Young woman leaving the care system in the UK face particular challenges related to both, their background in care as well as their gender. Providing them with access to long-term support and guidance means giving them a real chance to thrive and fulfil their full potential.
Between June and August 2017, the Drive Forward Foundation travelled across London to capture the unique story of each young person in their respective portrait. The end result is the startling and reflective mobile exhibition, This is Me. Each featured young care leaver has picked a spot which holds great importance to them and then posed in whatever way they feel encapsulates that imperative place. Underneath each picture, there is an explanation of why that young person feels that their chosen location is meaningful to them and how it relates to or shapes their sense of identity.
The Drive Forward Foundation, the producers and curators of the exhibition, support young people who have been in social care into sustainable employment. Their main focus is to address the unique needs of care-experienced young people aged 16-26 and provide bespoke support to help them achieve their full potential. There are currently 83,000 children in care with approximately 10,000 young people leaving the care system every year. A care leaver is defined, in legal terms, as a person aged 16 to 25 who has been care experienced before the age of 18.
Four of the stories that feature in the exhibition explore the experiences of young care-experienced women. Their portraits identify key locations in their life, whether that be Notting Hill or the houses of parliament, while alluding to their personal triumphs and struggles both growing up in care and leaving the system.
Sexual abuse, exploitation and the high risk of pregnancy are realities many young women face when leaving care. 25% of young women in and leaving care have a child by the age of 16. This, combined with the fact that they often are left with poorer levels of mental health compared to their peers, only adds to the psychological complexities involved with carrying and raising a child.
Almost two-thirds (61%) of girls in custody aged 15-18 say they have spent time in care, while one in three women in prison have spent time in care.
Particular studies explore the complex ways in which care can affect a young woman’s identity and development into womanhood. It has been argued by psychologists that the formation of one’s identity does not end after puberty but continues to develop and change well into their twenties. Studies like this one emphasise the effects of care leavers’ experiences on their mental health and highlight the need for sustained support for young women both in and out of care.
Yet, when looking around at the exhibition, and reading the stories of the young people featured, there is a clear emphasis on strength against narratives of struggle and disadvantage.
Many women exiting the care system, despite the barriers they face, receive exemplary grades and obtain employment in highly competitive fields such as business, law, social care, politics and finance. For example, Shevonne, who features in the exhibition, is currently working for the government in the field of legislation. This is whilst she is additionally continuing her studies to become a fully qualified solicitor and playing a pivotal role in Drive Forward’s Policy Forum.
But, women like Shevonne should not be the exception.
Statistically, the barriers facing these young women can have serious impacts on their lives, with the complexities of being a woman intersecting with the experience of the care system. Emotional barriers such as building confidence in order to navigate male-dominated workforces and the pressures of conforming to gender roles which don’t necessarily reflect their identity often tend to go unspoken, underexplored and unsupported by governmental and other relevant authorities.
Deterioration of services and cuts to both local and central government have led to many services and provisions available to young care leavers to be inadequate. For example, there have been huge cuts to both youth service centres, the social services and drastic changes in social expenditure for London councils. This is regardless of the fact that care leaver provision has been elongated to cover those up to the age of 25. With this only leading to an increased sense of loss amongst young female care leavers, when what they should be receiving is our help, facilities and time.
Women in the exhibition, such as Lili pictured outside Portobello Road, show us that young care leavers have limitless potential to succeed. Their struggles, along with their successes, demonstrate that our government and society are not doing enough to ensure that their goals and dreams are reached.
If you wish to know more about the charity Drive Forward than please visit their website and like them on Facebook or Twitter.
This Is Me currently displayed in City Hall (Greater London authority) until 31st October.
Nicholl Hardwick is an Employment Consultant at Drive Forward Foundation, providing guidance and support to care-experienced young people. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org