We are family…. Liberating a care identity and finding my significant others

By Iain Macleod

Iain Macleod Course Lead for the BA(Hons) in Education and Social Services at the University of Strathclyde. This course is delivered in partnership with Glasgow Clyde College, New College Lanarkshire, and West College Scotland. Iain also contributes  to the teaching on the Msc Advanced Residential Child Care. His research and teaching interests focus on children who are looked after, and in the educational experiences of looked after children. 


We are family…. Liberating a care identity and finding my significant others


“ I know that when I try to share some feeling aspect of myself which is private, precious and tentative, and when this communication is met by evaluation, by reassurance, by distortion of my meaning, my very strong reaction is ‘Oh what’s the use!’ At such time, one knows what it is to be alone!” Carl Rogers (1995)


I have discovered that ‘we’ are not alone. By ‘we’ I mean every child young person and adult who has experienced care in settings away from their family of origin. The call for contributions to this themed edition on significant relationships comes at a time when the Zeitgeist in Scotland in relation to Care Identity is experiencing profound change. This change comes from the pioneering work of Who Cares? Scotland and the young people and adults who have experienced being cared for away from home. I have myself reflected on the nature of a Care Identity, and my own Care Identity over the last few years, I have been exploring this through my teaching, and sharing my experience with students. So as we reach the end of 2014 I am claiming my Significant Others, I am claiming my Care Experienced family across the United Kingdom and beyond.


Creation of identity

For any child or young person who has been the subject of state intervention, and the provision of alternative forms of care there is the creation of a professionally imposed identity and a public identity. The professional identity is a narrative that is constructed within specific professional boundaries and formally recorded – written about us and not for us in the plethora of formal agency reports that are generated by the system. Paradoxically, the professional narrative is often kept secret from us. A hidden history in case files, which when accessed requires professional support in the discovery of our identity. It is an elaborated code of the struggles and experiences of our lives written in an alienating language. There is also the public and pejorative labelling of our identity, the stigma associated with being cared for away from home. The creation and perception of children as mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

With this backdrop, it is clear that we all need someone to counter this narrative, to give us a sense of self, a personal identity which is empowering and enabling. It is through relationships with significant others that we can learn to own our own experience and see this as a strength rather than a deficit.


The Journey

I have three brothers and two sisters. Five of us were cared from away from home, 3 in a residential child care home, and two of us in boarding schools. I was in a boarding school for the last two years of my secondary education. My experience in school was for the most part empowering. It was through relationships with the teacher’s that I gained a sense of self that enabled me to engage with the wider world when I finally left. It was not so much about the formal process of education and attainment, but more about the quality of the relationships that I experienced with my significant others within the school. They were significant because in these relationships I can now see that they were able to reflect back a narrative of myself which I had not yet internalised. A self that was not defined by trauma of family disruption, but had hope and aspirations for the future. So, to the teachers and staff at Lendrick Muir, I owe a debt of gratitude because they held me in mind, and saw possibilities for my future that I could not see. They became significant relationships, and remain so after almost 40 years. It does not matter that I do not have contact with them, it is the idea of them and the memory of them that I take with me. So, to all practitioners, I would ask you to reflect on and recognise the lifelong impact that your significant relationships with young people will have.

In entering the world of work, and facing the realities of life outside of a community, there were always challenges. So, perhaps inevitably, I sought solace in finding work as a houseparent in a boarding school in the South of England. Reflecting back I can see that community and the closeness of community was a way of seeking out a security that living alone could not bring. Once again, it was the presence of significant relationships that enabled me to progress in my journey. Without this support I probably would not have been able to afford the fees for my ‘A’ Levels, and would not have been able to gain a place to study Psychology at university. For those of us who have families that cannot provide security and stability, the presence of significant others for support cannot be underestimated.

In the past we have been described as Care Leavers, and again thinking on my own journey, I see the irony in the universal use of this term. It is not so much that we leave care rather that care leaves us (whether we want this or not) The experience of care as relational with significant others is fundamental to our well –being, and morally and ethically be withdrawn solely on the basis of reaching the ‘age of leaving care’ It is therefore encouraging that in Scotland, thanks to the campaigning work of Who Cares? Scotland, that we now see a shift in thinking.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 now makes provision for young people who leave care to receive ‘continuing care’ up to the age of 21 or ‘aftercare’ up to the age of 26. The legislation will come in to force in April 2015, so we cannot say what the impact will be as yet. We can see that the need for ongoing care and support has been reinforced. The enactment of the legislation will bring interesting times. While it may provide some stability in terms of place, it may be challenging to secure stability of significant relationships.

If, as I have been sharing, it is the presence of significant others that have enabled me to make progress in my life, then continuing care must be about people as much as place. Ultimately, It is the quality of the relationships that a young person experiences that will determine if they want to stay in the ’place’. So, there is the real challenge – we need to be able to think about what relationships mean to each young person in their care journey and be able to hold on to the transition from childhood to adulthood and the challenges that this brings. Perhaps we might want to think about what community and relationship will mean in this context. Particularly in the way that professionals and those that are cared for will negotiate the boundaries in the transition from youth and adolescence into adulthood. In the time between leaving school and completing my degree I had a total of 15 different moves of home. However, it was the quality and presence of significant relationships that was sustaining during this time rather than the availability of roof over my head.


The final piece of the jigsaw

On completion of my degree, I sought employment in residential child care, after a period of 7 years, I undertook my professional training as a social worker, and returned to residential child care. I remained connected to practice until I joined the Scottish Institute of Residential Child Care as a lecturer some 10 years ago. What is fascinating to me is that in all of my working life in residential child care that I did not claim my care identity. It was only when I connected with other ‘out’ care experienced adults at the university that I was able to think about my own experience, and how that experiences had at an unconscious level shaped my career and my philosophy of working with children and young people. Through conversation with my care experienced colleagues I was able to come to an understanding of how I had suppressed my spoiled identity as a care leaver and why at many times I felt like an outsider in my profession. I had internalised this spoiled identity as a care experienced person, and resisted the label of wounded healer. The social work literature, part of my enculturation as a practitioner has described those ‘wounded healers’ as perhaps being less suitable for social work practice. So, in my journey I have now recognised that other care experienced people are also my significant others as we share an identity. Yes there is diversity and difference, but, recognising and owning our experience is both powerful and liberating. I am part of a care experienced family, and as part of that family and the significant relationships that we share, I can give an account of myself that is met with recognition rather than bewilderment. I have always valued the support I have received in relationship with significant others, I now also have the gift of a new family of significant others. Recent events in Scotland have shown the power of the combined voices of care experienced young people and the potential for reclaiming our identity. Long may it continue!


Suggested Reading


McMurray, I., Connolly, H., Preston-Shoot, M. and Wigley, V. (2011), Shards of the old looking glass: restoring the significance of identity in promoting positive outcomes for looked-after children. Child & Family Social Work, 16: 210–218. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2206.2010.00733.x

Murray, S. and Humphreys, C. (2014), ‘My life’s been a total disaster but I feel privileged’: care-leavers’ access to personal records and their implications for social work practice. Child & Family Social Work, 19: 215–224. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2206.2012.00895.x

Who Cares? Scotland (2014) The Care I.D.entity [listen][act][unite] Retrieved From