Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Ghosts of Christmases Past

"How I wish that every day were Christmas, what a nice way to spend the year." I applaud the sentiment Shaky but from all I have seen, heard and read about over the last few weeks there are plenty of looked after children, adoptees, care leavers and their carers, parents and friends who would disagree with you.

Christmas can be tough. It is tough if you find it hard to cope without structure and routine, tough if you are alone, tough if you are forced to live away from your family, tough if your memories of family life are filled with trauma, abuse and neglect. Let's face it for the average person it is stressful enough, so no wonder it is a time of year when our young people struggle.

I have three care leavers in my life, in fact one of them is currently in the next room watching Criminal Minds, fussing the cat and eating mince pies, the other two are in custody over the festive period. All three have their own issues with Christmas.

R grew up in a permanent foster placement where he was treated differently to the rest of the family. He still sees himself as second best. Spending Christmas alone would be easier for him than telling his friends or family that he would like to join in, he wouldn't expect them to care very much. He is hard to engage, there will barely be a thank you for the gifts I have carefully chosen and I won't be sure if he liked them or not. It looks like bad manners but I don't think he knows how he is expected to react and is worried he will get it wrong and anyway, he doesn't really think he deserves a present.

OT is in prison for Christmas again. He has spent 6 out of the last 7 Christmases inside. He is a big kid about Christmas, his greatest wish when he lived here two years ago was to manage to stay out of custody for Christmas and New Year. He managed it that year but the stress of deciding whether to spend the day with me or with his family got so amplified in his head that he absconded for three days and didn't celebrate Christmas anywhere. When he reappeared we talked it through and he bravely visited his family to try to explain. His mum had already given his gifts to his brother and sister and his parents haven't spoken to him since.

YT is in prison for Christmas for the first time and I think he is relieved. He is from a large family and mum always struggled to cope with them all in school holidays. Christmas meant fights, drunkenness, expectations to behave and have a nice time. Since age 13 he has been arrested on every Christmas Day, and often left in a cell for quite a while missing the bulk of the celebration.

I know a lot of the people reading this have adopted. You are not strangers to the difficulties that the sensory overload of this time of year can cause, for children who have experienced trauma. The three young people I have described are examples of those who grew up without the love, patience and understanding of families like the ones you provide. Most of the emotional dysregulation, meltdowns and other difficult behaviours that you deal with daily are still an issue for them now in young adulthood. They weren't taught to cope, hence the 20% of prisoners who are care-experienced. The job you all do is life transforming, trust me, I see the alternative.

So no, I don't wish it could be Christmas every day. Once a year is challenge enough.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

All that yummy stuff

"Remember Onesie Night?" YT (Younger Teen) asked me this today during my visit to the prison. I remember it very well. It was one evening last winter and the boy was bored, which generally results in him going out and getting up to something antisocial. We were already dressed for bed, in not-quite-matching onesies that he had insisted on putting in the trolley last time we went grocery shopping. Searching for a diversion, something - anything, I suggested we drive to the 24 hour supermarket a few miles away to buy a DVD and some pick and mix. So that's what we did...still in onesies. We behaved like naughty, overgrown children in a virtually empty ASDA and then returned home to watch Karate Kid and eat Haribo under a duvet on the sofa. It is one of my most treasured memories of my time with YT so I'm not sure why it surprised me that he remembered it fondly too.

For OT (Older Teen) the memory he has of his time placed with me, almost two years ago, is the evening I dragged him out into the back garden to point out the International Space Station passing overhead. He happened to be home at the right time, I thought he might get a kick out of spotting it, I thought it was just one of those things that hadn't made much impact, but two years later out of nowhere he says "Remember when you showed me that space thing in the back garden? I think about that a lot."

I made a point of going out to eat regularly with both boys, OT was bemused by this and YT very anxious to begin with, it wasn't something either did much with their families. Both nominally ended up in care due to their challenging behaviour, always the tip of the iceberg in my experience, so were rarely taken anywhere where they might show their parents up. Actually whenever I went to a pub or restaurant with either of them they behaved impeccably. I arranged outings too, which I don't think Supported Living Carers do that often given that we are only paid to provide board and lodging, but I got a kick out of seeing their enjoyment. OT liked going with me to the cinema, YT loved the skate park and enjoyed it far more with an enthusiastic audience member.

I suppose the reason I really did it was to give them memories like the ones they recalled in the visits hall. The training officer for my LA used to talk about giving the children and young people in our care cuddles, quality time, play "and all that yummy stuff." When your charges are 16+ you don't really expect to be doing that. I teach that age group and most would do anything to avoid a day out or evening in with their significant adult but not so with care-experienced young people. Both of my lads would spend time with me over time with the PlayStation, their mates or girlfriends because an interested adult is a novelty. Even at 16 and 18 they were still seeking that connection with a caring parental figure.

So for now prison visits are all we have, memories of time shared in the past. Next year they are both due for release and I'm looking forward to creating new memories with them both, lots more "yummy stuff."

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Safety Net

This week I have been thinking a lot about the safety net that most of us take for granted until it is gone. For me it was always Mum. I was blessed to be the daughter of an amazing woman who lavished me, her only child, with all the love and affection I could want.

When I left home at 19 to go to university it was with the knowledge that I would return at the end of each term, that I could even pop home unexpectedly for the weekend if I was having a tough week and needed a bit of spoiling. My room was always ready, my favourite dinner was always prepared, someone was always excited to see me. I never actually lived at home after 19 but I knew it was there, I knew Mum was there. I could call whenever I fancied a chat about nothing in particular, I had a person to contact in an emergency, a room to sleep in if I lost my job or my relationship ended. Mum was my person, my safety net and her house was my home, wherever else I lived.

Sadly I lost Mum when I wasn't that much older than the care leavers I support. I recall conversations with the GP and so many consultants, decisions I had to make when I didn't feel mature enough to make them. I relied on advice from strangers without knowing if it was reliable. I remember packing up our house so it could go on the market, childhood keepsakes sold or thrown away because where, at my age, would I find room for them? I remember for months having good news or a silly story to tell and almost picking up the phone to share it with her: then the pain of remembering just before I dialled.

It wasn't until the initial grief had passed that I realised the full implications of losing her. In an emergency who could I call? Where will I spend Christmas? Whose spare room could I kip in if something went wrong? Which name do I give as my next of kin? I was out there in the big, wide world without a safety net and it suddenly looked a whole lot bigger and wider than I remembered.

This post isn't all about the past though, despite the self-indulgent nostalgia-fest I have been having. It is about the fact that I seem to have temporarily acquired a 22 year old lad, currently snoring away in my spare room. This came about after a few days of Facebook conversations with a former young person who lived here. I supported R for nearly 3 years when he left foster care and when he moved on to a supported hostel at 20 we stayed in contact. He hasn't had an easy time, he has struggled to find work and sometimes accommodation, also he does not connect with people easily so I think he feels quite isolated at times. A few months ago he moved into a shared house and I gave him a few surplus items of bedding and kitchenware to start him off. It's his own address, and he is better off in that respect than many other care leavers, but a bedroom with a TV in it within a house full of strangers is not really a home is it? So this week I had a lot of messages, mostly beginning with an exploratory "Hi. How r u?", which prompts the same question in return and soon got us to the crux of the matter: "I'm ill in bed. The house is really cold and I feel like crap."

There begins the dilemma. The carer in me wants to go get him and bring him back here for a few days but the reality of his situation, of most care leavers' situations, is that sadly they have to be self-reliant and learn to get through the tougher times without the support most of us have. So I chose a middle way, on the great advice of Twitter Chum @mizzanels I dropped by with a care package of cold-fighting goodies. He did look pretty poorly, had a very nasty cough and the house was freezing. Anyway, errand done I went back home to my warm, empty house and felt bad about not bringing him back with me. The next day, predictably, I did. In fact I went into full-scale Bossy Carer mode forcing him to take medicine, telling him to have a hot bath and when he should be in bed - your basic nightmare although he seemed to enjoy the fuss. In fact, truth be told, once he had eaten a decent meal and warmed up he wasn't really that ill at all - rather lonely, a bit low, feeling sorry for himself and dealing with all that in a cold house while feeling slightly under the weather was just the last straw I think.

Now and then we all need a safety net, especially when you're still learning to fly.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Offending Behaviour

Government statistics tell me that more than 1 in 5 adult prisoners in the UK have spent time in care and the younger the age of the prisoner the more likely it becomes.

Another quote I see frequently is that if you have spent time in care you are more likely to go to prison than university. Now I don't know the source of that statistic and can't vouch for its accuracy but I have one of my own. In the last four years I have supported 5 young care leavers, some for years and others for just a week or two. In my own highly subjective sample group two young people are serving time in YOIs, none of them have attended university. K almost made it, she was doing very well at her A levels, but she became pregnant while still at sixth form so higher education is on the back burner for a while.

Why is this on my mind? Well I am visiting OT in prison this weekend, OT being the acronym for Older Teen. OT lived with me off and on for a year before beginning his latest custodial sentence which he says will be his last, although I remember he also said that last time. He is bright, articulate and both his birth parents are educated to degree level. His spelling and grammar are appalling, due to frequent school exclusions and truancies, but he has been in custody for most of his teens and surely they teach them something in the education classes in these places?

Most of our conversation in the visits hall will be about his release in the New Year, while I repeatedly plunder the vending machines to feed his insatiable appetite for chocolate. If prison hasn't properly educated him it would seem it isn't feeding him enough either.He will be full of plans and optimism (and Mars Bars) and I will do my best to share his enthusiasm, but it will be guarded. I remember better than he does how hard it is for him to cope outside prison, surrounded by triggers and without the safety net of a very restricted routine. "I've turned it round, I'm never going inside again, swear down." I know his good intentions are genuine but fear that they may come to nothing with all the temptations he will face back out in the community.

Now don't get me wrong, over the years he has done some pretty terrible things and made one bad decision after the next, and he fully deserves the sentence he was given. The world is not black and white though, it is possible to be a perpetrator and a victim at the same time and the system has failed this young man. Placed in Local Authority care by his parents at 13, with mental health, behaviour and attachment issues, he was incredibly tough to place and ended up in a residential home poorly suited to his needs. Many of his peers there were persistent offenders and it wasn't long before the length of his list of previous convictions matched theirs. When he received his first detention and training order it came as a relief, he felt safer in a secure children's home than he had outside, in fact when the sentence was over he re-offended to return to that environment which he found easier to cope with. Fast forward to 18, the age when he first moved in with me, and a string of almost back-to-back short sentences meant that for the previous 5 years, those crucial teenage ones, the criminal justice system had brought him up. 

I was shocked and saddened by his life when I first read the file but it didn't take long for me to discover that his is a common story. His Facebook friends list is full of young, care-experienced people with a similar tale to tell. He is luckier than quite a lot of them, he won't be released to a hostel or B&B this time like many 20 year-olds leaving custody. Instead of a lonely train ride to his home town carrying all his possessions in one small bag he will be collected by car at the gate, stopping on the way back for a McDonald's breakfast, heading to my house where his room already contains the personal items not in his possession at the time of arrest. Here he has support to make a fresh start, if he has the ability to take advantage of it this time. I really, really hope so - watch this space!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

What's in a name?

"I'm his Supported Living Carer" I say. To the doctor, dentist and optician, to the Job Centre and Housing Benefit advisor, to the police officer, solicitor and magistrates, to the receptionist at A&E, the barber who asks if I'm his girlfriend and the operator of the prison visit booking line. Nobody has heard the term before, it needs some explanation, a label that the hearer can understand. It marks him out as someone different, someone conspicuous, someone with an asterisk against his name.

I am more than his landlady but less than his foster carer, although the job doesn't look very different most days. I am technically not family, but perhaps the nearest he has to one, and too old to pass as friend. Any introduction requires some kind of label or the situation becomes (more) awkward as the official or acquaintance jumps to their own conclusion: mother? aunt? cougar?

"How would you like me to introduce you if we bump into someone I know?" I ask before a supermarket trip. He shrugs. The options are rubbish. Do we pretend a family connection where none exists? Do we explain my role, which inevitably takes a good five embarrassing minutes? Do we keep it vague and leave some poor acquaintance, who was just being friendly, feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed?

I don't know the answer to that question. I don't even know if there is a good answer. What I do know is that my official job description says I am to provide full-board accommodation within my home along with some life-skills and emotional support. Unofficially I am his safe place, I am the voice that will answer the phone at a time of crisis no matter what the hour, I am the person who shows up when needed and explains a past that he doesn't want to talk about. Label that.