The French care system, does it cut the mustard?

Rich creamy romantic buildings, blended with wine shops, with strong smells of garlic and onions filling the honey brick pavements; the taste of salt in your mouth as drops of sweat roll down from your forehead along your cheeks…

A stroll through calm and peaceful Dijon fills your heart with serenity, until you turn a corner and are suddenly hit with endearing beauty and mesmerising culture.

Dijon, like its smooth savoury mustard, fits neatly into
common romantic ideas of France, the land known for croissants, cheese, wine
and savoir vivre.

In contrast, the London lifestyle is reflected in the raw and almost aggressive taste of our much-loved Colman’s mustard. Our tube is full of commuters as they march in step, on their way to work. Cars beeping and swerving through the traffic; our fast-paced lifestyle is much like the swift sting on the tongue when touching the bright yellow condiment.

Although it is certainly true that Dijon’s warm summers and dazzling Mediterranean style of architecture projects a much calmer and friendlier life than London’s hectic streets and busy pubs, we all know that one should never judge a book by its beautiful cover.

My name is Tom, and I’m part of a group of young Londoners eager to transform the UK care system. Yes, the care system – this bulky big bureaucratic thing that was set up to help children and young people become successful adults and respected members of their communities. At least that’s what I would expect from a CARE system.

But we all know that that’s actually not the case by a long shot! 40% of us care leavers are not in employment, education or training; only 6% of us go to university; 60% of us experience homelessness, me included; and about 4 0% of under 21s in custody are care-experienced. Pretty bleak no?

As a care leaver, but most importantly as a human being, I’m not willing to accept those so-called ‘outcomes’! Me, my friends and all other care-experienced people out there refuse to be reduced to statistics. We’re people,we’ve emotions, we’ve aspirations and most of all, we have not one but many voices.

WITNESS TO YOUR LIFE is a youth-lead cooperation between Drive Forward Foundation La Touline, a special initiative of French charity Apprentis d’Auteuil. Both organisations aim to empower care-experienced young people to achieve their full potential through employment and education. In September 2018,me and 8 other young people travelled to Dijon to talk to French care-experienced people, share our stories and experiences and learn from each other.

I do admit that I wasn’t expecting the amount of institutionalised pain and suffering installed in our neighbour’s care system. As I experienced the truth of how France criminalises children, my whole idea of what constitutes the country was just shattered.

It turns out, the care system in France is very much like a sharp and stinging spoon full of Coleman’s; harsh and in much need of some serious refinement.

I’m not saying the UK care system is perfect – trust me it’snot! – but in comparison to what I’ve learned in France, at least we’re constantly trying to improve and search for a good balance, like a jar of smooth and tasteful Dijon mustard.

It is said that the British are reserved and will avoid controversial social topics at any cost; however, I’m now questioning the validity of such a statement. The French run from the conversation of parent-less children like the Europeans ran from the Black Death. Does the lack of conversation reflect the statistical outcomes of the young people who are homeless, not in education, engaging in criminal activity, or suffering from serious mental health conditions?

Our two countries have different governance systems, different histories and experiences, so it is hard to compare outcomes overall. What we can compare, however, is the experiences a group of UK and French care leavers have made.

Remember when you were about 18 or 22? Confident that you know everything; you know who you are, your values, and capabilities… Yes, we are all so sure and confident until we make our mistakes and are forced to run back home to mum and dad for support or just a shoulder to cry on.

But what if mum and dad aren’t around? What if you’ve been moved across the country 5 times in the past 3 years? What if you don’t have a place to call home, no-one to call a friend and nothing to cling on to when you’re down? That’s the reality for most of us who have spend some time in local authority care. The good news is, that we’ve come a long way over the past couple of years:

Up until April 2018, an individual’s file was closed at the age of 21; meaning no more financial, practical or emotional support. Only if you had managed to go into full-time education, the council would extend their support until the age of 25 and help you with housing, stuff you need for uni etc.

Thanks to passionate and committed people who have spent years collecting data and campaigning for the rules to change, the ‘corporate parent’ (that should really be anybody in an official role towards a child) now understands that all young people, regardless of their circumstances and status,need assistance beyond the age of 21 to ensure a successful transition into adulthood, independence and simply peaceful life.

In France, on the other hand, there is no special provision for support for young people coming out of the care system. It very much falls to organisations like Apprentis d’Auteuil to help individuals prepare for the adult world, providing employment and life coaching support. Even unemployment and housing benefits are tied to prior work experience, education and age. For young people leaving care, all social aids stop once they turn 18, unless they’re one in 3 lucky enough to sign a ‘youth contract’. The youth contract was established to help 18-21 years olds to find employment, housing and access psychological support. Let’s recap that: 1 in 3 young people may receive support via the youth contract scheme up until the age of 21. What happens then?

Just hearing these young peoples’ stories of constant struggle and disappointment had a tremendous effect on myself and the other care leavers I went to Dijon with. We came back to London feeling more secure and grateful for the support and guidance we’ve received from a system that is,by far, not perfect. But we’ve learned to appreciate it, despite its imprecations. Don’t get me wrong, I said appreciate, not accept! There is still a lot to be done and we’re ready and eager to take on the challenge of improving the lives care leavers and children in Europe!

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