It’s our 20th Anniversary and we are celebrating 20 years of being EPIC by posting articles every month about EPIC. This month is an article written by EPIC Participation Officer and Care Leaver Suzanne O’Brien.
In 2012, I was 23 years of age and in my fifth year of a social care degree. I was in the beginning stages of completing my thesis on ‘Aftercare’ and finding myself more and more frustrated with the lack of data/ information and outcomes on care leavers in Ireland.
I soon took this frustration to my college tutor who simply said, “All I had to do was go to EPIC”. This was said in such a way that suggested that to do so would somehow give me the holy grail of access to the information and young people that I needed for my thesis.
That same night I went home and googled EPIC. What I found was a website that held lots of information about care, legislation, rights, and videos exploring what it meant to be in care.
This organisation was set up to support children in care and those with care experience, but I as a care leaver had never heard of them? I never knew that they could have helped me when I needed help the most. Why was that?
In 1997, at nine years of age and through no fault of my own, I became a child in care. In 1999, my mam then passed away and I soon became reliant on the state to care for me up until my 18th birthday.
Throughout my childhood, I was the ‘good child’, the child that never gave any trouble, the child that was responsible for my families care but something changed for me coming up to my 18th birthday. At 18, I knew I was no longer anyone’s responsibility, least of all my foster carers. I knew that my time was running out in their home and that I would leave their home on my terms and not theirs.
At 18, I thought I knew everything, exactly how the world operated and my place in it. What I didn’t know at that time was that I actually knew nothing. I traded my foster carers love, kindness and dedication for nights out doing whatever I wanted with whomever I wanted. Soon enough their ultimatum arrived, I had two choices
A) Stay in their home and be respectful or
B) Move out
They were no longer going to allow me to ruin my life in front of their eyes and under their roof.
So, you guessed it I chose a beautifully shiny option B. Well option B didn’t work out exactly as I ‘knew’ it would…
- Who knew that rent and bills arrived every month like clockwork? Not me!
- Who knew food was soo expensive? Not me!
- Who knew that in order to have food and toilet roll, you had to physically go to the shop? Not me!
- And who knew that at 2am and alone, I would re-live the pain of my past and have to start dealing with my trauma? Not me!
However, with the never-ending support of my foster carers (my now mam and dad), my friends and family I got there. I am continuing to get there.
As a care leaver, I am one of the ‘successes’, but my road to success wasn’t without its obstacles. Admittedly, some obstacles I created myself while others came in the form of the aftercare system that I was trying desperately to navigate my way through.
So for these reasons, the support of Google and lots of deliberation on my part I finally chose to contact EPIC. What I didn’t know at that time, was that by making that first phone call my family would soon almost double in size.
With that first call, my ‘EPIC journey’ began. Immediately I was told that EPIC would be happy to support me with my queries and that an advocate would call me in the coming days to organise how best to proceed. Within two weeks, I had met an advocate, received information that would help me with my thesis. I was also told that if EPIC had any young people who were interested in taking part in my research that they would let me know as soon as possible.
My first interview took place with a now very good friend of mine, Dean Malone. Up until that first interview, I believed I was the only one (care leaver) who was struggling.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I was not alone, that there were others exactly like me!?? Others that had gone through similar experiences to me and yet here we were, against all the odds surviving, bettering ourselves and now hoping to help others.
Following the interviews, I found myself in an awkward and self-reflective time in my life. Up until then, I had never really dealt with my trauma or spoken about it publicly. I found myself in complete awe, fascination and admiration of Dean and the other young people who had so openly, bravely and emotionally shared their experiences with me.
But this did make me wonder why I wasn’t also doing the same? Why was I not trying to improve the care system based on my own experiences? Why did I not have their strength?
What I realised then was how much respect I had for the staff in EPIC whose priority it was to hear from and raise the issues of those with care experience. What I realised was that EPIC functioned solely to give a voice to the voiceless, to amplify their voices and for their voices as experts to influence change within the care system.
As luck would have it, I soon received a call from Brenda, the advocate I had first met in EPIC wondering would I like to get involved in the work of EPIC and that she had an upcoming information session with foster carers that she thought I could greatly contribute to.
She asked me to only share parts of my care experience that I was comfortable with, to share the positives and challenges of my time in care so that the foster carers could hear from the perspective of the child in care and not just the professionals as is often the case.
This experience tightened the bond between me, my mam and dad. In sharing my experiences with those foster carers, I for the first time understood my experiences from the point of view of my mam and dad. I understood that they didn’t want me to fail, they wanted me to be the best person that I could be, and they just wanted me to be happy!
This experience also gave me a huge sense of respect for foster carers and the work that they do. They often meet children and families on the worst days of their lives. They meet children who have experienced ways of adapting and surviving that most adults will never experience. They lovingly and willingly open their home to our society’s most vulnerable.
So from this care leaver, I would like to extend a sincere thank you to the foster carers who everyday teach us to love and accept love, who support us to overcome our trauma and accept us for the often complicated, inspiring and resilient people that are children in care.
My second favourite memory of my time as a young person in EPIC was when I was doing an interview with another care leaver Mark Gray. On this day, we were meeting Miriam O’Callaghan to share with her our experiences of the care system. During this interview and for the first time myself and Mark realised and remembered that we had actually lived together in residential care when I had first come into care at nine years of age.
I remembered seeking Mark out for comfort as I experienced my first time in care, alone and without my family. I remembered how Mark, who was in care longer, would tell me that I was going to be ok and that I would see my mammy very soon. I remembered how upset I was when I left that placement and moved to another knowing that I probably wouldn’t ever see my new friend again.
So as I’m sure you can imagine this first meeting thirteen years later was very emotional. In a massive twist of faith and with the kindness and understanding of both Miriam and the EPIC staff our friendship was rekindled. Mark is now the only consistent person in my life who is also a part of my childhood.
In 2015, my position as National Participation Coordinator became available in EPIC and with some encouragement from the National Advocacy Manager at the time, I applied for the job, not for one moment thinking that I would get it. To my absolute shock, I later received a call from our previous CEO Jennifer Gargan offering me the job!
My role in EPIC would be to work in partnership with Tusla to set up groups, known as Fora for children and young people who were living in foster care. The purpose of these groups was to create a space where young people could share their positive and challenging experiences of care to influence changes within the care system. These groups created an open, honest and supported space for young people to explore their own experiences, the care system itself and simply meet others who were also in care.
During my time in this role, I was truly humbled, proud and grateful to the incredibly brave, funny and talented young people I met along the way. These young people had such a hunger for and passion to make changes within the care system based on their own lived experience.
These groups taught me that there is strength in numbers, that an honest and experienced voice is powerful and that these voices should never be suppressed or be viewed as less than that of the adults in their lives. The children and young people taught me that what they really need and want from us as professionals is honesty and not for the decisions being made about their lives to be “sugar-coated” in any way.
Through these groups, young people created and developed several projects based on their collective experiences of the care system. Their projects tackled difficult topics like cultural diversity, sibling separation, being treated differently because they were in care, relationships with their foster carers and social workers, stigma, moving placements, accessing their files and the lack of love/ understanding within the care system.
These projects can now be found online:
The children and young people involved hope that their projects will be used to support the training of new staff and foster carers. They also hope that they will support other children and young people to understand that they are not alone and that they can do anything that they put their minds to.
When my role with the Fora came to an end, I then started working with the National EPIC Youth Council who are a group of 18-26 year olds who have experience of living in care. Similarly to the Fora, their purpose is to make changes within the care system based on their lived experience.
The group has taught me that they are so much more than just care leavers. Care is a part of their lives but it is not the most important part, it is also the part that has helped shape them into the independent, successful and kind young people that they are today. They are sisters, brothers, students, parents, professionals, models, musical, artistic, and creative as well as being the most dedicated, ambitious and inspirational advocates for those with care experience.
They want to be part of lessening the stigma that can sometimes face those with care experience. They want others to understand the additional hurdles and difficulties they have to face as care leavers. They want others to understand that care leavers are just as capable as their peers of reaching their potential when they are appropriately supported to do so. Most importantly, they want to make the experience of ‘coming out’ as a care leaver an easier, more accepting and natural conversation.
I am proud of the work we do in EPIC and the platform that we have created that supports the voice of those with care experience to have real and meaningful opportunities to influence change within the care system.
I am proud that as an organisation we never leverage the wellbeing of our young people over the needs of EPIC.
I am proud that as a care leaver it is now my responsibility to ensure that the voice of our young people is always at the heart of our work.
My seven year EPIC journey so far has taught me that my voice and the voice of others like me matters, our experiences matter and they need to be heard by those in a position to make change so that the young people coming after us will live in a system that has been created and shaped by those who have experienced living in the care system.
Participation Officer/ Care Leaver