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. 


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.



For the record…

I’ve been told second posts are ‘infamously difficult’, so I’ve given a lot of thought to what to write, but as these words appear I hardly know where they’re heading so bear with me, we’ll get somewhere in the end.

First of all thank you to anyone that read the last post and for all your comments. Since I started this blog my insecurities haven’t shut up (they’re big talkers) – they said nobody would read it and if anyone did they would think it was rubbish, but over the years I’ve built up quite a healthy relationship with my insecurities… they shout I can’t do and even though I often think they’re right, I try to show them I can. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t, trick is to keep trying to prove them wrong.

Recently I’ve started writing about my experience in care. I don’t know what all the words will become, but I’m enjoying doing it. As a kid I was never a big writer. I liked writing when I had to do it for school, but that was about it. But what got me putting pen to paper was getting my care file a few years ago.

Let me take a step back… one day I was sitting in a training session at work, one of those ones you have to go to that is normally a waste of time. It was on data protection (making sure you kept people’s addresses and dates of birth and stuff like that safe). I didn’t think it meant a lot to me, but in the session the trainer said everybody is entitled to see any data that anyone holds on them.

It got me thinking. I realised there must be loads of stuff held on me from when I was in care (social worker reports, carer reports, police reports, psychologist reports, school reports etc). I was living in Birmingham at the time, but phoned up Wandsworth Social Services and asked if I could have all the information they held on me. The woman didn’t have much of a clue what I was talking about, but said she would look into it. Time passed and I forgot about it.

About six months later a parcel arrived. I was late for work, quickly signed for it and stuffed it in my bag. That day it was pouring with rain. Typing now, it seems like yesterday. I remember I was still drunk from celebrating a promotion the day before. In the rush I put on the clothes I was wearing the day before. Great way to start the new job. Anyway, I ran for my bus, got it, sat upstairs at the front and remembered this random package in my bag. I opened it up and inside was a red folder. I was confused and wondered if it was for me. I began reading.

It was my life in care written by other people. It started with a chronology of all the places I had been and then there were pages and pages of different reports. I wasn’t ready for it. I put my hood up and sat on that bus for an hour and cried my eyes out. I read the whole thing and cried all the way to work.

When you live in care you block a lot of stuff out. Any of you reading this in care will know what I mean. There’s so much stuff to deal with that some things you just have to block out. It doesn’t stop it happening, but you make a place for it and you stuff all that shit in there (you don’t have to be in care to have that place, we’ve all got it, but some are just bigger than others). I’ve still got that place, but more and more as I get older I find myself visiting that place and remembering, trying to work stuff out. Some stuff I never will, but I think when you’re ready it’s good to go back and look at things with fresh eyes.

So back to the file. I got off the bus, dried my eyes and went to work. I hid the file away and didn’t look at it for a long time. One of the things that hurt was that in all the words that the file possessed, mine were missing. There was hardly anything from me. I don’t know, have times changed now? Do young people fill out their own reports to add to all the other people’s reports? Someone out there please tell me? Do young people get the chance to have their say and to write that say down on paper?

Words said out loud often get lost in time, but words on the page stick. These words in my file have certainly stuck with me and are still a big influence on me. But as I’ve got older I’m starting to find my own way around them and around my time in care.

I’m starting to build my own history. I’m more than the file. I’m more than someone that was in care. I once let being in care define me, but now I’m much more than that.

But the file is still important to me. It’s like an anchor to my childhood. It’s like a map of where I’ve been. So I started this blog saying I wasn’t sure where I was going and here we are and I think I’ve already written too much. I just want to finish by saying to anyone who is in care that you have the right to see all the stuff people write about you. That’s your right. But be careful if you ever want to see your file. I wasn’t ready when I got mine. I didn’t get any warning and to be honest it messed me up for a bit. But now I’m so glad I did get it and still have it. Now I see it as a gift. It’s not an easy read, but as much as there is a lot of pain in there, there is also a lot of joy. I’ve been given memories that would have been lost.

Now I’m not saying that I agree with everything in the file, some of it is outright lies. You know how social workers and foster carers can be. They don’t always get it and their version of things is sometimes not how it was, but nobody’s perfect. I know my version of some things is definitely not perfect. It’s funny looking back now at the file because sometimes the people writing the reports so didn’t get it, so I would advise maybe keeping your own file, writing down your own thoughts (of course just for yourself, you don’t have to share them with anybody) so that when you get your file one day like I did you can have something to compare it to.

Well that’s me and the ‘infamously difficult’ second post. If you keep reading I’ll keep talking. I’ve got loads if you’re interested, but I would really love to hear from any young people who are in care. I’m sitting here tapping on the keys for you. If I don’t hear from you then I might as well stop.

I want you to tell me how things are in care for you. It’s been a while since I was there. I’d like to think it’s changed and the clothing allowance I used to love has gone up (though looking back at the silk shirts I bought I’m not sure I spent the money very wisely!), that they’re paying for holidays to Hawaii at Christmas and everyone gets a car when they leave care… it’s a hard life living away from home, we at least deserve a car for our troubles!



Finding my feet
February 1, 2010, 10:15 am
Filed under: Life in care | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Not sure what brought you here… perhaps you’re a young person in care, a foster parent, a teacher, a children’s home worker… whatever it is thank you for coming and I hope you will keep coming. I also hope everyone will get something out of this blog (I’ve never written or read a blog in my life so bear with me, I will get better!), but first off I want to say I will be talking to young people in care primarily… sorry everybody else, but feel free to listen in, you might learn something. I’m hoping I will…

My name is John. I was once in care. I hated it. I went into care when I was very young and was in and out at first, but then at age nine I just stayed in. As is often the way I was bounced from foster home to children’s home to children’s home, sure most of you know what I mean.

Along the way I smashed a lot of stuff up… was very angry and often felt totally alone (but I didn’t tell anyone this). There were always people about like social workers; foster carers, other kids etc, but crowds can be the loneliest places. People didn’t get me, they didn’t listen and that made things worse. I was ashamed about being in care. I hid it from people at school as long as I could, but they found out and took the piss. So I became a bit of a class clown and made people laugh and that seemed to make things easier with the other kids, not so much the teachers. I got in trouble a lot and spent a lot of time outside classrooms, but I still kept up with my school work. I needed an out. I needed to feel good about myself and I got this from school. I didn’t know it then, but I see that now looking back.

There are lots of ‘outs’… sport, music, books, friends, computer games… whatever it is make sure you find yours. The smashing stuff and the anger and the loneliness may still hang about (I never quite shook those off), but find that place to escape. They can take you away from your family for whatever reason that may be, but they can’t take away your ability to find that ‘out’, they may even help you get there (social services paid for my brother’s ice skating boots)…

I’m really scared of sounding like I’m preaching and I’m not here for that… I’m just here to pass on my own experiences. Maybe you will related and take something from them… maybe they will sound familiar…or maybe not.

Being in care was once my whole life. I felt like a prisoner. But now things are different for me. My time in care is still a part of my life, but it’s just that… a part. I used to be ashamed of it, but now it’s something I’m proud of because it’s from this experience that I’ve become who I am today. It’s been a rough ride at times but it’s from being in care I gained my inner strength, understanding of other people and perspective…also if you ever need a window smashing in I’m your man! When you’ve come through being in care you can pretty much take on most things… throw some real effort in and you will be amazed where you might find yourself standing one day, maybe you’re standing there already.

I hope that you will contribute to this blog and pass on your own experiences. Sometimes I forget what it was like to be in care and looking back as an adult maybe I’ve forgotten stuff. So please educate me and remind me. Nothing is off the agenda, so if you want to discuss anything fire away. Without you this will not work. I need you, so please get involved.




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