By Linda Briheim-Crookall, head of policy and practice development at Coram Voice
Every year, our Bright Spots research programme works with local authorities across the country to understand the experience of their children in care and care leavers and explore ways in which their experiences can be improved. In one of our surveys a child reported:
“I hate that when the register comes up on the screen and others in the class can see that I am CLA [child looked after]. It winds me up even though everyone knows. I don’t like to be different”.
This alerted the local authority who cared for the child about how they felt about the school register. With this knowledge, their virtual school could contact schools to ask them to stop this practice.
Bright Spots, a partnership between Coram Voice and the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford, shows this child was not alone in feeling this way. Feeling singled out, stereotyped and being treated differently is an ongoing issue for children in care and care leavers. Around one in eight young people in care (12%) aged 11-18 felt adults did things which made them ‘feel embarrassed about being in care’. Similarly, one in 10 care leavers felt that they had been treated worse than other young people.
It is essential that all those who work with children in care and care leavers understand how they can be stigmatised. In our research, young people described feeling ‘outed’ by adults and forced to explain why they did not live with their families. Our recent paper Challenging stigma in the care system shares what children and young people have told us about stigma, what they want to see from services and gives examples of how local authorities have worked with children and young people to challenge stigma.
There are some simple messages from children in care and care leavers about how social workers and other professionals can best to support them.
1. Change the language of social care – don’t use words that make us feel different. Help us feel normal by avoiding acronyms and words that do not make sense to us
A practical way of doing this can be to write care records addressed to the child or young person; for example, writing “we met” or “we talked about”. This reminds social workers to moderate their language and has the added benefit of making records more readable for young people who choose to access them later.
In North Yorkshire, staff and young people produced a great video challenging the use of legalistic terms such as ‘placement’, ‘contact’, ‘respite’ in favour of normalising words such as ‘home’, ‘family time’, ‘break for children’. Social workers should get into the habit of using language that cares when talking to colleagues as well, so they are less likely to slip into bureaucratic language when speaking to children and young people. It is important to model this positive way of communicating.
2. Let us control who knows about our care status and how we share this information – do not identify us with your actions or words
The message from children in care is that professionals can avoid stigmatising them by arranging meetings outside of school hours, so that they are not taken out of class for meetings. West Sussex’s Children in Care Council raised this issue with professionals; their virtual school, looked after children’s nurses and independent reviewing officers promised to avoid doing this.
Taking off lanyards and asking how they would like professionals to refer to themselves when meeting in public also helps give children and young people greater control over their care status. When supporting care leavers it is important to have permission from the young person in order to advocate for them with others, such as employers. One care leaver told us:
“Professionals that work with me come to my place of work where my colleagues are and want to have all kinds of different meetings with me. My social worker rings my manager when she wants to talk to me and people ask me questions about my social worker and other workers.”
3. Recognise our potential, praise us when we do well and work with us to promote positive messages about children in care and care leavers
Being in care is still seen as something negative by many. One young person told us:
I’ve had people react very negatively about me being a care leaver because they thought that meant that my family didn’t like me or didn’t want me and I’ve been made fun of.”
As a professional, I have also been guilty of highlighting negative statistics in order to argue for better support for children in care and care leavers. However, I have learnt how important it is to balance this narrative with positive stories to show that children in care have many talents and great potential – which is why we run an annual creative writing competition for children in care and care leavers, Voices.
On an individual level, it is important to note what children are good at in their care records. Many councils have also supported children and young people to collectively challenge stigma. For instance, Sheffield’s Assembly Squad are developing assembly sessions about care for schools, while Hertfordshire’s Project Positive aims to raise the aspirations of children in care and reduce the stigma associated with care leavers applying for jobs.