When it comes to supporting Care Experienced people, don’t forget the nod

New statistics have shown that hundreds of Care Experienced students are benefitting from the Scottish Government’s Care Experienced Bursary. I’m a Care Experienced person about to embark on a career in Educational Psychology – I think this is fantastic news. However, since this announcement I have had many conversations with many different people about what this actually means. As the focus of these conversations has deepened beyond the practicalities of financial support for Care Experienced people – I have found myself taking a therapeutic stroll through my life experiences thus far…

I grew up in kinship care and I haven’t really known what it is like to have ‘parents’. This is something I struggled with as a child. Being ‘a child’, but not being ‘somebody’s child’. I lived with my gran from the age of 3 and she was incredible, but it saddened me at times – not having someone to call ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ and knowing that I never would. I have recognised during my adult life that ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ are just terms, and I know how fortunate I was to have such a loving and nurturing gran who committed to the emotional and practical responsibilities of both roles. The intricacies of terminology, however, are not easily explained to a 6 year old who has been tasked by a class teacher on mother’s day to make a card, with the follow-up instruction: ‘if you don’t have a mum, make a card for your dad’. It’s a simple instruction, with no real malice, but it set my heart racing.

When I was a child, every conversation about family, any mention of parents – set my heart racing. I have tried to understand that in recent years. Explore why my body triggered a stress-response at the prospect of having to explain that I did not live with my parents. I deduced that I found it embarrassing, and that I did not want people to feel sorry for me or think I was seeking attention or sympathy. I also deduced that it was ridiculous to feel embarrassed and that my care identity is a part of who I am and something that I should embrace without shame.

I recently got married. When enjoying a coffee with a group of colleagues I was asked whether my parents were excited for the big day. I smiled and nodded, and said ‘everyone is really excited’, before swiftly changing the topic. My heart was racing, and I felt exposed and embarrassed and upset and overwhelmed and vulnerable. I was 29 years old. This is one example, one of many, illustrating the lifelong impact of being Care Experienced.

Moments before embarking on this reflective journey, I spoke with a journalist who is covering an article focussing on the need to extend the new Care Experienced Bursary to support people beyond the age of 26. He asked me, kindly and in simple terms, to explain my care experienced status. I responded by stating that I was raised in kinship care. When probed further, my heart raced and I began to feel exposed and embarrassed and upset and overwhelmed and vulnerable.  I have worked hard at conditioning myself to prevent these emotions from surfacing. I am good at this. Yet still, at unpredictable times and often for unexplainable reasons, these emotions emerge from the abyss of my mind and when they do – I have to engage with them. I have learnt that I have to engage with them. Attempts at trying to ignore these emotions routinely fail. These emotions are powerfully driven by the memories of the traumatic experiences that surround my care status, and those memories don’t falter.  Those memories are not empathetic towards age or stage in life. I am 30 years old. I am 30 years old and these memories still have a profound effect on me. This is another illustration of the lifelong impact of being care experienced.

I would like to reiterate that I think the onset of the Care Experienced Bursary is fantastic news. Care experienced people face many barriers to accessing education and these barriers are multi-faceted, interlinked, and complex. The Scottish Government recognises this, and there are legislative requirements, policies, initiatives, and now there is financial support in place to reflect this recognition. I am delighted to be starting my professional career in a country that is so publically committed to improving the future life chances of looked after children and young people. What’s more, I strongly believe that education may be the way out for many.

By ‘way out’ however, I am not merely referring to the box that is ticked at the exit door, or, the qualification that leads to the job. Education is a process. I believe that an ‘educational journey’ may be the way out for many – a way out of the cycle of turmoil and disadvantage – both from an educational and mental health and wellbeing perspective.

A close friend of mine recently completed her University degree. It wasn’t an easy road for a lot of reasons but she got there. I was so pleased when she told me she had passed all of her exams. In hearing how elated she was I felt overcome with a genuine sense of pride. Her final exams coincided with the process of my planning for and commencing my Master’s thesis. We shared many a conversation about how stressed we were and how much we were willing our courses to end – feelings of which are completely natural for all University students. Then the end came; and we were genuinely happy and genuinely happy for each other. We spent a day in my garden drinking prosecco and discussing our awesomeness. My friend reflected on the day she received her results – on crying and then phoning her mum; on being greeted at home by her pride-filled dad with flowers and champagne. She invited me to her graduation party that her family are hosting. It was a wonderful day. After which, I felt really sad.

My Masters was a full-time course requiring periods of time on placement intermixed with University lecturing, during which I worked full time in a pub. There were days I would finish placement at 4.30pm and travel straight to start a ‘5pm until close’ shift in the pub. None of this is eased by the fact that a short time after commencing my course my gran passed away. I am due to start my career as an Educational Psychologist at the start of September and I am exhausted. In fact, at this current time I am also physically ill, and having been prescribed a concoction of antibiotics and steroids to try and combat the chesty wheeze I have been enduring, I find myself questioning – ‘how did I get this far?’

There is no support that the Scottish Government could have put in place for me that would have granted me the opportunity to ‘live with parents’ whilst I studied. I could not have been provided with a makeshift family network to authentically deliver the emotional support and encouragement that can make such a difference, or even the home cooked meals that serve as reminders to eat.
The Scottish Government could not have provided me with family members to call to share the good news when I was offered my first role as an Educational Psychologist. I cannot be provided with proud parents to attend my graduation, or even an extended family that want to throw me a party. I no longer have that person who will dress their mantle with a picture of me on my big day – all smiles, scroll in hand. The Care Experienced Bursary would not have provided any of this.

From a practical perspective, the Care Experienced Bursary would have allowed me to lower my working hours. Having spent the majority of the last two years without an ‘official day off’ I cannot express how tired I am. Perhaps, with a little more financial support, I may not be so tired. But really, it is more than the money, it is more than the practicalities – it’s the acknowledgement, it’s the nod.

One of my favourite shows is called Curb Your Enthusiasm. There is a really funny episode in which an older character has recently lost his mother and the following interaction with the main character and creator of the show, Larry David, takes place:

Funkhouser: I lost my dad a year ago. My mother just died.

I’m an orphan, okay?

Larry David: You’re a what?

Funkhouser: I’m an orphan.

Larry David: Orphan?

Funkhouser: Yeah, an orphan!

Larry David: You’re a little too old to be an orphan.

Funkhouser: No, if you don’t have parents you’re an orphan.

Larry David: You could be 70 and be an orphan? You could be 100 and be an orphan! – You can’t be 100 and be an orphan.

Funkhouser: – Yeah, you can!

Larry David: Okay. Little Orphan Funkhouser

This scene, as light-hearted as it is within the context of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, raises a lot of questions for me. In fact, after watching it for the first time I turned to my husband and said ‘I’m still an orphan am I not?’ at which point we both burst out laughing.

In Scotland, orphans and other children who are ‘looked after and accommodated’ for a variety of different reasons have ‘Corporate Parents’ and the various supports that are attached to that, up until the age of 26; this is inclusive of the Care Experienced Bursary which is also available to young people who are care experienced, up until the age of 26. I was recently discussing this with a 14 year old boy who lives in residential care. He shared that he was worried about what will happen when he turns 26. I find this so upsetting. Imagine being 14 years old, and worried about when you turn 26. It is unfathomable for most.

I was 28 years old when my gran passed away. It was Christmas Eve and it broke me. All of a sudden, after a lifetime of feeling different and isolated at times because I was not from the ‘nuclear family’, I knew how it felt to truly feel alone. It was as though a safety net, of which I had failed to acknowledge the significance, was suddenly whipped from under me, and it took the breath out of me. It physically took the breath out of me.

I may no longer consider myself or find it appropriate to describe myself as ‘an orphan’, however, the impact of being orphaned as a child is a part of me. It has shaped me. At times, it fuels my tossing and turning at nights; my completely random neurotic compulsions that are fostered by completely irrational fears of loss, prompted by early life experiences; my constant doubts about my abilities in all aspects of life and my inability to accept the praise of others as genuine. Being orphaned as a child has had an impact on me. In the most basic terms, it makes me a member of the Care Experienced population and that is a status I wear with pride and one that I will wear for life.

I started this therapeutic stroll through my life experiences with a view of presenting an argument that the Care Experienced Bursary should be extended to support people beyond the age of 26. Upon reviewing the above, I feel I have verged slightly off track. I find it difficult to comprehend what my post-school educational journey would have felt like with more financial support; maybe because it’s all so fresh, and I am still so tired. But I believe the Care Experienced Bursary is about so much more than financial support. It’s a message. It’s a message anyone who has experience of care should hear. It’s a message that says, ‘you can’. It’s a message that says ‘our Government believes in you, is on your side when it feels no one else is and it is putting its money where its mouth is’.

Approximately 4% of care experienced young people go straight from school to University. Due to the impact of pre-care experiences and the instability and challenges that can accompany the ‘care experience’ of so many children and young people, it may take you longer to get there. Whether you are 26 or 36, if you are care experienced and contemplating embarking on an educational journey, the encouragement and support that you need to make this a reality is so important. Given the current trajectory of the lives of children and young people in care; given the dim view presented through the statistical representation of the future outcomes of Care Experienced people, that have been made so public; and, given how hard it can be – when you have no one else – to convince yourself that you can…our Care Experienced population needs all the positive examples of success and triumph it can get. And we need the support that helps us become success and triumph, whatever our measure of that is.

It’s more than financial support: it’s telling our Care Experienced community in Scotland who are over the age of 26, who did not have ‘Corporate Parents’, who were not obligated to be considered as having ‘additional support needs unless proven otherwise’ when they attended school, and whose teachers were not likely to have been ‘trauma informed’; it is telling these deserving people that – it might have taken you longer to find this door, but we have kept it open. Because we knew you’d come.

It’s the proverbial nod.

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