25 year old Becci Wallace co-runs an advice and networking project for care leavers in London. She has strong views on the care system and how things could be improved and is determined to make things easier for care leavers that come after her.
What age were you when you left care?
I left at sixteen; sixteen years old and I had the keys to my first flat. Of course that’s far too young. At the time I was pushing to get out, I just wanted my independence. That made it so easy for the social workers because I was a bit of a handful. You want to leave? Off you go then, here are the keys to your new home….. They must have been so relieved to get me off their books!
That was almost ten years ago. Do you think there are still too many children leaving care at sixteen?
It’s hard to say. I know over a thousand children go straight into independent accommodation with no formal support attached to it* and that seems like a lot. Even if the young person says they want to leave, the social workers should know better. A sixteen year old isn’t ready for all that responsibility whatever they say. Of course we are pushing for freedom; a lot of us at that age can’t wait to see the back of social services. We are often very angry still about our lives, and rebellious – which most teenagers are anyway even if they haven’t been in care. Most parents wouldn’t let their own children just walk out so why do social workers let it happen? I know there is a lot better support and planning now than there was in my day but from what I see it’s still not enough and I know too many children do still leave at sixteen.
So were you in any way equipped to face the challenges of adult life when you left?
I thought I was of course. In my foster placement I was allowed to take a lot of responsibility – cook my own meals and do my own washing from the age of about thirteen – the sort of things you start to do in an ordinary family as part of growing up. I had my own household budget at fifteen to choose my own food. I had also grown up believing I was ready to look after myself as I had taken care of my younger brother form a very young age. I really thought I was ready but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
What were the biggest difficulties you faced as a sixteen year old with all the responsibilities of a householder?
It wasn’t the money or the bills I was well able to manage those. Nothing could have prepared me for the loneliness and fear. Even on the week I was moving I was really looking forward to it. I was moving furniture in, I was going to be free and have my own life back. I was so happy. Then as the hours went by on that first day it started to dawn on me I was on my own. From being over protected in foster care and residential homes, always someone else in the house, always someone you could call on, or even just have an argument with if you needed one! There I was alone with no-one I could contact after 5pm when the social worker turned her phone off. On the first night I stayed up most of the night crying I was so scared. I could hardly call an emergency duty number just to say ‘excuse me I’m scared and I can’t sleep’. They just left me and said phone us if you need us. They knew I wasn’t the type of person to ask for help and they must have known I would not cope for long.
So how long was it before things started to go wrong in your new home?
It was downhill from the start really. The first priority was not to be scared and alone, so I just made friends with anyone. Anyone who would come up to my flat and spend time with me. Of course I was vulnerable – it’s easy to see that looking back but I didn’t know it then. If people wanted to smoke cannabis in my flat they smoked cannabis. If they wanted to have a party we had a party. Sometimes it was more innocent than that - I would just say to someone come up to mine and I’ll cook us something to eat. Everyone was sponging off me. I didn’t care what I did to get friends. I was arrested a number of times for drunk and disorderly, that kind of thing. I wold be the one to throw a stone through a shop window when I was off my face to impress my friends. Once I started getting into bother with the neighbours because of all night parties Social Services put a package of support in – fifteen hours a week. It was a bit too little and too late.
Why too late?
I was already pregnant by that time although they didn’t know it. I was drunk and I was 17. It wasn’t planned but there is nothing about that I regret now as my daughter is the best thing in my life. The worst part was the fear when I realised they were going to try and take the baby away from me. Even before that there was just an assumption that I wouldn’t be able to parent. The first visit to the doctor he had picked up the phone to arrange an abortion for me before he even asked me what I wanted to do! Then they immediately put the unborn child on the child protection register and the adoption register. They justified it by saying I was young and I had been in care, and I was unstable because of the amount of care placements I’d had. My argument was you have been my parents for the last ten years, are you saying you haven’t done a good job, you haven’t brought me up to be a responsible citizen so that I can be a parent too?
What impact did the pregnancy and your experience of how social services responded have on you?
It made it very difficult to relax and enjoy her for the first six months of her life. My house is always immaculate anyway and that would never have been a problem for me but because I knew I had Big Brother watching me I was quite paranoid and I cleaned and sterilised every bit of the house about four times a day instead of having more time just to go out with her for a walk or to the park. Even today if she comes home from school with a bruise or a cut – like eight year olds do – I quiz her so I know exactly how she got it in case I have to answer questions about it. That probably isn’t very good for her! Even when she was born she had to stay I hospital for two weeks and I could only visit. There was nothing wrong with her only they didn’t want me to take her home. I had worked really hard to make the flat as nice as I could. Eventually I agreed to go back into a foster placement – a mother and baby support. They limited everything including the time I was allowed to leave the house with the baby. I felt like I needed to be with my baby and bond with her and make our routine and rules together, not be back living by somebody else’s rules.
You were young, and you have described how your life had become very chaotic. Do you think looking back that social services were right to keep such a close eye on you to make sure you and the baby were safe?
I can understand why they did it, but to my mind they just got it all wrong. If they had had a different attitude I might have been happier to accept the support instead of being so paranoid about it. I really was terrified that they would take the baby. Form the moment she was born I knew I loved being a mother and that I could do a good job of looking after her and bringing her up. They didn’t give me a chance. They didn’t seem to notice that I was being a good mum and I wasn’t placing her at risk. I wasn’t the first seventeen year old ever to have had a baby. When they did start letting me have nights back at the flat they allowed us two nights, the first one unsupervised, the second one supervised. Which was very sensible as it meant if I had been going to do her any harm I would have done it in those first twenty- four hours!
What would have really helped you?
Just to be treated like a normal mum. Everyone can benefit from a bit of help and support as everything is so new first time around, but that’s true for any new mum. They could have offered me support in a way that suggested they cared a bit about me and respected who I was instead of just judging me. Their attitude just made me more angry and determined to get them off my case. I had completely changed and calmed down as soon as I knew I was having a baby. A bit of respect and care for who I was and talking to me instead of just telling me what they were going to do would have helped a great deal. In the end I just let go of the anger. I sat down and wrote them a letter saying you can keep her on the at risk register for as long as you like. You can’t take her off me and you won’t take her off me. I am a good mum and I think you are wasting your time and your money. I am not going to fight you any more. It felt really good writing it down just calm and clear like that and within a few weeks they had written to me to say she was no longer on the child protection register!
You have spoken about respect and understanding being important things that could improve relationships between young people in care and their social workers or carers. Is that something you felt was missing throughout your tie in care?
I really feel that a lot of foster carers need more training to understand what’s going on in a child’s head when they are brought into care. It’s obvious we are not just thinking the same as normal kids from normal families because something has to be very wrong in our own family for the social services to intervene. I didn’t want to play with Barbie dolls when I was eight years old – I couldn’t see the point and didn’t really know how to play. I was good at getting my little brother up for school and keeping him clean and making sure his soup and sandwiches were made for him. That was my role and that’s where I got my affirmation. I’m not saying it was wrong to take me and my brother out of all that but then to just to expect me to know how to be a different kind of kid, it just made me feel like they didn’t get me. They didn’t know or care who I was. If people had talked to me more and asked me in a way I could relate to what I was thinking and feeling, let me know that they wanted to know who I was and not just try and mould me into someone else I wouldn’t have been so rude and angry.
As well as being a proud mum to a lovely daughter you have been involved with fellow care leavers Clare and Hannah in setting up a project called CLIP etc. in London for care leavers. What do you hope to achieve?
I want there to be somewhere care leavers can go to get support and information that isn’t social services. I’m not saying social services don’t have a role, they do, and I know there is more support these days for kids leaving care than there was for me. But it is different talking to professionals and talking to peers, people who have been through it. I want care leavers to feel more at home in society and feel there is a place for them outside the care system. Hopefully everyone will find their role in life, in a job, as a mum, or whatever they want to be but until they have done a bit of growing up the only label they really have is as a care leaver. Care leavers can come to our project for support and advice, or to be signposted to suitable services for them, but the important thing is they can come and ask other care leavers. Every care leaver should have access to all the support and skills they need from cooking to financial advice, from accessing records to writing their CV. There are 1001 reasons why care leavers don’t turn back to their social workers for support once they have left care. Social workers need to get better at making themselves and their services more accessible; at CLIP we can be a stepping stone back to support too. They know they can feel safe and won’t be judged here. That way they won’t have to make the mistakes I made and invite all the wrong people into their lives just to get away from that loneliness and fear. Care leavers need second chances, and third chances and fourth chances. Whatever age she is, my daughter will always have a mother she can ring at 2.00am in the morning if she needs to. For many care leavers, despite its many inadequacies, the State – their ‘Corporate parent’ is all they have.
What are your ambitions for the next ten years?
I do want to work with children and see the system improve. I broke all my placements down because I wanted to be in control. When I was young I felt that everyone else had so much control over my life this was the only way to get that back was to break down placements and make them move me before they threw me out. A child in care does feel very powerless and part of being powerless is not really being given information to understand what is going on around you, or what will happen to you next. Foster carers and social workers are doing it every day and they can become very numb to what’s going on. For every child who is new into care, or a new care leaver, it’s for the first time. It’s unknown and it’s very frightening. Eventually I would like to foster myself. I’m a great mum, and I know I would make a great foster mum. It would be much later in my life, I wouldn’t expect Kiyla to share me with other children, although she is already a little activist and understands about my background as well as children all over the world who have less than she does. She checks that I haven’t forgotten to make our donation to water aid every month, helping children in Africa get what they need.
How have you changed from the angry sixteen year old who left care too young?
I am still myself! I don’t think I’m a different person to the one I was and I still think of myself as a care leaver. I am calmer and wiser! I am now accepting of my own past and what happened to me and I don’t blame myself any more. That enables me to hold my head up and feel equal to others in society. Sometimes I still judged by others – if I am taking a business idea to someone, as soon as I mention ‘care leaver’ they are suddenly looking down on me – but that doesn’t affect me any more. It is a problem the other people have. I am no longer a young mother, or a teen parent I am just a ‘mum’ and that is the most important thing in the world to be. I used to worry about whether I had the right clothes or makeup on before I went out the door, now I am more likely to just do a quick check to make sure there is no sick on my jumper!
DfE Looked After Children Statistics, September 2012
View details of the Care Leavers Information Project which Becci founded
View details of the Charter for Care Leavers which was launched by the Minister for Children and Families at 6.00pm on Monday 29th October.