The conference for care experienced people of all ages will take place at Liverpool Hope University on Friday 26th April this year. The organising team call it “CareExpConf” for short. To some, it will appear to be another conference in a calendar full of conferences, another opportunity to listen to experts speaking about how to improve the care system. Those people would be very wrong.
This is not just an ordinary conference; and these are not just ‘ordinary’ experts. This conference is unique. It recognises for the first time that people with care experience are ordinary people like everybody else, not divided by categories They are not somehow different from each other based upon the labels that an uncomprehending care system has imposed upon them.
So many labels. Young people in care are so often referred to as ‘looked after children, or even ‘LAC’ for short. At an age defined by others, they can then become ‘careleavers’. Legislation has even defined them more closely to enable support to be rationed – ‘eligible child’, ‘relevant child’, ‘former relevant child’ or even ‘qualifying child’.
To the care system, ‘care’ is often divided into labels to ensure that young people get the services due to them – or are not given the support they may need because they fail to fit into one of the categories civil servants so helpfully divided them into.
The real care experience is not like that. The real care experience is a continuous flowing process defined only by the child. It is not a series of placement chunks defined by officials. The same child who came into care as an abused child at six years old, who truanted from school at 14, who left school at 16 without qualifications is now a middle-aged barrister. The university lecturer quietly teaching her students was once a “careleaver” statistic when she was homeless at 18. The care experience is not static, it is a dynamic process.
Although young people from care routinely face discrimination and stigma, one of the wonderful things about the care experience, demonstrated countless times over generations by many care experienced people, is that they can achieve their dreams, given the right support, encouragement and opportunity. The abused child can become the barrister, the homeless young woman can become the university teacher, and so on.
Another key element of the care experience is that it is a life time experience. It does not suddenly stop at 16, or 18, or when the social workers define it as ‘relevant’ ‘formally relevant’ or anything else. The challenges, learning and successes go on well into adult life. Yet still researchers rarely speak with care experienced people over 25. These people are invisible to the legislation and guidance, so their wisdom, experience and learning remain an untapped reservoir.
The “CareExpConf” conference will be unique. It will bring the care experienced barrister, the care experienced university teacher, the doctor, the bricklayer, the window cleaner and care experienced people in every trade and profession, of all ages, together with young people still in care and those who may have just left. It will demonstrate by its very existence that all care expereinced people can achieve their dreams, that stigma and discrimination can be overcome and that none of the care family need feel alone or unworthy.
That achievement alone would be success enough. But CareExpConf will do more. It will enable the care community of all ages, in all its diversity, the opportunity to focus its combined wisdom, knowledge and experience upon the care system to identify what works and what does not work. It will allow that wealth of experience to make educated suggestions for improvements to care in the future. This has never been done before, ever. No, the conference for care experienced people of all ages, known to the team as CareExpConf, won’t be just another conference…