This is yet one more example of the way that children’s needs are ignored, dismissed and devalued including, and especially, by those who claim to have their best interests at heart. Not being told the reasons for separation can greatly add to a child’s trauma, as this article describes. But it’s not as if a social worker’s explanation of why a child is in care can always be trusted! Children’s wishes must be listened to and the family courts need to be open so that decisions about which children are taken into care can be publicly scrutinised.
Kerrie Portman, The Guardian, Mon 20 Jan 2020
How can you adjust to a new situation, feel safe and settled, when you don’t know how you got there?
When I was taken into care at 15, I was moved 80 miles from home. My relationship with my mum had broken down and I felt isolated and frightened. I barely knew my social worker and didn’t know any of the staff or other young people in the care home. I didn’t know why I was there. I felt I simply had to accept everything these strangers were doing.
My experience will resonate with many young people taken into care; they may feel terrified and struggle to adjust to a new place, sometimes far away from where they have grown up, while strangers take control of the key decisions in their lives. They may not understand the jargon that gets bandied around.
Research of children in care and care leavers by Coram Voice and University of Oxford’s Bright Spots programme found that half of those aged four to seven, a third of those aged eight to 11 and around one in five of secondary school age felt they were not given a clear explanation of why they were in care. Similarly, a quarter of care leavers felt the reason for their being in care had not been fully explained or wanted to know more. Given that supporting young people to understand who they are and where they come from is recognised as good social work practice, these statistics are worrying.
In adoption, it is mandatory for all children to be given a life story book that explains why they had to be removed from their birth family. For children in foster care, though, there is no such requirement.
While adopted children have the security of a permanent home, children living in more temporary, often less homely, care placements are more susceptible to feeling unloved. Without an explanation of why they were taken into care, children can blame themselves and feel unworthy of love.
The lack of clarity leaves many young people with lost pasts, struggling to form a stable identity. As a result, they can be vulnerable to further abuse and have difficulty developing emotionally and socially. How can you begin to adjust to a new situation, to feel safe and settled, when you don’t even know how you got there?
When young people in care turn 18, they stop working with their childhood social worker and are assigned a leaving care personal adviser (PA). But if they have not received a proper explanation of why they were taken into care before this transition takes place then something important is lost. Social workers keep notes that can be explained by a PA but it’s not the same as having the person who made those decisions explain them.
Another worrying aspect is that many care leavers are not told they have the right to understand why they are in care. This can mean young people find themselves with dozens of questions long after they’ve stopped working with their childhood social workers or after they’ve stopped using leaving care services. In some cases, not everything gets written down, elements can be recorded inaccurately and large portions of records may be redacted. Sometimes care leavers aren’t told they have that right to access these records, or that the records were even kept about them.
Unfortunately, my social worker never explained why I was taken into care and the idea that I was to blame tore me apart, solidifying in my mind that there was something deeply wrong with me. Even now, six years on, I still don’t fully understand. When I left care, I was referred to an advocate and for the first time, I learned about care records and case notes. I requested mine but unfortunately they offered no explanation. The only person who knows why I was taken into care is the social worker who made that decision.
I feel sad that I will probably never fully understand why I was taken into care. Although I now know it wasn’t my fault, I have a sense of underlying worry and confusion. Working with my care coordinator has given me a supportive space to talk through my feelings and that has been invaluable.
Local authorities can play a vital role in helping children and young people gain this understanding, both in terms of the sequence of events that led them to being in care and the emotional understanding that it’s not their fault. If all social workers took time to ensure that young people understood what had happened to them and why, it would give those young people a better chance of reaching their full potential, which should be the goal for every care experienced person.