It’s time to listen to young people about what it is like to grow up in care

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Opinion: Deborah McMillan, Children’s Commissioner

One of the great privileges of working so closely with an organisation like the United Nations is that it serves as a continual reminder of the large global community of child-focused organisations that exists beyond our shores.

Not only is this a welcome, and necessary, dose of perspective at times but it is also a constant prompt for us, both as professionals and, more widely, as a community, to contribute to and draw from this pool of collective knowledge and experience.

A particularly memorable example of this came a couple of weeks ago when a group of local young people, co-ordinated by my office, were able to attend (albeit virtually) the United Nations Day of General Discussion in Geneva.

This was an event that we had spent many months preparing for, and it didn’t disappoint. Despite its misleadingly vague title, the ‘general discussion’ was actually on a very particular topic – that of ‘alternative care’ – and it represented the culmination of months of work undertaken by young people from countries across the world, including a group of our very own Islanders.

It was an immensely proud moment to find ourselves in the company of so many extraordinary young people from such diverse backgrounds, and know that the contributions of our young Islanders were standing shoulder to shoulder with theirs.

We heard some incredible stories and were able to see, in so much of what was said, resonances of what our own young people had spoken and written about in the submissions that they made to this UN project.

Originally intended to take place as a physical event in Geneva during the autumn of 2020, the UN DGD on ‘Alternative Care’ asked for submissions by care-experienced young people from countries across the world. These were to be facilitated and co-ordinated by a global network of national human rights institutions, including my own office here in Jersey, with a view to enabling the young people who took part to travel to Geneva and present their work.

Sadly, though, Covid put paid to this second part of the plan, as it has with so many others, and we were forced to attend the event through the magic of Zoom instead. But this did nothing to dampen the spirit and enthusiasm with which the young people took part.

Much of the work submitted by our Islanders revolved around what turned out to be one of the most prominent ideas of the whole event: namely, that children who are looked after by the State should still be able to feel as if they are cared for, rather than simply being catered for.

This was explored in a particularly memorable sequence of artwork and poetry that was produced by some of the young people taking part in the Jersey submission. And it was also a recurring theme during the in-depth conversations we had with children and young people in the months leading up to the DGD.

The results of these conversations have now been published in anonymised form on our website, and they represent the voices of children and young people between the ages of 14 and 24, both male and female. Their collective experiences encompass a range of alternative care settings in Jersey, including residential care, foster care and leaving care.

As you can imagine, their observations were as varied as they were affecting, and often during the two days of the DGD, we heard many of the same themes emerging in the words of children and young people from a host of different countries and cultures.

However, there was one particular thread that seemed to pose an especially tricky question for Jersey, as it highlighted crucial points around recruitment and retention of staff in alternative care settings, which is an issue that seems to dog our Children’s Service.

And yet, this was something that young people spoke to us about, time and again, during our preparations for the DGD. These are just some of their words:

‘You need to have the right people – this isn’t just a “job”; this affects our lives and our future. There is a big impact, because they’re coming to our house, so they need to be there for us.’

‘Our trust has already been destroyed because of what we have experienced – it is hard to build this again.’

‘I think young people should be involved in the recruitment and training of staff. Staff should have training, so that they have the knowledge, awareness and insight to care for us.’

‘You can’t actually teach someone to care – they can only do that if they want to, and because they have the right values and motivation.’

These are the kinds of statements that should never be ignored. It is a courageous thing, to speak honestly and frankly about your experiences, to challenge authority, and identify the changes that need to be made.

And the great thing about an event like the DGD is that it provides a supportive setting for those kinds of views to be expressed, taken seriously and followed up on.

All we need now is for the Government of Jersey to do the same.

Because these are not unfamiliar ideas. Comments like these have been swirling around our alternative care system for a long time.

It is time to really listen to what our young people are telling us about what it’s like to grow up in care in the Island. And to do as they recommend.

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