Own two feet


A message from Garry – Part I
July 21, 2016, 9:44 am
Filed under: childhood, Foster care, leaving care, Memory | Tags: , , , ,

 

I scanned the email. Words jumped out at me… ‘LinkedIn… hoping… corporate… personal… 5 mins of your time… coffee… selling’. I thought about deleting it. Clearly it was junk mail. Someone selling something I didn’t want or need. I was used to receiving emails like this from time to time. People selling courses or data sets (whatever they are) or some kind of marketing opportunity, but I didn’t press the delete key. Instead I found myself tapping the keys and moving the mouse and logging in to the LinkedIn website.

Sure enough, a LinkedIn request was waiting from ‘Garry’. I clicked on his profile. A man stared back. Dark suit. White shirt. A purple handkerchief. Seeing the purple I thought of Prince. It still felt raw. The man in the photo looked professional. Super neat. Attractive. There was something distant in that stare. I scanned down his profile: ‘Strategic Change at a well-known bank… private school… university… London Business School… contractor… credit risk manager’. I tried to work out why Garry was contacting me but I could not see our link. What was he selling?

“What do you think he’s trying to sell?”

I flicked back to his original email and shouted across the office to my colleague: ‘Listen to this.’ I read the email aloud. It finished with the line, ‘I’m not selling anything :-)’. Even though I was shouting it across the office I didn’t take in the ‘not’ part of the sentence. “What do you think he’s trying to sell?” I asked my colleague.

I wrote back:

‘Hi Garry,

Apologies, but I have not been on LinkedIn lately and missed your request… have accepted it now. Based on your profile/background I am not sure how I can help you, but please fire away…

All the best,

John-george’

My mind began to tick. Perhaps I was being headhunted. It had happened before and it was a bit like this, but still I could not see the connection between this man and me. Our jobs and lives felt too far apart. My mind then, like it sometimes does, slipped into the fanciful. I had just binge-watched ‘The Night Manager’ and for a whole five seconds convinced myself Garry was in fact from MI6 or some other secret service agency. My country needed me. They must know about my work in the Middle East (okay, medical education is a tenuous link, but I ignored that), clearly the UK Government needed a man like me on the ground there. It’s amazing what you can imagine in the space of five seconds. Dark suits, dark glasses, dangerous people, my own gun, gadgets, secret documents, back street dealings, fast cars. The rational part of my mind quickly woke from its temporary slumber and started talking sense: Back in the room pal, you know he’s just trying to sell you something. Come on, let’s go, it’s home time anyway.

I was on the train waiting to leave Victoria Station when Garry’s reply came through.

‘Hi,

Thanks for coming back. Yes, our professional backgrounds are very different. I’d really appreciate 5 mins of your time. Perhaps after work today? There’s a Starbucks on S End Road near Hampstead Heath train station and one on Haverstock Hill near Belsize Park tube. I can be at either from 5 dependent on your route home (assuming your work address is correct).

I’d just like to introduce myself and after that it’s up to you. It takes me 30mins to get there so I’ll just head to the area if I haven’t heard from you. Appreciate you’d be taking time out so please don’t worry if you can’t spare the time. Not really something to share by work mail.

Garry’

My mind searched for something to hold on to. The train began moving. The city outside blurred. Garry, Garry, Garry. The name bore into me, started to repeat like a broken record and then it came to me in a flash and my stomach flipped. Suddenly I was sitting on the sofa with my Dad’s wife Angie, ten or fifteen years ago, with a photo album open in front of us. I turn the page. A collection of pictures. A young boy I have never seen before. Maybe thirteen. In London for what looks like a day out. Crowds, pigeons, a river cruise, the lions at Trafalgar Square. The pictures are all in soft-focus, creating a nostalgic haze. I look at the boy. A long silence stretches and then Angie says, ‘That’s your brother; Garry’.

I have no recollection of knowing about Garry’s existence before that day on the sofa with Angie. I had stared hard at the pictures. Later Angie tried to talk about Garry, almost as if to give life to the little boy beyond the blurred photographs. She didn’t say much, perhaps a few sentences. I cannot recall their content, only the sadness and regret wrapped around them.

“I cannot recall their content, only the sadness and regret wrapped around them.”

I never spoke to my dad about Garry. We were not where we are now. Back then we had our own distance to close, but from that day, whenever people I cared about asked about siblings, I would say I have four brothers, but one I’ve never met.

I did type Garry’s full name in to Google a number of times, but he had since changed his surname to his mother’s name.

When I got home, I called the number Garry had left in his email. ”Hi, it’s John-george, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to meet, but I got your message on the train.” Garry said it was okay.

“I think I know who you are,” I said. “That’s good, that should make this easier,” he replied.

We met soon after in a pub in Tooting. I arrived early and when I walked in Prince was playing. Garry arrived soon after that. I had been nervous. Four hours, a few pints and a meal later, we hugged and said goodbye. It was both strange and really normal. We got on, at least, I think we did.



Those voices fall silent

Here we are again. Retracing lines. Day turns into night, back into day, back into night. The light and lack of it, the only real contact with time I have. The whole world existing inside the blue curtain pulled around us. Like the first time, this baby doesn’t want to come. We wait.

After two days and two nights she arrives in a crowded room of smiles and dedication. Two of the nurses cry as she is held up for me to finally reveal the surprise. I keep looking for it because I am sure we’re having another boy. It must be hiding. I keep looking and then slowly the words start to trickle from my mouth: “It’s a girl… it’s a girl… it’s a girl…” My wife lets out a kaleidoscope cry of joy, relief, exhaustion and a love that will forever resist any attempts to define it. I now have a daughter and a son. I can’t believe it. I sit behind my wife as everybody continues to play their role. I watch them in awe. This operating theatre worthy of its name – I’m watching a play of talented actors and I feel like a spectator until the midwife brings my daughter to me, wrapped in a white blanket, and places her in my arms. My legs swing from the chair unable to reach the floor. I look down at her. I still can’t believe it, yet it feels like the most normal thing to be holding her. It’s like she has always been here.

“How could they give you up and put you in other people’s places and other people’s lives?”

I know they’re coming. Pushed back by the occasion and the effort and the pouring out of love that floods in with the birth of a child. At times I feel as if I could drown in it. Yet they do come. The feelings with voices that pick at me. All the sentences leading to the same question – how could they have let you go like that? How could they give you up and put you in other people’s places and other people’s lives that were not their own? Over the years I have come to terms with the answers. I have made my peace and wrapped a rationality around it that keeps everything together, but every now and again there is an unravelling.

People are forever keen to tell you about their own experience of having children and to give you advice. How to get them to sleep through the night, the merits of breastfeeding, games to stimulate their brains in the hope of creating a little genius, but nobody ever mentioned the porthole that opens up that leads back to your own childhood or how you are thrust into your parents’ shoes and start to see your past anew. No longer just looking up at the world as child, but now looking down as a parent and seeing all you had known to be solid and true start to breakaway. The things you were so sure of, people’s personalities and decisions, start to slip because you now see the world through the worn in eyes of a parent and that changes everything underneath the surface of memory.

I have at times struggled with this. With these new eyes turning parts of the past on their head. I have understood more than ever why my mum took the difficult decision to put my brother and me into care. I can become her and take on my shoulders her pain. I can take on the violence and the abuse and the drink and the damage and then imagine how I could distance myself from my own child. I feel the hopelessness in myself and the hope that somebody else can provide my child with more than I have to give. But then cutting through this, especially when I look into the faces of my son and daughter now, is my certainty that I could never do that. I could never let them go like that. No matter what happens in my life, I know that I would dig as deep as was needed and fight any foe to hold onto my children and keep them close. There is anger at my parent’s weaknesses. There is pain that they didn’t have enough for me, but as my thoughts start to settle and the landscape starts to colour in my children, wife, friends, career, home, places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had, those voices that whisper from the darkest places fall silent. Still, even though what my mum wanted for me, when she made that difficult decision to leave my brother and I with a neighbour for social services to pick up, has in some sense happened, it has come with a price.

I pay this price, as do my parents in their own way. We carry this experience, and the price more recently has been hefty, as my relationship with my mum has fallen apart. I get tired sometimes, holding it all together for her. She is very fragile and although I love her dearly I find this fragility hard to witness. For too long I felt like I was the adult and she the child, even when I was a boy. Now I really am a parent and sometimes I just wish I could be more like her son.

“To watch them with him, then and now, is like witnessing a resurrection.”

My dad and I went many years without seeing each other and when we did get back in touch I didn’t mention the past and neither did he until we came back from the pub and stood, in the early hours of the morning, in the kitchen, finally talking. I was standing by the sink. I looked up at him and said, “Why did you leave me out there?” It was a conversation that was hard for both of us, but all I ever wanted to hear was that he was sorry. I just needed to hear that. I understood why in my own head and could imagine how different events led to him walking away like he did. He did try and we kept contact here and there throughout my childhood, but there was a space where both he and my mum were missing. After we talked, everything between us felt so much lighter. When I had my son, my dad and his wife looked after him one day a week. To watch them with him, then and now, is like witnessing a resurrection. I cannot get back my childhood, but I see – now – how that time is enriching my own children’s lives.

I have not slept much lately. My daughter is now five weeks old and she has exceptional lungs. My wife says my son was the same, but I’m not so sure. You’ve just purposely blocked that part out of your memory, she says. Perhaps I have, we can’t carry everything that has happened to us, but we can make the most of that stuff we do carry.



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.



A race to care
April 13, 2011, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Life in care | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I stand confused naked in the bath. My dad tightly grips the towel he has just taken off the rail and stares at me wildly.

‘John, YOU are black!’

I look down at my arm that is beginning to shake with the rest of my body and wonder if this is a trick. Is he testing me? I look back at him desperate for a smile, but his silent stare demands an answer.

All I have is confusion, which is racing towards full blown fear. I look down again to check my body and then watch as the last of the bath water drains away.

‘What are you John!?’ my dad shouts.

I look up at him and bite my lip. I don’t want to cry, but the lump in my throat is growing. ‘Come on’. I know not saying anything will be worse than the wrong answer so I just go for what I think is right.

‘I’m not black…I’m cream’, I say with a fractured defiance. I know I have got the answer wrong when his eyes widen. My dad then grabs my wet arm.

‘YOU-ARE-BLACK-John, go on say it, I-AM-BLACK’. I start to cry. ‘No I am not, I am cream’. He wraps me up in the towel, lifts me out of the bath and places me in the corner of the cramped room.

I hold the towel tightly around me with both hands and my dad crouches down in front of me. I remember being scared, but as I think back now perhaps he was more scared than I was. Scared a part of his heritage was slipping away, scared perhaps that I was diluting it and not even able to acknowledge it.

I don’t know, but I do know he was fierce about telling me I was black. But I was maybe seven and back then black was just a colour to me and hadn’t been loaded up with all the labels life would later hang on it.

I don’t think my dad was really asking what colour my skin was that day, but rather he was trying to tell me where I came from. He was demanding I acknowledge my heritage, at least part of it, the part he had passed on to me, that was passed on to him.

But when all the passing of heritage was counted up in the genes that made me, it got quite messy with a motley crew of Scots, Irish, French and Dutch that I know of (it is said a Dutch woman who belonged to a family of slave owners had a child by one of the slaves and together they are my great great… I am not sure how many greats, but great great great grand parents. It was also said she was rejected by the family and given some land for her and my great great great… grandfather. I like to think they grew old together, but I don’t know).

Being mixed race did affect my care experience greatly, as, in the eyes of the system, I was considered black. I heard the phrase ‘one drop of black blood rule’ more than once used by different people and it almost seemed like some kind of contamination had taken place in me.

As I had a black father, one that flitted in and out of my life, I was told I could not stay in foster care with an all white family. Even though I had been brought up solely by my white mother before going into care. This angered me as I knew it restricted my options of finding people to look after me.

My race became a noose around my neck and I went through a period when I turned on that part of myself. I began to hate it and how it was holding me back. This negativity was fed by my experiences growing up and the role black men played in my childhood.

My two younger brothers both had fathers who were black and both had beat my mum. It was men like this that added weight to the racist stereotypes I started carrying in my head and it began to spread through me like a virus. I disassociated myself from the blackness my dad was so keen for me to acknowledge – what had it ever done for me?  

In social services’ eyes they were clumsily attempting to protect what they saw as my cultural heritage. But when you’re in bed alone in a house that is not yours, on sheets that are not yours, sleeping in a room that is not yours, while in the next room a person is on shift and is probably not going to be around for too long and who you can not really build a relationship with because if they’re not gone soon you probably will be, then it is not the colour of your skin or where your parents were born that rattles about in your head.

What rattles is that deep dark sense of loneliness. The night is especially difficult; the isolation in it is the loudest. Why doesn’t anyone want me? You move beyond your family and you get to a point where you just want someone, anyone and to have had a whole lot of people cut off from helping you hurts.

But they say times are changing and new guidelines are in place to stop this happening. It is important to note the word ‘guidelines’. I worry that perhaps guidelines will not be enough and that old behaviours will persist and some social workers and those with sway will hold on to a status quo that has proved pretty strong over the years.

I remember when Labour came into power and similar words being spoken about allowing young Black and Asian children into white families, but limited progress seems to have been made. I think this issue further highlights the lack of Black and Asian foster carers. We need more. Of course we need more foster carers and people to adopt from all backgrounds.

Ultimately I believe we live in a fragmented world and are ourselves very fragmented beings whose lives are sliced and diced in many ways. We are children, we are parents, we are brothers, we are sisters, we are followers, we are leaders, we are joggers, we are teachers. We are poets, we are loners, we obsess about weight and are part time stoners. We are angry, we are hopeful, we are at the backs of crowds and we are boastful. We are gang members, youth workers, some time deserters and police just trying to do a job. We are victims, we abuse, we are good at everything and some of us always seem to lose. We are all shades, all heights, full of truth, with just as many lies. We are vegetarians and some of us love steak. We are dreamers, we are doubters, we are silent and we are shouters. We are iPoders, X-boxers, PS3ers and some of us just like walking. We are many things in the world and to be defined so tightly by the colour of our skin seems naive, in this day and age, more than ever.

In secondary school things changed and I began to celebrate what I considered my ‘Jamaicaness’. I also went to Jamaica with my foster parents, which turned out to beginning of the end of my relationship with them (will save that story for another blog) but I fell in love with the country.

I loved the mad crazy driving, the beaches, the diving off rocks, downtown and the ‘soup man’, I loved the ocean and the food and the sun and the security lady who used to let me sneak in the hotel club at night and the music, I had always loved the music.

At school when people found out I was ‘half caste’ (a term now almost banished and one that when used makes people nervous), I suddenly gained a level of kudos I had not had before.

I remember a time hanging around outside the science classrooms at lunch and a group of boys turned up who were ‘rushing’ people (basically handing out a quick beating). I prepared for my beating, but then heard one of them say, ‘leave it, his dad’s from Jamaica you know’ and instead they went off to beat up some other poor unsuspecting kid, but it was a proud moment in the most twisted sense.

Once I became more comfortable with the idea of being mixed race (the idea more than the term), I started to read about people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglass and the Black Panthers and I began to celebrate my blackness, probably to the point where I went too far.

Suddenly my white heritage was side tracked and I held more tightly to my father’s roots (with a slight American detour, as the above paragraph shows!). But I was simply trying to find an identity, my own identity and not one I needed to be taught or that was thrust upon me. I was picking and choosing for myself. Now I have managed to find a much better balance with things, but I guess I am still sifting through the identity labels and trying different ones on for size.

As I get older, more and more things are being thrown into that mix and I am becoming more and more happily confused. But this confusion is life and anyone who tells you it is supposed to make sense is either lying or has lost their mind.

Ultimately young people in care are looking for somebody to love them and protect them and give them a chance at having a successful and fulfilling life. Cultural heritage, or racial heritage, or whatever you want to call it is of course important. We are the echo of our histories, but if we are to give young people growing up in care the best possible chance in life, we must keep as many doors to families open to them as possible, regardless of skin colour, sexual orientation or whatever other labels are currently doing the rounds to divide us.

I can’t remember how the bathroom scene with my father ended. I am sure he was frustrated and I was still confused. Perhaps I will ask him when I see him next week.



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. 


Thanks Helen

I cast my mind back and I see her battered yellow Renault, but now finishing that sentence I question both the make and colour of her car… it’s hard trying to remember back to my first social worker, but as I continue typing I see her fumbling for pens for me and my brother to write out how we are feeling in different colours on a large white sheet of paper.

I’m probably telling her I don’t want to do it in language just as colourful as the pens. My brother is probably silently stubborn. I see her heavy make up and now she’s coming back to me. As a child, her name always made me laugh and still now puts a smile on my face. Without giving away her identity I will just say it was closely related to the backside… maybe that was pretty apt because she worked hers off for me and my family.

I was talking with my mum the other day and mentioned her. Immediatly a smile spread across my mum’s face ‘a lovely woman, she worked so hard for us… lovely woman’. Nostalgia often tints backward glances, but in this case I don’t think it’s nostalgia that has coloured my view of her, or my mum’s, because I can remember the situation she came into.

I didn’t know Helen’s (that’s not her name, but I need a name instead of calling her ‘her’ or ‘social worker’. She deserves a name even if it’s not her own) background when I was a kid, I didn’t even think about such things then, but I’m guessing from her clothes and the way she talked that she was middle class. I’d go as far to say that she looked like a ‘white middle class I’ve got a lot of guilt’ type of person, maybe that’s what brought her into the profession.

I know this is a wild sweeping statement, but during my childhood I met a few of these types of people. I think their heart was in the right place, but when the rest of their body caught up they were most certainly in the wrong place having to deal with families like mine.

I’m supposed to be writing about what I think makes a good or bad social worker, but I’m getting lost in what I’m trying to say. That’s probably because there are so many things I could talk about, and ultimately what makes a great social worker can’t be put into words.

But back to Helen, I forgot to mention how scatty she was. It never crossed my mind that she had other cases to work on, and that’s because to her we were not a case. She cared and I knew that. God only knows how she coped with it all. She often wore our pain on her own face and there were times when I felt sorry for her, but she buried her own feelings for us and that must have been hard.

My mother was so broken back then and it was Helen who often picked her up and put her back together. She was always there. She tried her best with us and the chasm she crossed to try to communicate with me and my brother would make the Grand Canyon look like a small crack in the ground. We were from different sides of the tracks, but she was always reaching over. It was easy to look down on me and my family and stuff us in a stereotype, but I don’t think she did and I always felt warmth and respect for her.

It’s funny because I never got the chance to show my appreciation. I was too busy trying to hold my world together, too busy trying to get back home (I never did), too busy trying to make sense of the world, the situation and find a place for me to fit. I was very angry and I’m sure Helen took the heat from me a few times. But now I look back at her fondly.

I wish I could say thank you. I wish I could tell her about what I’ve achieved. I went to university, okay not the best one, but I would love to tell her that. I would love to tell her that I’ve been all round the world and that when I’ve not been travelling I’ve been working good jobs. Not to brag, but more than anyone she knows where I started and she played a role in where I have got. It’s a shared role, but all the same she played an important one.

Social workers will rarely see the fruits of their labour and that comes with the job I’m afraid. They are often out there fighting on the front line, under-resourced, underappreciated and underpaid, and I think it’s a shame but they need to understand that from the start.

I’m sure this is not quite right and I should really Google it (I won’t), but in thinking of what makes a good social worker I’m drawn to what Kennedy once said of himself: ‘I’m an idealist, without illusions’. But these are just words, and when you’re being sworn at by a nine-year-old boy as his mother whispers that it’s your fault he’s in care, words don’t seem to mean a lot. But they do.

There is no rocket science here, it starts with communication. Communication with the children, communication with their families, communication with related agencies, communication with colleagues. Helen talked to me and she talked to my mum, she kept us informed even when the decisions hurt us. But Helen wasn’t the only social worker I had, and it wasn’t always like that.

I wonder what happened to her. Soldiers suffer in war, out in the field and when returning home (the latter often worse)… and I sometimes wonder if she was another casualty. I hope not. She used to dye her hair red. I don’t know why, but that makes me smile.

After Helen my mind is pretty blank about who came next. That pretty much says it all. However I do remember being seen as just a case. I felt like a problem, that it was my fault that I was where I was. I needed more than I was given.

Looking back through my care file I can see where suggestions were made about support that I never received. It makes me angry. Whose job was it to follow things through?… I needed a better administrator as much as I needed a good communicator.

The job of a social worker is crazy multifaceted. The more I type the bigger it gets. I could continue typing because I feel like I have got nowhere here, the blog entry has once again got away from me.

If I’ve added anything of use here it will be up to you to pick it out from the wreckage above, very much in the same way Helen often tried to pick me out of my own wreckage.

They say you never forget your favourite teacher… do they say the same about social workers? Probably not, but thank you Helen… wherever you are.



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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