When I was 11 years old, I was taken away in the back of a police car and delivered to a building with tall, imposing gates. Beside them was a sign protesting the building’s existence. This was a Glasgow children’s home and was billed as a ‘therapeutic environment’ for vulnerable young people.
Locals resented its presence. As far as they were concerned, the children who called this facility home were young thugs hellbent on intimidating local people. We were criminals who were fire-raising and house-breaking in between committing all manner of sexual offences.
This was the world portrayed to the people of Glasgow by a popular newspaper of the time. It bore no relation to the truth about us or our lives, but the scare stories put people on edge. I would walk around my community under a battery of suspicious eyes.
In reality, I was a sad young boy. I was taken away from my family not because I was a criminal or a trouble-maker or ‘difficult’, but because of a mental health crisis in the family.
It was a crisis that should have been addressed much sooner but, because it wasn’t, I was removed from the family home, separated from my brothers and sisters and deposited with strangers, many of whom had been deposited there through similar circumstances. We were young, alone and frightened. And yet people were afraid of us?
This is something which could be a reality for any family. All it takes is an alignment of circumstances, events you might struggle to imagine but which hit in violent succession, and then suddenly it's your children in care, marked with a stigma that can seem indelible.
The campaign to shut the home down succeeded after nine years, in no small part thanks to a cross-party effort from politicians across the spectrum. It’s nice when people can set aside their differences to take on 11-year-olds. Years later, I learned that councillors I went on to campaign for as a young adult had been involved in this crusade. Children in care didn’t vote, after all, so stigmatising them was a win-win for opportunistic politicians.
Opportunism is the road more travelled because compassion, empathy and understanding demand more. Scots go to the polls next month for the Holyrood elections and today politicians from across the parties speak enthusiastically about 'care-experienced young people', about the importance of keeping siblings together in care, about the need to redress failings of the past and make better policy for the future. There has been an Independent Review of Care in Scotland, backed by all parties, and a plan laid out for making changes to the system.
However, all these years later, I don’t doubt for a second that, given the opportunity to back an ill-conceived ‘community protest’ against a children’s home, politicians from every party would fall over themselves to sign up, especially with an election in the offing. In fact, similar drives have been seen in recent years. Covid-19 may be all that has stood in the way in the past 12 months.
Just as it didn’t matter that it was poverty and mental ill-health that caused me to be taken into care, today people still need convincing that children who go through care are shaped by circumstances, many of them outside their control. Some can just about see the case for giving them a second chance, but little else beyond that.
Talk of second chances is alien to many of my peers. We were never given a first chance. That is a circumstance not easily overcome. The Howard League notes that young teenagers in care are almost 20 times more likely to be criminalised than those who grow up at home.
And once they encounter the criminal justice system, opportunism rears it head again as society gets the opportunity to wash its hands of them. No matter their age. No matter what they’ve been through. No matter whether it’s their first offence or their 15th.
Two years ago, I ran a book club in HMP & YOI Polmont, Scotland’s young offenders institution, for young men who had been in care. Every one of them relished the opportunity to read and critically engage with literature — everything from Oliver Twist to true stories of redemption. All of these young men had been labelled from a young age and left to fend for themselves, with predictable results.
I was nervous someone might find out I was giving men in prison access to books — books that were, for some of them, the first they’d ever owned. I was nervous, if I’m honest, of what people would think about me treating these men like human beings, so used are we to hearing people in their situation spoken of in the most dehumanising language.
It was in that moment that I realised I too was allowing my work to be impeded by the ever-present fear of public attitudes and media furore. These young men were raised by the state and if they should have been better it was because we should have done better by them. That’s not easy for some people to hear, perhaps especially by those who have been victims of crime. The impulse for retribution is something we all feel and it is natural because, by nature, we abhor injustice.
As a young boy, I remember a priest using the aphorism, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’, words of wisdom sometimes attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. It wasn’t until I was older that I realised how hard it is to live those words, especially when met with deep-rooted beliefs and assumptions. When it comes to people who have been in care and end up in the criminal justice system, we need to rethink what we mean by injustice and by retribution.
When someone raised in care commits a crime, their act is no less unjust because of the circumstances of their childhood but we have to recognise those circumstances as an injustice in themselves. An offence against the right of every child to get the best start in life, a reckless act of state and social failure that has ripple effects down the years.
Those with care experience have been branded criminals in newspapers across the country, as I and the other children at our residential home were, and then it seems as though every effort is put into making that judgement come true. Attitudes are changing and interventions becoming more common and better targeted, but we are not as far from those protests and condemning glares as we like to think. We need to get better at addressing and preventing the injustices that can lead to care and direct our retribution towards the social factors that punish vulnerable children from their earliest years.
If politicians can build a consensus against us, they can build a consensus to help us. If your child makes a mistake, you offer them the opportunity to learn from it, you support them and you encourage them to move past it. Whether they struggle with crime, substance misuse, mental ill-health or other challenges, people do not deserve to be written off, no matter how many mistakes they make. The same attitude deserves to be afforded to those of us removed from our families by the state under the auspices of providing a better childhood.
Here’s what I think about ‘second chances’: we should give people a second chance, but we should also give them a third and a fourth and a fifth and however many it takes for them to make fulfilling lives for themselves. There can be no time limit on our responsibility to each other or the state’s to those who need its support and understanding more than most.
Compassion is not a finite resource. It is replenished every time an 11-year-old dropped off at a children’s home is helped to make the most of their life and in turn helps make life better for the 11-year-old who comes after them.