2nd Person Perspective – Week 20 of the 52 week short story challenge

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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.

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.

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It’s Halloween – and I have my cushion ready

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We didn’t really do Halloween when I was a child.

I’ve never lived in an environment where small children dressed up for Halloween and walked round the neighbourhood after dark, blagging sweets and threatening retribution if the treats were not forthcoming.

I’ve seen it on the TV – usually in some film set in America though. Who can forget the sight of ET staggering along a street full of zombies, fairies and mini mock axe murderers?

When I worked in children’s homes, we did our best to discourage the children from going out on Halloween – we usually had enough trouble with the neighbours as it was and the sight of anyone emerging from the Home dressed up as a witch or skeleton would have brought forth a multitude of phone calls and the inevitable blue lights flashing outside.

Not In My Backyard.

So we looked at the situation in a more lateral manner and decided to have a Halloween party instead.  We invited social workers, our favourite policeman and a couple of parents who were actually grateful for the work we were doing with their children.

We worked with the children to decorate the building and make tantalising food.  My drama school training came in very useful as I painted faces and fashioned costumes out of whatever could be found in the store cupboards or begged from staff who weren’t that  fussed about attending but didn’t mind contributing.

It became an annual event and only ever attracted adverse attention once from a particularly right-on newly-qualified social worker who felt that we were encouraging  the children to participate in pagan celebrations. For a while we thought that we were going to have to abandon the party but assistance came from a very high place.

It appeared that the assistant director of children’s services had intervened and basically told the social worker to wind her neck in.  We weren’t sacrificing the children, nor encouraging them to go out and persecute the neighbours – in fact we were keeping them occupied and – dare I say it – happy!  The AD even contributed a tenner to the party fund. They don’t make assistant directors like that anymore.

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Two very heavily disguised members of staff having a jolly time.

Unfortunately the management team changed after that and the local authority decided to shut down  several of the homes. In the reshuffle I moved to a larger observation and assessment centre where children were only supposed to stay for a period of six weeks at the most while we observed and assessed them. In reality many of them were stranded there for several months before anything practical was done about their futures.

It was a much larger establishment and had a huge dining room  – ideal for parties! I moved there in the spring and by autumn, had managed to convince the other staff – and more importantly the children – that we should have a Halloween party – with a disco!  Well, when I say disco I mean a record player someone donated to us, and my ever-growing collection of singles – which I still have. There were obvious gaps as I changed records and this was long before the days of  scratching and mixing but the children seemed to like it.

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This photo and the following two photos were taken at one of our Halloween discos. There are better photos but I have no idea where the children in them are now so I can’t get their permission  to use them here. I’ve chopped off the naughty boy who was trying to remove my headphones, and the other two children fell victim to my facepainting skills so that even their own mothers wouldn’t have recognised them.

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You can at least see the lengths we went to with black and orange crepe paper, inflatable skeletons and false spider webs. We played games too; apple dunking, eating a donut off a piece of elastic and that good old standby – can you eat three cream crackers in three minutes?

Not easy.

Nearly as hard as eating a sugary donut without licking your lips.

The cook even allowed us into the kitchen for the evening and as well as the usual buffet favourites, we served up chips in newspaper squares, and sent the kids into a fizzy frenzy with elaborately decorated mocktails of cheap lemonade and fruit juice (they’d have preferred Coke or Pepsi but the budget didn’t run to that). It’s amazing what gory things you can do however, with glace cherries, cocktail sticks, marshmallows and cochineal.

Life in a children’s home – however big or small – isn’t the way it’s portrayed on the TV.  There’s a lot more arguing and fighting – and that’s just the staff.

I learned a great deal about life in the ten years I spent in children’s services. I also acquired a social work degree and a level of cynicism about social care that has increased over the years.  You do your best but it is often a thankless job due to a lack of resources, unimaginative management and children that have been desperately damaged by their families before they even get to you.

I got out of childcare. I got out of social care entirely for a number of years I spent enjoying life with Hub and subsequently Uni Boy, Gap Boy and a large number of cats.

I forgot about Halloween.

And we moved Up North.

One night, in the middle of September, I answered the door to a pair of hoody-clad yoofs wearing fright masks.

“Trick or treat.” Their voices alternately squeaked and rumbled which gave me a clue to their approximate ages.

“It’s not even October yet.” Quite bravely considering it was nine o’clock at night and I was alone in the house with two small children.(and five cats who were lined up behind me being curious).

“Yeah, well we’ll be in Tenerife over Halloween. It’s half-term.”

“I have a couple of bars of chocolate in the fridge but they’ll probably melt in Tenerife.”

They looked at me, then at each other and pulled faces that implied that I might be lacking in the brain cell department.

“We don’t want chocolate. We want money.”

I drew myself up to my full five feet two inches and tried to forget the fact that I was wearing huge padded comedy slippers purporting to be the Queen and Prince Phillip.

“Right, so you are attempting to extort money from me by use of menace then?”

“What?!’ They both took a step back from my door.

“Oh yes.” I was warming to my subject now. “It is nine o’clock at night and I have two males dressed in dark clothing, wearing masks to cover their identities and demanding money from me. I’ll phone the police now then.”

They legged it up the road before I could count to five.

Result!

I shut the door  and managed to navigate my comedy slippers through the cat barricade and collapsed with trembling knees on the sofa. The cats followed me into the front room and I could have sworn they were laughing – or maybe just smirking. My cats had seen through my bravado – you can’t fool cats.

My own little cherubs didn’t fancy venturing into the cold Northern nights and neither did many other children from our area. The Coffee Morning Group Mums (alter known as OptiMums)  including my Lovely Friend, took action. We decided to have – yes – you guessed – Halloween discos!

These were the best though; we made costumes and painted faces, decked the halls with crepe paper and cooked up a storm with such delights as Dead Man’s Fingers (cocktail sausages), Slime Soup (LF’s wonderful pea and ham soup), the entire range of additive filled Halloween sweets and those wonderful orange and raspberry drinks in plastic cups that you inserted a straw into. They were cheap and cheerful and invariable made the kids hyper – but they were our kids so nobody minded!

It’s twenty-past seven now and there have been no Halloween knocks at our door.  Our neighbourhood now consists of elderly people or families like ours – whose children are no longer children and  too old for such frivolities.

The only small children in the road have gone away for half-term and thank goodness, so has the naughty boy who used to live across the road and chuck eggs at the windows regardless of whether you tried to bribe him with chocolate  – or money.

Bezzie Mate has just told me that in his part of the world, the streets are busy with large women clad in black with cats ears shepherding large groups of suitably garbed children from door to door. They are also having fireworks there as well.

I’m not sure but probably word has got around that there is a large black dog on the other side of our front door and he doesn’t like VISITORS! Or fireworks.

To compensate for no-longer children and lack of trick or treaters, Hub and took a parcel of Halloween goodies with us when we went to visit Dear Friend and her lovely family. They sampled Vampire’s Veins, chocolate eyeballs, green slime cakes and marshmallow skulls.  I wish we’d had such a variety of naughtiness to offer my  broken-homed children, or even my own two monsters.

Here they are; Uni Boy as a pumpkin and Gap Boy (rather appropriately) as a little devil. I have been told recently that I abused my boys by dressing them in such bright colours – Gap Boy can be really ridiculous sometimes – they looked so cute in those days – sigh.

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Oh, the cushion! I nearly forgot! have to confess that I cannot watch horror films without having a cushion in front of my face for the really scary bits. I can remember watching ‘Halloween’ with a group of older teenaged girls one night .

“What’s happening? Who’s screaming?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a cushion over my face.”

“So have I.”

“And me.”

“Me too.”

Giggles.  In this age of technology I prefer to ‘watch’  horror films on DVD so that I can fast forward them when a scary bit rears its ugly head – only works well  if you know the film already.

No blogs during November unless something really exciting happens – I will be busy doing NaNoWriMo and none of that goes to Blogland after the disastrous events of 2012 which resulted in all sorts of people getting offended and my having to become self-employed.

1600 words a day is quite enough thank you.

Happy Halloween – however you choose to celebrate it.