It has become apparent that there are some people who do not know what a care leaver is. I admit I’m quite shocked. I thought in this age of constant news and media, we would have all come across the term at some stage in our reading lives.
Last week I attended the Hackney Christmas Dinner 2014 meeting with Lemn Sissay and other professionals. The aim is to provide a Christmas dinner for 70 care leavers between the ages 18-25 years old on Christmas Day. At one point in the evening, somebody said, ‘Not everybody knows what a care leaver is’. The following day on Twitter, I was asked by two people that very question. So before I begin to talk about why, I need to explain, what, a care leaver is.
At some point in research one has to provide definitions. When I attended the Brathay Trust conference, Flying on the Ground, to present the beginnings of the PhD research, I flippantly said: the simple answer is somebody who has left care. This of course only works if somebody understands what care is. So simply (I hope) again, care for children consists of residential children’s homes, foster care, adoption, and secure units. When I talk about care-characters (my definition) I mean characters in fiction that have been looked after by social services, charities or non-state care homes. In real life, the corporate parent usually refers to these children as looked-after children, though in some instances nothing could be further from the truth.
And then we have the more formal definitions:
- The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 states that a Care Leaver is someone who has been in the care of the Local Authority for a period of 13 weeks or more spanning their 16th birthday.
Other definitions include:
- A person who has been a ward of the state but no longer qualifies for or receives any government assistance.
- Adults who, as children, were looked after on a full-time, temporary basis by persons other than their own parents or wider family.
So back to the original question: Why choose to research care leavers in fiction?
The short answer is that I grew up in care and like millions of other people who read, I was subconsciously searching for myself in literature. As a child there were an abundance of orphans, reflections of myself, my nose was never out of some happy-ever-after foundling story. But as I grew up I began to notice there were no characters like myself. And worse still, I became aware of stereotypes. The grown up orphan, that seemed to be in the consciousness of people around me. The ‘bad’ care leaver, as drug addict, in prison, a prostitute, or homeless – especially via the media and drama. There are many reasons why care leavers end up in these negative situations, often not least because they are emotionally damaged not just by their own families but by the very care system that is supposed to protect them.
I was told I was lucky that I hadn’t ended up incarcerated or as a prostitute. Up to 70% of women in prostitution have spent time in care and up to 95% of women in prostitution are drug users – see the pattern. Okay so possibly some of the stereotypes have their foundations in a dreadful reality. And of course the self-fulfilling prophecy syndrome does its bit by casting its evil net and capturing care leavers and pegging them into their stereotypical square holes.
It was to be many years before I found a care leaver in fiction. In 1999, I came across Island by Jane Rogers. On the first page the reader sees an article from a newspaper about a woman who has been brutally murdered. On the second page we meet Nikki Black, her third name, who tells us she wants to murder her mother. I didn’t murder my mother but I often wished she was dead in that child-like way of not really understanding what something means. Nikki’s story read a lot like mine, so much so that I thought the author had been reading my files. I wasn’t very happy about that and even more alarmed when I discovered that one of the protagonist’s previous names had been Canning. As I read on I realised this wasn’t a book about stereotypes. It was a fairy story for adults, the book was filled with myths, legends and fairy tales – the island was a magical place. Here was my care-character in fiction, I was transfixed – at last I had found my care leaver self.
Some years later, after I had completed an MA Writing, (only 2% of care leavers attended university when I did my degree) I attended Lemn Sissay’s ‘From Pip to Potter’, at Southbank in February, 2012. This event highlighted the stark differences in the way literature presents cared-for children and orphans, compared to the experiences of children in those circumstances in the real world. I also met Josie Pearse (alias Angel Strand) who was in the process of completing her PhD at Cardiff University. Josie noted that ‘In twenty-first century literature, adopted adults are rare in anything but crime drama where they are stereotypically disturbed in character.’ I was so inspired by both these ex-care people, I decided I would investigate further and pursue a PhD myself.
Almost from the beginning of the PhD journey, I knew it would be something about care leavers in fiction, this was my subject, something I could write about. I spent hours at the British Library, looking through journals and books. There did not appear to be any criticism about care leavers in literature, though they had begun to appear both in novels and especially crime dramas. Fiction represents our mirror of the world; so why were we almost invisible?