Own two feet


I opened the letter

I opened the letter. It was from a solicitor. There had been a crash. Somebody had been hurt. I was the driver.

Wait a minute.

I was the driver.

I read the words back. There must be some kind of mistake.

Or maybe I was the driver.

I scanned my memory. This was too big to forget, even with my sieve like memory, but still I wracked my mind and kept questioning it. No this was a mistake. The letter stated the accident had happened early in the morning. I never drove in the mornings. It was a week day. I checked my diary. I was at work.

On the phone to the insurance company I was guilty until proven innocent, though they told me not to worry as the insurance claim was going through.

But I wasn’t the driver I continued to protest, and no I didn’t own a Renault Megane. I was then told I also owned a Mercedes.  It sounded great, except parked outside my house was a very boring VW Borra.

The man went onto say that the Megane and the Mercedes had been insured under my name at the address where I was living for almost two years. I continued to protest my innocence and it was at that moment the memory flashed.

The last time I had seen my brother.

Or, at least, almost seen him.

There had been an angry conversation outside my house. “I can’t find you,” he said, “where are you?… Come down and meet me.”
“I can see you… Just park where you are now… you’re right here.”
“Look just come down and meet me on the road.”

I could see him from the kitchen window, but I wouldn’t go down the four flights of stairs. I was always going to him. Always the one trying. Always doing the running. “Well fuck you!” he shouted and the silver Mercedes disappeared.

I called him.  After the denials came desperate pleading. “But I’m your brother…you’ll send me to jail again… just say it was you, come on the claim is going through”.

“Why didn’t you come to me at the time…no way am I saying it was me…you’ve gone too far this time”. I begged him to go back to the police and tell them the truth.

His pleading quickly turned to rage. “You’ve never changed…this is just you rejecting me all over again”. What was his betrayal now became an opportunity to drag up the past and a decision I had made as a 14 year old boy. He threw as much as he could down the phone and then was gone.

As kids we fought. When I say fought, I mean I bullied. It is only in recent years I have been able to accept that. So many memories I have hidden. Not only from other people, but also from myself.

I remember outside our tower block stripping him naked. Other kids on the estate were laughing and egging me on. I wanted to please them more then protect my brother.

I think I was eight or nine, which would make him five or six. Stripping him was not humiliating enough so I forced his mouth open and spat in it.

I could try and defend myself. try and paint a picture of some of the things we had both experienced or seen.  But it doesn’t matter because nothing can take that moment away.

Still as much as we fought, we loved. The love is still the same, I think for both of us. It is a wild, passionate, confused love that wants to belong, but doesn’t know how. It rages that it wants to rest, but cannot sit still in each of our hearts or heads because it never had the opportunity to mature.

It was never nurtured because as soon as we went into care I turned on him. I turned on him because he was my only memory of the lives we had had taken away from us.

His face and presence were a constant reminder of everything we were losing. It is fair to say we needed to be taken away from the lives we had. Mum was very sick and getting worse. We were getting into increasing trouble at school. His dad was non-existent and my dad intermittent in our lives.

Leaving probably was for the best, but it was our home. It was all we knew. It was where we belonged.

I went into care permanently at the age of nine. Some days it’s easier to remember being in care, but other days it’s like staring into a black hole. What is always constant in my memory, however, is the utter shame I felt. That shame was magnified in my brother’s presence. He kept reminding me of home.

I missed my mum and my friends. I knew I had to destroy them all and the hope of ever getting back. My brother was the strongest link so my effort was concentrated here. The fighting and arguing increased. Everything he did annoyed me.

At the time I couldn’t understand why, but now it is all so obvious. I threw all the pain at him, the one person who knew exactly how I felt. When he needed me the most I turned my back on him.

We were finally split up when I was 14. We’ve never recovered. I have moved on from my care experience in so many ways, but this is the one area that has never healed.

Perhaps the damage was too great and too deep for us. Before our most recent split after the car incident it was impossible to escape our past. It was always there in the room with us in opposing corners.

I wish our care experience could have bound us tightly together, but it had the opposite effect. What saddens me is that more was not done to support us as brothers.

We needed the adults, foster parents, carers at the children’s homes, social workers, to help us build the bridges we needed to find each other so we could face this new world together.

But the quick fix was always king, and I fear it still is. For years I blamed myself, but slowly I came to the realisation: I was just a child.

My brother and I needed more help then we got and today there are many other children like us in the care system.

In a recent speech MP Edward Timpson spoke about children in care in the context of the new children and families bill., He said ‘How would we feel if these were our own children? We’d almost certainly be outraged. Spurred into immediate action. So what’s the difference with the children in the care system? The truth is there is no difference. They are our children.’

We need to do more.



Home truths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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