Tracy Beaker and why we need aspirational stories about care

Earlier this month Jacqueline Wilson told the Guardian that she will be publishing a new book following adult Tracy Beaker, the character from her 1991 groundbreaking children’s novel The Story of Tracy Beaker and multiple follow-ups including The Dare Game and Starring Tracy Beaker.

As she appears in the 1991 book, Tracy is a care-experienced kid. She lives in a children’s residential care home which she refers to as ‘the dumping ground’. Tracy is a ‘difficult’ child, in care due to her mother’s neglect, and experiencing symptoms of trauma. The end of the book sees Tracy finding a more permanent foster placement with a woman called Cam.

totlogo1It is rare to see care-experienced children portrayed so honestly, as Tracy is, with all the trappings of growing up in care laid bare (although it is important to note that due to the nature of the system, every child’s care experience is – and should be – different and unique) – especially in a book that, at the time of its release, was breaking new ground in children’s fiction in terms of representations of the marginalised child’s lived experience. Jacqueline Wilson later went on to tackle mental illness, domestic abuse, eating disorders and more in her children’s books, inciting controversy and critical acclaim in equal measure.

But this new incarnation of Tracy, famously a ‘problem child’ misunderstood by the adults and care professionals around her, is particularly problematic. Adult Tracy Beaker has been met with a wave of backlash among readers. The most vocal opponents of Adult Tracy come from the care-experienced community.

This is because Wilson has chosen, according to her interview with the Guardian, to write adult Tracy as a single mum living on a council estate, ‘struggling to make ends meet.’

Cultural storytelling frequently deals with the trauma of foster care – My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal and the BBC Three drama Kiri are recent examples – but few stories take the step to interrogate the later-life trajectories of care-experienced children in adulthood. In some ways, then, a book about a care leaver as an adult is new and important. However, to have that adult fall into a handful of well-worn, easy tropes about the later-life outcomes of care-experienced children can be harmful and damaging.

It is well known that, statistically speaking, kids in care do not ‘do well’ in later life. Chloe Hamilton writing for iNews (2018) quotes a 2016 report produced by the Department for Education:

‘40 per cent of care leavers aged 19 to 21 are also not in education, training or employment compared with 14 per cent of all 19 to 21 year olds. […] Care leavers are less likely, too, to be in higher education – this according to a 2016 report from the Centre of Social Justice – with only 6 per cent of them accessing higher education compared to 47 per cent of the general population.’

Studies on what Dregan and Gulliford (2012) term as ‘poor outcomes’ for children in care are widespread, particularly in the US. Research has shown that children from care backgrounds are, among other things:

  • More likely to exhibit aggressive behaviour (Dubowitz et al., 1994: 96)
  • Are at ‘increased risk of impaired adult emotional and behavioural outcomes’, including but not limited to substance abuse problems, criminal convictions and depression (Dregan and Gulliford, 2012: 1523)
  • More likely to report mental health problems in later life (Zlotnick et al., 2012: 535; Garcia et al., 2015: 3295-3305)

So, in some ways, it could be argued that Wilson portraying Tracy Beaker as having fallen into patterns of ‘poor outcomes’ is simply reflecting the world around us. These things do happen to care-experienced women, as BBC News demonstrated when it interviewed a number of young, care-experienced single mums about their lives. Others might argue that viewing Tracy’s adult life as a failure is more an indictment of how we as a society view success – e.g. marriage and financial stability – while Wilson points out in her interview that Tracy is a ‘good mum’ and that’s all that matters.

But critics have noted that there doesn’t need to be any more narratives where we see young people in care develop ‘poor outcomes’ once they are ‘released’ into the ‘real world’. Vicky Carroll, writing for The Big Issue, says that ‘care experienced young people [are] exasperated that the stereotype of an inevitable bleak future [is] being reinforced’ (2018).

One positive ‘outcome’ from the news of Tracy Beaker’s return is the galvanisation of the adult care experienced community to think about how they are being represented in literature and popular culture. Spoiler alert: not positively. Others have come forward to demonstrate how kids in care are not ‘destined’ to a ‘bleak future’.

What authors who have not experienced care themselves often fail to comprehend is that children in foster care are functioning inside a broken system, their lives under the state’s guardianship in a kind-of homogenisation of the care experience that is more damaging than it is useful.

‘Looked after children often begin their lives in some of the most disadvantaged families from the most excluded social groups. Family breakdown, parental poverty, low parental support and maltreatment are all linked to adulthood including mental ill health, criminality and homelessness (Berridge, 2006). Therefore, it is not the care system alone that creates poor outcomes for care leavers. Poor outcomes are instead a culmination of childhood difficulties that the care system often fails to address and rectify.’

(Gaskell, 2010: 137)

What is universally agreed upon is that while Wilson’s new book will be controversial, like many of her others, it does not negate the necessity for positive representations of care-experienced people in literature, and significantly in children’s fiction where it is so vital that children living on the margins of society see themselves adequately represented with all the nuances of their existence – the ‘good’ along with the ‘bad’.

@kirstycapes

References

BBC News (2018). ‘Tracy Beaker is back as a single mum – like these women who grew up in care’, 16 March 2018.

Carroll, V. (2018). ‘Tracy Beaker returns as a single mum living in social housing’, The Big Issue, 23 March 2018.

Dregan, A. & Gulliford, M. C. (2012). ‘Foster care, residential care and public care placement patterns are associated with adult life trajectories: population-based cohort study’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology No. 47, pp1517-1526.

Dubowitz, H. et al (1994). ‘Children in Kinship Care: How do they fare?’, Children and Youth Services Review Vol. 16 Nos. 1/2, pp85-106.

Ferguson, D. (2018). ‘Tracy Beaker is back… as a single mum fighting to make ends meet’, the Guardian, 10 March 2018.

Garcia, A. R. et al. (2015). ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences and Poor Mental Health Outcomes Among Racially Diverse Foster Care Alumni: Impact of Perceived Agency Helpfulness’, Journal of Child and Family Studies No. 24, pp3293-3305.

Gaskell, C. (2010). ‘Care Leavers’ Perspective on the Importance of Care’, Children & Society Vol. 24, pp136-147.

Hamilton, C. (2018). ‘Tracy Beaker as an adult on benefits is realistic – life is often harder for those who grew up in care’, iNews, 23 March 2018.

Rebbe, R. et al (2017). ‘Adverse childhood experiences among youth aging out of foster care: A latent class analysis’, Children and Youth Services Review No. 74, pp108-116.

Zlotnick, C. et al. (2012). ‘Life Course Outcomes on Mental and Physical Health: The Impact of Foster Care on Adulthood’, American Journal of Public Health Vol. 102 No. 3, pp534-541.

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