Kirsty Capes is a voice amplifying the narratives of care leavers through her writing. Her debut novel, 'Careless' centres around Bess, a 15-year-old girl navigating pregnancy while in foster care. It's a story that promises to challenge perceptions of those who have experienced the care system. 

Beyond her writing, Kirsty is a force in publishing, advocating for enhanced representation of care-experienced individuals in media. With a PhD focused on care narratives in contemporary fiction under the guidance of Booker prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo, Kirsty is reshaping the conversation on care experiences. Read on as we get to know her.

Hi Kirsty! We know from reading your personal essay in the book that this is a work of fiction but that you drew on some of your own experiences. Could you share a little bit about that, please?

Hello! Yes, I was taken into care when I was two. I had one short-term six-month placement and then I was moved to a long-term placement. I stayed in that placement for my whole childhood until I aged out of the system so I consider them to be my family.

It was quite an unusual path through the care system. From what I understand, it’s quite rare to get that stability and secure a long-term placement. I wasn’t moved around a lot so I was able to stay in the same schools and keep the same friends throughout my childhood. I also wasn’t moved to different local authorities or out of my area where I had all of my support networks, and for me, that meant I was able to do really well at school and go onto university, do a BA, do a masters, and do a PhD, and I think that was 100% because of that stability.

I think if I had have moved around a lot I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of those opportunities because I wouldn’t have had that consistency with my education. I’ve always been interested in writing so when it got to the point where I was deciding what to study at university, I chose creative writing. That’s when I really started to take my writing seriously and consider it as a possible career path for myself.

In terms of where Careless came from, it was really being able to explore themes of care and the care experience in my writing when I was getting older and asking questions about my own experience. There were certain things that were unresolved for me, including the reasons I was taken into care.

I also realised that I wasn’t seeing many stories about care in the books that I was reading, or the TV or films I was watching, so I wanted to tell a story that felt very real to me and that reflected my own experience in the most honest way possible.

You said that having a stable foster family helped you throughout your university experience, but did you face any challenges getting into higher education?

Yes, I think the big one for me was the financial burden. I had to make a lot of compromises to be able to afford it. Most of the time I was at university, I was working three jobs, and to do a master’s, I basically saved up my maintenance loan to pay for it. For my PhD, I started off working part-time, and then I realised I couldn’t afford to do that so I ended up working full-time. Having that constant worry about money and how I was going to pay for my education was a huge stress for me.

Even though my foster family really looked after me and I stayed in my foster home rather than moving into halls, they weren’t in a position to help me out financially. Because I was living at home, I also wasn’t making many friends, so it was quite a lonely experience for me to begin with.

Do you feel like you missed out on a lot of your university experience?

Oh, 100%. I think the thing is, it had to be a trade-off. If I had moved out for university, I would have had the ‘normal’ university experience but I probably wouldn’t have been able to do a master’s or a PhD because I self-funded those.

There was a widening participation team at my university who were reasonably good, and when I got into the final year of my PhD, I got to a point where I was really struggling to pay for it even working full-time. The widening participation team helped me out there and managed to get my fees waived for the final year, so things like that they were really helpful with. But even then, I struggled to pay for it.

Do you think enough is being done to support care leavers throughout higher education?

I think things are changing very slowly in terms of supporting care leavers at university. There are a few schemes and grants coming about. I think Oxbridge have just started grants for care leavers, and there’s some amazing stuff that’s going on at The University of York. But it’s very much on a university level.

If they have the right people working in their teams that push for this, we see amazing things happening. But I think they need something structural and institutional in place on a government level to support care leavers.

At the moment it’s almost a bit like a lottery in terms of where you live and where you want to study. I also think a lot of the time, even if universities do have stuff in place, it’s not always very visible. Students don’t always know that it’s out there, so I think that’s a huge barrier.

What about outside of university?

When you leave care, there’s a point when support stops and you’re kind of just expected to get on with it at that point. For some people, that can be as young as 16 which is obviously a really pivotal stage. Even if you’re not thinking about university, you might be thinking about housing, living alone for the first time, or getting your first job.

I think at the moment there’s this kind of dominant narrative that you leave the care system and you’re fine, problem solved. But there’s no thought around dealing with any trauma that you might have experienced in care, or any feelings of identity and belonging that might be difficult.

A lot of the time people are leaving care and not having those support structures in place because they don’t have strong relationships with foster carers or foster families or their biological families. I think that can really have a huge impact on mental wellbeing.

There needs to be something there to support care leavers if they’re going through that transitional period and there needs to be more support when they’re experiencing certain things for the first time.

You mentioned that having your assigned care worker change was something that you experienced a lot. Could you talk a bit more about that?

I’ve lost count of the number of social workers I had, but I’d probably estimate between 30 to 40. I’ve had some fantastic social workers, but that hasn’t always been the case.

My last social worker before I left care was so completely overwhelmed by his caseload that he couldn’t make the time for someone like me who was kind of doing okay and could sort myself out. But then at the same time, when I did need him, he wasn’t there.

I think a lot of the time I didn’t feel very confident raising the issue and saying I don’t feel supported or I’m not getting what I need from what is essentially a professional relationship. The main question I had was ‘who do I talk to about that?’

Do you know of many other care leavers who have had different experiences in terms of the support they received?

Everyone I’ve spoken to that’s a care leaver has basically said similar things. No consistency, and you’re not able to build trust or a proper relationship with the social worker because they change so much. Again, I think there needs to be more support on a government level around this.

In your personal essay, you talk about social workers referring to local authority councils as ‘corporate parents’. Is that something that you experienced personally?

Yes, unfortunately. I was told that the council was my corporate parent and they were there to look after me. My first thought was ‘what, so my parent is this tangible public body?’ How do you ask your corporate parent for a hug, or talk to your corporate parent about a boyfriend issue, or whatever else is going on?

I don’t know why they do it. I think there’s lots of terminology in social work and foster care that is really problematic generally and the term ‘corporate parent’ is just one of them. No child should feel like they’re parented by social services.

When children go into care, to use the word parent, but then create this oxymoron by using the word ‘corporate’ in the same breath isn’t what children need. They aren’t looking for someone to point to and say ‘that’s my parent’ — they just want to be safe and looked after and loved.

It’s clear from various books and TV shows that children in care aren’t always presented in a good light, which you discuss in your PhD. Could you tell us more?

I think that it’s a foregone conclusion that if you grow up in care there are certain things that are more likely to happen to you. Certain statistics get rolled out again and again: care leavers are more likely to go to prison; care leavers are more likely to have mental health and physical health problems; they are more likely to be involved with substance abuse or alcohol abuse. All of these kinds of things get counted a lot in the media. I think a lot of the time those stereotypes are included in the stories about care that we read, too.

If you’re someone like me who reads lots of books and watches lots of TV and films, it’s sad to see these negative stereotypes being presented again and again. For people that have grown up in care, this is obviously really hard for them, but there are also the wider public perceptions of care-experienced people. If you haven’t grown up in care and don’t know anything about the care system or you don’t know of any people that have been in care, chances are, you’re going to associate them — whether consciously or not — with these negative stereotypes.

It doesn’t really give any nuance to care-experienced lives. I find these very one-dimensional stereotypes really frustrating because they aren’t my lived experience and they’re not the lived experience of other people I know who have been in care. Even when it is, there’s a lot more to it than just ‘oh, they’ve been to prison’. It negates the kind of sociological aspects of how people respond to trauma and we never think about why this is happening, why care leavers are less likely to go to university, or why they are more likely to commit suicide, for example.

Why was it important for you to try to alter people’s perception of that with Careless?

I wanted to tell a story that didn’t negate any of that or pretend that it wasn’t happening, because it is happening, and it is a problem. It was also really important for me that Careless had a happy ending without negating any of the bad stuff that happened. I wanted it to be Bess’ choice but I also didn’t want to tell readers that this is the right or wrong thing to do because it’s obviously completely down to the individual in that situation.

When people in care are leaving the system, we talk about poor outcomes a lot but we don’t really think about care leavers beyond that age — their hopes, dreams, aspirations, goals, what they want to do with their lives, and how they can go on to achieve great success and happiness and joy, and that’s what I wanted out of Careless. I wanted to tell a story that had hope at the end of it.

Any plans for a second book?

I have finished the first draft of my second book so I’ll most likely be editing that over the next few months. It’s going to be coming out summertime next year.

It still has a lot of the same themes as Careless, so there’s a lot of stuff about identity and belonging, how to work out your path and find out who you are and what you want to do with your life, but the characters, the setting and everything else is completely different. It does still have a little bit of an aspect of the care experience but it’s much more of a background thing rather than being the main part of the story.

'Careless' by Kirsty Capes is published by Orion and is available now. She is also author of books, 'Love Me, Love Me Not', and 'Girls'.

July 26, 2021 — Emma Gibbins


Nicki said:

Really great reading this interview. Look forward to getting a copy of the book too.

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