"I just want to be normal": looked after young people's experiences of feeling different

17 December 2018

Topic: Health and Wellbeing, REACH, Voices of young people
Author: Professor Julie Selwyn, Dr Claire Baker

Teenagers laughing together

Over the last four years, we have been asking children and young people who are looked after (age 4 – 18 years old) to complete surveys on how they feel their lives are going. Currently there is no national collection of children and young people’s views on how they feel and are functioning. National measures tend to focus on negatives, and do not tell us whether children feel they are flourishing in care. The surveys were therefore commissioned to identify local authorities in England that were providing good care experiences for children.

To date, over 5,500 surveys have been completed enabling looked after children and young people to record whether they feel they are flourishing in care: information that supplements the annual data release by governments. The Hadley Centre at the University of Bristol and Coram Voice (a children’s rights charity) have worked together to develop and deliver the surveys in 28 English local authorities and six Welsh authorities. The survey ‘Your Life Your Care’ asks about four key areas: relationships, rights and opportunities to recover and develop resilience. Importantly, the survey questions were designed by 140 children and young people who took part in focus groups in England, asking them ‘What matters to you … what makes a good life?’

Here, we focus on one area that troubled looked after young people (11-18yrs): about one in eight reported felt that they were made to feel different because of being looked after. These young people described how adults and young people reacted negatively to their situation, how they were unable to control who knew intimate details about their personal lives, and how a lack of respectful practice negatively affected their wellbeing.

Care status

Some young people wrote that professionals referred to them by their care status.  For example, one young person wrote that she had heard her social worker referring to her as “a Section 20” and other young people complained that their carers introduced them as a “foster kid.”  Young people disliked attention being drawn to them by social workers or contact workers who displayed their council ID badges or wore lanyards when they were out in public with the young person or when picking them up from school. Young people found this embarrassing and led to questions being asked if they met someone they knew writing for example, “Being embarrassed is a big part of my life. My anxiety can be really bad when being asked questions about foster care.”

Some young people wanted absolute confidentiality and wrote: “I keep it a secret I don’t tell anybody” or, “I just don’t like people knowing”. Another young person was anxious that her care status would be revealed in the looked after children’s annual award ceremony, which is held to mark the achievements of looked after children. She wrote, “I don’t want to be identified as a young person in care. I’m worried that my name will be read out at a ceremony and then people will find out.”

Young people did not like teachers or social workers explicitly highlighting the fact that they were in care. They gave examples of teachers who made it clear in meetings that the carers were foster carers and not the young person’s parents, or social workers who corrected young people if they called their foster carer ‘Mum’.  Teachers in particular were mentioned as not respecting young people’s privacy, telling other staff and children that the young person was in care or publicly revealing details of their families. Some young people noted that schools differentiated looked after children from their peers. For example, one young person wrote: “When I was in primary school, they used to put a little colour next to my name to show I was in care.”

The survey revealed that there was feedback that wherever the young people went, their care status was revealed: “If I go to the doctors or dentists I have to explain I am a child in care”. Others wrote, “Carer tells everybody I’m in care” or “ Talking about my personal issues in front of other people” and “Saying that I’m in care to people I have not told it to.”  Residential staff were reported to have told other residents the reasons why young people had been placed there, and young people in foster care sometimes felt that their personal details were not respected but rather were loudly broadcast so that others could hear. They felt embarrassed by “People who bring up my care life in front of people that don’t know my situation,” or “Talk about the reasons [why in care] out loud”.

Parents’ evenings, which can often be stressful situations, were more challenging for young people as they were asked awkward questions by their friends about who they were with such as, “People question me if that is my mum and they say she looks nothing like me.”  Young people wrote that they wanted to be “normal” and relayed that they couldn’t do the same things as their friends.  Some complained that police checks were being made on their friend’s houses before they could have a sleepover (although government guidance is that such checks should not occur) or that they had “supervised spending.” The most complaints were that meetings often took place in school, leading to questions from peers. Young people’s comments showed that they were acutely aware of their peers’ reactions and comments.

Sharing your story

Being unable to control when and who was given information and how much they were told, led young people to express feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, and fears of rejection and bullying by peers. Young people wrote, “It’s embarrassing to worry about what other people might think when they find out I’m in care”; “It’s hard to explain”; “It’s the looks and the judgement stares…”; “Being in care is a struggle because you get bullied or picked on for being special.”

Young people left many comments in the Your Life Your Care surveys about their experiences. Services need mechanisms in place to hear what their children are saying and to respond to changing practice and attitudes. Greater efforts need to be made to respect young people’s right to be treated as individuals, for personal information to be kept private and to develop different ways to enable looked after young people to participate in decision-making that does not incur stigma.

Professor Julie Selwyn, Child and Family social work and Director of Hadley Centre, University of Bristol and Dr Claire Baker, Bright Spots Programme Lead, Coram Voice.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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