Friday, 25 September 2015

I would like to complain - oh dear!

The 2015 Mega Meet Conference "Care Kids at 18+ - what happens next?"

A few days after the conference finished an open letter was sent out by 7 former "care kids" from the Newcastle area expressing concerns about almost every aspect of the event. None of the seven had attended the conference and in four out of seven cases neither Ella and I had ever had any previous communication from the writer.

Concern #1 - The conference should have been held in Newcastle as promised to them in November 2014 and that the decision to move the venue to Birmingham was taken by a "unrepresentative clique".

Our response - We are not aware of any promise being made to hold the conference in Newcastle and the "Newcastle Seven" don't say who made this promise to them or under what circumstances. What Ella and I do know is that in October 2014 the three proposals from Birmingham, Blackpool and Newcastle were circulated to every person who had asked to see them and that the deadline for comments was December 15th 2014. I wonder if an over-optimistic prediction by one of the Newcastle Organising Committee was misinterpreted?

Over 100 people voted on the decision as to where the conference should be held. The counting was done by a mutually agreed person with no close friendship links to those directly involved. Newcastle came third out of three (easily) with 18 votes. We don't know how the process could have been any fairer or more transparent than that?

Concerns #2, 3 - These can be taken together because they are so closely linked.

I don't agree that the catchment areas for Birmingham and Newcastle are "fairly similar" either in terms of area or population. Worcester to Newcastle is about 4 hours and Birmingham to Newcastle is over 3 hours so using their own figures of 90-120 minutes as an ideal maximum travelling time I don't think most of the 2015 delegates living south of Leeds would have driven up to Newcastle.

Concern #4 - This was the only concern that was directed firmly at Ella and I. The claim is that we used the sponsorship we had obtained to convince "anybody who would listen" to hold the conference at our choice of location, that is Birmingham.

We worked mega hard to obtain £5,000 worth of sponsorship. So yes it would have been disappointing if a venue had been chosen that was too far north for us to travel to BUT we made it 100% clear than none of the sponsorship was conditional on a particular venue being chosen.

I strongly suspect that almost every voter supported their closest venue and that those who didn't vote at all would not, or could not, have attended any of the proposed sites.

General Points -
If the "Newcastle Seven" want the 2016 conference to be held in the north of England then I suggest that Leeds would be a better bet than Newcastle. It is entirely possible that the Blackpool and Birmingham sub-groups would support a bid from Leeds and those of us within a hour of Birmingham to the SW, S or SE would probably make the effort to attend. But it is also possible that other bids will be made, I think that a joint Bristol and S Wales bid is being discussed so nobody should assume that Leeds would be the automatic victors.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Random thoughts on a "Care Kids" newsletter

Back in October 2009 Ella and I started an email newsletter that went out to 16 people. Almost all the subscribers were friends of ours from the Children's Home where we had lived from the start of year 10 at school until we "timed out" at 18.

Right from the start we sent it out by blind copy. This meant that nobody was able to see who else was receiving the newsletter and, more important, all contact details were kept confidential. Several of the readers had nasty people in their past who they never wanted to meet again so this seemed like a sensible precaution to take. All subscribers also decided to adopted a system of "user names" which they always used when contributing to the newsletter - this seemed to give everybody involved an extra sense of security.

The years went by and the number of subscribers gradually crept up to three figures. Most of these new readers found out about us by personal recommendation and were often already known to a reasonable number of the existing readers who would then vouch for them.

But by 2011 the system was beginning to creak mainly because Ella and I took something of a calculated risk by allowing people to be put on the mailing list purely on the basis of a single recommendation from a current member. With hindsight what happened was almost inevitable - we picked up a few trolls and a few religious fanatics.

In early 2014 Ella and I accepted that we couldn't continue acting as the editors of the newsletter but making the joint decision to step down wasn't easy. We shed lots of tears but in our hearts we knew what had to happen before things started to go wrong - which certainly would have happened if we had spread ourselves any thinner!

The roles of the editor
  1. Attracting new readers to replace those who resigned or who were expelled or who just drifted away. This was never easy because people who haven't been in a children's home or in foster care generally have little or no interest in people who were forced down this route. Even the specialist groups that exist to support foster carers usually have nothing on offer for former foster children and many groups are still reluctant to publicise our existence! When Didi and 38DD took over running the newsletter from Ella and I they worked really hard on this problem. Virtually all the new readers they have signed up are younger than Ella and I and this means that we sometimes feel that there is a gulf opening starting to open between the long term subscribers and these newcomers.
  2. Dealing with spies in the camp - Just occasionally there would be something about the initial email from a possible new subscriber that would set alarm bells ringing in my head. Most times it wouldn't be anything that I could put into words, more of a 6th sense that the writer perhaps wasn't all they claimed to be. Asking for more details would normally put my mind at rest but sometimes I was forced to decline an application without knowing for certain if that had been the correct thing to do.
  3. Accidentally giving too much away. It is surprisingly easy for people to give away too much personal information without realising it and it is part of the editor's role to make certain that this doesn't happen. Didi did a detailed case study on this and we were shocked when we realised that a determined "detective" could have worked out within a few streets exactly where Ella and I lived. It would have taken years rather than months and it would have required somebody to have access to all the old issues of the newsletter but it was certainly possible! 

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Making something that is good even better.

The 2015 Mega Meet Conference  - lessons we learned

Our close friend Lulu Big Tits did most of the work setting up the conference with a small team helping her once the event had started. She has now made it quite clear that she will never organise a conference on her own again! She has created a folder of hints and tips that she will pass on to the next group leader once the venue has been agreed.

By far the most important advice is to get everything in writing because if you don't the hotel managers will cheerfully break the promises they have made to you previously. As an example we were promised sole use of the restaurant from 1800hrs to 2000hrs but when Lulu and Ella arrived at 17:40 to put out the seating plan the restaurant manager was just about to put a family of 4 on one of our reserved tables. But because Lulu had the proof of what had been agreed he had to "unseat them" again. I gather the family were not very impressed! 
The 2000 to 2200 hours "gap" - This was something that we hadn't thought through properly and I'm pleased that a three people mentioned on their feedback sheets so that future conference organisers can get it right next time. "After the meal finished the delegates tended to split up into friendship groups and either sit in the bar in a close-knit group or depart together to who knows where. I attended the conference on my own and I felt rather ignored and abandoned on the Saturday evening. Next time could something be organised for people like me?" 
On the other hand the last minute decision to introduce allocated seating for the evening meals while initially being unpopular ended up being a great success that was widely praised!  "I had been rather dreading the meals. It can be quite stressful when you have to wonder around the tables looking for a seat that hasn't been taken only to find when you do find a seat that the other 7 on the table all know each other."
The only other major issue was the gender balance of the delegates. We, as a group, didn't managed to get many lads to come along. It was a fraction over 20% which was disappointing so if anybody had any ideas what to do about this please say something.

Kristine and Alex - still former foster kids activists!

We met Kristine and Alex for the one and only time in August 2011 at the home of a mutual friend in Sunderland. They were so like Ella and I in many ways but so different from us in others! Their background of multiple unsuccessful foster placements and time spent in a Children's Home pretty much mirrored ours and like Ella and I they were in a mutual long-term relationship. They were also active members of a self-help group.

BUT - politically they were "Hard Left" activists and they were clearly surprised that we were fairly mainstream New Labour. I don't think they have ever got over this! They saw their - and it was very much their - self-help group more as part of the class struggle with any mutual support aspects a bonus rather than a core function.

We have stayed in casual contact with them but none of us have never suggested swapping membership lists or meeting up. Ella (who is much better than me at picking up on these things) has the impression that their group is about 20 to 25 strong but with very little coming and going of members. Our friendship circles currently don't overlap (as far as we know) so we only know what they choose to tell us and they only know what we choose to tell them!

I think the gap between Kristine and Alex and Ella and I is widening rather than closing. Education, employment, marriage and parenthood have all changed us a lot in the last few years while Kristine and Alex still seem like the firebrands they were when we met them in 2011. But they have a part in our lives, they have the right to be heard and we share a common interest in former Care Kids.

We wish them well, despite anything some people have said to the contrary!

We regard so much of what we do as giving and receiving emotional, financial or practical advice or support. In our time in charge and since Didi and 38DD took over the group had never been political. In a non-nasty way we don't understand where Kristine and Alex are coming from but presumably their friends and long-term subscribers are happy enough.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A conference for former "Care Kids"

Our impressions of the 2015 Mega Meet Conference "Care Kids at 18+ - what happens next?"

Initially there were five proposals for the venue for the 2015 Mega Meet but two of these (London and Glasgow) were ruled out on financial grounds (London) or due to the lack of local contacts to do the ground work (Glasgow).

That left three possible venues for the meeting: Newcastle, Blackpool and Birmingham. It is no secret that Ella and I had some reservations about the suitability of Newcastle but our financial support for the event was never going to depend on where the meeting was held. I hope we made this quite clear to the Newcastle Organising Committee.

We didn't have any strong preference between Blackpool and Birmingham until the event was moved from May to August - in other words from school term time to school holiday time. Once that happened we felt that Birmingham was always going to be the cheapest and easiest option.

I think the first key question is how many people who would have attended a meeting in Newcastle didn't attend the meeting in Birmingham? I can only think of two - Kristine and Alex although I know that some people are saying that several Scottish members would have made the effort to get to Newcastle. Perhaps they would?  What I do know is that at least 4 attendees from the Worcestershire group and nearly as many from the Powys/Shropshire group would not have gone to Newcastle.

The second question is how many people would have gone to Blackpool who didn't make it to Birmingham.  Reckless Eric is the only one I can think of. But the four North Londoners actually said during the plenary session that they wouldn't have driven as far as Blackpool but that Birmingham had been "simple" to get to.

I still think that organising the meeting is far too big a job for one person. I think two is the minimum and three would be better still. At least one of the Organising Committee members needs to have convenient access to the proposed location.  I would like to rule out Birmingham (on the grounds of fairness) and Worcester (on the grounds on geography) but as always the final decision is made by you all - not by Ella and I.

The feedback forms prove that Friday evening to Sunday tea-time seemed to work well although a few people were not able to arrive until Saturday morning or had to leave before the plenary session on the Sunday afternoon. Attendees had the financial responsibility to get themselves to the venue but everything else was free and this was widely appreciated by everybody. The balance between the social side and the more formal meeting side was seen to be correct (thank goodness!) and the guest speaker received an unbroken series of 5/5 from everyone who attended.

There was an almost unanimous agreement that the "disconnect" between Care Providers (foster parents, social workers and Children's Home employees) and the post-18 clients is wholly undesirable.
  1. Attempts to create closer links between national groups and the "former Care Kids" community have been largely unsuccessful.
  2. Comments posted to relevant Facebook groups or blogs by members of the community are almost always ignored. 
  3. National organisations appear to feel that the community has nothing to offer them and so letters or review copies of books sent to them seldom if ever receive a response.
  4. There are some public self-help groups for former "Care Kids" but it is assumed that many other such groups - if they exist - operate "under the radar".
  5. Many former Care Kids are extremely wary of social media. A large proportion have highly sanitised user profiles or are mega cautious about what they post. Many have resorted to using false names. 
It was lovely to meet people face-to-face that previously were only voices on the phone or names on the computer screen and it was equally nice to renew contact with people we don't see very often. Ella and I travelled up to Birmingham with Didi and Magda by car, picking up AaBbCc from his narrow-boat for the last few miles. Our journey was painless, unlike Miss Peanut's who had a complete nightmare of a trip from Hull. Also attending from fairly near us were Commune1, her half-sister Yalelock and Airhead in one car plus Abigail, Birdwatcher, Wendy C and Zulu in another.

It was disappointing not to see Reckless Eric (yet again, we seem fated never to meet) and of course we missed both Kristine and Alex. After much looking through diaries Ella decided that it almost exactly four years since we last saw them "in the flesh".