Following the publication of CYCJ’s latest secure care report, Ellen Maloney reflects on her experiences of secure care, what’s changed and why giving young people a voice is so important in bringing about change.
Twenty years ago, I entered one of Scotland’s secure units. I didn’t expect to see my 18th birthday, let alone my 35th birthday. I didn’t think I would ever go to university or travel the world. I couldn’t imagine any type of future at all for myself.
Cory Booker, the U.S. senator said: “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.” When I was taken into a secure unit at the age of 15, I needed lots of things: I needed to be kept safe from myself; I needed an education; I needed to feel listened to; but most of all, I needed hope.
It’s only in the last year that I’ve started to speak about my experiences in secure care and it’s been unimaginably hard. Someone once told me that every story deserves to be heard, that every story deserves to grow a pair of wings. That whenever you tell your story, you’re opening the cage and letting the bird out of it, until you realise that you were the bird all along. There’s something powerful in having dialogue, in connecting with someone who can hold your truth. That, I think, is where we find hope. In connecting with others.
That comes through in CYCJ’s recently published ‘Secure Care in Scotland: Young People’s Voices’ report. Of the 58 young people who shared their stories, the message that young people, for the most part, felt safe and respected by their key workers and staff on the unit is clear.
There are the things that resonate deeply with my own experiences. The admission process and the first night, in particular. Young people have shared how traumatic it was for them, how powerless they felt, how scary the experience was, how many things could have been done differently to make that process easier. I want to offer some hope here, but I find myself lost for words. Almost every night, even 20 years later, I find myself transported back in time, reliving that first night. I was confused and disorientated and terrified. Every night, still, I relive that night, and I’m still confused and disorientated and terrified. It hasn’t gotten easier in the years that have passed. It matters that we get this right because it can have a life-long impact when we get it wrong.
Conversely, the education and opportunities have changed significantly. When I was 15, there weren’t enough school places so we went to school two mornings a week and we all had to leave school as we turned 16, without any qualifications. It’s only now, 20 years later, that I’m finally returning to formal education to do an access course and (hopefully!) to university. The assumption was that if you were in a secure unit, your future prospects were bleak, and education was not a priority. Thankfully, that seems to have changed and secure units now offer a wide variety of courses and programmes which are popular, and provide a range of opportunities for young people to prepare them for life beyond secure care. This is important because it provides young people with a vision of a life beyond the walls of a secure unit. It gives them hope for a better future.
There’s a clear sense that secure units are punitive and you are sent there because you have done something wrong, rather than because you need somewhere that you will be kept safe. Most young people who are in secure units are there because they are putting themselves at risk but the stereotype remains: you are there because you are a bad kid. That is what we were told 20 years ago and that is still echoed today. Life in a secure unit is stark. Many things have changed in the last 20 years, but secure units are by nature, places where there is an acute power imbalance: young people have none, staff have it all. We know that most young people in secure care will have had experiences that have impacted upon their mental health. It’s imperative that young people are not re-traumatized by what happens to them within secure units. It sounds like this is working better than it has done in the past but secure units are intense environments. We need to be more aware of how the power dynamics are felt by young people and the long-lasting impact that can have. I don’t know how long it takes to feel like other people don’t have control over you and you don’t need permission to do every little thing. It’s been 20 years and I still feel like someone is constantly looking over my shoulder.
In CYCJ’s report, young people have shared how they feel that decisions were made without their input or without people getting to know them, particularly within the Children’s Hearing System. We need to find better ways of holding young people’s voices at the centre of their care, instead of stepping in and speaking over them, for them, at them. Because ultimately, we silence them. I’ve struggled for years to feel like my thoughts and opinions have any worth or value after internalising the message that everyone else knows better than me, everyone else has a more important voice than I do. The young people who contributed to CYCJ’s report are remarkably articulate and insightful. They know what they want and they know what they need. They know how they feel and they know what has and hasn’t helped. They are full of ideas about what needs to change. These voices need amplified, not silenced.
A lot has changed in the last 20 years. This change has been driven by young people who keep sharing their stories, sharing what is and isn’t working. We need to listen. There is a strong message within these stories that secure care needs to be centred on emotional wellbeing, fostering resilience and hope. That’s what I needed when I was 15. That’s what I want for every young person on the edges of, or in secure care right now. Let’s not wait another 20 years to give these young people the help that they need right now