This is for you. Leeroy, Ray, Chris, Nicky, Sarah, Kim and Mark.
In ten years of residential social work I came to know hundreds of children and young people.
The actual list is a very long one.
When I started work as a twenty-one year old volunteer in a small group children’s home, I was very naive.
I learned about bullying.
I learned that the abuse of children didn’t just occur within families.
I learned that whilst telling the truth was important to me, it wasn’t important to others who were older and in positions of power.
I met you Leeroy, and I won’t forget you. You were a small ginger-haired boy whose mother was too confused by her mental health issues to look after you. Plucked from your familiar but disorganised home and thrust into a huge, rambling house full of loud and angry children. You might just as well have had ‘victim’ printed on your forehead.
You bore the brunt of the fury of a family of six children. They aged from four to fourteen and had been taken into care due to their parents drug and alcohol dependencies and chaotic lifestyle. They were very protective of each other and had quickly learned to store up grievances to tell their parents when they visited every other Saturday afternoon.
Their parents were quite happy that their children were in care. They had no food or clothing bills to pay, no having to get up to take the children to school and no responsibility – which left them free to drink and party – provided that they were sober enough to turn up once a fortnight for the visit.
Although I was only a volunteer, I did my best to look out for you when I was in the house Leeroy.
I couldn’t be there all the time though, and I would often arrive to find you in tears having been set upon by your tormentors. I complained to the manager. He was too afraid of the family and their parents to do anything.
In the end I phoned your social worker and told her what was going on.
Of course there was no mention of the bullying in the log book – a work of total fiction.
Your social worker listened to me and a foster home was found for you, possibly because it was easier to move one small victim of bullying whose mother couldn’t fight for him, than to challenge the warped but effective dynamics of a family who had learned to manipulate the system so well.
You were eight years old then and you would be a grown man of forty-four now.
I never found out what had happened to you; I got a real job in another children’s home after three months of being a volunteer.
This job couldn’t have been more different. The home was modern; purpose-built to house up to sixteen boys and girls. The staff – including the officer-in-charge – were young and enthusiastic.
I was allocated two boys – Ray and Chris – to ‘keywork’. You were rather scary Ray; coming up to your sixteenth birthday and about to move into the ‘Leaving Care’ programme which would see you moved into a bedsit and kitted out with the means to look after yourself. The material means that is. You were always very volatile Ray and whilst I learned quite quickly that you were also easily distracted, I found myself on the receiving end of your anger too many times. I tried to form some kind of a relationship with you but there had already been a family who rejected you and too many earnest key workers by the time we met, and there was a collective sigh of relief when we sent you off into the big bad world.
Oh but Chris, you couldn’t have been more different. You had started at senior school; a sweet-faced tubby boy who could have been another victim if it hadn’t been for a strong and united staff attitude toward bullying. Like Leeroy, you had a mother who couldn’t cope with life and you had been brought into care in order to relieve you of the responsibility of looking after her.
My job was to teach you how to play, to be less serious, to focus on your own needs and to leave others to deal with your mother’s demands.
Whilst Ray taught me about violence and aggression Chris, you reminded me that children in care need to be given the opportunity to be children. We had fun. We went to the Isle of Wight on the ferry, and spent the day on the beach watching the boats and eating sandwiches and ice cream. I introduced you to the library and to Roald Dahl.
I read ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to you and your two roommates – into the early hours. You didn’t want me to stop and stayed awake whilst the other two were snoring. When I finished the book and left the room I found Ray and another older boy asleep in the corridor outside. They had been listening too.
You did well Chris; at school and in the foster home that we found you. We were never encouraged to keep in touch though, in case it prevented you settling into your new life.
It was one aspect of the job that I found hard.
Turn the time forward ten years; my husband and I are in an electrical store looking for our first CD player. My husband is talking to the manager – who looks a little familiar. Tall, slim and immaculately dressed.
Chris who found it much easier to recognise me. Chris who is now the manager of this store, a husband and a father of a baby girl.
So proud of you Chris.
Completely humbled by the fact that you are so grateful to me for doing my job.
And you gave us a very good discount on the CD player.
Nicky, you were the never to be forgotten enigma. A strange boy who had come home from school one day to find that his mother had died, in front of the TV with an empty whisky bottle by her side.
One of the few real orphans I had ever looked after. You were quirky; you had suitcases of your mother’s clothes that you couldn’t be parted from. You were bright – too bright for some of the staff – and I had some of my most challenging moments with you.
Five sets of foster parents did their best to give you a home, and each time you came back to us, more angry and confused.
Officialdom shut the home down, together with several others, and one last set of foster parents had to be found for you. They were almost as quirky as you Nick, and they seemed to be dealing with your behaviour quite well.
I moved on with my life.
I qualified as a social worker and got promoted.
My new workplace was an observation and assessment centre – short-stay allegedly – and with education on the premises, and a secure unit.
Not long after I’d bumped into Chris in the electrical shop, you turned up at my new place of work.
A new admission they said. You might remember him from your previous place; his name is Nick. He is odd.
So you were sent to us because no one knew what to do with you. There were no other foster parents for you now that you were a six-foot seventeen-year old – who had an interest in hairdressing and whose personality had achieved full-blown camp. I found you delightful.
You were no easier to deal with; age and experience had given you to ability to wind up staff and other young people alike. You went through social workers like a dose of salts – especially the young and newly qualified who thought that they could make something of you.
Only you could do that.
You left us after a couple of months and moved into a boys’ residential home that specialised in settling those who were leaving care.
Years on, and the manager of that home is being prosecuted for abusing boys in his care. I would lay money on it that he didn’t try it on with you Nick.
I came across several Sarah’s over the years, but you were the most important Sarah to me.
Neither you nor Kim were easy to look after but then I always tended to have more empathy with the young people who presented a challenge.
Together with Kim, you came to my engagement party, and were extremely elegant in posh frocks and hats at my wedding. Friends and family were asking who you were and how I knew you both. I didn’t tell them you were looked-after children. You were far too composed and assured for that.
You had become friends.
I have no doubt that you sorted out life for yourselves.
Mark – you marked the end of the line for residential childcare for me.
You were so damaged at ten years old, that no end of therapy and one-to-one work could make a difference. We spent time together; we cooked, repaired an old rocking horse, went for long walks and I read bedtime stories to you but nothing I did could break through.
The other staff tried but found you impenetrable. Some of them blamed me because it was easier than admitting defeat.
I took a great many kicks and punches from you and one day it was all too much.
I was married to a man who loved me and hated seeing the split lips, the bruises, the black eyes.
It was time for a change – because I had to admit that I couldn’t help you – and because I had someone who cared about me too much to see me hurt myself anymore.
I’m sorry Mark.
I remember so many more of you from those ten years of working in children’s homes.
We laughed together; and we cried. We went to Butlins and giggled at the wrestling and the knobbly knees contests. We camped in the New Forest and got soaked, played Spotlight up at the Sports Centre and on one memorable occasion all sixteen children I had responsibility for absconded.
Ah, but fifteen of you came back before midnight, so we watched unsuitable TV and cooked fish and chips to celebrate.
From you, I learned how to deal with my own roaring boys.
How to let them know that they were loved – even if their behaviour was horrible.
I read them bedtime stories; we went to the beach, we camped out and got soaked.
My own roaring boys are in their twenties now and to me at least, seem to be quite well-balanced and confident.
So thank you; Leeroy, Chris, Ray, Nicky, Sarah, Kim, Mark – and all the others who touched my life.