"I'm a care leaver, here's my story"

Ben went into care when he was 3, due to mental health in his family meaning he had been neglected as a baby and toddler. He says, ‘When I arrived in care, I was sleeping as it was late. I woke up in the morning, confused, frightened and scared and I woke up screaming because I was in an unfamiliar environment. I was unable to speak and, aged 3, was very much like a baby still.’

Ben quickly settled as his foster carer provided a safe and secure environment for him. He was nurtured as if he was a baby, which helped him to build a bond with his carer and helped him learn how to excel.

Ben has been fortunate to have one foster carer, who has looked after him as a long-term fostering placement since that first night. In his own words, he explains, ‘My relationship with my foster carer is close and strong. I refer to her as aunty. The bond is like a mother and son. I was treated the same as her own daughter, which made me feel loved. I was encouraged to believe in myself and that anything I wanted to achieve was possible.’

Ben still keeps in touch with his birth family. He says, ‘I still visit them. My relationship with my family is okay but I struggle to relate to them. My carer has always made sure my family was seen in a positive manner and that I should always be appreciative of the little things that they were able to do.’

Ben is dual heritage, and his nan is from the Caribbean. He was matched with his foster carer who also has Caribbean heritage and was able to educate him on the Caribbean culture and make him feel proud to be a part of it. Ben says, ‘It helped me to relate to both my nan, and my foster carer’s family. It is more important for a foster carer to understand the type of child they may be looking after, their cultural needs and wants, as this will have an impact on the child’s life.’

How has growing up in foster care changed Ben’s life? ‘I have been able to go on nice holidays. However, I had to earn and work hard to obtain rewards. It’s been instilled into me that it’s important to understand that you have to work hard in life in order to achieve success, and that rewards are earned not just given.’

Ben has definitely worked hard. He did well at school, through some difficulties and achieved high grades in BTECs (2 As, 1B). Clare Houlton, the Headteacher for the Virtual School for Children Looked After*, played an important role in regards to education, ensuring Ben made the most of his academic opportunities and maximised his potential. He says, ‘Clare always went the extra mile, and was genuine and caring.’

Here’s Clare’s perspective: ‘As Virtual School Headteacher for children looked after, it has been an absolute privilege to work with Ben and his wonderful foster carer to support him on his educational journey from year 6 through to year 13 and beyond. Ben demonstrated exceptional resilience and focus in order to maximise his potential, achieve his goals and attain an excellent set of GCSE and post-16 qualifications. I am extremely proud of Ben’s achievements and he is an outstanding role model for children looked after. He is also responsible for introducing me to Cadbury’s chocolate Roundies and nothing brightens my week up more than popping over to see Ben and his foster carer for a cup of tea, a Roundie or two and a good catch up!

‘Being a determined advocate for Ben was at the heart of helping him to feel supported in the areas of his life and education which mattered to him most. Determined advocacy is one of the key elements at the centre of the way in which the Virtual School works to build relationships and support our children and young people to be confident in their ability and realise their potential.’

Something else that Ben noted was important was his appearance and clothing. He explains, ‘Socially, kids are very aware of other kid’s appearances, and this can often be one of the key areas they will use to pick on another child. A child in care, and any child, will want to fit in and not stick out so it’s important that a child can feel comfortable in public. Thanks to my carer, I was dressed fashionably and comfortably and this was important to me.’

What would Ben say to anyone thinking of fostering?
‘I want new foster carers to know that fostering isn’t going to be an easy journey, they shouldn’t give up when they encounter difficult times. Just like you wouldn’t give up on your own child, you shouldn’t give up on a foster child. The reason why my placement has been successful is because my carer taught me good morals and values and persevered through tough times.’

What’s next?
Ben is 18 and is now classed as a care leaver. He has a ‘Staying Put’ arrangement with his foster carer, which means he is able to leave his foster home when he feels comfortable. Excitedly, Ben is now in the process of starting his own business which will aim to support care leavers like himself. Watch this space.

*The Virtual School for Children Looked After maintains a school roll of all Reading’s children looked after, including those children placed out of authority, monitors Personal Education Plans, admissions, attendance, exclusions and has a duty to promote the educational achievement of all children looked after and previously looked after.