Friday 1 January 2016

A care leaver’s Christmas tale

I have a story to tell. It is a story that is a large part of me and no matter how I try, no matter what I say, it just won't go away. It's a story that might shock, anger or just simply case this reading it to say 

"There but for the grace of God go I" 

I was put into care at three months old although apparently I was already known to social services, under scrutiny and on a watch list for regular visits from them from shortly after the day I was born. Obviously I don't remember a great deal of my early life. Whether that's peculiar to me or whether it's my mind is simply putting a block on difficult memories...who knows?
In fact, when I reflect upon it, there are large parts of my life I just don't seem to remember. I think the mind has a way if dealing with trauma and as far as I can see it’s probably a good job. I couldn't wouldn't want to remember some things I've been told about.

I recall being put with my first foster parents at a very early age probably around the age of four. For some reason that placement didn't last long. I’ve no idea why, but its not for me to question.

I was moved into a nursery in South Wales but I don't think I was there for too long. I do recall my next placement with foster parents. It was on a farm in north Wales. I remember it was a particularly bad winter but I seem to think I liked it there. I can even remember the school I attended because it had a thatched roof! That tickled me because it the school had ‘VP’ in its name. I just assumed VP meant ‘very poor’ because of the thatched roof. That placement didn't last long either and I was moved into another children's home, once again in north Wales.

At this point we can skip ahead a few years. As crazy as that sounds, if you bear with me it will all become clear. My life for the next few years was utter chaos because I was repeatedly moved between different children's homes, time and time again. When as an adult I had the chance to see my social work file, I found out that up until the age of eight I was moved around thirteen times.

I should stress at this point two issues that come into play. One is of no particular importance other than for the purpose of clarification. The other one has destroyed every Christmas I have ever had and is also the point of this blog.

My first point is to clarify that I never did actually view my files (although under law it is my right). I went as far as meeting the head of children's services in the town hall on at least three occasions in order to assess my state of mind and what I expected to learn by viewing my files. I thought that I wanted them and that they would clarify things. In reality, I know recognise that I didn't want them, and the information that they contained simply would not answer the many question I had about my childhood. I realised that they would be of little value. So we can pretty much put a line through that. The head of children’s services had little to share with me anyway. He said that in retrospect, some of the actions taken by social workers were mistaken, but it was before his time so there was little he could do. No real help there.

My second point relates to the episode in my brief but eventful life that was probably the most upsetting cruel and traumatic I have experienced. I must have just turned eight and I was in my umpteenth children's home when Christmas came around. Usually the kids who had any family went home or to relatives willing and able to take them in. My previous Christmases in care had often found me to be the only child in the home on Christmas Day. On one or two occasions I was taken home by a member of staff. It was always a beautiful time and I'm truly grateful.

One Christmas there was to be a dramatic change in my life. I was to be sent home to my parents! These were parents that I didn't know, had never met .and to be honest I wasn't even sure existed. So there I was, two days before Christmas sitting in my social worker’s car at the tender age of eight. It's something I was used to because as you've seen by now it was quite a regular occurrence. The difference was that this time there was a feeling that was new to me. I think (and I stress think!) that I was looking forward to it...Jesus how wrong could I be?

We drove only a few miles I guess because we were only in the car around half an hour when we pulled up to quite a large house which stood on the corner of a large estate with gardens to both sides if it. Gardens that were strewn with bins,bin bags,old bikes and even a car behind the fence parked on what would have been the front lawn. It was minus wheels.

With trepidation we walked up the pathway. I couldn't help but notice the broken window and a lower pane in the front door cracked and painted green when the rest of the door we black.
The social worker knocked on the door we waited. We heard loud talking, possibly shouting. Someone was shouting at the dog to ‘Shut up and lie down’. I was now well and truly scared. I mean seriously scared. I heard kids shouting and after what seemed an age the door opened. A large woman stood in the doorway. “Who is she”? I thought to myself. We entered into a littered and scruffy hallway. One thing I do recall to this day was the smell of petrol or something very close.

They obviously exchanged pleasantries and the next thing I knew the social worker had gone. I was alone. The woman opened the door and gently pushed me inside. My heart sank. It almost brings me to tears to try and convey to you what happened next. The room seemed as though it was full of screaming children and a big dog.. Next thing I knew the dog came bounding toward me and pinned me up against the wall. I'm ashamed to say that I wet myself! I was so scared and worst of all, I began to cry! I don't know why but it just seemed inevitable and they laughed. They laughed at me in my best clothes short trousers (albeit they were now wet) and a blazer. They were all pointing laughing and the dog was pulled off me and pushed into the hallway.

I had a carrier bag with a present from the local steelworks with me. The steelworks always bought the kids in homes toys every Christmas. One of the kids ripped it from me, I didn't try to take it back. I was far too scared, far too traumatised, by what was happening and worse of all was what was going to happen.

I had a teddy. I know an eight-year-old with a teddy is a bit sad but you have to remember I had few possessions of my own and what I did have I cherished, and still do. A girl grabbed it and threw it in the hallway where the dog was. “That is the end of that” I thought and inside...I confess, I died a little.

I won't go into details about sleeping arrangements, food or anything else. It was was truly bad and if an eight-year-old could know the meaning of degraded I would have uttered it. These kids were my brothers and sisters. I had six brothers two sisters.  I didn't know I had them and I didn't know anything about them.

Christmas morning came around. There were a lot of presents brought down from upstairs and placed under a threadbare tree next to the television. They were duly handed out and I watched and waited for my turn. I waited and I watched. I watched and I waited. Nothing for me. Absolutely nothing. I felt absolutely destroyed! No one even spoke to me. It was as though I didn't exist. Ok, I agree that may not seem such a big deal, but to me it was. It really, really was. I tried to think it was unimportant but it totally screwed me up.

Christmas Day went and Boxing Day came around. I'm not going to go into detail about the degradation and heartache I endured during the previous three days. I can't and I don't want to relive it and besides the worst is yet to come.
Time came for me to leave thank God. I never wanted to see these people again. Looking back now as I often do. I'm so pleased for my time in care. I hated it but it made me who I am. And I'm slowly getting used to just who I am too.

I waited for my social worker but she didn't turn up. My ‘Dad’ put me in a car and we drove off. There were no goodbyes, no farewells and I didn’t care. I was glad to be leaving. It was then I noticed something. It took about half an hour to get there but we had been travelling for at least double that. I was scared, very very scared. The car stopped and for the first time. He spoke, he seemed almost gentle in his manner. Almost as though he was someone who cared about my plight. My life of emptiness. Then it happened.

I have nothing to add. I have nothing I can say. I thought it was my fault because I was an outsider.

Can you begin to understand what a child feels like to be unloved? Abused and generally screwed over by life? I do, but try as I may, I just can't find the words to express it.

 You have my Christmas story. Do you see why we must make a point of raising the residential leaving age? Do you see why we must cherish children in care? Do you see why we need to spread love and understanding and not hatred and greed throughout the world? The campaign to get fully funded ‘Staying Put’ rights for all children leaving care until they are old and secure enough in themselves to cope on their own is not something trivial. It can change or even save lives.

I hope you can understand how I feel

Have a Happy Christmas and please spread joy through the new year.

Thank you.