By a social worker in a children in care team
For many years before I qualified as a social worker, I considered myself an ambassador for looked-after young people and care leavers. Then, as now, I always tried to ensure that children’s voices were heard and that service users were receiving good practice.
A key issue I tried to promote during my time working in children’s residential care was a ‘no bin bags’ policy for looked-after young people when they move placements. Now, in my role as a social worker I am very conscious that using bin bags when children and young people move is simply unacceptable and try to persuade colleagues to view it the same way.
Young people’s views
I have had personal experience of being moved into a new place with bin bags. When I was around 18, I was moved in an emergency after a placement breakdown. Not all of my belongings were in bin bags but some of them were and this made me feel particularly worthless at a difficult time – that my possessions meant so little to the worker who had packed them into the bags.
I have also heard many stories from young people in which their worldly belongings have been thrown carelessly into bin bags and transported to a new placement.
When I asked other care leavers about this topic, these are some of the things they said:
“I think that bin bags represent rubbish, and by foster children using them would signify that they are portrayed as rubbish too. In my own experience, I did not have a bin bag. I had a green hold-all that I had put my name on. This is because it was mine and nobody could take it away from me. I found it when I moved into my first flat and it reminded me of the amount of times that I used it to move to different homes”
‘I do think it’s disgraceful that some looked after children have to use black bin bags for their belongings… I think it really shows just how little there belongings are valued by the very people who are meant to be caring for them.’
‘Then it was the norm so didn’t think anything about it [being moved with bin bags]; looking back, I don’t think it was such a bad thing as people maybe make out – things had to be moved, what’s the point in buying lots of suitcases? Other humans move their stuff in boxes and bin bags. The sad thing about it was that over the many years of my life I could move everything I owned in two bags.’
My professional experience
I always said to myself ‘I would never move a child using bin bags’ and would not let it happen, but a few months ago in my local authority social work role, I observed that a young person was required to transfer to a new placement as an ‘emergency’, using just bin bags to contain their belongings. I had no alternative for the black bags at the time. I still feel guilty about this.
This was not my case and the social worker who was holding the case was equally upset that they were having to use bin bags. This situation in particular inspired me to carry a suitcase and holdall bags in my car to help prevent this from happening again in future. On this occasion, luckily, the young person was not old enough to realise that their belongings were in the bags. I have worked with other social workers who have had ‘no choice’ but to resort to using bin bags for an emergency move but who also felt very guilty for doing so.
For me, any time I see the use of bin bags to move a young person is one time too many. Too many young people have expressed to me that using bin bags to move their belongings and not having a choice in it is humiliating, degrading, embarrassing, upsetting and suggests that the young person’s belongings are ‘rubbish’.
How can we change this?
For the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in delivering occasional lectures to social work students. They probably aren’t expecting me to get up and talk about bin bags so it’s been a powerful ice breaker and one that I hope those student social workers remember, and then go into practice with the knowledge that moving children to new placements using bin bags is not acceptable.
What else can we as professionals do to prevent this from happening in the future? Or if not completely prevent it, at least minimise the number of young people who feel humiliated and devalued by the use of bin bags to carry their belongings?
Here is a useful, simple tip that I can recommend – although I am sure I am not the first to have thought of this:
I have a suitcase in the boot of my car. It contains a number of hard, sturdy bags that are useful to move young people’s belongings in. I can use them to undertake an emergency move and lend them to other social workers who need to do the same.
I can picture situations where there may not be enough time to go to the car to pick up the suitcase and perhaps I should see if it will fit in the office somewhere. But what I do know is that by having the suitcase available, I am taking practical steps to prevent the use of bin bags to move children and young people who do not deserve to be made to feel that their belongings are ‘worthless’ and ‘rubbish’. This is why there’s always a suitcase in my car.