Time of turbulence

support of young people should continue well past the age of 16, when children
in care are told to face the world on their own. It’s no wonder so many fall at
the first hurdle, writes Alison Taylor.

adolescence is a major achievement. The exit route from childhood, a proving
ground without parallel, is lethal with tripwires, pitfalls and bolts from the
blue. Adults turn hostile and impossible to satisfy, friends mutate into rivals
and enemies, the opposite sex become predators. There is enormous pressure to
perform – academically, socially, sexually, economically – and to conform, to
the expectations of parents, teachers, peers and society. Everyone wants
something different, shifts their goalposts on a whim, has different rules to
impose, and not least the legislators; our laws on sexual consent, drinking,
driving and voting are deeply inconsistent. As the relative certainties and
simplicities of earlier years vanish in an instant, teenagers – confused,
anxious, demoralised, damned whatever they do – seek refuge in truculence,
drink, drugs, sex, crime and suicide.

British, beguiled still by the notion that children should be seen but not
heard, are not child-friendly, but once the little pests cross the Rubicon into
adolescence, we regard them as the great enemy of society. And that hostility
persuades us to withdraw, at one fell swoop, the protection we offered to them
as children, leaving them without adult rights or status but at the mercy of
the worst the world has to offer, burdened with demands that would tax the most
capable adult. Then, when the teenager’s world goes pear-shaped, we put the
blame entirely on their shoulders.

philosopher René Descartes famously said: “I think, therefore, I am,” but
remained conscious of the essential dualism of mind and matter. Modern society
has arguably lost sight of the latter, and therefore, fails to appreciate the
inherent conflict between the rational and physical self, or to understand the
power of the driving force of biology. Perhaps our hostility towards teenagers
arises from the biological threat they pose; on the cusp of full fertility,
they are a walking time bomb that will soon render redundant the older
generations, and as long as we continue to procreate, there will always be another
group waiting in the wings. That is the paradox of our continued existence.

charities put over the message that a puppy or kitten is for life, not just for
Christmas. Children’s charities could follow suit – a child is for life, not
just for the few short years when he or she is cute and small enough to smack
into submission. Some lucky children remain thus as long as their parents live,
leaving home only when they feel ready, knowing they have parental support
should their maiden flights come to grief. Many young adults, predominantly
males, live at home for economic reasons, while others return when
relationships fail. For them, the family door is never shut, let alone bolted
behind them, yet the state, with its cavalier attitude toward parenting, thinks
nothing of booting out 16 year olds into the big, dangerous world, despite the
blatantly obvious fact that the youngsters in its care are the most needy, the
most troubled and the most vulnerable.

can reduce teenagers almost to a sub-species; rootless, uneducated, unwanted,
desperately lonely, they are warehoused and left to rot. Young asylum seekers
fare even worse; shunted into bed-and-breakfast accommodation without any
meaningful support, they are not only exposed to the worst kinds of exploitation.  In the new climate of paranoid xenophobia
where a terrorist lurks around every corner, their lives are in real peril.

notorious rank-breaking in North Wales was actually triggered by a teenager’s
death. The boy, ejected from care when clearly in need of considerable support,
died shortly afterwards from neglect and an overdose. His fate – the end result
of our social work interventions – was avoidable, even predictable, and haunts
me still.

legislation to improve the lot of care leavers can only work for those
youngsters not among the “lost”, who number thousands. Week In Week Out
(BBC Wales, 3 October) revealed the allegedly dire situation of children in
Cardiff – high abscondings, paucity of proper placements, unacceptable levels
of risk – and the senior social worker behind the disclosures was suspended the
following day. Sir Ronald Waterhouse, cautioning against complacency, stated
that problems in child care are far from being history, and although lack of
will or insight continues to characterise state policy, scarcely a day passes
without further proof of the present system’s limitations. Children in care, he
commented, are important members of future society, whose lives are being put
at risk.

Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care worker and the winner of the
1996 Community Care Readers’ Award.

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