Why being a Care Leaver at university makes us superheroes
What do you think about when you hear the term ‘Care Leaver’?
We often get misunderstood as those with caring responsibilities, or young carers. Instead, we are those who have aged out of the state care system, such as foster or residential homes, which is quite different.
In this context many people might go on to think about the Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Tracy Beaker’ books, about children abandoned in a ‘dumping ground’, with dreams of being saved by the perfect foster parent. Some may even think about the wizard who lived under the stairs under kinship care of his aunt and uncle, the famous Harry Potter, who was saved from his abusive kinship care experiences to enter a world of magic.
As a PhD researcher (Carrie) and a final year undergraduate (Elle) at Loughborough University who are both care experienced people, we want to set the record straight on the stereotypes about people who have experienced the care system. We also want to share some of the barriers to succeeding in life and provide ways in which Higher Education Institutions can make our and others’ experiences more equitable.
Firstly, both of our care experiences differ greatly, from our family set up, reasons for entering the care system, the way we entered the care system, and our pathways out of care and into adulthood and independence from the care system.
However, we were both expected to be ‘independent’ of support networks; financially, physically, and emotionally as soon as we reached 21 or 25 if we wished to continue in education and training.
What are some of the examples of significant barriers we face because of our experiences that are entwined with the care system?
One of the painful barriers is the forced separation of ‘family’ when we enter care. Then after you reach 18, all requirements and restrictions are gone and your birth family members have full unrestricted access to you. This can potentially cause, chaos and explosions, as those originally deemed unable to parent you before you turn 18 are in some cases expected to house you, with fragmented and trauma-fuelled relationships grounding the whole experience.
As care experienced people we face potential significant gaps in education due to missing school. This can be for a multitude of reasons, including problems at ‘home’ and the relationships there, police interviews, court meetings and social worker visits, and meetings about your care that take you out of your classes – all of which are required by the system.
This disruption is exacerbated by a high chance of frequently moving ‘placements’ (this is the word the system uses to describe where we live). Often moved with no warning, you may also only be given bin bags to pack your things into. Add onto this constant changes in social workers and staff around you and you can easily understand the significant disruption and upset this may create.
All these barriers and experiences can lead to relationships being challenging and emotionally difficult, and often difficult to navigate. We are often left without examples of consistent, stable, and safe relationships so we become super independent. We don’t ask or seek support, because it’s ingrained in us that there is no one there to support us, and if there is we may struggle to even see the safety in that relationship because it is so alien to us.
A lack of mental health support that understands and deals with trauma means that we will often go into survival mode, pushing forwards with undiagnosed disabilities and conditions until we are at breaking point. We are then seen by support services as chaotic, as we finally get support when we are way beyond the usual point at which someone would ask for help.
So, we stumble, we pick ourselves up and continue to work through all these barriers, because there is no other choice. We internalise our experiences because no one took the time to tell us ‘it’s not your fault’. We live with an unfair shame attached to having a care experience (that isn’t ours to hold or have), and when we do ‘come out’ as having been in care we are often met with sad eyes and ‘I wouldn’t have thought you were in care with who you are and what you have achieved’. Then if we do struggle with any of it, we are branded as ‘bad kids’, disengaged with services and thus undeserving of support.
What does this mean for you and what can we do to support people with care experience in Higher Education?
First and foremost, check your family privilege. Family privilege is defined as the benefits, mostly invisible, that come from membership in a stable family. Most people cannot even imagine what life might be like without Family Privilege. Only as we recognize the power of Family Privilege can we begin to grasp how its absence hinders development. By asking you to check your family privilege, we are not just talking about the consistent financial support provided to you over the years such as funding you to follow hobbies and have dreams, driving you to university when you start, making sure you have everything you need for those first weeks, going home during the holidays free of charge and fed, and being sent back to university with a care package. There may also be consistent love and support provided to you. To know that the adults around will be the same people when you go to bed and get up in the morning and will show you love in their own way. To know there is someone at the end of the phone when you need them, and that you can’t raise don’t need to make sure you don’t have any issues after 5pm or at the weekend, because the person at the end of the phone will be unavailable.
Secondly, when you think of inclusion, think about us. Because we are so few (under 20 undergraduate students at Loughborough University) we are very often forgotten about, unseen, unheard unless you have a superhero care leaver in your midst who shouts and bangs the drums at every opportunity.
Thirdly, when you think about who may need additional financial support, we should be at the top of the list, with only 9% of 18–21-year-old care leavers attending higher education (around 3000 students across all British universities) and of those who complete their undergraduate studies, only around 25% go onto post graduate study. We do not receive local authority support over the age of 25, or generally past undergraduate study. But our needs do not change once we hit 21 or 25, it’s just that the services that represent our ‘family support’ stop recognising our needs.
However, we are really excited that after bringing attention to the needs of all care experienced people who may be studying at Loughborough, the University has reviewed the support package available to us to include support for postgraduate taught courses (tuition fee waiver) alongside the existing supportive package for undergraduate students. This makes Loughborough the first university in England to have dedicated financial support for post graduate study for care experienced people, something which should be widely celebrated and shared.
We don’t expect all the work to come from Loughborough, so we want you to know what we (Carrie and Elle) are doing too.
We are both active advocates for change in the big wide world, standing proud and loud in our experiences, in the hope that others will see there can be a safe and open space for them.
Within the University we are in the process of setting up a Care Experienced Support Hub, open to all those with care experience. This includes all levels of study, and staff who may have been in care themselves or have a link to care; maybe their parents fostered, maybe they kinship cared for a family member or are a foster carer themselves. As well as the open space, this hub will also have dedicated sessions for each of the groups to share, support and see others with their own unique experiences. We hope that this group will also be able to contribute to the wider EDI work and research to ensure that care experience is recognised and grown across the university and beyond.
If you are interested in finding out more or becoming a superhero member of our hub, please do contact us on C.T.Harrop@lboro.ac.uk until our dedicated email is set up.
With compassion and understanding,
Carrie and Elle
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Thankyou Carrie and Elle, you are doing great work bringing this often invisible set of issues to the fore (as as you’ll be only too aware there is so much more to these contexts). Thankyou for your personal bravery in sticking your heads about the parapet to advocate for all care experienced people. You are absolutely superheros!