‘I felt totally abandoned’: the trauma of being uprooted and taken into care

·4-min read

The night Jennifer Mohammadi arrived in her new “home”, she begged and begged to leave.

Related: Care homes crisis: children sent to live hundreds of miles away

The teenager had been taken into care around a year earlier following a decline in her mother’s mental health. But this placement was different. It was in a new area filled with strangers and cut off from all she knew.

Mohammadi had only been moved around a 45-minute drive from where she grew up in north London, but as a 15-year-old with no car it felt as though she had been taken “miles and miles away”. “I didn’t recognise the streets. I missed getting on the same bus as my friends on the way home from school. I missed being able to easily access my mother if we needed each other,” she says.

Now aged 25 and back in the capital, Mohammadi is clear about the trauma that “out of area” care placements can cause.

Being moved away left her “lonely” and “mentally exhausted”, she says, and created an “absolute sense of abandonment”. “I was only moved around a 45-minute drive away and I was incredibly distressed,” she says. “I can’t imagine the significant negative effect moving much further would have had.”

This weekend, an Observer investigation reveals how some of Britain’s most vulnerable children are being moved to residential homes far away from their neighbourhoods. In extreme cases, teenagers from London are being moved more than 300 miles to cities including Glasgow, Knowsley, Leeds and Carlisle.

The findings are part of a wider picture of children being uprooted by the social care system, with children routinely being sent to newly opened homes in towns such as Blackpool due to a “scarcity of places” in other parts of the country. One expert said the latest findings revealed “a national scandal and one that is getting worse”..

Mohammadi was able to stay at the same school, and after moving away, she tried to cope by going to school early, leaving late, and spending evenings wandering around familiar areas, “just lingering” near places she knew. The distance placed a strain on her relationships, and even visits with her social worker became difficult. “I felt like I had less access to her because I was now placed out of her way and she couldn’t pop in as easily as she did before,” she says.

But Mohammadi, who now works with charity Become to advocate for care leavers and is studying for a master’s in public health, says she feels “lucky” that she was able to stay at the same school and keep contact with known professionals. “I know many young people haven’t had that luxury,” she says.

Fellow care leaver Kerrie Portman says that when she was sent 80 miles from her home in north London after being taken into care at 15, her whole world changed. She had never been to Cambridgeshire, and the residential children’s home – “surrounded by fields” and “an hour-long walk to the nearest Tesco” – couldn’t have been more different. There was “nothing around” and “no one to get to know”, she says. “Suddenly my whole world was the children’s home.”

Portman, who is autistic, says that during her two years at the children’s home she was exposed to abuse which was made worse by being so far away from support networks. The abuse, which included children being “grabbed and beaten up”, became “all encompassing”, she says. “I wasn’t seeing anything different and that left me with a very broken and damaged view of the world.”

Now aged 24 and a campaigner for Just for Kids Law, Portman says the experience has had a lasting impact on her. The fact that the adults around her “didn’t explain much” about why she was being moved so far away was particularly difficult to deal with.

“It felt like I was being told I wasn’t wanted in my home area and there wasn’t a space for me,” she says. “Even now I struggle to bond with places and feel that a place is my home.”

She and Mohammadi are calling on the government and councils to take urgent action to improve protections for children in care and reduce the number being sent far from home, including building more placements in areas where there are chronic shortages.

Portman, who is studying a foundation course at Cambridge, added that stricter rules were needed on what counts as appropriate accommodation.

She has come to learn that in many cases, private residential children’s homes are set up in rural areas or cities where property costs are lower.

But she believes uprooting children and placing them far away – particularly in places without local transport links and far away from basic amenities – is “putting profits over care”.

“By now there should be enough data and voices for local authorities to understand that what they’re doing is causing long-term damage,” she says. “If it was an issue for me eight years ago they should’ve been able to address it by now if they’d have wanted to.”