Sod Tracy Beaker.
When children's author Jackie Wilson applied her gritty social realism to a girl growing up in the care system, I rejoiced. The quasi-autobiography of Tracy Beaker became a best seller before migrating to the small screen. In the latest series feisty Tracy returns to work in the children's home where she grew up. As most of us rarely spare a thought for kids like her, it's been an overdue eye opener.
The downside is that it has replaced ignorance with an unhelpful stereotype. So unhelpful that Young Minds (youngminds.org.uk), the children's mental health charity, recently ran a seminar for these kids called "I'm not like Tracy Beaker". Though her life is bleak, Tracy is funny, imaginative, articulate and hopeful, like all Wilson's heroines.
Compare her with Neve Lafferty and Georgia Rowe, the 15 and 14-year olds who jumped to their deaths from the Erskine Bridge in October 2009. Nobody can read this week's report into the double suicide without attaching the blackest irony to the terms "looked-after children" and "care system".
Their grim lives were catalogues of bullying, self-harm, violence, drink, drugs, early sex and death. And despite a lifetime spent under the gaze of the social services, key relationships had been lost and, like so many of the other 16,000 children in Scotland, they ended up being passed from pillar to post. Both had a known suicide risk but that message was seemingly not passed to the staff looking after them. A simple, tragic, avoidable communications problem.
Young Minds say 60% of looked-after children have mental health problems. I'm amazed it isn't more. In adolescence, before the brain's frontal cortex is fully formed, our emotional responses are exaggerated when we suffer setbacks and relationship breakdowns. Many teenagers have suicidal thoughts. I know that I did when my first boyfriend dumped me.
Duncan Dunlop of the children's charity Who Cares Scotland (whocaresscotland.org) says: "The difference for most of us is that we have key relationships that act as our compass and set our aspirations and confidence. They enable us to recover from reverses and build relationships with others."
Georgia and Neve lacked that vital ability to bounce back, which is why the system should have done more to save them from themselves. Two things scream out from this story.
The first is the pathetic inadequacy of Scotland's mental health services for young adults. Resources simply don't match the Government's rhetoric. Last year a freedom of information request from Tory MSP Mary Scanlon revealed that some children wait more than three years to receive treatment for mental health problems. The official target is for no child to wait more than 26 weeks by March 2013. When you're 14, 26 weeks is an eternity. What sort of crazy world gives the well-heeled middle class free prescriptions and shells out millions on drugs that marginally extend the lives of elderly cancer patients but makes suicidal teenagers wait to see a psychologist?
Also, we aren't doing nearly enough for children left in the care of the state. Why do children who grow up in care in Denmark have virtually identical outcomes to other kids, while ours fail miserably on every level? More than anything, I think, these young people need an advocate to act in loco parentis, to stick with them and bat for them. Neve and Georgia would still be with us if someone had raised the alarm on their behalf. Yet according to Who Cares Scotland, there are fewer than 100 advocates for the 20,000-plus young people in care and leaving care. Because of the local authority concordat, the care population in some areas is completely unrepresented. It's important to remember that there are success stories, usually when a staff member or a volunteer has gone the extra mile for a youngster. We shouldn't blame overstretched care workers for this tragedy. We're all to blame because we don't care enough.
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