A Wellbeing Economy: Lifting our gaze for those leaving care
For Challenge Poverty Week 2022, Jimmy Paul, Director at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) Scotland, which works to promote a Wellbeing Economy, an economy that delivers social justice and environmental health for all, looks at what he thinks needs to happen for young people to have a smoother transition from care to interdependence, and asks why systems and services default to existing ways of working, instead of exploring new ways to ensure that all families can flourish and live with dignity.
In a global context, Scotland is a great place to grow up in many ways. Each and every child has access to free healthcare, free education and the express commitment of government to ensure all children feel loved and can reach their potential. But sadly, far too often in Scotland, we fail to live up to this ambition for our children. The pandemic shone a light on the inequalities that are sustained by our economic system, ranging from how poorly we treat key workers to how the wealthiest can continue to benefit, even at times of crisis. This cost of living crisis threatens to exacerbate this further. Sadly, this injustice has been, and continues to be, particularly felt by those who have experience of state care.
I recently came across a beautiful Sudanese proverb which says "we desire to bequeath two things to our children: the first one is roots, the other one is wings". In relation to young people leaving care, this feels relevant; it would mean that the person feels loved, claimed, and that leaving is on their terms as they set off to do whatever they want in the world.
Making decisions that support healthy transitions
Sadly, many people describe a ‘care cliff’. That was certainly my personal experience of leaving care: graduated from university in the July, corporate parenting responsibilities ceased in the August. This began the trickiest period of my adult life, feeling abandoned with nowhere to turn and no-one to support me. It felt more like care left me, rather than me leaving care. Somewhere, choices are made that cutting off support when a young person reaches an arbitrary age is acceptable. Now, Scotland has The Promise of the Independent Care Review imploring us to make decisions alongside young people that sustain long term relationships, support healthy transitions and build interdependence. Whilst through the pandemic there was a temporary pause on ‘leaving care’, this has resumed with the continuation of age cut offs for support. This makes care leavers more likely to fall into precarious work or a benefits system that, when compounded by the cost-of-living crisis, doesn’t offer enough to live with dignity or purpose. We therefore continue to predispose care leavers to a life where poverty is more likely than for their peers, setting low expectations of them and entrenching hardship.
Care experience at the very centre when designing services
Whilst a co-chair at the Care Review, I loved working with all of the Workforce work group members. One of those was Angela Morgan, former CEO of Includem, who often said “out of hours – for who?” when challenging the idea that it is acceptable for services to be open Monday to Friday 9am-5pm, but have reduced hours at the times when families are most likely to need support – in evenings or on weekends, when children aren’t at school. We no longer need to sleepwalk into the design of our services.
Too often we build in unnecessary transitions into the life of those in state care, such as expecting care leavers to navigate their way from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ services without support. This does not allow for consistency of relationships, and we know that systems don’t tend to share information across services very easily. This can also perpetuate a sense of powerlessness, of systems ‘doing to’ rather than ‘working with’. It is yet another example of people needing to fit around the priorities of systems, instead of systems being designed with young people at the heart. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Thinking long term
We know what we need to do, and it makes sense morally and economically (as the Follow the Money report explains), so why do we continue to default to old ways? We continue to make decisions over eligibility and entitlement to support, which is informed by dwindling budget and resources, and where staff are fearful of repercussions when trying something new.
Given the vision, impetus and direction provided to us by The Promise, and the government commitment to delivering a Wellbeing Economy, it is high time that we lifted our gaze and acted with the long term in mind.
Some examples of what this must look like in the context of a Wellbeing Economy:
- Robust Universal Basic Services such as health, education, transport; ensuring that all families are well supported from the outset and that there is a safety net for young people as a precondition for providing interdependence.
- Acting for care leavers in a comprehensive way, now with whatever support is needed. We know that this is not only morally the right thing to do, but economically it makes sense too.
- Acknowledging the role of the economy in delivering much-needed systems change, and work together to help shape it as such. We need our economy to do more of the heavy lifting in providing good lives first time round and to prevent us from jumping from crisis to crisis. I am delighted to see more children’s charities, local authorities and health boards reorienting our economy, but Scotland needs significant and sustained momentum on this.
- Delivering children’s wellbeing budgets, like that being developed in Letham in Perth and Kinross, where children and families decide what matters to them locally, and budgets adjust to achieve those things. This requires acting across budgetary silos and across organisations.
- Holding the hands of the adults who hold the hands of children – making sure that they feel valued and listened to in service of the children they care for.
- Recognising the importance of acting upstream – remembering that comprehensive support to families with infants and younger children will benefit them in later life.
- Reflecting honestly on yourself, your practice and your leadership – are you contributing to meaningful change, and how do you know this? Relevant to many organisations, but too often a topic that is shied away from: are you working to deliver your own obsolescence which would be a good thing, because it signals a widespread improvement in the lives of families?
Our duty towards all in our communities who experience hardship needs to be a response of compassion and kindness, recognising relationships and our innate human interconnectedness. I look forward to working alongside everyone who is seriously committed to delivering the bold transformation that the Promise requires of us, as well as making huge strides in building a Wellbeing Economy. By doing this, we can, make sure that all children in Scotland, including those with care experience can flourish, with both their roots and their wings.
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