Care Kid – Part III

I didn’t plan to have such a long break away from blogging – the days between my last post and this one have rolled into weeks without a moment to myself.

My original ambition was to blog at least a couple of times a month, but I’ve come to realise that my life as it is now just won’t allow for that level of consistency – as we speak (or more accurately as I type) work and life is getting the best of me. It has been all work and no play and finding the time to blog has been near impossible, particularly since the topic of my latest posts have been documenting my care experience (which is complex to say the least) and cannot be hashed out in an hour on the laptop.

There is simply far too much to cover; too many curves in the road, too many homes, too many social workers – just too much of everything to give the reader any real understanding of the reality of being in care.

There’s part of me that wishes I never started, not because I don’t have a story to tell – I do. I can tell stories for days about foster care, children’s homes and the care system as a whole – especially as I have been on both sides of the fence… the problem is, I don’t have the time to commit right now and with the little time I do have, I do not think I can do it justice. It’s completely frustrating because the feedback from my previous posts has been amazing. Goodness me, it has. I didn’t expect that my life experiences would translate so well and be relatable to so many. I have been truly humbled by your supportive messages and encouragement.

It’s funny because I don’t know what kind of reception I anticipated as to be honest writing ‘care kid’ was never about me. In fact, initially I began writing with the intention of using my experiences to highlight failures in the system and I thought it best to start writing from the beginning since children don’t just wake up one day and find themselves in care. There’s always a back story. Adversity, poverty, tragedy – some shit situation that precedes the “saving grace” of local authority intervention.

So I started with a condensed story of my childhood, which I’ll have you know is no poor me story; I am one of the lucky ones. My experiences both negative and positive made a strong woman out of me and as it happens I’ve had a pretty blessed life.

However, there are many a care leaver who did not find their feet, peace or healing and sadly never recovered from their childhoods. Many who still live with the devastating effects of their traumatic early year experiences and as a result found themselves in prison, addicted to drugs, destitute, suffering significant mental health issues or homeless as well as in many other unfortunate circumstances.

Not forgetting the thousands of looked after children leaving care each year who continue to suffer the same poor outcomes (a number that keeps growing since the number of children in care continues to reach record highs year after year).

I will be the first to say, care isn’t all bad, some people have good experiences, end up in great homes with good people and an amazing support system in their corner but my intention was never to tell a story about the successes of the system. The positive stories do little but mask the reality of so many; the uneducated, the unloved, the teen parents and drug addicts, the offenders and the homeless, the hard to reach and the forgotten.

I cannot forget them.

I want to tell the story of the many, not the narrative that’s sold to Ofsted to warrant awards recognising achievements that are hardly attained. This story is no misery memoir, it is reality. It’s about how outcomes for looked after children and care leavers are unacceptably poor, heart-breaking even. It is a story about how nearly half of under twenty-one year olds in prison have been in care as well as twenty-percent of the adult prison population. A story about how year by year nearly half of all care leavers are not in education or employment (that’s an average of five-thousand young people leaving the system each year to live independently with nothing but a care grant). Not a plan or a job, no education nor stability, non-existent support networks and very limited assistance. Virtually nothing but a parting grand to ensure that they have just enough funds to buy the essentials for their sparse and cold council flats; a bed, a cooker, a fridge – the money doesn’t stretch further than that. They are then left to their own devices to navigate life and independent living according to their “pathway play” which is the legislated bullshit that is prepared in the last two years of their journey for the benefit of evidencing positive outcomes for the government. And that is where their interests (their meaning the government) ends since that is all that is statistically recorded in regard to outcomes – local authorities soon lose track of care leavers after they are sent on their way at eighteen.

It’s easy to say looked after children (and care leavers specifically) are instrumental in their own shortcomings by not engaging with services – I’ve heard it many times before. However, when you’re unmentored, not prioritised, institutionalised, discouraged, unheard, abused, neglected and the list goes on. What hope do you have of becoming more than just a product of your environment?

Children in care are treated like a commidity. They are pawns in a business that generates millions of pounds worldwide at the expense of their development and outcomes. They are seen as service users before children. Cases to be managed and then closed. And the only people in the world who “care” about them, well, they clock off at 5pm.  In truth, the expectations of these damaged children are so low, that no one bothers trying. In care but no one cares, how is that for irony?

I apologise if this sounds bitter, but I guess someone has to be angry about this piss-poor under-funded, poorly resourced, overstretched system.

Anyway, I know you are wondering where the rant ends and the story starts, so I guess I should begin.

I was inspired to start documenting my journey through the system after bumping into a girl I used to live with many years ago. We grew up in care together and every time I see her I am met with the worst (yet sadly common) outcome growing up in care has to offer. The worst.

Telling my story was about telling her story. Documenting the failures and horrors of this system because what does 20% of care leavers in the UK are homeless mean to you unless you know one of those 20%? Unless you have seen their struggle, witnessed their pain, experienced their despair? Unless it is so close to home that you go to bed every night feeling so overwhelmed and heartbroken that it is simply not within your power to change outcomes or improve life chances? (At least not on the scale you would hope to)

It means nothing, it’s just another figure on top of a long list of figures that are undoubtedly more important to you like your bank balance or your earnings, the increase in your council tax or energy bills. And don’t get me wrong, some stats may even momentarily stop you in your tracks in sadness and concern for some of the most vulnerable in our society but the reality is, the horror is often fleeting because most of us are too busy navigating our own journey and struggles and are so far removed from being one of the forgotten.

The girl I used to live with. She has been forgotten.

I see this girl now and again, head lowered as she moves excessively fast through the neighbourhood, weaving in and out of pedestrians as she makes her way to her next fix. If you take the time to study her, the way she moves would most likely amuse you since it’s her speed rather than her stride that carries her so quickly. Her every move is rushed and determined and she walks with her upper body thrust forward leaning into her destination whilst her legs lag behind, working frantically to catch up.

I saw her again a little over a month ago as I popped out of work to go and buy some milk. As we passed one another I shouted out to her and watched as a brief moment of confusion wrinkled her brows before our eyes met, relaxing her face and slowing her to a stop. “Hey you” I called, opening my arms and taking hold of her, lingering in an embrace far longer than she was comfortable with. I say this because she is always the first to pull away and break our hug; and though I have learnt over the years that she doesn’t like to be kept for too long, every time we cross paths I offer up a cuddle anyway, willing her to slow down; if only for a moment.

I asked her how she had been keeping and she smiled her wonky smile in response, exposing a row of decaying teeth that always shock me though I’ve seen them many times before. “Things are good, yeah I’m doing alright” she mumbled twice, the first for my benefit and the second as though she was trying to convince herself.

I observed her closely as she shuffled around in front of me and noticed that her face had thinned out considerably since the last time I saw her. She had sores festering around her mouth and if her wrinkled skin could tell a story, maybe then you would understand why she looked as though she were in her late forties rather than her tender age of twenty-five.

She had never been any good at lying and if the rest of her appearance had not already given her up, rest assured her eyes certainly would have. The remnants of every crack spliff that had rested between her lips and every advantage taking man that had laid between her thighs in exchange for a rock were in those eyes. Her gaze tired and troubled, lonely and unbearably transparent; offering up her truth every time.

I’d met this girl close to thirteen years ago at a house party in the middle of an estate I pass often these days on my way to work. The first time our paths crossed I hated her; she was loud, mouthy, ignorant and overly eager to prove how tough she was. I was a couple of years older than her, with a bit of a “bad girl” reputation amongst my peers and back then, that had been good enough reason for her to arm herself with a knife and attempt to fight me.

I think back to this day often when I read newspaper articles about young boys falling victim to knife crime. An epidemic many can’t understand though it is happening right on our doorsteps and playing out in our newspapers and TV screens week after week and has been for years.

Young people perishing day by day on the streets on London, often because of some minor disagreement, post code wars or tension borne out of a desperation for approval and respect. I am reminded of myself and this girl, at the time a bad mix of egos to have in one room, though I was never a trouble maker. My biggest problem was; I was never one to walk away when trouble came knocking; even if it was holding a knife in its hand.

I remember my adrenaline pumping as I walked across the room ready to fight. Now I look back, it was completely foolish of me to even think I had any chance against someone holding a knife but ego and youth is a dangerous combination. In my mind my life was stretched out before me and death was never an option, not for a teenager anyway – death was an old people’s affliction. In my adolescent mind, this was just another day and another fight and my only worry was; I had to win it.

Fortunately, the fight never came to nothing as someone started screaming that the police were outside which quickly dispersed the crowd. Anxious to get out of the block and away from area before we were arrested, my friends and I wasted no time following suit, leaving the altercation for another day.

The next time we would meet would be a few days later outside a children’s home on the edge of the Peckham/New Cross border. I’d left my own children’s home on the opposite side of Peckham in the middle of the night to meet up with a couple of friends to go out joyriding when who should turn up but this girl who previously had tried to stab me for clout. Our mutual friend who sadly passed away some years ago after falling suspiciously from a tower block whilst being pursued by the police encouraged us to squash our “beef” and from that day onwards we became firm friends.

Fast forward thirteen years later and here we were standing in the carpark of a supermarket, her pretending that she was doing fine and me standing there thinking how the hell did life turn out like this? Whilst I rushed out of the office to buy some milk to feed my coffee fix, she rushed through Peckham for hers. Both clinging on to bitter addictions, only mine merely tasted bitter, hers had poisoned her life from inside out.

This young woman is twenty-five. She has been working the streets and taking class a drugs since she was sixteen. She has had three children, two of whom have been adopted and one of which is in foster care. And do you know what breaks my heart the most? Her story is by no means rare; nearly every single girl I grew up in care with ended up on the same or similar paths.

Most of them bar one became teenage mothers, myself included. Grown before our time, not just because we had babies in our youth but simply since we were exposed to most things far too early. We became adults prematurely; with no guidance or discipline we were running around London doing everything we shouldn’t have been before we were even thirteen years of age. Smoking cannabis, drinking alcohol, raving with people twice our age, staying out all night, hanging around with the wrong crowd, running away, not attending school – you name it, we done it. We had freedom long before we were mature enough to know what to do with it and there was no escaping from the cycle. Everyone in care seemed to know one another. I guess, no one fits like the people whose scars run as deep as your own.

I had friends at school, friends from my childhood, and friends from the local area but they didn’t understand me and my pain like my care family did and I was always aware of the divide. I wasn’t like my peers; I didn’t wear the latest trainers or have much more than the school uniform on my back. I didn’t go home to my parents after school or even to my family and I lacked the solid foundations that my friends had, or at least appeared to have back then. I was not allowed to have sleepovers or spend time with my friends outside of school, and I never invited them back to where I lived either. I was different and I felt it.

It sounds so trivial and meaningless now but when you’re a teenager your only concern in life is to fit in. Being socially accepted despite being so underprivileged compared to my peers was my primary focus and I worked hard to achieve it, it was more important than meeting with social workers, doing my work or going to school at all. I’d been thrown out of four secondary schools by the age of fifteen as a result of truancy or fighting and I could care less about the teachers and making grades or building a relationship with my foster families and then once I moved back into children’s home the support staff there.

Instead, I spent all my time with the young people from my care home and other homes in area. We’d spend our days hanging around estates or outside of various children’s homes in the borough, as well as youth offending and social services. Camberwell Green youth court was heavily frequented by the same crowd of looked after children, quite often for minor wrongdoings such as breaking the small panes of glass in the fire alarm boxes in order to trigger the alarm and escape the magnetic locked doors of the children home after lock up at 10pm. We were criminalised for being disobedient teenagers, arrested and manhandled for going out after lock up and other petty infringements. Police cells became our respite when other homes in the borough were unable to take us due to being understaffed or at full capacity. Being arrested was normal as were police raids in the early hours of the morning and as much as I hate to admit it, some of my fondest childhood memories end in cuffs. Not because we were criminal or particularly violent but purely because those were the tools used by staff to manage our behaviour.

Our “crimes” were plenty but comically petty like stealing the staff keys to break into the kitchen for mid night feasts. Barricading ourselves in the office if we were refused pocket money as a consequence of not tidying our rooms. Once my brother (who for some time lived in a children’s home with me before he was quickly moved on to another one following a particularly out of control in house water fight) was arrested for throwing an apple across the room as a member of staff walked through the door. Granted it hit her smack bang between the eyes and probably hurt quite a bit. However, it was not intentional nor malicious, yet he was arrested anyway for common assault. Our arrests for the most part were silly and unreasonable and as our criminal records lengthened so did the patience of the courts.

I was fourteen when one afternoon I walked into court and watched powerless as three judges turned whispering to one another for less than sixty-seconds and decided that this time, I would not be going home. In fairness I had much more than a third strike against my name and was frequenting court at the time more than I was attending my pupil referral unit (an educational unit for disruptive and troubled children) however I never expected I would be incarcerated.

To be continued….