Two women, one review, seven reports. One promise.
In October 2016, after listening to children and young people in care, Nicola Sturgeon announced, “an independent, root and branch review of the care system” to look at “the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos”.
The Independent Care Review began its work in February 2017. It has been led, from the start, with fierce humanity, by Fiona Duncan. And tomorrow, she will ask the First Minister to keep The Promise.
During the Review’s three years, Nicola Sturgeon has fulfilled the challenge she set herself at its outset to listen to the voices of 1000 care experienced young people. In that time, the Review has listened to 5,500 experiences from everyone involved in the system.
In a serendipitous moment last week, I found myself thinking about the Review while watching Netflix, listening to the words of 18-year-old Marie Adler in the crime series, Unbelievable.
Talking to a stranger is not awkward, Adler tells her counsellor. ‘Not to me.’
‘You think I’ve never seen someone like you before?’ she continues. ‘I’ve been in the system since I was three. I’ve seen social workers, department of children and family reps, foster care placement officers…and they all say they want to help me. But I don’t need help. I just need bad things to stop happening to me.’
Unbelievable is based on a true story. In 2008, Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever) was the victim of a vicious sexual assault. She reported it to the police, but they didn’t believe her.
Marie started doubting herself and recanted her accusation. She was fined $500 for false reporting and was sent to the counsellor as part of her conviction.
Marie reminded me, in an instant, of Brian. Brian (not his real name) was a 14-year-old boy who I interviewed as part of a research study in 2005. He was one of 21 children and young people who I spoke to about their experiences of advocacy and participation in the Children’s Hearings System.
I was explaining to Brian, as part of the process of obtaining informed consent, that I was an independent researcher, not employed by the Children’s Reporters Administration or the social work department.
But Brian was one step ahead of me. World-weary and wise beyond his malnourished years, Brian had been talking to professionals all his life. He could work out who we were and weren’t.
I remember every single one of those children and young people. But to Brian, I was just another man with a briefcase, and a tape recorder, asking him to tell his story. Again.
Brian and Marie, thousands of miles apart, their lives different in myriad ways, had one fundamental thing in common. They were in what has become known as ‘the system.’ They had been all their lives. And they had been telling professionals stories all their lives.
My own experience of the care system — in England — as a child, was a minor skirmish compared to Marie and Brian’s. But it has never left me.
The launch of the Independent Care Review’s conclusions tomorrow is a landmark moment for Scotland. We don’t yet know what those conclusions are. But we do know one thing. They are born out of the testimonies of children and young whose lives have been framed by ‘the system.’
We know there will be seven publications and that the first of those will be The Promise.
‘Promise’ is a small word with huge significance. A promise is a declaration that something will be done, an express assurance on which expectation is to be based. Promises don’t mean anything unless they are kept. And this one must be.
Children and young people have been telling people like me their stories for decades. We have asked our questions with the best of intentions — to make policy better.
And sometimes, we have made policy better. Sometimes, it has even resulted in improved practice and more effective delivery of services.
I have met children and young people who have been cared for well by the care system. Listened to. Believed. Loved.
But I also know that all that prodding around in countless lives has, in the end, left a system in place which is failing thousands of children and young people. And like Marie, bad things keep happening to them.
According to official figures, there are 14,738 young Scots currently in care. Thirty per cent of them will become unemployed; 45 per cent will suffer mental health issues; six per cent will become homeless. Fiona Duncan has described the system, at its worst, as a ‘manufacturing plant for homelessness.’
We don’t have to know what the Review’s conclusions are to understand that keeping The Promise will require institutional leadership on an unprecedented scale. The system is replete with institutions — local and national, across sectors. And they have all said they are on board.
When the Review’s conclusions are launched, they will get the opportunity to demonstrate that by saying that they will keep The Promise. And keeping The Promise will mean that every one of them will have to change. Not a tweak here or a twist there, but transformation — structural, cultural and financial.
Transformation is a big word. We have heard it countless times before. This time, we must mean it. And that will require political leadership too.
Tomorrow, Fiona Duncan will pass the baton back to Nicola Surgeon. The circle will be complete and yet the journey will scarcely have begun. It will be in the embrace of institutional and political leadership in the years to come that The Promise will be kept, or not.
Keeping it will take time and courage — across parties and political administrations — for a decade. This is not a quick fix. But as Fiona Duncan has reminded us with characteristic candour these past few days, it is urgent.
And from tomorrow, Scotland’s care experienced children and young people will be watching and waiting — for The Promise to be made real.