How not to care
Twenty-five years ago, as a presenter on a television programme that campaigned on social justice issues, I interviewed a young family that offered a depressing insight into how broken the care system was then.
Two young parents, so inadequately equipped to look after themselves, never mind their baby, who had a shared past of abuse and institutional care and who found solace in each other but were only storing up the harm.
Both were damaged by a care system that had meant to protect and both bore the very real scars of that process.
I met them living in a damp flat in one of Edinburgh’s most disadvantaged housing schemes. Their baby wasn’t yet one and their vulnerability meant offers of help from a convicted paedophile who lived next door were willingly accepted with a naivety that belied the hardships they had already lived through.
Dirty nappies filled a spare bedroom and teddy bears and dolls eerily hung from the ceiling in the living room, placed there by a well-meaning but utterly clueless young mum who thought her baby liked looking at them as she lay confined in a baby seat for most of the day.
The consequences of an act born from a mother’s kindness were tragic. Her baby’s growth was stunted, and the back of her head flattened by the lack of physical activity and a constant craning to look upwards at toys.
These two child-like adults, struggling to cope in a world that the care system had spat them out into, were thoroughly unprepared to deal with the everyday practicalities, never mind the complexities of emotions required to cope with a fairly brutal grown-up existence.
And amid the chaos and the depressing predictability of where the cycle of life was leading them and their little girl to, were at least half a dozen professionals all bringing in their valuable but disconnected expertise.
If ever there was a tick-box exercise in how not to deliver care, then this was it. And it was not only failing fast but leaching into the next generation.
When even the fundamental teachings of how to run a home were absent, when dirty nappies were piled up in a spare room instead of being put in a bin, when a baby was being left to grow with no stimulation other than from toys hanging from string, and with the clear and present risk of who lived next door going unchecked, who in their right-mind thought it was a high-priority for a support worker to teach that ever important life-skill of how to make a trifle?
But that was the absurdity of what I saw. Why when there was a baby to stimulate, filth to be scrubbed away, stench to be sanitised and neighbours to be reported to the police, was a concoction of custard, tinned fruit and dream topping, so bloody vital to their care plan?
I’ve often thought about that family and where they will be now. And the answer that comes back is always the same, because in terms of ‘care’, history so often repeats itself.
I feel like I have been writing about the poor outcomes for care-experienced young people for more than 30 years, certainly since we used to simply call them kids who have been in care.
The suicide of 16-year-old William Lindsay, 48 hours after he had been placed on remand in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution in Falkirk last month, has understandably sparked outrage.
But William’s death wasn’t unique and it wasn’t caused by Polmont. You don’t need to wait for the FAI to know that William’s suicide was long in the making. From even before he took his first breath and from when the authorities became aware of the risks that befell him simply because of the family he was born into, he was in danger.
At one month old, he was on the child protection register. And from there on in, the spiralling out of control which eventually led to his incarceration and suicide can be traced back through his various placements with other family members, foster parents, children’s homes and secure units.
That’s not a care plan, it’s a suicide note.
This is a boy who, at the age of nine or ten, and living in a residential school, would revert to childhood behaviour, singing nursery rhymes and stroking his own hair until he fell asleep. That breaks my heart but all too often young people with difficult pasts regress to a time when they felt secure. And then, they are told to grow up.
But here’s a thing, how many times do we have to rehearse the statistics? How many more care-experienced people need to tell their stories when the theme is always the same? How many need to die?
They needed love, they didn’t get it, and at every turn they were let down.
Being taken into care has one meaningful purpose – to make a life better, not worse.
William Lindsay’s death has shone a welcome spotlight on the failings. But in the same week that William killed himself, there will have been other deaths of people with care experience and there will be no record, because in the end, we care so little about them, that we don’t even know who they are.
Drugs overdose, suicide, murder, misadventure. There is no official roll-call of the dead but care-experienced people themselves, they know. Brothers, sisters, friends, who have died are all too commonplace among the care-experienced community, so premature death is just another miserable fact of their life.
And there is some kind of weird disconnect in the fact that as care-experienced people, daily, fall off the cliff, we have running concurrently, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, the National Confidential Forum and the Independent Care Review, all examining the harm that we know is done to children that are taken into care in a country as small as Scotland.
Come on, we already know the problem, it’s all around us, so let’s step up a gear because now is the time to rip up a care system that has been broken for a very long time and that has spawned an epidemic of people who can see death as preferable to life.
This is a national emergency. These are our children and I, for one, don’t want any more delay or their blood on my hands.