I was 16 years old and eight weeks pregnant when I moved into my 12th foster care placement. I’d moved so many times over the previous two years that I missed almost all of years 10 and 11 at school. But I was looking forward to a fresh start.
I joined teenage parenting groups and met other girls in care who were pregnant. But I was shocked to find many were having their babies removed within weeks of their birth.
They were lovely girls who adored their children and were distraught at losing them. I watched as they dropped out of the group because they no longer had their babies. But when nearly a quarter of girls in care get pregnant and care leavers are at higher risk of having their babies removed, it is clear that what I had witnessed was far from unusual.
When I gave birth five months later, a social worker arrived at the hospital. “We’ll need to keep a close eye on you both,” she said. “You’re young and you’re in care. So was your mother. And that puts your daughter at risk.” I felt powerless and scared, but promised myself I would do everything I could to keep my baby.
I attended every parenting class and went back to college full-time when my daughter, Bee, was only three months old. I felt I was abandoning her, but the social worker told me I needed to show I wanted to create a good life.
I didn’t even complain when, at 17 with a six-month-old baby, I was told by my social worker in the looked-after children’s team that it was time to live alone. I was terrified, but I moved out and my daughter’s case was closed.
The chance of her being taken away was zero. Or so I thought.
I was given a leaving care grant which did not cover my expenses, but I was frightened to ask for help. If the social worker knew I was struggling, she’d come back.
I hid my distress behind a smile. I said I didn’t mind eating my meals cross-legged on the floor. I pretended I wasn’t exhausted. But I couldn’t lie to myself anymore when the first bills came in.
After getting into debt, the panic attacks began. I stopped leaving the house and attending college. I dressed and fed my daughter but neglected myself.
Finally, I contacted my leaving care social worker. Within a week, my daughter was placed on a child in need plan. I looked at Bee sleeping in her cot and burst into tears. I had no money, no qualifications, and anxiety. What kind of mother was I, bringing a child into my mess of a life?
And then it hit me. I had wanted to love and care for someone, and for someone to love me. I wanted a child for the same reason everyone else does, but I subconsciously wanted it at a younger age because I’d never experienced unconditional love. I wanted to be the good parent I’d never had. My mum grew up in care, as did her mum and her mum. I wanted to break the cycle.
I missed out on sex and relationships education at school. I also lacked the confidence to ask my daughter’s father to use protection. I knew nothing about self-esteem. While teenage pregnancy rates in the general population have fallen to their lowest level since 1969, girls in care are still three times more likely than their non-looked after peers to become mothers by the age of 18.
Teenage mothers have higher rates of poor mental health and are three times more likely to experience post-natal depression, as I did. Children born to teenage mothers are also 63% more likely to grow up in poverty. This is an injustice.
Girls in care and care leavers need appropriate sex education and specialist, non-judgmental support to bring up their own children. When their babies are taken away before all other options have been exhausted, they lose another important person in their lives and the dreadful cycle continues.
What really made the difference for me was getting an independent advocate via a local charity; social workers didn’t listen to me, but they did listen to the advocate.
I also has a very good psychologist from the leaving care team at my local council. I received cognitive behavioural therapy and did play therapy with my daughter, which helped build confidence in my parenting. I went back to college and made new friends, which helped me feel more settled and boosted my self-belief.
But what would have made the biggest difference would have been my local council giving me more advice and financial support, or signposting me to services that could have helped. Care leavers need help to fully understand our rights, and social services should do more to ensure all children in care know what support they are entitled to and the services available to support them.
I am one of the lucky ones. My beautiful seven-year-old was never placed into care. But not all care leavers can say that.
• Lauren Parker was a finalist in Coram Voice’s creative writing competition for young people in care. Coram Voice also runs Always Heard, a free national advocacy service for young people in care