Last month COTA hosted its first ever international video call between care leavers from Cali and London. The participants were excited about this opportunity to share their experience and learn what it was like to grow up in care in another country.
In Colombia an estimated 67,000 children live in care; the figure is only slightly lower in England estimated at 64,400. In Colombia, most children in care live in large residential homes, and most are there as a result of economic difficulties, threats of recruitment into illegal armed groups, displacement, violence, abuse or abandonment. With an average of 50-60 children per care home, it is very difficult for children in residential care in Colombia to receive the personalised support they so need.
In England, during the last 3 decades there has been a big shift away from such large scale residential care homes and today around three quarters of children in care live with foster families. Children in care in England receive individual support from various professionals such as social workers, support workers, and foster carers.
The Young People
Monica, Jonathan and Jennifer grew up in (large-scale) residential children’s homes in Cali, and since leaving care one year ago have been living in supported accommodation provided by COTA’s Partner “Forming Futures” (FFF). FFF seeks to improve opportunities for care leavers by working with children still in care to help them develop life skills and prepare for when they come to leave care and by supporting care leavers with after-care support, to make the transition from care to independent living.
Aicha and Rachel both grew up in London based foster families, and now live independently: Aicha in her own flat (supported) and Rachel in student accommodation at her University. They are both involved with the work of The Who Cares? Trust, a UK NGO supporting children and young people in – and leaving – care. As they talked, the young people discovered how different the support for children in, and leaving, care is in Colombia and England – but how similar some of their emotional experiences were. It is with great pleasure that I share this story with you.
Life in Care
Without realising as she spoke, it was Monica from FFF who would reveal the first shock factor: that about 60 children lived in her Colombian care home, girls and boys, aged 7 to 18. Rachel and Aicha were stunned, and delved into the many more questions they had about living arrangements and support networks.
Aicha also said that “it’s totally different in the UK, everyone has their own room, you never share a room in a care home”. The FFF young people could not believe what they were hearing. Jennifer explained that “in my home in Cali, there were 57 of us-all girls: 4 blocks, 14 girls in each block and around 7 girls per room“. I thought Rachel and Aicha’s eyes might just pop out of their heads.
Leaving Care – “We don’t even get a mattress”
“So what type of accommodation options do you have when you leave care? Do you get money or support to move into a shared flat or your own flat?” asked the inquisitive Rachel.
“We don’t even get a mattress” responded Monica, amused. More seriously, Jonathan went on to explain that “when you leave care in Colombia you have to find a relative to stay with. If you don’t have family, or haven’t heard about FFF’s services, you can end up on the streets. I don’t know where I might be if not for FFF”.
Silence filled the room for a moment, as we all took in just what that meant for young people in care in Colombia. Pensive, Aicha and Rachel explained a little about the support system in England, which includes housing provisions, grants to enable young people to stay in education and support available from various professionals. The young people at FFF were lost for words. In Colombia, once you leave care there is no government support programme. FFF runs the only drop in centre in the country where care leavers and (and children in care) can go to get advice, support, and training and to meet other young people.
Independence – challenges and support networks
Jonathan probed further, asking “What is the most difficult aspect of learning to live independently for you?”. The response was moving:
“I see that others can call on their families for support and advice anytime, and when I realise I can no longer do that it makes me feel very lonely. I went into foster care because I have no parents or grandparents. I have very few family members and I am not in touch with them. Although I am not dependent on the [care] system, once you become older and find yourself without support workers you have no one to talk about how you feel with. You don’t have a family bond with anyone and it’s lonely” explained Rachel very honestly.
Aicha commented that it is different for each individual. “Some people have been emotionally very damaged and they may need more support to continue with their lives. Their coping ability may be different. I don’t want to be dependent, but some people aren’t ready to be independent. Sometimes in the care system they do not prepare you to do things for yourself, so when you get to the point of leaving the system you don’t know how to do anything. Becoming an independent adult is really daunting without support. If you are lucky, your support workers will have supported you to do things yourself rather than just doing everything on your behalf“.
Jonathon, Jennifer and Monica echoed this vigorously, saying that the worst thing about being in care was the lack of freedom and how over protected you are. Jonathan shared that he didn’t really have a grasp of reality: “Most of us didn’t have a clue how to move about the city, how to use public transport, how much a kilo of rice costs, how to budget, what our rights and responsibilities are as citizens or how to cope in a hostile society… At FFF it’s great because here we get advice on job hunting or training courses, and learn how to cook or write a CV. They have computers and a library that we can use and the care workers help us to find our feet – they help us to do things ourselves”.
The Colombian young people were excited to have contact with young people from the UK, keen to share their stories and to remain in contact. Despite the huge differences in level of in-care and after-care support between the UK and Colombia, Jonathan, Monica and Jennifer were not discouraged by their situation. All of the young people feel that they are able to take on independent living: the UK young people because of all the support they have received and continue to receive from the UK care system, and the Colombian young people because of the preparation and support they are receiving while at FFF.
I’d like to thank the fantastic young people that made this discussion possible, and for sharing their stories with such honesty and enthusiasm. We have much to learn from the experiences of young people in Colombia and England and we are all looking forward to further opportunities like this.
If you would like to support young people who have lived in care in Colombia and help FFF continue with their vital work to improve opportunities for children leaving care in Colombia, please make a donation today.