Own two feet


Returning home to say goodbye
February 2, 2017, 1:39 pm
Filed under: childhood, family, Foster care, Life in care, Memory, Social workers, Uncategorized

Part One

I am on my hands and knees. Fingers blindly searching under the front seat of my car. All I need is another five pence. Fifty more minutes of paid parking then it’s free for the day. There must be something down here. Coins are forever falling from my pockets with a curse and a clink, finding the most awkward spaces. I often forget to retrieve them. Careless, I lose everything. Money, keys, gloves, phones, bank cards, people’s names, odd socks, important notes, the punchlines to jokes. I find it hard to hold on to anything for long.

This time the floor is bare but for a biro, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ CD and a blue Peanut M&M. I go to Plan B and reach for my credit card. My so-called smartphone struggles to load the prescribed parking app. When it finally does and I add my details, it crashes. I try again and this time it works. Payment accepted. Car safe. I’ve beaten the wave of vulture like traffic wardens I’m sure are circling in the next road.

But the feeling of victory slowly fades and I’m left standing on the pavement by the parking machine. The thoughts – on loop in my head all day – return once again. Thoughts of Michael lying in the building at the end of the road. What will I say?

I went to live with Michael Hall when I was nine years old. Michael, his wife Jenny, their son Mikey who I idolised, and daughter Rebecca. They had two dogs. Judy the Red Setter with funny teeth and Lily the little Yorkshire Terrier with smelly breath.

Their two older sons, David and Mark, had left home and had their own young families before I moved in. Then there were the aunties and uncles and grandparents and cousins and nieces and nephews. If that was not enough the church was a whole other family – many of them also actual Hall family – it was headed by Michael’s brother Conrad, who led the congregation as its Pastor in his big white house two doors down.

There were always a lot of people around. At home it had only ever been my mum, my brother and me. Towards the end a new baby brother arrived that my mum would keep when we left. Our dads were in and out and the wider family scarce and scattered, it all seemed fairly normal and still does, though my dad and I are now much closer and see each other regularly.

In the Hall’s I saw for the first time another way a family can exist. I loved this new big collective. I wanted to be part of it, part of them and in some ways, I was, but I also just wanted to go home, and a part of me still does. Over time that part of me has become quieter. I rarely hear him calling out like he used to but from time to time I hear the whispers. I listen. I tell him he has a new home now, but he still remembers.

I, and one of my younger brothers, stayed with the Hall’s until I was thirteen, when we left and were moved into a children’s home around the corner. Soon after, my brother and I were split up. The time apart from our mum finally took its toll and turned us in on each other. He reminded me so much of her. It should have bought us closer together, but it only highlighted what we had both lost. ‘He’s holding me back,’ I’d often say. He was getting into trouble. Messing things up for both of us with his behaviour. And it was harder to be placed as two brothers. I had more chance alone. I persisted in breaking us and we broke. A fracture that cannot be fixed. We no longer talk. From the children’s home he was moved on somewhere else. A few months later I returned to the Hall’s.

The final weeks of my second stay with the Halls were sad. Our relationship deteriorated. Blame, once so prevalent, slowly destroying the memories I had of them, has now been laid to rest. It’s a worthless artefact. I don’t even know who was to blame, if anyone at all. The wear and tear of being in care, the confusion of adolescence we all stumble through, old fashioned teenage rebellion and the scream to be heard, their weariness of me, my weariness of them. In the end all of our own personal realties could no longer find a way to mesh together, so we just fell apart.

It came to a crescendo of silly words battered back and forth between us over the little girl from the Cosby show, which ended in the small confines of a Toyoto Space Cruiser as Michael angrily pulled at the scruff of my shirt. I had pushed and pushed and found the edge I so badly wanted to finally leap from and I was going to take them all with me. It was the only time I remember Michael losing his temper, but I have no recollection of being afraid. I only felt sorry it had come to this.

Those times I had sobbed in the kitchen – unable to find the words – he knew and took me in his arms and just let me cry. Now a part of me didn’t want him to let go of my collar because I knew in the moment I was going to run and there was no coming back. His anger was taken over by something else. His grip loosened. The shouting stopped and I took my opportunity to escape. I quickly slid my skinny frame out of the Space Cruiser passenger window, hit the road and just ran into the night. I would not see the Hall’s for another twenty-three years.

In the years that followed I dug deep holes and threw in my memories of the Hall’s. So many memories were silenced. Our painful ending. Not being able to go in the fridge or sit on the expensive sofa. But I didn’t distinguish between good and bad. It all had to go the same way.
I let myself extinguish their love and how much they cared for me. Gone were faint memories of happy Christmases and trips abroad. Fun shopping trips, running around the common with Michael, sitting down as a family to watch ‘That’s Life’ on a Sunday. Playing football with Mikey and his friends, Jenny tucking us in at night, balloon tennis games, staying up late to watch England play the USA. I let the laughter and the silliness go too.

Eventually our ending was just another rejection, another bunch of people who didn’t want me. My pain revelled in its destructive nature and its ability to make things disappear, so I made them vanish. Almost.



I still see those faces

I am starting to catch moments in the mirror where I don’t quite recognise my reflection. Small lines creeping around the eyes, grey hairs flickering through the dark crowd, the sharpness of it all slowly slipping loose. Age painting its familiar pattern.

I still play football on Sunday mornings, though I can’t run as fast as I used to. It feels like a death that nobody else will ever notice. Many of my happiest childhood memories involved running. Chasing and being chased on the estate. Racing in the school playground on breaks. Sprinting across football pitches to win a ball and across an athletics track to pass a baton or dip for a finish-line. I will never run like that again.

My muscles mutter and moan on Monday mornings. They threaten strikes on Tuesdays. But by Wednesday they have forgotten and it’s back to work as usual. My wife sometimes says I should stop playing, but I’m holding on.

I feel bits and pieces of what has been my life breaking away. There is only so much you can take with you as the years tick by. It is a bittersweet feeling in the context of my childhood. For a long time I felt like its prisoner. Ashamed and scarred. As time passes and people pass through your life, you can surprise yourself with the distance you travel if you head in a direction and keep on going. Being a survivor was never enough for me. I had to go beyond that. I’m still going.

People are a great help in this journey, but nobody else can do your healing for you. That took me a long time to understand. Mine has been a broken path. Almost untraceable. But I’m here and there is no shame now.

You have all left your marks on me. I found myself in the arms of somebody who said I will never leave you, I found friendships in different continents that sometimes lasted moments and other times, years. All helped me heal and grow. I remember the night we spent sitting by the beach with the bottle of port, pouring out our lives. The stories shared over games of Backgammon, on the rooftop in the breeze. The mixtape that included ‘Protection’. The letter you saved from the bin and stuck back together. Dancing our legs out in Kuala Lumpur and you letting me stay in your home. The times you carried me home. The times I carried you home. Singing to Madonna songs. Lives lived in Eversleigh Halls. Misfits finding a place to fit. Giving me a chance. Giving me a life. Sharing a life. Making a life. I still see those faces.

I have been able to take this difficult time of being a child in care and shine a new light on it. I have wandered for a long time in these memories. I wander in the new ones I made after that time. I’m not sure if all the memories are my own and if any are imposters, but I don’t ponder this for long these days. The only thing I can rely on is how I feel about my childhood, especially the time I spent in care and how this affected me. It was difficult and at times painful. I remember a strong sense of never being able to truly express myself outside of anger, though it was not always like that. I feel protective of this period. I feel protective over the memories where I see myself smiling and laughing. I also feel protective over the pain that cocooned itself deep within me, but time has passed – and as I have changed through the years and collided with the lives of others, my childhood has taken flight from much the pain and lifted me with it.

As I become more forgetful, dark spots drift across my recollections of the past – my childhood partially obscured by them. Where once I would have been glad to forget, now I am trying to hold on to the memories.

For the last thirteen years I have been writing about my care experiences. I have a cardboard box in my bedroom full with writing. Lined pads, small notebooks and scraps of paper. Memory sticks scattered around the house full of files full of more writing. Stacks of sentences all about that time in my life. I am desperately trying to keep that boy alive.

I love that little boy and I am so proud of him. I want to tell him he is going to be alright. I want to tell him he will be loved beyond his imagination and he will learn to give away his love. A love so powerful it will sometimes scare the man he will become.

I fear that by writing all this, I am using that little boy. I fear exploiting him. That fear is always there, but I keep writing because I want to give him and me a voice that was missing for a long time. I also want to celebrate him, and anyone who has been in care. Together with those that look after us, we are an exceptional family, even as our memories fade and our reflections change.

 

 



I opened the letter

I opened the letter. It was from a solicitor. There had been a crash. Somebody had been hurt. I was the driver.

Wait a minute.

I was the driver.

I read the words back. There must be some kind of mistake.

Or maybe I was the driver.

I scanned my memory. This was too big to forget, even with my sieve like memory, but still I wracked my mind and kept questioning it. No this was a mistake. The letter stated the accident had happened early in the morning. I never drove in the mornings. It was a week day. I checked my diary. I was at work.

On the phone to the insurance company I was guilty until proven innocent, though they told me not to worry as the insurance claim was going through.

But I wasn’t the driver I continued to protest, and no I didn’t own a Renault Megane. I was then told I also owned a Mercedes.  It sounded great, except parked outside my house was a very boring VW Borra.

The man went onto say that the Megane and the Mercedes had been insured under my name at the address where I was living for almost two years. I continued to protest my innocence and it was at that moment the memory flashed.

The last time I had seen my brother.

Or, at least, almost seen him.

There had been an angry conversation outside my house. “I can’t find you,” he said, “where are you?… Come down and meet me.”
“I can see you… Just park where you are now… you’re right here.”
“Look just come down and meet me on the road.”

I could see him from the kitchen window, but I wouldn’t go down the four flights of stairs. I was always going to him. Always the one trying. Always doing the running. “Well fuck you!” he shouted and the silver Mercedes disappeared.

I called him.  After the denials came desperate pleading. “But I’m your brother…you’ll send me to jail again… just say it was you, come on the claim is going through”.

“Why didn’t you come to me at the time…no way am I saying it was me…you’ve gone too far this time”. I begged him to go back to the police and tell them the truth.

His pleading quickly turned to rage. “You’ve never changed…this is just you rejecting me all over again”. What was his betrayal now became an opportunity to drag up the past and a decision I had made as a 14 year old boy. He threw as much as he could down the phone and then was gone.

As kids we fought. When I say fought, I mean I bullied. It is only in recent years I have been able to accept that. So many memories I have hidden. Not only from other people, but also from myself.

I remember outside our tower block stripping him naked. Other kids on the estate were laughing and egging me on. I wanted to please them more then protect my brother.

I think I was eight or nine, which would make him five or six. Stripping him was not humiliating enough so I forced his mouth open and spat in it.

I could try and defend myself. try and paint a picture of some of the things we had both experienced or seen.  But it doesn’t matter because nothing can take that moment away.

Still as much as we fought, we loved. The love is still the same, I think for both of us. It is a wild, passionate, confused love that wants to belong, but doesn’t know how. It rages that it wants to rest, but cannot sit still in each of our hearts or heads because it never had the opportunity to mature.

It was never nurtured because as soon as we went into care I turned on him. I turned on him because he was my only memory of the lives we had had taken away from us.

His face and presence were a constant reminder of everything we were losing. It is fair to say we needed to be taken away from the lives we had. Mum was very sick and getting worse. We were getting into increasing trouble at school. His dad was non-existent and my dad intermittent in our lives.

Leaving probably was for the best, but it was our home. It was all we knew. It was where we belonged.

I went into care permanently at the age of nine. Some days it’s easier to remember being in care, but other days it’s like staring into a black hole. What is always constant in my memory, however, is the utter shame I felt. That shame was magnified in my brother’s presence. He kept reminding me of home.

I missed my mum and my friends. I knew I had to destroy them all and the hope of ever getting back. My brother was the strongest link so my effort was concentrated here. The fighting and arguing increased. Everything he did annoyed me.

At the time I couldn’t understand why, but now it is all so obvious. I threw all the pain at him, the one person who knew exactly how I felt. When he needed me the most I turned my back on him.

We were finally split up when I was 14. We’ve never recovered. I have moved on from my care experience in so many ways, but this is the one area that has never healed.

Perhaps the damage was too great and too deep for us. Before our most recent split after the car incident it was impossible to escape our past. It was always there in the room with us in opposing corners.

I wish our care experience could have bound us tightly together, but it had the opposite effect. What saddens me is that more was not done to support us as brothers.

We needed the adults, foster parents, carers at the children’s homes, social workers, to help us build the bridges we needed to find each other so we could face this new world together.

But the quick fix was always king, and I fear it still is. For years I blamed myself, but slowly I came to the realisation: I was just a child.

My brother and I needed more help then we got and today there are many other children like us in the care system.

In a recent speech MP Edward Timpson spoke about children in care in the context of the new children and families bill., He said ‘How would we feel if these were our own children? We’d almost certainly be outraged. Spurred into immediate action. So what’s the difference with the children in the care system? The truth is there is no difference. They are our children.’

We need to do more.



A race to care
April 13, 2011, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Life in care | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I stand confused naked in the bath. My dad tightly grips the towel he has just taken off the rail and stares at me wildly.

‘John, YOU are black!’

I look down at my arm that is beginning to shake with the rest of my body and wonder if this is a trick. Is he testing me? I look back at him desperate for a smile, but his silent stare demands an answer.

All I have is confusion, which is racing towards full blown fear. I look down again to check my body and then watch as the last of the bath water drains away.

‘What are you John!?’ my dad shouts.

I look up at him and bite my lip. I don’t want to cry, but the lump in my throat is growing. ‘Come on’. I know not saying anything will be worse than the wrong answer so I just go for what I think is right.

‘I’m not black…I’m cream’, I say with a fractured defiance. I know I have got the answer wrong when his eyes widen. My dad then grabs my wet arm.

‘YOU-ARE-BLACK-John, go on say it, I-AM-BLACK’. I start to cry. ‘No I am not, I am cream’. He wraps me up in the towel, lifts me out of the bath and places me in the corner of the cramped room.

I hold the towel tightly around me with both hands and my dad crouches down in front of me. I remember being scared, but as I think back now perhaps he was more scared than I was. Scared a part of his heritage was slipping away, scared perhaps that I was diluting it and not even able to acknowledge it.

I don’t know, but I do know he was fierce about telling me I was black. But I was maybe seven and back then black was just a colour to me and hadn’t been loaded up with all the labels life would later hang on it.

I don’t think my dad was really asking what colour my skin was that day, but rather he was trying to tell me where I came from. He was demanding I acknowledge my heritage, at least part of it, the part he had passed on to me, that was passed on to him.

But when all the passing of heritage was counted up in the genes that made me, it got quite messy with a motley crew of Scots, Irish, French and Dutch that I know of (it is said a Dutch woman who belonged to a family of slave owners had a child by one of the slaves and together they are my great great… I am not sure how many greats, but great great great grand parents. It was also said she was rejected by the family and given some land for her and my great great great… grandfather. I like to think they grew old together, but I don’t know).

Being mixed race did affect my care experience greatly, as, in the eyes of the system, I was considered black. I heard the phrase ‘one drop of black blood rule’ more than once used by different people and it almost seemed like some kind of contamination had taken place in me.

As I had a black father, one that flitted in and out of my life, I was told I could not stay in foster care with an all white family. Even though I had been brought up solely by my white mother before going into care. This angered me as I knew it restricted my options of finding people to look after me.

My race became a noose around my neck and I went through a period when I turned on that part of myself. I began to hate it and how it was holding me back. This negativity was fed by my experiences growing up and the role black men played in my childhood.

My two younger brothers both had fathers who were black and both had beat my mum. It was men like this that added weight to the racist stereotypes I started carrying in my head and it began to spread through me like a virus. I disassociated myself from the blackness my dad was so keen for me to acknowledge – what had it ever done for me?  

In social services’ eyes they were clumsily attempting to protect what they saw as my cultural heritage. But when you’re in bed alone in a house that is not yours, on sheets that are not yours, sleeping in a room that is not yours, while in the next room a person is on shift and is probably not going to be around for too long and who you can not really build a relationship with because if they’re not gone soon you probably will be, then it is not the colour of your skin or where your parents were born that rattles about in your head.

What rattles is that deep dark sense of loneliness. The night is especially difficult; the isolation in it is the loudest. Why doesn’t anyone want me? You move beyond your family and you get to a point where you just want someone, anyone and to have had a whole lot of people cut off from helping you hurts.

But they say times are changing and new guidelines are in place to stop this happening. It is important to note the word ‘guidelines’. I worry that perhaps guidelines will not be enough and that old behaviours will persist and some social workers and those with sway will hold on to a status quo that has proved pretty strong over the years.

I remember when Labour came into power and similar words being spoken about allowing young Black and Asian children into white families, but limited progress seems to have been made. I think this issue further highlights the lack of Black and Asian foster carers. We need more. Of course we need more foster carers and people to adopt from all backgrounds.

Ultimately I believe we live in a fragmented world and are ourselves very fragmented beings whose lives are sliced and diced in many ways. We are children, we are parents, we are brothers, we are sisters, we are followers, we are leaders, we are joggers, we are teachers. We are poets, we are loners, we obsess about weight and are part time stoners. We are angry, we are hopeful, we are at the backs of crowds and we are boastful. We are gang members, youth workers, some time deserters and police just trying to do a job. We are victims, we abuse, we are good at everything and some of us always seem to lose. We are all shades, all heights, full of truth, with just as many lies. We are vegetarians and some of us love steak. We are dreamers, we are doubters, we are silent and we are shouters. We are iPoders, X-boxers, PS3ers and some of us just like walking. We are many things in the world and to be defined so tightly by the colour of our skin seems naive, in this day and age, more than ever.

In secondary school things changed and I began to celebrate what I considered my ‘Jamaicaness’. I also went to Jamaica with my foster parents, which turned out to beginning of the end of my relationship with them (will save that story for another blog) but I fell in love with the country.

I loved the mad crazy driving, the beaches, the diving off rocks, downtown and the ‘soup man’, I loved the ocean and the food and the sun and the security lady who used to let me sneak in the hotel club at night and the music, I had always loved the music.

At school when people found out I was ‘half caste’ (a term now almost banished and one that when used makes people nervous), I suddenly gained a level of kudos I had not had before.

I remember a time hanging around outside the science classrooms at lunch and a group of boys turned up who were ‘rushing’ people (basically handing out a quick beating). I prepared for my beating, but then heard one of them say, ‘leave it, his dad’s from Jamaica you know’ and instead they went off to beat up some other poor unsuspecting kid, but it was a proud moment in the most twisted sense.

Once I became more comfortable with the idea of being mixed race (the idea more than the term), I started to read about people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglass and the Black Panthers and I began to celebrate my blackness, probably to the point where I went too far.

Suddenly my white heritage was side tracked and I held more tightly to my father’s roots (with a slight American detour, as the above paragraph shows!). But I was simply trying to find an identity, my own identity and not one I needed to be taught or that was thrust upon me. I was picking and choosing for myself. Now I have managed to find a much better balance with things, but I guess I am still sifting through the identity labels and trying different ones on for size.

As I get older, more and more things are being thrown into that mix and I am becoming more and more happily confused. But this confusion is life and anyone who tells you it is supposed to make sense is either lying or has lost their mind.

Ultimately young people in care are looking for somebody to love them and protect them and give them a chance at having a successful and fulfilling life. Cultural heritage, or racial heritage, or whatever you want to call it is of course important. We are the echo of our histories, but if we are to give young people growing up in care the best possible chance in life, we must keep as many doors to families open to them as possible, regardless of skin colour, sexual orientation or whatever other labels are currently doing the rounds to divide us.

I can’t remember how the bathroom scene with my father ended. I am sure he was frustrated and I was still confused. Perhaps I will ask him when I see him next week.



Up in the air

I wasn’t prepared for the Panorama programme ‘Kids in Care’ as it flashed on my television screen.

The blur quickly fixed itself in the eyes of ‘Connor’, an angry fourteen year old in care. In the short clip, no doubt shown to jack up audience numbers, Connor is shown attacking his social workers car and leaving its window smeared with blood (at least I think it was blood).

His rage caught me off guard, not out of shock, but more from a forgotten familiarity. I remember that rage and then I remember the vacuum. The hole in my childhood that screamed out to be filled. I often reached for rage. 

When I sat down to watch the full documentary last week I armed myself with a pen and a pad to create a little distance. I spent the whole time scribbling… recording statistics (seventy thousand kids in care, a forty per cent increase of kids in care in the last two years – there has been no increase in the number of foster carers). I scribbled down names and ages, older Connor 14, younger Connor 3, Shannon 14, Hezron 15, the social worker Chris Rogers 21.

I took down why the kids were in care; drugs and alcohol, a murdered father. I wrote how long they had been in care; 5 years, 14 years… it started to become a form filling exercise, an exercise I have criticized in this blog before and yet here I was doing it myself. It’s easy to create a gap with ‘facts’ and keep young people in care at arms length.

But kids in care have to be more than what Connor called ‘just a name on a list’. Underneath the screaming and shouting, the blood and the spit, the drinking and the drugs, the swearing and the ‘I don’t cares’ they are screaming out for understanding. They are screaming out for love… they are not screaming out for adults surrounding them with forms and clipboards and stupid questions.

They’re screaming out for more.

It’s the same scream we all scream out into this world at times, but most of us are able to fall into the arms of mums and dads and brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles and other family members and friends for kisses, cuddles, comfort and understanding.

This goes for children and adults alike. If this support is missing and there is nobody else ready to hear that scream and catch them as they fall, then they will keep falling.

As Jacky, the children’s home carer, says we just need a lot of love and a lot of trust and when kids know they’re secure everything starts coming together, without that it often feels like its always falling apart. Trust isn’t easy to get, it takes time and it takes consistency and kids being constantly moved destroys any chance at gaining this trust. The system is broken and has been for a long time regarding the number of moves young people are involved in care.

We need more from help and drive from those in the higher echelons of our political system. Connor said ‘we are second class’ and it hurt because I remember feeling just that and it’s a hard feeling to shake as you get older.

We deserve more. We need more. My words feel like a broken record spinning round and round and it’s a record that has played during both the times of the Conservative and Labour Governments. Can this new coalition Government spin another tune? Or will they comfortably settle into a blame game of who didn’t do what?

A good start would be a real push for recruiting foster carers that goes beyond a poster campaign and an advert on a cheap cable channel. We need something like the recruitment campaigns rolled out for the army and the teachers because this is just as important. Is there anything more important than feeling safe and secure, loved and wanted? Shouldn’t everything else come after this?

I also think there must be other models of looking after young people in care than we currently have. Are there any pilots currently happening? Help me out there, or does anybody know of any other countries doing it different, doing it better?

The above was pretty much written the next day after the programme aired. I’ve now had a few days to think the whole thing through. There is no doubt the programme was important, but I do fear that whenever kids in care are on television it’s always the same kind of story…dysfunction in all its guises. It almost feels like exploitation.

Maybe I’m part of that in some way with this blog telling my own dysfunctional story, still I think it’s important that rather than always perpetuating the stereotypes we need to see more of the other side to life in care. We need to see how life in care has been positive for many people, both children and carers.

I remember standing in the playground as an eight-year-old boy staring at planes as they left their vapour trails in the sky. I dreamed of one day being on one, but never thought I would. I never cared about being a pilot, I just wanted to be as high as those planes and look down on the world.

I remember my first time flying to Majorca on Britannia Airlines with my foster family the Halls. I remember how amazing it was to get plastic blue cutlery and food on a tray in little compartments. I remember take off and everything shrinking as we climbed. I remember flying through the clouds and I remember looking out of the window into the darkness and seeing a storm rage in the darkness.

It was beautiful and is still one of the greatest moments of my life… can’t say I remember much of Majorca.



A part of the family

I remember so clearly the first time I ever spent the night at my best friend’s house. In the middle of the night we crept down four flights of creaky stairs, slipped into the darkness of the front room and found what we were looking for. We were all loud whispers, giggles and excitement.

The room flooded with light as I turned on the TV while Lee put in the video. Earlier in the evening we had both been attracted to its ‘18’ certificate. Lee’s mum had rented the Mickey Rourke video to watch with her then boyfriend when she was safe in the knowledge we were both tucked up asleep in bed. When we had first seen the video we had already started planning.

‘Did you see the video your mum got?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’
‘Anything with Mickey Rourke is bound to have sex in it or at least some violence.’

We both settled onto the sofa as the video began. After five minutes we soon became bored. ‘Shall we fast forward it a bit?’ I asked Lee. He already had the controls in his hand at the ready. ‘Stop stop!!!’

Mickey began to undress his beautiful co-star. We both watched in silence hoping for more than we got. A flash of breast, some inside thigh, but not much more. We watched the rest of the film in fast forward with brief stops here and there.

As we crept back upstairs we were both a little disappointed in what we had seen (or not seen), but I loved the adventure of the night. I loved being at his house, I loved the creeping about, I loved the flash of breast and thigh (I took what I could at that age) and I loved the fact that I almost forgot I was in care.

As I got older my placements in care became more difficult. I can sit here and give my biased reasons, and will, but others given the opportunity would probably throw a few more in.

At 15 I had been in the care system for six years (I had been in more than once on and off before this also) and it was beginning to take its toll. All the hiding your background and hiding even from yourself begins to wear you down.

Then you have puberty and adolescence kicking in. Hormones were racing, but I was also finding my own feet and voice in the world. All the things I wanted to scream about were suddenly finding a vehicle in words and some people didn’t like that.

I clashed with children’s homes workers and was moved on. I kept my mouth shut in the next home. I was a very small fish in a big pond.

I was then moved back to some former foster parents, but I had changed from when I was last there. They gave me so much, but they could not give me the space to grow, or the understanding to mess up, with the knowledge that that’s what you sometimes do as a kid. Mistakes I made were rammed down my throat and towards the end we were locked in what was nothing less than trench warfare.

One night it all fell apart and I found myself escaping from the clutches of my foster father, climbing out of a car window and running down the street. I had lived with that family for more than three years. They gave me so much and that was sadly the last time I ever saw them.

At fifteen I ended up back with my mum for the first time since I was nine. Disaster. We fought and fought and fought. We said horrible things to each other we did mean. The hatred for ourselves and each other spilled out and flooded that flat for the two weeks I was there. We were drowning.

One day I was at Lee’s house. I had stopped going to school. Lee’s mum was sitting at the table and began talking to me.

‘Why have you stopped going to school?’
‘Can’t be bothered with it.’
‘Why not?’
‘It’s a waste of time.’
‘You know it’s important.’
‘I can’t be bothered, its too far now anyway.’

The conversation ended with an offer. At this time mock exams were approaching and Lee’s mum asked if I would come and stay with her and the boys (Lee had a younger brother) for the two weeks that the mocks were running – on the condition that I went to school and completed all my exams. Can you imagine such an offer in my position, actually in any position… come and live with your best friend for two weeks. That’s fourteen sleepovers!!!

Those two weeks were filled with fun and football and laughter, and even a night here and there with school books spread across the kitchen table.

I knew that the end was coming. But I’m used to ends so I buried it. I would deal with it when it happened. But before it came Lee’s mum sat me down.

‘Look, I don’t want to promise anything because I know people have made and broken so many promises with you… and I don’t know how this will work, but how would you feel about staying another two weeks and we’ll just see how it goes. I can’t promise more than that, I want to, but I can’t. I know that’s not easy for you and you’ve had enough instability, but I want to be open with you’.

I remember the moment so clearly. It was one of the few times somebody had been truly honest with me. There were no clauses, no rules, no statutory this and that, no words hiding behind other words, forms to be filed (though those would come later)… This was somebody speaking to me and telling me what they could do and what they possibly couldn’t.

As a child in care there are a lot of words that come up again and again, but as meaningful as they might be to the system and to the social workers and to the law, they are generally meaningless to the child. Sometimes we want words that cut through all that and are just for us. I wish I could have had more words for me that were just for me.

I jumped at the chance of another two weeks with Lee and his family. Both my mum and I knew I had to leave the flat I had spent my early years in, for the sake of any future relationship we might have.

My then new social worker pulled strings and got into some serious form filling and soon I was living with Lee’s family officially.

Lee’s mum refused to take any money other than what it cost for my upkeep, she was offered more but refused it. I tried to get her to take the extra but she wouldn’t. I think it’s important that carers are paid a wage for upkeep and more, but if money is the prime incentive for getting involved then it’s likely these people will contribute to hurting the children in their care. They won’t even know its happening at the time. Children are great bullshit detectors, so don’t think you can pretend you want them there when money is your driver.

Every two weeks Lee’s mum and I would have the ‘I can’t promise anything long term, but…’ conversation and the ‘two-week stay’ would stretch out further.

Lee’s parents were separated. His father lived only a mile away with his wife and young family. Initially Lee and his brother would spend five nights out of fourteen at their father’s and I would stay in the house alone with Lee’s mum.

Soon Lee’s father and his family also took me on and I began moving between the two households. There were times when I felt like I was put on them a bit and they may not have had a choice. But I was never made to feel like that by them – these thoughts all came from my own head.

I wanted this piece to highlight what makes a good care placement and I don’t feel I’ve done that yet… so maybe I should just jump into that a bit here.

I think the first thing is being made to feel wanted. I spent much of my childhood not being wanted, or if I was wanted it was not for the reasons I would have hoped. Not being wanted, or only being wanted for financial gain, kinda sticks with you. It’s a monkey I’m forever brushing off my back even now, but he’s a pesky so and so and is always climbing back on. I’m getting used to him these days. We have an understanding.

One of the things that sticks with me more then anything about my time with Lee and his family is conversation. I spent hours talking to Lee’s mum about anything and everything. No topic was off limits… drugs, sex, politics, music, books, family, school, love… the list goes on.

I didn’t realise on how many levels this was helping me and was a real positive influence on my life. I was learning so much and I was soaking up the attention. I was loving the opportunity to express myself and to develop this skill of expression. And, ultimately it was beautiful to sit and talk and just as important to learn how to really listen too.

There were times when I felt different in the household because I was. It felt like people were tiptoeing around me and I was doing the same around them, but that all changed one evening.

Lee’s mum had asked us to clean up and we hadn’t. She was stressed after a late night at work. We were laughing and joking when she came in. She began by shouting at us… all of us equally.

We stopped laughing. We sat still on the sofa and just took what we deserved – and then she stopped and began to cry. After that day I felt I was part of the family. I had seen my mum cry a lot, but it had been a long time since I had seen real vulnerability like that from an adult looking after me.

In children’s homes and foster homes people often locked away their most extreme emotions. They were for private. But to feel part of something like a family, you need to see it all. That was an important moment for me… and we did clean up after the tears!

I need to wrap this up because I’ve talked way too much… I want to tell you about the holidays we all had in Greece and how even the extended family took me in. I want to tell you about Christmas in the Cotswold. I want to tell you about the battles between me and Lee’s mum’s boyfriend and how he was teaching me and testing me and I didn’t even know it at the time. I want to tell you about two of the happiest years of my childhood, but I don’t have the space here.

In the end Lee and his family loved me. They gave themselves to me and I gave myself back. We had our ups and downs as any family does, but we’re still here. I still spend hours talking to Lee’s mum when we get together. I go to family and friends’ parties at Lee’s mum’s house where I sometimes drink too much and have to stay over (although not in my old bedroom because it’s now a toilet). We are all still family.

The day Lee’s mum drove me to university was a special day. Two weeks had become two years. My GCSEs had gone well and A-levels had been scraped through. We walked into the empty house I would be staying in for the first year of my studies. Nobody else had arrived so I got to pick the biggest room. We looked around for a bit and then it was time for her leave.

I don’t remember what our last words were on that day, but before she left we held each other tightly.

That’s a nice place to pause.



Thanks Helen

I cast my mind back and I see her battered yellow Renault, but now finishing that sentence I question both the make and colour of her car… it’s hard trying to remember back to my first social worker, but as I continue typing I see her fumbling for pens for me and my brother to write out how we are feeling in different colours on a large white sheet of paper.

I’m probably telling her I don’t want to do it in language just as colourful as the pens. My brother is probably silently stubborn. I see her heavy make up and now she’s coming back to me. As a child, her name always made me laugh and still now puts a smile on my face. Without giving away her identity I will just say it was closely related to the backside… maybe that was pretty apt because she worked hers off for me and my family.

I was talking with my mum the other day and mentioned her. Immediatly a smile spread across my mum’s face ‘a lovely woman, she worked so hard for us… lovely woman’. Nostalgia often tints backward glances, but in this case I don’t think it’s nostalgia that has coloured my view of her, or my mum’s, because I can remember the situation she came into.

I didn’t know Helen’s (that’s not her name, but I need a name instead of calling her ‘her’ or ‘social worker’. She deserves a name even if it’s not her own) background when I was a kid, I didn’t even think about such things then, but I’m guessing from her clothes and the way she talked that she was middle class. I’d go as far to say that she looked like a ‘white middle class I’ve got a lot of guilt’ type of person, maybe that’s what brought her into the profession.

I know this is a wild sweeping statement, but during my childhood I met a few of these types of people. I think their heart was in the right place, but when the rest of their body caught up they were most certainly in the wrong place having to deal with families like mine.

I’m supposed to be writing about what I think makes a good or bad social worker, but I’m getting lost in what I’m trying to say. That’s probably because there are so many things I could talk about, and ultimately what makes a great social worker can’t be put into words.

But back to Helen, I forgot to mention how scatty she was. It never crossed my mind that she had other cases to work on, and that’s because to her we were not a case. She cared and I knew that. God only knows how she coped with it all. She often wore our pain on her own face and there were times when I felt sorry for her, but she buried her own feelings for us and that must have been hard.

My mother was so broken back then and it was Helen who often picked her up and put her back together. She was always there. She tried her best with us and the chasm she crossed to try to communicate with me and my brother would make the Grand Canyon look like a small crack in the ground. We were from different sides of the tracks, but she was always reaching over. It was easy to look down on me and my family and stuff us in a stereotype, but I don’t think she did and I always felt warmth and respect for her.

It’s funny because I never got the chance to show my appreciation. I was too busy trying to hold my world together, too busy trying to get back home (I never did), too busy trying to make sense of the world, the situation and find a place for me to fit. I was very angry and I’m sure Helen took the heat from me a few times. But now I look back at her fondly.

I wish I could say thank you. I wish I could tell her about what I’ve achieved. I went to university, okay not the best one, but I would love to tell her that. I would love to tell her that I’ve been all round the world and that when I’ve not been travelling I’ve been working good jobs. Not to brag, but more than anyone she knows where I started and she played a role in where I have got. It’s a shared role, but all the same she played an important one.

Social workers will rarely see the fruits of their labour and that comes with the job I’m afraid. They are often out there fighting on the front line, under-resourced, underappreciated and underpaid, and I think it’s a shame but they need to understand that from the start.

I’m sure this is not quite right and I should really Google it (I won’t), but in thinking of what makes a good social worker I’m drawn to what Kennedy once said of himself: ‘I’m an idealist, without illusions’. But these are just words, and when you’re being sworn at by a nine-year-old boy as his mother whispers that it’s your fault he’s in care, words don’t seem to mean a lot. But they do.

There is no rocket science here, it starts with communication. Communication with the children, communication with their families, communication with related agencies, communication with colleagues. Helen talked to me and she talked to my mum, she kept us informed even when the decisions hurt us. But Helen wasn’t the only social worker I had, and it wasn’t always like that.

I wonder what happened to her. Soldiers suffer in war, out in the field and when returning home (the latter often worse)… and I sometimes wonder if she was another casualty. I hope not. She used to dye her hair red. I don’t know why, but that makes me smile.

After Helen my mind is pretty blank about who came next. That pretty much says it all. However I do remember being seen as just a case. I felt like a problem, that it was my fault that I was where I was. I needed more than I was given.

Looking back through my care file I can see where suggestions were made about support that I never received. It makes me angry. Whose job was it to follow things through?… I needed a better administrator as much as I needed a good communicator.

The job of a social worker is crazy multifaceted. The more I type the bigger it gets. I could continue typing because I feel like I have got nowhere here, the blog entry has once again got away from me.

If I’ve added anything of use here it will be up to you to pick it out from the wreckage above, very much in the same way Helen often tried to pick me out of my own wreckage.

They say you never forget your favourite teacher… do they say the same about social workers? Probably not, but thank you Helen… wherever you are.




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