How do we, as Looked After Children and Care Experienced Adults, experience stigma?

Author: TACT

Stigma: a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or a group of people have about something.

As care experienced people in one way or another we have all experienced forms of stigma and prejudice based on our lived experience. This can be through the attitudes that some people in our society have surrounding what it means to be a looked after child and the circumstances of what can lead a child to go into the care of children’s services.

Often the negative portrayal of care experienced children and adults in popular culture, as well as the “real life” representation within the media, can feed into negative connotations and reinforce the stigma and prejudice against us. The lack of awareness, perception and education can limit a person’s understanding of our experiences and can often lead people to assume that theses false representation are the truth. Narratives like Tracy Beaker can lead to misconceptions of what our life in care is actually like.

The English Independent Care Review is picking up on issues such as stigma, and there is a hope that policies can be implemented in order to make a positive transformation of the social care system, for those currently being cared for external to their birth parents, as well as those who may experience social care in the future. The review is looking at the issues faced through the perspective of children and families and the way we feel about the services around us, either positively or negatively.

In October 2021 the English Care Review held a panel discussion with a number of experts, of which several were care experienced. The purpose of this was to create a discussion as to whether the revelation of care experiences has consequences and if “the stigma of care prevents care experienced people from having a fair chance to flourish?”. It was shown by each of the panel members that stigma is very present in in their lives, with a number of stereotypes being derived from this, including the view that “challenging” behavior of children and young people in care increases their potential for criminality.

In comparison to this often when we succeed, we feel a sense of imposter syndrome and doubt our accomplishments, simply because it is not something that we see within the media, as this is not a thing that is focused on. This is an issue that relates to a discussion started by David Akinsanya, a panel member. David talked about the documentaries he has made, one in particular about his experiences of being in care where he had people ask him “how did you do that” and “how can we do that”, as these are ideas that many care experienced people don’t think are possible.

A great deal of the discussion around stigma, but also the idea of being made to feel different came from the way in which professionals, like social workers interact with us and the way in which they go about their work. Another well respected professional and panel member, Professor Julie Selwyn, highlighted how around 10% of young people aged 11-17 stated that the professional adults in their lives, such as social works, embarrassed them and made them feel a sense of shame. These discussions felt extremely similar to experiences that I and many others have had in terms of the way professionals within children’s social care present.

When you are in care often you feel different to those around you, as you regularly get pulled out of lessons for a variety of meetings, counselling sessions or even the most normal interaction of meeting with a social worker who attends your school wearing their lanyard. Sometimes as care experienced people we try to keep that part of ourselves hidden in order to protect ourselves from the fear that others might say hurtful things about our experiences.

The Care Review is a key necessity in order to start thinking about making changes to children’s social care across England, yet other studies and reports are being develop which are extremely beneficial to the experiences of children and young people during their time in care. Language That Cares is a clear example of how children and young people feel about the language that is used within children’s social care and how we want it to change to reflect our feelings and preferred language around this. Language is something that can be difficult to change, especially in a setting like social services, as often this is what professionals have been taught is right. It is also known that psychologically we all use words that separate and protect us from certain situations, this factor alone makes this a difficult area to change fully.

It feels hopeful that real discussions are taking place around stigma, as it helps us to see and understand that our voices and opinions as care experienced adults and young people are being heard. It is further hoped that these events may have an impact and that there is potential to make positive changes for those who are currently looked after by Local Authorities.


Ashleigh Andrews

TACT Connect Advisor