Maryellen Fegan, 20, chairs the Highland Champions (CHAMPS) Board. Here she describes how she first got interested in CHAMPS, what she believes it has achieved, and what her role gives to her. CHAMPS Boards are forums which create a unique space for care experienced young people to meet with key decision-makers, service leads and elected members to influence the design and delivery of services which directly affect them. They are also a mechanism for young people to hold their Corporate Parents to account.
I started to get involved with CHAMPS when I was still in care.
I had left school after sixth year and Barnardo’s told me about the council’s Family Firm scheme, where you could get a job through the council, and could work on improving the care system.
That was when discussion about a CHAMPS board started – we were looking for a way to get views of the care system from people who’d been through it or were still in care, then to get that information through to the corporate parents, They included the council, police, fire service, third sector organisations like Skills Development Scotland, and any other organisation that works with young people.
At the first-ever Highland CHAMPS meeting, with lots of corporate parents and young people, what I noticed most was young people including myself saying support for those with mental health problems was really lacking.
That was quite striking as good mental health is the foundation for your whole life. There were services you could use but the criteria were strict. If you did get through to the waiting list you then had a long wait to be seen, and often services were inconsistent.
That started my interest in CHAMPS, but then I spent 18 months in a full-time job outside the council. When I came back to the Family Firm after that, CHAMPS had been continuing and growing and the chair wanted to step down, so I agreed to take on the role about seven months ago as part of my job with the council – I also work in archiving.
CHAMPS holds quarterly meetings where we invite corporate parents and young people to come together and discuss the issues we need to. In the run-up to the meetings we have improvement groups were young people will come and they give us their views on the care system or any issues they think are important at that time.
Those meetings are a chance for care-experienced young people to give their views freely: if they had to do it at the full CHAMPS meeting in front of people such as heads of services it could be quite intimidating.
When CHAMPS first started, I got the impression that while corporate parents knew about some issues affecting care-experienced young people they didn’t understand why they were a problem. There were other issues that were quite surprising for them.
For instance, they know unemployment is quite bad for care-experienced young people but they don’t know why – in my experience it is often because the young people are pushed to get into work before they are ready to become adults.
We have had some notable successes: one of the big messages we got through was that we are just normal people like every other kids. A lot of people have the preconception that it’s your fault that you’re in care, but it’s just not the case.
We got the fire service to start a training course with the young people to teach fire safety, which parents might teach you if you aren’t in care – but often this was a knowledge gap for care experienced people. This gave the young people the skills to be independent.
The police felt there was a gap with the connection they had with young people and they were quite excited to know and understand us and some of the problems we face. We made a video for them about youth and criminal justice which showed them for instance that some kids in care might not know how to deal with problems and they might act them out in ways which result in police involvement: but the point is they are not just ‘bad’, they are troubled, and often for a good reason.
We have had some real practical successes too: we managed to get 50p access to leisure facilities for care-experienced young people on low income. That gives them the chance to go to the gym, go swimming and stay fit and socialise without having to worry too much about how to pay for it.
We also managed to get reduced bus fares for care-experienced young people in one area and we are hoping to expand that in the future. And on the big issue that came up at the that first meeting, the mental health service now engages with foster carers, staff from care homes and others on mental health issues to raise awareness. They are also working on reducing the waiting time for care-experienced young people and are bridging the gap between child and adult services. It’s still a work in progress, but it is progress.
We achieve these things by explaining the nature of the problem which corporate parents might not understand. – over the transport issue we made them aware that a lot of care-experienced young people suffer from isolation or depression because they can’t get out to see their families and friends, and they understood it, and said they were happy to do something about that.
While young people might complain to social workers about such problems this information might not necessarily get passed on but CHAMPS gives a channel for these concerns and for the problems to get sorted.
We also talk informally to young people: we visit them, maybe have dinner with them, and make them feel it’s a normal chat. I also talk to my brother and my sisters, who are all teenagers and went into care when I did.
Chairing CHAMPS has given me awareness of gaps in my knowledge, telling me what care is like for other people. I was in foster care so know nothing about children’s homes or kinship care. My experience was quite negative, but others have had more positive experiences; some have had worse ones too.
As chair I have to speak in public. That gives me something to add to my CV, and as I have always been a bit shy it definitely helps me with my confidence. There’s no doubt that it’s enjoyable and interesting, and I look forward to what the future brings and how CHAMPS will look.
I am excited for 2018 when the format of CHAMPS will be changing to encourage more views from young people, and more corporate parents to be involved. I also like seeing that we are making a difference to young people’s lives - and who knows, it might lead into a career for me in this field.