The festive season provides an opportunity to think about those less fortunate than ourselves.
In the council chamber recently we discussed the children in our care. Councillors have a legal responsibility to act as ‘corporate parents’ to young people up to the age of 25, who for whatever reason, can no longer be looked after by their birth families.
In 1977, growing up in Coventry, I was just six-years old. One day my father arrived at the school gates. He was clutching a few of my belongings in a black plastic bin liner. “C’mon son”, he said: “your mum has had a heart attack, you’re coming to live with me.”
I would see my mother on one more occasion before she died. My dad lost his job shortly after and our descent into poverty was a rapid one. It was only a matter of time before social services got involved and, for me, the rest is history.
To experience care is to be thrust into a highly unusual situation. You may arrive at a foster home with few possessions in hand. The first night is the most difficult time because of the fact you are initially amongst complete strangers.
Every single one of the 419 looked-after children in Brighton and Hove today will have their own individual care experience stories. Of course, they will be supported by the council’s brilliant children’s services team. Our kids are looked after by loving foster parents, guardians or carers, interested in their well-being. The city council ranks third highest in the country for ensuring our looked after children stay in education or training. And thanks to a terrific response from the local community since 2015 the number of foster parents coming forward has increased by 10 per cent.
Nationally, care leavers represent just one per cent of the adult population; yet less than six per cent go onto university. They are massively over-represented in both the homeless and prison populations. For those that have experienced the most awful trauma and abuse, access to mental health and counselling services is a major issue.
We have to seriously ask of ourselves as a local community whether we are discharging our parental responsibilities to these kids, in a way that really supports them to transition successfully to adult life.
Despite some amazing stories of success against all the odds, the real-world outcomes for care leavers in Brighton and Hove are shockingly poor. Too many end up sleeping rough on our streets or get wound up in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, those from more affluent homes will often have the “bank of mum and dad” to fall back on. These parents will help their offspring secure a foot on the property ladder or a rental deposit. Crucially, these parents provide the cultural capital that we know can help boost individual life chances.
As a former care leaver and now a city councillor, I have a secured a local review of services for this highly vulnerable group. I’m delighted that my motion was unanimously supported by all the main political parties.
It includes the setting up of a care leavers’ trust – an independent charity that will launch in 2018 – to give the kind of support for care leavers that the bank of mum and dad already provides to more affluent kids. We’ve called the charity ‘Beyond’, because we think it is high time we aspired to move beyond the precarious position of care leavers today.
Over time, it should be possible to reduce the burden on local taxpayers by ensuring that around 200 young care leavers each year in the city do not end up on our streets or get into a life of crime. Surely that is what the season of goodwill is really about.
Tom Bewick is a Labour councillor on Brighton & Hove City Council, and trustee of care leavers’ trust Beyond.