Dr Cat Hugman and myself were invited by Dr Mariela Neagu, on behalf of the Oxford Children’s Rights Network at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights to give a presentation on our experiences from the Care Experience Conference. The event was all the more significant as it is the year of the 30th anniversary UN Convention Rights of the Child.
The Children’s Rights Network are a group of researchers, students, and practitioners primarily based in Oxford, working on a broad range of issues related to children’s rights. They created the platform in order to share information, exchange ideas, and collaborate on research.
The Care Experience Conference was led by Ian Dickson and a team of volunteers and was a life-changing event for many, seeds were planted… For my part of the presentation at Oxford, I reflected on how the Care Exp Conference steering group came together, how the conference evolved and the creativity behind the art exhibition that led up to the day.
At the heart of the care experience conference were the people aged 18-84 who had spent time in the system. Some still shell-shocked from that time. A warzone for many and now on the other side -determined to speak out about their treatment in hope that those who do the ‘caring’ will change re-assess their practice.
When a child goes into care they will have lost everything: family, possessions, home, and their friends. They will be dealing with trauma. They may be dealing with the death of a parent or neglect or abuse and also dealing with separation and loss. Children don’t go into care for happy reasons.
At present, there are 96,415 children in the care system in the UK.
A child enters the care system with the promise that governance, the Children’s Act and many other guidelines, covenants and pledges are in situ to protect and promote their human rights and wellbeing, yet it is often the case that a child in care is overlooked, forgotten, denied opportunities and finally at their most vulnerable time, their crucial formative teenage years 16-19 – they are simply told thank you and goodbye.
Prior to the conference, an online survey was carried out of care experienced people and those who work with them. There were over 50 responses. The key themes arising from the survey were used to draft the topics for the workshops taking place on the day.
There was unanimous agreement that the group accepted as care experienced any person who had experienced residential care, foster care, adoption, kinship care or long-term placement away from home in a residential school or boarding school who wanted to be regarded as care experienced.
Workshops were planned to capture the views about care from the professionals and care experienced people of different ages in their own protected workshops – it was really important to have safe spaces as well as a pastoral group available for people to speak to. The workshops would lead to a piece of published research.
When I was first asked to become involved I said yes with the proviso that there would be some sort of artistic expression. I was aware that not everyone can or even wants to talk about their experiences. Art in all its forms can help with that and act as a therapeutic conduit. I was coupled or tripled with Yusuf McCormack and Rod Kippen, two amazing artists and an absolute privilege for me. After travelling to Liverpool Hope for one of the early conference meetings, we decided on a format. To promote the art exhibition side of the conference and get care experience people to submit artworks. As The Dame, I would be in charge…of the spreadsheets.
For me it was also important that literature would be included because of my PhD research and because my love of reading as a child was one way I coped. We asked people via Twitter to donate books written by #careexp authors as prizes for a raffle that was to be held on the day.
I felt it was important that featured artist, Yusuf’s piece ‘No Colours for my Coat’ had a prominent position and could be seen as people entered the Eden Building. It’s significant that the little boy mannequin is lost under the weight of carrying those awful words about his experiences.
The historic day arrived and so it began – the photographs speak for themselves:
There is a relationship between artist and spectator just as with writer and reader. And it is this relationship which makes a piece truly art. The artist conveys emotion, and the spectator must receive it. The art exhibition was a statement of the common bonds between humanity; it served to create a sense of community, which for the care exp community it did in abundance. Not only changing the perception of care experience and removing stigma but also changing the narrative.
Tanya Ward, Social Worker:
‘The artwork in particularly was incredibly moving. I thought the conference was a great way to break the negative stereotype of care leavers. The young people I took to the conference talked about feeling a sense of belonging, being with people who have similar experiences. The media, the language used by professionals, amongst other things (as you know) often portray care leavers as lesser people, victims, a product of the system, but my care leaver group hates this and wants people to see them as resilient, resourceful, valuable young people. The conference helped them to feel that there are people there who support this idea and want to make it more wide spread!’
The above picture was painted for Ian Dickson, by a young person at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre and given to him when he retired – he said we could use it for the exhibition and that it was anonymous – I felt this was a significant and powerful way to remember those unable to be with us. Those incarcerated today, anonymous children in prisons and adults some of whom were once children in care whose trauma went unnoticed, overlooked, or was just ignored.
THE WINGS OF HOPE
It was very important for the care exp conference team that the day was not about one person and I was very conscious of that. As well as remembering those not with us on the day, I also wanted to bring some of the voices from the conference and let them tell you how it was for them:
Sue Dickson, steering group member and wife of Ian:
‘…the Care Exp Conf has been a part of my life for almost the entire time I have known Ian! I am an adoptee, so my experiences differ from many of the larger care experienced community, but as I became more involved, I discovered that there were indeed things that I had in common with others, so my involvement became personal.’
Alison O’Sullivan, steering group member:
‘The views of care leavers have never before been presented so powerfully. So these reports have landed very heavily with people who are responsible for commissioning and running services as well as with policy makers. They will be influential.’
Jacqui Adams, attendee:
‘I arrived at the University and almost immediately heard people calling my name and it was almost overwhelming. I lost the nervous feeling I had and I just felt I belonged with all the people there. I felt very sad at the end. I had more hugs in one day than I honestly think I had ever had. Above all I think I felt safe!’
Jackie McCartney, steering group member:
‘…the day arrived WOW it was like a big family reunion (Facebook and twitter) people who I connected with but never met face to face. It was a rollercoaster off emotions throughout the day an’ weeks that followed. The warmth and love will stay with me for ever, especially the one lady who hugged me so hard and we shared tears of joy and sadness as we shared our life stories.’
Kim Kathryn Cormack, attendee:
‘…it was never going to be easy opening up, tackling your own coping mechanisms etc. It sounds odd but I’ve never looked back. I just thought “OK, my PTSD got triggered. But it was worth it.” I’m just so happy and relieved that we have a chance to change things, that event empowered so many to use their voices.’
Jamie Crabb, steering group member:
‘I felt quite overwhelmed with grief that it had taken 37 years of my life to meet others with care experience who ‘got it!’ Building community amongst care experienced people could potentially be the most supportive and helpful experience we can have. Why did our corporate parents not see this and support greater community support?’
Yusuf, steering group member:
‘The conference belonged to us, it was ours, we mattered…It’s not a feeling many of us experienced during childhood, so, to get the recognition as adults was a moment in time to savour. To witness our ‘collective’ voices being heard, whether from the canvases or during the workshops was moving, and perhaps more importantly, seeing that this time, it was being taken seriously.’
Rod Kippen, steering group member:
‘The event itself had a huge impact on me which has stayed with me, to meet and hear people’s stories and what an impact the day was having on them was very powerful. It seemed that they could be in a place of complete acceptance.’
Dee Michell, academic chair from Australia:
‘For me the conference was an example of what sociologist Erving Goffman would call ‘flaunting’. When people are stigmatised they cope in various ways, including by not talking about their experience, but when people decide to challenge stigma, they flaunt – they talk about their experiences, write about it, refuse to be silent. The Care Exp Conference was for me a whole bunch of CEP flaunting their status and refusing to be branded as ‘less than’ anymore…That’s the beginning of a liberation movement.’
Saira-Jayne Jones, attendee:
‘We need to move away from the tokenistic consultation and involvement and approach things from a co-production perspective so there is value in the provision available and funding isn’t being used to service individual’s vanity projects. We need more visibility and not in terms of all the negative statistics and stigma. That there is a need for CEP to be a protected characteristic as we face discrimination and disadvantage on a number of fronts.’
I think going forward the value will be in activism and lobbying government to initiate the vital changes needed such as rapid access to mental health support for CEP, a standardised support package and approach from all universities etc so CEP are on an equal footing to their peers when accessing education.’
Ian Dickson, Chair of the steering group:
‘I spent many years as a social worker mainly working with young people in care and care leavers. I cannot count the times I heard professionals telling each other what care experienced people thought, felt and wanted. Yet this was rarely what I had felt, thought and wanted. That worried me. Care experienced people were viewed from the perspective of the problems they caused to themselves or others. They needed to be rescued, cured or prevented from engaging in their (negative) behaviours.
In all my years in social work, the care experience seemed to be something that applied only to young people still in care, or those who were leaving care, or those who had left care quite recently. I knew from my own life how the care experience did not end at 16, or 18, or 25, irrespective of what regulations and policy said. I watched policy makers and professionals planning & discussing “aftercare” and it bore little resemblance to my experience of life after care. I simply could not identify with it.
At conference, I saw a wonderfully diverse group of creative, optimistic people of all ages and talents come together. We had people from all the arts, professions and trades and those without employment weld together as one vibrant coherent force. We saw joy, happiness and hope. We saw the love that so many of us had missed in childhood. After over 60 years believing this would happen, that care experienced people would prove to be so much more brilliant than social workers perceived them to be, I had finally found my spiritual home. I was vindicated.’
And that is the bloomin’ truth!
We hope you’ll join us in sharing the 10 messages from the conference!
Rosie Canning – @Rosie_Canning
 McCormack, Y. (2019). Conversation 11 November, 2019.