By Sacha Samms
I was a looked-after child on and off throughout my teenage years. I was also a social worker for over 10 years working in a variety of settings, where at times I felt like a double agent.
Being an insider to the care system, someone who has been ‘social worked’, allows for a unique perspective. There are some benefits to this and I would like to share my experiences, hopefully giving food for thought to those practising and to support improvements in social work practice and policy.
There is a thread I found myself considering often. It is something I found hard to describe, and there is not really a term for it specifically, but it is a ‘thing’. The word inequality is perhaps most relevant; however, it is more than that and that single word does not seem to do it justice as a phenomenon. By the end of this article, you will hopefully understand it better.
The ‘Sliding Doors’ effect
I refer to it as the ‘Sliding Doors’ effect, in homage to the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, where the consequences of a seemingly insignificant moment (in Gwyneth’s case, catching or missing the tube train she runs for) snowball into a lifetime of wide-reaching after-effects.
When I talk about the Sliding Doors effect in my life and those of other looked-after children, it’s the many apparently trivial aspects or events in family life that we experience in subtly different ways to other children that are actually critical, and go on to have a big impact on our wellbeing into adulthood.
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As a looked-after young person it always confused me why foster carers would remove knife blocks from kitchens, did not store bleach in bathrooms, used a locked filing cabinet for Calpol. But as a social worker I fully understood the term preventative risk management, the reasons for discouraging hugs and bedtime stories. But to what long term effect?
These young people do not experience ‘normal’ family being, instead, home life is amalgamated with the preventative policies and procedures of living in an institution. If you never have the opportunity to slice bread, what life skills will you leave placement with? That is the Sliding Doors effect in action.
‘Always one step behind’
Maybe your family buys a bauble each Christmas to add to the collection or maybe you go blackberry picking or conker collecting every autumn in your secret spot, or perhaps you have a yearly pumpkin-carving or snowman-making competition? Such are the family traditions that solidify you as an individual.
Looked-after children with 15 moves under their belt are not able to carry their traditions from placement to placement, so you lose that element of your identity and the Sliding Doors effect continues.
Children’s services want well-rounded children who are adequately safeguarded. And to some extent, policies and practices have improved to support this. There are, however, typical family experiences that they miss that can never be replicated..
These little things, among a million others, make sure that looked-after children are always one step behind the rest. One tiny insignificant little opportunity snowballs into a gaping unfulfilled need or deficit as an adult.
‘I couldn’t boil an egg’
Now imagine you are in your late teens and want to learn to drive, but you have not had the chance, like your peers, to sneakily speed around the local industrial estate in your dad’s Volvo – your friends did and most of them have been driving a couple of years now.
You think to yourself, ‘that’s ok, it is a hurdle to overcome, just some character building’. But, in reality, you are a step behind again. You want to go to university, but you worry you have spent so much time securing a flat and if you gave that up to stay in halls like your friends, you would have nowhere to stay during the holidays. So, you take the factory job instead. That is the Sliding Doors effect again.
Age 16, in my little bedsit, I remember feeling so proud after competently plumbing in my washing machine, wall papering the place and a shoddy attempt at laying lino – typically (I am stereotyping here) skills only the ‘looked-after kids’ have at that age. However, ludicrously, I couldn’t boil an egg.
Could I call my corporate parent and ask how, or ask how to work the thermostat? What about fabric conditioner, does that go in first or second, and how do I set up a direct debit? I am 99% sure care experienced adults learn by trial and error. Imagine the progress made and time saved if we didn’t have to.
Today’s care leavers have Google as a surrogate parent. You may think all young people would internet search for those answers, and they may, but it should be an option, not a necessity. The term ‘transitioning’ is used in terms of planning, but it is generally still a rushed job of flat hunting and sorting benefits, maybe with a quick look at local college courses.
In retrospect, I am unsure if these experiences added to my resilience or had an impact I will never know – Sliding Doors.
Everybody needs a ‘parent’
As a care leaver, there is our first job application form. Writing down your last four years’ worth of addresses, you tentatively turn the sheet and continue your list on the back of the paper. Now for next of kin: if there is anything that can take your breath away it’s this. Who do I cite? My best friend? My neighbour? My corporate parent?
Statutory services’ responsibilities are discharged formally with a tick of a box or the literal closure of a file when you hit 18 (21 if you are lucky enough to stay in full time education). Leaving care services have improved over the past decade, but they are not infallible, there are still the tiny details that matter and that could be improved further.
As the song goes, you find a job, settle down, fall pregnant. Joy turns to bewilderment as you realise you have no ‘parent’ to approach for that much needed baby advice and, more crucially, no trusted babysitter. You reflect on your life and wonder at what point a ‘normal’ adult stops needing their parents. The answer is they don’t.
The local authority as a corporate parent, of course, does not have infinite finances or resources. They cannot support a care experienced person forever, so there must be a cut off, right? So, you suck it up. And that is the Sliding Doors effect right there – the inequality that drips into the lives of looked-after children by default.
How can outcomes be improved?
Then we have the dating advice, the how to stay safe on a night out advice, budgeting, self-love/care, DIY and car maintenance skills. The list is long.
If you are a person who has not experienced care, think of those calls to parents just to double check something, or to share news. Who do you ring when you are feeling unwell? Where do you go on Christmas Day and who comes to your graduation? These are the intricate family ‘norms’ I referred to earlier.
That Sliding Doors effect is in full swing now. A looked-after child having left care provision and developing as a care experienced adult still needs support.
We could never have some utopian social care provision for care experienced adults, but some level of accountability as a corporate parent could be afforded, which may support a care experienced person to achieve and succeed without feeling like they are swimming through treacle every day.
As I did, people generally go into the social work profession to improve outcomes for children. Central to this is the lived experiences of looked-after children and care experienced people, which can help improve services.
Changes that could help improve outcomes for looked-after children:
- Identify support networks early on and include everyone, no matter how insignificant you think they may be. Promote strong links with friends, who themselves have supportive families, as they are going to be invaluable when the corporate parent is no longer around.
- Have foster carers embed those traditions wholeheartedly – they help to make children feel human and embed identity in those who feel like theirs is fading.
- Think way outside of the box during transition and leaving care planning. Consider if your service is able to provide any ongoing support or is there a non-statutory organisation that can plug the gaps, such as a DIY course, holistic life skills workshops, cooking classes, etc.
- Online resources, such as online support groups, chat spaces and peer support that allow for belonging and shared experiences, are developing quicker than any statutory service can,. Provide accessible easy and quick videos, information and signposting (think YouTube how-to guides) for children. Promote these as a social worker.
- If a policy or procedure doesn’t work, change it. It has to be fit for purpose. The narratives of looked-after children are vital, they should never be lost or overlooked.
- Consider longer-term emotional, practical and financial support services for care experienced people, as well as an amended policy and encouragement promoting ongoing informal support from social workers and foster carers.
- Be accountable. If something went wrong in a young person’s care, put it right. This could mean evaluating current policies or reflecting on practice more often and implementing change on the basis of feedback from looked-after children.
As we all know, every child’s (and social worker’s) experience is different. My experience is mine and mine only, others have had worse, better, and different. I left social work three years ago and it has taken that time and distance to allow me to critically reflect with impartial lucidity.
Improvements within practice and policies have been made over the years. They are tangible, can be evidenced, and continue to be made by dedicated and caring people who approach their role with objectivity, compassion, fairness, and empathy.
However, there is as always, room for further improvement and there will be until the net young people can fall through is replaced by an infallible barrier; until provision is so effective that looked-after children are in a position when they leave care where their outcomes are identical to, if not better than, their peers. And until the Sliding Door effect is no more.
I would like to dedicate the article to Michael and Michael who have been ‘substitute parents’ as well as friends with their emotional support, practical help and a listening ear over the years.
Sacha Samms is a care experienced project development worker for a charity. She used to be a social worker and social work lecturer.