Building confidence, shifting attitudes: Voice of Young People in Care
It’s not always possible for children to live with their parents. There are many reasons why a child may be taken into care, including protection from abuse or neglect, parents being absent, or where needs arising from illness or disability cannot be met at home. For the young person, coming into care can be distressing. Many want more contact with their families or friends, or feel unsettled or unheard.
Each year, Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) supports around 600 children in care and care leavers in Northern Ireland. It works to promote children’s rights and voice: to make sure that they are heard in the decisions that affect them, from care planning to larger policy decisions.
Alongside advocacy, VOYPIC supports young people to develop personal, social and life skills – and gives them opportunities to have fun. It helps to raise awareness – for example, through the resources for schools young people created to help teachers to understand and support their care-experienced pupils.
Their work is having a positive effect on the lives of young people. After taking part in VOYPIC's group programmes, 99% of young people feel more confident, and 54% feel they are better at speaking up.
VOYPIC in numbers
Young people in care
In 2021, there were 3,530 children and young people in care in Northern Ireland. The majority (81%) were living with foster carers, while others stayed with family members, in children’s homes or elsewhere.
We know that care experienced young people can face stigma, stemming from a lack of understanding of care. They may have experienced adversity or trauma, be at a disadvantage at school, or face disruption from the other things going on in their lives. The experience can affect confidence, wellbeing and self-esteem.
For these reasons, it’s essential to recognise and celebrate their successes and give them opportunities to build confidence and spend time with others who have similar experiences.
When VOYPIC consulted young people in care, they named contact with family as the most important issue they faced; in 2013, just 49% could keep in touch as much as they wanted. They also emphasised education, the importance of feeling safe, settled, and secure – and of having their voice heard.
Making your own choices
This is where VOYPIC makes a difference, helping young people to articulate their wishes and concerns, while giving them the chance to connect with other care experienced young people, and just have fun.
When young people come to VOYPIC, they start their journey by being heard. Each young person has a one-to-one meeting with a youth rights worker, discussing what they want and hope to achieve. And young people have the final decision on whether they take part.
The charity will always connect with the young person’s social worker – but, as team leader Caoimhe Coyle explains, “sometimes why a social worker refers a young person, and what the young person wants, are completely different.”
Working with each participant, youth workers use an Outcomes Star to help decide what’s needed. It’s a tool that measures and supports change, asking young people to assess where they are in different aspects of life: education, feelings, relationships with friends, safety, and support networks.
So if someone explains they don’t have a big social network, the youth worker can suggest group activities, with opportunities to build confidence and make friends. For other issues, they can offer tailored one-to-one support: help with managing emotions, or coping with the changes involved in moving foster homes. It’s still up to the young person whether to accept what’s offered.
But we know that this is making a difference. 99% of participants say that they’ve received the help and support they needed and 97% tell us that they have a better understanding of their rights and entitlements.
Meeting people like you
Understanding your rights and taking an active part in decisions about your own care is essential. But VOYPIC also helps young people to build connections and gain new experiences, through frequent social events like film nights, visits to water parks, and special events like a spooky Halloween ball.
With smaller groups, they connect young people who have something in common, working to solve problems or share interests. Caoimhe explains, “It’s about, what is the need? If we have a group of young people that we’re working with individually, and there’s a common theme or need, bring them together.”
The charity has run mother and baby groups, and specific male and female groups addressing mental health, self-esteem and confidence. Others might focus on health and fitness, or creative arts, or connecting young people with care home residents. It shows people that they’re not alone, giving them an opportunity to open up about their problems, ask for help, and share their experiences.
As young people build their support networks, there are more casual, spontaneous ways to help each other, too. They can drop in to VOYPIC’s building, to chat or to cook for each other, or pick up the phone if they feel isolated. Young people who have taken part in the advocacy service will often refer themselves for further support – helping to establish healthy patterns, where they can ask for help before something becomes a crisis.
And VOYPIC invites them to get involved in developing, planning, and delivering the changes they want to see – both in their area, and across Northern Ireland. At local forums, participants raise issues, suggest what group work might focus on, and agree what self-directed projects they want to lead on. The groups feed back to a larger regional forum – so that common themes can be spotted and picked up.
99% of young participants give their group leaders 10 out of 10 for the work they do to support them.
Professionals who respect and empathise with you
The #SeeMe project, designed to change how teachers work with care-experienced pupils, was suggested by one of VOYPIC’s participant forums, and quickly resonated with the others. Across the region, young people felt that schools didn’t recognise the challenges they faced.
“They were saying, if [teachers] had a better understanding, they would be able to support us and empathise with us,” says Caoimhe. “It was literally about ‘see me’. So, ‘I’m not a statistic, I’m not the care-experienced young person in the class, I’m not the child of an alcoholic. They may be things that are in my life, but they don’t define me.’”
Young people developed the resources, including a series of videos showing different classroom scenarios. Each one rewinds the story to reveal the context behind it. In one, a boy’s behaviour disrupts the class – but when the video zooms in, it focuses on the quiet girl sitting next to him, getting top marks in her tests but with self-harm scars on her arms. Another shows that it’s not always about care; a student explains that she doesn’t want a “pity talk” about her situation, she needs help with her grammar. The series urges educators to question their own assumptions, to recognise the complexities of young people’s lives.
Developing #SeeMe, young people spoke to peers, drafted the scripts, played lead roles, and worked with a media company on the final edit. 39 young people took part – almost double the planned number, making sure that everybody who was interested had the opportunity to do so.
Some were initially reluctant to appear in front of the cameras. “Right up to the very point of recording, they were saying, ‘I can’t do this!’” remembers Caoimhe. “And then they did.” Taking that step helped to boost confidence – as did positive feedback from the media company.
The resources have been used in Stranmillis University College, Queens University and Ulster University, and by local Health and Social Care Trusts to raise awareness among social workers of young people’s experiences of school. They’ve been shared through the working group on education of care experienced children in Northern Ireland, and at a shared learning event for professionals from the health, education and charity sectors.
The feedback has been excellent. “[Student teachers] were saying, ‘I had no clue that this was what was going on with a care experienced young person,’” Caoimhe remembers. “And that was the exact reason why young people designed it” – to help their teachers to understand them.
And the impact isn’t just on teachers. Growing awareness of lived experience means more attention has been paid to young people. “But sometimes that’s a tickbox,” Caoimhe says. “With the resources, it was something tangible – they could have that legacy of it being used over and over again. Whenever they heard the feedback, they were able to see the impact – to say, ‘We were listened to.’ I think that made a big difference. They could see the full circle.”
Young people were saying, ‘if we had someone who was there, whenever we’re leaving care, to support us, to connect us.’Caoimhe Coyle
A community that supports you
Through talking with care leavers, VOYPIC has found how much it helps young people to be connected in a community. In the care system, young people are supported by a network of social workers and other professionals. “Once they transition out of care, that disappears,” Caoimhe explains. “They’re on their own.”
So VOYPIC works with them to develop new support networks. Volunteer mentors help to map out support, signposting to local organisations and resources.
They help with the practical challenges of leaving care: knowing how to budget, how to live independently. And they’re someone for young people to talk to about the changes and challenges in their lives, to support their ambitions and suggest solutions.
“Sometimes I felt stressed throughout the process of completing my nail tech course,” explains VOYPIC participant Caitlin, “but my mentor was there to be a listening ear and to help me overcome any problems. She helped me feel accomplished. She was my cheerleader.”
It matters that the mentors are volunteers, rather than paid staff. Young people can see that they’ve chosen to be there for them, that their community values them and cares what happens to them. As part of a community, participants can themselves take a mentoring role, returning as young adults to cofacilitate groups and support the next generation.
I’m OK. I can do this on my own. And I know if I need somebody, they [VOYPIC] are just a phone call away.
The words we use matter: how we describe people affects how we think about them, and how they feel about themselves. For example, young leader Martha was six when she first heard the term “LAC” (“looked after child”). She remembers wondering, “What am I lacking in?”
Care experienced young people want professionals to use simpler, more human language. This is so important for young people that the organisation has supported them to develop their own dictionary of terms – such as “family time”, instead of the colder “contact”.
It's having an impact: in 2020, the Education Minister announced that LAC will no longer be used in education settings, while the strategy for young people in care used it only when referring to legislation or statutory policy.
To challenge negative stereotypes, the group supports young people to tell their own stories, in all sorts of ways. A VOYPIC group’s play Just Jack was named runner-up in the Northern Ireland Anti Bullying Forum’s creative competition. Young people created a comic book based on their experiences in care, while a storytelling group is developing a children’s book.
Across Northern Ireland and beyond, the charity works to change the general public’s perception of care. The first Care Day took place in the UK and Ireland in 2016. Launched by VOYPIC and four more children’s rights charities (Become, Empowering People in Care, Voices from Care Cymru, and Who Cares? Scotland), it has grown into the world’s biggest celebration of children and young people with care experience.
For Care Day 2022, celebrities and MLAs from across the political spectrum expressed their support on social media using the #CareDay22 hashtag. Young people led a podcast discussion and celebrations have included talent shows, a Care Day Bake Off, and young people drumming at locations across Northern Ireland.
We’ve awarded VOYPIC £1,597,944 of National Lottery funding since 2011, including £591,036 to build young people’s skills and confidence, and £499,595 for advocacy coaching and mentoring to support young people to get involved in decision-making processes.