By Richard Marvin
After a particularly bad weekend spent living with his abusive stepfamily, 15-year old Tarell Mcintosh made a decision that would change the course of his life.
“I told myself that if I stay living here, then I’m going to take my own life. So I decided to leave home and take myself into care.”
It was far from smooth-sailing though as he bounced between two neighbouring local authorities who each said that he was the other’s responsibility. False promises of supported accommodation eventually left him with nowhere to live.
“Technically I was a child in need but those in charge had relinquished their responsibility. My school was alarmed and I ended up living with one of my teachers.”
In a one month period, Tarell had to move home 16 times. And being so young left him extremely vulnerable, “As the local authorities wouldn’t house me, I stayed in random B&Bs and hostels. There were drug dealers and scary people and in one place I was attacked which left me in hospital. I was horrified.”
Tarell started self-harming and was officially diagnosed with bulimia – an eating disorder that he still suffers with to this day. Despite being referred to his local CAMHS service, he states that “mentally speaking, I was going off the rails.”
However, at his darkest point, there shone a small glimmer of light. The mother of the teacher he had lived with was a social worker and told Tarell about advocacy. Advocates are independent professionals who help children in care and care leavers to get the support they need from social services.
Tarell reached out to the Coram Voice advocates who listened to his story and took on his case.
“My advocates helped me to understand and exercise my rights as a young person in the care system. They told me that if you don’t have a parent, then it’s the law that the local authority has to act as your corporate parent…And after being let down so many times by the law, my advocates helped me contact some solicitors.”
These solicitors settled Tarell’s case in court and he was finally taken into care.
Whilst in care, he continued to be supported by advocates who would accompany him to his meetings with social workers. His advocates made sure the local authority followed its duties to safeguard and support young people as stated in The Children’s Act 1989.
“It was the best thing ever because they’d help me even with the smallest things like asking for money to buy a travel card so I could get to college. They had my back.”
This experience gave Tarell confidence and lead him to better understand his rights and how to exercise them, “I made sure I got what I was entitled to. So if I was in a review meeting, I made sure I got a laptop from my setting-up grant.”
As well as the practical help he received, working with advocates had a profound impact on Tarell when it came to his professional life,
“They modelled how things should be done. How to be diligent when it comes to challenging opposition and overcoming problems. That’s something that I took on board and is still ingrained in me.”
It’s clear that Tarell has taken on this message when he speaks about setting up Sugarcane (now called Paradise Cove), ‘South West London’s finest Caribbean restaurant’ in 2020.
“Building up that skillset to know how to present yourself when it comes to legal matters is so important. It helped when dealing with lawyers when I was securing the lease for my restaurant.”
And it helped him have the belief to see his project through to completion. To get up and running he borrowed £3,000 off a friend and negotiated two weeks’ credit with his ingredient suppliers. The restaurant was a hit and customers queued up to sample his jerk chicken and ‘rastaman red pea stew’.
Not forgetting his past, Tarell now employs two care leavers at any one time. He helps them fight their own battles, like dealing with troublesome tenancy agreements or helping them access apprenticeships. He has quite consciously become an advocate himself, “my vision is to give young people a foot up that they might not get anywhere else.”
It was always his desire for the restaurant to have a social justice leaning. Indeed, all staff are now mentored, via monthly meetings, by the mother of the teacher who originally helped him access advocacy.
He believes that more young people should seek out the help of an advocate, “they need to know that organisations like Coram Voice exist and that they’re independent and here to help.”
An advocate can make a big difference to a child or young person’s life. They are there to offer help and support to make sure those living in care are involved in the decisions that most affect them. This could be helping to state your case in Pathway Planning meetings or Looked After Child (LAC) reviews. Or it could be making sure you understand what professionals are saying and helping you say what you want to say. Advocates are there to make sure people listen to you.
Tarell’s story shows that a helping hand from an advocate is just the start of the journey. It was the first step in him overcoming the troubles he had faced. The important thing is to take that first step,
“Mine was a very unique story. The support I received from my advocates gave me the leg-up I needed. But it all could have been very different.”
Are you looking for the support of an advocate?
Call the Coram Voice advocacy helpline on 0808 800 5792