A record number of children and young people in care died last year when coronavirus restrictions were at their most strict, The Ferret can reveal.
The “tragic” statistics show that 24 young people in care died in 2020, compared to 21 the year before. In total the figures, which ran from Jan 2014 to September 2021, revealed that 111 children and young people had died.
Campaigners claimed that premature death was “an epidemic” within the young care community. They said they were “tired of empty promises” and demanded action was taken.
The figures, revealed through a freedom of information request, were likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”, they added, as hundreds of 15 and 16 year-olds each year do not continue to get support, meaning their deaths would not be recorded.
They are now calling on Scotland to keep its “promise” – the outcome of the Care Review published in February 2020 – to make sure every child, including those in care, grows up “loved, safe and respected”.
Fiona Duncan, chair of The Promise Scotland – an organisation formed to ensure recommendations made in the Care Review are implemented by the sector – said the figures showed “the work done is proving to be inadequate in preventing more deaths”. The promise had not been kept to those who died this year and last, she added.
Young people with experience of being in care told The Ferret they had grown-up normalising the premature deaths of those around them. They called for an end to the revolving door that led to children and young people in care needlessly losing their lives.
The FoI revealed the majority of deaths were of those who had left foster or residential care units and were in “continuing care” available until 18, or “after care” – limited support available until young people are 26. In total 61 young people receiving these types of support have died since 2014, according to figures.
They include 17 in 2020, when lockdown restrictions that meant many face-to-face support services were stopped for months, leaving young people isolated.
Others who died (50) were in“looked after care”, which includes foster placements and residential units for under 16s as well as children living at home but with social work support. Deaths include those who died by sucide and drug overdose as well due to accidents or complex conditions.
Figures for 2012-2018 have been published previously by the Care Inspectorate, which recorded the deaths of 61 care-experienced children under 18. They did not include young people in continuing or after care. The report, published in January 2020, said more must be done to ensure access to “mental and emotional health services”.
High mortality rate for young people
Earlier this month the Scottish Government announced that Healthcare Improvement Scotland and the Care Inspectorate would establish a system for “reviewing and learning from” the deaths of all children and young people in Scotland. A government spokesperson said it hoped “to reduce the risk of preventable deaths” by doing so.
Scotland has a higher mortality rate for under 18s than any other Western European country, with over 300 children and young people dying every year. It is estimated that about a quarter of those deaths could be prevented.
The report followed research by Glasgow University which found that mortality rates for care experienced children are five times higher than for those in the general population. Children and young people looked after by the state were also more likely to be sent to hospital for injuries or drug poisoning and had a higher rate of prescriptions for depression and inpatient admissions for mental and behavioural disorders.
Amy-Beth Miah, 26, whose experience of care included foster placements, and a series of children’s residential units between the ages of 11 and 16, said the premature deaths of young people in care was “an epidemic within our community”.
In 2020 she lost two people – both care experienced, though neither would have been included in the figures as they were no longer receiving support.
One was an ex-boyfriend: “He was in residential units like me,” she said. “And from there he ended up in secure care, then into young offenders’ and to prison to the point that he just didn’t know how to live outwith the system. He was pulled into institutionalisation.”
She knows of many other names behind the statistics in years gone by. The Ferret met Miah back in 2019 when she marched at the Love Rally, an annual street protest and rally demanding rights for care experienced people organised by charity Who Cares? Scotland. She was carrying a placard in the shape of a heart bearing the initials of five young people she met through care, all of whom had taken their own lives.
Two were just 15. Another two died in prison, including Ryan Forbes, who had overdosed five times since he was 13. Both had a history of self-harm. “The reality is I wouldn’t be able to fit all the names on that wee heart now,” she said.
Others include Dionne Kennedy, who in 2014 killed herself in prison at just 19 – her suicide note urged people not to blame staff. William Lindsay took his own life at Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution on 7 October 2018, aged 16, just days after being sent there on remand.
On the anniversary of Lindsay’s death earlier this month Fiona Duncan tweeted: “Scotland cannot break its promises. And I can not remain silent, nor be complicit with those who broke them. Scotland must face up to the hard truth that those with responsibility for William & so many others, failed.”
“It’s really important that we have these numbers,” said Miah, commenting on the FoI figures. “But they don’t capture all the deaths of people in care, only those who were entitled to support after leaving it.”
Miah’s first placement in a residential unit became available after a teenager there died. Within two years, in 2009, her friend Keiran Clark, who she thought of as a “big brother”, had taken his own life. He was 15 years old. Staff didn’t tell the young people and she found out the next morning through a mutual friend.
When her own self-harming became worse and the company she was keeping judged problematic, the possibility of secure care was mentioned. “But I went up to the children’s panel at the time when the two girls from the Good Shepherd [secure unit] had just jumped off the Erskine Bridge so they decided not to send me,” she said.
“I didn’t know them. But it was another reminder that that was what was happening to the people around us. I was growing-up in care and no-one was taking the onus and standing up for us.
‘Left with the loss’
“There are so many people who should be here and they aren’t. And it’s hard. You’re left with the loss.
“Trauma often goes unhealed. After Kieran’s death I too became suicidal, in 2010 at aged 14, I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” It only recently realised this after accessing her medical records. The information does not appear on her social work records and no treatment was offered.
“It’s viewed as administrative error or miscommunication,” she said. “But it really begs the question of how many care experienced people have consequently ended up dead because they didn’t get help?”
Miah, who is now studying politics and policy at university, considers herself lucky as she has been able to access funding for counselling and is now looking forward to the future. “But I’m tired of empty promises about the future when care experienced people are continuing to die,” she added. “I know we can and must do better.”
In June this year the Change Programme, set out progress against actions required to deliver on The Promise.
But Jamie Kinlochan, a freelance consultant and campaigner who made the freedom of information request, said more was needed: “These young people deserved space to realise their potential, opportunities to find their place in the world and a support base that they could always rely on,” he added.
“The Promise is a strong starting point – a detailed road map and plan to revolutionise how we support children and families to thrive.
“But five years on from the review of the care system being announced the time has come to ask ourselves whether we are on track.
“I’ve seen emails from service managers who are telling people that a decision has been made to end their support. Those emails have ‘We Will Keep The Promise’ embedded in the signature.
“Last year, meanwhile, 40 homeless applications came from children who were living in a local authority children’s home at the time they applied. It worries me that the people who have to actually implement the findings of the Care Review may see it as nothing more than a PR exercise.
“It’s now time to dismantle the old ways of doing things. And it is time for those who are not capable of doing so to be accountable.”
Fiona Duncan, chair of The Promise Scotland who previously chaired the Care Review, said the death of any child or young person in care was “one too many”. “Whenever that death can be attributed to a ‘system’ that should care and protect, the outrage and shame Scotland feels must also be accompanied with action,” she added.
“As evidenced by this data, over the past eighteen months since the conclusions of the Independent Care Review were accepted in full and when Scotland made a promise, the work done is proving to be inadequate in preventing more deaths. Scotland’s data collection methodologies are still not capable of robustly tracking not only deaths in the ‘care system’, but critically the life experiences and outcomes that are leading to this.”
The recent agreement between Healthcare Improvement Scotland and the Care Inspectorate, to establish a system for reviewing the deaths of all children and young people in Scotland was welcome, she claimed.
“But committing to learn from these tragedies is not enough. They must be stopped. And now. Every single one of these statistics is a son or daughter, brother or sister, a friend.”
Louise Hunter, chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland, which was set up in 1978, called for more support for care experienced people to ensure they could live “long and healthy lives”.
She added: “Since our very beginning we’ve heard from members about the impact that care can have on their lives. The ultimate impact of that, for some, is a life cut short. These statistics help in understanding what is happening for some care experienced people, but ultimately we as a nation don’t know enough about what is happening for care experienced adults to understand the full impact.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said it had supported the set-up of The Promise Scotland and was committed to continuing the £4m per year Promise Partnership Fund, which aims to support children and young people in – or at risk of – care as well as families, up to financial year 2024-25.
“We are also working with partners to improve how we use data to better understand the health and wellbeing of those with care experience so we can find out how they can best be supported.
“We remain resolute in our commitment to improving the lives of those with care experience – we have made progress but recognise there is still much to do.”
This story was co-published with the Sunday National.
Cover image thanks to Lisa Golden