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The Challenges of Leaving Care

Are care leavers resilient enough for the huge task they face? One answer is “yes”; some young people leave care and establish themselves satisfactorily in adult life and thrive in the face of life’s ups and downs.   But I imagine we all know young people who face a very different reality; who struggle to live well or cope.  Comparing most outcomes for these young people to the general population makes a gloomy picture: more likely to be in prison or hospital, to be pregnant early, to have their own children in care, to misuse substances, to be victims of crime, to be homeless.

All this is often used to show how poorly the care system does for the young people that to care well for is its sole ‘raison-d’etre’, although of course it shows no such thing.  What it does show is that children with difficult beginnings have the odds stacked against them throughout life.  To know whether the care system helps or not (I suspect that it does sometimes, and doesn’t others) you would need to compare young people in care with a similar group of young people not in care.  And that can never be done, because if you found such a group of children you would have to act, to intervene, to bring them the safeguarding and services that the care system brings their Looked After peers.

But, beyond trying to evaluate the work we do through the use of ill-matched comparison groups, I suspect none of us would deny the “life stacked against them”  xperiences of care leavers.   Now that’s a big topic, so I’m only going to look at part of it here, that part we call “resilience”.

Resilience can simply be defined as they ability to thrive in adverse circumstances – bouncebackability is a good word for it.  We often think of it as a set of personal attributes or characteristics, but Daniel and Wessel suggest that this quality is best thought of from an ecological perspective.  An ecological model of resilience says that this ability to bounce back is woven from aspects both of the person and their environment.  I like that way of thinking, and the ideas expressed here follow from it.

So, resilience is in part the individual and in part their environment.  Let’s return to care leavers.  A substantial number of young people come into care with complex, multiple and enduring needs.   These needs, which frequently include difficulties forming, sustaining and trusting close relationships, are often poorly understood and contribute to multiple placements which further disrupt the child’s over all functioning.  Many are criminalized and given up on; their pathway to adult difficulties strengthened by a system that turns its back on their needs in favour of cheaper alternatives.  50 placements by age 11 is not that uncommon, but even a smaller number is a trail of rejection and failure that is internalized by the child, who nearly always feels that a placement that has ended is their fault.  Some get more help than this, a placement is able to meet their needs, to “hold onto” them, to keep them in mind and promote a pathway to recovery, to help them develop many of the individual skills and characteristics that form part of resilience: self-mastery, self-regulation, problem-solving, self-awareness, healthy self-esteem, settled identity, talents & interests, positive values, social competence…the list goes on.  And yet, even with this remarkable list, the young person is still at risk of not being resilient enough; however many personal attributes we have, we need stuff outside us, ecological stuff, to be resilient, and here, once again, careleavers are disadvantaged.

The first ecological layer is family.  Individuals who have close and supportive ties with families, or with people to whom they belong, are more likely to thrive in adverse circumstances.  Of course this is true; supportive families and good friends help each other when they can, and they provide comfort and nurture at times of stress and distress; a safe haven to fly to when times are hard.  For many, this safe haven is established in interaction with caring caregivers in their early development, for others it is acquired through enough care later, including stability, working through relational difficulties, solving problems, being valued and belonging.  Without it where do you go when it all gets too much?   50 placements by age 18 is not so uncommon…and children that did not have this early, with complex and enduring needs, get good at keeping it away later

The outer ecological layer is community. Again this is disrupted, both by the system and by the way the child copes with their complex, multiple and enduring difficulties.  Even if they have succeeded in placement and been stable, and put down roots, they are increasingly likely to be forced back to the risky world they have temporarily escaped.   And once they are 18, the resources all but dry up.

I’ve worked with these children and young people for over twenty-five years.  I’m interested in therapeutic working, and believe I have contributed to the growth of the personal characteristics of resilience for many individuals.  I also believe that I have helped them find a safe haven in good relationships with caregivers and with friends, and I’ve worked hard to support the growth of community networks.  And I know I am not alone, staff I have worked with, and other individuals and organizations, work effectively to promote recovery from poor early beginnings, to work, as we say, therapeutically.  But society must also accept its role and recognize that the needs of individuals who have come from difficult beings are complex and enduring; it’s not their fault, they didn’t choose to be neglect or abused as a child, and if they need external support after care they should have it; it takes time to build resilience and autonomy, and prisons, hospitals and homeless hostels are full of people who were given neither the time or the support to do so.

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