Halfway home to independence

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
In another view of Barnardo's work in Aberdeenshire, Judy Mackie reports on a project that helps vulnerable teenagers and young adults find new loving homes

When Elaine Young left foster care at the age of 16, her dream of having a place of her own quickly turned, if not to dust, to a fine brown powder that threatened to destroy her life.

Her tenancy of a flat in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, became a liability when friends started dropping by regularly, parties turned into drugs sessions and the music blasted all night.

The neighbours complained, warnings were ignored and eventually Elaine was evicted. Homeless, ashamed of her heroin habit and enmeshed in negative relationships, she was at her lowest ebb.

Several months on, Elaine, now 17, sits curled up and comfortable in a fireside armchair, cradled by an enormous fluffy white teddy and trading bantering remarks with the couple sitting on the sofa beside her. Free of her drug dependency and far from her old destructive influences, she chats about how she needs to get a portfolio prepared as she hopes to pursue a modelling career. The couple, who run two businesses from home, are encouraging and enthusiastic about her ambition.

Elaine came to live with Ann and Paul Conroy in a village outside Peterhead last August, after being referred to the Barnardo's Supported Lodgings scheme. The Aberdeenshire project, which started last January, helps vulnerable young people aged over 16 to find rented accommodation within the homes of families or individuals who can support them on their way to independent living.

About 1,200 16-and 17-year-olds leave local authority care in Scotland every year, so Supported Lodgings addresses a serious social issue that has recently prompted an announcement of pound;10 million funding from the Scottish Executive. The money will be allocated to local authorities over the next three years to enable them to provide better support services for teenagers leaving care.

However, care leavers are only the tip of the iceberg, according to Barnardo's children's services manager Gordon Whyte.

"In 2002, 400 16-to 25-year-olds were presented to Aberdeenshire Council as homeless. There are a lot of other vulnerable young people out there who could also benefit from a period of emotional and practical support before taking up independent tenancies.

"Supported Lodgings aims to help any young person aged 16-21 in this situation," he says.

Barnardo's works closely with the housing and social work departments of Aberdeenshire Council, as well as a raft of other agencies interested in the welfare of young people. Supported Lodgings falls somewhere between foster care and another Barnardo's initiative designed to support young people who are in need of a home, entitled Going Solo. It provides a tenancy that includes an on-site support worker.

There is no blueprint for the ideal Supported Lodgings scenario, nor is there a model for the type of family Barnardo's wants to involve. What is important, says Mr Whyte, is that the family has space in their home and in their lives.

The young person lodges with them as a member of the family and is treated - and expected to behave - as a young adult, responsible for making his or her own decisions. The family members are asked to provide guidance wherever possible, passing on practical skills, such as cooking, cleaning, operating household appliances, mending things and budgeting, as well as offering emotional support and stability.

"The project is still in its infancy and so far we have only a small number of trained and approved lodgings providers who have had young people placed with them," says Mr Whyte, "but they certainly don't fit the Mr and Mrs Middle Class with two children stereotype. They are a diverse and interesting group of people which includes a rock 'n' roll family who are into motorcycles, a minister and a social worker.

"The one thing they do have in common is that they all want to give a young person a chance and that is why they've come forward to help."

Mrs Conroy says: "We have five children between us and three of them have now left home, so we felt we'd like to give a hand to someone who needed a bit of family life.

"When Elaine first came to stay, there was Elaine and there was the rest of us. Now she's just like one of the family and it's like having another daughter around."

Elaine, who has lived in a children's home and with more than one foster family, says: "This is different from foster care, where you're told what to do all the time. Here, I can take more control over my life and make my own choices."

As the joking between them reveals, the gregarious young woman behaves like any other teenager, playing music loudly and spreading her possessions throughout the house. The couple have managed to partially house-train her, they laugh, and she retorts that they may think they've taught her how to clean, but that she hasn't been listening to a word.

The atmosphere in the house hasn't always been so light-hearted. With a lot of emotional baggage to sift through, Elaine needed to share some of her experiences, which opened the Conroys' eyes to another world.

"We're an ordinary family and it was quite an education to hear about some of her exploits, particularly with regard to drugs, but it helped us to understand a lot," Mrs Conroy says.

Like other young people in the Supported Lodgings scheme, Elaine has been encouraged to occupy her time usefully. A factory job provided a short-term solution, but the long hours and cold conditions were affecting her health so, after consulting the Conroys, she gave it up and has since been helping out with their hardwood business and with their 22-year-old autistic son, who needs a lot of care.

For Elaine, uprooting from Peterhead to a remote house near the village of Gardenstown was the best way to cut off her ties with a lifestyle she needed to escape. But now she is ready to move on to a Barnardo's Going Solo tenancy. She will have her own flat in the nearby town of Banff and a support worker will be assigned to her to offer emotional and practical support when she needs it.

Elaine says living with the Conroys has taught her "lots and lots of little things that I'll remember and be glad of when I'm living on my own again".

Mrs Conroy is hoping Elaine will keep in touch.

"We feel she needed this time with us to unwind, let go of the past and start thinking about her future," she says. "And it hasn't all been one-sided. She has given back to us in so many ways, by lending a hand when members of the family need it and just being generally supportive.

"We'll miss her, but we understand that it's now right for her to move on."

Barnardo's children's services manager Gordon Whyte, tel 01779 481467www.barnardos.org.uk HUNT FOR HELPERS

Barnardo's Scotland is looking to recruit more Supported Lodgings providers in the Aberdeenshire area. The approval process is stringent, taking an average of three months, but the timescale is shorter than that involved in foster care.

First, a Disclosure Scotland check is made on adult members of the family to reveal whether they have any previous offences. All being well, they are asked to provide two personal references and a doctor's letter, verifying they are fit to take on the role of provider.

Training and assessment follows. This involves up to 10 training and discussion sessions covering such issues as coping with challenging behaviour, understanding homelessness, drugs information and establishing house rules. This is delivered by Barnardo's children's services manager Gordon Whyte, sometimes in small groups at a convenient venue, sometimes on an individual basis at home. A colleague provides a second opinion on the recruits' suitability for their new role.

Mr Whyte's assessment report is put forward to a panel of senior representatives from Barnardo's, Aberdeenshire's social work department and Who Cares?, a charitable agency representing young people. If approval is given, the report goes to the assistant director of Barnardo's for final ratification.

Then a suitable match has to be found. Various factors are considered, such as whether the young person has an allergy to pets or the home is in an area that is right for the person's needs at the time.

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