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.



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.



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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