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Hearing the cries of our children

This opinion piece is over 10 years old
Who Cares? Scotland
Duncan Dunlop
Duncan Dunlop

IN October 2012 a group of young people with experience of care wrote to the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee, with the support of Who Cares? Scotland, asking to give direct evidence to an inquiry into the poor educational outcomes of children and young people in care. This moment was significant as it marked the arrival of the voice of our most vulnerable young people in the debate about what legislation would improve their lives.

In just over a year their voice has grown in stature to spearhead a campaign which last week helped get amendments to the children and young people bill passed by the education and culture committee. The changes give Scotland the potential to deliver world-leading care. They give looked after young people the right to stay in foster, kinship or residential care or return to care until they are 21. It also extends by 40% the population who can access after-care support up to 26. The duty to report premature deaths of care leavers has also been passed.

The potential ramifications of this as globally cutting-edge legislation cannot be underplayed. Children who enter care are physiologically the same as those who don’t enter care. It’s not predetermined that they are more likely to be in the justice system than the university system as young adults; to become addicted to drugs or alcohol; to be homeless; to develop physical, sexual and mental health conditions, or to have a significantly higher chance of being dead by the age of 25. It is what they experience during their childhoods that contribute to these indicators of inhibited life chances. Our care system needs to fight harder and longer, for and with our children in care, so that they can experience stable loving relationships for as long as it takes. They should enjoy the same security as most of us take for granted from our own families. The changes to this bill have created an opportunity for us to tackle these inequalities by expanding the boundaries of care in practical and emotional terms.

A practical example of the impact of this amendment is that it has legislatively eradicated homelessness for young people in care and care leavers. People who have experienced care are only 1.48% of our total population, but over the last five years they have made up between 20 to 30% of our young homeless population. Until now the exit from care has formally been a trap door that slams shut behind them rather than a revolving door that allows them to re-enter care. Now, beyond being able to choose to stay in care, young people have the right to access suitable accommodation until they are 26. This replaces them being forced to present as homeless and live in unsavoury B&B accommodation or homeless hostels. One young man who lobbied for changes to this bill had left care at 16 and been homeless for four years. He relied on homeless hostels, sofa surfing and his wits to survive. Although he wanted to leave care at 16, he reflected that under the continuing care provisions of this bill he’d have returned to care. Alternatively as a care leaver he would have at least been given access to appropriate accommodation, under the bolstered corporate parent duties of this bill.

In stark terms two young men with care experience who lobbied for these changes noted that between them, three of their siblings would probably still be alive if this amendment had been in place earlier.
This campaign was not driven by articulate care experienced voices alone. There were many other key players involved. Among them were civil servants, lawyers and third sector partners; in particular Aberlour and Barnardo’s Scotland. The lobbying process marked the third sector at its best; being innovative and working together to develop and affect real change.

During the campaign one care leaver remarked on the number of care related documents that had been ineffective. She said: “Since Devolution there has been more than one piece of policy or guidance each year and none have had any significant impact – we see them as the government’s annual apology.”

The same care leaver was reduced to tears when she learnt of the changes she had helped to achieve.

Despite being a time of austerity, £5m extra a year has been earmarked to pay for the changes. The high number of care leavers achieving poor social wellbeing indicators means this investment will not only benefit individual’s lives but will create savings to the public purse by acting as preventative spend. The impact will need to be carefully monitored as it is estimated that when this bill is fully implemented in 10 to 12 years that up to an additional £20m a year could be required to pay for it. We are confident that the sums will easily add up, as there will be tangible differences made to the life chances of Scotland’s most vulnerable young people, and a transformation in the social and economic landscape of our communities. A bill will be passed which is coherent, ambitious and workable with a vision that surpasses its English equivalent by many policy miles.
This bill is not a silver bullet, there are associated policies, cultures, attitudes and behaviours that need to change from early years right through to adult services for it to have maximum impact. But to get this far 129 politicians listened and acted; journalists up and down the country took the time to understand and portray the issue sensitively. The mantle is now passed to professionals and ordinary Scots.

Our government has delivered us a legislative vision for caring and loving our looked after population for as long as it takes. For it to become reality, professionals need to innovate and place children’s voices and their relationships with carers at the forefront of planning. But care does not and cannot happen in isolation; households around the country need to open their doors and hearts to care and love for these children too. Then, truly we will live in the best place to grow up.

The first step for all Scots is to listen. Only by listening to those young people have the MSPs been able to act. Let’s replicate this across communities up and down the country. It’s the ordinary Scot, in ordinary communities that can help make this real now for those in and leaving care at that crucial point in their young adulthood. Let’s all commit to listening – then let’s act as individuals, a collective and a society as a whole.

Who Cares? Scotland is the charity in Scotland with the sole remit of speaking up and speaking out for children and young people with care experience.

@WhoCaresScot | @duncdunlop