Too Many but Not All...

 

If my career ended tomorrow, I would not regret for a single moment spending my adult life caring for children and young people and supporting the adults they become. All, of the children I have ever looked after, have suffered trauma and experienced adversity. None are responsible for the circumstance that brought them into care and there is no denying too many have been failed but not all. 

 

For the first ten years of my life, I was the youngest child of three, raised in a one-wage family living on a large council estate in the late 1950’s and 60’s. My care experienced dad worked hard to earn enough money to support us, my mum spent it wisely. I grew up as the baby of the family alongside the children and foster children of my mum’s best friend. Holidays were a day trip to Prestatyn, clothes often came from jumble sales, but I was loved, and never went hungry. I was raised to know the difference between right and wrong and to be kind to those less fortunate than myself. 

 

When I joined the children’s social care workforce in 1976, I was just eighteen, not too far removed from my own rebellious teens and determined to make a difference. I like to think that over the years I have been a good role model and a champion for children’s rights.  When I was twenty-two my husband and I became foster parents. Two of the four children we looked after went to live with a permanent family, the other two stayed in touch and remain in our life to this day. 

 

After my own family arrived, I went back to work at a residential intermediate treatment centre with young offenders, but it was not for me. I have never been convinced that punishment or brutality changes behaviour. If it did prisons would not be bursting at the seams with failed children come of age. Six months later I took up the position of group leader at a residential special school for children with learning difficulties on the outskirts of the village where I lived at that time. 

 

The school had originally been set up as a ‘farm colony’ in 1871. It was the first NCH children’s home outside London. Methodist Minister, Reverend Stephenson, wanted a place where the children could breathe "fresh air" and be taught new skills to equip them for a better future. In later years many children were sent to the homes during the two World Wars because their fathers had been killed and mothers had been left to care for more children than they could afford to look after.

 

My mother-in-law remembered uniformed children from ‘The Homes’ walking in line to the village at weekends to spend their pocket money in the village shop and going there for cookery lessons because the village school did not have a kitchen. In the late 1940’s the homes stopped caring for orphans and neglected children and became a special school for children with learning difficulties. Thankfully some who lived and worked there were determined to make sure the past was not erased. Former caregivers and residents returned every year with their families during the first May Bank Holiday for a reunion with the place and the people they had lived with in small family groups. 

 

During the 1980’s much was changing in the world of children’s social care and pupil numbers were falling when the headmaster approached me about developing a home that remained open during school holidays. The difficulties of many of the children at the school were not solely related to a learning difficulty, they had the same needs as any of the children I had looked after in children’s homes. Early life trauma and adversity had left huge gaps in their emotional and behavioural development as well as their cognitive ability. To fill these I introduced play therapy, and during training sessions we learned various ways in which we could help the children express their feelings and emotions and manage their own behaviour more successfully. This early belief in the value of therapy and psychologically informed care and education has never left me. 

  

At the beginning of my second decade in children’s social care I completed my professional qualifications and became a child and family social worker, and later a child protection officer with the NSPCC before returning to children’s services to manage a resource centre. Here I was responsible for the community support and youth justice team, two family centres, an education unit, and several children’s homes including the regional secure unit for young people who had committed serious crimes. 

 

Soon after I took up the position the abduction and killing of a small child a month before his third birthday brought two ten-year olds to the attention of the world. It divided public opinion and put children on trial in an adult court. It is the story that never goes away even though there were cases of children who had killed before and others that have killed since. In 2019 I wrote about my decision to participate in a Channel 5 documentary about the tragedy. The suggestion that society needs to understand what makes a child a murderer led some to judge supporters of this view as, “pathetic” and accuse the program makers of giving them “a tap on the back”. Others agreed with the message intended... children are not born evil. On that terrible day in 1993 three children were failed and we still don’t know why.

 

I took a career break in the late 90’s to help run the family business and returned to social work as an agency social worker at the beginning of the new millennium. It wasn’t long before I realised my heart was still in children’s social care and I secured the position of care director in a small company running two bed children’s homes. I was impressed with the quality and location of the homes, and the high staff ratio which allowed a high level of individual care and attention for children with very complex needs. 

 

Few would disagree that children should live in families. I certainly wouldn’t but there are all sorts of reasons why some children cannot be successfully placed with a family and why some family placements end. It may be the child who does not want to live in a family, the unpredictability of family life may cause a placement to end prematurely, or difficulties may arise from the effects of unresolved early life trauma in the teenage years and a lack of support. Whatever the reason, failed placements have a massively detrimental effect on children, and often a devastating effect on their caregivers too.

 

By 2010 the company was offering therapeutically informed care with education in its own schools across the south, the midlands and the northwest. Two years later alongside my day job I became a director and trustee of The Consortium for Therapeutic Communities. This is membership charity for all those connected with, interested, or involved in the delivery of relationship-based support and treatment across the entire human lifespan. My involvement with care leavers had increased by then, and in 2016 with support from TCTC I organised the National Care Leavers Week Conference in London. The following year with the help from Rosie Canning I organised the first Your Life Your Story event. This residential event brought care leavers with aspirations to write their life story together with published care experienced authors to learn the techniques of storytelling. 

 

Since then, Your Life Your Story has become an extraordinarily rewarding part of my care experience, but it was a by chance meeting with a man my husband and I had known as a teenager over thirty years before that epitomised the undeniable power of relationships and the untold story. Our paths had first crossed after he made allegations of child abuse in the late 1970’s. His story was not believed, and at just thirteen years old he was sent to the town’s working boy’s hostel. My husband worked there at the time, and I worked at the children’s home he was removed from in the immediate aftermath of this. We did not doubt his story but even whistle blowers were not listened to back then.

 

But in the here and now there is no denying that much was wrong in children’s social care in that era. The implementation of policy changes in the 1970’s and the creation of social services departments introduced many changes, not all were for the better. Policy makers and their advisers failed to focus sufficient attention on the availability of expertise, knowledge, and skills in the children’s workforce with dire consequences. This is evident from the revelations of child abuse that swept across the county, in the eighties and nineties and it is of course true that too many children were abused and mistreated, but not all. 

 

After years of working in the atmosphere of mistrust created by media led scandals, just knowing that this man was as pleased to see us, as we were to see him was deeply reassuring. We kept in touch, and he attended the first Your Life Your Story event which provided an opportunity for me to tell him we had always believed him, and to share my own experiences of that awful place. A year later he wrote and published the first Your Life Your Story inspired book, and in 2019 Your Life Your Story became a small, unregistered charity, managed by a group of five directors who are care experienced adults, caregivers, or both. 

 

Your Life Your Story brings care experienced adults and care givers in all their wonderful diversity, together with published authors, poets, and artists, to learn the techniques of storytelling, to connect with their story, and each other through the arts, in a therapeutically supported environment. By bringing care experienced adults and caregivers together out of choice, to share stories from their different perspectives on shared experiences, Your Life Your Story connects people that might otherwise not meet. It provides opportunities for wounds to heal and relationships to grow, and above all it reminds us that we are different and one. 

Different & One

 

We are different but we are one.

 

We came from different places, different people, different faces, from the roots of different beginnings, different trees.

We walked on different paths, trod different trails.

We all had different things that have bought us to our knees.

But we had dreams!!

 

We’ve all known the inner workings of life struggles.

We’ve jumped hurdles and climbed mountains abound.

We’ve pulled ourselves up from our bootstraps.

When kindness, love and safety were nowhere to be found; it’s in this darkness we embraced ourselves.

 

We have known loneliness and rejection.

We have known hatred, abuse, and disaffection

We have known heartless processes and being denied affection. 

Despite us all growing from different directions, but we got through.

 

We have known lost identities and missing parts, about records with redactions; about judgements from the start.

We have known abandonment, fear, and isolation.

You blame US, our ways, our behaviour.

This is your mitigation!!

 

We have known the dark alleyways of exploitation, vice, and corruption

We have journeyed down paths of complete self-destruction

We have known that you need to tow the line, remain silent, compliant, becoming frozen trapped in time. But our voices still there, screaming silently from inside.

 

We have known the pain of speaking out, of uttering a sound and then taking a clout. Of saying too much and then wishing you hadn’t even opened your mouth.

Of being caught with a sideways glance or when those bubbling words spilled out...faster than you had a chance... to anticipate the consequences.

 

We have known heartbreak and how to keep our eyes to the floor, to avert our gaze from anything human; we’re not people anymore – Or so they thought!!

 

We have known separation not just from others but ourselves, compartmentalised in boxes that we’re too afraid to open out.

 

We have known that spark that keeps us going. The ember deep inside us that is barely glowing; waiting to be fanned into a flame.

 

We are the people who have known the cold not only on our flesh but in our hearts. We have known opinions and aspirations. We have strived for second chances, new beginnings, and fresh starts.

 

We have hidden in the shadows, been scared stiff of them too. We’ve run, we’ve fought, we’ve battled, and we’ve kept on breaking through.

 

We have eyes that have seen things they never should have seen.

We have known hands in places that they never should have been, words spoken in our ears now etched into our brains; the touch of our oppressors, our abusers it runs within our veins.

 

We have known the insidious the callous cruel and wicked.

We have witnessed the deranged, cold-hearted, and simply twisted, but somehow, we were to blame!?

 

Now we are the powerful one’s we know our minds.

No-one can edit our futures, chop bits out, reduce or minimise.

Our history will always be a reminder, it’s our past.

Our strength...our passions...our determination will be what defines our journeys now.

 

We know the truths unspoken, the stories behind our smiles, within our eyes

We know that once we were lost, fragmented, and broken

But together, different and one, we shall rise.

 

Saira-Jayne @ Your Life Your Story

6 July 2019

 

Sadly, when Covid struck, the Your Life Your Story 2020 creative residential was cancelled, so instead we hosted a virtual event during the December festivities, ‘The Gift of Experience… The Truth Unwrapped’ and pressed ahead with developing and creating our first anthology. Then in January 2021, our community was devastated, by news that Yusuf Paul McCormack, director of Your Life Your Story and co-director of Artifact’s, had lost his life to Covid. In honour of his memory, we hosted a tribute event during World Social Work Week, in the spirit of Ubuntu… “I am because we are”. A person who has Ubuntu is a person who acts in ways that benefit others. Some describe it as an actual metaphysical connection shared between people which helps us connect to each other. From the moment, the door closed on the first Your Life Your Story event I knew that it had the power to be transformative, that these connections were important, that our stories were significant, and it had to continue. 

 

As I look back, I am grateful to all the children I have cared for who instilled in me a much deeper insight into inequality, disadvantage, and injustice, and cultivated my commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. But too often, their voices are not heard, their lives are morphed into data, and their humanity is denied.  Others claim to speak for them, to know what’s best for them, and their voices are extinguished by the machine that has become children’s social care.

 

 A huge industry has been built around child protection, but catastrophic stories of child neglect and abuse show that these measures are not serving their intended purpose. Blame has become a disguise for failure, setting people against each other, making experts of some, scapegoats of others, separating those who deserve from those that do not. This stands in the way of understanding what needs to change. 

 

Through all of this I am grateful for the support I have received from my birth family, my care family, friends, and colleagues, and for this amazing opportunity to amplify the collective voice of this most diverse community and to shine a light on adversity. 

 

Your Life Your Story brings people together with a shared identity, and as our collective voice grows so does our determination to make a positive contribution to improving services for vulnerable children, and the adult’s they become, through mutually rewarding relationships reclaimed through shared narratives.

 

To find out more about what we do visit  

https://www.ylys.org.uk

First Published March 2022 Fostering Families Magazine