For Care Experienced Week 2019, Ashley Cameron and Nancy Loucks explain why Harry Potter and other JK Rowling characters are so relevant to care experienced readers.
Harry Potter is real.
Ok, maybe not in a wand-waving, Voldemort-defeating sense, but his experiences are all too familiar to thousands of children.
Living with his aunt, uncle, and cousin who don’t want him; surviving the sudden removal of his parents through no fault of his own; viewed as ‘odd’ by neighbours and classmates – Harry Potter grew up in care.
When we think of children in care, many of us think of orphanages and group homes.
Tom Riddle’s childhood is perhaps more in keeping with this stereotype. True, this can also be part of care experience, and no doubt Voldemort’s life may have been very different had he grown up in a loving home with at least one parent who wanted him and was able to look after him.
The outcomes for children and young people who experience care are not always positive, and statistics would suggest that some may be more likely to end up homeless or in prison or with fewer qualifications than those who do not have this experience.
Interestingly, however, these outcomes can be just as poor, if not worse, for those who grow up as children ‘looked after’ by another relative.
These are children and young people who may not even realise they are ‘care experienced’ but whose disrupted childhoods nevertheless bring anger, fear, confusion, and rebellion while being in the care of those who cannot (or choose not to) cope with the responsibility.
Harry Potter was raised in what is known as kinship care.
You may think his experiences were too extreme to be real; how can a close relative treat a child so callously?
Sadly this is the part that’s true. While few children may have to sleep in a cupboard as Harry did, the requirement for children in foster care to have their own bedroom can fall short, to the extreme of a young girl having to share a bedroom for years with an older boy she didn’t know.*
Being left behind while the rest go on holiday is also a familiar scenario.
The shame of the carers about the reason for the placement, leading to a failure to tell the truth about what happened to the parents; favouritism and preferential treatment of their ‘real’ (biological) children; the stigma of being ‘that weird kid’ leading to ostracism at school; and perpetuation of the myth that these are ‘bad kids’ meriting placement at St Brutus’ School for Incurably Criminal Boys – all true.
Ok, maybe not the name of the school, but certainly the perception or assumption that these are children under suspicion and assumed to be heading down the wrong path.
Neville Longbottom is real too.
He was fortunate to be raised surrounded by a loving family determined to act in his best interest and to keep him connected to his birth parents.
Even so, he never spoke of his situation and felt the stigma of care experience even when no one imposed this on him.
Growing up in the shadow of parents who cannot love and care for him, no matter how much they might have wished to, is understandably traumatic. So why do we tend to judge, ostracise, and criminalise children who would cope so much better with our compassion and support?
Should we feel sorry for these children? No: we should make things better for them, ensuring that being in care is a positive experience, without stigma and with the same life chances as any child.
The world of Harry Potter has inspired so many care experienced young people.
It has provided them with hope when all seemed hopeless and an opportunity to escape their reality, if only for a moment.
We are grateful to Jo Rowling for this depiction of a range of young people with care experience in her books – including one who grew up to save the world!
*an experience shared with the Care Review
About the authors
Ashley Cameron has campaigned for change in Scotland’s care system and was part of a group instrumental in securing the Independent Care Review. A History and Politics graduate, Ashley is an alumni member of Who Cares? Scotland and a Project Coordinator with Clan Childlaw, an advocacy and legal service for children and young people.
Nancy Loucks is co-chair of the Justice and Care work group. Originally from California and has been in the UK since 1989. Nancy is Chief Executive of Families Outside, the only national Scottish charity working solely on behalf of families affected by imprisonment, since 2008. Prior to Families Outside she worked as an Independent Criminologist, receiving her MPhil and PhD from the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, and in 2012 was appointed as Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for Law, Crime and Justice. Nancy was awarded an OBE in the 2016 New Year’s Honours List for services to Education and Human Rights.