Not every person who grows-up in the foster care system arrives in a position to use their childhood experiences to influence change. As a former youth in care, Alison Alexander understands this reality, but has also become the exception. Now director of children’s services, Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, UK, Alexander advocates for young people throughout the English child welfare system. Combining her firsthand knowledge of foster care with perspective gained throughout her career, Alexander is an outspoken voice for children in care and the agencies that govern them.
Joining the Children’s Aid Foundation’s first ever five14 Talks as the morning’s keynote speaker, Alexander delivered a powerful message that highlighted the need for individualized care for all youth within the foster system.
Honest and outspoken, we had the opportunity to sit down with Alexander to reflect on five14 and the changes to child welfare changes she would like to see.
Children’s Aid Foundation: How did you enjoy your time at five14 Talks?
Alison Alexander: I thought it was an amazing day, especially that the audience was equally distributed with as many young people as there were professionals. I think if I was jumping into next year, I’d go for even bigger and bolder. If you think of the number of the young people there and the effect you want to have, you want to be able to keep that number of young people but you also want to be able to reach a mass of those who are there to work with these young people. I think it’s really good to have the minister and the two critics. For me, the interesting element is learning that you still have the divide between education and child welfare, so [in the UK] we only have one minister that covers both, and I’m responsible for both areas. Talking with some advocates afterwards, the divide [in Canada] clearly consumes people’s energy unnecessarily in trying to fix the gaps. It would also be good to have the ministers be able to commit more time, and I know they all had to wander off, but the importance needs to also come with the evidence based on the time allocated to it. It is really good that everyone went to the breakfast, but actually you need to drench yourself in listening to the voice and the issues, and that sometimes means even with hugely busy schedules you have to find a way to be present without being the focus. I think the more you can have directors of children’s welfare or children’s aid societies, or ministers sitting, being, listening, to that audience, you can find solutions and ideas. Really a good day; I liked the commitment, the energy, the focus.
CAF: What advice do you have for how we can improve life for young people transitioning out of care?
AA: I think the first thing I’d advise is to stop using the word “transition”. Transition is a really professional word; no kid leaves home and says, “I’m transitioning out”. I’ve been really shocked by the use of language here by young people here. There’s another phrase they use as well – “aging out”. I understand what they’re saying but we’ve encouraged young people to adopt our language and, in some sense, what that does is disconnects the emotion from it. This is about kids leaving home, leaving care. That’s it, they’re being forced to move on and there’s no return. It’s this same old issue that those who don’t grow-up in care, they will say that kids in care are lucky because they get to leave home and live on their own when they’re 17 or 18, but those kids in care don’t get to back anywhere. They might be lucky and have good relationships with [previous foster families], but those [foster families] suddenly have new people in their homes. It’s just not the same, and we’re never going to make it the same as a kid who doesn’t grow-up in care. And, I think we should stop pretending that it is going to be. I’ve had the conversation with colleagues that “we’re aging out, we need people to look after us until we’re 25”. So, OK, even if you legislate for that, firstly it’s probably unaffordable unless you really look differently at it, but then you get to 25, and then you’re going to be pushed to say “well actually, most kids these days in England can’t buy houses until they’re 30”, so then what? Are they going to stay in foster care until they’re 30? We’ve got to admit that when kids go into care it’s a whole different regime. We’re never going to fully mimic the family environment. The most important thing we can give kids is the ability to be resilient and move forward on their own, believe in themselves, and be setup as much as possible, so they’ve got a good educational background, they’ve got the right means to go on and support themselves. Rather than saying how are we going to [raise] the age of leaving care or how are we going to find more support. In an ideal world, perfect – let’s look after kids until they’re 30 or let’s let them come back. But if you’ve got limited resources and you’ve got a six-year-old who’s vulnerable or a 27-year-old who’s returned back to be loaned money, which one are you going to go for?
“We’re never going to fully mimic the family environment. The most important thing we can give kids is the ability to be resilient and move forward on their own, believe in themselves, and be setup as much as possible, so they’ve got a good educational background, they’ve got the right means to go on and support themselves.”
CAF: How can we help them build these skills to succeed?
AA: It’s about taking them as individuals, working out what the trauma is in their lives, putting a package around that as quickly as possible so you address the real issue, and then getting them back to normalization as quickly as possible. What I mean by that is, if you’ve got a young person who’s traumatized or has been abused, they might close down, they might not connect with that emotional feeling because their way of survival is to disassociate from those feelings. If you work hard to re-associate with those youth, so they’re healthy human beings, they will naturally participate in education. Most kids who live with their natural parents are forced to, whether they want to or not, participate in extra-curricular activities. Foster carers or group homes should be charged with making sure kids participate in extra-curricular activities. We shouldn’t have to say “let’s have music lessons for kids in care”, we should be ensuring that the foster carer understands their role is the emotional wellbeing of a child and the educational achievement of that child and the health issues of that child; to bring out and enable them to be economically independent. If the foster carers understand they’re responsible for all of those, then they need to understand the only way you do that is by giving them a rounded education and getting them to do more around extra-curricular activities. If they’re a foster child we think, “we’ll just look after them”, rather than raising them.
CAF: At five14 Talks you spoke about the need for youth to take responsibility for their own lives. Can you elaborate?
AA: It’s easy as a young person — without meaning to — to stay in the victim mode. You can keep with that mentality, but in the end you have to say, “I need to do something. I need to take responsibility and say enough’s enough”. If you don’t get a job or you fail at something, you do sit there and think “I can’t do that”, but in the end you have say enough’s enough, get up, and do something different. I think many young people in care aren’t given the resilience to do that. I think sometimes, and the bit that some young people wouldn’t want me to say is, the more you gather children in care with children in care, the more they perpetuate the victim mode. They hear one bad story and then another bad story, and then they think they’re justified in saying “the system is [not great]”. And, it would be great if we got it right but we’re not two parents with extended families and it’s not going to be like that. So, how do we make it as good as possible? The more they gather, the more they live off each other’s stories and get really agitated with each other’s stories. Even if they feel settled with their lives or what’s happened to them, they hear someone else and see a social worker respond negatively to that child, and it makes them angry again.
“For me, when I’m at work, I often say to people ‘yes, I want to hear from young people, I want to hear what it’s like and where we’ve got it wrong, and what we’re doing wrong, and what we’re doing well’. But, I also say to them gather that intelligence by working alongside young people, not by bringing them together in a group and saying ‘what’s wrong, what’s dysfunctional.’”
So, take young people into what we might define as youth service activities, so they’re normalized, and be aware and extract from them the intelligence we need to get our system right. Don’t always think the only way to get young people to improve the system is to say, “we’ve got to get them together as a large group and improve”. Because, I think there is an evidence based that they can be a really powerful group if they moderate themselves and support each other, but if you’ve got a lot of angry young people and they’re all roughly the same age, they don’t move on. If you experience a terrible event, after awhile when you keep going to your doctor or you keep going to your therapist they will say, “you have to make a decision. You are either going to keep yourself in this negative position or you are going to move on.” What is it you need to do to package that up, deal with it, and move on? Or, are you saying you want to give it permission to control the rest of your life?
CAF: A lot of young people from care might feel like because they lacked an identity growing-up, being a “foster kid” became their identity.
AA: The reality is, I didn’t get any job because I turned-up at the employer and said, “I was in care, can I have your job?” You’re care status means diddly-squat to the business out there. And that’s the danger because we give so much focus to it, actually what we do is we legitimize their wallowing. We have a responsibility to give [these young people] everything possible, and the Foundation needs to be saying, “what do we need to be doing to make sure these kids are successful in life?” The most important thing is normalization; where [kids in care] can go to high school and go to the piano class that everyone else goes to, they can go to the gym class that everyone else goes to. The most successful system is where kids live in the community and nobody knows they’re a foster child. That doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the fact that they’re a foster kid — that means we’ve got it right. We’ve worked on their issues, we’ve got them in a home, people just see them as part of the community, and the young person develops their own identity.
“The most successful system is where kids live in the community and nobody knows they’re a foster child.”
CAF: Child welfare agencies often get criticized for acting too quickly to remove a child, or not quickly enough. Is there a right balance?
AA: I guess the question we always have to ask ourselves is: “what is the right threshold”? What is normal behaviour before we intervene? And some local authorities or child welfare agencies, if there are budget pressures, might change the threshold and that’s where we have an external inspection regime that looks at our thresholds to make sure we’ve got it right. And the question is how are you satisfying your self here that you’ve got the threshold right? How do you know your child welfare agencies are not upping the threshold, that means that child’s got to be at more risk before intervening, to save money? How are you going to be ensuring that? The most important thing is, regardless of [budget cuts], I still have to ensure that the kids who are at risk get a service, and the risk isn’t defined by how much money I have. And that is a real danger. It is a difficult one. If your threshold changes because of budgetary [constraints], that means you’re not intervening properly, unless you can assure everyone that what you had before was intervening too early. But, the reality is, you’ve got to say, “this is our baseline”. Any child that is being physically or sexually abused should be removed. Any child that is being neglected, starved, any of those issues, being emotionally damaged by parental abuse, should be removed. We want to break the cycles.
CAF: What motivates you?
AA: Making a difference. People shouldn’t live how I lived. And that’s what motivates me to make a difference. The fact that people have bad lives and the disadvantage that brings for rest of your life, that’s what makes me think “that’s we’ve got to correct”. That’s what makes me feel agitated when people are saying “let’s protect kids in care, let’s not challenge them”. The fact that I had to do it on my own meant that I had to become stronger. That doesn’t mean that I want kids to have to do it on their own, but I want kids to have good challenge. I don’t want foster parents or social workers to stroke young people in care, because it’s quite patronizing. They might say, “we’re looking after them”, but actually it shows a total disrespect for the fact that these kids can be highly successful. Kids in care come from a vast array of backgrounds and none of them are juvenile delinquents, they become troublesome because of how the system works, but they were all abused in some way by some adult. And that has a knock-on effect forever. We’ve got to change it. We’ve got to stop it.
“The fact that people have bad lives and the disadvantage that brings for rest of your life, that’s what makes me think ‘that’s we’ve got to correct’. That’s what makes me feel agitated when people are saying ‘let’s protect kids in care, let’s not challenge them’.”
CAF: Do you have anything else to add?
AA: You are, as a country, giving a voice to young people. All the things I’ve said about young people needing to stand-up and take responsibility, none of that changes the fact that young people need to valued as human beings and being given a voice. And that means sometimes we need specialist groups to help give them that voice. We just need to help these specialist groups to not be disempowering along the route of what they’re doing. They need to be constantly focused on “how do I move forward and challenge society in how it addresses and deals with children in care?” The Foundation has constantly stood-up and said let’s help them. But it’s about at some point raising our expectations and saying we’ve got to get more and see more.
*Alison Alexander is a Director of Children’s Services in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, UK. The views expressed are solely her own.