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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
'My foster father saved me from jail'
By Clare Babbidge
BBC News

Local authority care is failing young people, with many ending up homeless or in prison, a report claims. But 19-year old Leonard Turner says being put with caring foster parents put his wayward life on the right path.

Leonard Turner
Leonard Turner felt let down by the care system

Leonard Turner loves music and having already studied sound engineering and music technology, he hopes to go to university next year.

But he says his dream of starting a music company is far-removed from the unhappy vision he had of his future as a young teenager.

At that time he went "on the road for a bit" after running away from problems at home. At 13 he was placed with a foster family with his sister where they were very unhappy.

"I think they were just in it for the money," he said. "On the first day they said don't get comfortable as you're not staying - on the first day."

"I was failing at school badly, I was very angry and getting into fights and being excluded. I did whatever I wanted, staying out until one or two and doing a lot of crazy stuff."

Leonard's sister was eventually moved to stay with another foster carer, a woman who he said was unable to provide care through her own problems.

It just was all not working, the social care, the foster system, the schools
Leonard Turner

He said there was little support from social workers and people within the care system "told me I hadn't been given a good care service".

Leonard, who lives in north London, said: "It just was all not working, the social care, the foster system, the schools, especially for black kids."

When he thought about the future, he imagined he was heading for prison as a result of all the problems he had experienced.

"Because of my personal background, I thought that I'd be going to go to jail," he said.

But he has avoided any trouble with the law, and instead paved the way for a bright future.

Turning point

After nearly two years with his first foster family, Leonard again ran away and was picked up by police.

He was put into emergency care and then social services asked another foster carer, Steve Barnabis, to help out.

For Leonard, this meeting marked the turning point in his fortunes. He clearly remembers going to Steve's house for the first time.

"I could tell straight away he was cool," he said. "He was warm and I remember these big cuddly bears in the flat."

Steve Barnabis
Steve Barnabis got into social care through drama projects

Steve, now 33, already had years of experience in social care when he became Leonard's foster father.

Taking part in drama projects in hospitals and the community in Bristol at only 14, made him realise he wanted to work with young people.

After working in inner city areas in the US for six years, Steve worked in a London residential home.

This work led him to be a single foster father, and to care for two teenage boys while still in his 20s. Steve married in 2001, and has continued foster care with his wife.

For Leonard, the couple provided his first real stability and he remembers their "loving, caring" home.

He said of being put there: "It was basically a bit of a miracle, God was on my side that day."

He added: "That's when the rules started, and I also started going on holiday, I'd never been abroad before, and to eat properly, and he used to take us out to visit places I could never have imagined."

Boundaries 'needed'

Leonard said being told to do his homework and having rules about when to watch television and go to bed, as well as having someone to look up to really helped.

For Steve, the issue of "boundaries" is a major one. He said a big part of the problem with the current system is that many children lacked stability.

He said one of the teenage boys he originally cared for already had 16 placements before living with Steve.

What young people really need is consistency
Steve Barnabis

A year ago the couple took over the long-term care of two siblings who already had six placements.

The children in Steve's care had seen three or four social workers a year, which made it extremely hard and frustrating for the child and the foster parents.

"Every single person will have their own style, and their own ways - and what young people really need is consistency," he said.

"Without having boundaries to adhere to, young people are more likely to hang out with peers in a negative way and get into trouble," he said.

Steve, who has set up The Soul Project which aims to strengthen communities and family relationships, said another big problem was that children in foster care were often expected to live independently at 16.

He and Leonard both said this was too young and that support should continue beyond that.

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