Social Justice

Should care experience be a protected characteristic? Care leavers speak out on status debate

What do people who spent their childhood's in the care system think about making their community a protected characteristic?

A group of diverse people sit in a circle, in a support group formation

Care experience is an umbrella term usually used to describe people who spent their childhood's in the care system. Image: Canva

More than 27.3 million people live in an area in the UK where their local council have agreed to treat care experience as a protected characteristic. For those unfamiliar with the term ‘care experience’, it describes a person with experience of growing up in the children’s care system. It’s often used as an umbrella term for people who grew up in foster care, residential care, kinship care or who were adopted.

In 2022, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care (IRCSC) recommended that care experience should be enshrined in law as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (2010). The government rejected the call, leading campaigners to criticise political leaders for ignoring what should have been the “civil rights issue of our time”.

However, since the publication of the review, Terry Galloway, a 47-year-old care experienced campaigner has spent the last two years rallying 92 local councils to agree to treat care experience as a protected characteristic.

“By introducing protected characteristics for care-experienced individuals, we can finally provide the support they deserve, create better outcomes, and save money – ensuring that our public services are stronger and more effective for everyone,” Galloway told the Big Issue.

“The heartbreak of neglect, abuse, trauma, loss and isolation faced by many in the care system is unimaginable to most. The vulnerability of being left to the mercy of criminal gangs, coercion, and sexual exploitation is a reality that should outrage us all. While not everyone endures these horrors, everyone feels the consequences of our overburdened public services. As councils crumble under the weight of funding this broken system, essential services we rely on suffer.”

While the government in 2022 rejected the call to make care experience a protected characteristic, the Liberal Democrats included a pledge in their recently published manifesto ahead of the 2024 general election promising to fulfil this recommendation from the IRCSC.

In an exclusive interview with the Big Issue, Davey said, when asked about his reasoning behind pledging to make care experience a protected characteristic: “We talked to Terry Galloway. He was in care and he’s been amazing campaigning for children who’ve come out of care, to stop being discriminated against. It was those sorts of people who I thought needed to have a lot more support.”

Speaking to the Big Issue after the announcement, Galloway said: “The Liberal Democrats’ pledge to recognise care experience in their election manifesto is a powerful and necessary commitment.

“This pledge isn’t just about policy; it’s about compassion, justice and common sense.”

But what would really change for care experienced people themselves if this community were made a protected characteristic? The Big Issue spoke to five care experienced people to find out.

Are care experienced people discriminated against?

Lucy is a 27-year-old future pupil barrister, who admitted that learning more about the Equality Act during her legal studies led her to ask: “How have we got all of these characteristics but neither class nor care experience is one of them?”

Currently, the nine protected characteristics as laid out in the 2010 Equality Act, a bill that 13 years ago replaced previous anti-discrimination laws with a single act include; age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Lucy told the Big Issue, “I’ve faced far more discrimination as a result of being care experienced than I have even with my disability. I’m neurodivergent and it does baffle me that I’ve got these intersectional identities, but one of them isn’t protected at all.”

As well as being a future pupil barrister, Lucy also runs a mentorship for aspiring lawyers from a care background, and is a mum, something she describes as her “favourite role of all”. But it’s her role as a mum which led to one of many instances of discrimination she had to face due to being care experienced.

Lucy is a future pupil barrister, CIC co-founder, and mum. Image: @w_u_i_n, Instagram

“When I was pregnant with my son,” Lucy explained, “I was 25. I hadn’t been in care since 16, had a supportive fiancé, and was a future pupil barrister. And yet I was told by a professional that I was ’at risk’ and a ‘vulnerable mother’ just because of the fact that I’d been in foster care.”

Some councils have been reported to refer care experienced mothers for pre-birth assessments simply because they grew up in care. These assessments are designed to identify risks posed to an unborn child, and in the most serious scenarios can lead to the removal of a baby from their parents after birth.

“I was terrified of having their involvement for no reason,” Lucy said. “Luckily this didn’t happen, so I’m very grateful for that. But it still gave me anxiety and I do believe that they discriminated against me because they thought, ‘She’s from care, therefore, she’s going to be a bad mother‘ instantly.

“That was really upsetting for me at the time. I was ashamed, which was a horrible feeling. You know, you’ve got enough going on as a pregnant woman as it is.”

For Isabelle, a master’s student at the University of Liverpool, she says discrimination starts early in a care experienced person’s life, and is systemic.

“In secondary school, I was removed from lessons to attend review meetings,” Isabelle said. “But I was being taken out of lessons that I needed to revise for my GCSEs”.

According to official figures, children who are referred to social care are twice as likely to fail GCSE maths and English. 

“Care experienced people are also more likely to end up in prison,” Isabelle added.

In 2023, England’s largest study of care experience and the youth justice system revealed that 33% of care experienced children received a youth caution or conviction; eight times more than the general child population.

The study also found that care-experienced children were more likely to struggle with school, mental health and drug problems, all of which increased the likelihood of being criminalised. 

“The system is not built for care experienced people,” Galloway told the Big Issue. “I asked the DWP how many care experienced people are on universal credit. They didn’t know. Therefore when they’re designing policies, they’re not thinking about care experienced people. What might be normal to one 21-year-old, is different to a care experienced 21-year-old.

“I think care experience should be a protected characteristic so it becomes the law to think about care experienced people when systems get created and policies designed.”

Will being a protected characteristic change anything?

“My first reaction to the idea of care experience becoming a protected characteristic was curiosity,” Ian, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, told the Big Issue.

“I didn’t jump on a side of the debate that was forming on social media platforms, I just wanted to learn more,” the 34-year-old related, referencing the differing views care experienced people expressed after the recommendation was published by the IRCSC.

“The first thing I did was ask a couple of friends,” he continued, “who have been quite instrumental in the disability movement and pushing for improved rights in their community and spoke to them about what protected characteristics meant for them.

“It was through discussions with [my friends in the disability movement] that I realised quickly how limited this is as a solution.”

Ian says something that brought home the debate for him was when he broke his ankle over a year ago.

“All of a sudden, I’m someone who’s able-bodied and is now on crutches. I’m now not able to get around certain train stations due to there being no lift. And I’m not able to get around the streets of the town that I live on, because the roads are too small.

“I realised that despite disability being a protected characteristic for so long,” he said, “we haven’t gotten to the root causes of discrimination and actually, that continues to be an afterthought.

“So what good is it to have something as a protected characteristic if actually, we continue to bake in discrimination for those with physical disabilities?”

DWP benefits protest
Activists from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) across the country came together on 4 March to protest against the government’s plans to change the disability benefits system again. Image: Chronic Collaboration

Terry Galloway, however, argues that those who say protected characteristics ‘has done nothing for disabilities’, don’t notice the changes that have been made.

“When you approach a crossing and you can’t see, you might hear the crossing,” Terry said. “People around you are not going to stigmatise you for listening to cross the road. They’re not going to stigmatise you for crossing the road by watching the sign flash.

“They’re not going to stigmatise you for crossing the road in a wheelchair because there’s a dip in the curb. You’re just going to access the crossing and cross the road.

“People don’t notice it because it’s equality – that’s the point.” 

‘My worst fear is judgment

“Sharing my care experience is something I’m really careful about,” said 19-year-old university student Zhahla, who became a ‘care leaver’ last year, a term used for those who have aged out of the system. 

“My worst fear, and I think possibly the worst fear of other people with care experience,” she continued, “is that we face judgment for it.

“We’ve already gone through so much, why do we have to be so careful with sharing this part of our identity? Why can’t society show that they care about care experience and that it matters?”

When Lucy started her career in law, she was told by a care experienced barrister not to talk about her background in the system.

“She said to me, ‘You know, we’re not even there with race or disability yet – society isn’t ready to hear about care experience.’”

Lucy said the interaction put her off speaking openly about her experience for a while.

“Imagine having to close off such a huge part of your identity like that,” she recalled. Luckily for the care community, Lucy has utilised her experience by co-founding Lawyers Who Care, a first-of-its-kind mentorship for aspiring barristers and solicitors from this background.

Zhahla agrees that there’s a stigma surrounding the care experienced community. “People think that because you’re care experience you’ve done something wrong,” she explained.

“When in fact you were a child that was exposed to adult, mature concepts and life events at a really young age when you were not ready to emotionally deal with that. A lot of people base their knowledge of care on Tracy Beaker.”

The infamous character of Tracy Beaker, a rambunctious pre-teen living in a children’s home, was created by author Jacqueline Wilson in 1991, more than a decade before Zhahla was born. Yet the fictitious depiction of a child in care is still one of the most talked about narratives that continues to surround the care system in the UK more than 30 years later.

“People may assume that because someone’s in care, it means that they’re a troublemaker,” Zhahla remarks, referencing Tracy’s rabble-rousing reputation.

“A lot of adults don’t understand the impact of trauma on children and what can be done to help them grow.”

Should care experience be a protected characteristic?

Lucy is on the fence when it comes to the question of making care experience a protected characteristic.

“I don’t think care experience is going to be a band-aid that solves everything with the care system,” she said.

“Not when structural investment is so necessary. But it could go a long way to combat the stigma.

“Also, at the moment, we don’t know all the various ways in which we’re discriminated against (besides personal experience), because we haven’t been able to study it, as it’s not yet a protected characteristic.”

Zhahla argues that this campaign will bring care experienced people into the mainstream, in a way Tracy Beaker and other media representations never could.

Tracy Beaker was one of the few prominent fictional care experienced people in 2000s TV. Image: BBC

“So many people don’t know what care experience is,” she said. “They don’t understand why children go into care, they don’t know about the different types of care experience, like foster care, adoption, kinship, and residential.

“There are just so many kids out there in the care system who feel invisible. What makes me want to support care experience becoming a protected characteristic is it will get us into the spotlight”.

For Terry, however, the answer is simple.

“I can’t see any other way of creating systemic change in the care system,” he told the Big Issue. “It gives a voice to care experienced people in places where they haven’t been heard before.

“For decades and decades,” he explained, “we’ve been thinking of ways to make the system better. And rehashing this and rehashing that, and it’s not worked.

“Care experienced people are still more likely to die prematurely. We’re dying 20 years younger than everybody else.”

While his campaign so far has targeted local councils, Terry hopes it will be brought into government legislation.

“I’m convinced that if we start with councils,” he explains, “we should see cost savings and impact for care experienced people on a local level first.

“Then I think once we get a change of government, we should have enough evidence, enough impact and enough momentum to really make that case nationally.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us more. Big Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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