Whitney Clark and her twin sister are the oldest of eight children. From the day they were born, social services were involved in their lives and they were put on every register you could think of. At the age of 8, they were taken into care and were meant to stay there until the age of 18.
"Social services took my siblings first. I had to witness that, and it was just the most traumatic moment in my life. I get playbacks now, and I still don't understand how they allowed it to happen. They left me and my sister at home, thinking that maybe my mum couldn't cope with all of her children, but about eight months later they decided to take us as well."
But, she and her sister went back home when they were 12. They decided from the start that they didn't want to be in care and kept running away, spending a year at home whilst they were supposed to be under the care of the local authority. Because they kept putting themselves in danger, there was talk about putting them in secure homes, or boarding schools, but this only made them more determined. They eventually took their local authority to court to get their court order crushed.
Once a week, Whitney went to see a solicitor in London to plead her case as to why they would be better at home. They had a two-day court hearing, where social workers and solicitors argued the different reasons why they should or shouldn't go home. It was the same judge who put her into care who granted her permission to go back home - becoming, she thinks, the first children to do this in London.
"Growing up, what was happening at home obviously wasn't right, but at the time we thought it was normal. As much as it was harmful, that's all we knew and we wanted to be back home with our mum. We were at that age where we understood, yet nothing was ever really explained to us and they spoke to us like we were absolute idiots. I guess there was also a side of manipulation from my birth mum. She didn't want us to be there and we didn't want to be there, and she used that to her advantage in some instances. So, we did everything in our power to get out of the situation that we absolutely hated."
Back at home, Whitney became a carer for her Nan who had cancer. She enjoyed sports and did everything from climbing trees to playing football. School, however, didn't work out for her, and she was publicly excluded from various schools. A diagnosis of ADHD when she was 16 came too late for her to get the right support to help her education.
In her teens she started to get in trouble with the police, leading to multiple arrests.
"My mum kept phoning the police on me we never really got on and as soon as my Nan died our relationship broke down. I went back into foster care, and that actually was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
"I was homeless, sleeping on park benches and bus surfing, I couldn't go back home, and the only other option was for me to go back into care. I knew I needed support because I couldn't do everything on my own, but at the same time I didn't want to admit that I needed support because I felt I had to do it all on my own."
"Boxing gave me that outlet that I needed, and the discipline that I needed. Every week I knew I was going to go to a boxing gym."
Whitney led what she describes as a double life. At 17 she started advocating for care experienced young people, trying to change the system that had failed her. She spoke at Parliament, took part in round tables to initiate a change in policy, and did interviews for the news. She was even invited to Buckingham Palace on the back of some of this work. But, at the same time she kept getting in trouble with the police. Eventually she ended up in prison when she was 19, for possession of a knife.
"When I was sentenced, my twin was the only one in court with me. When they put the hand cuffs on me all I heard was my sister breaking down and balling her eyes out. I realised that I had put her in that position. We've only ever really had each other. I've always been quite protective of her, and, as a sister, I should never have done that to her."
In that moment, Whitney decided she was going to serve her time, and live a better life when she got out. She realised that she had a choice: the reason she was carrying a knife was because she had been held up at knife point, and if she continued doing what she was doing then she was either going to be in and out prison for her entire life, or dead. She didn't want to be like that. Her other option was to continue advocating for system change. This was what she was passionate about it gave her meaning and was fulfilling work.
When she came out of prison she ended up with no friends. She had to drop them all because they were no good for her, and she didn't want to be drawn back into her former life. Instead, she leaned on her foster carer and PA for support, and went back to the charities that she worked with previously and started getting more involved with them.
"Being a care leaver, you end up living on your own and having adult responsibilities that not a lot of people have at such a young age. Loneliness was a massive factor in my life, and having criminal convictions made it that much harder to get a job. I didn't really care about life to be honest and I tried killing myself a few times."
Whitney had a lot of anger about what had happened to her growing up, and the position she was in. She knew that only she could change this, but she didn't know how. Her local youth offending team kept telling her to try boxing, or MMA to channel the energy and anger she had.
"They said it would give me a purposeful outlet rather than going back to crime. I told them that boxing was for boys, not for girls, but I agreed to go one time. Walking into a predominantly male gym was probably the most daunting thing like that I'd done, but I absolutely loved it so I kept going back. Boxing gave me that outlet that I needed, and the discipline that I needed. Every week I knew I was going to go to a boxing gym and be surrounded by people that cared about me, a community where there was no judgment, and a space where I could be me."
On top of her newfound sport, her advocacy work continued to grow. She left prison in April 2018, and the following March she got invited to Number 10 to discuss knife crime. There, she said something that changed everything:
"I said we don't believe in rehabilitation because everyone around that table was being paid apart from me. If we believed in rehabilitation, and believed in system change, and believed in young people changing their lives and becoming part of so ciety again, I would have a job. I would have support and the skills to go to interviews. The Chief Exec of the organisation that I now work for said how can we expect the sector to do something that we are not doing ourselves, and in the September I was given a job."
Whitney has continued doing advocacy work on top of this, though this has been limited because she works in the civil service. She is particularly interested in supporting mental health initiatives.
"I remember being eight-years-old and writing my first ever suicide note. There's a big red flag right there, but no one picked up on it. I never got any support. I never saw CAMHS, and no one ever asked me why. Growing up, I had social services, support workers, and they just thought I was a naughty child."
She puts some of this down to putting on a game face before she opened her mouth and being careful about what she said to who. She lived in fear of saying the wrong thing and being blamed if something bad happened. As a result, she never spoke about her thoughts though she wishes she had been given a safe space to explore these because it could have prevented some of the difficulties she's faced with her mental health since, including a recent diagnosis of CPTSD through childhood trauma.
"It says a lot, but social services didn't pick up on a single thing yet they were so involved in my life. This is where my passion for advocating for system change really lies because reading my files now there are so many failings that should have been spotted and could have prevented quite a lot of things that I had to witness and go through."
Whitney continues to face adversity with incredible grit. The pandemic took its toll on her sport, and unfortunately her boxing gym was forced to shut down. This was coupled with a particularly nasty time with anorexia which left her hospitalised, but she is now back in the gym and is determined to keep fighting for her passions, for her sport, and to create change so that other young people get better opportunities to create brighter futures.