James* is 17. With a family history of domestic violence and neglect, he was placed in foster care when he was eight. He has had a number of foster families but each placement broke down, usually because James tended to lash out. He has a slight speech impediment which embarrasses and frustrates him and makes him want to avoid discussions. He has attended 10 different schools and was bullied from the age of seven, which shattered what little confidence and self-esteem he had. Initially, he became withdrawn but then, when moved into foster care, he started fighting back. He was often in trouble and truanted regularly. Aged 11, he was permanently excluded from school for fighting and attended school or the pupil referral unit only sporadically from then on.
At 14, James was placed in a children’s home. He thrived for a while, attended school, saw a speech and language therapist and seemed more settled. But he started to use illegal substances which other young people in the home had introduced him to. He was moved to other homes – two out of county – and received counselling, but still obtained drugs. The challenge to defy authority almost became his purpose in life. Back in a children’s home in his home town, he has just started college but has changed courses three times already. He has just been arrested for selling cannabis to other students.
James’s problems appear to have manifested themselves through many factors and circumstances. It could be suggested that his constant upheaval and placement changes have affected his ability to attach, while his frustration and embarrassment in relation to his speech defect have compounded this.
He has used violence to convey his thoughts and feelings rather than risk embarrassing himself, but this would only have served to further isolate him from his peers and carers and could have affected his self-esteem and his need “to escape from it all”. The use of cannabis has been his means to do this.
Given James’s care history, he would have been entitled to leaving care services, including access to a Connexions adviser. His pathway plan should be used effectively to map a route but, for this to be successful, James would need to be involved and encouraged at every stage.
I feel James has not yet found his path in life and, in many ways, is probably emotionally immature because of his lack of stability.
I would suggest that his leaving care worker liaise with his college to provide a suitable mentor. Further exploration needs to be made of the reasons behind his previous choice of college courses. It might be that James had enrolled in these courses through peer pressure rather than out of choice.
I am not sure whether James’s arrest is his first offence. If it is, he could be given a final warning from a police officer based in the local youth offending team. He needs to be engaged in some thinking about how his offending could affect the rest of his life.
The officer who delivers the final warning should undertake a brief assessment of the best intervention to address his offending behaviour and the issues that surround this offence. Consideration needs to be given as to why James was selling cannabis – if it was to feed his own addiction, it may be better to refer him to services such as Addaction.
Like many young people in the care system, James has a complex history and had multiple changes, all of which have affected his self-esteem.
It is unclear how James views his placement breakdowns and whether he moved school due to placement moves. As a directorate, we endeavour to keep school placements consistent for young people even if their foster placement changes. Given James’s speech impediment, it is likely to have been difficult for him to settle in and make friends in new environments.
I would work with James to create a person-centred pathway plan that would include agencies such as Connexions, the youth offending team, the drug team and housing. I would work with James to try to take control of the parts of the plan that he feels he can manage, and look at where he sees himself now and in the future.
James needs some successes in his life and it may be that college is not the right experience for him at this time. He may be falling at the first hurdle in an attempt to break things down so he does not fail later.
In the adoption team, we are getting a lot of requests for post-adoption support from families of teenagers. When working with these young people it becomes clear that they have a limited understanding of their history.
I feel that, with a young person such as James, life-story work and an understanding of his history, including schools and placements, may help him make sense of where he is in his life and assist him in dealing with some of the other issues he appears unable to manage.
James would continue to receive support from the leaving care team, and it is likely that his plan and support packages would need to be constantly reviewed as his situation changes.
His keyworkers also need to start preparing him for independence. However, it does not seem that James is requesting to leave the care home and I would feel that it may be beneficial for him to remain in some form of supported living until his life is more stable.
THE USER VIEW
James has had a sad life. He seems to have always been surrounded by violence and uncaring people, whether at home or at school. Clearly, he has been teased because of the way he talks – it’s no wonder his confidence has been shot through.
If all that violence wasn’t enough, he found himself being pushed from pillar to post. He hasn’t been able to settle at any foster home or school, so it must be difficult for him to make any sense of who he is.
Given all this, it is not at all surprising that he began lashing out; it seems he had nowhere else to go but down that route. Nobody seems to have understood him or tried to raise his confidence and self-esteem. He could have just sat there and taken it all and got lower and lower, probably ending up with mental health problems for the rest of his life. Instead, he chose to – quite literally – fight back.
This, it seems to me, has given him some sort of control. I remember a counsellor talking to me about my own experiences of domestic violence, when my so-called dad used to be mean to my mum and hit her after he’d been drinking.
My counsellor said domestic violence was all about being in control. If no one is listening to James, why are we surprised when he starts learning from what he has seen and experienced?
For him, being violent and being a bully puts you in control. Ironically, everybody else probably thinks he is out of control. The trouble is, he needs to be in control of his own life, not other people’s.
As for him getting into drugs, sadly that goes with the territory. The system introduced him to drugs, and this seems to have given James a purpose: to defeat the system that defeated him. This is James taking his revenge. It also gives him an air of authority, making him the centre of attention – something we all need from time to time.
I just think James needs people around him who care for him and care about him. He needs someone to trust and believe in. He needs people to understand him; to know what it is like being James (which really can’t be all that much fun at the moment). And he needs people to listen.
Josh, 19, is a survivor of domestic violence