Sam Olsen is Director of Strategy and Development at St Christopher’s Fellowship. She is also sits on the Access All Areas working group.
Sam is passionate about improving the lives of young people who come through the doors of St Christopher’s. Sam spoke to us for National Care Leavers’ Week, with 27 year old Lara and Mo, age 18 who are now helping other young care leavers through St Christophers’ peer mentoring scheme.
Sam, St Christopher’s is becoming an active voice in representing care leavers issues. What has led you to decide to do this?
At St Christopher’s, our focus on delivering services for children and young people. We have been very aware of the need to start early with our children to create good aspirations and role models. But it isn’t just the young people you have to educate! There is a need to raise standards in sector, to raise our aspirations for care leavers and better manage the transition to adulthood.
As an organisation, we are starting to look more outwards so that we can influence the environment we are sending care leavers out into, as well as working with them when they are with us. If things are ever going to really change, society at large needs to be more aware of care leavers as a group. We need to raise public awareness and get to a state where society feels collectively responsible for these children, recognising that looking after and supporting them in care, through their childhood, their transitions and sometimes well into their adult lives is a thing that is done on behalf of us all. If there was more of a collective responsibility for children in care the public would demand better standards and better outcomes. This is why National Care Leavers Week is so important. It’s an opportunity to bring these issues into the public domain. If more people in mainstream life were aware of the needs of care leavers more doors would be opened for them.
You were involved earlier in the year on behalf of ADCS and St Christopher’s with a number of organisations involved in supporting Care Leavers in publishing a report called Access All Areas. Why was this project so important and do you think it has any real power to change how Government Departments behave?
Access All Areas sets an excellent standard; it sets the bar very high. But can one report make a difference? Not unless it is implemented locally. We need all local authorities to be delivering at the same high standard as the best - and it is up to all of us who backed the report to continue to raise the issues to make sure this happens.
What are the things you have been developing internally to improve life chances for care leavers who use your services?
We are doing a lot of work to set high aspirations early. A group of our care leavers have recently been leading some training within the organisation to help improve the way we support transitions to adulthood and a big part of that is about raising expectations. However, while we look ahead to when they leave care, we also know it is important to treat children like children and not try to make them adults too early. Thirteen year olds shouldn’t be worrying about whether they understand the responsibilities of being a householder - they should be building tree houses!
Sometimes I think the focus is to push children through the care system as quickly as possible; to see the care system itself as an inherently bad thing, a failure. The first part of care needs to be to give them some of their childhood back. We often forget just how awful their experiences of childhood have been before they come into care. So we need to look back and give them those years back, to look forward and give them some hope and aspiration for the future.
I also think Care Leaver’s Week is a good opportunity for the sector to develop its role as a corporate parent. We need to stop and think about what corporate parenting actually means, who holds the different parts of that responsibility and how they work together.
What are the things that most exasperate you about systems currently in place for care leavers?
In some cases, some of the decisions that are made around care leavers don’t respect their needs at all; they are not treated as individuals but made to fit the systems that are available.
We came across one young man who is diabetic who had been put in a hostel where he can’t access the kitchen from 9am in the morning until 5pm at night. He has been made to claim disability allowance and not allowed to access jobseekers allowances or services because they say he can’t work because of his diabetes. So both his health and his future are seriously affected. What parent would allow that to happen to their child?
If you look at how much money is spent on a child whilst they are looked after, or over a lifetime when they have to access so many of the other crisis interventions that we are familiar with hearing about – drug and alcohol services, criminal justice, mental health etc., it is nothing to support a care leaver for another two years and give them a better chance of finding stability, getting through college and so on.
Turning to the two care leavers who are employed as part of St Christopher’s Challenge for Change programme, Lara, how did you get involved with the organisation and what is it that you actually do?
St Christopher’s was the first organisation I came into contact with when I had to run away from home at the age of 12. I ended up staying in their refuge. I spent time in different placements then and when I was just moving out of a children’s home into semi-independence it was St Christopher’s that were running my local authority’s leaving care team. They were asking for a young person to be a participation assistant to help other care leavers use the service. I was about 19 when I started working for them part time, and I was still using their service. The project was called Challenge for Change (C4C). We started to go into different children’s homes and hostels and meet the young people; they listened to us in a different way to how they listened to staff; my message was just be yourself and have some hope in your future.
Mo is a colleague working with you inC4C. How did the two of you first meet up?
Mo and I are really good friends now and we have worked together on a number of projects. He was only 13 when I first met him and a bit of a ‘wild child’. We used to go out a couple of times a week to Nando’s and I found he was really opening up to me; I was very privileged to realise I could use my life experiences and life story to help other people from care think about their future.
I listen to Mo now sometimes talking to other young people as a peer mentor he is saying to them that he wouldn’t have got through the hard times and been where he is today if he hadn’t had a peer mentor – in other words me! That is a fantastic feeling, not just seeing that he is okay but seeing him starting to bring more young people form care and hopefully make them more prepared to be care leavers and to be themselves.
Mo, how did you first get involved with St Christopher’s?
I lived in a St Christopher’s home for 3 ½ years after a number of foster care placement breakdowns. Initially, I think I was probably a bit spoiled and demanding. Then I got hooked up with Lara who was given to me as a peer mentor - that was the best thing I could have had at that age. She made me lose the temper and the silliness and showed me a new life, how I could have a routine and get involved in positive things instead of just sitting around being horrible. Later when I was older I got the opportunity to work for the charity too and now I’m a peer mentor just the same as Lara was for me.
Lara, St Christopher’s have given you the opportunity to have a real job and get respect for the job you are doing as well. Do you think they have opened doors that would not have been open to you otherwise as a young care leaver making your way in the world?
They have definitely really given me opportunities and chances. This is the longest job I’ve ever had. I know I have talent and I am good at what I do but I also know If I had been working for a normal company they wouldn’t have understood me and they wouldn’t have put up with me; I suffer with depression and here they give me a bit of leeway for that. But they also push me and stretch me to do more and more things. I am a lot more confident in my skills, I have been sent to training courses and to conferences where I have represented St Christopher’s.
So I can say that St Christopher’s literally opened doors for me employment wise. It wasn’t just by working for them though. They also encouraged me with my music and performance. When they could see I was doing well but wasn’t going to get any further as I was, they paid for me to have a CD cut and supporting products. That way when I was performing and people would come up to me and say ‘have you got the CD?’, ‘can I get the words to that?’, I had something to give them and they would know who I am. My first job lasted 3 days in a retail store! I don’t think I was cut out for that. Then I worked for a Connexions team. This suits me perfectly because I am getting paid and respected; I am doing something I love and improving things for care leavers that come after me. Most importantly for me I have flexible part time hours so I can pursue my performance career as well.
Were you always expecting to get employed and be working? A lot of care leavers tell us ‘the system’ has low expectations and they are just being prepared for a life on benefits.
I couldn’t wait to be working and supporting myself. As soon as I even had the part time job I took myself right off benefits. I would rather have less coming in and know it is coming in than get into a mess with housing benefit like I did before. That was the most important thing – as long as I could pay my own rent knew I would be alright. I don’t know how I would have been if I didn’t have St Christopher’s as my leaving care team. They are big into aspiration for young people and getting them to believe they can be what they want to be. That is so important when you don’t have a family to do that for you. I don’t think that is there for all care leavers and children in care.
Your music is a very important part of who you are. Do you have strong views about how music can help other care leavers?
I see music and performance as a way doors can be opened for young care leavers. I did my first performance when I was 17 and started to do it professionally when I was 21. I like to get other young people along and involved. I have done a lot of performance poetry and also events with children’s homes to help celebrate achievement as well as giving young people opportunities to express themselves.
For most children they can rely on their parents and extended family to ‘open doors’ for them in all areas of life. Can the care system ever come close to replicating that loss of family that is common to all children brought up in care?
There is a sense of ‘family’ at St Christopher’s. I know it isn’t the same as a real family but it feels very real; in my role as a peer mentor, I am now watching one of my protégés, Mo, peer mentor other younger children five years after I started with him. That’s almost like being a grandma! I have had a lot of personal support from our manager Vanessa. She is a lovely lady. She is like an auntie to me. She has worked with me since I was seventeen and knows all my ins and outs.
Do you have a very specific example of a young person you have opened doors for?
I remember when I first started to go into the children’s homes as a peer mentor I went into this one home that was supposed to be for all the really ‘naughty’ young people. There was a boy who was very small but very angry and wouldn’t engage with anyone. He didn’t even attend the house meetings, then I talked to him about how he could get his voice heard and speak out for other young people. He was really open to it and got involved in C4C … the staff were really shocked as he would hardly say anything to anyone. When I got to know him I found out he was really amazed that you could be in care and you were still allowed to be in work and have a proper job when you grew up. I find it really sad that the system takes it for granted that kids will know stuff when they come into care but you don’t know anything. It’s all so alien.
Mo, you are 18 and have already left care. How did you find the transition from a children’s home to leaving care?
I believe they should have equipped me a lot better for leaving care. At the moment I am in another hostel. This is not a good environment to live in and to go from a children’s home where you have everything to managing on £55 a week with everything to pay including your electric and your TV licence. It’s just too much too soon.
I was also personally threatened and I did not feel safe going back there at night. My leaving care team wouldn’t listen to me; I did eventually get moved, I have gone back a step into semi-supported living but I am still only 18. Luckily I had some support from members of my family still, and I had Lara and being involved with C4C but it’s easy to see how kids leaving care get hooked into bad stuff.
What are your ambitions for the future? For yourself and for leaving care services?
My hopes and dreams are to work with young people. My ambition is some day we can make a change within the system – where young people are comfortable living in the environment they are in. At the moment most of them don’t have a choice in what happens in their lives. We need to communicate better with them and get them to communicate with us and with their social workers. Some of the problems that need solving are very small like they need some stationery for college so they don’t just sit there and feel like a fool then end up dropping the course. I want young people leaving care to have a happy settled life instead of being stuck alone and confused.
Lara, What are the things that are important to you when you think about the whole system of care?
I want to try and push for acceptance for children in care, and when they leave. So they get second third and forth chances. Not just moved around and let down. People tend to go on what social services say or what is written in their files without getting to know the person or make their own judgements. I was thrown out of a foster placement when I was 12 because I was tall for my age! I was 5’11” and the foster parent found me intimidating even though I wasn’t rude or disruptive! Foster carers need better training and support too. That is something people like me and Mo, and our project could contribute a lot to. Foster carers and residential workers would benefit from a lot more direct training from young people so they can get to know how we think and what’s going on in our heads.
I think creative art and performance is something all young people in care and care leavers should get involved with. It helps them broaden their horizons and develop character; it helps them communicate and get respect among their peers.
Mo, Do you believe what you are doing makes a difference in the lives of young people?
I know it does. Working face to face is what I believe makes a difference to lives and peer mentors can make connections in a way that professionals can’t. I have been to all the groups like going to the APG [All Parliamentary Group for Children in Care and Care Leavers] but the MPs they just listen to you and they don’t do anything about it. They say they are working on it. They are not working hard enough. I am very lucky I had Lara as a peer mentor when I was a young kid in care and she totally turned my life around. I want to do that for others.