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Friday 29 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Opinion 'Travelling to Limerick in search of college digs as a care-leaver felt so lonely'
Rory Brown grew up in care and says education changed his life. He’s asking the government not to forget children in care in Budget 23.

SCHOOL WAS ALWAYS important to me. It was a place where I could be distracted from the chaos and change that was happening in my home life.

I spent 11 years growing up in care. I was placed with a foster family along with my brother, while my two sisters grew up in another foster family. Throughout those 11 years, my brother and I were lucky to stay placed with the same family.

This allowed us to focus on making friends, joining clubs and most importantly, on education. Memories of teachers taking time to help and understand our situation stay with me, as they supported us and taught us to aim high.

‘Not good enough’

There is a stigma attached to care-experienced children: that we are not good enough to succeed, and the expectations of what we can achieve are lower than for our peers. So, succeeding in education became very important to me. Firstly, to prove the doubters wrong – to prove to people that care-leavers can do it like everyone else – and secondly so I could influence young people’s lives, maybe even children in care because they would see that success is possible.

While setting my goal of becoming a primary school teacher was one thing, getting there as a care-leaver was a challenge that I didn’t fully understand until I had to overcome it.

Care-leavers often face many hurdles, sometimes alone, to reach their goals.
In Ireland, we do not gather robust data on the numbers and situation of young people that leave the care system and enter higher education and training, but we know from UK and EU research that care-leavers are under-represented in higher education, and where we do access third level, the rates of attrition are high.

Vital support

A lot of my journey to college was spent alone. As a child in care, I was entitled to an Aftercare Worker to support my transition to adulthood and independent living, but I was only allocated one when I was already in my first year of college, and even then, I did not get enough support from my Aftercare Worker and only saw them once a year.

I remember sitting in my room after my 18th birthday looking at the SUSI form. One of the first questions was what your home address is. For years I believed it was where I had grown up with my foster family. But they had told me that they couldn’t support me past 18 and I had to leave home and be on my own financially.

It was the end of August when I got my Leaving Cert results. I was happy, I got my course and I celebrated like all my peers that night. But I couldn’t truly enjoy it because of overwhelming thoughts in my head. Where was I going to live, where would I go for summer and Christmas breaks with no family home to fall back on?

I tried all summer to find somewhere to live, in between working 40-plus hour weeks to ensure I had enough money to survive alone in college. Two days before starting college I got a train to Limerick by myself to find rental accommodation. It was one of the loneliest experiences I have ever had, sitting on that train wondering what I was going to do.

Policy shift needed

Like many students, attending college for the first time was exciting and daunting at the same time. I recall my first time using the Access Office and mentioning being a care-leaver. They had never heard the term before, so I explained to them what being in care was about.

This conversation began a relationship with the Access Office which really helped me, as a student and a care-leaver. Their support came in various ways, from helping me sort grants to ensure I could pay my bills and accommodation, to general check-ins to make sure that I was doing okay.

This support was key to my success but for me to receive it I had to find it myself, something that I hope will change for care-leavers now that we are a target group in the new National Action Plan which should entitle us to greater supports and services.

Throughout my college experience, I faced and overcame many challenges, but they are not unique to me, they are the challenges of every care-leaver in this country. Young people leaving care need to receive timely and effective aftercare services to ensure they can focus on their education, and they should be prioritised for accommodation as many have nowhere to go when others can fall back on family or community.

Changing the Tusla aftercare policy to ensure care-leavers can progress flexibly in education at their own pace without the need to worry about losing aftercare support would also greatly reduce the constant pressure care-leavers face. Currently, aftercare support is tied to education, and young people receiving an aftercare allowance can’t fail a year, can’t repeat, and can’t change course, because it isn’t seen as progressing under the current policy.

In addition, care-leavers should be shown where they can find support and be signposted to them frequently as it is overwhelming to be made totally independent at 18, especially as some are still processing childhood trauma. Even simple things, like changing forms to make them more accessible for care-leavers, would be welcome.

Education brings freedom

Education has the power to save and change lives. The importance of care-leavers being recognised in the new Action Plan cannot be underestimated. It will hopefully ensure that care-leavers of the future won’t have to go through these challenges alone but instead will have the support and guidance to get them into and through higher education.

The State is responsible for ensuring young people who have been in its care go on to live happy, healthy, and successful lives.

Budget 23 is an opportunity for children in care to be prioritised for the support they deserve as they transition to adulthood and independent living. I hope the Government invests in our futures, particularly by addressing the gaps in the aftercare service to enable us to reach our goals.

Rory Brown is a member of the EPIC (Empowering People in Care) Youth Council and a qualified primary school teacher from Mary Immaculate College.

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