After having been in care since she was 16, Rosie Fortune remembers how excited she was when she found out she was expecting her first child at the age of 20.
‘I felt like I finally had the chance to have my own little family,’ the 28-year-old recalls. ‘It was my turn to love someone, and have them love me back.’
The oldest of four, Rosie grew up looking after her three younger brothers, thinking it was totally normal. ‘My mum was quite a young mum and she had a lot going on,’ Rosie remembers. ‘Sadly, there was a lot of drink involved. The relationship wasn’t great.’
When Rosie was 16, she was a victim of domestic sexual assault, and fled the family home. ‘I never went back,’ she says. ‘Straight away, I thought about where I was going to live. I ended up staying with my friend for a few weeks and then into emergency supported accommodation.’
The police got involved and Rosie was assigned a social worker who encouraged her to stay with a foster family, rather than living independently in support accommodation. ‘I resisted it though,’ she admits. ‘If I couldn’t have my own family, I didn’t want another.’
After the trauma of the assault and leaving her family at a young age, Rosie says her mental health broke down, adding, ‘there was no way I could ever trust anyone again.’
For 18 months, she lived in supported accommodation, dropping out of college to work in retail and save up money to rent her own flat and pay for her own food.
When she changed jobs and started working as an apprentice in an office, she was given a flat to rent.
‘I was put in a flat I couldn’t afford,’ Rosie explains. ‘Because I was working, I wasn’t entitled to housing benefit, but my wages wouldn’t cover the rent.’
Desperate not to give up her job, as her colleagues had given her the emotional support she needed, Rosie made the decision to move back into supported housing, where she was also able to receive help for her increasingly deteriorating mental health.
Then, just after moving into another flat in Bristol at 20, Rosie and her partner discovered they were expecting their own child in 2015.
‘I didn’t tell any social care professionals I was pregnant at first,’ she says. ‘I remember the midwife at my assessment asking if I had any social care involvement, and I said no. If I had said yes, I was worried that it might trigger involvement from social care services.’
According to the charity Barnardo’s, Rosie’s concerns are not unusual.
‘We know from our work supporting children and young people who have grown up in foster or residential care that it is common for them to experience complex feelings when they become parents,’ explained Lynn Perry, CEO of Barnardo’s. ‘This could include fear, shame, embarrassment, rejection, isolation, loneliness and hopelessness.’
Now, after releasing a report into the issue, called Care-experienced Parents Unite for Change, the charity is calling for support for new parents who have had a history in children’s services. It suggests the introduction of statutory independent visitors, or ‘buddies’ as they are called in the report, to provide mentorship, informal support and advice for parents who have been in care.
While parenthood is a huge transition for anyone, for those who have grown up in care, it can be a uniquely difficult experience.
‘Becoming a parent can trigger memories or fears linked to their own childhood,’ explains Perry. ‘Many have experienced instability and nearly half are thought to have a diagnosable mental health condition. At the age of 19, they are three times less likely to be in education, employment or training compared with their peers.’
In addition, while the average age of a young person leaving the family home is 23, young people leaving care often usually find themselves having to ‘leave’ care at 18 or even younger.
‘They often do not have a network of family and friends to support them,’ says Perry. ‘For those who are also parents, this adds a significant challenge as they face learning to live independently, often on a low income, while also having to care and provide for a child.’
Nearing 21, the age at which support for children who have been in care usually stops, Rosie’s needs had naturally reduced. However, when her support worker found out Rosie was pregnant, she quickly contacted her to check in.
‘It seemed like everyone just panicked,’ says Rosie, who recalls three professionals showing up at her home to do a pre-birth assessment. ‘I felt like I had no control over what information I was able to share, and it was just very on-the-spot and rushed. It was so stressful.’
Although Rosie recognised the professionals were just doing their jobs, she believes that any other newly-pregnant mother wouldn’t have experienced the same.
‘You feel discriminated against because you’ve been in the care system,’ she explains. ‘There was an assumption that now they needed to assess my parenting ability. If I hadn’t been in the care system, that wouldn’t have happened.’
The standard procedure for someone who has been in care is that they undergo a pre-parenting assessment as part of their antenatal treatment.
‘The aim is to find out whether a family needs, or will need, extra support and also to ascertain whether the baby will be safe after they are born,’ explains Perry.
‘While these assessments can be useful to identify opportunities to help, and many social workers do fantastic job, it is really important that young people feel listened to, and never feel judged based on their own experiences.’
Rosie says that instead of being offered meaningful support by her social worker visitors, she felt interrogated.
Looking back, she would have loved for the social workers to congratulate her, ask how she was feeling, offer practical financial and emotional support, introduce her to other mums who had children after having been in care, and direct her to parenting courses. However, Rosie felt this was more about critically assessing her ability to parent.
‘I was scared about becoming a mum because I hadn’t had the best role model,’ she admits. ‘I was frightened of doing all the wrong stuff. It was like starting something new and learning what not to do, instead of what to do. It was scary. But there was no offer of support.’
Soon after, Rosie was classed as ‘no further action’ by children’s social services and went on to have her first baby. However, she still felt overwhelmed with worry about ‘getting something wrong’, and the judgment she would receive from professionals.
‘I felt that I didn’t have control, and that anything could happen,’ she says.
Eight years on, Rosie is thriving as a mother to her two children, aged eight and five. She’s gone on to support young people who have been in care with charities including Barnardo’s, but says her past trauma continues to impact her parenting.
‘I must have missed out on so much support because I was reluctant to ask for help,’ she explains. ‘Parents should feel able to trust the professionals they have contact with and to be open and honest about what they are going through so they can access the right support from maternity care to mental health support.
‘There is no consistency and parents who have grown up in care are simply not talked about or considered enough, which needs to change. Reflecting back, there was support I didn’t know I could receive.’
When recalling those early days of having her own baby, Rosie adds that she remembers feeling lonely, with no one to talk to about the challenges of motherhood. She even avoided play groups as she felt she didn’t fit in with the other mothers.
‘When you have your first child, it is just really isolating,’ she says. ‘That is when support should be offered.’
Barnardo’s has said new parents who have been in care often find taking care of a new baby particularly daunting given their past childhood experiences of trauma, perceived judgement from professionals, and lack of family support.
However, those who grew up in care ‘so often want the best for their children and to give them the childhoods which they didn’t have,’ says Perry.
‘They deserve the right help and support to make that happen.’
At just nine years old, Rhian* was placed into foster care after her mother’s mental health deteriorated and her father’s drinking, a habit he used to cope with PTSD, increased.
‘It came to the point that she (my mother) completely surrendered me to social services,’ the 35-year-old remembers. ‘I just didn’t come home from school one day. I was gone.’
Rhian can still recall the social worker who collected her from her school: ‘He had a brown, thick, woolly jumper on and a long, white estate car.’
Prior to being removed from the family home, Rhiannon remembers being massively neglected by her mum and dad, spending most of her time looking after them, rather than the other way round. ‘I never had a bond with my biological mother,’ she says. ‘I’ve only got two memories of spending time with her.’
Fortunately, Rhian’s foster parents were a ‘wonderful’ godsend. ‘I was privileged to have been given a family life,’ she says, ‘something I wouldn’t have experienced had I not gone into care.’
Rhian’s biological father died when she was just 12. Her biological mother wouldn’t let her attend the funeral, and a fortnight later, told her only daughter that she never wanted to see her again. ‘She washed her hands of me,’ she remembers. ‘It felt horrendous.’
Despite the trauma of her early years, Rhian went on to become her town’s first foster care child to go to university, graduating with an English degree, and a healthy dose of pride.
Then, years later, at 32, Rhian and her partner found out they were pregnant.
‘It was quite a moment of disbelief,’ she remembers – especially as she had been told by doctors she would never be able to have children. ‘I don’t think it ever sunk in that I was carrying my daughter. It all just was a bit vague, numb. There was no emotion there.’
After her baby was born, Rhian wanted to make sure her little girl never doubted the devotion of her mother. However, after the birth, Rhian struggled with extreme anxiety, OCD, and postnatal depression, all exacerbated by her childhood trauma and the Covid lockdowns.
When she wasn’t able to breastfeed her daughter, her mental health took a further dive, as it left her feeling she had failed her own daughter, just as she had once been failed by her biological mum.
Believing she was turning into her mother, Rhian began to distance herself from her baby. ‘I was thinking they were going to take her off me anyway, so I felt I had to stop falling in love with this little person,’ she remembers.
In a bid to remedy the situation, she reached out to her local mental health team and was seen first by a male mental health practitioner. ‘He told me I had just had a baby, that I was meant to be emotional, and that the feelings would go away,’ Rhian says, knowing he would have seen her history in care and the unique impacts of childhood trauma.
Although she was discharged, Rhian felt her concerns hadn’t been taken seriously, so went back for further support. Again, she was given another male practitioner to talk to. ‘He told me it was all in my head and discharged me,’ Rhian says.
‘There should have been something in place for previously looked-after child who become mothers. It would have been nice to have been taken seriously.’
Eventually, Rhian accessed therapy from a woman through the charity Big Moose, and finally felt she was able to make progress dealing with her trauma.
This form of support was vital in Rhian’s growth as a parent – and something that people who grew up in care, should all have access to from the off.
‘With the right support, mums and dads who grew up in care can be amazing parents and powerful advocates for their children,’ adds Perry. ‘At Barnardo’s we’re determined to make that happen.’
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