Children in care, and young people who have left care, say that the general public's perception of 'care' 1 is important if not crucial to their lives. When young care leavers across England conducted their own research on leaving care in 1995, they highlighted the importance of the public's attitude to children from care, and asked other care leavers questions about it. In the research, 70 per cent of respondents said that they never or rarely told anyone they had been in care (West 1995:24). An open declaration of having a 'care' background has been referred to as 'coming out' by care leavers, an apparently deliberate reference to the phrase often used in an individual's public identification as gay or lesbian (see West 1998a). For young care leavers, the attitude of members of the public was found to be stigmatising at least, with individuals regarded as either a family-less foundling entitled to overly sympathetic attention or, more likely, a prostitute or criminal and therefore deserving of verbal abuse.
Children and young people currently in care speak of their bad experiences when others know of their care background-for example, that they live in a children's home (residential care) or even in a foster family. 2 They talk of being victimised and bullied by other children and by teachers, and of parents refusing to allow their children to play with them. Later in life, they may get refused jobs if they reveal their past as being in care (see West 1995:14).
In talking about their experiences at school, children in care suggested that other children must get their ideas about care from their parents. But how do parents arrive at their opinions? And from where do teachers derive their views? This chapter will explore print media constructions of 'looked after' children in care and care itself, and the reactions of children and young people from care 3 to stories, and their views on media portrayals of them and their lives. It is necessary first to emphasise and briefly outline the importance of care and the complexities and subtleties of experience subsumed in that simple four-letter word.
Between 60,000 and 70,000 children and young people are looked after by local authority social services and social work departments in Great Britain.