Monday, 31 August 2015

I was never a care leaver....

I am not a care leaver. I was not an abused or neglected child. My upbringing was by no means wealthy and the spoon in my mouth was more like tin than silver. Yes, I remember my mum going through my dad’s trouser pockets looking for change to buy the tea (we had tea not dinner where I lived in our little council house). What has this got to do with Every Child Leaving Care Matters you might ask – good question.

This blog is not an apology for me not being a care leaver – just in case what follows may at times make you think that.

I was the only member of the original group who established the campaign who was not a care leaver – though my esteemed colleagues were not and are not defined by that status but in what they have achieved despite being care leavers. I have – until recently – remained the only person not ‘care-experienced’ presumptuous enough to speak on behalf of our ‘constituency’. Why?

That I have been a social worker specialising in working with children and their families for a lifetime has some relevance. I have worked in residential and fostering services that were considered outstanding or at least good. I have been privileged to work alongside and even supervise some remarkably skilled and gifted therapists and health professionals. All of this no doubt shapes the person I have become and the opinions I hold but none of it is the essence of why I am part of this campaign.

I have worked with children who have been horrendously tortured and abused in almost every way we would rather not imagine. I have acted professionally with abusers, rapists and murderers though as a human being I found their actions inconceivable. I have been the only mourner (apart from a distraught mother) at an infant’s funeral and wept as I carried to his grave, at his mother’s request, the body of a young man who was murdered (by a group of lads who were not in care) before he could ever become a care leaver. Each one of those children mattered, as do the thousands of others who have filled my professional life with just about every emotion I can contemplate. Of course they mattered: but that is not the reason why I was privileged to be part of the founding group of this campaign and am privileged to serve it still.

I had a very ordinary life – difficult times as a child as my parents struggled to give me and my sister the start that they had never had. They did it – we both found a way into grammar school, higher education and degrees, good employment  and a secure base from which to leave home in our mid-twenties. Great parents – they devoted their lives to us. I would like to think that in some small way we repaid our parents as they glowed with obvious pride at their children’s achievements. Eventually the arrival of grandchildren brought them a reward that no-one could put a price on, though neither lived long enough to really enjoy their children’s children. My parents, then, gave my sister and me priceless gifts; not material things, as I could never recall just how much this amounted to; the greatest gift they gave us was our moral compass, our standards, the lessons of life in how to be the best human beings we could be. How to respect and value others; how to be confident enough to reach beyond the immediate, knowing that if we over-stepped and fell there would be arms waiting to break our fall and congratulate us for trying before preparing us to try again. How to be generous in thought and deed; how to serve others – it can be no coincidence that my sister and I became respectively a teacher and a social worker. As far as I am aware neither my mum or dad ever read a book on parenting and apart from professionally neither have I – my role models equipped me to do pretty well as a parent, as they did my sister.

I cannot speak of my ECLCM colleagues’ childhoods. I will however reflect on some of the children with whom I have worked since late in 1974 when my very first ‘case’, B, was just sixteen years old. If he were alive today he would have been 57 years old on 10th June this year. He is not alive; he was a care leaver. He was abused in care and became a ‘rent boy’ – a 1970’s euphemism for victim of organised sexual abuse by wealthy paedophiles.  And another B, also in his fifties, who when I risked being disciplined for showing him his records before such a right was granted to care leavers asked of me “Is that all I amounted to then?” A series of misdemeanours contained within a paper wallet ‘recording’ his childhood. “Did I never do anything good or get anything right?” he asked me. He wasn’t my case but I was thoroughly ashamed that I had no answer. Both boys were every bit as ‘good’ as me, just as ‘worthy’ and almost my contemporaries. One is dead and the other might as well have been for the ten years of his life he spent in care. They had parents but were not blessed with parents like mine. In the judgement of a court their parents failed to care for them, so they were given ‘corporate’ parents (though obviously not referred to as such in those days). Their ‘second’ parents failed too.

I could cite three decades of similar or worse examples of failed parenting by the state; of children abused in care and then cast adrift at sixteen or seventeen and condemned to prison, hospital, the streets, drugs or death. I have been part of that failed system and fought with all my ability against the system when it was failing. I have, along with others, witnessed and celebrated remarkable, successes.

My childhood was not remarkable; many could tell a very similar story. What is remarkable is the success that many care leavers make of their lives despite the system. Professionally I used to advise my teams that leaving care is something that we should begin preparing children for on the day they enter care. It is a process not an event; like my childhood it should be a learning process where children have excellent role models who they can grow to trust despite their having no good reason to trust adults based on whatever caused them to be in care in the first place. ‘Care’, be that in a foster home, residential home or with ‘significant’ others should not be a determinate sentence ending when the clock ticks into their eighteenth birthday. Mine wasn’t, nor, I suggest, was that the experience of anyone who may be reading this. Care should actually be for life – though that doesn’t mean that one should be ‘in care’ for life.

Why am I part of this campaign supporting care leavers? In my case it’s precisely because I am not a care leaver.

  Ed Nixon                                                                ...................................

(This blog was originally prepared for our friends at Children England and is reproduced on our blog page with their permission.)

Ed Nixon (Chair ECLCM)

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