Owning Lives - Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and

“Owning Lives”
Alison Alexander
Director of Children’s Services
Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, UK
five14 Talks
May 14, 2015
I’m occasionally asked to address groups of children in care in
England. No matter what the focus of the gathering I always try to talk
with them about the future and their role in it.
I invite them to look round the room at the array of people, paid in
most cases, who care for them, who look out for them, who nurture
them and steer their lives.
I tell them to think forward to their 20s – to that time when all the
people round the room aren’t there anymore, to that time when
they’re no longer in care and the state has forgotten about them. I
don’t tell them by how much they have to confound the odds. I don’t
tell them
• how many of them are likely to be homeless -19% of young adults
showing up at homelessness agencies in England in 2013 had been
in care 1.
• Or how many of them will already be known to the justice system –
in England, shamefully, nearly half of 21 year old prisoners have
been in care.
Centre for Social Justice and according to our Centre for Social Justice a third of all adults who have been in
care are likely to be homeless at some time in their adult lives
• Or how many of them will not be in work because they won’t have
the educational qualifications - fewer than 20% of them will have
the basic educational qualification at the age of 16.
• Or that only 6% are likely to go to university, against 38% of the
general population.
I don’t give them these numbers.
I simply ask them to think about their lives when they’re no longer in
care and they have to care for themselves.
I look round the room, trying to meet their eyes, trying to gauge their
reactions. Quite often, more often than you might think, I see young
people not listening, ignoring me. I’m old. I dress like this. Lots of
people like me try to talk to them. I understand. I wouldn’t have
listened when I was their age.
So, I often have to remind them. When I was 10 I went to a school for
children with emotional difficulties. I got expelled from the school a
week after my 15th birthday. I never had a high school education.
When I was 16 I was living in a children’s home and they arranged for
me to volunteer to work at a playgroup instead of going to school.
I had no education, no qualifications, no link with my biological family,
a history of disruptive behaviour and no life plans. I tell them this
because I want them to know that I was like them and because they
need to know, if they’re going to have a life, they’d better do
something about it because, in the main – no one else will.
Then I look round the room at the adults in attendance, usually: foster
carers, residential carers, social workers, teachers, politicians,
everyone else standing there and often I wonder about their
understanding and their motivations.
Of course, everyone in the room is there because they care and their
motives are right. But I wonder if the young people in the room were
their own children if they would be advocating something very
different? It is a hard fact to bear – but many people who talk about
supporting youth in care would not accept for their own child what
they accept for the youth in care they are charged with looking after.
I think there is evidence to confirm that many professionals think it’s
enough for the children in care just to be removed from their previous
negative experience and to be looked after by the state.
I wonder if, subconsciously, they think as long as they remove the
child and care for them, they’re being successful in their job, rather
than doing what they should be doing - caring about them.
For me, though difficult to achieve, success is simple to define. We
succeed if our youth in care develop into successful adults – please
note that I say ‘develop into’ not ‘be developed into’. It’s an important
And what do I mean by successful? Well it’s what you all seek for your
children/relatives etc: that they are able to
Make and sustain effective relationships.
Know how to be healthy and safe.
Remain positive in spite of difficulties.
Have what is required to be economically independent.
I always try to think about what the adults in the room would be
asking for their own children. What would they say, or write to me as
the Director of Children’s Services if, in their eyes, I was failing to
provide their child with a high quality school place, or a chance to see
a doctor, or failing to provide a mental health support service?
I know, I think, because I receive such letters all the time. They expect
the best and nothing else is acceptable.
So why is it that we don’t demand the same for our children in our
care who have been, in many case, so damaged by what has already
happened to them?
Children in care are the victims of adults - adults who have raped
them, starved them, beaten them, sold them, and so on.
Professionals and politicians need to stop blaming children in care
because they don’t settle, because they don’t respond positively to the
demands of education, because they don’t respond positively to the
love their new carers show them, because they are difficult, because
they push all the boundaries, because they become addicted to drugs,
because they become teenage parents and parent their own children
Children who are abused do not get fixed over night and without
proper support, which is usually costly, it will never happen. We try to
fix children without really investing in them. We belevie removing
them is the fix!
At the weekend, over dinner, with a friend – who is a foster parent and
head teacher I was nicely challenged. The challenge was about what
am I really doing to ensure every child who comes into care has a
package of care wrapped around them that is designed to address the
historic abuse/lose – so that they can move on to have emotional
intelligence. He was right to ask the question!
We do so much about ensuring we have the right process in place to
take a child into care but do we invest in the next bit. Building a
relationship with the child/young person to have a conversation that
means we really understand the damage that we have to undo before
we can expect them to move on positively to become emotionally
intelligent economically independent adults.
I committed following that conversation that I need to find resources
to ensure every child has a therapeutic plan wrapped around them at
the beginning. Not when behaviours start to show in the later years of
their time in care.
We must, keep reminding ourselves that children in care are victims.
This is really important when we are feeling annoyed with our
children, especially when they are 15 and pushing every difficult
boundary they could.
But sometimes, I think when we are faced with the difficult 15 year old
we forget some of their behaviour is attached to them being an
adolescent. All young people experience adolescence.
As we all know adolescence is about a time of tumour, confusion and
questioning. So a 15 year old who is in care who is experiencing
turmoil, confusion, questioning everything, is likely to struggle more
then their peers who have not grow up in care.
One of your own young people Shanna Allen, taken into care at 8 years
of age, makes the point really well.
“when you have no control over your life, it takes a huge amount
mental and physical toil. You don’t feel loved, valued or accepted by
others. You simple feel helpless.”
Put these feelings alongside the feelings adolescence have and little
good can come out of that experience. It is this stage when young
people in care get caught up in drugs, sexual activity and are exposed
to all sorts of exploitation by another set of adults looking for
vulnerable young people.
So our job, as professionals is to have this wider knowledge and
ensure that we use it when we respond to our young people.
Sometimes it is helpful to take a moment and think about the last child
who came into care in the province – what was it for, what did adults
do to them and how long will it take for us all to correct that damage?
Last week I had to approve four social workers going into a school to
collect a boy. We had first removed him from abusive parents and
placed him in an emergency placement. Then we found a secure long
term ‘home’ with foster carers. He went there. Three months later we
discovered that the foster carers had lied and were emotionally
harming him. We had to take him from school and introduce him to
another set of foster carers. ‘T’ is six.
How would we cope with this – with having all the familiar people and
things taken away from us at no notice? I don’t know. But I do know if
‘T’ displays difficult behaviour at 15 we will label him bad – not
ourselves for not correcting the damage.
So where to next? The challenge I lay out everyday for those who
work for me is that we must set ourselves the highest ambitions and
run the risk of falling short – rather than reduce our expectations and
achieve them.
Setting low expectations has dire consequences or youth in care. We
don’t expect enough and, therefore, we don’t get enough.
But we need more than higher expectations.
We need a paradigm shift and a system shift if we’re to do better. Put
simply, we need to put much more energy into understanding why
young people respond, which requires us to have constant
conservations with them.
We need to see our role us having a
partnership with the young person.
But that in our partnership we must remember we are the parent.
This means disagreeing with our young people sometimes. Our role in
their lives is to make sure we do everything we can to help them take
ownership of their lives. And we need to reduce those things that we
do as individuals, and the system does, which makes that more
Recently an adoptive parent reflected to me what makes the difference
between an outstanding or failing system. The latter is focussed on
the systems and process to look after a child, whilst the former is
focused on relationships, partnerships and conversations. Without
focusses on the relationship and conversation we continue the current
practice of caring about young people in care not caring for them.
That’s the focus of the day as we discuss how to make sure that
children are not ‘left out of their own lives’. It’s interesting. So many
successful adults who were brought up in care say that no matter how
successful they’ve become they’ve felt like a visitor in someone else’s
A CEO of a major British company saying he feels like a visitor in his
own boardroom. I think that has something to do with him being left
out of his own life at sometime in the past.
Nothing could be more important than creating the conditions where
children and young people can take ownership of their own lives.
No one - you included in this, me included in this and all children
included in this - achieves anything until they want to. You will all
have personal narratives about this. I do. I’ve seen my 15 year old
daughter – for years a cork on the water, her direction seemingly
determined by wind or tide – develop ownership of her life, driving for
success at school without much parental prompting at all in recent
months. She now wants to do well but before it was irrelevant to her.
It comes from within and not from without. I’d have that sentence
implanted into the front of the mind of every single person who works
with children and young people in care. It comes from within not from
And in my own life it came quite suddenly. I was 17 and on a bus
when I took the decision that I was going to go in this direction rather
than that. Was I to become a teenage parent or was I going to change
my life? From that moment I was not the same and, I suppose, it was
that one act of taking control and ownership from which everything
else, for better or worse, has stemmed.
I couldn’t have done it then but I can now analyse how that point of
decision had been reached. I can now see what the people who were
around me at that time had done and said that created the conditions
for that act of ownership to have happened – as I hope, my daughter
will be able to see in future years.
Why is this ownership so important?
Because, from it, comes a
growing sense of direction, higher levels of self-esteem and a
confidence that is real not bravado. From it come higher levels of selfregulation and all of these lead to becoming a successful person.
So we need to work on how we construct our systems, processes and
relationships with children and young people to foster that sense of
ownership within them. In particular we need to improve the way we
involve children and young people in the decisions that affect them.
We need to do more than just nod in agreement at Article 12 of the UN
Convention on the Rights of the Child. We need to embrace that article
so that the voices of all our children and young people are heard – and
listened to. You – and we – signed the Convention in 1989. We said,
over 25 years ago that we would involve these children in decisions
about their own lives. We made that commitment and we haven’t
delivered well enough.
How do we expect them to do well in the adult world where decisions
are taken 100 times a day if we don’t give them a chance to practise as
they grow up, safely? Just as we would with our own children.
If we do what we’ve always done we’ll get what we’ve always got –
and that plainly is not good enough. I’m sure we can do better than
that. We have to.