kids?’, ‘why is it called a unit?’, ‘is it secure?’ I wasn’t allowed to speak and neither were the two young people who previously had been so wound up. We were told that the people there didn’t want to hear our ‘sob stories’. I was gutted.
A second meeting that took place a week later was under better control, with a set agenda and a chair. I spoke out for the first time at this meeting and I have continued to speak ever since.
So, here’s my story.
I went into care because my mum simply couldn’t cope with three young children after my stepdad left. She had an undiagnosed disability and struggled as a single parent with little support and very little money. She was vulnerable and on her own, so at 12 years old I became the little mother.
I had just started high school, but my head was focused on holding my family together in a household that was chaotic, had been abusive and where there was no other support.
I was that scruffy, unwashed little girl that got picked on and bullied and yet while it was clear something was wrong, no one intervened.
The named person policy has been a subject of contention but for me, I see it as something that could have saved me from years of abuse.
If I’d had a named person, my stepfather’s employer could have let the named person know that he’d been sacked for indecent exposure at work and might be a risk to children.
If I’d had a named person, my mum could have accessed support for her health issues more easily.
If I’d had a named person, my GP could have had a chat with them about concerns for me following numerous visits for, among other things, injuries that were a clear cause for concern.
If I’d had a named person, my teachers wouldn’t have turned a blind eye when I was always late, unwashed and with obvious injuries, or they might have questioned why I would have panic attacks for no apparent reason.
If I’d had a named person, my neighbours could have given them a call when they heard screaming and shouting every night or when they saw a little girl banging at her bedroom window, crying because she’d been locked in.
If I’d had a named person, they could have put the pieces of the puzzle together and helped me before it was too late.
But instead, I had teachers too busy to care, doctors too keen to ignore and neighbours too timid to interfere.
At 12 years old, I felt so overwhelmed with responsibility that I ran away to my nana’s with my little brother and sister, even when I knew she couldn’t cope; she was old, not in great health, my father didn’t want to know and my mum was in a fog of depression following 10 years of abuse. I was just bringing trouble to their door, so when a social worker called and told me that she could see I needed a rest and that she had found a lovely family for me to stay with and that my brother and sister would be placed with another nice family, it just made sense. I was too exhausted to argue and so I agreed.
I was told I would be going into care for a two-week break, but I never went home.
My journey then went right through the care system: from foster care to residential care, to secure care, to residential school, to ‘supported’ accommodation at 16 and finally, onto the street.
My experience of foster care was a poor one. My first family had another child placed with them who was clearly troubled and needed the carers to be solely there for her. She stole from the family so that I would be branded a liar and a thief and the placement ended. I fell in love with the second family, followed my new foster mum around everywhere. I didn’t want to let her out of my sight.
One day, I went home to find that a meeting was being held and I was told that I could no longer stay with my new family because my foster mum needed time to spend time with her own family. I thought that I was family.
I will never forget my first experience of residential care. The first thing I saw as I walked through the big wooden doors was a boy around 14 being held in a physical restraint. I froze with fear. I was so scared and the advice that I got was just ‘play the game’ and you’ll be alright.
Life in the institution was risk averse and professionalised. Everything I did needed a risk assessment so I withdrew from activities outside the home. I couldn’t stay at a friend’s house without them being police checked. Everything I did was written down, recorded and analysed. I was taken out of school to attend reviews and children’s hearings, where big decisions about my life were being made by people that I didn’t know.
I can’t remember much about what was said at these meetings, but I can tell you what the colour of the carpet was because that was my focus.
There was a change in the way that I was treated by teachers at school when I went into residential care, I was labelled a troublemaker and put into a support base instead of regular classes. My teachers had low aspirations for me so I gave up on school. By the time I got to 15, I was completely out of control and had pressed self-destruct. I had become my own abuser, using alcohol, buzzing aerosols and using cannabis because life wasn’t bearable without it. I was now a chronic self-harmer with a death wish.
On the 22 April 1999, I was assessed by a psychologist at the Young People’s Unit in Edinburgh, where I was told I wasn’t clinically depressed so they wouldn’t see me again. I continued to run away at every opportunity; I ran away to London twice. I had given up on everything. No one knew how to help me and I was desperate for help.
As I got closer to my 16th birthday, I got scared about the future and on the 10 June 1999, I sat in a toilet cubicle at Waverley Station swallowing paracetamol after paracetamol. A woman heard me crying and the police were called when I didn’t open the door. I was taken to a secure unit where I was strip searched and locked up for three months. Now, I wasn’t just bad, I was also mad.
My experience of secure care was traumatic. I had spent years being locked up and abused as a child and here I was locked up again.
But I had a plan. I would do my time so I could get out and never look back. I wrote letters to the children’s hearing explaining how well I had been behaving, how I had made sense of my anger and was ready for a fresh new start. I lied. They let me out. I was taken to so-called ‘supported’ accommodation, where I have never felt so low as I did in those months there in that bedroom, living on Doritos and dip and a bottle of Buckfast. It wasn’t long before I found myself back at the doors of the psychologist at the YPU, only to be told to leave because I didn’t have a mental illness; I was apparently just traumatised.
I was at rock bottom, wandering the streets of Edinburgh, but then came a turning point. A woman called Elaine and her daughter Claire lived in Portobello, they took in students from all over the world and had a spare room and I was told I could stay for two nights. I was there for two years!
Elaine gave me a safe, loving place where I could detox and recover and I started to rebuild my life. Elaine and Claire inspired me to go back to school and give education another chance. I got regular support from a psychiatric nurse and Lorraine, my children’s rights worker, was always there for me. It was also the year I met Steven. He was Elaine’s nephew and we very quickly fell in love. It was a really happy time in my life and I felt like I belonged and had a future. I felt a real sense of achievement and pride in myself as I stood there as part of the school, with my crisp white shirt, purple tie and hair all shiny and neat. This was how I’d always wanted to feel at school. I finally felt like I belonged.
But my late teens and early twenties were a hard time for Steven and I. I had left care but I was still care experienced, and the trauma of my past was still echoing through the present. I wished I could be back in the safety of the children’s home with its rules. I’d become institutionalised and felt like I just couldn’t cope without the strict routine.
I suffered bouts of depression and felt crippled by anxiety. Steven and I took some time apart. I was using sleeping pills for days at a time and felt like I was glued to my couch for weeks. When Steven and I got back together, I was still pressing self-destruct and I was back in the hospital after yet another overdose when he sat me down and reminded me of the dream I’d once had, to be part of a normal family, to have a normal life. Steven said, “Let me love you, Laura” and I took the biggest risk I’d ever taken.
On 22 September 2011, Steven and I got married in a town called Celebration in Florida and on the 13 April 2013, Maia was born. I had a family and I began to feel whole.
And when the First Minister announced a root-and-branch review of the care system at her party conference in October, it was one of the happiest days of my life. I was surrounded by my care-experienced brothers and sisters and I stood there beside Harry, one of the young people who had been at the meeting in Musselburgh just over a year ago. It felt like Harry and I really had come full circle from that meeting and being told not to speak, to the First Minister telling us that we’ve been heard.
I thought of so many things, the times I’ve been labelled and judged, told that I couldn’t work in a residential house because of my care experience. I thought of the times I just wanted to give up but somehow kept surviving. It felt like all those lost years were for that moment.
How can anyone not care about this issue? Care isn’t an abstract thing that’s a million miles away, it’s all around us and can touch the life of anyone. I’m often asked if I think the Government will see this through and I confidently say yes, because I believe it. We have been maintaining this broken old care system for over 150 years and it’s time we gave these children what they need
I told Lorraine, my children’s rights worker, a long time ago when I was in care, that I wanted to change the system and she told me it was too big to change. I phoned Lorraine after the SNP conference and told her we’ve got our revolution.
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