Children in the care system are each different and each respond in their own way to the stresses and struggles that being in care means to them. I wish to focus on a group of children in the care system who are often overlooked. These children are usually quiet unassuming souls who have been desperately hurt and abused, frequently so badly that their will and their spirit is broken.
They may not present behavioural problems and demand little attention from their carers, but they wear their inner sadness in their eyes and carry despair in their souls. They feel unwanted and unloved and are amongst the most vulnerable children in the care system.
These children have often been subject to abuse in all its forms and enter care at their lowest point. Care is supposed to provide a safe haven but for many of these children, it does not. They may have good practical care – three meals a day, a clean bed to sleep in, but it simply isn’t the care they need. Even when the carers are kindly, these children need more than hugs or arms enfolding them. Within the care system, they are too often no more than a number, another call on limited resources, another name.
These children need to feel wanted, to belong, to be loved and cherished. In their struggle for acceptance and belonging, they often fall in with the ‘wrong crowd’. At least in the crowd, they feel a degree of acceptance that allows them to feel less lonely, less isolated, less irrelevant. To them in their state of vulnerability, this mere acceptance is a good thing. Tragically, far too often, it isn't.
I'll talk a little of me now if I may. I excelled in school because it was a release from the stress of care, a way of getting away from the despair of a life of pain and hurt.
At the age of fifteen I was due to be adopted by a family who had taken to me from my friendship with their daughter at school. I was going to be the son they never had, the son they wanted. I felt wanted and valued at last, and I was happy for the first time ever.
It wasn't to last though, and when it crumbled it was through my own stupidity. Looking back I can see why it went wrong, why I went wrong.
Not knowing what love was, and not knowing how to express or receive it made me feel empty inside. I was a shell unable to comprehend the damage I was about to inflict.
I made their daughter pregnant! This was truly devastating for everyone involved of course, but for me it was the beginning of a very long and deeply unhappy period in my life.
My behaviour suffered and I was expelled from school. I was sent a way to an ‘assessment unit’ the infamous ‘Redbank’ in Newton le Willows in Lancashire. For me at that time, this place was barbaric and like hell on earth.
I don’t intend to dwell on what happened there. Some things are too painful and must remain private even now, many years later. Let’s just brush over it.
My next placement was ‘Bryn Estyn’ in North Wales. I had been desperately unhappy at ‘Redbank’, but going to ‘Bryn Estyn’ was like going from the frying pan into the fire. It was far worse than the previous placement.
Again I'm not going to speak of what happened there, but as may be evident, a pattern was forming in which I was being punished severely for my juvenile stupidity. I know I had acted stupidly, but as I reflect I think it was possibly inevitable. It was inevitable because I did not know how to love or be loved. The care system that had taken it upon itself to care for me had not seen fit to instruct me in the facts of life and I had no idea what love was. Shouldn’t someone have been teaching me that there is a difference between sex and love?
I digress; let's go back to the children like me who have been abused, beaten and broken.
There's no escaping it; the system has let both them and me down.
If they're not shown love or respect in care, how can they hope to cope on leaving care at the age of sixteen? They are still little children when the ‘system’ discharges them and expects them to be ‘independent’. There can no escaping or dodging the issue; it can't be glossed over - these children like me are let down by a system that goes through the mechanical motions of ‘care’ often without actually offering what ‘care’ should really mean. By that I mean emotional acceptance, a sense of belonging, being taught that you are worthy, being listened, to heard, respected …loved?
Too many of these children are simply unready and ill equipped to cope with life on their own in their teens. Many need to stay in care longer. Many need to stay at least until they are 21 years old because unlike children in a home environment, they may have spent their childhood living in a regime (in some cases a strict regime) where daily routine is strict and must be followed, but which simply has not taught its children anywhere near enough about the outside world. The world outside is different than the world in care – it is harder in many respects, because life in in care for many children is often emotionally sterile, with too many children shrouded in coldness and emptiness.
This cannot prepare a child to have healthy loving emotional experiences that they have a right to expect when they are growing into adulthood. Life in care for many has been emotional survival. This environment is not what they need to have as they prepare to enter the outside community.
Notwithstanding the emotional price, for too many the care environment doesn’t teach them how to look after themselves as far as work, paying rent, feeding yourself, shopping, laundry, bills, etc. etc. In fact, the world outside of care for too many of these children is an alien environment.
Children need to learn these life skills before they leave care. If they don’t they are going to end up in a vicious cycle of crime drugs, self-abuse, prostitution, exploitation – the statistics speak for themselves. It’s as clear as night follows day.
In conclusion, I was one of the lucky ones. I kept in touch with my girlfriend of 46 years ago. We are happily married and very proud of our wonderful caring son.
My story demonstrates once more that you can't judge a book by its cover or be judgemental about people based on their by their upbringing or childhood behaviour.
There you have my case for ECLCM. I’m sorry if I drifted and rambled - I’m not a great speaker or a great writer. I am however passionate about what I believe to be a right for children in care. It’s something I know about because of my time in care from the age of six months until I left care at sixteen.
Thank you for reading.