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If three years is a long time in politics, politicians might consider that three years is a long time when you are three. And three years is a really long time when you have no idea what is happening to you.
Children who have been in care or have used any of the services provided by the State’s Child and Family Agency, Tusla, have spent the past three years producing a new website that they hope will explain important things – such as what a social worker is, or other care options you can access if you need them – a little better to the people who most need information.
According to Lindsay Markey, a senior child and family support network co-ordinator for Tusla in Dublin southeast and Wicklow, ChangingFutures.ie is the first website of its kind, not just in Ireland, but anywhere in the world. For the first time, children and young people can find out what they want and what they need to know about how they might be cared for, she says.
The many young people and children who contributed to the website hope it will make a difference to anyone who is looked after “differently”. For the past three years, they have gathered, eaten pizza, drunk fizzy drinks and talked about what children need and want from life.
They have talked about what a child can do when the stereotype of two parents who look after you well for your whole life is more fluid than that. They also hope that ChangingFutures.ie will make a difference to adults who believe young people are difficult.
The children and young people who helped create the website feel that, for the first time, anyone who has been involved with State social services is being listened to. For the first time, they feel their opinions matter, they say.
"I think there are a lot of misconceptions that all children using social services are bad children, and I think it will take away from that," Lauren Ellen Dunne (19), tells The Irish Times on a sunny day in Shankill, Co Dublin.
“When people go on to the website that we have taken three years to make and they realise that a group of young people came together and made it, they will see us in a new light too.”
Children are going to get some good publicity for a change, she says.
“No one has ever asked the users what they actually need from care,” says Dunne, who thinks that in itself is strange. All of the people who helped make the website have engaged with Tusla in some way, she says.
Markey is happy that children are being listened to. “We knew that a child-friendly website had to come from young people if it was to be understood by young people. So we established a research group of young people to make sure they were involved at every stage. This group has met regularly over three years and every detail of the website, from the name, logo, design, colours and content was created by them.”
She hopes the information on the site will help young people to be “more involved in the decisions that affect their lives”.
For Lynn Casey (24), the time she spent being cared for had left her with a few questions. "Children and young people were saying that they don't know what a social worker is, but when they go on the Tusla website, what a social worker is is not explained. Also what services there are for them in their area is not clear."
The new website shows “what Tusla can offer young people when they are looking for help. It is the first time that kids looking for help will be able to contact Tusla directly too,” says Casey.
“Young people are always on their phones and if a young person is at home and reads our page and is worried about something, they can contact us.”
Casey has been involved in the project as a young mentor from the start. “We’ve grown up with the internet, but we don’t want it to be a ‘Tusla’ website, we want it to be a website for young people.”
For Lucinda Haines, who came in to The Irish Times three years ago with fellow young mentor Mark Gray to talk about their hopes for a website, it is vital.
“When I went into care, we were handed a book. I will not forget that book. We opened it up and it was just words, and the words didn’t register in my brain. We just want the website to explain to kids what is happening because I know that when I was handed that book, I just wanted to put it in the bin.”
All of the ideas for the website came from children and young people, says Gray. “We gave the kids pieces of paper and we asked them what they would like to see on this website. The kids really knew what they wanted and needed.”
There will also be lots of different types of people and lots of different accents on the website as the group have thought long and hard about including everybody, he says. “After all anybody can need a bit of help.”
Some children don’t even know what a social worker is, he notes. “They had no idea what ‘care’ meant. No wonder they were terrified,” says Gray, who was himself cared for in a residential home.
Hundreds of children from all over the State were consulted about what the website should say and how it should look and like a dog with a bone, the children did not let go of it. “There was nothing ever like this,” says Dunne. “The information that we had; we couldn’t understand it. We wanted somewhere where kids could actually find out what was happening to them.”
“If anyone is going into care, you hear all these words. Or if someone involved in social work gets involved with you, you hear all these words and phrases but you don’t actually know what they mean. So we have made a point of explaining these terms in a way that everyone can understand,” she says.
Chelsea Douglas (18), whose involvement in the project has allowed her to find her voice, is happy to point out that they’ve chosen yellow as the colour for the section for younger children. “Happy” being the operative word, she says.
Going into the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin to work with web designers Róisín Ryan and Paddy Collins was brilliant for the group, they say.
Dillon Owen (16), says that he is considering going to college now to follow a career in web design. The world of third level has opened up before everyone, they agree.
So what did they decide a social worker actually is.
“A social worker is different to every young person. My social worker was different to another social worker,” says Casey.
“My social worker was brilliant,” says Haines. “She was a really good friend to me.”
Everyone’s experience sounds different. We agree that like many things these days, experience of social workers can be fluid.
Dunne’s social worker was like her “favourite auntie”, she says. And on that note, we go out on a high.
With so many different types of care on offer, defining it was tricky they say. There’s residential care, foster care and relative care, explains Gray. “Care is just being looked after and being in a place that is safe,” he says.
Finally being heard
Do the young people gathered in the Co Dublin prefab to talk about the website just as it is ready to launch think children’s voices are finally being heard?
“Yes,” says a young girl still dressed in her school uniform who can’t be named because she is in care. “At last adults speaking up for children when they can speak up for themselves is not a thing. It will only get better.” She thinks people are now listening to children living in cared-for situations.
The website will “change some people’s views and I am happy about that,” says Owen.
Haines thinks the website gives “children the information they need at the level they need it”. She should know because she moved around a lot, she says. “Anywhere they put me, I would just run home because that was where I wanted to be. Being a child, I had no choice.”
Casey is determined that the website will give young people what they want, when they want it.
“When we were growing up we had no idea what services were available in our area or what a social worker was. Someone just used to some to my house and take me somewhere. I didn’t know that was an access worker. So I think it will explain to young people what these different workers in their life do. It is about time that happened.”
The website will have everything you wanted to know about care but didn’t dare ask, says Gray. “It has everything to do with why you are worried. We are highlighting negligence and sexual abuse on the website too in [the section for] the older age group. And we are doing this to tell young people that this does happen, that this is wrong and you can get in touch with Tusla.
“It is up to the individual if they want to contact someone and we have information about how to access other services, not just those provided by Tusla,” he says.
Haines is proud of the children and young people who have contributed to the website. “Children have been so positive. They say people have never asked them for their opinions before.”
“A lot of Irish society has a poor opinion of young people, particularly children who are cared for, but they are trying to make a difference,” says Gray.
ChangingFutures.ie goes live on Tuesday, March 5th