Own two feet


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.

 

 



Reflections – Part 2
August 14, 2015, 11:06 am
Filed under: Foster care | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

(Reflections – Part 1)

I rarely dwell on the past these days. Increasingly it feels like an old house I have almost moved out of. The walls and floors bare. The furniture gone. The last of what is left in cardboard boxes waiting to be taken away in the final load.

The older memories that make this past are slowly slipping away. Making space for the newer ones. My son navigating the assault course on sports day. Arms and chest pumping. My wife’s face as she takes my hand and places it on her belly, ‘can you feel it?’. Newer books. Newer songs. Newer surroundings. Slowly being in care is getting away from me and I don’t know exactly how to feel about it.

Growing up in care has dug itself deep into my DNA, but increasingly more is pouring into that space. It is getting crowded. Older parts unfamiliar. Lost on the fringes. A part of me says I should be happy about that. The time was hard. Lonely. Incredibly lonely. But it was also giving. Giving of people who wanted to care. Giving of new experiences. Giving of the opportunity to do something different with my life.

There are malignant memories I cut out long ago. I needed to so I could keep going. Other memories I wanted to hold on to, but they had to be edited. A trim here, some extra light there. Characters cut from a scene. New words for old. We all do it, mainly unconsciously. Tinkering and forgetting. Rearranging our own life story. A constant reboot. Unfortunately there were casualties.  I lost some of the smiles, cuddles, laughter and silences where I was happy to be there and nowhere else. I know this because after seeing the Halls again after twenty one years they started making their way back into me.

One of the hardest things about writing this particular blog (I have been writing and changing it constantly for the last 11 months) is it forced me to reflect on my memory and question its authenticity in parts. It led me to question my own authenticity as a person. Where do I fit in all of this? I found the whole thing disorientating.

Over this period I found myself accepting that these memories would never sit still. They would always be on the move. Always changing. Something in them would remain solid, but like clouds they would forever be shifting shape.

I think back now to my meeting with the Halls. Driving in the car and my wife asking if I was ok. I felt as if I hardly existed. Like a stick figure scrawled on a blank page. The markets Jenny Hall and I had once shopped in for my school uniforms and that silver suit I wore at her twenty fifth wedding anniversary with Michael blurred past outside we drove the short drive from my house to the Halls house. I stared ahead not wanting to look at my wife. I didn’t want to feel. I feared her eyes would unlock my own. We moved quickly through clear roads until the sat-nav announced the last turn and suddenly we were outside the Halls’ house. I stopped the car and just sat still for a moment. An emptiness and then a gushing of feelings. I felt like a big man. I have a family, my own home, a job and a car. I can do this. I felt like the small boy on their door step with all his belongings in plastic bags waiting for the door to open. Every part of my body felt heavy. I couldn’t move. I was scared. Excited. Sick. Proud. Alone. Protected. Vulnerable. The man. The boy. Both wrapped up in each other.

“Shall I get Dylan?” my wife asked. Our son sat nervously in his car seat in the back. His big brown eyes darting between me, my wife and outside the window. This new place unfamiliar to him too. “No I’ll get him,” I said, getting out my seat. I walked around the back of the car and felt the heaviness in my limbs leaving. A lightness taking its place. I reached into the car and lifted Dylan out of his safety seat. We grabbed onto each other and held on tight. His little arms and legs flooding me with strength. I remember words running through my mind like ticker tape ‘This is my son and I am his dad,’ as I walked towards the Halls’ front gate with Dylan in my arms. ‘This is my son and I am his dad’. My wife opened the gate and together we all walked down the path.

A knock at the door, maybe the ring of a bell. A curtain flickered to our right and then was pulled back. Jenny on the other side looking out at us. Our eyes meeting. Smiling. Surprise and a softness that I had not remembered she had spreading across her face. The hardness I had always remembered already fading. The door opened and we all hugged each other before sitting down on the soft chairs in the front room. I scanned the unfamiliar room, its contents quickly forgotten. We started talking. I don’t know who or where. Much the hour or so I spent with the Halls is a blur, but what anchors deep in me about seeing the Halls is that a part of me was home, but completely at peace with the Halls. I had left on the worst terms, but now my leaving was just a tiny piece of something bigger and better then I had been remembering over all these years.

Jenny, Michael and Rebecca are part of a fragmented family I carry inside me. A rich tapestry that I am forever patching together. A fabric, as strong as blood. Carers in children’s homes like Leonard and Carol that gave me more time than just their shifts; friends and their families who have shared their tables and Christmases with me; Ken who went from being a work colleague to a mentor to my hero because he loved me unconditionally; my wife’s family who have always embraced me, even though for a long time I found this hard to accept, but they were understanding and I love them more for that.  I look at this beautiful, complicated, messy tapestry that is my life and I see the Halls and my heart hurts in that good way.

This was supposed to be the end of this blog entry, but it didn’t feel quite right. It needed more, but I had lost the detail, so I asked my wife, whose memory is far better than mine, about the day we met the Halls and what she remembered.

I remember the glazed look and then the smile of recognition from Michael when you first walked in.

I remember the yapping dog running in between all of us as we sat awkwardly on the sofas all facing each other….Dylan and the puppy were the focus for about 20 minutes whilst everyone eased their way in.

I remember Jenny was sat next to you and kept on looking at you with a big smile on her face. Michael was regal in his comfy chair to your left, and flitted between benign smiles to glimmers of recognition and joviality with you and Jenny. 

I remember it was you who started the reminiscing game. You would say a name of someone you all had known, some I recognised, some I didn’t, and Jenny would fill you in on what they were doing, who they were married to, what trouble they were in. The conversation seemed stilted at first. You jumped from person to person to keep it flowing, and then slowly it became about you all. First all of the good memories. Some of the films you watched, you mentioned Christmas and the pork you would pickle in jars for days before. You talked of your memories of the extended family, and the house itself. You talked about your brother and you all laughed about him and the trouble he got into. Michael came alive when he heard his name. He would look at me across the room and smile and occasionally said “they always take the mick out of me”.

I remember the one cup of tea we both had getting cold, and Dylan getting restless. I remember feeling like I was an outsider looking in, but for once not feeling annoyed that you didn’t help me penetrate the conversation.  I remember Dylan outside running around their beautiful garden, and Jenny standing by the back door watching him, saying what a lovely little boy we had.

I remember there being mainly laughter… I don’t remember any bad stuff being spoken of. I remember the glint in your eye when we left, and squeezing your knee in the car driving home. I remember thinking you might cry with relief, and I remember wanting to cry myself but holding it together for you.

I remember taking the picture in the garden of you all, and thinking you all looked like a family. I remember your very long and lingering hug with Jenny, and thinking that it was almost medicinal for you and the darkness you had felt about the Halls when you and I first met. I remember being moved by the intensity of the goodbye. 

I do remember you walking on air for a few hours afterwards. It was a lovely sight.

I also remember Dylan eating crisps but that does not seem important.



Reflections
November 4, 2014, 3:45 pm
Filed under: Foster care | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I stare into the full length mirror. Thirty-six years rewinding to reveal a fifteen-year-old boy. This echo I still collide with from time to time. This is the same boy who slid himself out of the back window of their Toyota mini-van and ran. I blink and twenty-one years pour back into the mirror. What will they think of me now?

I have not seen Jenny and Michael, the Halls as I would refer to them down the years, since that night. Since the argument about the little girl from The Cosby Show dancing and singing in her first music video.

‘You can see what she is going to be like when she grows up’ Jenny says. I have been waiting for this moment. The slow deterioration between the Halls and I had been leading here and had quickened in recent weeks. Breaking point had been brushed while on holiday in Jamaica. Something about a shower. Did I or did I not have one? I said I had, but they didn’t believe me. We all stopped talking for the rest of the holiday. I remember eating pizza with an American couple who were staying in the same hotel as us. They thought it was madness. Did I ever have that shower, I sometimes wonder.

When we returned to London I was asked to apologise for the incident. I refused. Apologise for what? I had had enough. Enough of them, enough of me with them, just enough of it all. This had to be broken. Smashed to pieces. I was good at breaking things.

Jenny’s comment about the Cosby Show Girl hung in the air for a moment. Before I would have stopped myself. Swallowed the sentence. Respect your elders. But elders are not always right. Deep down the fear of being moved again to the unknown often forced me to resist the urge to speak my mind. I had been in other foster homes and children’s homes. They were not all like the Halls’. I may have struggled there at times and that comes with being in care, but I also remember the excitement of Christmas they conjured, Sunday nights watching ‘That’s Life’ with Horlicks and running around the common with Michael covered in dust and dressed in half his work clothes.

Towards the end I constantly found myself tipping over the edge of their many boundaries. The same boundaries I am currently laying for my own son. There seemed to be so many of them.

I had come from a place almost without limits. Here they were everywhere. Boundaries for behaviour (there will be no punching, pushing or kicking). Boundaries for eating (just one packet of crisps and a funsize chocolate a day (and you must eat fruit)). Boundaries for speaking (we will not accept swearing or the use of the word ‘ain’t’). Boundaries for what time you had to go to bed (simply cruel). The most painful boundary of all was the front door.

At home it might as well have been non-existent. Back then, when I got in from school, if I even came home, I was immediately back out through the front door. The estate was my playground. Now I was trapped. I never saw then the dangers the streets sometimes conceal from a mad little boy desperate to climb about building sites and hang out building camps in garages.

My mum had tried her best to set her own boundaries when we lived together, but I never cared. She was weak and we both knew it. The shouting and screaming never made a difference. I just laughed at her. She was struggling to control herself. What chance did she have with a little boy who thought he was already a man.

The Cosby Show Girl’s video had finished, but I was just starting. ‘How do you know what she is going to be when she grows up? What kind of stupidness is that!?’, I said. By now we had walked outside and were heading for the mini-van to drive home.  More words flew between us, but Rebecca (Jenny and Michael’s daughter) had had enough. ‘Just be quiet John!’ she shouted. More ammunition. I didn’t hesitate and shouted back. ‘Shut yer mouth!’. It was a phrase Jenny and Michael hated.

Throughout the argument Michael had kept his silence. We did not call him Mr Miyagi – the calm and wise mentor to the Karate Kid – for nothing. It wasn’t just he looked a bit like him, it was also that he shared his serenity and good nature.

But this was no Hollywood film and Michael had also had enough. He jumped out of the driver’s seat, opened the side door of the van I had just climbed into and grabbed me round the collar. He pulled me towards him and was shouting words that just washed over me. There was a fraction of a second where I just knew I had done it. This was the breaking things part. It was a relief. There was no coming back and in the heart of such an angry situation I felt peace. A couple more tugs and I was back in the real world. I pulled away from Michael, who was already releasing me with what looks like regret in my memory’s eyes, though I could be wrong. I had one last look and then dragged myself out of the back window and ran.

I had arrived at the Halls’ as a ten year old with my brother with just a few bags and a lot of baggage. They had filled my life with so much more than I could have experienced if I hadn’t have ended up on their doorstep. They were human. There were mistakes, but they cared deeply about me. I stayed with them for almost four years over two different periods. It ended with me running away from them in that van. I ran back to my mum’s house, where I would stay briefly before going to live with my best friend for the rest of my time in someone else’s care.

I stare into the mirror. In one hour I will be meeting the Halls again. ‘Are you ready John? I think we should go now?’, my wife shouts from downstairs. I don’t know if I am.

To be continued…



The magic of Christmas
December 19, 2013, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

I remember the lights and colours and stacks of presents under the tree with their tiny tears. Peeking was as much a part of Christmas as turkey and sprouts.

When I look back to those Christmas’ before I went into care nostalgia takes hold and pulls me under. It takes me all the way down to a place that is free from the times that followed. That place is still pure. Perhaps purer then it ever really was. It is a sanctuary that I am now allowing myself to return to because for a long time I banished it from my mind.

I feel myself being shaken out of the darkness. The world coming into focus through the face of my mum who is rocking me awake. Her eyes are wide and filled with excitement. ‘Wake up, wake up.’

Soon me, my little brother and mum are sitting underneath the tree. ‘We’re just going to open one each’, she says. The clock says we’ve only just crept past midnight. We open them all.

The memory breaks into pieces and starts to scatter. I can’t hold on to it. Bright reds and greens and golds and silvers swirl. Before it is all gone I see us in our dressing gowns. I am pouring water into the top of the train. I push the switch and we all watch in amazement as it chugs across the carpet pumping out real steam.

Then things change. You have no control. Just a pawn on a board in a game you have no clue about. You hold onto the hope that this is temporary, but as time passes that hope fades. In its place you build walls. You duck down and dig in…and then Christmas comes.

It strips everything back. It amplifies everything in its very nature of being a time you share with those that are the most important to you. The people that you love. Your family and your friends. Even if they annoy the hell out of you, or you find it difficult to be around each other, this is the time you come together.

This can be an incredibly difficult time and, for me, it wasn’t isolated to my time in care. It carried deep into my adulthood. That amplification never went away. It acted as a reminder of what was taken away from me. I know that nostalgia plays its part, but I also know that Christmas was always a very special time at home.

We did not have much, but at Christmas we had everything. Mum moved heaven and earth during that time of the year to make it special and that stays with me. The beauty in that memory however became corrosive over the years. Until I had my son.

This year feels different. I see the excitement in my son’s eyes and it rekindles the same excitement I felt as my mum rocked me awake that night. Together with my wife, we are building Christmas anew. We will create new memories that will amplify their own story as time passes.

Christmas will forever carry an echo of those times I spent away from my family, but as I have written before, these echoes carry the message of how important right here and now is, and that we have to take our own destiny in our hands and build our own future. At this time of the year I want to build something magical for my son. I want him to see the same excitement I saw in my mum’s eyes back at the beginning.



Jobs a good’un

I never really believed I could get the job. After I was shortlisted for the interview there was a moment when hope dared to flutter into my thoughts, but I quickly buried it under my concrete insecurities. The role was far too out of reach for me. I didn’t have the right experience. I would get found out in the interview. My wife and my friends at work cheer led from the sidelines as best they could, but I became increasingly afraid as I thought about the next stage in the process.  

It takes me two scans through my care file to find it. ‘On 3rd October, 1988 [mum] phones Social Services saying she had left both boys with a neighbour and that she had no intention of collecting them as she could not cope’.

I have tried to remember that day a number of times throughout my life. I have even attempted to write about it and have sat my brother and myself on the neighbour’s sofa with our feet dangling over the side. He is crying and I am scowling. The neighbour is in the kitchen washing up and waiting. What must she have felt back then I now wonder. It is a story I’ve told myself so much that it almost feels real.

This was not the first time I went into care, but was the last time. After this occasion I never went back home to live as a child. This experience and all the moves that followed chipped away at a self confidence that was once brutally strong. It was a confidence that had me challenging anyone to a running race in the playground, a confidence to scale up the sides of any buildings clothed in scaffolding and a confidence to run around with kids older than me and hold my own. This all before I reached ten.

In care this confidence was smashed. I became hollow. I tried to reach out, but I did not know how. One set of foster parents, that I spent a considerable amount of time with, wrote in my file that I knew what pleased people and that I could be a ‘bit of a creep’.

I remember them calling me that and at the time it was seen as funny. But things like this only contributed to the distancing I felt – between me and other people and, most importantly, the distance I felt open up between the me I knew, and the me I was becoming in care.

I was embarrassed by being me because I was in care. The fact that I kept being moved only enhanced this feeling and a sense of abandonment, first by my blood and then by the system.

As I get older, my childhood is something I have continuous dialogue with. I admire that boy and that he came through that experience. He is my champion, but there are times when I struggle to make the leap to the man I have become.

On the outside I have crafted a number of roles I play to the world. They even have me fooled from time to time, but still the memory of the rejection lingers.

When I received the phone call letting me know that my first interview and presentation had gone well and that I was shortlisted with one other for a second interview a relief flooded over me.

I had not made a fool of myself.

The worst of it was over and for a moment I did not care about the job, I was just so happy I had survived and come through it. Then I quickly set about preparing for the final interview with the help of two friends at work that throughout the process shrugged off their support as nothing, but who kept me afloat.

I remember the rugby player Brian Moore once talking about his career as a top rugby player and representing his country and how he never felt good enough, but it was this feeling that pushed him on to achieve so much. He talked about the positive use of negativity and how you can either use it or let it use you.

After the second interview I walked out knowing I had done as much as I could. Again I felt relief that I hadn’t embarrassed myself, but I also felt proud of what I had achieved to get to that point. I still held back the belief that I could get the job, but now it was over in my head there was nothing more I could do.

The next day as I was sitting at my desk the phone went. I knew it was about the job and took the call outside.  I braced myself because in that moment I was so close and I suddenly let it all go and I desperately let myself want the job. On the other end the voice talked about some areas for development and that I lacked certain experience. My heart sank as I agreed on the phone. ‘But taking that into account we would like to offer you the job’. I wanted to scream, but replied ‘that’s fantastic news’.

When I came back into the office my two colleagues who had been so supportive looked up at me expectedly.  I smile stretched across my face and said ‘we did it!’

I know that I will always carry a lack of confidence that I believe was profoundly brought about by being in care, but I also know that it is the war I wage with this negativity that has kept me pushing on into places I never thought I belonged. It is important to add that growing up in care does not give me a monopoly in the ongoing  struggle for confidence. I think that is very much part of being human. We all carry that fear that likes to wake up from a slumber just in time for job interviews, school or work presentations and any kinds of public speaking.

As somebody who has grown up in care, I know there is so much that wants to turn us away from a life we deserve, there is so much that wants to push us towards being a stereotype and being part of the statistics that tell us we are less likely to achieve good grades at school, that we are much more likely to become prisoners and prostitutes and drug users.

But none of us have to become slaves to our experiences.



Same curve of a smile
November 24, 2011, 12:44 pm
Filed under: APPG, leaving care | Tags: , , , , ,

Billy stood up, put his hands behind his back and began to fill the silence of the room. At first he stumbled through his words, but then quickly pulled them together and with them the attention of the crowd. ‘I have been in care for 13 years and have had 16 placements’.

It should have been shocking, but a collective understanding flooded through the room. He was one of us. Many had walked in those polished black shoes. It was in the nods and the murmuring.

He talked about being in one placement for two and a half years. ‘I was neglected’. More nods. I, like many was hanging off his every word, while at the same time hanging off my own memories of my time in care.

It hurt, but at the same time here was a stranger who knew me and I knew him and yet we had never ever spoken. The fact that over fifteen years separated us seemed of little importance. His story, so familiar, but still no less powerful then took a turn. He found the Lodge. ‘I feel safe there…all my needs are met…they support me’. We were all with him. All on the same curve of a smile.

It may not have been us that had found the Lodge, but he gave people hope that such places existed. But then he took another turn. ‘They want to close it’…’There was no consultation with any of us [young residents]’. Saving pounds and pence seemingly more important than people’s futures. The place where he felt safe was now under attack and Billy was standing there in his dark suit fighting for himself and probably without even knowing it, for many others in the room and beyond.

At times, as I stood leaned up against the wooden panelled wall of the Boothroyd Room at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, it felt like  war. On one side and showing in force young people living in care and with them the people that fight by their side. The care workers, social workers, volunteers, charity reps, care leavers, even the slick and humorous Edward Timpson MP. But there is no escaping, this side is outgunned and out manned.

On the other side, and far away from the room (even though it was in the heart of Westminster), the great hulking faceless machine. A machine that hides behind the overused words of ‘the system’. A machine that seems to have no real accountability. It doesn’t matter who is in government. This machine doesn’t care about political colours. Every now and again it gears up and spits out policies and slogans of what it might do, could do, but then sinks back into the safety of anonymity and shrugged shoulders, blaming the ‘necessary cuts’ we all must accept and how ‘we’re all in it together’.

If all that fails then the machine switches to the finger pointing game that goes on between central government and local government. Like two kids fighting over a toy, except neither wants it. The excuses and the faces have changed over the years, but not much else it sometimes seems.

Unfortunately this war that most in the room had come to fight is not one that is fought in the full glare of the media (even Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to make the news these days). It is fought behind closed doors, on phones and in forms and in offices and in bedrooms and in doctors surgeries and sadly often in silence.

I look down at the notes I made on the day, some are hard to make out now because of the state of my writing, but I see ‘care system lets people down…they fall through the gaps’. Further down the page, ‘lack of rights and entitlements…lack of remedies’. Hanging off the bottom of my page is ‘there is good practice going on out there, but people are not sharing it’.

Later on a care worker stands up and says he is happy to share what works for his area, but people are unwilling to come and see. Another care worker stood up to talk about a film he had made about the successes Hackney had achieved, but hardly anybody came to see it. ‘Why won’t they come?’ he asked.

But even in the darkest places hope can always be found if we go looking for it. Success stories were scattered throughout the room with people entering higher education, further education, finding families, finding flats and ultimately finding their voices (more than once I was in awe at the eloquence of how people spoke).

There is no doubting that the struggle for people in care will go on on so many levels. In heads and hearts. In schools and colleges. In the attempt to hold family relationships together. In the constant fights for funding. The fights for stability and consistency. The fights for good social workers. The fights for more foster families. The fights for good accommodation and so the list goes on. But being in care has a way of making you battle hardened and you learn quickly how to fight, but is this really what this system should be about? Is this really ‘care’?

In the end more is needed across the board and it is not just about money. It is as much about good organisation and serious accountability. The ‘decision makers’ must stand up and be counted. Too many good ideas are following too many young people down the gaps that exist in the system. The room all night demanded better than the recycled words that we’re so tired of hearing. We need action. As a man said towards the end ‘we need people to stop passing the buck because it’s been going on for too long’. Everyone agreed.

I left the meeting with Billy at the forefront of my mind. I had clapped hard for him after he had spoken. It is not easy to stand up in a crowd and tell your story. I was proud of him, proud of his will and proud of his eloquence.

In the end I was most proud to be on the same side as Billy and everybody else that had come to be acknowledged in the Boothroyd room that night.



I may have left care, but it has never left me
September 14, 2010, 2:45 pm
Filed under: leaving care | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

My positive side says that going into care was ultimately for the best. I can see the path that was being plotted for me. All my school reports before I left home talk of wasted potential (this counts for secondary school too) and constant fighting. On one occasion my care file talks of me being restrained for an hour and a half at school before the police were called. I was ten.

At home violence was familiar to the point that when I saw my mum have her nose broken I thought it was her own fault. She just wouldn’t shut up, didn’t know when to stop and one of her male drinking partners thought he would show her how. Of course, even with the blood streaming down her face, it showed her nothing and they probably hugged and made up in seconds. That’s just how things were.

Those of you who have experienced stuff like this will understand what I mean when I say that I just got on with things. It wasn’t even that dramatic. It was the rough edge of normality.

But this life, and what I was seeing, was seeping into me and I was becoming it. Telling whoever I wanted to ‘f*** off’ at the drop of a hat, breaking into schools, fighting, generally not caring about anything or anyone. And if I had stayed I know it would have been hard not to go down the route that my home life was offering me.

In care, one set of issues was exchanged for another. Over time lots of memories from those days have faded away. The faces of carers and children I lived with have disappeared. But I know this is me remembering to forget because it’s often easier that way.

Unless you’ve been there you will never understand what it’s like to be abandoned in this world. When both your mum and dad turn their backs on you that cuts a hole that can never be filled.

As an adult I can now rationalise what happened to me, but the heart is not rational and the pain still remains. There are days when the positive side wins out and I’m happy that I managed to go to university and that my working life has been relatively successful. In my battle with my experience I win out mostly and refuse to let it dominate me, but it is still a big part of me. Take that part away from me and I will lose much of my identity. It’s the bitterest, and yet sweetest side of who I am.

I intended for this post to be about leaving care and it is, but it’s hard to find the finish line. And this can only highlight the desperate need to support young people when they leave care. Going from a controlled daily existence to then being put out into the world to fend for yourself is a scary thing.

Thinking back I’m not sure when I actually left care. Was it climbing out of my last foster parents’ car window and running away? Was it saying goodbye to Lee’s mum (see July’s post) in my university halls bedroom? I’m not sure because I did get a £500 cheque each year from Social Services while I was still at university, which I quickly spent on essential studying equipment… alcohol!

But seriously, I guess I was still part of the system because I also received a letter about independent living. No phone call, no visit, just a letter. Something so important deserved so much more. I had been in care since I was nine.

Recently I’ve been reading about the experiences of young people in care today and it saddens me to see that very little has changed. Support can be sketchy and there is often a lack of understanding from some of the people who are part of the system that provides this support.

Also I see a tragic fatalism that says that this is just the way it is. Complain about the dirty flat you move into as you make the transition from care into the real world and you’ll be told that it’s tough and that you should be grateful. I still feel like people leaving care and those who are in care are squashed into statistics and budgets and reports… people need to remember that we are often people with complex needs who need a solid support system.

I appreciate that we are living in a world of cuts at the moment, but the money and effort put in to support people leaving care could ultimately save money in the long run (not that decisions should always be made on a monetary basis).

The statistics concerning people who have been touched by the care system relating to academic achievement, the likelihood of becoming homeless and the likelihood of going to jail, alongside other statistics scream out that more has to be done. There are care leavers who go on to lead productive and happy lives. But I don’t need a statistic to know that this number is far too low.

I think the final letter I ever received from Social Services was to ask me if I wanted to stay on the independent living scheme, and that if so I needed to take up a flat soon. By then I was living in the Midlands and still had another year of studying. Time was moving on and the truth is I wanted to distance myself as far away from Social Services as possible, so I said no.

I was lucky because I had built a support network around me by then. But that was the last I heard from Social Services. For so long they had been this great hulking thing that had controlled my life, and then they were suddenly gone.

I’ve blagged my way through a lot of my life since then, but there are times when I wish I had been offered some kind of emotional support. Sometimes leaving care can be an elating experience, you can go through a honeymoon period, but down the track the demons can catch up with you. People need help in this department just as much as the everyday things like budgeting, filling out forms, paying bills, writing CVs etc. I never got that help and many others don’t seem to either.

I actually did some research for this blog for a change and there are a lot of great ideas that can be found in various reports and articles about improvements that can made to support the transition from care to independent living. (Such as Ofsted’s report, Support for care leavers). Also the young people this affects are full of great ideas and practical ways to make the transition easier. For example, at the Associate Parliamentary Group for Looked-after Children and Care Leavers.

But, if there is nobody to coordinate these ideas and take responsibility in the higher echelons of government and the related departments and agencies, then the sense of abandonment many feel coming into care will only be further reinforced when they leave it. 



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