Our gatherings with the adults who used to live in our residential services are always abuzz with stories. These are often about hilarious encounters with each other and the people who cared for them, what they got away with, stand-offs and disagreements about what seemed important at the time and now seem absurd. These speak to universal experiences, the difficult teenage years, the battle of wills between them and the often over-protective people who cared for them. While details about what happened are hazy, the bones of contention buried, the memories of the people involved are vital, re-enacted through gesture and expression. For our care experienced adults, these anecdotes are more than entertaining vignettes from their awkward childhood, they convey immeasurable meaning. They are touchstones to the deep connections developed with the people who cared for them and the young people who shared their space and are milestones to development. Sometimes messy, tense and poignant emotion-filled encounters, spontaneous and unscripted moments of tenderness, joy and shared frailty.
While most of these stories spoke to universal experience, there were those that related to situations that may only be familiar to people with care experience. Memorably, one of the young adults spoke about making a Father’s Day card. She described the excitement of making this with her classmates at school, how it would feel when she gave it to the staff member and imagining how he would receive it, and what it would mean for him. Invested in the relationship, she risked reaching outside herself to acknowledge the significance of the role this staff member had in her life, a declaration of appreciation. When she returned home and explained what she was going to do, she was told she was not allowed to pass on the card, as this would not be in keeping with professional boundaries. It was important that staff members treated all the young people equally and this would suggest otherwise, she was told. While this was an exceptional example, it does resonate with the evidence gathered during the Independent Care Review, and detailed in The Promise, that all too often, the experience of being cared for was muted by the requirements of the system. The best of intentions can be distorted in service to this, with its ideas about what it means to be professional, objective and rational and the consequent preoccupation with what can be measured. This can risk compounding the stigma, exclusion and isolation that children may already have to face.
The Right to Relationships Charter is a distillation of the wisdom of our care experienced community, conveyed through their stories. The care experienced adults involved in developing the Charter described each of the articles as uniquely important to them in the belief that all young people should benefit from compassionate, trusting relationships and that these should continue into adulthood. The Charter is comprised of ten articles:
The Right to Continued Caring Relationships
The Right to be Valued
The Right to be Believed in
The Right to be Nurtured
The Right to Belong
The Right to our own Identity
The Right to Trust and be Trusted
The Right to Hope
The Right to be Safe
The Right to be Remembered
There is nothing remarkable here. What may be of note is that what has been identified as important are the things we all need to find our place and purpose in the world, and often take for granted. Experiences that are of universal value can be displaced or lost through the pragmatism and banality of thinking within a system, where human connections may be undervalued, rather than within relationships. This is not to suggest that all, or even most, care experienced children and young people do not have the nurturing experiences described in the Charter. Neither is it proposed that coordinated, specialist professional support and intervention is not important, but it cannot be a proxy or substitute for foundational nurturing care, administered sensitively through day-to-day interactions within relationships with developing reciprocity.
Raising children is the most rewarding thing we will ever do. It is frustrating, worrying, heart-breaking, challenging, joyous, life-affirming, transformative and wonderful. We don’t get to experience the good stuff unless we are personally invested and willing to ride this emotional rollercoaster. It is through the often messy, fun-filled, heart-wrenching, irreverent and unguarded moments of reciprocation that connections are formed and deepened, where being cared for is felt in the most meaningful and emphatic way.
Care experience need not be a burden. It can be restorative and enlightening, and provide opportunities for children and young people to develop a coherent sense of who they are and what they are capable of. It can also be a source of happy memories, belonging and hope, imbuing a positive sense of future through continuous growth. The roots of a flourishing life nurtured and nourished through relationships.
The Japanese art of kintsugi involves carefully repairing cherished pottery with gold leaf, an act of care that produces something that is considered even more valuable and precious than the original piece. Because the act of care is also valued, it is celebrated rather than concealed. Perhaps, a promise and personal commitment those of us working in residential child care can make to our young people is that they will move on from our care feeling more valued, valuable, appreciated and loved than when we first met them.
The Charter was launched in 2019, with many people and organisations signing up to pledge support. You can read the full text, sign and pledge your support to The Right to Relationship Charter here.