To be moved from raucous laughter to tears – that in the end I didn’t even try to hide -is not something that you expect in the course of one presentation, and certainly not at a conference but that is exactly what happened when Lemn Sissay gave his keynote address on the second day of the Co-operative College’s Education and Research Conference. I think I wept three times during his speech but as I’ve reflected on it since, as I put myself into the shoes of that scared and confused little boy, I must also confess to tears pricking my eyes again and again.

Lemn shared his story with us. His own personal history, lived through his eyes. In his own inimitable style. It was warm, it was incredibly funny, it meandered through wonderful moments of his life in a magically chaotic, haphazard way interspersed with his lyrical poetry. And then it got very real. He told us his story. The story. His experience of going into ‘the system’ and living, or rather being processed through Care. Care. It’s an odd choice of word really but that’s what we call it. A convenient shorthand but not an accurate one.

The painful truth that we were forced to face… The Care system is failing young people. Our young people. Our next generation.

Our children.

  • 34% percent of care leavers are not in education, employment or training at the age 19, compared with 13% of all young people
  • The average age for suicide if you are a care-leaver is 27
  • Young people leaving care are probably going through major trauma, possibly even PTSD, while trying to cope with all the ‘normal’ stresses of training, finding work, living as young adults
  • 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (only 2% of the general population spend time in prison)

The Care system is failing our children. And failing them massively.

How well do we understand that? How often do we sit and think about it? How often do we talk about it? Or do we comfort ourselves that there is a system that looks after the children that have been failed, that gives them a bed, food, shelter and that’s a measure of our society doing right by them? These are difficult questions that I’ve potentially never asked myself. Not because I’m a careless or uncaring person, not because I’m politically or socially unaware but maybe because I see other issues more often, more urgent (?), more horrifying (?). Every day as I walk past shop doorway after shop doorway with a cold and hungry homeless person sleeping in it I weep and a voice in me screams that something must be done to solve this.

It’s not an excuse. Not a good one at least. But it’s potentially a reason.

But as I heard that story I got a wake up call, suddenly I could see more clearly. This is a disgrace and a national crisis.

“I needed a hug” said Lemn. Those four words chilled me to the bone. I now felt the abject horror I should have already known. It cut through me like a knife. Hot tears spilled down my face without me realising.

“I needed a hug.” Of course you bloody did!

The thought of a child growing up without a hug is devastating. Impossible to imagine. Wrong. So very wrong.

“The most emotional conversation I had throughout my childhood in care was with a care worker who said ‘I have to keep my emotions separate from the job’.” Of course they did. I can hear it. I can understand what they meant and why they said it. But I wanted to scream ‘No!!. You can’t do that, it’s not fair. He needs a hug!’. And then I reflect and I can hear myself saying it. I can understand that processes and transactions are put in place to support care workers, to keep the system moving, to create efficiency and reports and to get the right result. And amongst all that, all the horror, how can you deal with it and take it home and sleep at night? But where is the humanity? Where is the nurturing? Where is the space for children to be children? Our children.

There has been much discussion in recent times about how co-ops can get involved in social care. It’s a great idea. It’s perfect. It chimes with the values and principles of the movement. It’s a great fit with the motivation of the Rochdale Pioneers. Identifying a social need, seeing the gulf of inequality and responding to it. This is what co-ops are about. This is why they’re important. This is why the world needs them.

But when I’ve heard these conversations that I welcome so much, they tend to be about elderly care. Care homes. ‘End of life care’ as it is neatly packaged occasionally. Run in a uniquely co-operative way with the service users consulted and involved, at the heart of the decision making. It’s all good. I support it wholeheartedly. We’ve all heard horror stories about what has happened to vulnerable, elderly patients in homes and hospitals and rightly we’ve been shocked and felt that something must be done. There has to be a better way. And a co-operative way would definitely be a better way of that I’m certain.

But what about the next generation? What about our children? Surely there can be a co-operative solution for them too… Putting humanity, empathy and actual care into the Care system. I would very much welcome a discussion, debate and serious consideration of this from the co-operative movement. We can be the difference. We should be the difference. Who else can or will do this?


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