Social work is a pivotal sector which helps to protect the lives and futures of thousands of individuals across a whole range demographics.
Through aid and support, social workers help to fulfil the futures of people living within the care system. But despite their efforts the Accounts Commission announced in their latest review that the sector was ‘unsustainable’.
Despite her hardships and difficult upbringing, Ashley Cameron, a young care user and undergraduate student studying BA (Hons) in Politics and History is dedicating her life to bring change to the system.
Ashley also recently featured in a documentary broadcast on STV about children and young people who have gone through the care system in Scotland called ‘Who Cares’.
She sat down with me this week and spoke to me about what has led her to become an advocate for young people and future generations and how, despite spending more than £3.1 billion on social care annually across Scotland, the system is still in a state of crisis.
Ashley said: “I think the fact we are spending multi-millions of pounds is, for me, emphasising that the system’s broken. It’s a system that doesn’t love their children. There is too much emphasis on the service and not on the delivery and I think that is a real shame. We are actually disadvantaging the young people who the services are meant to benefit.
“The reason why for the last four years I have been telling my care experiences very, very publicly and on lots of different platforms is because I don’t want any other young person to go through what I went through. It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not what Scotland should want for their children either.
“I tell my care experiences because I want change. I want better rights for looked-after young people and I want them to feel part of their community, to feel loved, to feel supported and feel guided, especially through their developing stages.”
As a young woman herself having lived within the care system for most of her life, Ashley described her journey to me and highlighted some of the personal hardships she faced on a daily basis.
She said: “I was in the Scottish care system for 17 years of my life, from the age of two and a half up until the age of 17.
“Growing up in the care system was really tough. It was really isolating. There was a lot of loneliness and also – a lot of young care people can relate to this – it felt like it was my fault that I was put in care and I know now at 26 that it wasn’t my fault. It was completely outwith my control but they don’t tell you that when they bring you into care. There is this culture of self-blame for young people in care but it wasn’t the most positive experience, put it that way.”
While battling the demons of self-blame, sustainability and routine was a luxury, moving more than 50 times to different homes around the country. Looking back, Ashley emphasised the heartbreak this brought to her life and how building relationships became almost an impossible task.
She recalled: “It was really, really difficult and I think I need to emphasise something that I said in the STV documentary. Literally every move felt like someone was smashing a mirror in front of me because I had built up, it may have been few relationships but I had built up a sense of comfort where I was staying. I got to know people, even if it was just by sight; it’s that familiarity.
“Everything was just being smashed in front of me and then when I was being moved, all be it with black bags in the boot of the car, it was as if I was expected to pick all these little pieces up and try and glue them back together again and just as I was getting half way through, it would be smashed in front of me again and I would be expected to just pick up and carry on.”
Despite her strength and diligence, her lack of routine had serious effects on her state of mind; admitting that at one point she only saw one way out. She told me about the level of support available to her at that time and how her problems became something she had to learn to deal with alone.
She said: “I didn’t really get a lot of support until the last four years. This is where I have got the most support from and I internalised those feelings during my time in care which led me to my first suicide attempt at the age of 11. I also self-harmed a lot as a youngster as well.
“I hid it from the world, I didn’t show anybody. It was something for me. It was the only way I felt I could deal with my feelings and emotions that were coming up at the time. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I’m not proud of it but I am certainly not ashamed of it because it was my only way of dealing with how I was feeling.
“I would certainly say there is a huge lack of support in terms of helping young people understand their care journey and why these decisions are being made for them.”
For many young people across the world, bullying is a trait that has led to huge amounts of devastation and depression and for the care experiences of young people in Ashley’s time, this was no different. She told me how school could not be seen as an escape from her problems and how as a young woman having come out the other side, she is dedicated to helping the bullies of today understand how all actions can have serious underlying consequences.
She outlined: “There was a lot of bullying at school. There was a lot of ‘why aren’t you living at home with mum and dad, does no-one love you, does no-one care about you’ and as a young girl in primary school, how do you answer that?
“To prevent bullying I have come up with a few initiatives and I am currently in talks with one of my old high schools who have agreed to pilot an initiative. I am looking at a possible workshop delivery and empowerment workshop for high school kids and I think we need to go back a step as well and get into primary schools.
“You are not born with prejudice. It’s a learned behaviour and I think that if we were actually to talk to these young people about how they treat each other and just to be a bit more mindful of others then I believe certainly, that we would see a lot of progress.”
Ashley concluded: “I want to continually challenge the care system. I have been at it for the last four years now and we have – through myself sharing my care experiences and with others – changed four different pieces of legislation over the last four years and if my destiny is to continue advocating for the rights of looked after young people then so be it.
“My journey over the last four years has led me to realising my passion for representation, democracy, participation and politics. So my dream is to become an MSP and represent those young people at a national platform, but that’s just a dream at the moment. When I graduate I would like to take some time out, do some travelling, work with young people all across the world and then come back and hopefully work with the young people that are in the care system now.”
Undergraduates joining the cause
Along with Ashley’s continued efforts, students currently studying BA (Hons) in Social Work are leading the way to become the next generation in making a change.
Within the university’s degree, students are being given guidance and advice on all aspects of what is now viewed as a highly unstable industry.
In an attempt to find out more about the degree, I sat down with Social Work lecturer Kathryn Mackay about the advantages the course brings to its trainees.
Kathryn said: “What we try to do on this course, and I think we do it very successfully, is to give students the technical knowledge, which is about the law and the policy and different theories around how to intervene effectively with children of families, with people who offend and also people with impairments and older people in the community.
“We do that but because of the way the cuts are going and the increasing demand – because I think the two go together – we are trying to help students become aware of the pressures on them in terms of trying to do a good job.”
Despite the course giving students the tools to survive and grow effectively in all elements of the job, Ashley admits that it lacks one particular quality she feels students would benefit from having an insight in.
She added: “Well from my understanding there is no specific module that looks at care experience for young people in terms of their realities and in terms of the outcomes that the sector is providing us with. I think I would like to see a dedicated module based on care experience for young people to help these young students understand where these young people are coming from and where they should be aiming for in the future.”
In order to find out if this line of study was a potential pathway in the future, I went back to speak to Kathryn to find out her views on the matter.
Kathryn said: “A standalone module on looked-after children is an attractive one. We have a module on children and family social work and within that we have involved people who have experienced care, coming in to talk to the students.
“We have a group called unity. It’s a service for users and carers – right across the spectrum of people who have experienced social work services – to come in and work with us about how to improve our teaching.
“We almost feel that we are trying to highlight so many different things to the students -and that balance about covering the whole broad spectrum of social work and trying to go in depth to something, that’s one of the tensions for us, but it’s is a valuable point.”