As a television screenwriter and artist, Helen Black feels a strong responsibility to accurately reflect the lives of young people who have been through the care system.
The lawyer-turned-novelist turned award winning screenwriter, co-wrote the second series of Time with Jimmy McGovern, a powerful drama set in a women’s prison. The drama features a number of storylines about the care system – including the character Orla, played by Jodie Whittaker, who rushes her three children to school so she can make a court appearance after being charged with tampering with her electricity meter, only to be shocked to be taken straight from the courtroom to prison to start a six month sentence.
It leaves her bewildered and panicked as there is no one to pick her children up from school – and the rules don’t allow her enough telephone calls to try and sort it out.
Then there’s the tale of 19-year-old character Kelsey, played by Bella Ramsey, who is a heroin addict who discovers she is pregnant by her drug-dealer boyfriend shortly after arriving in prison. She abandons her initial idea of having an abortion when finding out that sentencing judges tend to go easier on those who are pregnant, and as time goes on, she becomes determined to keep her baby and prevent it being taken into care.
Helen, who is from West Yorkshire, says authenticity is crucial for her work so she worked with Become, the charity for children in care and care leavers, to carry out research and make sure the storylines were as true to life as possible.
“In terms of speaking to people who work within the care system, they are easier to find as you can usually just put a message out on social media,” explains Helen. “But if you want to speak to some care leavers or some children or young people who are actually leaving care and moving to the next phase of their life, not only is it more difficult finding them, you need to ensure you are not traumatising them in any way.
“You could talk to anybody, but you might actually be making their life worse. I don’t want to speak to young people to go over what has happened in their lives and make matters worse for them for the sake of telly. That’s not what I am about at all.”
Instead, Helen, who is care experienced herself, has worked with Become, the charity i is supporting with its Christmas appeal, on several shows and says they have always been incredibly helpful.
“If I want to speak to someone who works within the care system or who has experienced a specific part of the system, I know Become will find me someone and it means this can feed into the work so it is correct and has integrity, as opposed to just doing research online and guessing.
“Being put in touch with people who are strong enough and in a good place to speak matters.”
Helen believes the prison system has a negative impact on children who can end up in care when a woman is sent to prison for smaller offences.
“When men are in jail, women tend to hold the fort, whether that be wives, girlfriends, mums, sisters or aunties,” she says. “Whereas when women go to jail, children very rarely go to stay with their dads.
“So if there is not a grandma or someone to step in, then the kids have to go into foster care.
“Every time a court sends a woman to jail for a short sentence, they really should be thinking about what is going to happen to her children.
“To put them in the care system for the sake of punishing a woman for a small offence is just not commensurate at all. In fact, it is utterly stupid.”
Helen worked as a solicitor for many years after leaving university, predominantly working with children in the care system and in the criminal justice system.
She then became a novelist and wrote about a lawyer representing children in the care system. She began screenwriting around five years ago and wrote the film Life and Death in the Warehouse and won a Bafta.
She was then offered the chance of co-writing the second series of Time with Jimmy McGovern.
Helen reveals she has now been commissioned by the BBC to write a new drama about the care system, featuring the young people within it and those who work in care.
Although the project is at its very early stages, Helen is already brimming with ideas about some of the issues she wants to highlight and she is planning to work with Become again to make sure the storylines are accurate.
“I don’t think the BBC would want this drama to be as bleak as Time and with young people in it, we probably wouldn’t either and we’d want to explain the good things that can come out of care and some positives and shine a light on the things that could be changed to make a massive difference to people’s lives,” she says.
“But we’d also have to be realistic about the care system and the sheer weight of difficulties that social workers and anybody working within the system face. Everybody has great intentions, but they can only work with the resources that there are.
“Some of the things I’d want to touch upon include showing how the care system currently is not fit for purpose – and that’s not the fault of anybody working within it or the fault of any child or family experiencing it. It is neither resourced or set up properly and needs rehauling.
“I’d also want to highlight how many children within the system are split up from their siblings and how many young people are sent far away from the place where they were taken into care.”
Helen is urging i readers to support our Christmas appeal Together We Care in aid of Become. “Christmas is about children and families – but there’s this huge wave of children who are basically being looked after by the state, by all of us if you like,” she explains.
“Children who have been in care currently have the worst outcomes of any children in the country if you look at measures such as unemployment, homelessness, prison rates, suicide, mental health issues, drug addiction and unwanted pregnancies. This just isn’t right.
“With the right support, young people can do well and it is not a given that every kid in the care system is doomed. This is why the work of charities like Become who work on the ground to help these children and young people is so important.”
Our Christmas Charity Appeal is aiming to raise £150,000 so Become can help even more children in care and young care leavers.
Annie Mac backs i appeal
Annie Mac, Irish DJ, broadcaster and writer, is generously supporting i’s Christmas appeal in aid of Become with her own personal matched fundraiser to support some of the most vulnerable children and young people in society.
Annie has pledged to match every pound donated to her personal fundraiser up to £15,000 and all donations will contribute to the grand total raised by the i appeal.
Annie says: “’I’ve been supporting Become because their amazing work helps vulnerable children in care and young care leavers feel seen, heard and hopeful.
“There’s so much we should consider regarding what a child has to go through in care, but we’re not aware; the underlying transactional nature of any foster family placement, the damage to a child’s self worth when they are immediately replaced with another foster child, the ever present threat of the care cliff, when children can be cast out of the care system at the age of 18 and expected to fend for themselves, the struggle of being spoken for by a social worker who might not know you very well, and being victim to the high turnover of staff who are responsible for your wellbeing.
“That’s why I’m doubling every donation made to my fundraiser in support of the i’s Christmas appeal for Become.
“Thank you to all i readers who find the time to do this and support children in care this Christmas.”
How to donate
i has launched its 2023 Christmas Appeal “Together We Care” urging generous readers to raise money to help Become give vital advice and practical support to 1,300 children in care and young care leavers.
We initially set a fundraising target of £75,000 but thanks to the generosity of i readers, we now hope to raise £150,000 for the charity.
Click here to read more about what Become does: https://becomecharity.org.uk/
Here’s what your donation can provide:
- £2.50 sends a handwritten Christmas card to a child in care.
- £5 helps a child in care stay in touch with brothers or sisters living apart from them.
- £12 gives Christmas dinner to a young person who recently left care.
- £25 gives a Christmas present to a child in care or young care leaver.
- £45 pays for a young person to travel to Parliament to share their story with interested MPs.
- £50 pays for employment coaching to help someone leaving care find a job.
- £75 provides one-to-one guidance for a young person applying to university.
Click here to donate: www.becomecharity.org.uk/i-appeal