I know myself better than anyone. Or so I think. People are complicated. Life is complicated. Rather than being a level playing field, life offers up an uneven, inconsistent landscape. Uphill one moment, with a great view. Then stumbling downhill in the dark, wondering which way to go.
Adults who should have been there for me when I was in care were conspicuous by their absence. Authority figures came and went, which in some ways is worse. I had eleven social workers and each one solemnly promised to be my last. A promise made purely to reassure a lonely child; a promise to build trust and hope, which made every grown-up’s sudden departure so much harder to take.
The adult me knows that such people come and go. They do their best in difficult circumstances. But consistency costs. Money has to be provided to fund essential care services so children and young adults have the best start in life, the best representation.
It’s that word again.
For representation to mean something it must involve dealing with people as individuals, not stereotypes. It links to how care leavers are viewed in society. A childhood spent in the care system doesn’t - despite what newspapers might say - automatically drop us into ‘victim’, ‘fighter’ or ‘survivor’ mode. Many of us have shown great resilience (another much used word), adapting to change as a necessary part of survival. But what if a child is not resilient? It doesn’t make that person frail or not tough enough. It just means that the system has not worked hard enough or flexibly enough to support and nurture an individual through their formative years.
I spent my teenage years shuttling between children’s home and a boarding school that was more Lord of the Flies than Harry Potter. Burnt with candles, made to swing from hot pipes high off the ground, hit with slippers. Who would do that to a child screaming inside, trying to find a voice?
Institutions never managed to crush my spirit. I fought back when I could, tried to be calm, kind and a friend to others. But the labelling stuck. Teachers labelled me ‘low ability’, rather than seeing the truth; that numerous distractions were swirling through my childhood years. I remember vowing to show them what I could do. I soon learned one important thing. To ignore the voice in my head that said I wasn’t good enough. At university, I met lifelong friends. Supportive and there for me. I tried to pay on the kindness in the way I communicated with others. It was why I became a primary teacher. To show that children from a care background can be nurturing, thoughtful and a positive influence.
Representation is often done on behalf of someone, though it can also be an act of re presentation. Taking on a new form, a different path, a fresh outlook. I wanted to be a representative. An ambassador for myself. To prove that life doesn’t stop when you leave care. It’s the beginning of a personal journey of moving beyond impersonable labels; Children in Care, Care Experienced, Looked After Children, Service Users.
Some adults are advocates and represent children in care at decision making meetings with the Local Authority or school. They seek to uphold a child or young person’s legal rights and ensure they are fairly treated. Empathy is important, necessary even, to do their role. It is especially significant when it comes to politics where our political representatives represent people from all walks of life. Members of Parliament make the laws that I live by even though, for many, their lived experiences are vastly different to mine. Life is not a level playing field, remember.
The current Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, recently announced that a ban on placing vulnerable children under the age of 16 in unregulated accommodation would come into force in September 2021. He said, ‘Vulnerable children under 16 are too young for the type of accommodation that provides a place to stay but not the care and support that they need.’
Why stop at 15? Where does this law leave slightly older vulnerable young people - children(!) - who are just 16 and 17 years old? Unfortunately, it leaves them in unregulated accommodation, at great risk from the likes of unscrupulous landlords, traffickers and drug gangs.
The right representation is important. We all need angels, champions and allies in our lives. Non-judgemental, genuinely caring role models who channel positive perspectives and can help change the course of a young person’s life.
So the full story can be told…
Alan Dapré March 2021
Alan Dapré is the author of more than fifty books for children. He has also written over one hundred television scripts, transmitted in the UK and around the world. His plays have been on BBC Radio 4 and published for use in schools worldwide. During a turbulent childhood in children's homes, Alan took comfort from stories. "I see books as awesome black holes with infinite possibilities that suck you in and transport you to new worlds. I love their universal appeal."
Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanDapre