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"A life in care isn’t what Tracy Beaker made it out to be"

·6-min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

When I was six, at a family friends’ party, I proudly announced to a stranger: "I’m fostered". I had been experimenting with how to tell people that I was in care, how to 'out' this fundamental part of my identity. My childlike approach was misguided. The stranger’s response, bizarrely, was to press a five-pound note into my hand. I was delighted with the money – more than I'd ever had to myself – but his response, borne out of compassion, made me feel smaller in ways that I didn’t understand. Looking back now, I realise he was trying to help me in the only way he knew. But it made me see myself through his eyes: poor, alone and helpless; dependent, like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois or Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, upon the kindness of strangers.

So I tried speaking about my care experience in different ways: quietly, or not at all.

When I mentioned being fostered, invasive questions were asked. Are you an orphan? What did your parents do to you? Why were you taken away? I also noted, as an adult, that many people were surprised to learn of my care experience. The implication here was that I didn’t seem like the kind of person who grew up in care.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

I wondered: what exactly does a care leaver look like to someone who has no experience of the system?

I looked to popular culture for answers. I found that the mainstream stories about care-experienced adults relied on a series of harmful tropes. In TV, film, and books, I saw the same things over and over again: care leavers as murderers, rapists, addicts, criminals. From serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall to Nurse Ratched and her foster brother Edmund, it was as though the fact of these characters’ care experience was enough to demonstrate their being in a social underclass. That their monstrousness was an inevitability as a result.

The problem exists in children’s fiction, too. The most obvious example is Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker. The Story of Tracy Beaker, released in 1991, tells the tale of ten-year-old Tracy growing up in a residential care home – or the ‘dumping ground’. The books also reinforce many harmful stereotypes about foster kids. Tracy is portrayed by Wilson as a ‘problem child’: prone to temper tantrums; physically violent; a compulsive liar; a thief; not to be trusted around younger children. Importantly, Wilson’s books represent a broader canon that make the failure of care-experienced people in later life something of a foregone conclusion in the eyes of the reader.

The ‘dumping ground’, and the children living in it, quickly became a shorthand for non-care-experienced readers, enabling them to have what seemed like a genuine insight into the care system. Meanwhile, the reality of the care-experience remained in the dark.

It was obvious to me that it was time to step into the light.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

There is no question that care leavers have a set of statistical disadvantages for the simple fact of growing up in care. Care leavers are, variously, more likely to experience poor physical and mental health; more likely to be unemployed; less likely to access higher education; more likely to go to prison. A high proportion of children in care (84%) leave school with less than five GCSEs. Care leavers are four times more likely to take their own lives than anyone else.

These are the facts, but when humans only see negative portrayals of their lives in the popular culture they consume, they come to understand themselves as ‘other’ and the rest of society understands this too. I had grown up being told by the books and media that I consumed that I was pre-determined to fail, or worse, to become some sort of social menace.

The lived experience of people who have been in care is so much more than the ‘dumping ground’, Justine Littlewood and Elaine the Pain. With the announcement of new rebooted Tracy Beaker books back in 2018, which would follow Tracy as an adult, a robust backlash from the care-experienced community led Wilson – to her credit – to work with care-experienced people to ensure that the new books in the series were more representative, sensitive and nuanced in their portrayals.

And in recent years, a greater focus on Own Voices stories and authentic representation has seen film production companies, like the one that made 2018 movie Instant Family, consult with people with lived experience to ensure stories are told accurately and sensitively. In the creative industries, care-experienced people are speaking out. And finally, it seems, creators are listening.

There is nothing more powerful than seeing your own identity validated in this way; reflected back at you, whether it be through the pages of a book or a television screen.

But while these steps are important and necessary, there is still a drought of stories from people with lived experience. There are of course some: Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me, and The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, are two of my favourites. Though these stories exist, they are not cultural touchstones for the care experience in the same way as the likes of Tracy Beaker.

Photo credit: Sophie Davidson
Photo credit: Sophie Davidson

It feels to me that while things are slowly changing in how care-experienced stories are being told, I still cannot see myself represented in the characters I see on the screen and read about in books.

So, I’ve decided to create my own.

I wrote my debut novel Careless, in part, to reflect my own life and experience. I wanted to tell a story that showed the realities of what it was like for me to grow up in care; to show how brutal and uncaring and unforgiving the system can be. But also, how care-experienced people can – despite those failures – live joyous, and hopeful, and aspirational lives.

Careless, to me, is part of a new care-experienced canon which centres those voices and tells a nuanced and multi-dimensional story of foster care. It thrills me to see that I am not alone in this.

More and more care-experienced voices are emerging into the mainstream and sharing powerful, vibrant and honest stories on what it is like to grow up in the system.

As care leavers, we have been assigned to a social underbelly for too long. It’s time our stories are told – from our own mouths – and we take control of our own narratives. Our stories deserve to be heard. It seems to me as though, finally, we are taking our first tentative steps into the light.

Careless by Kirsty Capes is out now, published by Orion in hardback for £12.99. You can get your copy here. You can purchase tickets for Kirsty Capes in conversation with Pandora Sykes on 19th May through Waterstones online events here.

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