Why your perception of care leavers is probably wrong

Aggie touches on her own experience of being a care leaver to explain how the media misrepresents foster children and care leavers.

For a large part of my life I have felt like I have been fighting off a narrative. At first, it clung to me, and I never questioned it – until I began to realise that what I thought was a huge part of me, was not in fact me at all. Now, with more clarity, I have been able to start dissecting this narrative and peel the layers away.

On and off I have thought about how my time in foster care as a child has impacted my sense of self. Now in my late twenties, I have come to realise that one of the major ways it has affected me has been through the narrative which I have had unwillingly attached to my identity.

There have been many times in my life when I have not felt in control of my own path; as though my identity was being shaped for me by the fact that I had been in care. My sense of self was affected by statements and messages from some friends, family, and the media.. This narrative came at me from all directions, labelling me as ‘different’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘troubled’; someone who had been abandoned.

And then, when I felt empowered a voice would come… ‘Oh bless you, don’t you remember where you came from?’ A patronising tone once again surrounding me on all sides. ‘You can’t be as smart or as successful as the rest of us.’ This idea came at times from those who loved me, the films I watched growing up, the passing comments, and the jokes. Have you ever heard that joke where someone tells their sibling they’re adopted? Yep. Me too. What a joke it is to be considered adopted. To be accepted into a home, perhaps a loving home – disaster.

Some may say in response to highlighting this joke as an issue to ‘lighten up, it’s just a joke’ – but jokes are formed from language, and language shapes the ideas we hold about each other. The idea that to be adopted would make you an ‘other’, an ‘outcast’, is casually being passed around in conversation.

For a long time I thought this pity and shame narrative was justified. It felt like part of my identity. Oh, well, if they say that I was abandoned, that I am a victim, then that must be true. Right? Wrong. Very very wrong.

I have recently come to realise that there is something a bit unnerving for some people about individuals that have experienced hardship and still survive – and perhaps even flourish. Care leavers have had their biological parents give them up to a foster home, or to be adopted. We have experienced something quite unnatural for humans; of possibly not receiving the love and care we needed as babies, or as children. We also face discrimination, stigma, abuse in various forms, mental health issues. And yet many of us care leavers flourish despite this, transitioning into exceptional human beings.

One could forgive people for being a little concerned. After all, how do we manage to cope in a society where the narrative and system doesn’t do enough to support us? This is something I have been asked endless amounts of times. ‘How did you cope?’ they wonder to themselves, thinking, ‘I’m not sure if I could do that.’ Cue the pity narrative to reclaim some sort of status and power.

Because of the complications surrounding the narrative of care leavers, I felt overjoyed to see a relatively positive portrayal in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ protagonist, Beth Harmon. The Queen’s Gambit is a popular Netflix TV series that tells the story of Beth, an intelligent care leaver that is gifted at the game of chess. Set in the US in the 50s and 60s, she has two major obstacles to overcome: being in care and being a woman. I find Beth’s character relatable for many reasons; one of them being her ability to be fiercely independent and find safety within herself. In addition to this, I could relate massively to her when we, the audience, are given an insight into how other people, notably the journalist, try to attach a narrative to Beth. To place her into a category that she doesn’t belong to.

Beth is incredibly smart, strong and defiant; she is ambitious, courageous and striking. And it is because of this that she stands out in a crowd – she knows how to be herself. She has had to learn from a young age that she won’t willingly mould herself into a category just to fit in.

The narrative in The Queen’s Gambit is by no means perfect. I felt somewhat conflicted when it showed Beth falling down the addiction route, portraying her as unreliable, a mess, and troubled. And yet it also seemed partially realistic to me, for I too have struggled with my own use of alcohol to escape painful emotions. However, Beth still comes through in the end, as I myself, and many other care leavers have after experiencing hardship. In the end of the series Beth is deemed a heroine of sorts, at which point I felt such relief as I watched someone onscreen I could relate to triumph.

With this being said, it is so important to emphasise why it is unsurprising that many care leavers do have a tough time, and how the narrative formed in the media alone plays a massive part in that. We can see it in some of the most well-known foster children characters on our TV screens from the last thirty years: Tracy Beaker, Little Orphan Annie, and Oliver Twist. Not only are these characters all white and mostly girls, making them completely unrepresentative of all care leavers, these characters also bring the words annoying, troubled, overwhelming, scary, poverty, vulnerable and desperate to my mind. It is important to think about our perception of these characters as they play a big part in shaping who we think foster children are, and who they will become. The representation of these characters will have formed our internal and external conversations about the potential of those in foster care, or those that have left. It is time to start shifting this narrative among ourselves and within the content we consume.

Last year Jacqueline Wilson decided to rewrite the adult version of Tracy Beaker, turning her into an independent, successful woman after receiving statements from care leavers that felt disappointed by her portrayal. Jacqueline Wilson states in a Guardian article, “Some of the group I met had done very well for themselves. They were bothered by the average person’s perception of a care leaver.” I am not surprised – but the fact that she stated that they had done ‘well for themselves’ suggests to me that she still held the expectation that they may not have.

It is incredibly frustrating to me that instead of kindness and admiration, care leavers are often met with pity and hesitation. I know that as humans, and as a society we can do better than this, we can be more emotionally aware and less judgmental to those that have had a less privileged start to life. And when these individuals realise their full potential, make sure you move out of the way for them and stop holding them back with your preconceived notions about who they should be.

What are your thoughts about the narrative/s surrounding care leavers? Let us know on social media.

Support more young people to have their voices heard

Rife is Watershed‘s online magazine created for young people, by young people.

We offer paid internships and publish work by young writers, photographers, illustrators, and filmmakers from all sorts of backgrounds, helping them get into creative careers. Rife has reached over 8,000 young people through our workshops, over 220 young people have made stuff for Rife on topics ranging from mental health to identity to baked beans, and last year, over 200,000 people visited our website.

In these complex and uncertain times hearing from and supporting young people who are advocating for social change and contributing fresh perspectives has never been so important. 

Through supporting Rife you can ensure that this important work continues and that more young people have their voices heard.