I’m Maria. Now in my forties, I’ve been asked to share my experience of leaving care which was back in 1989.
I had spent my teenage years in three children’s homes and two foster homes, and at that time, I was the only person at my secondary school in York (Jo-Ro,) who was in ‘care,’ so the usual bullying had resulted from that. I hardly went to school in my final year, didn’t turn up for my exams and left school with just one GCSE. That was in English and only because I’d done enough work as ‘continual assessment.’
What was it like when you first went into care?
My time in care had been difficult, trying to come to terms with the circumstances that had led me there, as well as being part of institutions and ‘strange’ families, alongside the general angst that comes with being a teenager, was a lot to cope with. At the time, writing diaries and poetry kept me sane. Writing was a great outlet for me.
The last home I was in, ‘The Elms,’ was quite supportive but even so, at the age of sixteen-and-a-half, I just wanted to be what I perceived as ‘normal.’ I had a college place, somewhere new to live and I just wanted to be the same as everyone else.
I can literally remember the doors of the Elms closing behind me and my social worker waiting in her car, laden with my stuff, waiting to drop me off at the house where I would be a ‘lodger.’ I had a ‘leaving care’ grant of a thousand pounds and a place on a ‘social care’ course. At that time, I thought I wanted to be a social worker and do a better job than those I had encountered so far.
What I was at the time, was very alone in the world, in terms of anyone to watch over me, in a ‘parental’ sense. I had numerous ‘scrapes,’ which included being made homeless twice and nearly being attacked twice as well as financial difficulties, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had some amazing friends, I don’t know how I’d have come through. I became a single parent on benefits but gained new fight in myself at the age of 21 which I wish had come through at 16.
I did, however, end up in a disastrous marriage which I’m now free of and I’m now really happy with someone else. We’re marrying in 2020. I now value myself in a way that I didn’t when I was younger.
What I was at the time, was very alone in the world, in terms of anyone to watch over me, in a ‘parental’ sense.
What is your biggest achievement?
I’ve taken courses, worked really hard, and ended up at university at 30, then again at 40. I’m now a published writer and am self-employed, using my teaching degree to teach creative writing courses. I now have a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and want to do a PhD next. It is my ultimate ambition to write an autobiography which I’m going to call ‘From Care Home to PhD.’
What is your message to children in care?
If I was to give some advice to my sixteen-year-old self, (and I don’t want to sound preachy here!) it would be:
- Get your head down at school and try your best in your exams. You don’t know how much you’re going to regret it if you don’t. You’ve got the brains and you’re as brilliant as anyone else.
- Be proud of yourself. Being a teenager is hard enough but being a teenager in care means you’re one tough cookie.
- Get every bit of help and support you’re entitled to. Utilise the staff and services that are there to help you.
- Don’t be in too much of a rush to leave care and start out on your own. Sixteen is very young with no support.
- Don’t be in so much of a rush to recreate the family you feel you haven’t had. (I was far too young when I had my first baby!!)
- Remember you’ve got your whole future in front of you and you can be anything you want to be.
- Be proud of where you’ve come from. I used to think I’d be judged at being a ‘care leaver’ but now I’m so proud of my background and the fact that I carved my own life out, independently.
- Cherish all the friendships and any family you have. Even when things have gone wrong in the past, looking at what we have got makes us happier than dwelling on what we haven’t.
I guess the main think I’d say to my former sixteen-year-old self and to anyone leaving care right now is ‘don’t let your past become your future.’
What do you think about care now?
From what I can see now, leaving care support has improved since 1989. (It needed to!!) No more does the door just close behind young people. There seems to be far more services, including counselling and practical support given.
We can’t control the childhood stuff and what has happened. But it passes, and life moves on. One thing we are in control of is our present and our future.
Maria’s website is www.mariastephenson.com