The tragic case of Amber Gibson is an indictment of Scotland’s failing care system
Amber Gibson loved art and singing, and her friends said she had an amazing outlook on life. She ought to be out having fun with them, making TikToks and worrying about exam results like most sixteen-year-olds.
But Amber Gibson is dead, murdered by her older brother, Connor, who was living in a homeless hostel at the time. Five months earlier while in the care of social services, Amber had been raped by a 20-year-old man who was on bail at the time for another sex attack. Her brother Connor sexually assaulted her with the intention of rape before killing her. Today, he was jailed for a minimum of 22 years.
The multiple tragedies of Amber’s rape, death, and Connor’s incarceration at the age of 19 for murder are the results of Scotland’s failing care system. In 2016, Nicola Sturgeon, then first minister of Scotland, made a heartfelt and continued commitment to transform the lives of care-experienced people. Seven years later, there has been but paltry change. Amber was 11 years old when Sturgeon pledged to “rip up the care system” if required. Connor was 13.
The problem is not the individuals who work in the care system. The care system itself actually hinders workers’ abilities to nourish and heal children. Children need meaningful relationships, but workers are bound by employment contracts, professional boundaries, and shift patterns. The system was not designed to provide love.
The devastating outcomes of growing up in care are well known by those within the system. Last September I buried my friend Tony who died at the age of 34 following a road accident. He was buried in a plot with his brother Jonny who died of an overdose aged 16 and Jonny’s girlfriend who completed suicide aged 15.
These deaths are not unfortunate coincidences. These deaths – a road accident, an overdose, a suicide – may look unrelated, but they are not, they are the three main causes of premature deaths for care-experienced people.
Tony, Jonny and his girlfriend, were all care-experienced. We know that care-experienced people are more likely to die prematurely than the general population, but we still have no reliable data on how many times more likely. The care system is failing, and government has failed to change it despite the warm words and the promises.
These are children whose parent is, by proxy, the State. But that State does not collect comprehensive data on the outcomes for its children, or even know how many of them are dying. It is unimaginable that a parent would not know if their child had died. Consider the public awareness and discourse around drugs deaths in Scotland. If we collected the comparable data for care-experienced people, perhaps the calls for actual reform would be heard.
Care was a priority for Sturgeon’s government, up there alongside climate change and independence. The Scottish Care Review, set up by Sturgeon, published The Promise. It was meant to be the radical blueprint for transforming care through consulting those with lived experience of care. It is protected from scrutiny precisely because of this. It is marketed as a vision for change, but it was compromised by the design. It claimed to be independent but included much of the system, which for generations has oppressed care-experienced people. In reality its broad-based vision lacked tangible actions or a budget. It is essentially a paper tiger.
Prevarication around reform comes at a continual financial and human cost. Care is a billion-plus pounds a year industry. A conservative estimate for the cost of Amber and Connor’s life in care puts the bill at £1 million. For this we should expect the system to provide a childhood of which we’d all be envious. Instead, Amber is dead and Connor faces a life-altering incarceration, costing a further £40,000 a year for the length of a life sentence.
The “rip up the system” approach that Sturgeon promised has not been delivered. The reforms we have seen since 2016 are measures to mitigate the difficulties of being care-experienced, but they do not improve the conditions for children in the care system.
Examples of these are that care-experienced people are entitled to more childcare, they receive council tax exemptions, and they have better access to higher education. These initiatives do not treat the causal problem: the care system. Until we do, care-experienced people will continue to be overrepresented in a host of social issues including rough sleeping homelessness, mental health illnesses, youth incarcerations, drug deaths and premature deaths.
Dame Ruth Silver’s Widening Access Commission to Further and Higher Education (2015) demonstrates progress that could be built on in Scotland. She recommended that we must level the playing field so more care-experienced people attend college and university. The first minister agreed, implementing policies with attached finances making care-experienced people eligible for full bursaries.
The senior teams in education were determined to make this policy work so made further supportive changes within their institutions. The impact was transformative: within four years there was a 400 per cent increase in care-experienced students attending college and 200 per cent increase in those attending university. Working in harmony, policy, funding and attitude, create transformative practice. This needs repeating across the care system.
The aspirations of care-experienced people like Amber and Tony are basic human rights. They wanted to live ordinary lives. They wanted an education, a job. They wanted health, home, and a family of their own. We know that the current care system is not delivering that for far too many care-experienced people.
Until there are meaningful efforts to change, the guilt for the tragic waste of so many human lives should not just fall on the shoulders of people like Connor. With Sturgeon gone there is a risk that the spotlight will fade from care reform, but this does not absolve the government of its responsibility, it remains complicit.
The human cost of a failing care system remains our shameful public health emergency.
Duncan Dunlop is an expert in care reform and former chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland