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by Paris Gourtsoyannis
05 March 2014
Doing it for themselves

Doing it for themselves

Alex Salmond and his wife Moira have no children, so imagine his surprise when Ashley Cameron stopped him as he made his way through Holyrood on the day that the Scottish Parliament voted on the Children and Young People Bill. “‘You’re my dad’, I told him,” says the care-leaver and Who Cares? Scotland campaigner. “You’ve got thousands of children.”

He may finally be able to discharge that responsibility towards Scotland’s 16,000 looked-after children, after MSPs voted overwhelmingly to pass the legislation later that night. Up until now, the Scottish Government’s record as a corporate parent hasn’t been something to be proud of.. “We discriminate against these kids every day,” says Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of care leavers’ charity Who Cares? Scotland. “As soon as they’re out of nappies and into a primary school class, we don’t want them.”

Thanks to a campaign led by Who Cares? Scotland, backed by the likes of Aberlour and Children in Scotland, that may finally begin to change. From 2015, rather than being forced to fend for themselves at 18, looked-after children and young people will be able to stay in care until 21 and will be entitled to after-care services until they are 26. Those that leave care early will be entitled to return if they find they need additional support.

That section of the legislation hasn’t received as much public attention as the extension of subsidised childcare, or the national rollout of the controversial ‘named person’ provisions. For those directly affected, however, the changes to care are the most transformational.

“It will save lives. It will,” says Cameron. Fellow care-leaver David Miller agrees. “Too many kids have been homeless. Too many kids have been in prison, or been left to starve. They didn’t know they could ask for help,” he says. “This will stop kids from feeling the need to kill themselves, go homeless, go to drugs, go to jail to have somewhere to stay.”

The most remarkable thing, however, aren’t the changes themselves but the way that people like Cameron and Miller – and a host of others from within one of Scotland’s most marginalised groups of people – managed to get a major piece of legislation amended. Dunlop insists he wasn’t the key force behind the campaign. Instead, it was by empowering care leavers themselves to wield their most powerful weapons – their own stories – that Who Cares? Scotland made change happen.

The journey began with a letter from care leavers to the members of the Education and Culture Committee in late 2012, inviting MSPs to take evidence from them as part an inquiry into decision making around taking children into care To begin with, the parliamentary authorities were wary of having care leavers contribute in such a direct way to the process.

“I remember being rung up by one of the MSPs on the committee, saying, ‘we’re debating about the involvement of the young people, because they have such powerful evidence, but anything they say has to go on the parliamentary record – is that safe?’” recalls Dunlop. His response was clear: “The young people have told you their story. In terms of protecting their identities, we will do that – but they did that so you would make something change.”

After an initial meeting with five MSPs at Who Cares? Scotland’s offices care leavers gave evidence in formal sessions at parliament – albeit behind closed doors. By the end of the inquiry process, two care leavers were asked by MSPs to lead a group discussion at parliament attended by 60 leading figures in the children’s sector. “So in six months, it went from being something we ought to look at, to saying that they have an extremely important part to play,” says Dunlop

“I think there’s a general trend within organisations that work with vulnerable young people that we try to protect them by not telling their story,” says Dunlop. “But in actual fact, they know their story – they live it every day whether they talk about it or not. We might view it as a way of protecting them, but it’s not protecting them from that story.”

Dunlop has grabbed headlines by calling the reduced life chances of care leavers a form of modern-day apartheid, and like any civil rights issue, the battle for equality begins with fostering self-awareness among the marginalised, before spreading that message to the rest of the population. Who Cares? Scotland has over a dozen care-leaver employees and many more volunteering in advocacy roles.

“I watched a 15 year old who had been in a secure unit in Moray tell his story to a group of people, and you could just see him grow. It was a huge boost to his confidence.” Talking to care leavers associated with Who Cares? Scotland for any length of time proves Dunlop’s point – despite their disadvantages, they are more articulate and engaging than your average person in their teens or twenties.

Dunlop, whose career in youth work has taken him around the globe, doesn’t think this power is restricted to young people who have experienced the care system. “I believe immensely in the power of young people, whether it’s in conflict zones in the Balkans, or dealing with poverty in Ghana, or young offenders in Lithuania, the power they have to actually make change happen is immense,” he says.

“They’re educated and savvy enough to understand what’s going on around them, but they’re not bound by the structures of our society. They don’t necessarily have jobs, they don’t have houses, they don’t have down payments on cars, they don’t necessarily have family connections – they don’t have things to lose.” The dynamism an empowered young person “on the cusp of being able to create” is what “student movements used to be about”. In an age where youth activism in the West is polarised between violent but aimless direct action and couch-bound ‘clicktivism’, that is a powerful thought.

The report on the care system that the Education and Culture Committee produced in 2013 was damning, but the key moment in the campaign came at the Association of Directors of Social Work conference that year. Two care leavers of roughly the same age got up to give a speech on love. “They had very similar beginnings and difficult family backgrounds, but one got love and care in a stable place, and one chaos – in and out of secure residential care, ended up in prison for six and half years, addictions and all the rest of it,” says Dunlop. “At that conference, we made the specific call – amend that bill, look after these children until they’re 26. Why not?

“We found a very open door from that point on, with civil servants and the minister,” says Dunlop. Throughout the process, the care-leaver campaign has had unanimous cross-party support, thanks in part to their testimony to the Education and Culture Committee. “The reason we knew there was an open door there was because that committee was going to scrutinise that bill, and they’d heard us and felt it.”

The passage of the Children and Young People Bill doesn’t bring Who Cares? Scotland’s campaign to an end. Dunlop wants to harness the momentum that the organisation’s care-leaver campaigners brought to move beyond the corridors of power and “saturate Scotland with this message”. The organisation is planning a push on care-leaver access to education, and Dunlop hopes a meeting in May will help cement Who Cares? Scotland as the ‘trade union for care leavers’.

What’s certain is that care leavers themselves will continue to lead whatever work is pursued next. “This is their unique selling point – they can hold chief executives, councillors, headteachers in the palm of their hand.”

First Ministers, too. After the Children and Young People Act became law, Salmond came up the High Street in Edinburgh to the Scottish Storytelling Centre to meet Who Cares? Scotland staff and volunteers as they celebrated their victory. In typical fashion, he was signed up as an activist for the care-leaver cause by the people who have driven the campaign forward over the past year and a half: his children.

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