by David Jones
As we were walking back from the local shops, having stocked up with items for the pantry of the residential home I was working in, Brian, a young person living in the home, suddenly pointed out a friend across the road.
Having not seen his friend Steve in the two years he’d been in care, Brian said he’d like to introduce me to him and have a chat.
Brief formalities concluded, the two were clearly pleased to see each other, and during the course of their conversation Steve commented that he’d never seen Brian so smartly dressed. They both laughed, but when Brian showed him his mobile phone and then told him how much his trainers had cost, Steve’s reaction got me thinking about a sentiment often expressed by staff in the home, particularly when a young person is about to leave care and start living independently – we’re setting them up to fail.
‘Your phone’s better than mine’
“Being in a kids’ home seems ok to me Brian,” Steve said. “I had no idea they got you stuff like that. Your phone’s better than mine, good on you mate!”
“We’re setting them up to fail” is the common refrain and some children in care do quickly become accustomed to initially novel comforts; weekly pocket money, incentive money earned for certain tasks undertaken (keeping their bedroom tidy, washing their dinner plate) and a generous clothes budget.
Of course young people in care are rightly entitled to these things, but for those who leave the home with few or no prospects in terms of education, training or employment, the reality of the outside world proves a stark contrast.
Existing on meagre benefits, they find that shopping trips and days out are suddenly a thing of the past.
I’ve also noticed that some kids in care develop a sense of entitlement, whether it be demanding more new clothes or criticising ‘basic’ meals such as beans on toast. Accordingly, what impact does this have on their expectations and morale when they have to fend for themselves?
Sense of entitlement
I’ve met young people who since leaving the home tell me their lives feel even harder and more deprived as a consequence. They might not have had much before they came into care, but now they feel they have even less.
This is a difficult issue, as many professionals who work with children concede. We give all the emotional support we can, but we do need to prepare the more vulnerable and challenging kids more realistically for life outside the home. Yet we are guilty at times of fostering this sense of entitlement that doesn’t reflect the experience of the outside world.
Encouraging more use of public transport instead of giving in to demands to be driven somewhere by staff is not petty or vindictive, but an important lesson to learn. If we were to provide for these children in less lavish, over-accommodating ways, surely we would be preparing them more constructively for when they leave our care?
It might sound counter-intuitive or even harsh, but just because a child is in care doesn’t mean they can’t be advised to catch a bus into town. I will tell a youngster that when I was a kid my parents didn’t own a car and I’ve found that young people can respond to this and leave the home with a stronger sense of purpose.
I’ve known kids who have turned down foster placements because they didn’t like the ‘house rules’, the size of their new bedroom or the reduction in pocket money. Birth parents I’ve spoken to also express surprise when I tell them how much money is spent on children in care.
It can’t be right that staff who can’t be bothered to cook will order takeaway food. Many parents I know certainly don’t buy their children the latest technology – be it mobile phones, Xboxes, computers etc – and will buy less up-to-date or even second-hand items. Unfortunately, life in care doesn’t reflect this reality.
Staff do try to address this, however, and will tell young people that their own children don’t enjoy the latest technology or £150 trainers. And after-care advisers do try to explain this to young people before they leave the home and will help them to budget when they are living independently.
This support generally lasts for between a month and two months and personal advisers do their best in this respect. But as intensive as this help is over that time period, some kids will always struggle to make what is a massive adjustment.
No longer there
One experience in particular brought home to me exactly what some staff mean when they say we’re setting kids up to fail.
Angela was a bright 15-year-old who had left the home four months previously and was enjoying a cookery course at college. One day she suddenly turned up at the home and, after we’d enjoyed a catch-up, she told me she needed a new winter coat. I asked her if she’d seen anything she liked and she said she had but couldn’t afford it. She then added that she’d be asking my manager for the money. I gently explained to Angela that since she was no longer in our care it wasn’t our responsibility to provide her with any financial help.
“So you bought me things when I lived here but you won’t now?” she snapped at me. She couldn’t rationalise that after such a short time we were no longer there for her. I couldn’t help but think that she had a point.
David Jones works in a residential children’s home. His name has been changed.