STORY | Care To Listen?
At Madlug, we love to hear stories and firsthand accounts of those who have experiences of the care system. It reaffirms our belief that every child deserves value, worth and dignity - no matter what age they are - and how the smallest acts of goodness can make significant differences in the lives of others.
In this guest blog, Ian Dickson, a retired social worker from England recounts his personal experience of being in care.
I think back to my own childhood in care well over half a century ago…
I was in care for over sixteen years. I had quite a few placements, one of my longest being six years in one children’s home that accommodated six lads from age six to sixteen. The years in that home were the unhappiest of my entire life but any professional assessing the placement from the safety of a case file would have been satisfied that I was very successfully placed indeed.
All the indicators were there: I was in good health, I was not involved in any criminal activity or disciplinary incidents, I never complained, I never absconded, I never missed school, I passed my 11+ examinations easily and gained a place at a grammar school.
It is amazing what can be gleaned from reports and files about quality of care and outcomes… but sometimes things are not as clear as they seem.
Take my case. Had anybody bothered to gain my confidence and ask me, they would have found that their reading of my case file notes could not have been more mistaken. They would have had to spend considerable time and effort to gain my confidence first - which no official visitors ever did.
It is not enough for visitors, however caring, to simply get a child in care on their own and ask them to speak openly about the home. The children probably won’t know the visitor and will routinely distrust them as they are “Social Services” (or “Children’s Department” in my day) just like the staff working in the children’s home. The child may well believe that if they say something out of turn, they might suffer later. Better to distrust, say nothing and retain some degree of control over their situation.
Accordingly, in my case, on the rare occasions when official visitors actually spoke to the children at my children’s home, nothing was ever given away. It was far too risky.
I digress. Had any visitor managed to gain my trust they would have learned that I was very unhappy indeed in the home, and with very good reason.
The house manager managed discipline with his fists and beatings were regular and routine.
There were never any “disciplinary incidents” in the home. None of the boys would have dared challenge the manager and risk a beating.
We were told what would happen if we complained (“Who do you think they’ll believe, me or you?”) and there were no complaints procedures anyway. Nobody ever complained.
The kids in my home knew that if the Children’s Department moved us, we would be sent to a notorious remand home for boys at the other side of the city where the doors were locked and staff were even more brutal. Better to put up with the devil we knew than get moved to somewhere even worse. If the staff decided to move us, we would have had no say. Consultation with the kids about their care was unheard of. Much better for us to put up with what we had than risk worse.
In my case, there was no point in running away. I had nowhere to go and nobody to go to, and I knew what to expect if I got caught and returned.
I loved school. It was a haven, a safe place away from the hellhole that I was living in. I enjoyed reading and the world of imagination that school books opened for me. There were very few age appropriate books around the house in the children’s home. School was a bright light in a dark life. School attendance did not show how settled I was in the home. It offered me a lifeline to sanity.
I was born with a congenital hip disorder. There were no visible signs other than it caused me to limp, and reduced my mobility and agility. I could never sit cross legged for example. It used to cause me pain in cold weather but I otherwise lived with it. I limped throughout my childhood but nobody ever asked me about it and I said nothing. It caused me significant problems later in adulthood.
But children are resilient. Risky as bad behaviour was, it still had its place in my children’s home. When the boys were out of the house, it was not uncommon for us to go shoplifting. To the best of my knowledge, none of us ever got caught. That was the difference between us and those boys who entered the criminal justice system, some of whom found their way to prison. They got caught.
We knew we were different, unloved and unwanted. The entire regime to which we were subjected at the children’s home told us so. Unless we found someone who valued us or an emotional escape route such as school, the risk was that we would buy into that routine institutional abuse and internalise that we were indeed pathetic and unworthy. That way lay future mental and emotional health issues that could ruin a future lifetime.
There can be only one way for those seeking to understand or to plan services for care experienced people to gain an understanding of the impacts of care. That is to engage with care experienced people. I have never known this to happen yet whenever new legislation, policy or practice guidelines have been introduced. Perhaps that is why we fail so many children and young people.
I remember as an inspector at a seminar once asking a group of young residential workers what they thought would improve the care that they offered. They offered a range of really good suggestions: more resources, better accommodation, more time to spend with children, less onerous shifts, better supervision and support, and more. All excellent suggestions.
I then asked a bunch of kids in care at the same event the same question. They wanted to be loved, valued, respected, to feel cared for. It brought back memories of my own feelings many years earlier.
Many years later, we asked care experienced people at CareExpConf, the conference for care experienced people at Liverpool Hope University, what change they wanted most.
Their reply was more love in the care system.
Is anybody listening yet?
by Ian Dickson
CLICK HERE for more information about the care experienced conference thats mentioned in this blog along with the messages that came out of it.