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I babysat the neighbours’ kids, felt like a grown up by cooking my parents a three course meal (always spag bol, usually followed by Arctic roll), walked the dog and helped with the shopping. But if you grew up in care, these opportunities perhaps didn’t arise so naturally. So how does a life in care prepare young people for independent living?
The first time I considered this issue was when I watched 'Leaving' by Paddy Campbell at Northern Stage in Newcastle (which is coming back to the stage in March).
One of the things that struck me was the cut off point for care. One minute you’re a child then, as your 18th birthday hits, you’re suddenly an adult and away you go to a life of independence.
I left home at 17 but the circumstances were very different. I played at being a grown up. I still ran home to mum and dad to do my washing and eat a proper meal. I was in the comfort of limbo. But for care leavers it’s a different story. I spoke to Reece-Michael Stone who contributed to Paddy Campbell’s play.
Reece left the care system just before he turned 17. He made the decision when he was 16, and made an appointment with the ‘leaving care’ team who secured him a flat and his own tenancy. But he wasn’t prepared for the responsibility.
‘Getting my own flat was the worst decision I have ever made’, Reece explained. ‘I am now in so much debt and it was at that point in time that I attempted to take my own life for the second time. ‘I just wasn’t ready or prepared whatsoever. I had no basic life skills.
‘The first week there I did the washing and all my clothes came out pink. ‘I never once paid council tax and had no idea how to get insurance for the flat or anything. ‘I even ended up in hospital after trying to clean the flat – I ended up inhaling a lot of bleach fumes.’
Reece admits he spent his first month of independence living on Pot Noodles and spending all his money on alcohol and drugs.
So why wasn’t Reece as prepared as I was? Well, like I said, I wasn’t really. I dipped a toe into independent living but always had parents to fall back on. It’s very different for young people without that kind of support.
Reece said: ‘I think I struggled because I never had someone I felt I could talk to who would listen without judging me. Just having someone to talk to could have saved me so many problems, troubles and stress.’
Mark Edwards, author of Life After Care, also found the transition hard. Mark left care back in the 80s and went to live with his sister. He said: ‘Leaving care was frightening and dramatic. I had been institutionalised and had known nothing else but a routine way of life.
'I was told when to get up, when to go to bed, what to wear, when to eat, when to have a bath. It was a very structured and regimented way of life. ‘Even at aged 16, we were still being supervised at bath time, which was embarrassing.’
Mark’s experience resulted in him suffering from depression and, like Reece, attempting suicide. He added: ‘When I arrived in Chester with a huge suitcase my sense of abandonment and panic caused me to withdraw into myself and I wouldn’t leave my bedroom. ‘I just used to sit on the floor holding my head in my hands rocking backwards and forwards and drinking.
‘My sister didn’t know what to do. She tried to get help but no one was interested.’
Mark ended up being sectioned when things reached crisis point. ‘It was an experience much akin to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest back then. ‘I was only young and I was living with older adults, some of whom had committed violent crimes and it was terrifying at first.
‘However, when I was released from hospital I found it hard to settle into my sister’s and ended up sleeping rough in a church building for some time.’
Both Mark and Reece turned their lives around, however. Mark is now a happily married priest and published author with an MBE – although his background in care and in hospital meant it was a struggle to be taken seriously by some within the church.
Reece is now a barista and has moved into a flat share with his best friend – so he finally has someone to speak to about the little things we all take for granted. He has also spoken at the houses of parliament about his experiences and has ambitions to become an MP.
Reece said: ‘Life is just perfect at the moment and I am more relaxed and happy than I have been in my whole life. Right now nothing can stop me.’
These successes are quite extraordinary achievements for anyone, but given Mark and Reece’s backgrounds they are even more impressive.
Would they still have achieved the same things in life if the transition from care had been easier? I believe they would. But perhaps a less bumpy transition would have removed the risk of society losing two highly active members of the community who are affecting change for others today.
By Lucy Nichol
4 February 2018