The last few years have been a year of firsts. The first baby boxes. The first independent Root & Branch review of our care system. We’re the first country to ban the physical punishment of our children. Latterly, the world’s first Year of Young People. I also want this year to have another first. The first in 10 years where I haven’t lost a brother or sister to the care system. That might sound like a simple ask. But in a world like the care system, in a world like mine, here are some reasons why this isn’t so simple.
Picture this for a moment…
A 12-year-old girl, screaming & crying with internal anguish while being held to the floor by 5 adults before being injected with sedatives to calm her down.
Now picture this, the same girl found out in the pouring rain in the middle of the night, with blood pouring from her arms and tears pouring from her eyes but no physical pain.
Now picture this, she’s in the back of a car. Handcuffed to a police officer on either side and driven into a garage. Two women and a man come out a locked door and lead her into a room with a plastic mattress, a viewing panel and a door with no handle and industrial magnets to keep it locked. To keep her locked in. The man leaves the room and the two women ask her to take her clothes off so they can search her. She breaks down, refuses, begs them not too. Their response is? She will be left in this room until she does. And she’ll also have a consequence for 1 week for “defiance”.
But you see, this girl, like so many others who have been here before, already knows the meaning of consequence and defiance. She knows the overwhelming psychological pain she experiences every single day. The anxiety, depression, flash backs, hallucinations are all a consequence of the trauma she had faced. She knows the meaning of defiance because she defies the odds. Every single day she gets up.
And every single night she goes to bed, because she made it through another day.
This is the situation our country’s most vulnerable children face time and time again. This is what our country calls ‘Care and Protection’.
Of course, not for one minute do I believe that this was ever the intention. We have good people working in this system, but as our society has evolved over the last 20 years, aspects of our care system have not.
I can’t help but wonder if there was ever a moment in this girl’s journey where it could’ve been stopped in its tracks and redirected, to save her some of this pain.
Of course, it is never that easy. We need to know what warning signs to look for in order to stop things like this. We need the children to communicate with us.
But what exactly do those warning signs look like? What does that communication look like?
I have the privilege to know so many amazing young people who show nothing but strength, determination, courage and hope every single day. Who are actually very good at communicating. It’s just us, the adults, who are not good at listening, acknowledging and helping our young people, our children.
We need to stop blaming our children and compounding their trauma. For a child, there’s no such thing as misbehaving. They’re miscommunicating, or rather, we are misinterpreting them.
I know an 8-year-old girl who self-harms. The services say it’s ‘superficial’ so no intervention is needed.
I know a 10-year-old girl who’s falling behind at school. When her teacher asked what’s wrong, she told her she couldn’t sleep because of “bad men”. The teacher told her “not to be so silly, everyone has ‘bad dreams’, it’s because you watch too much T.V”
I know a 12-year-old girl who runs away all the time. She got found one time sleeping in the woods because “She’d rather sleep here than there.” The policeman told her to stop being so selfish and think of the children in foreign countries who sleep outside every night.
I know a 14-year-old girl who is in an adult mental health ward because she took such a severe attempt on her own life that she almost died. The doctor said it was circumstantial and behavioural.
I know a 15-year-old girl who gets a full strip search every day because she self-harms. With everything and anything. The staff in the secure unit tell her this wouldn’t happen if she ‘stopped her daft carry on’.
I know a 16-year-old girl who got hauled off a huge bridge by a stranger because she tried to jump. She hasn’t said a word for four days. The people in her life are telling her to talk to them. To tell them what’s wrong. She’s trying.
I know a 16-year-old girl sent down to England for specialist mental health support because there’s nowhere to fit her needs here. She’s been there over a year.
I know an 18-year-old girl who for 18 months has had somebody with her, every minute of every day. The staff even watch her shower and sleep because she made an attempt on her life so severe that she needed lifesaving surgery and she nearly didn’t make it.
How many times growing up are we told communication isn’t always verbal? How many times in their studies were the professionals involved in each of these situations taught the importance of recognising all forms of communication. It’s each of the 8 situations I’ve told you about and so, so many more, that cause us to fail our children time and time again, that cause us to lose our children.
They’re trying to communicate with us.
But we aren’t listening.
We need to stop telling our children to tell us what’s wrong. We need to start listening to what they are telling us, in whatever form that takes.
I also know a 20-year-old girl, who has the world at her feet. She has a house, a car, two jobs, a dog, and a bright, bright future ahead of her. Just.
I wonder what was different in her journey? What lead her on the path to success? Was she better at communicating? Were the people around her better at listening?
But what if I told you nothing on her journey was different? What if I told you it was all the same journey?
What if I told you it was all my journey?
Are you listening now?
At the start, I said I wanted this year to be the first in 10 years where I wouldn’t lose a brother or sister to the care system. Maybe that was a crazy ask because things didn’t work out that way.
But maybe, just maybe, next year will be different. I really do hope so.
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