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.