Life after care: ‘We’re all just trying to grow up’
‘There are over 6,000 kids in the care system and there are 6,000 different stories’
The Epic careleavers group. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times
Last week I went to interview some young men and women in anticipation of Care Day, next Friday. The interviewees are all “care leavers”, that is people who were taken in to care as children but are now over 18. But I soon find the tables turned on me.
Peter Lane, advocacy officer at Epic (Empowering People in Care), and 19-year-old Thomas Mongan want to interview me for their podcast, The Care Experience. It turns out to be thought-provoking and fun. We end up discussing, among other things, how well-meaning journalists often focus on the negative issues that afflict the care system. In the process, they can flatten the stories of young people like Mongan into caricature. In the past, he says, he hasn’t always recognised himself in pieces written about him.
At eight years old, Mongan was separated from his siblings and put into the care of his aunt and uncle by the State. He doesn’t want to go into details about why this happened, “because of other family members”, but he is resolute that he doesn’t see himself as a “victim”.
He talks about people making assumptions about him as a care leaver and as a Traveller. They say: “You don’t look like a Traveller,” and then tell him urban myths about Travellers that just baffle him. One guy told him that: “If a Traveller dies in a house, they burn the house down.” He laughs. “So I said back to him: ‘If a Traveller dies in a shopping centre, they burn down the shopping centre?’”
Mongan is funny and thoughtful. He and Lane have a warm rapport with one another. When I describe myself as “middle class”, Mongan laughs and says, “Ah, Mr Privileged! Not like me and you, Peter.”
He talks about the films of Jordan Peele and references the cult US radio host Charlemagne the God. He studies sound engineering and production at Ballyfermot College and lives in Palmerstown, though he’s considering a move to the country to save money. He’s enjoyed writing since he was a child and is hoping to make a short film soon. He raps excellently on one of the music videos that Epic have produced for Care Day.
He says that as a care-leaver, out of the system at the age of 18, he has to be more self-sufficient than other people his age. “People finish college at 23 and go back to their parents until they figure out stuff. I can’t wait to figure out things. I have to figure things out now.”
Care Day came out of a meeting involving a number of care leavers’ organisations in Scotland. According to Peter Lane, a young Scottish man there said: “They have a day for chicken nuggets so why can’t they have a day for kids in care?”
The week’s events include, among other things, a football blitz, a Grafton Street flash mob, an event for children in care in the Mansion House, a gig in Dublin’s Cobblestone pub and a launch at TU Dublin in Grangegorman with the new chief executive of Tusla, Bernard Gloster. Care leavers themselves are making music, films and performing.
This is the fifth annual Care Day, and its purpose is to raise awareness about the lives of care leavers and kids in care, and to also recognise their achievements.
“We’re everywhere,” says 19-year-old Lauren O’Toole, and her friends laugh. “I know that sounds real scary, but care leavers are in your school, in your library, in your swimming pool. We exist but no one knows about us. It’s not talked about. It’s not taught in schools.”
O’Toole, like Mongan, is a member of Epic’s youth council. I meet her in an arts space called The Complex where she and her friends Conor Ryan (20) and Dillon Nolan (24) are engaged in rehearsals for the Care Day Grafton Street flash mob.
O’Toole had a relatively good experience of the system and she’s currently studying theatrical make up and special effects in college. She was with “a really good foster family” for 15 years, and now she simply calls them her family. This does not mean, she says, that things were easy. She has lost both her birth mother and her foster mother (to motor neurone disease) and she says that there’s a certain stigma and loneliness that comes with being a child in care.
O’Toole recalls first meeting other young care leavers in the youth council a few years before. “We sat on the floor, surrounded by pizza, and we just chatted, and it was my first time ever being in a situation where everyone else was from care.”
Conor Ryan, who can be seen rapping on another special Care Day video for a song called My Side, chips in: “We’ve sat down and talked and shared our experiences and learned that no matter where we are in the world we’re not alone.”
Ryan was put into the care of his grandmother at the age of 12. He still lives with her and is planning to study youth work. “[Meeting other care leavers] helps you to relax and accept who you are and build on your own identity, what you want to be and who you want to become.”
Although they are eager to celebrate the positive things, they are also advocates for kids in care and want to highlight the shortcomings. An unacceptable number of young people who have been through the care system are homeless or in addiction. There’s a high level of placement breakdown, too rapid a turnover of overworked social workers and poor after-care services.
“I had 10 social workers,” says O’Toole. “Some you’d meet them and they’ve read your file and say: ‘So you get on with this sister,’ and you think: ‘I’ve met you five minutes ago and you’re listing my life.’”
Dillon Nolan was taken into foster care at the age of 13 but didn’t really click with his foster family and was moved to residential care which, he says, suited him a lot better. He’s still friends with some of the other young people he met there. It was when leaving the system at 18 that he found the services really coming up short. He ended up registering with Focus Ireland’s homelessness services before eventually finding his own place.
“I was with my aftercare worker, and I was so angry about how the aftercare system was working,” he says. “You shouldn’t be that young having to make those decisions.”
“It’s not right if you think about it,” says Ryan. “If you were to think of your own child, you’re looking after them right from when they were a baby and then to say at 18: ‘You have to leave.’”
“My aftercare worker said: ‘Join the Epic youth council and get your voice out there,’” says Nolan. “So I wrote an essay saying: ‘This is what has to change.’”
“You were the only person who wrote an essay,” says O’Toole.
“I was told I had to!” says Nolan, and O’Toole and Ryan laugh. “So I met with them and said: ‘This is what I want to change’ and it was just great to be around people who felt that same way. It was like my voice was being heard.”
Nolan has written a beautiful song called Conveyor Belt, about the shortcomings of the aftercare system (it’s the song Thomas Mongan raps on). The group have just finished making a video for it. “It made me and Suzanne in the office cry,” says O’Toole.
“It was weird,” says Nolan. “I do talk about care a good bit. But I wouldn’t be able to talk about it the way I did in the song.”
Nolan is studying to be a social worker at Maynooth University and has just started working in residential care himself. “He’ll be great,” says O’Toole. “I thought about doing that sort of work but it just hurts my heart. It hits home too much . . . The idea of separating families; I couldn’t do that because of the pain.”
Epic’s participatory officer, Suzanne O’Brien, is very proud of them all. She was taken into care herself at the age of nine (she’s now 31) when her mother sought a voluntary care order. Her mother was an addict, and she and Suzanne and Suzanne’s younger brother were homeless.
“I would have taken on the mother role very early on because my mam wasn’t able. So I was so worried about [my brother], where he was, was he okay, did people know what food he liked? I didn’t know people didn’t live like how I lived. My personal care would have been really poor, because being homeless you’re just not showering every day. I joke about it now, but when I went into care I couldn’t understand why everyone wanted me to be cold and wet and smell like a flower.”
She talks about how high her “protective factors” were and are, how she would stash food and how she craved safety.
O’Brien was eventually placed with excellent foster parents who love her, but she points out that even this can be psychologically difficult for a child. Her birth mother died a few years after she was placed into care, and her feelings of love for her foster mother felt, at the time, like disloyalty. “You’re trying to commemorate your mother, but this lady is becoming her and you’re trying to push her away.”
Like many other former care kids, she eventually found herself studying social care, and it was when researching her thesis that she got in contact with other care leavers. “If you read about us as a group in the news, we’re all drug addicts with mental health problems . . . We’re never going to make it easier for people to identify as a care leaver or a child in care with those perceptions . . .
“I would love every single member of the public to think of children in care in relation to their own children and ask themselves would they expect what’s expected of our care leavers for their own child, granddaughter or niece.”
O’Brien and everyone else I speak to wants the system to be improved, but they also want the achievements of care leavers to be celebrated and what’s good in the system to be acknowledged. They want kids currently in care to know that they can aspire, that they can do well.
It strikes me, talking to them, that as wards of the State, these are our children. We should, as a nation, be very ashamed when the system fails them and we should be proud of them when they succeed.
“There are over 6,000 kids in the care system and there are 6,000 different stories,” says Ryan. “Not everyone is the same . . . The only times care is mentioned on the news is all the negative things that come up, all the stigma. If you think of life as a hurdle race, the person who’s in the care system is going to have a lot more hurdles than someone who is not in the care system, but we’re all trying to achieve the same goal. We’re all just trying to grow up.”
Epic can be contacted at epiconline.ie.