Working in the arts with Care Leavers.

I am going to talk about the surge of work in the arts specifically for the care leaver.  I hope this may help Anyone who is working with care leavers. Please read about the  story of the rights movement of young people in care in England. It relates how, from 1973, young people came together to talk about their care, support each other and campaign to improve their lives in care. It is  Care Less Lives by Mike Stein. Also you should read the July 2016 Care Leavers Strategy from the government.  Prime minister   David Cameron spoke more for the child in care and the care leaver than any other prime minister before him. In his 2015 conservative party speech he said

“Children in care are today almost guaranteed to live in poverty.  84 per cent leave school without five good GCSEs, 70 per cent of prostitutes were once in care. And tragically, care leavers are four times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else. These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents – and what are we setting them up for……the dole, the streets, an early grave?  I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”

I mentioned this to The Children’s Minister Edward Timpson  in The House of Lords to which he said  “I’ve got my work cut out for me now”.   A year later in May 2016 before the queen’s  speech Cameron  announced “Zero Tolerance for failiure”  for children in care.  This is an attempt to reverse the Victorian ideas  to which the child in care has been tethered:  that  the child in care is intrinsically bad. Cameron attempts to reverse the idea that a child is condemned when they enter care  to say they should  saved when they come into care. It also stands by a commitment the conservatives made before entering government.  There may be many things wrong,  such as fast track adoption and wholesale closure of children’s homes, all the same something incredible is happening.

I surmise this by the amount of arts workers and  arts organisations (and artists) who contact me each month seeking  support for their grant applications or support with their work with care leavers.  The Arts Council is partly behind this surge.  Thankfully.    Institutions are setting themselves up with the care leaver at their heart, but let’s  not walk blindly into the new buildings and shiny reception areas of arts development.


More inspiring (to me)   are the  individual care leavers who are  making their mark into cultural quarters such as The Edinburgh Festival and BBC and theatres around the country.  Presently Sophie Willan is rocking Edinburgh Fringe Festival  with On The Record.   Big House Theatre who work with disadvantaged youth and care leavers have receiving major funding this year and are selling out at  The Royal Court Theatre.  Louise Wallwein’s recent play about her files GLUE sold out in Manchester and is being written for BBC Radio 4.   The Bradford Literature Festival included a brilliant panel on adoption and care  including Kit De Waal  author of this years hit book  My name is Leon   But one of of the best examples of art by  the child in care that I’ve ever come across is FLOURISH run by Beatty Hallas.    And then there is award winning  Melody Loses her Mojo by 20  Stories High in Liverpool run by  Keith Saha.

You must also visit the care leaver Richard McCann one of the most incredible public speakers I’ve ever seen with a book – Just A Boy – which sold over a million around the world.     Dumping Ground is CBBC’s biggest seller. And I haven’t even mentioned BBC Chidlrens and CBBC’s biggest hit. Ever:  Tracey Beaker.   And then there’s panopticon written by Jeni Fagan chosen as one of Grantas best young novelists.   Not forgetting Joelle Taylor  or novelist poet and chancellor of  University of Salford  Jackie Kay.

The previous two paragraphs are just some of the people who are  fostered adopted or have been in children’s homes who are alive and in the arts today!   Before working with care leavers I advise you become  fully aware of them  because you are going to be a resource for the organisations which host you.    Otherwise what service are you giving to the care leavers or society?   Something is happening in this country. I have watched it happening and I am thrilled by it. But it is just the beginning.

These really are exciting times.  But  having been brought up by institutions I watch  carefully as new ones  grow under the remit of  “working with care leavers”. I  watch  as this new area in the arts is explored and to some degree exploited.   I have long said that I am not defined by my scars but by the incredible ability to heal. This incredible ability is imbued in every child who has been in care and yet it is mostly unrecognized.  This makes them invisible at the heart of the story. What is visible is the evidence of pain. What is invisible is the character it belongs to.  We are defined by our pain not by our ability to heal.  Yet our ability to heal acknowledges the pain and praises the process.   Beware the cultural ambulance chasers.

It’s worth highlighting the greatest example of a subtle  disconnect which revealed the not so subtle chasm between a care leaver and an arts organizations that claimed to serve her.  In seeing  the arts organization had received funding due in no small part to her self performed testimony a young woman (a care leaver)  asked if she would be paid for the work she had  done. “How dare she.” was the response “she doesn’t understand”.  But how could she?  She had just helped secure nearly one hundred thousand pounds funding and yet she had no money for her electricity meter.

A little mindfulness  would have turned her request into an opportunity to explain the situation. It should have also been an opportunity for the fledgling organisation to question its own  procedures.  Instead she was cited as a  problem.  In detecting this backlash she felt unsafe  “Where is my money?” she asked again.  Just fifty quid is all she wanted.  I was told how she became  “manipulative” and  “selfish” and “unrealistic” and “eratic” and  subsequently the relationship broke down. In asking the question she had exposed herself as another damaged care leaver.

She was aware that the workers at the organisation knew her story of abuse and self harm.  After all she had confided in them.  She felt betrayed by an organisation who had all the ammunition to portray her as  damaged and damaging.   The power ratio had showed itself to be exactly the same as when she was in any other institution.   All  because she ran against  a predetermined narrative to which she never belonged. A “challenging” girl indeed.   it is much the same In the film Oliver twist. He too is perceived as “challenging”   when he asks  “Please sir can I have some more”.

It saddens me. She shared her story with the arts organisation and  made  herself vulnerable. By doing so she had made  the greatest investment she could ever make into anyone anywhere at anytime.  Care leavers  are unusual and quite unique in society.  Whereas stories of abuse –  there are thousands of  shades of abuse  –  are normally kept within family it is not so with the care leaver.  Secrets  and lies  can be  the glue that binds family  together  otherwise our familial structures would explode into anarchy.  (Personally I think it wouldn’t  be such a bad idea to out our secrets, but that’s just me).  The care leaver has an exposed story  –  an exposed wound – and if we are not careful we can allow the narrative to be defined by the wound,  and not the healing, by an ambulance chaser who without  offering anesthetic, and with pen and paper in hand,  asks the care leaver  to describe in detail  the crash of her past. The recorder is on!

The care leaver may measure her success, not by whether she has healed, but by how well she is congratulated for telling her story. The ambulance chaser is by now interviewing someone else and doesn’t see the wounded girl  stand up off the gurney  only  for her guts to  fall out of the open wound onto the floor .  My apologies for the graphic example but let me share one more point:   Stories are sacred.  Any family will tell you. What it knows about itself is what keeps  the family together.  Stories are the  sacred ingredients   known and protected by the family.  Why should a child in care be any different once she’s left care… and for whose benefit?  And who owns the story?  These questions must be asked.

An arts worker or artist should  review themselves  before working with  the care leaver. What perspective does he or she have about the care leaver?   Let me help. Meditate and investigate this idea:  Harry Potter was a foster child.  Moses was adopted and traumatised.  Cinderella was adopted by her sisters and ran away.  And my all time favourite Lisbeth Salander was adopted fostered and instutionalised. She enacted calculated intelligent and emotionally cogent revenge.   These are heroes and heroines of popular culture.  Dysfunctional. Yes. Brilliant. Yes. What child isn’t? These heroes and heroines remain unrecognised as care leavers and yet that is exactly what they are.  Question why they are not aligned with the care leavers in our midst.

Only when the arts worker or artist  can see the brilliance of these characters (alongside their flaws) should they work with the living counterparts – young care leavers.  But even when you see this fact how do you carry  that into your work and into the young people whom you are working with when it is they, most of all, who will lobby against the idea that they are like the superheroes.. They have been trained not to see that they are like superheroes (superman was adopted)   just as much as society outside them has been trained not to see it –  most of the X Men are in care. .  It would be no bad thing if any and every arts worker were to study the care leaver in popular culture so that from the outset the arts worker can  align themselves with what exactly they are working with:  Incredible unrecognized human beings.

What surprises me most – and this is deliberately provocative – is the assumption that the care leavers need to tell their stories and that taking their stories is the primary aim of the arts worker.  In fact these stories may seem shocking to the arts worker and to an applauding audience but  they are not shocking (nor new) to the care leaver. So what purpose does publicly  sharing them serve and for whom?     If we are not careful the child in care becomes a living breathing feedback-body prostrate on the gurney in the ambulance.    Here come the ambulance chasers.  They are lining up outside my apartment to get me to sign off their projects.

I am everything but cynical. I call it as I see it.  I ask for a deeper understanding  because I am fully aware that the  availability of virgin  “traumata-tales”  is manna from heaven for artists and arts workers who if they are not careful become the very  ambulance chasers I’m describing.   However deep the wound the ambulance chaser needs the wounded to explain exactly how it happened.  All the wounded person wants  is to know how to get better.  Art, Theatre, literature can do this.

Do not let the care leaver become fodder for public consumption. If this happens we will simply be replicating the Victorian ways of standing around the theatre watching the  the sick and poor man who gave  his body to medicine tto be dissected and seen probably for the first time  –  how exciting what a spectacle  – when in fact he is dead to the world. The funeral was  paid for.

Do not think of art as a way of getting people to explain themselves to the world.  Think of art as a way the world can explain itself to you.  Do not think of theatre as only a way of explaining your story but of a way to find new ways to tell new stories,   to inhabit, stories beyond the obvious narrative. The imagination is a miracle for anyone.  We have the opportunity to offer the magnificence of imagination as home.   Art does in no way have to be  literal.  And in that way discover that you may, as a poet, an actor, a painter, find a new way of translating their world with them, not for them:  An everlasting landscape.   This is why I love flourish the arts magazine.

Young people leaving  care do have incredible stories to tell.  Some of them. Do not be afraid of interpreting their stories in the wildest  or simplest ways.  When I speak of cultural ambulance chasers I am speaking of those who forget to think what they are doing because they are so busy doing what they are doing.  They convince themselves they are doing something for the child not with the child. They fear transparency.  This is how institutions become frigid and unbending. This is how the goal becomes bigger than the journey.   And this is how workers end up talking about how great the cross they are bearing is.  Put down the cross we need the wood for a fire!   Our arts funders are begging us to think and to treat this time as an opportunity for growth rather than an opportunity for power.   I believe in transparency and openness in the arts. I would love to give an arts talk on  care leavers. I will.

My central questions of  theatre, poetry and  art  by for and with young care leavers is  similar to  the young woman who asked “can i have some of the money?”.   The question is about value and worth:  Who owns the stories once they are published, staged or hung in an art gallery?  And why? And who shares the stories and how. And why?


5 thoughts on “Working in the arts with Care Leavers.

  1. Thank you for articulating what has been swimming around in my mind for some time. And thank you for the important questions. Having seen the deluge of stories, at times I have felt very concerned. Care Leavers are not a commodity to be brokered, they are not the next star turn, they need boundaried care and respect if they are to reveal their wounds.

  2. Yes. On the one hand, for everyone, creative expression is a valuable way of dealing with, remembering and finding a way to handle the most challenging aspects in our lives. On the other hand – the experience belongs to the person who shares it. So the care leavers you describe should retain control of their creative expression, like other artists , writers, musicians do – they own their own copyright.

  3. Hi Lemn, is there a history of sociologists or anthropologists working with care leavers? Reading about your initiatives is very inspiriing, and I wondered if there would be value in starting a similar initiative that focuses on the social sciences, for example helping care leavers to develop or acquire a ‘sociological imagination’ (C Wright Mills): connecting personal biography and everyday activity and experience with wider political and historical social forces. It might help to put personal situations into context. Would there be some value in that kind of initiative?

    • My word. My instinctive reaction is to say “yes indeed”. The more that links the care leaver to society outside her being a problem to be solved the better we will think of them. The better we think of them the more resources we will (demand to) allocate to their safety, growth, health and well being.

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