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The Conference for Care Experienced People - Some reflections one year later - Chair Ian Dickson

It is frightening to reflect that it is a year today since we hosted a conference for care experienced people of all ages at Liverpool Hope University. Such a wonderful day with so many care experienced people of all ages, sizes, colours, social backgrounds, in all our glorious diversity. Much as it may surprise those without care experience, we care experienced folk are just like them. We reflect all aspects of Society. Our number included old and young, doctors, students, lawyers, artists (so many artists!), academics, social workers, teachers, plumbers, bus drivers – people from all professions, trades and none. So many different people with one thing in common – we were members of the care experienced family.

It is a year since the conference, but the work towards conference goes back at least three years. It was born in a realisation that the voice of the care experienced community was simply not being heard, even though there are over a million care experienced people of all ages in our community. As the conference demonstrated, they are a massively diverse, creative group, deeply compassionate and with a massive reservoir of wisdom about life in general and life in care in particular. Yet they are not listened to.

I am in my 70’s and it was over 50 years ago when I left care. I have worked almost all my adult life around the care system, as a social worker, a manager of children’s residential services, an inspector, an advocate and a campaigner. I have lived through and participated in periods of massive change in social work and the care of children. I have seen new exciting legislation and care strategies come – and go. Yet throughout it all, I saw the care community ignored. New policies and initiatives were decided by professionals and lobby groups in offices without any recognition or consultation with care experienced people. Sure, some care experienced people were asked about new ideas – usually small groups of younger people in focus groups, selected by providers or charities and responding to their specific enquiries, or groups of mainly kids responding to questionnaires set by officials. This is not engagement or consultation, and it showed in the lack of progress in improving the care system.

Still after 50 years since I left care, the care community were under represented in higher education and employment, and over represented in poverty, homelessness, and so many other negative stereotypes. We were seen as feckless, dishonest, untrustworthy people who presented a higher risk of abusing our own children than others in the community and were a burden on Society. Utter twaddle of course, but when repeated often enough and perpetuated in the media those labels stick.

As one who is by nature introverted and untrusting, preferring to work alone & avoiding social groups, I felt the injustice of this appalling treatment of the care community so strongly that I felt compelled to reach out to care experienced colleagues to come together with me and arrange a huge get together of care experienced people to challenge the stereotypes, offer the true positive picture of care experienced people & offer a safe haven to care experienced people who felt alone and unsupported.

The management team for conference came together and included such a talented and creative bunch of people, care experienced and none care experienced. The rest is history as they say.

The conference was a wonderful cathartic experience for all, and we were told that it offered the first opportunity so many care experienced people had in their lifetimes to feel “normal” and accepted. That alone is frightening.

So, 12 months after conference, was it successful? Yes and no, depending upon who you ask and what you mean by success. I have very mixed views.

Yes, inasmuch as it gave so many care experienced people the chance to demonstrate their creative skills, to share their views about care that nobody ever sought, and to meet others like them. Some told us it had changed their lives. It produced two reports that gave the community the opportunity they had never been given to share their view of care from the inside and to make recommendations for change. For a short while, people with care experience could feel proud of their heritage and speak openly of their background. It brought joy and optimism, and with the Care Review taking place in Scotland at the time, hope for change in the future. There might just be a light at the end of a very long tunnel indeed.

Yet, in my view from the perspective I brought with me when we planned the conference, it was also unsuccessful. Have government and the care industry reflected on the conference reports and taken their findings on board? Are we seeing signs of change to address the reports’ recommendations?

No – There has been no evidence of government recognising the value of consulting the care experienced community. Nothing has changed. As government considered reforms to register unregulated care and introduce very necessary reforms, an “expert team” was brought together to look at developing standards and advise the DfE. There were no care experienced people on the team which was brought together secretly and does not share its discussions. Its Chair said that he chose not to involve care experienced groups because he believed the Children Commissioner would be consulting them. To me as a care experienced person, it reinforced that we were seen as different and not valued as part of consultations with “professionals” – even though we had the direct lived experience the experts did not have.

No – As the government considered holding a Care Review in England, the DfE consulted charities and professional groups about how the Review might be approached. The care experienced community were not included or invited.

No – apparently as a response to the Covid 19 virus the government amended key regulations to make the “burden of care” easier for professionals, at a stroke stripping away key rights enjoyed by children in care. But for the efforts of charities exposing these steps, these moves might have passed unnoticed. The government stated that it has consulted “key stakeholders”. There were no consultations with care experienced people.

Some professionals have told me that they would love to consult care experienced people, but they truly don’t know how. That also frightens me. I am unaware of any government department, provider organisation or other group ever approaching the wider care experienced community, as the CareExpConf team did, to arrange a forum to meet care expereinced people from the community. Most still rely on their own focus groups, surveys or care experienced individuals to somehow represent the whole community. Consultation?

Not in my view.

I defer to my optimistic care experienced colleagues. I genuinely hope they are right about an optimistic future. For this old Grinch looking back over half a century, it looks like business as usual.

Ian Dickson



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