Jerome Harvey-Agyei: The care leaver fostering change for London’s youth

It is often said that the highest human act is to inspire.

With his magnetic aura and radiant energy, Jerome Harvey-Agyei is a model for empowerment.

We meet at London Bridge, a stone’s throw from City Hall, where Jerome supports the mayor as a member of the government’s Violence Reduction Unit.

Jerome, a care leaver, has been an outspoken advocate for those in social care following his own childhood experiences.

Even on a chilly January afternoon, when most working in the bustling city of London take their lunch break as a welcome distraction from their daily obligations, Jerome is being bombarded by phone calls from national radio stations.

On this occasion, they are eager to broadcast his views on a recent BBC documentary that he featured in, which covered the thousands of children who had been separated from their brothers and sisters by the UK’s failing care system.

Most would jump at the prospect of elevating their profile on a widespread platform. For Jerome, however, it is a familiar cycle.

“I’ve been saying the same things for over 10 years,” he laughs. Beneath his affable smile, however, there is a sombre undertone to his words.

Jerome’s journey has been widely documented. Born in east London, the 32-year-old grew up in state care across multiple foster families and has used his lived experience to be a voice for the voiceless.

His advocacy and charitable endeavours have rewarded him with countless achievements, including an invitation to Buckingham Palace, meeting former US president Barack Obama and travelling to Moldova to campaign for children’s rights.

Yet his “external success”, as Jerome puts it, stems from a childhood defined by trauma.

“Just to pinpoint some of the significant moments in my life, so, I grew up in care which is trauma in itself,” he says.

“I watched my mother get raped as a four-year-old.

“Trauma.

“I was abused in care for five years. Trauma.

“I moved to another house at the age of nine. Trauma.

“My house gets shot at aged 15. Trauma.

“I’m living on my own and want to die. Trauma.

“At 17, I moved to another house. Trauma.

“In between all of that, seeing my parents drunk on the street. Trauma.

“Stabbed seven times. Trauma.

“Mum tries to commit suicide. Trauma.

“Friend committed suicide. Trauma.

“Friends killed. Trauma. Other friends were killed. Trauma.

“Trauma. Trauma. Trauma.”

Jerome makes frequent appearances on media outlets to speak on issues related to social care. (Photo: Jerome Harvey-Agyei)

Jerome’s heart-breaking experiences are hardly unique either.

Whether it is health, school exclusions or suicide rates, children in care and care leavers are regularly among those at greatest risk in the UK due to their adverse backgrounds and continued stress.

Yet, the number of children in care has increased by 10 per cent in the UK in the last five years. Budgets for children’s social care, however, have continued to dwindle over the same period.

To compound the vicious and cruel system that children in care can be faced with, last year the British government passed through legislation that rations care based on age.  Since September 2021, only children aged 15 or younger are entitled to receive care daily. There is no guarantee for 16- and 17-year-olds, who are increasingly being placed into accommodation without adult carers and only occasional support.

That is, despite the law stating that children must continue their education or training until the age of 18. Yet, some of the most vulnerable teenagers in British society are being left to fend for themselves.

Boys and children from black and other minority groups have been hardest hit, primarily because local authorities have historically disproportionately housed them in cheaper, non-care settings.

Jerome, of Irish and Jamaican descent, fits all the above categories. Like many from a similar background, Jerome’s search for identity was barricaded by stereotypes.

“I grew up in care,” he says. “And I’m a mixed-race boy, who was constantly told he’s black even though I’m not that dark.”

“Obviously I don’t mind it, you know, the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice,” he proudly grins.

“But I’m still pretty fair for a mixed-raced boy. I look Iranian or Turkish to most people. So to be labelled as black was initially confusing. Like, my mom’s white so how am I just black?

“And then there was the portrayal of where I grew up and all the adverse childhood experiences.

“Stats wise, on paper, I’m not meant to be where I am. I’m an anomaly.

“Which is sad, because if I’ve grown up with the state as my parents, the state should theoretically be the best parents around. My ‘parents’ are the richest people in the land. They own the land!

“How is it then that I’m lucky? It doesn’t make sense.”

Despite encountering tragedy and turmoil at every turn, Jerome has grown to embody the values of self-love and compassion. Alongside his employment and advocacy work, Jerome is a shining presence within his community. He helped found ‘The Tope Project’, an initiative in the memory of his close friend Tope, another care leaver, who committed suicide at 23 years old.

Before his death, Tope had launched his own project in Leyton, called ‘Bunny Week’ which effectively worked as a youth centre for children during and after leaving care.

The Tope Project aims to combat loneliness for care leavers aged over 18, especially at Christmas time. Since 2010, Jerome and other young volunteers have organised parties and festive dinners on Christmas Day for dozens of care leavers in Waltham Forest, east London.

Alongside his professional work, Jerome also runs workshops to support young people in his community, with themes ranging from goal setting to empathy.

So, how did someone experiencing constant turmoil learn to navigate through a society that is not built to support those in care?

In 2012, Jerome co-founded The Tope Project, a volunteer-led initiative that aims to combat loneliness for care-experienced young people. (Photo by Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“It’s quite funny, actually,” he says.

“I didn’t intentionally do it, I did it through excuses.

“I was helping a friend who was in a suicidal state. And I’d already been through the loss of Tope. So I was like, ‘let’s go to a self-help seminar and work on you’. I just wanted to see her get to a better place.

“And then when we were to the seminar, I realised ‘Oh damn man, I’ve got to work on me.’

“That was the first time in my life that I cried, as a release.

“I had cried when I was abused in care, which was really traumatising. I realised it (the abuse) was the main thing holding me back.

“I’d first been abused in my mum’s house but it was alcohol-affiliated abuse. She was hitting us but not out of intention. She was hitting us out of frustration.

“In my first carer’s home, it was proper, intentional abuse.”

Aside from the physical attacks from the very people the child protection services had placed him under, Jerome details how the family emotionally tortured him. Being locked up in rooms, given different food, forced to only sit on the floor, Jerome and his older brother faced nothing short of a tormenting nightmare during a time when every child needs nurturing.

Yet, he chooses to channel his pain into positivity.

“Life is balanced, that’s the key,” he says. His eloquent words reflect unwavering clarity.

“People are either focused on the negative or neutral and not on the duality. They both serve you and they are both needed.

“Experiencing everything I’ve been through gave me new meaning. It was like, ‘Okay, things are going to happen. It’s going to go down. But what am I going to do about that?’ That’s all it is for me internally.”

“With my own life, there’s been a lot of trauma. But I’ve also had a lot of love.

“From nine years old, I had a beautiful carer.

“She gave me lots of love and experiences. She took me on holiday to Trinidad and I learned about growing.

“She exposed us to loads of different things and through that exposure, I saw the world as larger than the bubble I was in initially. That was beautiful. Before then, I was just enclosed in a room and it seemed like we didn’t know anything else.

Appreciating the duality of life has helped him view other dark moments from a different perspective, such as being stabbed.

“So when I got stabbed, I understood the fragility of life,” he says.

“And strangely, it was a beautiful feeling for me. Of course, no one will want to paint that narrative but it was a beautiful feeling for me.

“For the first time, I understood my body. I was present. I had, what I would call, angels around me. I was in such a beautiful place.

“Essentially, I’ve had really difficult experiences, which has helped me to see people, as they call it, with an ‘X-ray vision’ and understand how the world works. But I’ve also received positive reinforcement. I’ve had nurturers around who have given me that balance because what they offered me was unconditional.”

“So I’m now a model of that love, through balance. I’m not afraid of trauma, because I’m from it.

“A bit like Bane in Batman, “I was born in it, raised in it, moulded by it,” he chuckles.

Yet, despite increasing research on children’s rights and social care, visible change has been scarce.

“I’m tired of being researched,” he sighs when told that academic research into the care system has been ongoing for 40 years with little implementation.

“A lot of the issues that have been happening in our community just require some common sense. Add a little bit of compassion and care to the mix and you can solve so many problems.

“One fundamental solution is to help professionals have relationships. Not just in care, but across the public sector,” he adds.

“So hospitals, care, universities, anywhere where you’re dealing with people, you need to be able to enable environments where you can have quality relationships.

“So that those teachers can have quality relationships but also have quality tools.

“For instance, if someone knows they only have one hour with a young person, they have to leave them so empowered that they leave and go, ‘I’ve got enough tools that I can now pass this on’.

“That not only makes you more independent but you can then enable others to step up and it creates a ripple effect.

“In the care system that is what’s needed. They need quality relationships with quality tools to back them up.

“Our issues don’t have a dress code,” says Jerome. (Photo: Jerome Harvey-Agyei)

Jerome recognises the illusion of inclusion in the workplace as another area ripe for change: “Diversity and inclusion can’t be lip service.

 “Right now, there’s a kind of cultural pressure and I can see that a lot of it is not genuine. If organisations deeply cared about diversity they wouldn’t have needed George Floyd to move.

“It would be ingrained. Before George Floyd’s death, almost every company had a diversity and inclusion policy but they didn’t enact anything.

“I’ve had conversations with multiple companies since about the reality of the experience for minorities. The experience hasn’t changed for a lot of people.

“There are also so many layers to diversity, beyond race. If you just think about even how a building is constructed, does it have people with disabilities in mind? Does it really cater to the needs of all its employees?

“In reality, it’s not. We’re getting there slowly but it’s currently not.

“Even surrounding the narratives that we see play out. For instance, anything with terrorism is still associated with Muslims and young black men are almost always seen as criminals holding knives.

“Sometimes people look at me, see me dressed in a tracksuit and ask, ‘You work for the mayor?’ And I get all the time, ‘Oh, you speak really well!’

“What does that even mean? And what is working for the mayor supposed to look like?

“Wearing a suit? Some of these workplaces say they have a dress code.

“But we don’t know about dress codes when it comes to our issues. So, let’s forget that and get to action.

“And in terms of the stats, the ones in impoverished communities are still those with least likely outcomes, be it economically or otherwise.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s an appetite for change and I have faith that the young people have the potential to change things and disrupt the system.

Jerome leading a workshop for young people as part of the Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit (Photo: Jerome Harvey-Agyei)

For Jerome, community engagement is the key that will unlock young people’s potential, particularly the most vulnerable.

“You’re finding that young people are acting in a certain way to meet a need.

“So that they feel connected, they feel loved, they feel like they’re contributing to society and they feel they have a purpose.

“But the way they sometimes meet their needs is not seen as desirable in society.

“It’s why they get labelled. But in reality, if we saw them as people who are expressing needs, rather than people who are good or bad, or we saw their behaviour as bad, not as them as bad.

“Like, okay, your behaviours are not making life wonderful for us right now, but how do we adapt that so that you can still meet your needs and we can also support you in meeting them?”

He continues: “When I see a young boy who is involved in violence they will omit certain behaviours. For instance, they’re doing a music video with their friends.

“They’re contributing. They’re growing. They’re feeling loved and connected because all your friends are telling them, ‘You’re a sick rapper’.

“They’re feeling safe but it’s also exciting because there might be money or girls.

“You can see it’s meeting needs but through negative behaviour.

“What we’ve got to do is look at that, and think about how can we positively meet those needs? For the love and connection, let’s get them some mentoring. They want to grow, so let’s teach them how to make money.

“They need to be able to have a meaningful connection with adults that truly care and don’t have an agenda.”

Regarding his own future, Jerome’s motivations no longer lie in his professional milestones.

“My only plan moving forward is with the energy that I have and to keep giving the true side of me,” he says. “I just want to authentically spread kindness as I can.

“I don’t care to be prime minister or the CEO of a company. I don’t need that.

“I just want to be me, be able to serve people, get better at understanding and offer information.”

While the state has struggled to alleviate the myriad issues relating to the UK’s care system, Jerome has adopted the inspiring role of fostering a broader societal change for young people — one of healing.

Keep up with Jerome’s amazing work by following him on Twitter (@jerome_h_agyei), and checking out his Instagram profile (@jryhmz).

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