Own two feet


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.

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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…




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