Learning to care
The Children and Young People Act will literally save lives, Duncan Dunlop, chief executive, Who Cares? Scotland states with confidence.
There are currently about 16,000 children and young people in care in Scotland. Thanks to the Act, passed earlier this year, 40 per cent more people will be able to be classified as a care leaver and, therefore, able to access services for care leavers.
Dunlop explains the significance:
“We have a number of young people working with us who have lost siblings who were in the care system with them because they left care under-equipped at the age of 16 and the trap door shut behind them.”
To illustrate, he shares the example of Who Cares? Scotland member, Kevin, who lost two brothers after they left care – one completed suicide and another took a drug overdose. And Tony, whose brother left care at 16 and within a matter of weeks had asked social work to take him back only to be told that wasn’t possible. He was dead a month later.
As part of the Act, the premature death rate of care leavers up to the age of 25 will now be monitored. It also introduced a corporate parenting duty, which Dunlop says will “push the issue onto the consciousness of key corporate parents like the police and education.”
However, it is the continuing care measures that he believes are truly “groundbreaking”.
“I think what also is really impressive about that is that wasn’t in the original bill – the corporate parenting duties were in there but the continuing care bit wasn’t – but the way that politicians listened enabled it to be a dynamic bill during its evolutionary process.”
During this process young people “found their voice and felt able to own their care identity”, he adds.
“And what that did was give a huge boost to the self-esteem and self-confidence of the individuals. They felt they were actually worthy as someone that needs to be taken seriously.”
However, another matter that must be taken seriously is the outcomes for those who have been in care.
Duncan reels off the stark statistics:
“We have still got 20-30 per cent of your adult homeless population were in care. Fifty per cent of your adult prison population were in care. Eighty per cent of your young offenders, 50 per cent leave with mental health problems that need significant interventions. You’ve got one in two girls leaving residential care who will have a baby within a year, and half of those will go into care within a year. As well as the emotional trauma of it, these are huge costs to our society.”
“Statistics are the last thing these kids should be,” Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour MSP and a substitute member of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee that considered the legislation, wrote recently in her Daily Record newspaper column.
“These are our kids. The state is the parent now and we pay the bills. Not just the cost of the roof over their heads and the food in their bellies. But of their failures, or more specifically, life failing them.”
Dunlop welcomes the cross-party support these measures secured.
“There wasn’t necessarily a lot of votes in this but politicians did this because they believed us that it was the right thing to do. Two MSPs came up to me afterwards and said this was legislation that they knew would make a real difference, because it wasn’t following a party political policy. They really understood that this would make a tangible difference to people’s lives.”
But there is more to be done. While Dunlop says it is not for Who Cares? Scotland to take a position on whether more children and young people should be in care or not, he says that those who are must have permanence: “And that means we may need a hell of a lot more foster families or support for kinship carers so that those placements aren’t under threat.”
Anne Swartz, chair, Scottish Kinship Care Alliance, agrees the permanence agenda requires further consideration and action.
“The Scottish Government’s original rationale for the Kinship Care Order was to increase permanence in kinship placements and reduce the number of children becoming ‘at risk’ or ‘looked after’ when placed with a family member, by giving additional support. This is a noble aim, but sadly not one which will be achieved by the proposed measures in the Act,” says Swartz.
“In fact, the lack of financial backing for the Kinship Care Order, the stringent eligibility criteria and means testing for support, and the shifting of kinship families away from the well-resourced, looked-after status may actually lead to a reduction in support for these vulnerable families,” she warns.
Long-term, stable loving relationships change a child and matures them into a young adult, continues Dunlop. But at present the system is full of transition.
“We have a girl who works for us who went through 56 placements. She is 19. She freely admits, and it is quite common, that after a number of placements she would then take control. And the only way she could take control was to end the placement. So she needed it to end because that was her normality. But it wasn’t healthy and it wasn’t going to be functional and set her up for a good way of life.”
Throughout the scrutiny process examples such as this, shared directly by care experienced young people, had a “phenomenally powerful” effect, he says.
The resultant Act will play an important role in addressing some of the issues they highlighted. However, for Dunlop, it is the culture shift that will, hopefully, come with it that will be really key.
“There is a far bigger longer journey that we have to do but this Act has kick-started a process whereby the care identity exists and matters. We should embrace it and not reject it.”