Lee MacNeall is 25, a university graduate, student union president at the University of Central Lancashire, and a care leaver.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Lee says. “Everyone else who I knew, a few of them are in prison now…got involved with drugs, got involved in gangs.”
Despite the positive place Lee has gotten himself to, his journey from care to the position he is in today was difficult. Living in a mixture of residential and foster care up until he was 16, Lee returned to his family after his mum asked him back. The “really rocky” time there ended when he was kicked out.
He says social workers made the decision that he would return home and that it was difficult to make himself heard when he was a teenager: “I wanted my voice to be heard at the same time because I didn’t necessarily want to go back to the family home. I would have preferred another option.”
When his situation at home collapsed, Lee ended up living in social housing, bedsits and accommodation offered to him by the local college but it was a struggle: “There was no support in place, no help to get in education, no help to support myself financially or live day to day. There were times where I’ve rifled through bins.”
This story is not an uncommon one. Recent research from Action for Children highlighted the difficulty faced by care leavers who return to families and the likelihood of breakdowns, whilst research from the NSPCC highlighted the £300 million cost of failed reunifications.
Lee recalls feeling like a “nobody” during his time in care: “I was never going to achieve anything, I was just going to be a statistic for the rest of my life. That was my decision to change my life around.”
After leaving care and then his family home, Lee got involved with the “wrong” crowds and involved in things that a relative said could have led to him going to prison. These were experiences similar to those of other young people he was in care with, but he managed to get out.
Choosing to focus on his education, Lee spent time at college and as a voluntary youth worker before turning up to university with “11p in my pocket”. “I didn’t have a quilt, or a spoon, or anything like that,” he recalls.
He describes getting a job and working his “arse off” to get everything he needed for his education.
“I’ve struggled, but everything I had and have now is everything I’ve worked hard for,” he says. “The Christmas, Easter and summer periods were the hardest, because you have to find another bit of accommodation to stay in, you have to support yourself financially.”
Now having graduated and been elected as the president of the University of Central Lancashire’s student union, where he represents the voices of thousands of students nationally and internationally, Lee is committed to improving the experiences of other young people who find themselves in the same position as him when leaving care.
He often tells national student union conferences: “It’s all well and good that you’re shouting about people with disabilities, shouting about women in power, shouting about development and things but what about people in care? I feel underrepresented nationally.”
“The newest thing I want to try to implement is to get the university to give free accommodation to care leavers during the summer,” Lee says, also describing how he feels universities are starting to realise the needs of care leavers and offer packages for them.
What Lee wants young people in care to be offered the voice he didn’t feel he had and to be helped down different avenues.
Even now after coming so far he feels there should still be contact available for care leavers. “Just a bit of guidance and support,” he says.