Oisin King (pronounced Osh-een). Remember that name. He’s a young lad whose story is part of Scotland’s future, even if his has already been so scarred by our mistakes in his past.
Last week, Oisin delivered the most powerful of testimonies to MSPs about the harm done by brothers and sisters being separated from each other when taken into care.
Oisin is 15-years-old and one of five siblings. At seven, he took over what he describes as ‘being a parent’ for his baby sister. She was six months. Five years later, following long periods where he was her sole carer, he was taken into care. He didn’t see his sister for 18 months while bureaucracy and ‘the system’ conspired to frustrate attempts at contact.
He describes the separation as a loss, ‘a death’, which left him feeling bereaved, to blame and not good enough to care.
When it came, ‘contact’ was now an official label and with it came the restrictions of time, of location and of professional supervision.
Every day, people with care experience die prematurely
‘Contact’ was inconsistent. It depended on an available driver to take him from his residential home to an anonymous building where space had been cleared for them to meet and to play. It relied on the timing being convenient for his sister’s guardian. It needed there to be a social work professional free and able to be present who would sit throughout the visit taking notes. It needed to stick to an agreed agenda. And afterwards, Oisin would be picked up and even reprimanded about things he had asked his little sister. Casual, normal questions, about how she was and where she was living, if she was happy, and who she saw. Everyday chit-chat between loving brothers and sisters became points of conflict about whether he was trying to find out too much. About his own sister.
To be clear, Oisin wasn’t the problem. He hadn’t ever been the problem. He had only ever tried to be a big brother. But ‘the system’ perceived him as a risk to be assessed. And that was hard.
Oisin hasn’t seen his sister now for over a year and a half. He just knows she’s getting on with a life without him and he can’t easily adapt to that.
On such a fundamental issue as the consequences of ripping siblings apart, it seems unbelievably shocking that in a parliament established five years before he was born, and with the common cause of finding Scottish solutions to Scottish problems, that it takes this young man having to describe an archaic practice that still exists today, in a bid to support legislative change that would presume this not to be the case, for the children of the future.
I don’t want more platitudes. I want a blueprint
Oisin told MSPs that his experience was no different to that of many other children taken into care – that 70 per cent of siblings find themselves separated when taken into care – and that he wanted politicians to understand that they’re just children who love their brothers and their sisters.
You don’t need to go through the exercise of rehearsing the obscene outcomes for care-experienced people to understand the devastating impact of losing contact with your own flesh and blood, at a time when you have already been taken from the family home.
But listening to Oisin, you can feel it.
We should be ashamed. These are our children. They are Jock Tamson’s Bairns. They’re taken into our collective care. And for the SNP Government, which has been in power for almost all this lad’s life, there should be some serious soul-searching about why it has taken this long to try and put such a simple thing right.
In two weeks’ time, the much-heralded Independent Care Review will publish its findings of an inquiry that has taken three years, thousands and thousands of pounds, and the huge personal investment of the hopes and dreams of the many care-experienced young people who have been employed by the review to find answers to the scandalous outcomes of their own lives.
I don’t want more platitudes. I want a blueprint. A roadmap that offers solutions, not more avenues to explore. We don’t need another report that spells out the mistakes or points out the appalling outcomes for care-experienced young people. The suicides, the drug addiction, the homelessness, the prison sentences, the underachievement, the failure to thrive. The clear consequences of separating siblings. We know them. We’ve known them for years.
And Oisin just confirmed them.
I’ve said it before and will say it again, being taken into care has one meaningful purpose and that is to make a child’s life better, not worse. And on that we have consistently failed.
Every day, people with care experience die prematurely. The First Minister told us that when she announced the review. She said that they are 20 times more likely than the rest of the population to die before they are 25. But the tragedy is that we actually don’t know how many, because there’s no official tally.
There’s one, though, among the many, that still haunts me. Blake Ross. A 13-year-old boy who went missing from his children’s home – a so-called secure unit – for two days without his diabetic medication. He was found ill on an Edinburgh bus and died in the Sick Kids five hours later of cardiac arrest.
His disappearance hadn’t caused an emergency. No public outcry. No alarm. The police weren’t scouring the streets of the city with megaphones. He was just a kid in care who’d gone AWOL and no one seemed to really care.
After his death, a crowd-funder was set up online to give him the “send-off he deserved”.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he had never lived the life he deserved.
Last week, we waved our son off at the start of an adventure of a lifetime, travelling around South America. Predictably, there was no fairytale farewell, but the usual rows as last-minute nerves and heightened emotions translated into raised voices. But listening to Oisin just a few days later, it hit me, my son has the privilege of being missed.
A thing every child deserves.
The review has one job and that is to unveil a Scottish care system that does, finally, what it says on the tin. Care should mean care.