by Lauren Parker
I always loved writing stories when I was a child. It took me away from real life. In my stories I could be wherever I wanted, doing whatever made me happy.
I enjoyed it so much that I used to get in trouble for either writing over the word count assigned or writing rather than doing my schoolwork. I didn’t let this deter me though and the longer I wrote, the more my work improved.
But when I was taken into care aged 15, my writing became less frequent – and within a few months I’d stopped completely and lost interest in most of my hobbies. My mood had dropped and since I was no longer attending school, there was no one around who wanted to read my work. I did continue to read though – that kept me sane.
At the age of 21 though, five years after I left care, I rediscovered my love of writing. It happened when I read my foster care files and a fleeting thought told me my ‘life’ on paper sounded like a story.
That’s when I realised that my experience in foster care and everything that came with it could be useful, insightful, and helpful to children who had experience of foster care or professionals within the care system.
‘An outlet for me and a way of taking my power back’
In 2019, I decided I wanted to write a fiction book, so I wrote every day for six months and edited my manuscript until I felt it was perfect. I began following literary agents on Twitter to find out what types of books they were looking for and through an agent, I heard about Coram Voice, an organisation championing the rights of children in care and care leavers.
The tweet was about Voices, the annual national creative writing competition for children and young people in care and care leavers run by Coram Voice. I’d always been pushed aside and left out because of my care status – now it felt like I could use it as an opportunity.
For my competition entry, I decided to write a poem, something I’d never done before. I also chose to write about my experiences in a very raw and honest way as I knew there would be no judgement. Everyone entering the competition was either in or had been through the foster care system.
I submitted my poem and two months later, I received an email from Coram Voice. “Congratulations”, it read, “you have been shortlisted.” I couldn’t believe I had been selected as a finalist. Just like that, my confidence started to return. Writing about my life and its complexities felt more natural but most importantly, more rewarding.
I loved writing about my life because I could just write. I didn’t have to think of plot twists or ‘what happens next.’ I already knew. It was also an outlet for me and a way of taking my power back.
For years I had been ashamed of growing up in care and would try to protect myself by keeping it a secret. While hiding provided temporary relief, I was never quite myself around others and would constantly overthink before I spoke in case I gave something about my past away accidentally.
Now, by being open and putting my writing out there for anyone to see, it was my way of saying to myself and the world that I was fine. I wasn’t ashamed, and if anything, I was proud.
It also made me realise that I hadn’t given my friends enough credit. They were more than understanding and welcoming of my past. They could tell I wasn’t being myself and they were happy they finally knew why.
Body of evidence
There is a growing body of evidence to support the positive benefits of writing for children in care.
Richard McKenny, principal systemic psychotherapist in Coram’s Creative Therapies team, told me: “Writing can help children reflect on their thoughts in a different way because the writing persists after its creation. They can come back to the text at different times, reflecting and reviewing. Children can be the author of their own stories, making meaning out of their experiences in a way that endures.”
Meanwhile a literature review led by Action for Children found writing was “shown to support a variety of wellbeing factors such as sense-of-self and personal values, goal-setting and self-regulation (managing emotions, thoughts and behaviours), purpose and resilience”.
Increased access to creative activities and the arts more generally for children and young people who have spent time in care has also proved beneficial. Dr Claire Baker, from Coram Voice, said: “Several reviews on participation in the creative arts reported positive impact on quality of life, enjoyment, self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, social interaction, motivation, empowerment and voice, and resilience. It was reported that the creative process can help participants immerse themselves and escape from everyday anxieties.”
Recent NICE guidance on the emotional health and wellbeing of care experienced children and young people also found that “creative activities were beneficial for confidence, self-esteem, “happiness”, and overcoming past trauma”.
‘I cannot express how important this was for my mental health’
Despite leaving high school with no qualifications, missing out on the A* in English I’d always wanted, I’ve somehow managed to make a side career out of writing for national newspapers and magazines and earn money to provide things for my daughter that I didn’t have at her age, such as swimming lessons, a bike and too many toys!
Growing up in care I never felt accepted. I cannot express how important it was for my mental health to tell my story and realise that not all people would stigmatise me the way I felt stigmatised as a child.
Coming second place in the Voices 2019 competition boosted my confidence and helped me to trust in my potential again. Writing and getting published makes me feel like I didn’t go through the care system for nothing.
Lauren Parker is a care-experienced consultant at Coram Voice and is a senior officer in the looked-after children’s team at Croydon Council. The Voices creative writing competition for children and young people in care and care leavers is open for entries until 28 February 2022.