Own two feet


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.

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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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