By Thuy Ly-Chambers
“I’m a care leaver.”
“What’s that?” or “Wow” – are some responses I get when I tell people I grew up in care. In my experience, people have little awareness of what a care leaver is, nor do they recognise the challenges care leavers face unless they have knowledge of the care system.
Growing up, I longed for a normal family where I didn’t stand out racially or have to state my next of kin as ‘foster carer’ on application forms. My foster family’s Jamaican and Irish heritages combined with my Vietnamese heritage often attracted inquisitive stares or questions.
But growing up in a multicultural household also shaped my appreciation and respect for different perspectives. Looking back, having the local authority stepping in to support and place me with my foster carers transformed my life.
I was lucky to be placed with foster carers who cared for my wellbeing and encouraged me to aspire for more. With their support, I left school with GCSEs, A Levels and then went on to study at one of the top art schools, Central Saint Martins, followed by University of Westminster.
Both the support from my local authority and foster family helped me transition from care to living independently.
“Support reduced with each milestone”
Before the introduction of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, many services for care leavers came to an abrupt end once they turned 21. As I went on to further education, I was entitled to more financial and emotional support than care leavers who were not in education.
The introduction of this legislation offered care leavers support up to the age of 25, regardless of education status. Still, this safety net is in stark contrast to the experience of my non care experienced peers who often have a lifetime of unlimited support from their families.
A recent Coram Voice report on care leavers’ wellbeing, What Makes Life Good, found that for care leavers, high wellbeing was associated with having people in their lives that support and believe in them, feeling safe, settled where they live and having a trusting relationship with their personal adviser.
This was certainly my experience, but once I turned 25, that suddenly changed. For me, turning 18, 21 and 25 was tainted with the reminder that support reduced with each milestone. Turning 25 during the pandemic was particularly tough and marred my overall experience of the care system.
Like many care leavers, I find myself at the ‘care-cliff’, suddenly pushed over the edge. One day, my personal adviser was offering words of comfort and advice and then suddenly all support vanished overnight.
By not continuing to invest in support for care leavers as they move into adulthood beyond the age of 25, there is a risk that the good work to improve wellbeing while young people are in care will be undone.
“I was cut off and dismissed”
There is a growing understanding among policy experts that more needs to be done. Dr John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF said: “For most people, family support never ends.
“Whether it is celebrating birthdays or other cultural and religious events, having people to turn to when the ordinary stresses of life become overwhelming or accessing the bank of mum and dad, family is family for life. The care system operates on a belief that it ends at 25. It doesn’t and never has and this belief and all that follows from it must be urgently changed for the better.”
Having unexpectedly learnt that my local authority had closed my case file without my knowledge, I made multiple appeals to ask them to reconsider, so that they could finish assisting me with an unresolved issue but the answer was no. This happened just weeks after my 25th birthday.
Having already experienced the desertion of my biological parents, experiencing a second desertion from my corporate parent was another kick in the guts. I was cut off and dismissed; that was the moment I felt failed by the system. As the government prepares to publish its long-awaited review into children’s social care, the care-cliff needs to be addressed.
Transforming my care experience
Overwhelmed with the awareness that I was alone, lockdown gave me nothing to do except dissect all aspects of my life. I thought about my early childhood, my experience in care and what my future holds.
I was mourning the loss of my corporate parent. But after months of feeling demoralised, I finally managed to build my resilience back up and decided to channel my thoughts into doing things that would make an impact on the lives of care leavers.
As I wait for updates on my application to the civil service care leaver internship scheme, I’m working on creating home starter packs for care leavers transitioning to living independently, thanks to the donations I received from my previous employer, Long Tall Sally and others.
I want to transform my experience of leaving the care system into something positive. Twenty-five is the age the system left me, but 25 is not the age I stop being a ‘care leaver’. I have started a small business making facemasks and plan to gift 25 facemasks to care leavers to show that care doesn’t need to stop at 25.
Instead of buckling under the challenges of life as a care leaver, I’m going to use the lemons I was given to make lemonade.