Discourse is hugely significant in determining the dominant narrative as it ‘talks’ about children within a care system. We only have to look back at the then Labour Government of 1997 who spoke at length about ‘antisocial behaviour’ and the way in which this changed the language and interventions of Social Work at that time and for some years after. Further back we can see the same occurring with notions of the deserving and undeserving poor of the Victorian Workhouses. The dominant narrative was neither written or influenced by the young people tagged and criminalised during the Labour years nor the destitute masses of those years much earlier. It was always so-called ‘experts’ and ‘leaders’ who put forward the narrative, society took note and followed suit. The voices of those truly expert in their own realities were marginalised, exploited or just silenced.
Recently, there has been a move to validate the idea of co-production and lived experience leadership at a level not seen before. Whereas in the past – to be frank – it has often been tokenistic or riddled with power imbalance. Now the voice of the care community is being amplified throughout the systems of the nations of the UK. Not only are demands for change being heard, people and organisations are taking matters into their own hands and changing the narrative both past and present. The idea being, that the future will belong to us and us alone when it comes to speaking for ourselves. Should someone write about the community then it will be the community who either agree with or challenges their efforts.
One such event has raised expectations to their highest ever. Recently, the review of care. in Scotland listened as never before to the voices of the care community and those involved in care provision. There were people with experience at every level and stage of that three-year process to produce recommendations. These recommendations – intended to completely transform the system in Scotland – were translated into a promise from Scotland to children in care. I contributed to that process along with thousands of other voices. However, that is not to say that the care community waited patiently for the recommendations to arrive. Work went on to enable change at the very earliest opportunity. The charity Who Cares Scotland put their members front and centre to voice their demands for immediate change. With some success. The Government programme of 2020 included changes to the system that came from a document given to the First Minister with a list of 40 asks. It demonstrated the power of directing the narrative from within the community. The successes to date have served to give even more determination to keep pushing for systemic change until true care is the norm.
There are other endeavours that seek to change the enduring narrative of children in care as deserving of sympathy or being in some way responsible for their situation, the ‘that’s way it is for kids like that’ belief. For example, Care Experienced History Month is a project I am lucky to be playing a part in. This is a global endeavour, one in which several countries are exploring their care history in a month-long celebration and remembrance. This will include celebrating the lives of those with experience, a day of remembrance for those who have passed, information sharing about supports and services, and articles on the different aspects of care and how that has impacted on people throughout time. There will also be poems, videos, lectures and all sorts of creative output to both showcase and inform of the diversity and talent within the care community.
In our working group in Scotland, we have decided to offer the chance for people to ‘re-write wrongs’. This will see anyone who believes they have come across a piece of discourse that has wrongly represented the care community offer up their opinion or alternative version. This gives readers the opportunity to reimagine things from a care experienced narrative. It is an exciting project. We have worked hard to produce articles etc. on such things as the MARS training ship in Dundee. Young boys were sent to this ship to be trained for a life at sea. The dominant narrative about those boys was that despite the hardship, it was a ‘good thing’ for them to be sent there. We have made efforts to show a different perspective, offering up information in a way that should hopefully honour the lives of those boys in a way that has been missing from most historical accounts whilst also giving other reasons for the existence of such a ship.
There has also been an article written that directly challenges a more recent piece of writing in a newspaper. This too offers up a nuanced take on things from a care experienced perspective and not through the eyes of a journalist seeking eye-catching headlines. The idea is not only to take control of the present and to create the narrative of now and the future, but to explore ways in which we can add to the cache of historical accounts with our own observations, in the hope those reading about the past will now be presented with that more nuanced history.
The thing is, the ‘expertise’ has always been there within the community. Sometimes it was hidden, even due to shame of admitting you had experience. More often, it just wasn’t listened to, or our voice was filtered and interpreted by others before presentation to the wider world. We are challenging that and seeking others to do the same. Check out https://www.careexperiencedhistorymonth.org to learn more. Our voices will be heard, your voice too is one that can add to these efforts. There are an estimated 250,000 people with some experience of care in Scotland, maybe you are one. Come and join us, it is a welcoming and inclusive family.