How Scotland is taking a revolutionary apporach to looking after children in care – Ewan Aitken

Listen and learn were the watchwords for a new review which aims to transform how Scotland deals with the consequences of family breakdown, writes Ewan Aitken.
Kids in care need our help (Picture: John Devlin)Kids in care need our help (Picture: John Devlin)
Kids in care need our help (Picture: John Devlin)

On 5 February, the ­Independent Care Review will publish its report – offering a revolutionary new approach to how we care for those whose families are not in a position to look after them.

The most revolutionary thing about the report is that it has the voice of young people with care experience at its heart. The review listened and learnt from them about what it will take to stop so many young people ending up in care and how to make sure those who do experience love and care – so that despite their past trauma, they still have a chance to flourish, as we would have all children flourish.

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I was deeply privileged to be one of the workgroup co-chairs of the review. From the moment I began, I knew my primary task was to listen. Not to fix or to seek solutions or suggest changes; simply to listen and learn.

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians ScotlandEwan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland
Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland
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One of the groups whose stories were amongst the hardest to hear was those who were in what are called ‘secure units’. At any one time in Scotland, up to 84 young people can be in secure accommodation. The aim of such secure care units is “to provide intensive support and safe boundaries to help these highly vulnerable children re-engage and move forward positively in their communities”.

Devastating consequences of broken relationships

What we know is this is very ­difficult to achieve and a considerable number of them end up estranged from their families and often in ­homeless or insecure accommodation once they leave. Until now, there has been no national approach to offering consistent levels of quality support to young people and their families upon entering and leaving care across all five units in Scotland. Without ­support, the issues affecting families and young people can be left unchecked. Communication can break down, and relationships can fracture, with devastating consequences for the young person, their families and the wider community.

To change this situation, this week Cyrenians announced a new project, funded by the latest round of Cashback for Communities, to work alongside Scotland’s five secure units to support young people to escape the cycle of homelessness and institutional care. The project will support young people in secure accommodation and their families as they enter and leave secure accommodation through one-to-one support from skilled mediators, practical support for each family member, and conflict resolution workshops. The project will help build positive relationships, promote better communication, and reduce the potential for future conflict and its further consequences.

Learning to deal with conflict

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This group is one small subset of a much bigger challenge for Scotland. Every year, 4,000 young people in Scotland make a homelessness ­presentation because they have fallen out with their families. That is around the equivalent of the population of about three high schools. This number has dropped from around 6,000 five years ago, which is good news, but still not good enough. We also know that this figure is just the tip of the iceberg, with many ­families struggling behind closed doors. Conflict happens in all our lives, for a myriad of reasons, often with minimal consequences, but sometimes the impact can be devastating and ­debilitating, affecting relationships, life chances, education, mental health and well-being.

Five years ago, Cyrenians set up the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) as a model of prevention, providing training and resources across Scotland for parents, young people and professionals nationally to enable them to explore why conflict happens and how to manage it positively, instead of it being a potential trigger for family break-up. Next week, our 10th national conference takes place in Edinburgh. The event will explore the themes of beginnings and endings of conflict, transitions and how our past challenges can impact our future but does not define us. This event will evidence how the SCCR has shown that by skilling up young people, parents and professionals to understand conflict, we really can help stop arguments at home becoming another journey into homelessness.

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland.