I was six years old when I stepped foot in a children’s home for the first time, although I have no recollection of that initial experience. It must have been confusing, but perhaps there would have been relief too — the foster carers my brother and I had moved from were not very kind towards us. Although, admittedly, I must have been very difficult to care for, to be alongside, to love. You’re not really meant to say that are you? About yourself, or about a child, or about a child in care.
But it is true.
Trauma and rage, even with a six year old, are difficult to manage — to tolerate — however much empathy you like to imagine you have. And I was angry. Frightened too, obviously, but no one noticed. In any case, empathy was not really Alison and Keith’s bag. We lived with them for a couple of years.
In the ranking of the three sets of foster carers I had between the ages of two and six, they were not the worst — that was Peter and Pam. They were the ones who made me sleep in the bath every night, and it was Peter who would make me run the bath, so he could hold my head under the water to deter me from future infractions. And, presumably, for his own gratification.
Between Peter/Pam and Keith/Alison came a few months with Chris and Glenn. Or, “the nice foster carers” as my brother and I, to this day, refer to them. They took us camping. We drained the batteries in the torch they gave us — messing about creating our own show of light and shadows on our tent walls. Even now, I have a visceral sense of how scared I was — certain I would be in terrible trouble, wondering how I would be punished. We confessed to Glenn in the morning. He put fresh batteries in the torch and handed it back to us — and that was all.
Still, the kids home was OK compared to much of this. Larger than most children’s homes are now, with10–12 of us. I was by far the youngest at six, the oldest was 17. Six would be extraordinarily young to be in a children’s home now, I think it was rare even then. I now know, from my records, that this was in an effort to keep my brother and I together. But the married couple who ran it (and lived in an annex flat attached to the home) seemed benign and so were most of the staff. I still have three polaroid photos of me holding up different cakes — my three birthdays at Penn House. I don’t think anyone understood why I was angry, so they could not help me to understand either.
Anyway, this is just context. I haven’t come here to talk about my childhood.
I was 44 years old when I stepped out of a children’s home for the final time. I recall it like it was yesterday, because it was…
This blog is about my experiences, of more than 17 years, working in children’s homes. This is “lived experience” too, because I have lived and experienced every moment of it. The difficulty with writing about my own experience is that, by extension, I have to refer, even opaquely, to the lives of others. Other people who deserve respect and privacy.
I won’t refer to specific young people, or much to specific events, it will be generalised, and largely a reflection on my own thoughts and feelings, but I still have to imagine the impact on someone, who I have been involved in caring for, reading about my internal responses to certain types of experience. What I know is this — children in care do not need me to tell them how fucked up and messy it can be, I am not sure it would be very respectful to them for me to gloss it. And, the children and young people who knew me well know that I always tried to be honest, and they would think I’d had a bang on the head if I was insincere, sentimental and saccharine.
Often, when I told people I work in a children’s home they asked “do you enjoy it?”. The expected response to this is “yes” and perhaps expanding by saying I feel like I am doing something that “makes a difference”. Sometimes, in social situations, I will tell people what I know they want to hear. But this question is really like asking someone if they enjoy life. It is a mixed bag isn't it?
There were, for sure, moments of delight, fun and joy. There were periods of boredom too, mundane tasks that needed completing and so on. But there was also pain, to deny it is to deny the reality of the children’s lives. No one wants to be in care, some may prefer it to living in the chaos or abuse within their own families, but even they would choose for their family to be different so they did not have to be in care. I always knew this, I knew I could not change it, I just hoped I could mitigate it sometimes.
The delight was sometimes in the big things — the kid starting to do well in mainstream school, the teenager fighting their fear and abseiling down a cliff face, noticing how a young person is starting to take care of themselves more or hasn’t self-harmed for a while or hasn’t been restrained for 6 months— but, for me, the pleasure was in the small, intimate moments where you really are in relationship with a young person and not just “staff”.
These are hard to describe, it might be the meaningful hug you receive when you come on shift, or the chat in the car when a young person trusts you enough to talk about the harder parts of their life, or the shared jokes. It was humour I enjoyed the most — kids pretending they didn’t like me, “urgh it’s John” and me responding in kind, “oh God, it’s a teenager” and pretending to throw up. Or, less professionally, pretending to scratch my chin while sticking my finger up at a young person as they did the same to me, making eye-contact and smirking about odd agency members of staff none of us had met before or would ever meet again, and letting teenage girls punch me on the arm and pretending I can’t feel it — “have you done it yet?”.
Of course, no one enjoys aggression and violence, no one likes being called a cunt — there is no one who doesn’t find things like this difficult — however much I may intellectually understand the drivers for these behaviours, however much I might understand it is not personal, it can still feel like it is, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. I think my own experiences of behaving in similar ways as a child helped in in this respect, they helped me to be more forgiving than some I guess, but I am still a human with ordinary human responses. The fact that you once punched someone, does not make it hurt less when someone punches you. And no one is nailing thoughtful and empathetic interventions at 2am when they have been up for 20 hours.
But it was not the kick offs that I found hardest. It was difficult feeling powerless — it was frustrating watching children I cared about and loved harming themselves, either deliberately or by making choices which I knew were manifestly not in their best interests or, almost as often, “the system” making, equally harmful, decisions for them, but I think it was the loss that, ultimately, I found hardest to bear.
In a previous piece I wrote this:
“Foster carers, children’s home staff, social workers, therapists and so many others come and go. They are ephemeral figures whose faces can no longer be brought to mind — ghosts.”
Of course, for many children I have looked after, I am one of these ghosts, this is uncomfortable to acknowledge, but it is true. However, I am writing about me now and the losses are mine too. I do not mean I experienced similar losses as a child, although I did, I mean I had real, live human-to-human relationships with many of the children I cared for, most of these have ended now, many of them abruptly, these are my losses too.
When I first worked in a children’s home, I had no grandiose ideas I would be better or more effective at the job, because of my own experiences — that I would some how understand the kids more than my colleagues. Many of them had lives very different to mine, horrifically so in some cases and, even now, I think the value of lived experience can be overplayed. But, over time, I came to realise I did have something in common with the young people that many of my colleagues did not, I did understand something which they couldn't. I understood what it was like to be in care.
The four young people I said goodbye to yesterday understood — they understood I had been doing it a long time, and they know how difficult it is, they know I need to do something new. They made a fuss of me and told me it was sad and seemed to understand how significant it was for me. One girl, the one I have known the longest, gave me a hug and cried. I did not know how to make it better, or what to say, so I said the thing I was actually thinking, “it’s shit isn’t it” and she nodded.
When I got home, I read the letter another young person had handed me, they insisted that I waited. I only knew her for a few months, but it was so thoughtful and kind, so generous towards me, I burst into tears. I drank a little of the expensive rum my colleagues had bought me, I posted a tweet and fell asleep.
I have no time for hero narratives outside of fiction, I definitely am not one. I detest the thought of people idolising me. I do not know why I worked in children’s homes for so long, but I am sure it was serving a need for me as much as the needs of the children. I have always been ambivalent about working in care, and wondered if it was healthy or good for me. I have wondered what it meant for me to have grown up in care and now to be working in it. I worried that I hadn’t moved on in someway from my childhood. Sometimes I have felt trapped, dreamt of being far away from it all and doing something completely different (writing novels in the South of France usually). Many years ago, I was explaining this ambivalence, this tension, to my then manager in supervision. She said, empathetically: “You don’t always want to be the boy from the kids home…”
It is, I suppose, narcissistic to imagine that a child I have looked after, perhaps an adult now, will read this blog — maybe having googled my name — but it is possible. If that is you, I hope you are doing OK. I am going to finish by talking directly to you:
I know there were times when I did not, or could not, give you what you needed, when I didn’t understand, when I let you down. I was not always good enough and I am sorry. But despite that, and for all the sanctions, for all my grumpiness, for all the bollockings, for all my joking around and teasing you, know this — I always took you seriously. I always took your lives and your experiences seriously and I tried to have your back. And if you have thought of me sometimes and wondered if I think of you, if you have remembered me and wondered if I remember you — know that I do.