PhD student takes care support to Parliament
LJMU is proud of its support for Care Experienced students and graduates but even more proud of those individuals, like Shaunna Devine, who succeed against tough odds. Shaunna has said that having been in care it never leaves you and is part of who you are.
We caught up with the PhD student after a trip to Parliament to lobby for better support nationally to help young people through and beyond university..
Hi Shaunna, tell us why you went to Parliament recently
I joined 100 care experienced people for “It’s Our Care Day”, a day of action organised by seven major children's in response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. I managed to speak to Josh MacAlister, the chair of the review, to challenge and welcome his recommendations Josh and I discussed the need for nurturing and positive relationships for people with care experiences across the lifespan and the challenges of implementing the recommendations. I met with key decision-makers, including MPs and ministers, to discuss the key issues in the care system and spoke about the lack of warmth and nurture I experienced as a child in care and the barriers I had to overcome to progress with higher education. We called on MPs and Ministers to sign a pledge to demonstrate their commitment to listening and acting upon the expertise of children and young people with care experience. As part of a discussion with the Children’s Commissioner, the Minister for Children and Families, and the Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years, I was able to ask about the disparity of support outside of 9-5 working hours and how safeguarding provisions often stops young people in care from having life experiences like their peers.
Do you think you achieved your goals?
I felt we were heard and listened to by decision-makers. It was great to see so many MPs interested in the lives of young people in care. I was pleased to see so many key decision-makers commit to listening to us but this is only the start of seeing young people with care experience enacting change. Over the next year, we have exciting events happening in which we will be fighting for more improvements to the care system.
My supervisors and peers helped me recognise my strengths and empowered me to believe in myself again - Shaunna Devine, School of Psychology
Tell us about your own journey and how you overcame obstacles to your ambitions
As a young person in care, I never thought I would go to university, nor that I would be in parliament championing the rights of my community. While my route to education appears linear, it did not come without its difficulties. I came to LJMU in 2016 to undertake a Psychology degree which I graduated with a first-class degree in 2019. Being a student at LJMU was life-changing for many reasons. One of the most salient being it offered me a new start, I was able to move areas with the safety blanket of secure accommodation and funding. My supervisors and peers helped me recognise my strengths and empowered me to believe in myself again. Shortly after my first degree, I became the first care experienced person to do an MSc from my local authority. However, my funding did not leave much for living costs, and I did not have a guarantor for housing. I was lucky enough to have Phil Bakstad, the Student Support Coordinator at LJMU. Phil worked with my local authority and helped secure funding for my rent for the duration of my course. Upon graduating with a distinction in my MSc during the pandemic, I was left in a difficult financial situation. After being reliant on hospitality work to cover my bills throughout breaks between courses, I was faced with having no income.
My supervisor was able to recommend me for a “social therapist” role at a local Liverpool business, NeuroLove, and in February 2021 I was awarded the Vice-Chancellor scholarship to undertake a three-year PhD in Psychology and Neuroscience at LJMU. My project is called ‘Pathways to Social Connectedness in Care Experienced People’ in which I explore the barriers and facilitators young people in care face when forming and maintaining positive relationships. I intend to identify the psychological, cognitive, and social factors which predict social connectedness and to explore how social support is associated with self-reported health and well-being in care experienced people.
Are other people getting the right opportunities/support, if not, what would you like to see change?
I think young people leaving care are not provided the support they need to thrive. After leaving care, professional support is significantly reduced meaning they must face independent living for the first time while dealing with their unresolved trauma from their time in care. GCSEs are a gateway into higher education. However, with the largest age group entering care at 16+, we know taking exams can come at a difficult time with uncertainty and instability. Thus, not achieving GCSEs at this age, while no fault of their own, causes a more difficult pathway into university. Out of the young people that decide to go to university, they face losing financial support from their local authority, like free council tax or priority social housing. Our community should not have to fight for basic rights like money to pay bills and housing. We need to take the brave changes and step forwards to ensure all young people leaving care are empowered to achieve their dreams.
We need to be inspiring young people to come to university who have no interest in academia. All children leaving care should be given the opportunity to visit university opening days and provided support upon applying for university. Also, local authorities need to take the brave step of collaborating with other local authorities and services. If a young person leaves their local authority area to attend university, we need to be empowering them to take this leap, not taking away support that is in place.
How does your work in the School of Psychology relate to your lobbying, if at all and how do you see your psychology career developing?
I hope for a career in Psychology in which I can use my research to inform policy and change in the care system. I have been an active member of the Corporate Parenting Board in Wigan since 2019 in which I push for positive changes to care through discussion of my lived experience and research. In parliament, I was able to speak about my research to date including my findings from work exploring touch perception in care experienced people and my contribution to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Report of a Fit and Healthy Childhood. Upon these discussions, I have follow-up meetings with the chair of the review and appropriate Ministers to discuss how the recommendations could be implemented. I hope to continue to advocate for care experienced people using my lived experience and research.
Recently I published a chapter in “The Brightness of Stars” by Lisa Cherry (an award-winning care experienced author), in which I share my unique care journey in the hope to detangle the stigma of being care experienced. You can watch our Podcast discussing my chapter here. If you want to know more about stigma faced by the care experienced community, I have previously contributed to the findings of the care review focus on stigma, which you can watch here.
IMAGE: Shaunna Devine (3rd left) with campaigners in Westminster.