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Memoirs of a Caregiver
You don’t have to look for bad news about children’s social care, it finds you. For the last 40 years stories of child protection failures and institutional abuse have reached living rooms, workplaces and communities.
I joined the children’s social care workforce in February 1976 not long after the childcare system in the UK had been rocked by the death of Maria Colwell at the hands of her mother’s violent partner, after she was returned to her mother’s care when the courts discharged the care order. At that time concerns about child protection, children ‘drifting’ in care for long periods of time with no hope of returning home and debate about how to deal with young offenders was heavily influencing legislators, policymakers and practitioners.
Three decades later I was employed in the private sector as a care director with responsibility for a group of small children’s homes and schools. I was by then a registered social worker, had foster children in their 40’s and had witnessed the Noth Wales child abuse scandal, ‘Pin Down’ in Staffordshire, the founding of ‘Child Line’ during the 1980’s and the trials of Frank Beck in Leicestershire and Ralph Morris in Shropshire. I had uncovered institutional neglect, professional misconduct and serious fraud, believed to be in the region of half a million pounds in today’s money during the 1990’s and at the beginning of the New Millennium had welcomed the introduction of National Minimum Standards for Children’s Homes. I had seen the diminishing use of residential care, been involved in two working parties looking into child sexual exploitation and experienced the transfer of regulatory responsibility from the Commision for Social Care Inspection (CSCI) to Ofsted on 1 April 2007.
In recent years, the shift from public and voluntary sector providers to private care providers has often been blamed for our failing care system but in my experience informed opinion, failure is not sector specific. It is about organisational culture, people and behaviour and it is undeniable that the care system in England and Wales had been failing for a very long time before the shift to private sector commissioning. Also, that it continues to do so in spite of the attention given by ‘expert’ advisors, politicians, regulators and the ever increasing number of professionals involved in the life of a ‘looked after child’ which ›has not translated into positive outcomes for far too many.
Following the introduction of National Minimum Standards for Children’s Homes and the first joint Chief Inspectors report on arrangements to safeguard children at the beginning of the new millennium, I was shocked to uncover the use of dangerous and unauthorised physical intervention in children’s homes that I became responsible for in 2009. Particularly, as there was undeniable evidence in logbooks and inspection reports showing inspectors and social workers had overlooked for some considerable time the excessive use of physical intervention, the dangerous use of prone restraint by untrained staff and failure to seek medical attention for injuries suffered. Records showed that between July 2005 and July 2007 one young woman was physically restrained 107 times for periods of up to 14 hours, her liberty was restricted, she suffered injury and complained. On 2 occasions she was restrained in ‘prone’ position for 62 and 65 minutes respectively and was eventually admitted to inpatient psychiatric care.
“The home records all sanctions and physical intervention appropriately, sampling these documents supported appropriate interventions and sanctions were being deployed.” (Ofsted inspection report 11.09.2007)
This report was published just ten weeks after the inquest into the restraint related death of Gareth Myatt who died at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre in April 2004 recorded a verdict of accidental death and made sweeping critisms of the Youth Justice Board.
When bringing my concerns to the attention of Child Protection Services, The Children’s Rights Director Roger Morgan and HMCI Christine Gilbert and revisiting it again with her successor HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw following the first social care lecture hosted by Ofsted on 1 February 2012 did not trigger an inquiry I raised them with The Children’s Minister and The Children’s Commissioner. The Office of The Children’s Minister agreed, “… it is essential that evidence of past abuse is thoroughly investigated…” and was hopeful that that the introduction of a new inspection framework would mean future inspections would be much better at identifying and tackling poor practice. The Children’s Commissioner also agreed the issues raised were extremely serious and suggested I “should consider approaching the Local Government Ombudsman to request an inquiry…”
The Local Government Ombudsman advised that only complaints made by the young people concerned can be investigated.
I was dumbfounded that beyond the vindication of Alison Taylor, the children’s home manager who was sacked when she bravely blew the whistle on physical and sexual child abuse in Wales, and inspite of masses of undeniable evidence, that vulnerable children were still expected to know they are being abused, be capable of pursuing a complaint and have the understanding and tenacity to do so. Worse still, was the ‘catch 22’ created by this particularly as there had been countless stories of unchallenged wrongdoing by those in positions of power and whistleblower’s being treated as ‘troublemakers’ since the 1980’s. The most famous of these being the allegations of sexual abuse against Jimmy Saville that were finally exposed around the same time and led to the Independent Inquiry in Child Sexual Abuse.
By the time the IICSA was announced by Theresa May on 7 July 2014 I was aware of allegations against a childcare worker accused of sexually abusing three girls while working at three different children’s homes. Two of these girls and the homes where they lived at the time of the alleged abuse were known to me, as was the accused. I had attended the first child protection strategy meeting and prepared a report advising why I believed the allegations to be true.
When the defendant was described in court as a good person with an impeccable work record, collusion had already been introduced as a motive for malicious allegations. The jury had been told that two of the three victims went to the same school but it was not made clear that this was at different times. Shocked by the inaccuracy of this, I protested the omission of evidence from the defendant’s personnel file, relevant child protection records including information sent to the local authority designated officer and the school’s register. It was obvious this was news to the barristers who uncomfortably explained that new evidence could not be introduced during the trial despite this meaning the potential miscarriage of justice created by this could not be avoided. My concerns were heightened still further when no attention was paid to the ‘under oath’ testimony of a witness who admitted she had not reported a previous related disclosure. And, even more so when barristers advised this serious child protection failure was not a matter for the court, and letters to Chief Constable and the Police commissioner were not answered and remain unanswered to this day.
Unsurprisingly, the defendant was found ‘not guilty’ of all offences against two of the three girls, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on charges in relation to the third girl. Sadly, any hope that this disastrous miscarriage of justice could be lessened in anyway by a retrial was destroyed a few months later when the victim understandably refused to go through it again.
The trauma of this trial will never leave me as I have no doubt these three girls like so many more were betrayed; a guilty person walked free, serious child protection breaches were ignored, no action was taken against those responsible and tax-payers money was completely wasted on a prosecution destined to fail. Worse still was the complete failure to seek an explanation at the time these serious concerns were raised and as a result of this ‘wrongs’ were not corrected, harm caused was not appeased and lessons were not learned.
It felt like history had repeated itself and the emotional price of remaining silent had become too costly when faced with false allegations of professional misconduct I finally wrote to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation (IICSE) on 29 July 2017. I viewed the inquiry as a ‘safe place’ to tell the story of a ‘gagged’ caregiver and I held on to a glimmer of hope that the cult of silence that hides wrongdoing, ignores truth and allows dangerous people to remain in the children’s workforce would finally be exposed. But, this was as swiftly extinguished when I was politely invited to appreciate that it was “not possible to investigate every allegation of institutional failure” in response to the professional experiences I brought to the attention of the inquiry.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Elie Wiesel
Soon after, with the support of The Consortium for Therapeutic Communities and The Care Leavers Foundation I organised the first Your Life Your Story workshop for care leavers with literary aspirations. The event, facilitated by care experienced authors Rosie Canning, Lisa Cherry and Paulo Hewitt was an inspirational experience that led to Your Life Your Story becoming a small charity. YLYS now brings care experienced adults and caregivers together with published authors, artists and poets to share stories and learn the techniques of storytelling through the arts. Stories are corroborated, past injustices are revealed, supportive relationships flourish and wisdom emerges.
A year after, the first Your Life Your Story workshop the first Your Life Your Story inspired book was published.
The author was known to me as a young teenager in care and our paths had crossed again the year before his 50th birthday. The joy of this ‘meant to be’ reunion will never leave me – it was the best reward ever. Knowing that a young person has survived inconceivable childhood trauma, an ill-informed care system and lived a good life beyond it, is more than any caregiver could hope for. As we caught up on the last 30 years the significance of our shared history emerged and along with it aspiration to amplify the collective voice of care experienced adults and caregivers. In doing so, we hoped to contribute to the improvement of children’s social care by handing down lessons and knowledge from one generation to the next through storytelling and the arts.
David had grown up in the care of the state during the 60’s,70’s and 80’s where he suffered inexcusable abuse, and he left believing nobody cared about the wrongdoing he had experienced. His efforts to speak out were punished, and he was silenced until now. His book ‘Oi’ tells a story that in many ways mirror’s my own, it is a personal journey through decades of a harrowing childcare system.
Although it is true care fails too many, it is equally true that by far the majority of caregivers do not deliberately fail children and they are not the child abusers they are too often portrayed to be. In fact the vast majority try extremely hard to care for children seriously harmed by acute trauma, neglect and abuse, suffered long before the care system intervened. But it is the horror stories that reach the media not stories of the valiant efforts of caregivers to keep them safe. At the height of public outrage about the sexual exploitation of girls in Rochdale there was no interest in stories about staff repairing trauma driven destruction, mopping up the blood of self-harm and walking the streets in the middle of the night looking for missing children. Or those following cars driven by unstopable men who were brazenly picking girls up at the front door of children’s homes, girls pleading with staff to go back because there was a gun on the back seat or the numerous occasions when the police refused to assist.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” Maya Angelou
Yet every time there has been a major scandal there has been a hunt for ‘scalps’ and calls for more regulation in the hope this will solve the problem despite research that proves more rules and hard enforcement just does not work. During a recent conversation with a programme maker I pointed out that most people want to do the right thing but because enforcement thinking is geared to the punishment of deliberate rule breakers and does not differentiate between those who try to behave appropriately and those who do not there are unintended consequences. Evident in placement breakdowns, persistently poor outcomes and over-representation of care experience within the prison population, street homelessness, drug addiction centres, psychiatric wards, infants removed from care experienced mothers, early death amongst care leavers and the impact of mistrust and on the workforce.
If regulation is driving improvement as claimed by Ofsted surely there is a need to understand why outcomes refute this.
On 23 January 2019 Amanda Spielman informed the Commons Public Accounts Committee Ofsted was seeing an increase in legal challenges to its reports and in a particular rise in the number of tribunals involving children’s homes. She said, it is understandable but frustrating that, “people will throw everything they can at critical reports”, and added that winning a Court of Appeal case against an academy trust that challenged its damning inspection report was “a lovely Christmas present”. The legal bill for the academy trust was in excess of £700,000, Amanda Spielman could not say how much Ofsted was spending on legal fees when asked, but this publicly celebrated win confirms my worst fears about the dominance of the ‘prove it game’ in regulation.
A year later, observations made in close proximity to Ofsted judgements and decision making practices, in particular the ‘fit person’ process, have reinforced this view, resurrected historical concerns and reopened old wounds. Of course, it goes without saying that it is essential for a registered provider or manager of a children’s home to be a person of integrity and good character, suitably qualified and experienced. But ominously any applicant who is refused registration becomes disqualified from fostering a child privately, having a financial interest, being involved the management or employed in a children’s home or working as a child minder without written consent from Ofsted even though they are not proven guilty of any wrongdoing.
Previously in situations where it was likely that Ofsted would refuse to register a manager (or refuse a registration) the inspector would inform the applicant of the likely outcome. This gave the applicant time to withdraw their application, which they are well within their rights to do and Ofsted have to accept the withdrawal. Ofsted say this practice was discontinued because in a small number of circumstances they come across people who they do not believe should be operating within social care and want to be able to ‘refuse’ them without giving them opportunity to withdraw.
Given the lack of protection against unemployment imposed by this, it is incredible that Ofsted is allowed to use an exemption in data protection law to refuse an applicant access to the ‘untested’ evidence relied upon by inspectors to reach a ‘behind closed doors’ decision with such far reaching implications. Then to impose a 28-day time limit on an appeal when GDPR allows up to 3 months for the release of information needed to defend the decsion. Most significantly because the impact of refused registration is immediate, the right to a tribunal appeal is delayed, the emotional and financial cost is prohibitive, and the harm caused is irreversible.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
My concern is that what Amanda Spielman described a lovely Christmas present and the rise in the number of legal challenges has not raised alarm. The willingness to accept that this is explained by bad people just trying to hide a critical report or wilful opposition of authority is as dangerous as the willingness to accept that 96 people “caused their own deaths” at Hillsborough in 1989 and the victims of widespread organised child sexual exploitation were “making a lifestyle choice.”
When I joined the children’s workforce in 1976 children were not being listened to and terrible abuses were perpetrated against them, many of their stories were reflected in the publication of ‘Handle with Care’ the report of an investigation into the care system undertaken by Harriet Sergeant. I was at the commissioning conference in 2006 when Harriet presented her findings to a room full of professionals, many in fractious denial of what I knew to be true. It was my thirtieth year as a caregiver and I had witnessed first-hand the failures so well documented in her report.
Sadly 14 years later I still see a system that is failing the and a workforce under attack. Stories about careers being terminated, providers being put out of business and good people being pushed into resignation, unemployment, bankruptsy, destitution and despair are not being heard and the part regulation is playing in this does not appear to be on the governments radar. Poor inspection reports terminate careers and close homes, fear of poor inspection reports ends placements and puts good outcomes at risk, and dubious GDPR exemptions legitimise covert decision making processes, make challenge difficult and justice impossible.
Of course this is not to say that when wrongdoing is identified perpetrators should not be held accountable and punished or that ‘unfit’ individuals should be allowed to work in childcare. I am simply saying that it is my firm belief that transparency keeps everyone safe and when things go wrong we need to learn from our mistakes. But we can only do that if we can share openly why the mistake happened and identify the cause. To do this there needs to be in an open trusting relationship between the regulator and the regulated that removes incentive for hiding negligence and wrong doing, stands up to public scrutiny and does not blame people for making a mistake or worse still for someone else’s mistake.
The problem as I see it, is that the relationship imitates one of parent-child with inspectors putting themselves in a position of actual and moral authority over caregivers and providers and preference for rule focused ‘tick-box’ compliance and petty enforcement will prevent good behaviour rather than promote it. There are without doubt individuals working in childcare that we all think should not be there and examples of caregivers and providers who have escaped accountability for negligence, in some cases serious wrongdoing and even criminal behaviour. But this does not justify hidden processes that adversely affect innocent staff, managers and stakeholders and assume that public authorities, specifically inspectors, always behave ethically and treat those they regulate fairly.
Common threads running through the perennial maze of children’s social care is the misuse of power, the avoidance of accountability and the absence of apology.
When I reached out to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) on 29 July 2017 I did not know that Phil Frampton of the Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse (SOIA) and founder of The Care Leavers Foundation had formally withdrawn his support from the inquiry seven weeks earlier. Ironically, I also didn’t know that amongst the concerns that led to this decision was the absence of an investigative approach and the failure to include “whistleblowers” in the Truth Project led by the inquiry.
By then I had resigned my position in regulated children’s services and reported the allegation of professional misconduct threatened against me to the Health and Care Professionals Council and the Information Commissioners Office. Even though no action was taken against me the cost of protecting evidence the allegation relied upon ran into tens of thousands of pounds and put a very big hole in my retirement fund. Without doubt, defending the truth had demanded a high price but unlike Alison Taylor who lost her career in the 1980’s, I have not spoken publicly about my experiences until now.
We know that the number of children being separated from their parents is higher now than at any point since I joined the children’s workforce and paradoxically, we also know that too many children in care suffer harm and care leavers are still over-represented in all marginalised groups but we don’t know why. Unfortunately, the search for answers to these failures has led to scapegoating and a regulatory system that is designed around people who deliberately break the rules and must be deterred by punishment.
But regulation has not delivered the improvements promised and there have been unintended consequences. Not least, fear of poor inspection ratings fueling placement breakdowns and increased demand arising from anxiety elsewhere in the sytem that has led to the use of unregistered provision for young children and vulnerable teenagers recently exposed by the media. Worse still good people are being expelled from the workforce whilst unethical and dangerous practice remains hidden and for some accountability is escaped.
Shortly after Your Life Your Story 2019, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse announced its final investigation into Effective Leadership of Child Protection. In doing so it will consider the evidence of “whistleblowers”, recommendations from inspectorates, serious case reviews and similar reports. It will also take into account learning from past institutional failures and “think” about embedding a “learning” not a “blaming” culture. But I have not been contacted by the inquiry team with any queries about the evidence I submitted in 2017 as suggested in the letter received when I expressed dissatisfaction after being advised that it was not possible to investigate every allegation of institutional failure.
So, it remains to be seen whether IICSA proves to me and other “whistleblowers” that it is any more than the ‘tick box’ exercise that led Phil Frampton to withdraw his support. Or a “talking shop” for highly paid academics and lawyers to produce endless glossy reports as it was described, by the late Anna Racoon, staunch defender of liberty, freedom and most of all the truth, who wrote about this shortly before she died.
At the very least I hope that it triggers change not just another review and in the meantime I will live in the hope that the narrative of lived experience and the collective voice of care experienced adults and caregivers will be heard and lessons are learned.
Amanda Knowles MBE
This letter is a typed and author approved copy of the original letter written by Jackie McCartney, a care experienced adult and caregiver, to her corporate parents on 18 July 2018.
WHAT IS A CORPORATE PARENT?
Looking after children and young people is one of the most important jobs the council do. When a child for whatever reason, can’t stay safely at home, it is up to the local authority to step in and give that care, support and stability that they deserve. Being a parent is to look after, take care, raise, rear, nurture, love, discipline, give direction, strictness, be there good and bad, for the whole of their lives. So, Birmingham corporate parent where were you when
At 17 I had my first home (yes homeowner) but suffered domestic violence when I moved in, daily beatings because I had cooked mash and he wanted boiled.
Where was you when…
I cried every day because I was in so much pain from the violence. I got pregnant by him and in one of his rages he pushed me down the stairs and kicked me so many times I lost my child. A parent would of told me to get out, it was unhealthy and no good for me. Yes, I went back because I had nowhere else to go, no one to turn to. After another beating, I walked out. I walked to the only home I had ever known (name removed) I knocked on the door asking for help, only to be told for insurance reasons they couldn’t help.
I was 17 years old and my corporate parents turned me away to be beaten again by that man. I went to Cannon Hill Park and slept there for the weekend. I went to work, very smelly and unkept. A lady there asked me about it, I told her about me and my life. She took me to her home that night and for a short while after until I was back on my feet and so I could heal.
Where were you my corporate parent when…
I got made redundant how was I going to feed myself, pay my rent, searching for jobs. I was lucky yet again to meet a good landlord who said I could walk his dog as payment until I found something but now my landlord was selling his house. Yet again alone, scared, worried. Once more looking for a roof over my head an no one to turn to for help and support. My parent should of been there.
I found another shared house with some girls, but was still alone, they visited family and friends. I had none. I did not trust people, I did not make friends easily. Always on your guard, not letting people in too much. You was a care kid, people still thought you was trouble, that’s why you had been in care. But at 5 what had I done to deserve it and the treatment I had received.
Where were you my corporate parents?
I held down two jobs one in finance and one at a petrol station, just to make ends meet. I made a friend who invited me to her home in Ireland I had nothing to lose no one to care what I was doing.
Where were you my corporate parents when…
I started my life over in Ireland I was there for eight years. During that time, I brought a second home and married. I suffered 4 miscarriages, fertility treatment (paid for myself).
Where were you my corporate parents?
I finally had a child after so much heartache, so happy, so proud, so excited but I was also so scared, how could I be a mom, a good mom. I did not know what that was I had never seen a normal family home. I had only seen children degraded, bad mouthed, humiliated, beaten, abused. Made to sleep in the hallway because we dared speak in bed. If we carried on we would have to stand in the matron’s bedroom all night. I had to make my bed every morning as did the other kids because we would not get breakfast otherwise. If you did not finish a meal you got it at the next mealtime and did not get anything new until your plate was clear. You did not make friends in the home, as it was a sign of weakness and would be used against you at any point. How was that a normal family life? How was that teaching you how a family function.
Where were you my corporate parents?
I loved my son so much, I fed him, kept him clean, he wanted for nothing, but I had no family to share this moment with, no family of my own. I finally realised one day there was something missing, love, cuddles, kisses. Everything I never had. Everyday thereafter I learnt to hug and hold him. But not before going to counselling (paid for myself).
Where were you my corporate parents?
I thought nothing could split me and my husband up after everything we had gone through
Moving country/ miscarriages/fertility/money worries/no family/my breakdown but we did. So once more I was alone no home. I wanted to come back to the UK. I had enough strength to start again for me and my son. As he was born in Southern Ireland, he had to give permission for me to take him. He would only do that if I signed over all we had together. I walked away with my son.
Where were you my corporate parents when…
I went to the local housing office ready to start over. Only to be told I had been out of the country for 5 years I should go back.
Where were you my corporate parents when…
I told them I was not leaving until I had a bed for the night. The joys of a B&B on Hagley Road, not ideal. But beggars can’t be picky. 4 week later with the help of local MP (name removed) we were offered a 3rd floor flat 6 flights of stairs, no lift. Signed, paperwork, got keys. A roof over our heads, no bed, no cooker, no food. I had become at 33 everything you said I would be, on the dole, single, council tenant unwanted yet again.
Where were you my corporate parents?
Slowly me and my son got up on our feet, charity shops, food near sell by dates. I did not realise when I left my husband, I was pregnant. How the hell was I going to do this. I had my baby, a little girl, I was overwhelmed yet again by emotions and feelings.
Where were you my corporate parents?
My lowest night Iay in the bath, an told myself I couldn’t do this anymore I had no fight left. I worked out how to end it all. But not just for me for my children. Because there was no way I was leaving them to the system. To be neglected, physical, emotional abuse or sexual.
Where were you my corporate parents when…
I lay there for hours in the cold water, crying scared and alone. I don’t know what brought me back, but I did not go through with it. I knew my children had not asked for this and I had to better than the life I had, had. From here on in we took each day hour by hour, each day I went to bed was another day I had survived.
Where were you my corporate parents when…
I lied to the health visitor, I said all was okay and on the surface it was. I could not reach out for help. I was a care kid and you the system would take my kids away. I was already 3rd generation care kid. I could not let it happen again. Every day I took a breath got up and did it. So tired, so worn out, so lonely, so scared. No one there for me. But 2 children depending on me to make things good.
Where were you my corporate parent ?
There have been many times I asked “where were you”. But you never came, you never fulfilled your obligations to me and turned up to offer understanding and support. You were never there to replace my biological parents you had removed me from. Sad really after all said and done you are my corporate parents. I never left care you left me.
Even more recently where were you in the good times and bad, for example my concerned parents when…
– my son had a cancer scare
– both my children buying cars outright
– my son passing A levels, his apprenticeship and graduation from National Grid (CADENT) as an engineer
– my daughter’s cancer scare and sexual assault at school
– my daughter passing her GCSE’s, prom and getting a job offer on the same day
– my 22 year old son buying his own house
Where were you my corporate parents?
There have been so many more, good, happy, sad, emotional days that needed sharing, supporting, caring, you were not there.
I would like to challenge each and every one of you. You can’t change the past but, you can have a positive impact on so many of your children for now and the future.
Are you serious about your parenting role for either your own biological children or these wonderful children who need you to show how much you really and truly care so that their daily lives and futures are happy, carefree and supported and they are able to grow into strong confident adults because of your love, encouragement by having a system that actually does care.
Finding Home: A feeling not a place.
Reflections on Your Life Your Story 2019
Where to begin? I feel as though I must go back to come forward; so I will! October 2018 I attended my first ever Your Life Your Story event following a chance encounter on twitter and somehow following the remarkable Amanda Knowles MBE. Filled with anxiety, trepidation, nervous apprehension I made my way to Cumbria University. I had only just begun to get to grips with my story, my truth, myself; this felt like a massive dangerous leap into the unknown. All of the ‘what if’s?’ had gone around in my head and I’d ruminated over me as a being, my writing, and if in actuality I was kidding myself; my inner critic resounding and ever present. I was reassured however by knowing that Yusuf McCormack would be attending, and I’d previously visited his art exhibition ‘No Colours for My Coat’ on my stomping ground Chelmsley Wood; and then proceeded to steal 6 hours from him over coffee after stalking him on Twitter. With that in mind I ventured into the unknown and made a commitment to myself that I would not allow myself to be dictated to by fear and leave; a pattern of behaviour all too familiar to me as flight is much easier…safer… than facing what I’m afraid of.
I bit the bullet…The next couple of hours getting familiar with my surroundings, wondering how on earth students live in those tiny cells without being creatively oppressed; and smoking where I shouldn’t – some things never change! The event encapsulated the kind of energy where I instantly felt connection. Met with smiles, laughter, friendly banter and the kind of dark humour that I am very much accustomed to; I figure it must be hardwired into our survival. Throughout a full and thought provoking programme voices were shared, the power of our truths unleashed and relationships developed as if we had somehow been there for much longer. The space we held for each other felt safe, honest, un-questioning, non-judgemental and like you were never no more than an arm’s length away from people who just ‘got it’, the facts were unimportant and the connection came through feeling, knowing and the shared threads of existence. We all became more than we were before we arrived, taking away not only the practical writing skills we had been developing but a sense of being in it together.
Leaving and returning back to my reality evoked a mixture of feelings and in the days following my return I felt like I was processing thoughts at warp speed. I was elated at how successful the event had been in terms of learning, that id managed to stay, write, read a loud and that my anxiety hadn’t prevented me from being sociable. However this was coupled with a feeling of being bereft, that something was missing and it conjured up little connections with the past of feeling lost and alone. Luckily once I had given myself time to process all of this and talk it through I realised it was normal to feel that way when you have been somewhere that you have felt truly accepted, connected, where there are no judgements, unrealistic expectations or conditions and I wrote this extract; which now resonates even further following my return from Your Life Your Story 2019.
So now we jump forwards twelve months which is a relatively short space of time in the grand scheme of things, but time in which I have spent generating ideas, exhibiting artwork, creating more pieces, attending Wrexham University and The National Diversity Awards with Your Life Your Story; and ultimately making decisions meaning that Yusuf and I would build upon our connection and work towards developing an arts based training and consultancy project – Artifacts.
October 2019 and this time around things were a little different. My second Your Life Your Story Event, and back to the beautiful Cumbria University with its Harry Potter esc buildings and tree lined grounds. Notwithstanding the sense of familiarity in the surroundings, I was still very much filled with anxiety and nervous apprehension however, this time as we’d been given the honour of delivering our first workshop as Artifacts ‘Reclaiming Our Narrative’; and despite us planning with military precision and having an entire car full of goodies, the incessant and unremitting internal critical monologue was omnipresent throughout the journey. Seeing familiar faces and catching up was incredibly reassuring and knowing that I had connected and stayed in touch with many of the group via social media meant that there was very little ice to break once we’d come together.
Naturally food was the first item on the agenda after all not feeding Yusuf and Dave the fudge termites and Taz the human seagull could only go one way, and would most certainly result in a mini riot!! Soon the sound of our group filled the canteen, with banter and chatter steadily building in eagerness of the opening gathering where we would all join together for the first time.
The bringing together of this year’s group was most eloquently facilitated by none other than our beautiful Dame Longstocking A.K.A Rosie Canning; no address would have been complete without the obligatory headwear to bring regal definition to proceedings!! With her opening remarks in full swing and the gift of a fabulous journal from Amanda the group very quickly began to develop its own energy which felt welcoming and surprisingly familiar; considering this was the first meeting for many of those in the room. After handing out literary quotes to inspire and softening us up with the lovely gift of a sprouting seed pencil we were off with our first little challenge. I’m certain Rosie could be a headmistress in disguise, and Mr Jackson is very adept at story telling managing to involve half the room in his tale of plane flying international smugglers. Time was spent laughing, chatting through the weekend’s program, getting to know one another and the room was filled with the buzz of anticipation for the new day.
Now how do you even begin to introduce the undeniably compelling force that is Mr David Jackson…the answer is you don’t… He does!! The group were treated to a writing structure master class in which Dave explored a very clear and simple yet effective structure with which to approach the task of writing. Dave’s no nonsense approach injected with sound advice and humour made for a productive and interesting workshop and set the tone for a positive, creative and accomplished morning. Tips were shared for breaking down the task of writing into manageable chunks, and an overview given of techniques that were successful when writing his published book Oi. Dave’s approach is incredibly accessible making the daunting task of writing a whole book seem far more achievable for other individuals who have very little literary experience. Dave alluded to the importance of the role that music plays in his writing journey and swiftly gave a rendition of a song that he finds uplifting when he is having a break from being immersed in the writing process. Dave’s workshop demonstrated that although we feel we might not have the time to fit in writing, if we break things down we can find space to write. It was also acknowledged that the writing process can be tough especially when recounting personal histories, and to ensure there is a positive network of people who ‘Get it’ to seek support from, reflecting the importance of relationship building and connection; and it became clear from the feeling in the room that our Your Life Your Story network had already begun further developing. Overall the workshop was a resounding success and gave many of the group food for thought on going forward with their own writing journey, with methods shared that can be easily adapted and combined with other writing tips and techniques.
Whilst absorbed in engaging with Dave’s workshop my mind had been distracted from the reality that we were next, so when the group broke for refreshments the realisation struck me; all that myself and Yusuf had planned for over the previous weeks and months was now upon us; that, and we had to unpack the trolleys of treasure for the first part of our workshop. My tummy was doing somersaults and my legs had begun to shake a little, but then the group embraced us with their reassurances. The familiarity of beautiful Mel and her supportive smile, Amanda with an encouraging nod, Dave who’s heartening humour cut though the nervousness I was feeling, the entire group Taz, Chris, Jamie, Katrina, Ian, Nickie, Jane, Angie, Davie, Rosie and my Fairy Godmother Jacquie all inspired the confidence that it would be okay, we could speak freely and share our truth together, reclaim our narrative together, no-one was judging or giving the side eye because we were amongst our people; our tribe. I also knew that Yusuf my brother from another mother and I had each other’s back and his presence provided the encouragement needed that even if I was liken to a blancmange at points, we could do this together; and the sweets on the table were a tactical move that were sure to go down well and help things along.
Stood listening to Yusuf delivering his Narrative piece and verse, the group sat intently, emotion washing over them as recollections of the shared threads of our histories struck chords. Our shared knowledge and experience of injustice apparent through the resonance of Yusuf’s words, that lingered in the air in juxta position with the man he has become; a powerful demonstration that the narrative others ascribe to us as care experienced individuals is their version of our narrative, their perception, their interpretation of events…We have our own, and it’s about taking that back ‘Reclaiming our Narrative’, and working to remove the power of the labels and stigma we were branded with by the words of others, turning the negativity into positivity, being defined by self and not others; a thread that very much continued through the delivery of my own narrative and verse.
Nerves still ever present but suppressed by the supportive positive energy that had created an aura of absolute acceptance within the room. I could not have imagined being in this position twelve months previous as id sat and watched Taz so confidently deliver her spoken word piece with such conviction. My delivery no comparison to others, unpolished and gathered up from the handout clutched in my trembling grip; for me…enormous…like climbing Kilimanjaro in stilettos…blindfolded!! I can’t comment on the delivery of my narrative or the verse Different & One which I had written following my first encounter with Your Life Your Story. I experience incredible anxiety when I am in the metaphorical spotlight which meant my reading became a bit of a blur, I’d done it…and this time I didn’t need a chair to hold me up!! With creativity on the other side of the blur like a beacon I’d spoken my truth and was looking forward to seeing others unlock their imaginative, creative, free selves with our activities.
We began with a literary exercise and writing a positive and affirming acrostic poem. In hindsight we could have unpicked this task much further if we’d of had the luxury of having more time, not only exploring the acrostic as a writing prompt but also a vehicle for expressing ones inner voice, the things we think but do not say, words we have held on to through shame, fear and pain and channelling this by writing powerful pieces of poetry using words that resonate deeply with us and our truths. It’s also important to acknowledge that we do not have to be writing for a particular reason or purpose, just to see the words held there upon the paper, even if never shared beyond this and your pen; there is something incredibly cathartic and empowering about being the master of your own truth. The break quickly approached as we wrapped up part one and we eagerly encouraged everyone off to lunch so we could transform the tables and festoon them with the treasures from our trolleys, beads, glitter, glue, markers wires and ribbon. Visual artwork was on display around the room and all the pieces for a planned collaborative installation were in place; to add colour, fun and creativity to the graveyard shift after lunch.
Following a promptly issued public service announcement from Dave regarding the consumption of His and only his Black Jacks; everyone was on to further reclaiming our narrative by reflecting on how we define ourselves and how we should reframe or reject the labels used by others to define us. Now for all of us this will be a lifelong process, in some cases some words travel deep, some labels become so engrained within us we look at ourselves as through we are a stick of rock. The purpose of the shredding of the dead wood and the negative labels that represent this dead wood that prevents us from growing to our full potential is symbolic of the continuous effort we have to make in flipping the perspective and looking for the positives even when things seem incredibly bleak and negative. With the power of positive words in mind we were on to creatively speaking our truth, creating the collaborative piece of art the ‘Positivitree’ and individual personal talking sticks that were a visual representation of assertiveness and courage in sharing our experiences, telling our stories and speaking our truth out loud.
We could have almost predicted from the beginning that Rosie and Mel would be like two five year olds as they clambered for glitter and sparklyness; anyone would of thought that we had magpies at the table as the power struggle for pink pearl glitter ensued. In all good humour materials were shared around and discussion developed around the messages shared on the branches of truth. Each individual branch a celebration of the person it represented from Angie’s playful sombreros, to Nickie’s threads that danced around her branch, Katrina’s flash of gold reminiscent of the superhero inside us, Jacquie’s bright green beads of hope and messages of being enough, Rosie’s beautiful glitter adorned wand, Mel’s shiny moon on a stick Amanda’s hearts and unwavering belief, Dave even had a go wrapping ribbon and copper and joined in; although it’s debateable he was only there for the Bostik. We had expressions in threads feather’s ribbons and powerful words from Jane, Ian and Taz, Davie and his creative expression in copper emblazoned in authenticity. As the ‘Positivitree’ came together a vision of our collective creativity, adorned with the positive labels, and expressions of the self, our tribe felt united. You could feel positivity in the room, creative energy flowing and smiles and laughter abound. The realisation that we don’t lose our creativity even if we’ve stuffed it to the back of a dusty cupboard inside our adult self; we just need to make the time and provide the opportunities and space both physically and emotionally to be creative. That art and creativity doesn’t have to be perfect as it’s an extension and expression of the creator; and none of us are perfect….we are perfectly imperfect…Different & One.
To draw a close to the day the final workshop would be delivered by the remarkably powerful Taz Trevorrow who expresses her words with such passion, sincerity and absolute conviction, with reflections on addiction, exploitation and loss being felt throughout the room. Taz shared helpful techniques in prompting the writing process which may be useful to move past creative blocks; kick starting the imagination by using tangible objects to create a piece of writing or to build a character. We looked at putting the self and others into a piece of writing, and using existing pieces and images to aid the writing process. The mixture of laughter and tears in the room indicative of the power of words and language and demonstrating the value of being able to express your inner world creatively; with the exercises opening up new avenues of exploration for people to test out along their own writing journey. As the weekend had progressed it had revealed new opportunities for people to explore their creativity, in a safe, supportive and nurturing environment; with realisations being made that actually we might just not be kidding ourselves and that we can share our truth our way!! And more importantly with the unwavering support of others who just ‘get it’. Going back to the point that the connection is made and relationships built on feeling and shared understanding of those feelings and not facts and the minutiae of experience or circumstance.
On to our final full day and warm up writing exercises before the eagerly awaited master class with Joelle. We’d had pieces preformed to music, been gobsmacked by the bravery and courage taken by Chris in his vocal expression of feeling to the group and the laughter and tears had continued whilst sharing our insights, reflections and experiences through our creative pieces, and whilst developing our writing. Despite the fact that by this point Rosie had to leave us her ‘All writing is rewriting’ was a phrase that was never too far from our ears, like recounting the words of a much favoured teacher; a comforting reminder that nothing we do is complete rubbish as we always have the opportunity to make edits, improvements and redefine the ‘dodgy’ bits; just as we do with ourselves on our own journeys…mistake, modify, master.
So after a full morning and the first Sunday roast of the day, we had the incredible opportunity not only to hear but feel the incredible force and awesomeness of Joelle Taylor slam poet extraordinaire and genuinely ‘sick as fuck’ human. Joelle shared some great tips and techniques for using imagery, metaphor and visualisation in our writing; with our visualisation being Ian delivering his second horizontal soliloquy. There were individuals in the group who had expressed they could not write and then delivered a deep, meaningful, heartfelt piece of incredibly personal writing. Again the workshop developed its own energy as it was very clear that it was a safe creative environment where things could be said without question, we were all together in supporting each other; with Joelle becoming embraced by the group immediately as the threads of familiarity were woven through all of our truths. Joelle who between sharing her wisdom throughout a fantastic master class, stunned the entire room with her raw, emotive, evocative, powerful truth. Soon time for the second roast of the day and with everyone feeling like they have never eaten so much in their lives we de-camped to the pub; does anyone else get the impression that Amanda is a bit of a feeder…
After food and a little fruit infused lubrication we were back in the room for an absolutely stunning performance from the wonderful Joelle, her words reverberating and resonating throughout the room. All sat in complete awe of how she had commanded control of the power of language in tackling the complexity, horror and injustice of lived experience; developing a war cry, a call to arms against the abusive forces that have had significance in our histories. Joelle delivered powerful words reflecting loss of self and others, of adversity, of harnessing the strength of rage, injustice and experience through poetry and spoken word; speaking our truths out loud and un-ashamed. My words cannot do her words justice, it is a case of having to not only hear them but feel them to understand their significance and power; I’d urge anyone to witness this incredible woman in action. I only needed to take a glance around the room to see the impact that feeling those words had for all present. The intensity and passion with which the pieces were delivered is telling of the personal emotion and raw, honest feeling behind them. It was an absolute privilege to witness. And with the power of Joelle’s words resounding through our beings it brought about a certain unquestioning confidence that we can share our truth however the fuck we like, we don’t need permission from anyone; because it’s ours.
So to our final day with Dr George, A.K.A Picasso and a self care session as a big hug to wrap up the weekend. We had experienced laughter, honesty, raw emotions, hugs, tears, truths, full tummies, signing from both Dave and Chris, interpretative dance from Mel and Taz, powerful spoken word and poetry from all, poetry delivered from the floor…Ian again on the floor!! There was conversation, connection and an abundance of tissues, talent and tremendous creativity. We heard the power in the voices of our new tribe members Angie, Davie, Nickie, Katrina, Ian, Jane, Jackie and Jamie and we learnt more about each other and the power of our feelings in self expression through the arts. The room was noticeably emptier now as Rosie, Ian and Katrina were no longer with us, and conversation drifted in the direction of the event coming to a close.
When you go from spending the best part of your life feeling isolated, rejected, lost, misunderstood and always on the periphery, to feeling like you have found your people, it is an overwhelmingly liberating feeling. Knowing that you are not the only one who thinks and feels a certain way and that there are people like you out there that get it…it brings about a sense of unity and connection. Knowing that it is possible that you will no longer be on your own in the world, this is the power of genuine authentic relationships, relationships where there is a feeling of belonging, that you can find the missing pieces of the puzzle, that there are people who can relate to you unquestioningly because you have at some point in your journey felt the same hurts, lived the same pain, anger and disappointment; knowing those shared feelings from lived experience and being willing to hold space for others and support them through. So with a commitment to keeping the network alive and being the difference for each other, the event was bought to a close until next year. However, each person leaving knowing that over this very short but significant time they had each become more than they were before they came…not just facts…but feelings; finding home in ourselves and others.
First published in Career Matters June 2019 / Issue 7.3
Autoethnography – a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experiences and connects this autobiographical story to a wider cultural, political, social meaning and understanding.
“There are far too many negative statistics, outcomes and there are 1000s of care-experienced professionals who defy these as I do.”
It’s been 25 years this July since I was officially ‘relinquished’ from care. I didn’t ‘leave’, it wasn’t a choice, but I have always striven to make a difference despite the issues that predisposed my life as a care leaver.
The lived experience
Now writing as a care-experienced academic/researcher, I want to write my story from the inside; to inform, make an impact, change perception and contribute to research policy legislation and guidance practice. I also want to raise awareness of the complexities and barriers faced by career development professionals working with this group. Writing from my own personal experience and perspective is known as the ‘lived experience’.
When I started my MA on ‘The sociological and psychological barriers to care leavers in career guidance’, I wanted to encapsulate and consolidate my employment background and gain a qualification that reflected this professionally. This followed years of short-term contracts in welfare to work and advisory capacities, redundancies, private renting moves and single parent responsibilities. Having suffered a mental breakdown in 2015 and a diagnosis of ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder’ CPTSD) in 2018, this qualification enabled me to have a focus in my recovery. My MA dissertation now forms a cathartic facet in which I am able to articulate the sociological and psychological barriers that have affected my life and career history.
I was born in the West Midlands, the youngest of five siblings. I was fostered 13 times before I was adopted at 18 months old. My adoptive mother passed away when I was 11 and I was then returned to care age 14 as a result of a broken down placement. My transition to adulthood and independence did not include career guidance. Having passed four GCSEs with a disrupted year and change of schools, my first role was on YTS as a travel agent. My foster placement ended within that time,
and I was placed in supported lodgings, and then into independent living. I attended college until I was 19 whilst working part-time in retail and catering. I found it difficult to mix with my peer group at college as they all went home to their families. I went home to a flat and felt isolated so this affected my attendance. I moved to Birmingham at 19 working as a residential support worker at a children’s home, had my daughter at 22 and returned to work when she was 18 months. She is now 20 with a career in property management and lives away from home.
Our children, their future
In September 2000 I delivered a speech at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference; ‘Our children, their future’. I delivered my manifesto as a young person supported by a Barnardo’s project. The statistics for care leavers I quoted were that they were:
- 50 times more likely to go to prison
- 60 times more likely to experience homelessness
- 88 times more likely to abuse drugs.
In my speech I highlighted the need for basic support resources for issues such as mental health, poverty, and housing, isolation from peers, securing childcare, networks, guidance and information. All of this was drawn from my own experiences. I do not feel that my voice had been heard nor my contribution valued. At the time these statistics made me determined to prove people wrong. The most recent figures provided by DfE (2014):
- In 2010 25% of those who were homeless had been care at some point in their lives
- In 2008 49% of young men under the age of 21 who had met with the criminal justice system had care experience
- Only 6% of care leavers are in higher education.
These are not inclusive of mortality rates, mental health issues, benefit sanctions and the day-to-day challenges faced by young people currently leaving the care system. There are far too many negative statistics, outcomes and there are 1000s of care-experienced professionals who defy these as I do.
I attended the Care-Experienced Conference in Liverpool in April 2019. This was the first of its kind for care-experienced professionals to meet and network. Care-experienced professionals in every profession trade and occupation you could name were represented. The age range was from 17-65 and proved that the decades of negative statistics, did not speak for the successful achievements of care-experienced adults including myself. This event has also motivated me to complete my MA and continue further to PhD study in the future.
I want to represent a positive statistic and contribute to wider research for care leavers. When I began to investigate the data from 20 years ago, there was little or none to represent the careers of care leavers, yet I have discovered care-experienced academics from UK and international universities. Since I attended this event, I have become part of this huge community and network. I have always helped others, fought for others, striven for better quality services and treatment of others,
advocated for others, motivated others, inspired others, and used my negative experiences into positive realities with myself as evidence in my roles. When it was suggested that I use autoethnography as a methodology, it became an ideal opportunity to write my ‘lived’ experiences into my research.
As a qualified careers guidance practitioner, I am able to use my experiences to relate to and motivate others and have a positive enthusiasm for the careers and futures of those I work with. Young people are motivated by role models, people who defy odds against adversity, real life experiences, and I am a good example of this. I enjoy identifying the potential in every person I interview, showing people how to turn disadvantage into opportunity, and I make a difference. Despite everything
I have encountered in my life, I am still determined to make a positive difference to the lives of others. I have never been ashamed of my background or my upbringing. I am learning to be proud of the obstacles I have overcome, I am not defined by statistics, I refuse to be stigmatised or stereotyped. For me this qualification is a continuing journey of self-recognition, development and learning.
As someone who left care with no exams or a proper place to live being dumped by the care system I wandered through life taking small dead end jobs while caring for my children, when they became old enough for me to plan what I really wanted to do all the time thinking I could never work in children’s homes I’ve no experience and no qualifications. I was encouraged to put in an application form in and just try, she said, nothing. I sent it in and hoped with everything in me to hear something back.
The day of my interview arrived, so nervous, feeling so out of my depth, I’d never had a proper interview. I was called in and you put me at ease straight away listening to me as a person not an application form, I went home and waited…. I can still remember the call from you to say I had the job I was in my garden. When I put the phone down, I cried and cried not only had I been given the chance to totally financially provide for my children I was going to do my dream job.
You guided me through and believed in me and made me know I can do this. I’ve never told you that before, but I’d like you to know that you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and gave me the opportunity to help other children in the position I was once in. I look in my memory box at cards and trinkets young people have given me over the years and know I did help I was there when they needed someone but if you had never believed in me I would never have had that memory box to look in.