Family & Education

'Social workers ran my life as a kid in care - now I am one'

Kerry in summer 2019 Image copyright Roger Bool
Image caption Defying the odds - Kerry graduated in July

Very early on, social workers decided the family home was not a safe place for Kerry.

"There was lots of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as domestic violence towards my mum. I got taken into care at the age of four."

The rest of her childhood and teenage years were spent in foster-care placements and children's homes in Kent.

'Scary and bewildering'

It was hard to build strong relationships. "I was constantly waiting for the next move," she says.

Kerry remembers each change being "scary and bewildering".

"You don't know if it's going to be a good placement or a bad placement."

Image copyright Kerry

But even with the good ones, relationships were lost. And Kerry could never be sure of staying at the same school.

She says she was always in trouble at primary school - "That classic, you sort of freak out if there's a room change or timetable change or we got a supply teacher".

She says she often thought: "I can't really remember anything awful happening so I haven't got the right to feel like this," almost wishing there had been "a car accident or something that you can hang your hat on".

In secondary school she was told she had autism and became a weekly boarder at a "really, really good" specialist school.

But by Year 10 she says she was struggling with her mental health and her behaviour.

Sofa-surfing

She was with the foster family at weekends and in the holidays until "they just made the decision they had come to the end of the work they felt they could do with me", and she was moved to a children's home.

She says the diagnosis of autism helped her, unlocking funding for specialist support and helping her understand why she struggled to cope with the noise and bustle of a typical school.

Her grades were OK but not great. "At the time I was really annoyed with myself but looking back I think it's a miracle I got any GCSEs," she says.

Image copyright Roger Bool
Image caption Kerry started fast-track training as a mental health social worker two weeks after graduating

Kerry quit school for a string of low-paid jobs and soon afterwards left the children's home, staying in supported accommodation for care leavers until being "thrown out... after a really bad incident with one of the other residents", and ending up sofa-surfing.

"I hit a point where I thought, 'I just can't go on like this'."

As a care leaver, she was entitled to council help getting a flat, and she began working with people with learning disabilities.

It was the only job she could get but Kerry loved it.

Being able to help other people struck a chord - even as a young child, she had been the one everyone in class would come to with their problems.

"I would be the one that would sit and talk it through with people."

Back then, she'd had no idea her ability to empathise could lead to a career.

Image copyright Kerry

"Growing up, I didn't know anyone who was in care who had gone to university," she says.

"I didn't think it would ever be a possibility. I had kind of written it off and didn't really have a clue what I would end up doing with my life."

'It's beyond me'

But some of the staff at the learning disabilities unit were really encouraging, telling her: "This is what you should be doing. You should go to university."

So Kerry went back to college, took an A-level-equivalent Access course, and began a degree in psychology at the University of Kent.

It was tough, she says, but she feared she would be kicked out if she admitted needing extra help.

Statistics showing that only six per cent of care leavers aged 19-21 go to university - and are almost twice as likely to drop out as their peers - particularly worried her.

"I remember thinking about that in my second year and being like, maybe it's just kids in care can't do uni and it's beyond me.

"There was a lot of imposter syndrome, I was waiting for someone to come and tap me on the shoulder and be like, 'We made a mistake. You're not meant to be here'."

And then, about halfway through her second year, her local authority gave her access to her case file.

"It brought a lot up," she remembers.

"There wasn't much that I didn't know, necessarily, but seeing it written in black and white is very different from fleeting memories from when you were a kid."

The file sparked depression. She stopped going to lectures and fell so far behind that she didn't think she would be able to catch up, and she wanted to quit.

"It was an evil circle," she says.

But the university wouldn't let her.

She says staff were "fantastic", helping her make a plan to get the work done.

"I didn't have parents so I was really lucky the staff stepped in and helped and carried on pushing me."

Just being around people who believed in her really helped.

"For the first time I had friends who were really positive role models."

Image copyright Roger Bool

Kerry says studying psychology gave her more understanding of how her background had contributed to her mental-health issues, how your environment "changes the way your brain works, even if you can't remember it".

She knew she desperately wanted to do a masters degree and work in mental health but it wasn't until her third year that she heard about mental-health social work. She decided: "That's what I want to be doing."

She graduated in July 2019 and two weeks later started on the Think Ahead fast-track training scheme for mental-health social workers, which includes a masters degree - and a caseload from the outset.

In echoes of her school days, she's moved - this time to Preston, 300 miles from her home town of Ramsgate. But "everyone is really friendly".

People on her caseload are already making progress, and she has started to build a support network, so she's planning to stay.

"I like helping people find their way through things and I like that moment where you can see something's really clicked with someone," she says.

Kerry believes the distress and bewilderment of so much upheaval as a child will help her be a better social worker and is hoping ultimately to work with adults who have suffered trauma as children.

"I want to use the experiences I've had in the past to help people."

More on this story