Deaths of young people who have been in care should be a focus of our outrage
Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes - Image credit: Holyrood
When I was heavily pregnant and researching a documentary for the BBC on young people and mental health, I met a young woman, a girl really – she was 17 – who had spent much of her life in care and was now being treated for severe anorexia in the adult ward of a psychiatric unit in West Lothian.
She was called Karen and was being pumped with anti-depressants and for any information that could unlock the reasons for the eating disorder that was killing her.
Karen had been sexually abused for years and if any of the numerous, but busy, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers or psychiatrists had taken more time to probe, her relationship with food was fairly simple.
Her father would make her perform oral sex on him and afterwards he would ‘reward’ her with a meal of her choosing.
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It’s not rocket science, but her case seemed to defeat the professionals because she chose not to tell them that key piece of her troubled jigsaw.
Karen’s motivation in then telling me the details of her abuse was manifold, but the fact that she also swore me to secrecy was perhaps part of a ‘will-she-won’t-she’ duplicity that gave her a little bit of power over a life that just seemed to be an out-of-control tussle between adults within a care system who seemed unable to recognise that the one thing she needed was love.
I was told by my employer that I was getting too close to Karen, and even my mother, ironically, a child protection social worker, expressed concern that I was becoming too emotionally attached and that I would soon have a new baby to focus on.
Life moved on, I transferred to London, had my baby and didn’t hear from Karen for some months until I got a letter from her telling me she had been discharged from hospital and had gone home to look after her father who had been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Even as I read the words, she acknowledged that she knew how I would feel.
She said in her note that I would find it hard to understand how she could return home to care for the man that had so brutally abused her. But, she said, she loved him and besides, there was no one else.
After years in care, having had numerous professionals charged with her wellbeing, Karen was ultimately alone.
And when a week ago, the First Minister announced that Fiona Duncan, herself a care-experienced woman, would chair a much-awaited review of the care system, I thought of Karen.
Karen, literally, wore the battle scars of a care system that had failed her. Her emaciated body was ruined by years of starvation prompted by the sexual abuse.
Her teeth were decayed for lack of anyone concerned enough to tell her to brush them. Her arms and legs were a criss-cross of angry weals and aged scars caused by savage self-harm.
Her bones were crumbling as a result of years of anorexia and her mind was dulled by any chemical cosh, either prescribed or otherwise, that helped keep some of her demons at bay.
All Karen wanted was love and she found herself in a care system that simply isn’t designed to give it.
The First Minister chose National Care Day to introduce Fiona Duncan as chair of her care review. It was a day designed to be a celebration but it was also the day that, unknown to the First Minister, a number of care-experienced young people chose, at 9am, to close their eyes and to privately and silently remember their siblings, friends and the others who had shared their care journey and who had died.
Attempts to make that more of a public mourning were put to one side in case it took some gloss off the day.
But it’s shocking that a young person who has been in care is 20 times more likely to be dead by the age of 25 than their peers and it should be writ large that we care so little as a society about the young people we take into our care that we don’t even have an accurate roll-call of who the dead are or how many there really are.
But care-experienced people will rhyme off the names of their peers who are now dead often through drink, drugs, suicide or murder.
Earlier this month, 13-year-old diabetic Blake Ross, who went missing from a so-called ‘care home’ without his medication, died after falling ill on a bus.
And since Christmas at least five others who had been ‘looked after’ have passed away. Most of them have no real family to mourn their death and there are few gravestones erected in their memory.
Death is the ultimate destination, but when it is happening prematurely for people who have been in our care, it should be a focus of outrage, not something that is an inconvenience on a day of celebration.
And I, for one, would like to see as a first act of Fiona Duncan’s commitment to acknowledging the value of young people in care, a push for a permanent memorial to all those like Karen who simply disappeared off the radar, who we should have cared for better.