“As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know” -Carl Jung-
The first months I spent in care felt like being trapped in an episode of Tracy Beaker, except there was no pretending my mum was a famous Hollywood star who would eventually come back for me; she was gone. My siblings and I had been taken back to London and placed in a children’s home in Bermondsey in an area known as ‘The Blue’. Bermondsey was one of Peckham’s bordering districts and though it was only ten-minutes by car from our childhood home the community was very different to its multi-cultural neighbour. The area had been heavily bombed during World War II and numerous council estates had been erected in place of the factories that had lined the streets pre-war. Its residents were predominantly the white working class and the area had a bad and well earned reputation of being extremely intolerant and racist. The Blue was at the heart of Bermondsey’s community and had once been a popular traditional street market in its glory days before the traders were pushed out by gentrification and big supermarket chains. By the early nineties left in place of the hundreds of stalls that had once dotted the high-street was a main road lined with run down shops and cafes and right at the end of the road nestled behind a pub, park and a shabby laundrette was the children’s home.
Roseberry Street children’s home was a modern multi-purpose building with spacious rooms, heavy duty carpet throughout and a generous sized garden. We had been accommodated inside a separate unit within the home isolated from the other residents and it was like having our own little apartment; with two double bedrooms as well as a kitchen, bathroom and lounge area. The home was your typical communal living residential care home, well lived in and devoid of any real comfort or character and though the staff had attempted to make it homely with well-placed toys and posters on the walls, the regimented daily time table as well as the high turnover of staff and regular meetings with social workers made it feel more like a youth centre than a home. We were no longer just children, we were now considered ‘looked after children’ – supervised, examined and monitored twenty-four-seven.
Outside of our unit there were multiple rooms for the other children who lived there as well as offices, a computer room and a bedroom for the staff who stayed overnight. We would spend the majority of our day playing with the other residents in the garden or recreation room downstairs and the staff for the most part would allow us all to run wild until lock up when we were marched upstairs and instructed to get ready for bed.
Bedtimes were deeply unsettling as I was plagued by distressing and repetitive nightmares virtually every night and I hated going to bed. It was not a place of rest and I would cause trouble and hide away from the staff on most evenings in an attempt to delay the inevitable. My brothers who needed little in the way of encouragement would join me running around creating havoc whilst the staff done their best to control us. I was soon labelled the problem child, naughty and unmanageable and as you will imagine the staff grew to hate me, picking me up and taking me back to bed a thousand times kicking and screaming before tiredness would eventually overwhelm me and I’d fall into a troubled sleep.
My mum had died two weeks before the summer school holidays were due to end and it was decided by social services that it would be a good idea for us children to return to school once the new term begun. My first day back was one of the worst days of my life, I had always been a confident child, self-assured and accepted but that day was the very first time I had ever really been aware of what it felt like to be different. Our family were well known in the community and it was no secret that my mum had been killed, it had been printed in the papers and was talk of our neighbourhood. Our loss was everyone’s gossip and it felt like there was no one left in the world who didn’t know that our mum was dead. I remember feeling self-conscious especially at the end of the school day when all eyes were on us as we boarded the white mini-bus that had been provided by social services for the children’s home to transport us to and from school.
Though I had always been fairly bright and fond of school when I returned I struggled to concentrate in class and would spend my days worrying about things far beyond my control or understanding. My teacher at the time Mrs Miller, evidently unsure about how to manage my withdrawal allowed me to wander out of class unchallenged and I’d spend my days sitting with the receptionist in the school office instead. Her name was Val and she was a kind elderly lady who reminded me of my great grandmother. She would tease and make light of the fact that I was skiving class again and it amused me that she would always look at me over the rim of, rather than through her glasses and jokingly remark “ohh Jaimee-lee, not again” whenever I appeared in the office doorway. In those early days she became my refuge at school and I found comfort in the fact she allowed me to be present without expecting anything in return unlike the many new adults in my life.
There were plenty of them, from social workers to the police liaison officers, to independent reviewing officers and the staff both at school and at the children’s home, to the children’s psychotherapist and the court appointed guardian, as well as our solicitor. We were introduced day after day to one hidden agenda led adult after the next, making their notes and recording our every interaction and I didn’t trust any of them, refusing to be blinded by any illusion that they cared or could tell the truth.
“Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.” – Orson Scott Card –
I don’t know how I came to that conclusion at nine years old, I’d be a liar to tell you. Perhaps due to pre-conceived beliefs that social services were bad and stole children from their families or maybe because my own parents had failed miserably in their duty to protect us from the likes of these bad people and as a result I refused to trust anyone else? Or possibly because the children’s psychotherapist who’d been assigned to us through the court to establish the extent of emotional damage we had suffered following my mothers death was forcefully manipulating me to express resentment for my father that I didn’t possess. Who knows? The only thing I am certain of is in my young mind I ascertained that these adults were not to be trusted.
The first weeks we were in the children’s home passed by in a blur and the only real memory I have apart from the heavy handed staff, who would smack and throw us around and the other children a couple of whom I would meet years later in another home, was that I wanted nothing more than to go home. The overwhelming need to escape was constant and one day I decided that I was going to run away and persuaded my little brothers to come with me. The day we ran away started off as normal, it was a Saturday and the house was busy. I asked the staff if I could use the computer room and typed a letter to say good bye. I remember genuinely believing in my heart that going back to life before social workers was as easy as sending a letter and walking away – how wrong was I? Once it was written, we slipped into the garden to make our escape. It was a huge garden the length of the building with high walls on either side and bushes along the back fence and though we were not the tallest of children, the walls were no match for us. We were estate kids and had been climbing trees and fences since we could talk and were up and over in no time.
Hearts pounding, anxious of being caught, we hit the ground running for the majority of the half and hour race home, following the route the mini-bus had driven on our school runs. The closer we got the more convinced I became that the life we’d lost was just ahead of us and it was an enormous shock to get back and find our front door locked and the windows boarded up. Usually during the summer holidays our door was wide open and our mums’ friends would be in the living room whilst us children ran in and out all day with our bikes, toys and endless snacks. If you wanted an ice lolly our house was the place to be and if you needed to find your mum, it was a safe bet that you would find her sitting in our living room gossiping away as adults do. Yet here we stood, in front of our boarded up house, in our unusually quiet and deserted estate not knowing quite what to do; we had run away with nowhere to go.
Knocking on the door of our neighbour, I asked if I could climb over her back fence to get into my house. She was shocked to see us and asked what we were doing there & I remember brazenly telling her that we had run away. She was stunned and anxiously told us that we needed to go back but I was adamant about checking the back door so she ushered us inside and allowed me to climb her back fence. Unluckily our back door was locked and it was one of those defining moments when I realised that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was. Social services had infiltrated every part of our lives, there was nowhere left untouched by their control, even our home. Our safe, magical, full of light, love and life home was dark, empty and locked to us; and I was completely heartbroken that I had been robbed of the chance to outgrow it. My brothers, baffled by my tears were quite happy since the shed had been left open and was packed with our bikes and lifting them over our neighbours garden we cycled back to the children’s home with our tails between our legs. The staff were angry to say the least and we were greeted with a very harsh telling off from the local police who had been running around the area trying to locate us. I was distressed to be back and remember locking myself in the room crying, defeated and angry at the world and everyone in it.
That immense devastation at the unfairness of life would soon become a theme for the next few months as losing our parents and our childhood home was just the beginning. At the end of September we found out that we would also lose one another as social services had determined that rather than place us with either the maternal or paternal sides of our family we would be split up and placed into long term foster care. Our family did little to detest the decision though they had spent several weeks locked in a nasty dispute with children’s services about the long term arrangements of our care, neither side wanting us to be placed with the other. Social services had invited both groups to several meetings and with increasing tensions between them, they had done little but prove themselves to be incapable of putting their differences and ill feeling aside for the benefit of our welfare.
My mums mum, though very involved in our care proceedings had hardly been a source of support or protection for her own children and even in the event that she would have offered to extend herself and her home to us, she simply did not possess the ability or skills to raise a handful of bereaved children. And unfortunately, the same could be said for both my mothers and fathers siblings, who were all equally unequipped and disinterested in inheriting the responsibility of us and were undoubtedly relieved to not have been landed with the burden of six kids.
Consequently myself and my siblings, with our fractured and unstable family networks were condemned to the foster care system and though social services assured our families that there were carers on hand who could take us all, in reality foster carers available to house a sibling group of six just didn’t exist. Instead we were split into pairs and swiftly moved on to our new homes. My elder sister who was ten and one of my brothers who was eight were sent to live with one family, whilst myself, still nine and another brother who was six were placed with a third and the twins who were three and the only joy left in our lives were naturally placed together.
The loss was colossal, like another death and I don’t think I have ever truly recovered. There is no sense of reason when you’re a child being separated from your siblings. You cannot understand that there is no one-place where you can stay together or that your placements have been ascertained on account of your often varying needs. There is no logic or justification that lessens the trauma of being separated, and even now nearly twenty years later I consider our separation an unforgiveable betrayal by those responsible for preserving and maintaining our relationships.
At first we would still see each other at school and though it was difficult and upsetting to go home to different families, we would at least see one another from Monday through to Friday but a few weeks into our new placements that was all to change. My foster carer lived in Dulwich and it was decided that we would move schools to be closer to her home. It was heart-breaking to say good-bye to my friends, the majority of whom I had known since nursery and my last day of school remains one of the saddest days of my life.
My new school was in the heart of Dulwich Village an affluent area in South-East London and to say that it was a change is an understatement. The majority of the children in my new school were from white middle class backgrounds, a big contrast to the children of working class backgrounds I was used to; and I was conscious from the get go that I did not fit in. I had a foster-carer for starters, a completely alien term to most if not all of the children in my classroom who thought kids in children’s homes and foster care were purely fictions in the books of Charles Dickens and Jaqueline Wilson. They were posh, privileged and worlds apart from any of my former peers and I struggled to adjust.
I was so depressed that one day I cut off my hair, every last bit of it. I don’t know what came over me, in one moment I wanted my mum more than I ever had since the day she had died and in the next I had picked up scissors and through tears began to hack away at my hair until there was nothing left to cut away. I will never forget how my foster carer panicked, holding me in her arms with tears in her eyes when she saw the damage I had done. There was nothing but small patches of hair left and with no way to repair it, that evening I was taken to her daughters’ home where her boyfriend who was a barber shaved the remainder off.
I hated being in care and my foster placement was far different to those of my siblings whose carers were British and permissive, living lifestyles very similar to our parents, or at least my mothers whose culture was more dominant in our household. Our carer was Jamaican born, older than my mum had been and although she was nice and incredibly loving, she was set in her cultural ways; with customs radically different to the ones in which I’d been taught and raised. She was authoritative, stern and religious and we were expected to go to church every Sunday, complete house hold chores and used a living and dining room separate from her own. Obedience and submission were highly valued, and the freedoms and casual supervision that we had been used to growing up were no more. We were instructed to address our foster carer as “auntie” rather than by her name or “mum” like my siblings had taken to calling their foster carers and it was very much a foster rather than a family home and I struggled to adapt.
In contrast my siblings had settled in well at their new foster placements and in some respects had been more fortunate than my brother and I. I say this because their foster carers had been friends prior to their placements and as a result their close sibling bonds had been sustained. They would spend time at one another’s homes, enjoyed several holidays abroad together and were very much involved in each others lives. As for myself and my little brother, we had been isolated, always on the outside looking in and I have vivid memories of going to play in Dulwich Park, a popular park a short walk from our foster placement and coincidently bumping into our siblings there on several occasions enjoying joint picnics with their foster families and extended family friends. My brother and I were never invited though we lived less than ten minutes away and our foster carers made no effort to arrange contact between us. My siblings never came to our house and we never went to theirs, and as a matter of fact I remember distinctly being shunned by their new families and prevented from visiting our younger siblings in the playground of their infant school that was next door to ours.
Unfortunately this is not uncommon for children in care and it absolutely perplexed me then as it does now how adults in positions of trust and authority can be so far removed and insensitive to the devastation that separation amongst siblings can cause. It is not often that foster families are willing to interrupt their own lives and customs to make space for the customs or the families of the child/ren they welcome into their home. And as a foster child you are expected to mould yourself and adopt the practices and habits of the family you have been placed with. There is rarely room for compromise and foster carers are often resistant to change or rearrangement of their own lifestyles or schedules even if it is in the best interests of the child.
Likewise, social services are overstretched and understaffed and do little to support contact with families or siblings once they are satisfied that vulnerable children have been placed in safe and stable foster homes. Their excuses are many, from their limited resources and time, to the lack of emotional investment they make in the very children they work with. There is no consequence for the poor practice of separation, at least not for the professionals involved who don’t suffer the life-long damage or distress. In truth, though this is a statement that will most certainly sit uncomfortably with some, our individual carers and social workers were by all intents instrumental in fracturing and alienating our close sibling relationships due to their own self-interest. It would become my biggest problem with foster care and social services, even as a child and it is fair to say that I believed instead of maintaining, prioritising and nurturing our sibling relationships; they destroyed and severed them.
I felt broken and alone, grieving the loss of my siblings and family though they were still alive. I was afflicted with shame and feelings of betrayal whenever I allowed myself to feel happiness or affection for my carer though she was a good person. It was almost a guilty pleasure to receive love, and though there were moments where I would immerse myself in nurture completely, open and childlike in my need for affection, generally, I would be completely detached and often destructive as a means to avoid attachment and the many risks related to trusting any adult in authority. I knew how it felt to be let down, to be lied to and mistreated, hopeful and disappointed, ridiculed and punished, controlled and powerless, unseen, unheard and unwanted, and I wouldn’t allow myself to be at the receiving end of anything that could break my fragile existence. Above all, no one was going to take the place of my mum..
To be continued..