Sam is a 14-year-old in the care of the Local Authority and he was first referred to Advocacy Focus not long after he arrived at his first placement because he had been reported missing. In the months that followed, Sam was moved three further times. His fourth placement was with foster carers. The frequent moves were very unsettling for him, and his relationship with his foster carers was strained. This was reflected in the frequency and duration of Sam’s missing episodes and the increasing risks he was being exposed to while missing.

In addition to the frequent moves, there was very little structure in Sam’s day-to-day life. He often slept all day and he had not been to school or engaged in learning for three years. He very much wanted to attend school and was upset and angry that efforts had not been made to secure him a start date for such a long time.  

Sam recognised that education presented opportunities that could afford him some choices as to how he might shape his future and he felt that without access to schooling his choices for the future were very narrow. Sometimes Sam felt that his options were so limited, that a life of crime was an inevitable reality.

This impacted his self-esteem, his sense of self-worth and his capacity to invest in anything beyond responding to his immediate situation. On several occasions, while missing, Sam was suspected of having been involved in criminality. Some of the professionals who worked with him began to suspect that he might be being criminally exploited.

What did we do to help the young person? 

Sam’s recent Return to Care interviews had to be conducted on the telephone because of COVID-19 restrictions. As our Advocate had never met Sam in person, building rapport seemed more challenging than usual. At the time, Sam was feeling particularly let down by the adults and professionals in his life and so, understandably, Sam was reluctant to share details about his missing episodes with a new person he had never met face to face.

To counter Sam’s reservations, our Advocate avoided asking questions that might have felt too intrusive and encouraged him to chat about how he was managing with the COVID-19 lockdown, the video games he enjoyed and his friends and family. He began to open up more and to share more about why he was going missing so frequently and what was happening to him during those times.

Sam explained that four key things were happening in his life. Each of the issues was related to his missing episodes:

  • Sam was being criminally exploited. He shared details of incidents involving his exploiters that indicated he was being groomed by adults to carry and sell drugs.
  • He was feeling scared and hopeless about the prospect of going to court to face criminal charges. He didn’t know what happened during a court appearance and this felt daunting and unmanageable.
  • He had not been in education for three years which impacted Sam’s self-esteem and made him feel he had few choices in life other than criminality (and his exploiters).
  • He was very unhappy in his placement. He felt judged by his foster carers and didn’t feel he could rely on them for support.

To help Sam and reduce the prospect of his missing episodes continuing, with his permission, our Advocate shared his experiences with various professionals who were each in a position to help him with the issues he faced. When relaying Sam’s experiences to professionals, our Advocate made sure to explain how the issue in question was related to him going missing. And, how collectively these issues made the young boy feel powerless to change anything whilst highlighting what each professional could do to change this.

The one to one work that our Advocate did with Sam involved providing him with young-person-friending resources to help him find out what to expect when going to court as well as encouraging him to access information about child criminal exploitation. They spent time chatting about his future ambitions and what he might do to achieve his goals. They also spent time discussing Sam’s exploiters and how he felt judged for being a ‘criminal’.

Our Advocate reiterated to Sam that although he had made choices about things he had been involved in, that did not mean that he wasn’t being exploited. Sam is a child and his exploiters are adults.  He said it was important and meaningful for him to hear this. Sam and our Advocate discussed the services that were available to him and how he could successfully engage with them to get the help he needed.  

What was the outcome? 

Sam has been moved away from the area in which he was being exploited and will not be returning to the foster home where he was so unhappy. He is now receiving intensive support to reduce the risk of being exposed to criminal exploitation in the future and has a training placement scheduled for the new school year. His social worker has allayed his fears about going to court and has arranged to be with him to offer support on the day. Sam’s missing episodes have reduced significantly, he is feeling much happier and more settled and hopeful.

How did this impact on the young person? 

The changes that have happened in Sam’s life recently give him an opportunity to re-imagine his future and re-engage with education; something Sam saw as a key feature of feeling included and reaching independence. Our Advocate feels that the impact of the Return to Care process on Sam was two-fold. Firstly, his life was impacted by drawing together the many issues Sam was experiencing and looking at them through a Return to Care lens and asking how each of these issues was contributing to his missing episodes. And being persistent in bringing these issues to the attention of people in a position to respond to them. Secondly, on a personal level, our Advocate hopes that by being transparent about not judging Sam, recognising his experiences of exploitation and believing in his ability to achieve the things he wants to in life, that his self-esteem was bolstered.  

Why was the Return to Care process so effective? 

It gave Sam an opportunity to explain that he was facing several issues that were related to his frequent missing episodes and allowed our Advocate the opportunity to consider which people and what resources might be needed to respond to those issues. And, although attempting to establish rapport over the telephone seemed challenging at first, it proved to be a platform that Sam felt really comfortable with. It allowed him to feel in control of our interactions and as our Advocate wasn’t in Sam’s home or interacting with his foster family during meetings; it reinforced that a Return to Care interview is truly an independent service.  

Find out more about our Return to Care Service here