‘I Survived By Accident’

Maxine Wrigley is a fighter, a defiant champion for looked-after children, but even she, it seems, can suffer moments of utter deflation. In August, she organised a heavily promoted “Coffeehouse Challenge” in Manchester, sponsored by the Royal Society for the Arts and Starbucks, an evening that involved young people “pouring their hearts out” about their experiences of care.

Wrigley, coordinator of A National Voice (ANV), the campaigning organisation managed by care leavers, invited 80 “corporate parents” – directors of children’s services, senior local authority councillors and MPs – to attend, and ask a direct question of themselves: “Would this [the care system] be good enough for my child?” Just two of the corporate parents turned up.

“It was the most depressing experience of my five years in this work,” Wrigley says. “It made me think that at some fundamental level, the people responsible for these children do not care.” Sitting in a meeting room in Manchester’s Methodist Central Hall, down a corridor from ANV’s cluttered office, I ask how she feels now, after a month to reflect. “I was just upset at the time. Now I’m getting angrier.”

That response goes to the heart of Wrigley’s emotional engagement with her cause, and to her core complaint about the system. For 60,000 young people, the state is the parent. Wrigley credits the government with having passed decent legislation, and has high hopes of a green paper on looked after children, due next week. However, she believes this will not be enough to address the enduring bleakness of life in the system.

“You only have to look at the shocking figures,” she says. “Only 1% of care leavers go to university, while half of all prisoners under 25, and 80% of Big Issue sellers, have been in care. There are some good local authorities, but individually the corporate parents would not tolerate this for their own children.”

Wrigley speaks with authority and experience. Born in 1968, she was taken as a baby from the hospital maternity ward to a foster placement. She grew up entirely in care, mostly in a foster family fraught with problems of its own. At 13, she was moved to a children’s home run by two nuns, Sisters Patricia and Perpetua. They were “dead sweet”, Wrigley says with a smile. But living with nuns was far from an ideal environment for the Manchester teenager, and she was hideously embarrassed by the home’s minibus with “Catholic Children’s Rescue Society” emblazoned on the side.

Unmistakeable toenails

At 15, she learned her personal story by accident. Her birth family, it turned out, lived nearby. People were constantly mistaking her for another girl, Jennifer Wrigley, and eventually Maxine plucked up the courage to seek her out. They met, compared genetically unmistakeable toenails, and Jennifer took her home to meet their real mother. She was, Maxine learned, schizophrenic. Jennifer and an older half-brother had been brought up by their grandmother, who was 70 by the time Maxine was born. Wrigley relates the facts calmly. “The decision was taken, either by my gran or by social services, that my gran couldn’t cope with a little baby as well,” she says.

Wrigley is forgiving. Her mum and gran were “lovely people”, and her father, who she met years later in home for older people – a married man who had been having an aff air with her mother. “These things happen, don’t they?” she shrugs.

It seems a genuine acceptance. Her anger, and campaigning zeal, are reserved for the care system, which was threadbare in her time and is failing a generation now. “I survived by accident,” she says. “I wasn’t moved too many times, so I stayed at the same school. I kept my brilliant friends, who are still my friends now, and I was lucky with a couple of teachers who were understanding.”

At 17, she was given a flat in a council high-rise block, and £100. “That was the last I saw of social services,” she says. “There was no Leaving Care Act then, no follow-up support. You think you want independence at that age but you soon learn how difficult it is. That’s why the system should accommodate young people going back for more support, as they would if their parents were caring for them.”

At 21, she qualified as a driving instructor, one of the country’s youngest, which attracted national publicity. She loved the job and earned good money, but decided at 24 to do a degree in TV and radio at Salford University. Then, under the stress of her final year, she cracked. “I had been hiding things, and it all hit me at 27. It is a diffi ult age anyway, the most common for suicide. For me, obviously, there were major issues of abandonment and attachment, deeply buried.”

She underwent eight years of psychoanalysis and therapy, work to build her self-confidence. “It was pretty bad,” she says, “but hopefully I’ve managed to defeat the black dog of depression.” She emerged determined to improve the system so the same traumas should not be suffered by others. “I’ve got that zeal,” she affirms. “Absolutely.”

Wrigley, who had been volunteering for years, stepped in as the coordinator of ANV when the previous incumbent was off sick, then was formally appointed in December 2001. The organisation was established by the government in June 1999 to consult young people in care and represent their views, and Wrigley – mostly with just one other staff member, now with four others – has relentlessly driven it on. ANV has produced two major reports, No Place Like Home, on the awful housing to which most care leavers are subjected, and Amplify, on problems with foster care.

She makes weekly trips to London to meet ministers and voluntary organisations, battles for initiatives to involve young people in the system, and runs campaigns, including the famous This is Not a Suitcase, highlighting the scandal of binbags being used to move children’s possessions between placements. Dealing with 100 emails a day, a mobile clamped to her ear, Wrigley has harried ANV to a position of influence, and been heavily involved in consultations for next week’s green paper.

It is expected to propose that lookedafter children be guaranteed a place in a top-performing school. Wrigley approves. “We’ve heard stories of governors saying they don’t want such kids in their school,” she says.

ANV has long campaigned for young people to have a choice of care placements and their own advocate, so she will rightly claim a victory if these are included in the green paper. With the government recognising that people leave care too young, the paper is likely to recommend raisingthe leaving age to 18, and allowing fostered young people to opt to stay until 21. There is also the possibility that a key worker will be made available for every child, round the clock.

Wrigley will welcome all of that, although she sounds a note of caution about whether it will translate into law, and be adequately resourced; she sees lack of funding as a defi ning problem in the existing system. The major current weaknesses, she says, are the shortage of good foster carers and the recruitment, retention and training of social workers.

She believes that the profession requires a wholesale makeover, similar to the government recruitment campaign some years ago that presented teaching as dynamic and appealing. Wrigley will applaud any improvements planned by a government that she believes does genuinely care, but is adamant that it is not going far enough.

“The government risks fiddling around the edges when we need a fundamental change,” she says. “Children, all children, need practical, financial and – most importantly – emotional support. The government’s focus is on education, rather than emotional needs. If you feel loved, wanted and respected, you can overcome a great deal. Young people in care are too often not loved, and huge problems flow from that.

“Improvements for children amount to a good legacy for this government. But we need to aim higher, expect more, and have more accountability.” And with that, clutching a sheaf of papers, she is off for another long night of campaigning.


Curriculum vitae

Age 37.

Status In a relationship.

Education Levenshulme high school; Manchester college and Stockport college; BA (hons) in television and radio, Salford University.

Career 2001-present: coordinator, A National Voice; 1989-present: service user involvement projects, International Youth In Care Network and the International Foster Care Organisation; 1991-93: lay assessor, Social Services Inspectorate; 1989-94: driving instructor.

Other appointments 2005: MBE; 2004: fellow, Royal Society of the Arts; board member, Care Leavers Association; member, Young London Panel for London 2012 Olympics.

Interests Music, gigs, the arts, socialising with friends.