The link between poverty, stigma, and the care ‘system’
Tiegan Boyens uses her experiences, views and knowledge to help improve the lives of children and young people, tackle social justice issues, and raise awareness of human rights. In this blog post, Tiegan, who is aged 19, adopted and lives in England, discusses why a greater understanding of poverty is needed to help make real change.
In September 2021, I was one of a group of young people involved in the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Day of General Discussion (DGD) on Children’s Rights and Alternative Care. As part of our participation, I and many others had the opportunity to discuss our experiences of care and share our views on what could change for the better for children growing up in care today – something I’ve spoken about in more depth in a previous blog post for CELCIS.
One of the most interesting parts of being involved in the DGD was hearing from so many young people from around the world who had experienced different types of care. Hearing their perspectives made me realise that although we all have very individual stories to tell, there are some glaring similarities that are woven through each of our lives. One, and arguably the most far-reaching of these, is the link between poverty and the care ‘system’, something that came through strongly from the whole group.
My experience of poverty and the importance of support
For around two years of my early life I lived with my dad, part of which was also spent living with his parents while he was trying to find permanent housing – something we were lucky to be able to do. At this time, my dad was a single carer to me and had very little access to support, something that impacted on us hugely. He used all the savings he had to try and care and provide for me. When I was very young, he was one of the only people able to care for me and simply couldn’t work due to my age. When I started going to nursery, which was only for a few months before ending up in care, and for short hours, he would need to do all the runs to and from nursery, plus he was always the one who would need to drop everything and come and pick me if something was wrong. Once we had a council house to live in, the train journey to see other family members was half an hour away, and so it cost money every time we wanted to see them.
Although there were various different reasons why I ended up living with foster carers, before ultimately being adopted by my two mums, poverty was a factor. During my discussions with people I met during the DGD – conversations that continue to this day – almost all of us, regardless of where in the world we were from, found that one of the main reasons we had experience of care was poverty and the struggle our families had with this. For many of us, our birth families experienced a lack of support and understanding, and were often blamed for the situation they were in.
I know from my own experiences that the word ‘neglect’ is used often as a reason to explain why children go into care. For me, I think what people don’t always realise is that a word like ‘neglect’ doesn’t have a simple definition. Often, when a child is ‘neglected’, the reality is that their family simply don’t have the finances available to be able to provide their children with the material resources to meet their needs. When families can’t afford food, or housing, or transport, it isn’t because they’ve spent their money on other things or have chosen not to provide for their children, it’s because they don’t have the money available to them. This can then cause mental health issues, something that can make the situation ten times worse. What’s important to understand is that most of the time people are doing the best they can, they just don’t have the support they need at a given time.
Does the ‘system’ really understand?
When it comes to poverty, the focus always seems to be on immediate, short-term access to the most basic needs. Although this is crucial for families who are struggling to put food on the table, it doesn’t address the root cause of the issues that families experience. Having access to adequate support when it’s needed and living with dignity in a comfortable and secure home are, in my view, often relegated to the background, with very little done to create long-term change. It makes me think: does the ‘system’ really understand what people who experience poverty are going through?
Something I’ve found really interesting to think about is the people who have the power to make decisions about families. Often, I’ve found that these are people who are in senior positions, well paid, and may have never experienced or even come close to poverty in the same way that some families do today. When decision-makers see parents who can’t afford a double bed, or who don’t turn the heating on because it’s too expensive – things that may seem so small but are a luxury for many – it’s easy to think that people are somehow inferior because they don’t live in the same way as them. In reality, they’re just doing the best in their situation. It makes me wonder by which standards we’re assessing and judging people by in the first place.
The long-term impact
Although I don’t have specific memories of being fostered, the impact of poverty from this time is lifelong, far-reaching and still affects me today. I now have six parents and it’s hard to deny that my background is clearly very different compared to most people. For children who are still part of the care ‘system’, they’re still living it. Some go on to lead great lives, but for others, the stigma is still there. As a result of being care experienced, often as a result of poverty in some way, they’re labelled as badly behaved children, or there’s assumptions that they come from backgrounds that are related to drugs, or that they are more likely to end up as criminals. It’s like there’s lower standards placed on us from the very beginning.
There’s still a huge lack of understanding of poverty, how people come to experience it and the impact it has, but I’m hopeful that progress can be made. In England, the upcoming Care Review will hopefully open up the conversation and offer recommendations that can actually be implemented, not which are just there for the sake of it. In 2022, the DGD will publish its report on the outcome and recommendations from the event, which will hopefully include the voices of all the children and young people who contributed their views. For us, the story – and our work to make positive change – continues.
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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