This is just a photograph of a fairly unhappy child taken in the 1950’s. It is a fairly unremarkable photo of child, part of a bigger photograph of children in a children’s home. Yet to me, it is remarkable. It is one of only three photographs of my entire childhood, and the only existing photograph of me under 10 years of age.
Why is it important? Most people grow up in their own communities, amongst family and friends, surrounded by childhood memories of people, places, things that reinforce their sense of identity. They may be surrounded by brothers and sisters with the same surname, and go to the same schools as the children they grew up with who form their peer group. They don’t think about it, but they have a sense of belonging, of their place in family, peer group and the wider Society. They have a sense of heritage, which brings with it a sense of who they are.
Most people have toys and possessions they have had for years, and albums of photographs of themselves and loved ones. Not so many people who grew up in care. Being a care kid of my generation, those three photographs are the only tangible record of my childhood.
Once a child comes into care, to them, it can be as though different rules apply. They will probably be moved away from their family, peer group and immediate community, and possibly moved to a different community which may be many miles away. Any sense of belonging, of identity linked to their social group and familiar environment are gone.
The move can be justified of course. They are moving away from threat or negative influences. They are moving somewhere where they will be assessed or hopefully offered therapy. They are moving to a caring environment which sadly happens to be miles away and possibly the best their corporate parents are able or prepared to pay for – so many good reasons. But to the child, they are moving away from the known to the unknown, and this is not without cost to their sense of wellbeing.
There are seven other young people in the photo of me above. Only one of them is related to me in any way. He is an older brother. I had five older siblings, and my brother in the photograph and I were separated from them as small children. Two of us were placed together in children’s homes in England, another was placed in a secure unit in the north of England, one more was adopted and placed in a tiny village in rural Scotland, and the remaining two were placed in a boarding school in the Scottish highlands The one who was was adopted had their name changed and we did not get to meet them until we were in our 40’s. The family were never to be reunited and grew apart.
Decisions made to separate the children in the early 1950’s had a lifetime impact, but none of us were ever spoken to about it.
My brother and I shared lots of placements over the 16 years we were together in care. After the first few, no matter how long the placements last, I never emotionally unpacked. This was just another place. If I placed a foot wrong, I would be moved, and I might not like where I am moved to. That meant I had to conform and not make waves. Records, if they existed, would show that we were ‘stable’ placements. That was not an indicator of successful placements, but more of adapting to an unstable potentially threatening environment for fear of being moved to somewhere even worse. The kids in homes told tales of the homes bad kids were moved to, and I for one was terrified of being sent there.
And the point of these childhood recollections? Every child in the care system is vulnerable to the decisions made about them, usually by strangers with limited insight into the realities of growing up in care who believe that they are acting ‘in their best interests’. However, they can get it wrong because they really have such limited knowledge of the potential impact of their decisions.
When I was a child in care in the 50’s/60’s, children were moved away from their home communities, their families and people and places they knew well. They still are. When I was a child in care, children were moved from home to home sometimes miles from home. They still are. When I was a child in care, families were split up and siblings separated from each other, sometimes for life. They still are.
It really is time that all those people who grew up in the care system were reminded that the feelings of fear, isolation, “differentness” and sometimes inadequacy were normal and reflected the situations they were in, not them. They need to be reminded that they are OK. It is time that the wisdom and vast experience of the care experienced family was heard. People like me, who grew in care two generations ago. People like the many young careleavers struggling to make their way in a community that is so often not understanding of them and their situations. And people who are in care today and possibly feeling as I felt so many years ago. Perhaps if all these people were heard, the care experience in the future could learn the lessons and change. That is my hope. That is why the conference for care experienced people “The care experience – past, present...& future?” (known as CareExpConf) is happening in Liverpool next April.