Todmorden writer Henrietta Bond declared herself passionate about her subject to her audience at the August general meeting of Todmorden U3A; the plight of young people leaving care – the subtitle of her talk, No-One to Fall Back On. Henrietta proved to be true to her word and started by reading a passage from one of the Young Adult novels she has written about care leavers, Remote Control. One of a number of often moving readings she interspersed her talk with.
She was not a care leaver herself, having grown up in a conventional family and with a mother she could always go home to when she was older. When Henrietta was 26, her mother committed suicide which had a very big impact on her life but by this time she had a wonderful husband and very good friends she could turn to for support. Her situation, she emphasised, was very different from that of most care leavers.
Having been press officer with the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, Henrietta met her first care leaver when she went to work for Fostering Network. She had written what she described as a nice cosy message designed to recruit foster carers. A colleague insisted she present the press release to a group of young people who had left foster care to get their approval. She resisted the idea, convinced that these young people would have no idea of what the media and the public needed to hear. It did not go well. Henrietta found herself faced with three, in her words, “highly articulate smartly turned out young people who had very strong opinions of their own.” They vehemently objected to what one characterised as a message that sounded “as though children are just something you give away.”
Henrietta still resisted but eventually she and the young people agreed on a final press release. So started a path which saw Henrietta working directly with young people in the process of leaving care, helping them use the media more effectively. She continued to help them tell their stories as a media trainer, consultant or a journalist. After a time the young people took over that role and began to train others, leading Henrietta to concentrate on writing.
The subtitle of Henrietta’s talk sums up the situation many care leavers face when they first venture out into the world. In England, around 10,000 16-18 year-olds leave care each year. Surveys show that many feel they leave care too early and often feel isolated and lonely. The quality of support care leavers receive is patchy and their journey through the first decade of adult life is often disrupted, unstable and troubled. They are used to a regulated life and are unlikely to have been given training in budgeting, or how to cope with things like utility bills and rent. Separated from their families by circumstances or rejection, they literally have no one to fall back on.
Henrietta reminded her audience how they sometimes find it frustrating when a utility company makes a mistake. A difficult or unforthcoming person on the other end of the phone can be testing enough for us, but imagine how it is for a 16/17 or 18 year old. As well as having lost touch with their wider families, young people may have a history of abuse or neglect; moved so many times that they had no chance to make lasting friends or make the most of their schooling. Experiences such as these are also very damaging to a young person’s self-esteem. In 2013, 34% of all care leavers were not in education, employment or training at age 19. Compared with 15.5% of 18 year-olds in the general population. Additionally, there is evidence that leaving care takes place at the time when young people’s memories of early trauma are re-awakened – all those events that brought them into care in the first place.
It’s not all doom and gloom, Henrietta assured her audience. In 2000 the Children Leaving Care Act introduced an entitlement to the support of a personal advisor up to the age of 25 for all care leavers in education or who wish to return to education. There is also now an assessment of prime needs such as education, training housing, health, relationships, finance and budgeting; which will comprise a Pathway Plan for the care leaver’s future. There is also a provision called Staying Put – where in theory – young people can stay in care until age 21.
Despite all the disadvantages they face, there are success stories and many young people leaving care go on to build happy lives of fulfilment and satisfaction and more are going on to university.
Henrietta’s readings vividly conveyed a picture of these young people’s lives in ways the above facts and figures cannot. Henrietta closed by urging her listeners to look up the Every Child Matters campaign on the internet and support it, adding her as her final message: if it’s not good enough for your own children then it isn’t good enough for these very vulnerable young people in care.
Henrietta’s website is henriettabond.com. The other titles she read from are: The Leaving Care Diaries; Brightness of Stars by Lisa Cherry; 51 Moves by Ben Ashcroft; Hackney Child by Hope Daniels and Morag Livingstone
Report by John Bouttell
Picture by Roger Howard