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Written by @bethanyrdavies with contributions from @haleysread
Big Families are unique, the current average family size is 2.4 (Office for National Statistics, 2017) which has declined but remained as such for the past decade. Being 1 of 8 Children is unique, it’s an interesting fact both myself and Haley (also a former graduate and also 1 of 8) both fall back on when you have those awful ice breakers and you have to think of something ‘special’ about yourself.
There is criminological research which identifies ‘large families’ as a characteristic for deviance in individuals (Farrington & Juby, 2001; Wilson, 1975). It’s argued alongside other family factors, such as single-parent households, which maybe more people are familiar with in those discussions. In fact, when looking for criminological research around big families, I didn’t find a great deal. Most of what I found was not looking at deviance but how it affects the children, with suggestions of how children in big families suffer because they get less attention from their parents (Hewitt et al. 2011). Which may be the reality for some families, but I also think it’s somewhat subjective to determine an amount of time for ‘attention’ rather than the ‘quality’ of time parents need to spend with children in order to both help fulfil emotional and cognitive needs. This certainly was not the case from both Haley’s and experience.
When I first thought about writing this piece and talking to Haley about her experiences. I did question myself on how relevant this was to criminology. The answer to that I suppose depends on how you perceive the vastness of criminology as an academic field. The family unit is something we discuss within criminology all the time, but family size is not always the focus of that discussion. Deviance itself by definition and to deviate from the norms of society, well I suppose myself and Haley do both come from ‘deviant’ families.
However, from speaking with Haley and reflecting on my own experience, it feels that the most unique thing about being part of a large family, is how others treat you. I would never think to ask anyone or make comments such as; “How much do your parents earn to look after you all?” or “Did they want a family that big or was it lots of accidents?” or even just make comments, about how we must be on benefits, be ‘Scroungers’ or even comments about my parents sexual relationship. Questions and comments that both I and Haley have and occasionally still experience. Regardless of intent behind them, you can’t help but feel like you have to explain or defend yourself. Even as a child when others would ask me about my family, I had always made a point of the fact that we are all ‘full siblings’ as if that could protect me from additional shame , shame that I had already witnessed in conversations and on TV, with statements such as “She’s got 5 kids all different dads”. Haley mentioned how her view of large families was presented to her as “Those on daytime television would criticise large families” and “A couple of people on our street would say that my parents should stop having kids as there are enough of us as it is.”
Haley and I grew up in different parts of the UK. Haley grew up in the Midlands and describes the particular area as disadvantaged. Due to this Haley says that it wasn’t really a problem of image that the family struggled financially, as in her area everyone did, so therefore it was normal. I grew up in a quite affluent area, but similar to Haley, we were not well-off financially. My childhood home was a council house, but it didn’t look like one, my mum has always been house proud and has worked to make it not look like a council house, which in itself has its own connotations of the ‘shame’ felt on being poor, which Haley also referenced to me. It was hard to even think of labeling us as ‘poor’, as similar to Haley, we had loads of presents at Christmas, we still had nice clothes and did not feel like we were necessarily different. Though it appears me and Haley were also similar in that both our dads worked all the hours possible, I remember my dad worked 3 jobs at one point. I asked my dad about what it was like, he said it was very hard, and he remembers that they were working so hard because if they went bankrupt, it would be in the newspaper and the neighbors would see. Which I didn’t even know was something that happened and has its own name and shame the poor issues for another post. Haley spoke of similar issues and the stress of ‘childcare and the temporary loss of hot water, electric and gas.’
The main points that came from both mine and Haley’s discussions were actually about how fun it is to have a large family, especially as we were growing up. It may not seem like it from my earlier points around finance, but while it was a factor in our lives, it also didn’t feel as important as actually just being a part of that loving family unit. Haley put it perfectly as “I loved being part of a large family as a child. My brothers and sisters were my best friends”. We spoke of the hilarity of simple things such as the complexities of dinner times and having to sit across multiple tables to have dinners in the evening. I had brothers and sisters to help me with my homework, my eldest sister even helped me with my reading every night while I was in primary school. Haley and I both seemed to share a love for den making, which when your parents are big into DIY (almost a necessity when in a big family) you could take tools and wood to the forest and make a den for hours on end. There is so much good about having a large family that I almost feel sorry for those who only believe the negatives. This post was simply to share a snippet of my findings, as well as mine and Haley’s experience. At the very least I hope it will allow others to think of large families in an alternative way and to realise the problems both me and Haley experienced, weren’t necessarily solely linked to our family size, but rather attitudes around social norms and financial status.
Juby, H. and Farrington, D., 2001. Disentangling the Link between Disrupted Families and Delinquency: Sociodemography, Ethnicity and Risk Behaviours. The British Journal of Criminology, 41(1), pp.22-40.
Office for National Statistics. (2017). Families and households in the UK, Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2017 (Accessed: 5th June 2020).
Regoli, R., Hewitt, J. and DeLisi, M., 2011. Delinquency In Society. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Wilson, H., 1975. Juvenile Delinquency, Parental Criminality and Social Handicap. The British Journal of Criminology, 15(3), pp.241-250.
“These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents- and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister October 2015 at the Conservative Party Conference.
Well, I think it would be fair to say that politicians’ minds have not been exercised unduly over the fate of care leavers since David Cameron made the above promise in 2015. I worked with children in care and care leavers involved in the youth justice system for over thirty years and although his analysis of the outcomes for care leavers was simplistic and crude, tragically Cameron’s statement rings true for many of those leaving care.
With regard to the criminal justice system, Lord Laming’s independent review “In Care, Out of Trouble” http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf, notes that there is no reliable data on the numbers of looked after children in custody. However, based on data from a number of sources, the review came to the conclusion that around 400 looked after children are in custody at any one time. The total number of children in custody for July 2019 is 817. So, slightly less than half of those children in custody are looked after children according to the best estimates available, drawn from different sources. http://youthjusticeboard.newsweaver.co.uk/yots2/1g2x6m3h9q315chudc9elc?email=trueYJBulletin
Moving the spotlight, a huge 40% of care leavers are not engaged in Education, Training or Employment and only 6% of care leavers gain entry to university https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464756/SFR34_2015_Text.pdf . This at a time when around 50% of children now have access to Higher Education and the opportunities that this can provide. Also, 20% of young people who are homeless have previously been in care.
Naturally, we have to be careful to provide a level of balance to the above rather desperate and shocking figures. Lord Laming’s review found that 94% of children in care did not get in trouble with the law. However, children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned, or convicted of an offence than children in the wider population. Furthermore, children in care who come to police attention are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than cautioned when compared to the wider child population.
So, what has happened since 2015 when David Cameron declared his intention to “put it right”? In truth, there have been some steps forward and these need to be celebrated and built upon. The Care Leaver Covenant, a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 has meant the availability of employment opportunities for young care leavers in the Civil Service, local authorities and a range of private sector organisations. Closer to home, here at the University of Northampton, we have launched a new package of support for care leavers who want to study with us. The package offers the possibility, from 2020, of a fully funded place in our Halls of Residence for the first academic year, a contract which extends their accommodation lease to include the summer vacation. A block for many care leavers entering Higher Education is the very real issue of where to live at the end of the academic year, so this tries to address this issue. Another block experienced is financial hardship; the offer provides a non-means tested financial award of up to £1,500 per year to help with course and living costs, and this alongside the local authority’s statutory responsibility to support access to higher education may also help. We also have a designated member of support staff to provide advice and guidance. All these demonstrate our commitment to widening participation and encouraging ambition.
Of course, this is only part of the picture. Arguably, our engagement with young people in care needs to start shortly after their transition to secondary school. The wider social structures which perpetuate disadvantage and poverty will continue to challenge those who are children in care and leaving care. The “adverse childhood experiences” – a rather unedifying term for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by carers or parents-will still have an impact for this group and potentially impair their ability or commitment to study.
If however, I learnt anything from my years working with children in care and children leaving care, it is that you should not underestimate their ability to overcome the obstacles placed in their way. With the right support and a child centred approach, education can provide the right framework for opportunities. Victor Hugo famously said that if you open a school door, you close a prison. Let’s kick open the door of Higher Education a little wider and increase the life chances of these children in OUR care.
As a footnote, I should say that my mum was in care from the age of four until she was fifteen when she was adopted. I would therefore be happy to acknowledge that this has some influence on my perspective and my interest in this group of young people.
Dave Palmer Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services