A Care Leaver Called Ben

Ben Ashcroft copyMy name is Ben. I was taken into care after my mother abandoned us as kids a couple of weeks before Christmas.  Not surprisingly, this was the single most important thing to happen in my life up to that point. Although my brother and I were initially placed together, we were separated after just one week of being “looked after” and moved to emergency foster carers.  What was misleadingly called ‘care’ was for me actually the opposite, and resulted in the starkest changes to my behaviour and mental health. These changes eventually led to me being arrested and charged with a public order offence, a breach of the peace.

My young life now entered a downward spiral – moving between care placements, dabbling with drugs and getting involved in crime.  The cost to me was very heavy – homelessness, trauma and emotional damage. Over the next six years I was moved 51 times to 37 different placements.  I saw and experienced them all – residential children’s homes, foster placements,  ‘structured units’, secure children’s homes,  Secure Training Centres, Young Offenders Institutions and mental health wards. I managed to accumulate 33 convictions by the time I was 17 years old. You may now begin to understand how unstable my life became when I was ‘taken into care’ and my perception of the lack of support, and the lack of any real opportunity to be in stable placements with consistent care.

Since leaving care and crime behind me, I have had mental health issues and spent time in a Psychiatric ward. This is tragically not unique or uncommon for many care leavers, but to each one individually it is a harrowing experience.  It seems to be a path that many care leavers are destined to follow. Whether through good luck, resilience, strength of character or all of these factors, I am one of those who survived the journey. I may have been damaged, but I was not broken, and once I had dealt with the many issues stemming from my young life, I wanted to give something back and use my negative experience to help others experience a more positive one.

Firstly, in 2012 I wrote ‘Fifty-One Moves’ detailing my care experience. I hoped to offer others a better insight into the world of care and the juvenile criminal justice system from someone who had lived in and been through it. I have worked hard over the last few years and been invited as a keynote speaker to speak at many events, conferences and annual general meetings of key organisations including speaking at Westminster, Whitehall and similarly prestigious locations. I have worked with a number of charities and organisations including the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) on a European project on alternatives to custody. I also organised and facilitated focus groups for BAAF and worked closely with the young people involved in the project.

In December 2013, I was at the University of London working on a project with some young people who were sitting on a panel with me following a presentation I had given to some European visitors on behalf of BAAF. It was the day after new legislation was announced that declared that ‘Staying Put’, the opportunity for young people to stay in their foster placement until they were 21. This was good news and initially I celebrated. However, it soon became apparent that this new opportunity excluded about 9% of all looked after children and young people who just happened to be placed in residential children’s homes.

All the young people with me on the panel that day, great young people who had impressed their specially invited and knowledgeable audience with their presentations, lived in children’s homes. They were visibly angry and upset that the new legislation doesn’t include them.  This wasn’t diversity – this was simply discrimination.

How could I begin to explain to these children of the state that they were not to be afforded the same opportunity as their ‘peers’ in foster care?  Certainly not with any words in my vocabulary. This was clearly blatant discrimination against young people in residential care, a discrimination based on no fault of their own other than their living situation. I said to the young people I would do what I could about this but if I am honest not knowing what I was going to do or could do for them. I just knew I would do my best for them.

Over the next forty eight hours myself and some other caring, committed and passionate people formed ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters (ECLCM). Did we have a plan? Not exactly! Did we know each other?  Virtually not at all!  Are we a diverse group? Yes indeed! We included care leavers, social providers, writers, inspectors, of different ages and probably social backgrounds. The longer the campaign has gone on, the more people have joined us, and the more diverse we have become. What is ‘diversity’?

One definition I read said that “Diversity recognises that though people have things in common with each other, they are also different and unique in many ways. Diversity is about recognising and valuing those differences. By recognising and understanding our individual differences and embracing them, and moving beyond simple tolerance, we can create a productive environment in which everybody feels valued”

How can any right minded person regard the way this government is implementing the ‘Staying Put’ initiative as meeting this definition of diversity? How is the practice of treating looked after children leaving care differently based on where they happen to be living on their eighteenth birthday recognising each as a valued individual? Of course, it’s not. However you define discrimination that is a better word for it.

The ECLCM Campaign group were offended at the outset and have remained offended ever since. We find it hard to comprehend that ‘our’ government can so blatantly refuse equal rights and opportunities to looked after children. The ECLCM campaign now has many thousands of supporters and followers – but not yet enough it seems to help the government accept that on this matter they are simply wrong.  Please help us to help them change their mind by supporting us.

Let us for a moment take away all the social work theory, government policy, legislation and child care tradition accumulated over generations and summarise what is ‘good enough’ care for vulnerable children and young people. It is actually quite easy. Would I allow my children to be treated in this way? If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t treat any other child like that. We would not subject our children to 51 moves. We would not allow our child to decline into the criminal justice system and endure emotional trauma as so many looked after children have done.

We would not allow one of our children to stay at home until they are 21 and support them closely whilst showing another the door at 16+. Would we? If the answer is ‘No’, then we have an ethical and moral duty to oppose the way this government is implementing ‘Staying Put’ and insist that this level of support is given to ALL care leavers – where ever they happen to be placed.

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