The stigma associated with children in care

ACP registered child psychotherapists work with many looked after and adopted children and young people. A recent story from a young person, Jimmy Paul, who grew up in care was in the news last week. He recently wrote a blog post in the Guardian about the stigma that comes with admitting you are a looked after child today called “Children in care are not just numbers: we must challenge the stigma”.

Jimmy argued that very often children in care are associated with negative attributions by society. For example, he stated that children in care are seen as “dangerous, delinquent or damaged goods” and that the “trauma, abuse and neglect” they have faced in their early lives “are commonly forgotten.” It was due to this stigma that meant Jimmy, who was placed in care on his 11th birthday, was afraid to admit he was "looked after" for fear of judgment by his peers and the possibility that the “stereotypes of failure (associated with children in care) became a self-fulfilling prophecy”. He felt a “sense of guilt, shame and unworthiness” when he went to University. It wasn’t until adulthood that Jimmy felt comfortable enough to embrace his care identity. In fact, Jimmy went on to work in the looked-after-sector  himself, in order to help change these misconceptions. 

Jimmy has articulated brilliantly the tragic effects that negative societal views can have on vulnerable children through his own views on his own care and identity. In addition to having to fight the stigma associated with their care identity, many children in care also don’t receive the support needed. Jimmy stated it was hard to form a connection with his social worker since his local authority had such a high turnover. Furthermore, as is often the case with children in care, to experience a traumatic upheaval early in life makes it harder to “break free from your past and be open with people when you desperately need support”, in Jimmy's words.  His wellbeing was “speculated about from afar” rather than anyone taking the time or making the effort to directly ask Jimmy how he was feeling and what support he needed. His solution is simple, “all you need to do is speak to, read about and listen to people who have experienced care” and that these “damning messages” must stop. More than anything, Jimmy emphasises that children and adults should "own their care identity: be proud of it – it’s nothing to be ashamed of."

Jimmy has written about his own experiences as a looked-after-child, but we as child mental health specialists are very aware that this experience seems to be universal amongst children in care or those who have been adopted. As one young person, interviewed by the ACP, said, “being adopted isn’t my fault – I don’t usually tell my friends because they wouldn’t understand…Stigma comes from not understanding each other or being willing to listen – properly. Mental health professionals need to spend more time listening. I felt listened to by my psychotherapist who helped me understand what being adopted meant to me.”

To read the full article about Jimmy, see here