For vulnerable 18-year-old’s leaving care, charity Shared Lives Plus offer the lifeline they need to thrive

Family comes in all different shapes and sizes. And family is what Maz and Lee have become since they were matched for a Shared Lives placement in Northamptonshire in March 2018.

For Maz, a care manager for Social Services and mum to two adult sons, the placement is another chance to help a young person flourish. For Lee, 19, it’s the first real opportunity for some stability after a turbulent and complicated childhood that included many foster placements.

The Shared Lives scheme carefully selects carers to share their homes and lives with a young person or adult who needs support to live an enjoyable life. It’s consistently rated the safest and best form of social care; 97 percent of people in Shared Lives say they feel part of the family they’ve joined. That’s because a good relationship is at the heart of each placement.

Making the right match

“The matching process is the most pivotal part of a Shared Lives placement, because at the end of the day if the match isn’t right, then the placement won’t work,” says Emma Davies-Rota, Shared Lives Scheme Manager at Northamptonshire County Council.

Shared Lives has operated in Northamptonshire, under different names, for more than 25 years. There are currently 65 active placements in the County, and the team support 112 people. In their latest CQC inspection, they were rated outstanding for the third time running. 

All potential Shared Lives carers complete a rigorous application process and training programme. “It’s a huge commitment,” says Emma. “Most of the people that come through, especially the care leavers, come with a range of issues from their own experiences. Shared Lives carers need to be able to meet those needs. It’s not a nine-to-five job. For most of our carers, it’s a calling; they’ll say the person placed with them is just part of the family, which is exactly the ethos of Shared Lives.”

Lee and Maz

Through her work in social care in Northamptonshire, Maz was aware of the Shared Lives scheme. She’d expressed an interest in becoming a Shared Lives carer and wanted to work with care leavers in particular. So when Lee, a care leaver, was referred to Shared Lives at the age of 17, Emma and her team thought Maz could be a good match.

Lee had had a turbulent and complicated childhood that included many foster placements. He’s still dealing with the mistreatment and trauma he suffered. “When Lee first came to us, he wasn’t in a good place. He needed a stable placement with an experienced carer” says Emma. “Given his previous experiences, he was quite apprehensive about coming to Shared Lives. But quite quickly, Maz realised that with the right help and support, Lee had the potential to develop self-worth and confidence.”

Lee moved in with Maz in March 2018. “It’s been bumpy,” says Emma. “He has pushed the boundaries and there have been times when we have considered whether the placement was still sustainable. But Maz is determined and, with the support of her Shared Lives Officer, she’s persevered in supporting Lee.”

A year and a half in, it’s clear that the placement is working well and Lee has found some much-needed stability. As a child, Lee had a lot of restrictions in his day-to-day life, so when he turned 18 he struggled to cope with the freedoms of adulthood, as well as the responsibilities that come with it. But his Shared Lives placement is giving him time and space to adapt.

Shared Lives Lee taking on cooking

“There’s been a massive change to Lee’s confidence, to his quality of life, to the experiences he’s having, everything. He’s like a different boy,” says Louise Payne, Lee’s Leaving Care Worker. “Young people at 18 do struggle to go out and live in this world on their own without support. And Shared Lives is just what they need. Almost immediately, Lee’s life changed. Maz treats him like she treats her own children.”

But it wasn’t easy for Lee to take the first step with Shared Lives. “I was scared,” he says. “I was frightened of being rejected. But it’s been amazing.” Over the last 18 months, Maz and Lee have become family. Those months have included some real highlights – including Lee’s first flight. “I’ve been to Orlando, Spain, Turkey and Egypt,” Lee says. “We went to Canada; we visited New Brunswick, Halifax, Toronto and Niagara Falls. It’s very special if you go at night because it lights up.”

Lee learns a lot on their trips, visiting historic sites like the Luxor Temple in Egypt and having new experiences like swimming with dolphins in Orlando. Real life happens when you step off the plane, though, and it’s at home in Northamptonshire that Lee, with Maz’s support, is really beginning to thrive.

“Lee needs help to feel good about himself, as his morale dips frequently,” she says. “He’s a good young man, who needs a lot of patience, understanding and care. We’re like any other family. We have ups and downs, good times and bad times, illness, upsets, arguments. But it’s how we move on from that. It’s how we deal with it, isn’t it?”

Shared Lives placements give people dignity and confidence

Before he met Maz, Lee had never been interested in life skills. He’d never had a friend round for tea. He’d never had a consistent advocate. But now he has Maz. And together, they’re working to help Lee fulfil the potential Maz sees in him. There have been challenges along the way. But they’ve stuck at it, and now Lee’s getting the skills and education he needs in his adult life. At school, he was never expected to pass any exams. But with Maz’s help – including sitting by his side to make sure he did his homework – Lee completed his first year of college last year, and passed his exams in Foundation Level 1 English and Level 2 Maths. 

He’s picking up those life skills as well. Maz helped Lee navigate the benefits system, so he was able to get what he’s entitled to. He’s learning how to take responsibility for what he has, manage his finances and save money, with the goal of one day, maybe, being able to rent his own private home. He’s taking boxing classes and drama classes, which are helping him look after his physical and mental health. He also plays the guitar and writes his own songs. Lee sees the change in himself since living with Maz. “I’m a lot calmer than I was,” he says. “A lot more relaxed. I’ve got opportunities.”

Life changing

Maz says the biggest change she’s seen in Lee is “his confidence and his ability to believe in himself. He can have discussions about things now and know he’s supported whether he’s wrong or right. If he makes a mistake we talk it through and start again. He’s less vulnerable and not acting on impulse as frequently He’s starting to think things through more and take more pride in himself. Shared Lives can transform a young person’s life. It gives them hope. Lee is hard work and needs a lot of time, but I love him like a son. We have a bright future ahead.”

Lee’s progress during his placement with Maz demonstrates what’s unique about Shared Lives. “The matching is absolutely at the centrefold of everything we do,” says Emma. “If we don’t get the match right, it doesn’t work. We don’t put a time limit on any of our placements, but we say in an ideal world, after two to three years, you would hope that you’d be able to establish that groundwork and build on those skills to help people live independently. But it does depend on the individual. That is what’s fundamental at the end of the day. It’s person-centred throughout.”

As for Lee, he’d encourage anyone in a similar situation to give a Shared Lives placement a try. “It’s different to foster care,” he says. “You have more opportunity to be yourself. It’s more give and take. I would say do it because, if you get a good family, it will change your life.”

Shared Lives Plus is the UK network for everyone involved in supportive shared living.

We believe everyone should be able to choose who they spend time with – and do what matters to them. We want to reduce loneliness and help make our communities more connected and work with local authorities, CCGs and national governments to make this happen. We offer guidance, best practice, a community of people sharing their lives, legal advice and insurance.

If you’re interested in finding out about Shared Lives for young people in your care, please contact 0151 227 3499