In prison, on drugs, or dead

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Nick Hilborne reports on the bleak reality of life after leaving care.

"The only kids from care I've met are in prison, or they're scoring drugs, or are dead from overdoses."

Simon, a 38-year-old homeless man who grew up in care, sells the Big Issue in the North on the streets of Manchester. He has met only one person from the care system with a steady job and a steady relationship.

A quarter of Manchester's 300 Big Issue sellers were in care. Simon's problems began at the age of seven when his mother died and he didn't get on with his father's new partner.

"Being a rebel was my way of dealing with what was happening at home. I was constantly in trouble," he said.

"The teachers could not understand why I went from being one of the top kids in the class to a little monster."

Simon went into care just before secondary school. "By the time I got there, I just did not fit in. Everyone else had mums and dads. Being the class clown was the only way of getting accepted."

Simon was soon doing more than clowning around outside school, he was shoplifting and stealing bicycles. By the Christmas holidays he was in a secure residential home with its own school. "They put me in a class with 15 and 16-year-olds, and I still came top. Until then all I wanted was to get back to a normal school and do exams.

"When I asked my social worker she said I could do my exams at college when I was 16, after I left. It was too much for her to get me into a mainstream school again. She was just another adult shitting on me from a great height."

This was the start of a downward spiral that saw Simon move from one secure home to another before leaving care with no qualifications. Once he attempted to take a course at college, but drugs got in the way. "A lot of people use drugs to blot out other things," he said.

Another Big Issue seller, Lee, 29, went into foster care at 14 after family problems. "My foster parents could not cope with me because of my drug taking," he said. "I was a little git. They would take me to school, and I would disappear out the back. I wish I had stuck it out. When you're that age, you don't realise the importance of things."

Lee spent a year with his foster parents then lived with friends. He tried living at home for a few months, but it did not work.

"I found it very difficult to concentrate at school. When you're in a classroom with a lot of people doing dead well, you think you're thick."

Lee said he was bullied because he was small. At 15, after a fight with a bully, he was expelled. "Nobody did much for me at school, and I got nothing out of being there," he said. "Even now I have problems reading."

Jason, 37, went into foster care at nine. He was unable to settle in his foster family, and ended up being shunted between secure children's homes, regularly running away and being taken back.

By the age of 16 he was living on the streets, with no qualifications and little chance of a job. "All we got was basic English and maths in the secure units," he said. "We were learning stuff we had learnt in primary school. I did not like being treated like a five-year-old.

"I would have liked to have had an education, but was never given the opportunity. You're left feeling useless, unwanted, angry and hurt."


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