Own two feet


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.

Advertisements


Home truths

Residential homes or foster care?  My first instinct is of course neither… I just wanted to go home. I didn’t know anything else.

When the time comes for the outside world to get involved in what is home and family, no matter how broken that may be, you fight against it, at least I did. I only knew my estate and my flat and my room and my mum and my brother as home. I loved living there more than anything. I had the freedom to roam and experienced things that would have been alien to most people of my age. Terms like ‘alcoholism’, ‘depression, ‘nervous breakdown’, and ‘addiction’ meant nothing to me.

On the estate I lived a life that wasn’t a world away from the lives of those I kicked around with. We all had ‘issues’, but we never saw it like that. I never saw care coming. My mum threatened it all the time and even when I had a few days in the local children’s home I never thought it would be a permanent thing. ‘I just can’t cope!!!’ my mum would scream and I would laugh as she chased me in tears, trying to get a hold of me to give me a whack that I would laugh at even more.

But the eyes of a child are not the eyes of a man and I see things differently now, though I don’t forget how much I loved my childhood before I went into care. For many years I harboured a hate because my mum put me in care. I didn’t hate her, but I hated what she did and was desperate to find somewhere to put it, and so I put it on myself.

Now I see what she did was a brave thing, possibly the bravest thing any parent can do – to give their child to somebody else, saying please do better than me. That is a great responsibility for the state because then it’s up to them to do better. That does not mean try to do the same, but to do more, in whatever way they can.

As I type I think the word ‘better’ is not even the right word… they have to stand in for the parents and give that child the chance to achieve a life where they can grow in all the ways a child needs to.

I first went into children’s homes that were local, one so local I could see the block of flats my mum lived in. My life didn’t change a great deal. But when I was moved into foster care on the other side of the borough, everything changed. I remember standing with my life in plastic bags, looking up at a huge three-storey white house in a quiet street which was a million miles away from the life I knew.

When I walked into the reception area I was shocked that people lived in places like this. The kitchen seemed to go on forever. They even had little chandeliers (that I would later break more than once playing balloon tennis!)

That day sits with me because it was then that my eyes were opened up to possibility… the possibility that I could one day have a house like this if I wanted. My ambition was sparked. Before that day I didn’t see my life outside the estate. It was all I had known. It’s what all the people I knew had known, but now I saw something else.

A part of me is apprehensive writing this because I don’t want material wealth to seem a measure of success, but as a nine year-old walking into a house like that, it did start to drive me.

The foster family there, who in two stints I spent about three years with, tried their best to mould me to be like them. But I wasn’t like them, I had an unshakable identity and I fought fiercely for it. But I did learn from them. I learnt for me and I never forgot to look for the angles to get ahead.

When you’re in care there are a lot of opportunities out there for you and you have to be so selfish and think about your future and use every break you can get. And I mean every break… people’s support, organisations’ support, grants, social workers’ help, every shred of assistance you can get. Sometimes you hit brick walls, but you have to help yourself.

The foster family I lived with did help me up to a point, but as I was not their family I was always an outsider. I felt more of an outsider in foster care than anywhere. Trying to fit you in only makes it worse because it ignores the differences that need to be acknowledged. It hurt me when I found out that the family were being paid and that all of my presents had been paid for by social services (I found a book with a pricing schedule in a cupboard while looking for something else). I don’t have anything against that at all, quite the opposite, but the family made out as if they had done it and often I was made to feel as if they were doing me a favour.

They never understood me, or the life I had led before them. They judged me by the same standards that they judged their own children and a huge disconnect existed throughout my time there. But with them I grew – I educated myself, I travelled abroad for the first time, I sat at a table at meal times, I went on day trips, I did family things. But I was always an outsider.

I wanted to stay with the foster family I’ve been talking about, but I had to leave because they couldn’t handle both my brother and I. While there I ‘played the game’ most of the time and did what they wanted, but he was the opposite. Whereas I tried to work the best from the situation, he wanted to fight. He was two and a half years younger than me and I think that played a big part. (after me and my brother were split up I ended up back with the family about a year later…the second time I left them was crawling out of a car window after a massive argument…I was fifteen…I haven’t seen them since).

In residential care our behaviour immediately deteriorated. The constant change of staff made it hard to build up relationships which distanced us from people. The inability to talk with people and get what was inside out turned these feelings into rage and they would often burst out and I would end up being restrained.

The staff had their own lives and own families, but we never saw that. If the distance had been closed and they could have been made more real, then perhaps we could have shared more. People need people, and the constant distance put between staff and children ultimately left the kids there feeling isolated. One girl self-harmed. She was desperately reaching out, but it was hard for the staff to reach back. In a world gone PC-mad of course hugs were not allowed, at least I don’t remember them in residential care. It was like a second rejection.

But in one home I was in, one of the workers stood out and he took an interest in me. We fought, probably more than most because I was always pushing him. He saw something in me and helped me. He talked with me, tried to understand me and although it took years for me to see it, he really cared for me.

But I ended up leaving this children’s home after a violent incident. I was put in a home for ‘problem children’. Here there were locks on our doors (for us to lock people out), the TV was locked up in the office at night, you had the option of whether to go to school or not, the staff were like ‘guards’ at times. Here the kids very much ran the show and the staff just tried to keep order.

They hardly had any resources to deal with the kind of problems some of us had in there. Some of the kids needed very specialist help and yet they got the least. It amazes me that throughout my time in care I was never offered counselling. I probably would have rejected it, but I never got the option. The path a home like this sets for you is hard to get off. I was lucky.

After various residential homes and foster homes I ended up back with my mum… it lasted two weeks. It was an impossible situation. We couldn’t stand it because we reminded each other of the past we had both lived. In her face I saw her rejection of me, and in my face I’m sure she saw the same.

I stopped going to school just before my mock GCSEs. One day I was at my best friend’s house and his mum started asking me why I wasn’t going to school. I said what’s the point. At that time I felt like the world didn’t want me so I didn’t want anything back from it. Being in care takes a lot out of you and I was tired, tired of it all. But she wouldn’t let that stand. She took me in for two weeks and made a deal that I had to go to school and do my mocks.

The mocks passed and she sat me down and was frank about what she could do and what she couldn’t. She told me about her fears of having me and the effect it would have on her own children, she was afraid of the day she had to ask me to leave because she knew all the rejection I had gone through and she refused to make any promises about the future.

The honesty was beautiful. Seeing an adult being so vulnerable meant so much to me. We stand strong as adults for children because we think it’s best, but sometimes children need to see adults hurt and struggle too, and sometimes adults don’t have the answers. I was so happy with her honesty, I immediately knew where I stood with her and I told her so.

Two weeks at hers became a month. It was always a trial period, but the possibility of change never bothered me; I would deal with it when it came. Months started to roll into months and then one day we got in her white Renault and she drove me to the Midlands to my University.

We got to the halls of residence and I was the first there. The place was empty. We went to a bakery and bought something to eat. We went back to the room. She hugged me and said goodbye. I was left alone. It was a beautiful moment. I never thought when I was kicking about on my old estate I would one day go to university, but there I was. The margins are so small. I was so close to having no GCSEs, yet because of her… makes you think.

So… residential care vs. foster care? The truth is that there is no competition. It all comes down to the people. Resources are important, but nothing is more important than somebody showing an interest in you, saying you can do something you don’t believe you can, and listening when you want to pour your heart out (not waiting for a convenient time, but dropping everything then and there because there might not be a second chance).

You need to know there is somebody fighting your corner for you. I’m not sure it matters if they are a foster carer or work in a children’s home. Kids are crazy- resilient and adapt to most situations – they just need to feel wanted and cared about. There is a lot more to be said about this and I’m hoping you might be able to help me out in the comments box…




%d bloggers like this: