The coronavirus and care experienced young people: a moment for critical reflection

In this blog, Glasgow/SCCJR PhD student Nicola Ceesay considers how lockdown combines with existing systems of restriction on young people in care to entrench the inequalities that led people into care in the first place.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak I have worked within the residential childcare sector alongside a devoted staff team to provide care and support for a small group of young people. Children and young people are placed in residential care when there is no suitable alternative and are placed in secure settings when they are thought to pose a high risk of harm to themselves or others.

In this short blog, I wish to bring into focus some of the problems and paradoxes experienced by young people living in residential and secure care and those transitioning from care in the weeks and months preceding the outbreak. In a sense, I wish to use the pandemic as an opportunity with which to awaken, in the words of C Wright Mills, the sociological imagination giving renewed emphasis to the argument that the personal troubles experienced by this group are rooted in not only in institutional failings but also in structural inequality. Through this, I hope to remind us of our duty as students, professionals, academics and as critical commentators, to dissent, to refuse to accept the injustice of inequality. 

The pandemic and its impacts

When Scotland moved into the lockdown phase of the pandemic the institutional grip on the residential care sector intensified in a number of ways. Most obviously, and as was the case for all children in Scotland, was the complete suspension of routines as schools closed and face to face contact with peers and relatives was curtailed. This was felt especially acutely by young people confined to a residential unit (as opposed to some in residential care who were able to return home on a temporary basis). For these young people, access to phones and social media helped to maintain a sense of wellbeing and belonging with the outside world. Paradoxically though, these positives have been caveated by concerns that increased digital access has resulted in greater exposure to bullying, grooming and sexual exploitation, issues already occurring at high levels within this group.

Quarantine measures have combined with the institutional imperatives of risk management to exacerbate restrictions and isolation of young people. This was particularly felt by those who left residential settings without permission breaking the requirements of lockdown who would then have to self-isolate. For those coming back into or newly received into care during this time this meant a delay in the integration into the unit and isolation from other residents and staff.  These measures also meant delays in Children’s Hearings, placement reviews, and post emergency transfers all contributing to a sense of powerlessness for young people.

For young people in secure  residential care, which is more restrictive than non-secure care and generally used when there is a concern about a young person’s risk of harm to self or others, there is normally no access to personal mobile phones or social media for the duration of their stay. Under lockdown, this has meant a group around whom there are the most intense concerns about harm are experiencing increased anxiety about loss of family and peer contact.

About care experienced young people

There are approximately 1,400 children and young people who have been removed from their families and taken into care annually by order of the Scottish courts. Entry into institutional care often is precipitated by years of psychological trauma, loss, serious neglect and abuse. Adverse childhood experiences lead to heightened states of anxiety and fear which in turn can manifest as negative behaviours, leading to risk taking, harm, and conflict with others. This often means the breakdown of multiple care placements and further uncertainty as children and young people move between various types of service provision. The residential care setting is a temporary home of comparative safety, but it is one where personal troubles play out with profound intensity. Residential care can be a place of extremes for it is at once deeply supportive and at the same time a deeply unnatural setting far removed from home as many of us have the privilege to know and experience it.

Covid and post-care outcomes

It is well known that outcomes are worse for young people leaving care and transitioning to adulthood than for those who are not care experienced. Care experienced people are overrepresented among the homeless and the criminal justice population and are more likely to have low educational attainment, with the majority leaving school before the age of 16. Unsurprisingly, the end of placements within residential and secure care can further impede life chances heightening the raft of insecurities that young people face. This population are more likely to face extreme financial hardship and are more likely to have zero-hour, temporary working contracts. For those who had recently transitioned from care to independent living in the community, the nationwide lockdown meant they had to sign on to universal credit, which takes time to process. This left many unable to pay for essential household items and wholly reliant upon foodbanks.

Scotland continues to fail the most precarious factions of our youth and we do so due to systematic failures inherent in an outdated and ailing system. At this juncture it would be a larger failing for us not to use this time of crisis as a moment for critical reflection and commentary to protest the quarantining of life chances which existed long before the onslaught of this pandemic.

Nicola Ceesay (@nicceesay) is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her research is about the Order for Lifelong Restriction (OLRs), an order in Scotland involving the lifelong supervision of people assessed as dangerous, seeking to explore the lived experience of this order as well as the decision-making process involved in its administration.