Nicola Sturgeon recently announced that Fiona Duncan, chief executive of Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland, has been appointed as chair to the independent Care Review in Scotland.
The statistics in relation to young people who have been in care in Scotland are extremely concerning.
While announcing the review, Sturgeon noted that only four per cent will go to university, nearly half will suffer mental health issues and almost one-third will become homeless. The most shocking fact was that a young person who has been in care is more likely to be dead by 21.
It is encouraging to note that this review will be ‘root and branch.’ The very culture of how we view care-experienced young people as a society must be considered. The public today have a fuller understanding of the reasons why young people require residential care than they have ever had previously.
This being said, there remains a prevailing view that young people who are accommodated are ‘bad kids’ and this was due to their behaviour in society, lack of educational attendance or propensity for substance misuse. While these are often some of the unmistakable issues we support young people with, there is often a lack of understanding as to why these issues are prevalent in the first place.
Scotland does not publish data on specific reasons why children have become looked after. Undoubtedly, in every case children will have been through a traumatic, arduous life experience. These can result in many enduring obstacles in their lives which they will require support to overcome.
As a provider of residential services for young people, we know only too well the challenges that await from the first day a child arrives on the doorstep of one of our residential houses. We take great care to always be mindful of the journey they have already travelled in their lives.
We know that Attachment Theory states that a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is critical to personal development. The care that we are provided with from birth is crucial and can determine our temperament and our ability to form and maintain social relationships. It would then make logical sense to believe that the potentially transient nature of residential care immediately throws up obstacles that could hinder the long-term progress of a young person in care.
We are expecting a young person with potentially poor attachment, in addition to what could be countless other difficulties, to then invest and trust in adults who are not their family and who are paid to care for them.
In our experience, this is often how a young person’s placement will begin. So, from day one those working in residential care have some pretty big hurdles to overcome. In light of this, it would be fair to ask how residential child care could ever work. Contrary to the statistics outlined previously, our experience at Spark of Genius tells us that often it does work.
The hurdles are not insurmountable and, while there are always challenges and setbacks along the way, many young people enjoy long term, stable placements in residential houses. They maintain excellent attendance at school, interests in the community and real aspirations for their future.
Our in-house training focuses on staff honing the skills which will allow them to safely build strong, supportive, nurturing relationships with the young people they work with. We utilise each young person’s individual strengths (so many of the young people we see are determined, independent and often extremely resilient) in order to help them in areas of their lives where they require more support.
We know that to make it work we need the young person to feel that they can invest both in their placement and in the adults who care for them. Fundamentally, the young person must feel that we are investing in them and needs to feel that we care.
While any remnants of institutional type care that remain in care services must be replaced with real nurture, the review will hopefully also give greater consideration to everything that has happened for each young person that has led to them arriving on the doorstep of the residential house in the first place.
Perhaps we must first consider our own beliefs and values before asking ourselves what we as a society could do differently, and use this as a foundation for positive change.
Ray Brown is residential manager at Spark of Genius and a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition.