For all its many flaws, I do appreciate twitter. Largely because it helped me to ‘come out’ as a #CEP. I was intrigued when I first came across the term #CEP tagged behind the names of some extraordinary human beings. #CEP = care experienced person. And as I followed one #CEP to another I was honestly amazed to find that there was such a thing as a care experienced community. What had previously been prescribed as either ‘in’ or ‘ex care’ had shifted to a ‘Looked After’ person. It was very disconcerting to be described by a Support Teacher at my children’s school as a ‘PLAC’ or “Previously Looked After’ person by the way. Even though I had been brought up in care and was an ardent activist in my youth I didn’t self-identify that way. Especially as – with many – I had hidden my identity for the past thirty years and had only recently been comfortable making it known in my profile, professionally or in public.
Back in my day, there were no older care experienced people to look up to, not unless they were sports heroes like the amazing Nze Kriss Kezie Akabusi – a #CEP hero of mine to this day.
Leaving ‘care’, most of us were unlikely to publicise our ‘care experience’ certainly not adopt it as part of any profile. You just left care and that was the end of it. We were expected to disperse, inbuilt into the ‘care’ design, to be assimilated in maturity into the wider community. That is the sorry work of the Social Services. To transform us from needy client to independent, stand up member of Society. Not to be identified again unless we happen upon a prison cell, a drug programme or a night shelter for the homeless. For the vast majority of ex-care adults our role was to marry, raise a family, get a job and never raise our status as a #CEP again. Certainly NOT as a badge of pride. Certainly not as a way to inspire or to assure others seeking to find their own way. Not as so many high-profile members of other communities are apt to.
And I say all this as someone who was never ashamed or timid of having spent my whole childhood in children’s homes. But who also couldn’t wait to escape them.
I am a founder of an organisation that back in the day (1980s) was a clarion call for young people in and ex care. Way before either mobile phones or the internet let alone twitter. We used the phone and sent out an awful lot of letters to reach young people in care.
But news spread (thanks to so many Social Workers) and we started up The National Association of Young People In Care. NAYPIC was the first and only campaigning body to be run by and for ‘in and ex-care’ young people. My voluntary work – around my degree study – meant (amongst other things) developing in care and ex-care groups at grassroots level, in the locality of every major region of the UK. Posters were the main way to get attention back then. I can’t recall if we grew very quickly – only that there was enormous demand for it. At its height, NAYPIC had a National Executive and Regional Officers and an active membership that grew from within children’s homes, foster placements, bail hostels, remand centres, the lot.
We held a weekly drop -in and published monthly newsletters, which I orginally edited. We convened Conferences – some of which were very chaotic and yet extremely productive. I ran workshops (video and writing) – where I came across a very young Lemn Sissay who came down to London to appear with other NAYPIC members from all over the country in the Black and In Care video. It was my directing debut and it highlighted a vital issue from Contributors like the remarkable advocate David Akinsanya and inspiring David Okora. Many others too that gave of their time like me, for free. It was an ad-hoc affair, made up on location. A production that was designed to bring all young black #CEP’s together and make them feel openly proud.
I made another called ‘Speak Out’ which covered the whole gamut of care issues. Video then, became an early ‘voice’ for the collective spirit of the #CEP. It sent our message wide. It gave the viewer the chance to see us as as providers of the answers to issues they never knew existed. Until we voiced them.
I also pulled together from numerous sources, the very first views of the ‘care community’ and put them into a Parliamentary Report (called ‘Sharing Care’) which formed the basis of the 1989 Children’s Act. As a national voice for the #CEP of its day NAYPIC advised the Government, the Labour Opposition, Local Councils, the major Unions (BASW, ADDSS), the national and Social work press, a very limited pool of Academics & Researchers, indeed almost every affiliate organisation turned to NAYPIC when they were designing policy, running workshops or Conferences – everyone wanted to hear the views of the Nation Assn. of Young People In Care.
Then I left it to go to Film school. I never told anyone who I was or what I had done. I wish I had because the @NFTSFilmTV along with other training facilities currently needs to improve on its track record of support for #CEP. I wrote my first screenplay about my time in care which the BBC was eager to film but – I found out later – without me directing my own story. I also tried to direct Tracy Beaker and was turned down. After three decades in the television industry and as long in the teaching profession I recognise that there are times it just doesn’t do to remark on your own care experience. And I totally understand that many people with care backgrounds (most people I think) still keep their back stories hidden. In the workplace, the neighbourhood or in club activities, because you can sense a definite shift in attitude that comes from others towards you once they are primed with the knowledge you spent your early life in care. Unlike with twitter, being ‘care experienced’ is still NOT a badge of honour in so many other arenas and many professional #CEPs feel rightly that if others have that knowledge about you it can put you at a severe disadvantage.
There was never any real ‘care’ community – until it came of age on twitter. And I am glad of it. A cheerleader section of so many talented and inspiring people able to raise the profile of the care experienced as one and hopefully bring advantages to others who are not so vocal. Major talents from this generation I am proud to call colleagues and friends.
But the #CEP community like any group also has its dissolute and reflects alternative opinions – which is to be expected and is healthy – and very evident even back in my day. Not just on the floor at the NAYPIC Conferences which were highly charged affairs but also way back in the children’s home. Most care experienced people are used to flare ups. Living cheek by jowl you have to learn to get on with things like that.
It’s important to stress that twitter is NOT wholly representative of the care community. How can it be? We have a digital divide in this country that will act as a barrier. But crucially too, the vast majority of people who were in care are not known at all. They have dissolved into the wider community. They are not recognised nor represented, let alone appear on twitter identifying as #CEPs.
What we dont see is a ‘hidden’ much wider community as well as a connected but ‘silent’ one. Most of whom rearely tweet and resolve not to endorse any overt views expressed on twitter. In my own DM’s there are only a very few concerned commentators, that feel that what they see on twitter is indeed reflective of our community. And yet the notion has grown – not just that there is a defined ‘shape’ of a community but one that is currently also divided somewhat. And the narrative has arisen too that the Care Experienced community are actually at war with each other.
The thinking is that it’s the Care Review (so glad I didn’t highlight this earlier) that has brought about this #CEP schism; that there are those in support and those not. And as passions rise between Campaigners, Scholars and Promoters on both sides of the argument, there also appears to be a battle too for the minds of the Social Work community as well as the #CEP – especially the younger ones.
But can we also say that twitter reflects the Social Work fraternity? That it contains the core issues in it, or that it does well to highlight the activities, views and experiences of the vast world of Social Work? Of course we cant. The main difference with the Care Experienced community is that some people with ‘care’ backgrounds seem to have gravitated towards and settled on twitter as some kind of base or ‘home’. An outlet for self identification maybe (so important) and an arena in which to find liked ‘experienced’ (not necessarily like minded) allies and friends. And that for them being a #CEP is not only a badge of honour or pride but an avenue for change – which lets face it can be a daunting and a very lonely existance.
So, yes – some of our community like to make a noise. And good thing to. But those pyrotechnics are not te whole story either. So many others choose a different (maybe less vocal) tack. The amazing, personal and resonant blogs of Benjamin Perks spring to mind. His tweets as are those of Jamie Crabb brilliantly focus on our collective #CEP trauma. They are soulfull and educational. Idiosyncratic and yet chime with us all.
The practical and down to earth campaigning of Terry Galloway blows me away. Terry is a powerhouse. He makes the difference every day.
It is worth noting that there are #CEPs who have taken opposite sides over the Care Review who are still friends and stay in touch despite that singular difference. Because essentially, if we may not agree on the route, we do all tend to feel the same about what is needed to improve the care system.
Sadly, there have been monumental flare ups. There has also been some unnecessary abuse, which has led to hurt feelings and to people blocking or been blocked – the offence that hurts the previously ‘abandoned’ most it seems. Is it not okay to block or mute someone? Not everyone in our community needs to be friends.
I must include myself among the squabblers. Having defended – quite bluntly at times – the right of young #CEPs (or hidden voices) to speak up. To take part in this Review. I have also rather crudely had to stand up for myself and my own personal legacy. Not just because I was invited to take part in the EbE on the Care Review but because ‘speaking up’ is in my DNA. And that I wont stand by and see brave CEPs taken down.
The history of activism within the care experienced community has really yet to be written. Its my view that our disenfranchisement is a symptom of us having been cut off crudely from our collective past.
I was involved in a major parliamentary review of children’s social care when I was a young activist myself. It was every bit as bad both politically and economically as it is now. The UK was an unequal, racist, divided country in the early 80’s. The Tories were busy attacking Society, dismantling the power basis of the Unions and were massively against public spending. Children in care numbers was at an all-time high. And wards of the State were considered a major problem and a burden to the Government – both financially and socially. It was quite an experience for me to go into the heart of parliament. To try to educate and influence the thinking of antiquated, out-of-touch politicians. To bring change to a broken care system that had decimated our own childhoods.
It’s that seminal experience that informs my support for any young care experiencing advocate who wishes to give their views to the Care Review today. Even if those who are running it are characterised as equally biased, up to no good or out of step. My position is that it is vital that those in care have their say at all times. A serious issue that is not just aimed at the Care Review but within the system; with Local Authority ‘In-Care Councils’ and After Care groups – most of which look to be appallingly unfit for purpose. Children’s rights currently being a mockery of what they once were.
I do acknowledge the very real fears from anti-watch Experts by Experience. Some of whom as close friends are serious critics of the Review. These are #CEP with every right to express their distrust who have an equally admirable track record of supporting our community.
And I respect their views and support those campaigns that the Care review needs to act urgently on – there should be an end to unregististered children’s homes, young people should not be thrown out of care at 16 (not at 18 or 25 either in my view) and our older population need reparations for systemtic abuse whilst they were in care. That’s a national disgrace seen recently in the IICSA Report on Lambeth. It needs national action – now.
But I also stand strongly against (the very few) personal attacks and dog whistling or any attempt to prevent others from sharing their views. I have been aggressive in that defence I admit. Not least because in order to have a functioning community we must also have respect for inclusivity and pluralism.
Sadly, those volleys fired in twitter spats between fellow #CEP feeds into the misconception that we couldn’t organise ourselves out of a paper bag. That we can’t possibly recreate the days of NAYPIC and have a national voice for the whole Care Experienced Community. I disagree. There are a range of strategic minded, professional #CEP from a vast range of professions who are capable of setting direction, supporting each other and who stand ready.Others who have run campaigns too.
And it is worth putting the infrequent though bitter arguments into context; that what is being expressed is coming from people who care. Care strongly about the appalling inadequacies of the system and the underlying and systemic causes of that.
The vast bulk of the Care Experienced have never even heard of the Care Review. And among our community are plenty of highly articulate, well educated and professional young #CEPs who have turned their backs. Who choose not to speak up at all. Their anger is not aimed at the Care Review but with Charities – the same organisations that the Care Review has sadly aligned with. These young #CEPs feel strongly that their experience and voices cannot find expression due to the crowded nature of the advocacy movement. The chorus of disapproval on twitter and in Care Lovers Rock on Facebook is testimony to this.
The fact is that twitter is both a distraction and a distortion. With the overwhelming majority of #CEP either silent or who feel ‘silenced’. Whose opinions are just as vibrant (and needed) but are unheard. Evidence of this can be found in the latest peer led campaign (of which I am a member) called RECLAIM. An intergenerational support group wanting to see the advocacy space ‘reclaimed’. Who feel denied the opportunity to speak out without the intervention of a Charity that wants to ‘amplify’ it. These Advocacy Groups (some mighty Corporate Bodies) often in competition for the views and experiences of the #CEP have disincentivised and disenfranchised our young. They claim to represent the care experience and yet not one of them has a #CEP employed who will ever reach the position of CEO.
What needs amplifying are the regular complaints of intrusion, of personal life stories being ‘stolen’ often from twitter feeds by proxy advocate Agencies. Cheap offers made to entice or ‘commodify’ testimonies. Of insensitive Charity Managers or PhD Researchers who believe a gift token is an inadequate reimbursement for a life lived in chaos.
Children’s Rights it seems has been replaced by a plethora of niche advocacy, with no chance of any #CEP pathway advancement. Sadly, the very people we need to drive on Children’s Rights are dispassionate and lack urgency. These younger activists are disinclined are ambivalent also about the Care Review. Their response has not been helped by the view that as a community we are disunited, are in freefall, in a civil war or that the #CEP community itself is toxic.
Twitter is not a litmus test of the diverse views of the Care Community. There are some huge #CEP personalities of course. These are some players within the advocacy movement who demand to be listened to. We also have some persistent, respectful, mission based #CEP, who reach out to others and I support them or encourage them daily. These #CEP fill me full of admiration. There are also some magnificent campaigners, creatives and behind the scenes people who devote themselves quietly to reform, who plug away at the solutions they see, who will not be drawn into twitter spats. For instance:
The amazing Jerome harvey-agyei recently tweeted: “I dont wish to talk about problems any more. I am focused on solutions and self work in being a model of love compassion, meaningful action and beautiful connections.”
He is not alone in his attitude. That it is what we do and not the magnitude of our voice that carries most weight. There are no awards or accolades for these care experienced people – only the inner acknowledgement that they are giving back, pushing forward and enabling others.
All #CEP voices really do deserve to be heard. But not at volume over everyone else. Not at the cost of the quiet voices within our community. I myself have faced some awful lies and abuse since I arrived as a #CEP on twitter and some of it yes, has been hurtful. Especially when I am accused of benefitting personally in some way or as in one case it looks to harm my wife and my children. I get VERY defensive. If I am guilty in my lack of acknowledgement to others I do apologise, it’s been problematic at times for me, as I seek to find my own place in this community. Because the word community for me is a tricky concept. I have never felt part of one before – ever. It’s been difficult to navigate where I sit within this ‘community’ – rejection and/or abandonment has that effect. It’s likely I still don’t quite yet grasp what a community is about, how we are supposed to act at all times within it.
I do know what it is like to feel unacknowledged. I got no accolades for the eight unpaid years I spent as a youth activist. The films I made were made for no profit and with zero budgets. I took little credit. Having set up NAYPIC in London I quietly went about developing It to a national institution. I wrote a major Report without aid nor finance that impacted the legal status of children in care in this country, that affected policy and practise across generations. I never even put my name to my work – which I now see was hugely impactful. I never thought to monetise any of it or ‘brand’ myself. But then I didn’t get into advocacy for personal reward. I was a highly articulate kid when I was in care – and the loud noise I made was my protection. Kept the paedophiles off me and kept my siblings safe. However, there were also other kids in the same home who were not so vocal and who were disenfranchised and weak and it was THESE kids who were targeted for abuse and who were hurt the most. And that is what took me into advocacy and activism. It keeps me involved on a local stage in support of older care experienced people in the Borough of Islington. Here there are very serious issues too. It is EXACTLY the same as we have seen in Lambeth except that our older care leavers – who were sexually, racially and violently abused – have been offered a paltry financial offer instead of redress or reparations which is what we ask.
I have been kindly called an ‘enabler’ in my activism and I take that credit happily. I would like all enablers to feel acknowledged as I believe it is us enablers who make the real impact; we put others first, give something back, open the doors to those coming up behind.
What I see is needed now is a coming together. A national campaigning, advocacy movement run by and for #CEP to join up these many, many outstanding behind-the-scenes advocacy activists and the work they do. An organisation of our own that will get the same respect as NAYPIC once did but that will talk for the whole community – inter generationally. I am not alone too in believing that we should also collectively be pushing for the care experienced community to get recognition as a whole entity and be granted protected characteristics. And that may be the very least that the Care Review recommends.
What twitter illustrates perfectly for me is the industrious nature of the Care Experienced Community in seeking to make change. I feel that every single #CEP led campaign, peer to peer success story, improvement as part of a service or a policy change made by even one care experienced person is a contribution worth applauding and being grateful for. For the ultimate good of those who need it or can’t do it. Who come behind us. It is clear others feel the same – the ‘likes’ for such advocacy and activism is always high.
The way I see it is that we are all working to make change happen and that every major effort and small success is adding significantly to the legacy that we leave for future #CEP. Each of us in our own way is having a profound impact, as part of a movement, to fix this broken system. And that the one thing in common is that every #CEP recognises that there is an urgent need to do so.