Reflections of a Caregiver

I joined the children’s workforce in 1976 soon after newly formed social services departments introduced generic social work, approved schools were closed, observation and assessment centres were the new elite and children in family group homes were moved to family placements. The Children Act received Royal Assent on 16 November 1989, an alleged epidemic of child abuse swept the country, and by the end of the Twentieth Century residential childcare was on trial.

The story first started to unfold in public view in 1989 when allegations of abuse were made by 57 residents and former residents against Ralph Morris the proprietor of Castle Hill School in Ludlow and investigations in Staffordshire, North Wales and Leicestershire followed. My husband and I fostered a boy who had been placed at Castle Hill in the early 1980’s, I visited him at the school with his social worker and met Morris the same day. When news of the allegations reached the media, I did not doubt they were true, there was just something about him that had struck me as fake… just not quite right. Much like my first impressions of the deputy children’s resource centre manager I inherited when I worked for a large local authority in the Northwest. He was using his work computer to write letters requesting porn from contact magazines that he kept in his filing cabinet alongside photographs of unrelated women and children and carrier bags stuffed with letters from debt collectors, refused loan applications, county court summons and bank statements that revealed he was stealing from public funds. After realising he’d been found out he fled, but justice caught up with him and he eventually served time for his crimes. As did Morris who was convicted and sentenced to 12 years on 12th April 1991. Fortunately, our foster son did not witness or experience any abuse during his short time at the school although he knows others now in their fifties who did and have suffered the affects ever since.

By the beginning of the new millennium well over 100 care workers had been prosecuted and more than ninety police trawling operations resulted in at least one thousand investigations into individual children’s homes across the country. For those who may not know, trawling is a questionable approach used by the police investigating historical abuse that begins with a suspect or an allegation and ends with the discovery of crimes not previously reported. Whilst many of these complaints are undeniably true and have helped convict workers who unforgivably betrayed the trust placed in them, not all care workers were abusing children and some allegations were fabricated and resulted in serious miscarriages of justice. Indeed, the police in Northumbria who launched Operation Rose in 1997 were accused of ruining the lives of staff and wasting millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money. This three-year investigation led to 32 people being charged with 142 offences, of these six were found guilty and received custodial sentences totalling 25 years, one other pleaded guilty, and four suspects died prior to trial. Without doubt the participation of field social workers and child protection workers in these operations ensured that a number of guilty people were convicted. But according to the late Richard Webster, the British author who suggested hysteria lay behind some abuse scandals, social workers were also significant in unleashing a witch hunt of extreme proportions upon residential workers who they treated like the poor relations. Careers were lost and lives were shattered as journalists led the way to the false belief that children’s homes are synonymous with abuse and care workers cannot be trusted which has nurtured prejudice, made scapegoats of many and influenced legislation and policy ever since.

Remarkably the rampant onslaught of child sexual exploitation in the same period did not attract the same media interest until revelations of an estimated 1,500 victims in Rotherham sparked a national scandal over a decade later. Only then did the public learn that Rochdale sexual health worker Sara Botham had made more than 180 attempts between 2003 and 2014 to alert police and social services to patterns of sexual abuse but was told the witnesses were unreliable. This was a heinous crime against children on a scale not previously seen but sadly all too often the police viewed it as a crime against undesirables… a lifestyle choice. Children as young as 11 were deemed to be having consensual sexual intercourse when in fact they were being raped and abused by adults according to the findings of Alexis Jay OBE who chaired the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013. The report describes how one mother was assessed by a social worker as not able to accept her 12 years old daughter was growing up when she voiced her concern about her being sexually active, going missing and getting drunk with older males. In another example a child who was just 13 when she was groomed by a violent sexual predator, raped and trafficked was blamed by social workers for ‘placing herself at risk of sexual exploitation and danger. Staff in children’s homes are described as powerless to stop older children introducing younger more vulnerable children to predatory adult males and most disturbingly the report reveals that 15 years after concerns were first being raised by care workers in children’s homes Ofsted rated safeguarding services in Rotherham as adequate in their overall effectiveness and capacity for improvement in 2010.

My own experience of caring for victims of child sexual exploitation during this time leaves me with no uncertainty that the police generally believed these girls were wasting police time and care workers were not doing their job properly. Regrettably this was a belief that social workers were only too willing to accept but belief is not fact. In reality, many care workers were putting themselves at risk in their efforts to keep victims safe by following men who brazenly picked up children in cars from the front doors of children’s homes and gathering vital evidence from number plates and mobile phone numbers to names and descriptions of perpetrators to assist police with the detection of these criminals. Staff working 24 hour shifts regularly stayed up all night walking the streets looking for missing children or waiting for them to come home all too often still under the influence of unknown substances and smelling of alcohol and sex. Or sitting in hospital waiting rooms with self-harming and suicidal children, those waiting for invasive forensic medical examinations and frightened young mums about to give birth. Days were spent trying to bring normality back into the lives of these severely traumatised children and all too often fielding criticism.

Then as the second decade of the new millennium got underway, we witnessed thousands of people rioting in cities and towns across England and five people lost their lives. Two years before this Harriet Sergeant, a journalist, author and Research Fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies had published an article in the Daily Mail about how young boys abandoned by their parents and betrayed by schools were turning to criminal gangs for protection and a sense of belonging. At the time she was researching a report on why so many black Caribbean and white working class boys are failing and as the first anniversary of the riots approached ‘Among the Hoods’ the story of her friendship with a teenage gang was published on 3rd July 2012. It describes a three year journey that took her from job centres and the care system to prison and failing schools as she tried to change their lives. Sadly, there is no fairy tale ending and the book ends with the gang leader and two other gang members are in prison, one is in psychiatric hospital and one appears to be a successful criminal.

By the end of the decade knife crime hit a ten year high with almost 22,300 knife and weapon offences recorded and children as young as 11 were being used to deal heroin and crack cocaine by ‘County Lines’ a multi-million pounds industry linked to murder and sexual abuse. Against this backdrop it will likely not come as a surprise that the number of children in care has risen dramatically. There are now 20,000 more children in care than in 2009, a significant number coming into care are over 16 and now account for almost a quarter of the total number of children in care. For these teenagers this is often too little too late as not only are they vulnerable to sexual exploitation, running away, gangs, trafficking and drug misuse as warned by the children’s commissioner, many are already drug addicted, knife carrying, pimp controlled victims of neglect, abuse and exploitation and the impact of this is manifest in high risk behaviour, acute vulnerability and rejection of the care available. This is evident the number of placement breakdowns in foster homes and children’s homes, the increased use of lawful supported accommodation that was neither designed or, equipped for this purpose and the emergence of unregistered children’s homes provided illegally and used unlawfully by local authorities.

It is little wonder that the care system is buckling under the sheer weight of numbers and this is not the time to waste effort on recrimination, it is time to press pause on the blame game and work collaboratively and respectfully to find solutions.
This must begin with acceptance that we have been letting our children down for years and acknowledgement that harmful and dangerous people gain access to the children’s workforce, wreak havoc and cause reprehensible harm. I’ve met some over the past four decades during my own journey through public, voluntary and private sector care. Part of the problem is that measures introduced were not fool proof in the first place and have since then been rendered even less affective by GDPR with many previous employers now only willing to confirm start-finish dates in references and DBS checks do not reveal undetected crimes or help to predict who will commit the next offence.

Indeed, none of these processes prevented former children’s nurse, and NHS manager Carl Beech from becoming a school governor or working as a volunteer for the NSPCC. Following his conviction for perverting the course of justice on 22 July 2019 the NSPCC were keen to confirm its volunteers are subject to the most strenuous and thorough safeguarding checks. But it has to be said these did not prevent Beech whose false claims of abuse were initially described as “credible and true” by police, from joining the NSPCC in 2012 as a volunteer to deliver ‘Speak Out Stay Safe’ workshops in schools to children as young as five. He resigned and handed back his ID only after being charged with four counts of making indecent photographs of children, one count of possessing indecent images of children and one count of voyeurism in June 2017. At the time this case raised concern about the role of journalists who wrote the stories over two years, alleging a powerful group of men from the British establishment had raped and murdered children between 1975 and 1984. But no action was taken against them and regrettably some journalists still compete for market share and prominence by unleashing embellished reports on the court of public opinion of which Teens in unregulated homes face ‘organised abuse’. How did children’s homes become centres of profit making and abuse? and Privatising children’s homes is playing into the hands of the abusers are but a few. I am not saying these reports are completely untrue, there are without question elements of truth in them all, but all too often truth is being distorted to serve a particular agenda. 30 years ago, poor journalism, unleashed a witch hunt on children’s social care with dire consequences for children, caregivers, families and society. Since then the media has pointed the finger of blame at police and social workers for not recognising and preventing the organised sexual exploitation of thousands of children, parents and teachers for the rise in knife crime and teenage gangs and most recently private sector children’s homes and supported accommodation for exposing children to abuse which has spearheaded a campaign for tighter controls and more regulation.

What the media is not reporting is that on closer examination increased demand and regulation are the main factors driving the increased use of supported accommodation and unregistered children’s homes. Or that that lawfully, provided, responsibly commissioned and quality assured supported accommodation has been in use for 20 years, that private sector children’s homes are not all operated by large private equity backed children’s homes companies, many are owner led small companies that are being adversely affected by unfair regulatory processes. Or that the poor quality and illegal services for would not exist if local authorities did not feel an acute need to use these services and were not paying for them.
The challenge of protecting vulnerable children from dangerous adults has never been greater and in my experience informed opinion this is definitely not the time for more reactive policy making driven by a media led blame culture that has dominated children’s social care for almost half a century.

Guilty Until Proved Innocent

Imagine this….

One of the children in the home where you work is suffering from complex trauma and is functioning well below his chronological age. He does not respond well to the authoritarian behaviour management style of the manager and you are worried he is being bullied.

When his birthday treat is cancelled as a punishment for misbehaviour you are forced to witness his distress during a phone call made to you whilst you are off duty and your efforts to lessen the harsh impact of this result in you being suspended.

At the disciplinary hearing it is acknowledged that you did not receive the disciplinary pack and you discover that supervision notes used as evidence against you have been falsified. You receive a written warning which you consider to be unfair and exercise your right to appeal.

At the appeal hearing you receive an apology from the company for its failure to provide the disciplinary pack, your complaint about falsified supervision notes is upheld but your appeal is dismissed. You accept a transfer to another home and remain in this employment without question until you take a position with another company. But the home you go to is chaotic and you leave soon after. Later you learn that this home was closed by Ofsted and the company went into liquidation.

Years later you submit an application to Ofsted to become a registered manager, you attend a fit person interview where you are asked questions about your employment history and disciplinary matters which you answer to the best of your knowledge. Days later you receive a notice of proposal to refuse your application for reasons related to disciplinary proceedings against you. The notice advises that you have 28 days to appeal.

You make subject access requests for information related to your employment history, but do not receive a reply in the timescales given. Your appeal is submitted but not upheld, you are disqualified from working in any capacity in the children’s workforce and your request for a waiver is refused.

You have the right to submit an appeal application to the tribunal, but you are unemployed and legal representation will cost you ten thousand pounds. By this time, you have received details of your disciplinary from the company and the information reported to LADO.

You discover the nature of the concerns raised were listed as sexual and that you were accused of grooming this child. You see, for the first time the false and malicious evidence on which these allegations have been made. You are devasted by what you read, this matter was referred to the police and social services, your reputation and your liberty and your family were put at risk and you were not even aware of it.

The decision to take no further action does not exonerate you, no action is taken against your accuser and you are denied you are denied your right of reply.

IF THIS STORY SOUNDS FAMILIAR AND YOU ARE IN NEED OF SUPPORT OR WOULD LIKE TO OFFER SUPPORT TO OTHERS PLEASE SUPPORT THIS CAMPAIGN AND GET IN TOUCH.

http://chng.it/JD5fvrS6

The Phoenix

In times of doubt and confusion the phoenix symbolises strength, transformation and renewal. For only from the ashes of who we were, can we rise up to become who we’re to be.

This inspirational artwork has been donated to Your Life Your Story by artists Saira-Jayne Jones and Yusuf Paul McCormack known collectively as ‘Artifacts’ who facilitated a creative workshop at Your Life Your Story 2019.

Our task was to make the branches of our ‘Positivtree’
We were instructed to take four luggage labels and to think about two negative words used by others to describe us and two positive words and to write each word on the labels selected. On completion we were invited to take the labels bearing negative words and shred them in the paper shredder provided. The labels with the two positive words we had written became the leaves on our branch of the ‘positivitree’ which we decorated in colourful ribbons and trinkets.

What we didn’t know…
The labels bearing the negative names we had shredded at the end of the workshop were to be carefully constructed to create this amazing picture of the phoenix rising from the book. It captures the very essence of Your Life Your Story.

Unleashing the power of relationships and the untold story


WE RISE

Memoirs of a Caregiver

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.   

Why 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secrets and Lies by Amanda Knowles

We know you are out there hidden in the ranks

Bestowed with fancy titles that camouflage disgrace

You are fugitives from candour concealed by collusion

Indifferent to the stain of your sickening malice

 

But what about the victims laced in the stench of your guilt

Serving as an indelible reminder of crimes evaded

Denied their right to justice by high ranking influence

Determined to erase the scar of  unforgivable abuse

But know this… behind every survivor is a story to be remembered 

Lest we forget it is our duty to protect

 

FORGOTTEN by Tasmin Trevorrow-Earl

FORGOTTEN

Like a refugee in his own land
A land that has forgotten him
The care child wanders with no hand…
To hold when it is cold or to stop the blows from an unseen foe that strikes! 

Strikes in the night when curled he lays… on a cardboard box
A box wet and stained with rain and tears in a lonely town on an un-named street

Forgotten

No longer remembered by “the state” his corporate parent!… (who arrived too late) 
To save him

To save him from the monsters in his head 
The monsters who used to join him in his soiled single bed 
When he was young…. 
oh so young!

Too old now
They celebrate!
they can sign him off their books
with an “almost” clean slate
Hurray!
A big fat tick in the corporate box  
(Ofsted regulated!
What a load of nobs!)
(Who regulates Ofsted anyway! He says.
Irony

He is now 21 the “job” is done
He slips into anonymity 
A nameless face in a human sea
Not so many friends

Definitely No family!

The monsters return
No longer under his quilt but still embedded in his
train wrecked head
They would not give therapy when he was 3 
too young they said 
Would not give it when he was 5, 8, 10 
Onto the tablets they said was best for him then.

The tablets that numbed the pain and gave them the excuse to release a sigh
and say…. 
Cured? 
Cured? No, repressed

Repressed by chains of numb and dead
But numb and dead he stayed 
Until the bells of age 21 sang their toll and sealed his fate…. 
Out you go they say
There’s your flat and a ton or two to see you on your merry way

The way to homelessness because he was not equipped to make the perilous journey into “adulthood”

He forgot his pills and the walls caved in 
as the monsters were not gone they were caged within

The chaos unleashed on him like bike chain whips on baby skin 

Where can he go where can he BEGIN?

So instead he curls holding a syringe as his water bottle on his cardboard box 
A box wet with rain and tears in a lonely town on an un named street

 

HAPPY CAFE – a short story by David Anderson

One day, Jamie asked himself what it was he liked about this little café. He wondered why he’d never asked that question of himself before. The first visit had been one of convenience, it was close to his house and it had been raining that day. After that, to go there had become a comfortable habit, like a favourite park bench, but with food, drink and most importantly – he now realised – warmth of a human kind.

It was the steamed windows you had to wipe if you wanted to see out, the plastic chairs that didn’t move and forced him to stay still for a while. Yes, he still fidgeted, but he couldn’t get up and pace around as he would normally do anywhere the seats weren’t bolted to the ground.

Certainly, it was Ethel, the woman who owned the place, who never smiled yet had the most beautiful twinkle in her eyes for those she liked. Her craggy, lined face was etched with a knowledge of pain that told him she understood something of his, and of course, that extra slice of cheap bacon she put in his bread roll each time he bought one.

It too, was the symmetry of the tiles on both the roof and floor, no matter how many times he’d counted those tiles, he knew he would inevitably count them again.  And those wood-chipped walls, somewhat like a hospital or government building, they were painted a glossy ‘institution’ yellow, and on cold days when the place was busy, rivulets of water ran down them to collect in pools along the battered skirting boards.

He felt more at home there than in his own cold and lonely little flat. It wasn’t posh, he knew even his threadbare clothes didn’t look out of place there. Not like those ‘trendy’ cafes in the city-centre with those tattooed ‘weekend rock-star’ waiters and their coiffured hairstyles, which left him feeling as if he didn’t belong, made him want to leave before even ordering.

He even liked the graffiti-scrawled toilet that could never look clean, even if it was scrubbed every day by Angie – the co-owner – who, when mopping the café floor, would jab at his feet with her mop and say,

“c’mon ye big lump, get those plates of meat out of the way.”

All the while laughing a laugh that was half-laugh and half-cough, brought on by years of smoking; outside doors, on her couch, at her kitchen table, and in the Black Watch club on weekends. A place where the smoke would hang in layers so thick it was as if you could cut them into chunks.

All of this he loved. He felt welcome and left alone at the same time. He could watch life pass by the window and feel removed from it all. It was as if life couldn’t touch him as it always seemed to do when he was outside on the streets. Life always seemed to have a finger ready to point at him or a hand reaching out to tap him roughly on the shoulder. Every noise was a potential intrusion, every passing person someone who could hurt him, life was scary and, to his mind, most of it was best avoided.

The thing he liked most, above everything else, was the name, ‘HAPPY CAFE’, written in a semi-circle form around the top-half of a cup of tea with steam coming off it, one sign on each of the two windows. He wondered if it would have cost extra to add a THE in front of the word HAPPY and that it had been thought of as too much of an expense, these are the kind of question that often rattled about his head.

I’ll have to ask Ethel, he had thought.

HAPPY CAFE, a name at odds with the often unsmiling or troubled faces to be found staring out of its large windows, windows that looked out onto the busy road with the grimy busses passing in monotonous regularity, belching out visibly disgusting diesel fumes. So at odds with that seemingly perpetual blanket-grey sky that hung low, as if it was a ceiling of depressed thoughts, intent on keeping out the warmth and care of the sun. So at odds with the down-market retail shops that always seemed on the brink of closure, with their ‘discount’ offers and ‘bargain-basement’ deals, and so at odds with Jamie’s usual demeanour, that purposeful frown, his defence-mechanism, his warning, to ‘stay away’.

HAPPY CAFÉ he would think when he seen the sign, and an involuntary smile would appear, just prior to him entering through the door and scanning the place to check for Junkies or any other potential ‘vulture’, as he called those he thought might want something from him.

Up to that point in his life, Jamie believed friendship always came at a cost, usually money or belongings, but sometimes also something inside his very being, another scar on his battered and battle-scarred heart. It didn’t cost him anything here though, the owners treated him well without ever asking him for anything other than mutual respect. Indeed, they were often kind to him, he truly appreciated their unspoken, yet explicit care.

Jamie was 21, he lived alone, was generally alone, he thought he liked it this way, that it was better to be a loner in life. His existence had been hard thus far, he had endured three years of sexual abuse at the hands of a foster father who was supposed to protect him after he had been removed from his parents, aged five, due to the sexual abuse his father had perpetrated against him.

Following that, he was moved from pillar-to-post in several short-term foster placements, never receiving genuine care. When he reached adolescence, he wasn’t deemed ‘suitable’ for a foster placement and was moved around various children’s homes, those teenage years had been punctuated by episodes of physical and psychological abuse, perpetrated by both the children and adults around him. An understandable mistrust of people in general permeated his interactions, he both desperately needed and hated close relationships. He sometimes felt he was being ripped in half as the unstoppable longing for new relationships collided with the immovable pain he had went through because of previous ones.

Jamie was supported by the Local Authority responsible for his care past the age of 21 only due to the fact they had been held legally responsible for the abuse he had endured at the hands of the foster carers. They were therefore duty-bound to provide for him until he demonstrated an ability to manage his own life. Jamie had been at the court when the ruling was made, he knew that looking after himself too well would see his support cut off, whilst he blamed the Social Work department for what he had endured, he wasn’t willing to lose the only support he had ever known. At times, his behaviour was deliberately risky and self-destructive, just in case they were considering ‘removal of support’, a phrase he had been threatened with on more than one occasion. If there was one thing Jamie wasn’t, it was stupid.

On his 18th birthday, Jamie had been placed in his own accommodation, because the Local Authority no longer wanted to keep him with younger children, ‘just in case’ where the words he’d heard through a closed door one day. His third floor flat overlooked the same busy thoroughfare to the city-centre where the ‘Happy Cafe’ sat. His bathroom window, visible from the road, had a piece of plywood in place from when he’d punched it drunk one night and the thick curtains in his living room were always drawn, he didn’t want anyone to know if he was at home or not, he knew a visible light could send the ‘vultures’ to his door.

 The social work department tendered out the support package and a local charity dealing with young people in the system deemed ‘hardest to reach’, picked up his case. The social work department would go on paying until the charity said he was capable of living independently. They would do so because if he was left to his own devices and something happened that brought his sorry story to the newspapers, then they would be rightly vilified in public for their part in that horrific story. This charity had a ‘no-rejection policy’, they were in it for the long-haul and provided support workers to attempt almost daily contact for Jamie. They knew the value of relationships and done their best to keep one or two constants in Jamie’s life.

Jamie liked weapons, especially samurai swords, he had a pair of ornamental ones on his living room wall, as well as a selection of smaller knives that he had picked up from various hunting shops and car-boot sales. He preferred ‘dark’ movies, two of his favourites being The Crow with Brandon Lee and The Matrix with Keanu Reeves, he’d even bought a long black leather jacket just like that of the main character in The Matrix and his walls were covered with posters of these and other similar movies. He also had some throwing stars that he launched at a specially made target on his wall, the target was in the form of a winged demon-like creature.

Throughout his house, bags of rubbish and laundry littered the place, the kitchen was always dirty, every available worktop space piled with assorted dishes, cutlery and takeaway cartons encrusted with leftover food. Jamie kept it like this purposefully, it was another layer of protection from anyone staying too long or getting too close. He rarely washed, his skin smelled like some kind of rotten fruit, his feet were so pungent as to provoke gagging in anyone unfortunate enough to be near him if he removed the big black boots he wore on an almost continuous basis, and his breath could curdle milk such was the strength of his halitosis. Much of the abuse had happened in the bath, washing always served as a reminder and the last thing Jamie needed was,

 ‘any more fucking reminders, thank you very much’

as he’d bluntly told one of the many previous social workers who’d kept at him to ‘address his hygiene issue’.

address the hygiene issue, what with? a fucking stamped address envelope’

Jamie had a beautifully blunt way with words, if you were open enough to see the beauty.

Jamie always smiled a voyeur’s smile when a new support worker visited him for the first time, he enjoyed watching their faces as they glanced around his flat. He would watch them closely as they took in its dirty state, as they attempted to hide their discomfort at seeing the giant, dirty cage, housing his two rats, and at the aquarium for his lizard and the accompanying jars for breeding insects to feed it. To complete the scene, there was a car battery with attached wires to power the heat lamp for the reptile, for those times he had no electricity.

He took a perverse pleasure in seeing their discomfort turning to fear and alarm as they registered the collection of weapons on the walls. It was at this point, if he felt especially mean, he’d nonchalantly begin to launch his throwing stars at the target on the wall. The area around the target was a mess of chipped, holed plasterboard, from when he had missed the wooden target. Often, the support worker would quickly ask him if he wanted to go out, if he replied in the negative, they would promptly leave, offering him the next meeting at the office of the support charity. He called this his ‘endurance test’. If they couldn’t survive in his home environment for more than 10 minutes then there was no way that they would be able to build a relationship with him and therefore he would only ever meet with these workers if they promised money or food, preferably both.

One support worker, Lorraine, had known Jamie long-enough for him to accept her as someone good for him, and he generally didn’t mind her visits. Lorraine didn’t bat an eyelid at Jamie’s antics and often blitzed his flat by throwing everything dirty in the bin and spraying the place down with some strong cleaning products. Jamie accepted this with only the odd muttered complaint about an ‘invasion of privacy’, though really, he was glad someone cared enough to clean the place up for him.

 Lorraine would often remove weapons when Jamie wasn’t looking and kept on at him about the dangers of his lifestyle. Lorraine knew the full terrible history of Jamie’s childhood and she cared deeply that he could continue to maintain his own accommodation, she knew if the flat failed then he would end up in a homeless shelter where he would be exploited, and no doubt beaten for the way he was, his coping mechanisms were only understandable to those who care about why a person acts as they do and not the actions themselves. Every behaviour Jamie exhibited was a direct result of his past experiences.  

Lorraine would always accompany a new worker on their first meeting with Jamie. Sometimes, if he had been promised something he wanted, that would mean a meeting at the office, or, if he wasn’t in a sociable mood, as was normally the case, this would entail shouting through his letterbox in the hope of getting him to open his door. It was a tactic of his to try to discourage people from coming to see him, many times he had lain in bed listening to the noise of a support worker chapping at his door and shouting through his letterbox. He judged if someone really wanted him to show himself by the length of time they tried to get him to answer, he called this his ‘doorstep challenge’. Those support workers he thought didn’t care, or really want him to answer, would leave after a minute or so, this served to reinforce his belief that everyone goes away in the end, that no-one really cared about him.

A few individuals, such as Lorraine, wouldn’t give up for a long time and would go to great lengths to get in touch with him, sometimes sitting in their car outside and jumping out in front of him if he passed. These workers he tolerated, even liked at times, he thought their care came from somewhere deep inside and was therefore was real.

This was to be Jamie’s response the day after he’d first truly asked himself why he liked the Happy Cafe. The day he first met George. George was 35, a newly-qualified Social Worker, he’d recently started with the charity and was to work with Jamie as soon as possible due to a lack of male workers and the fact that some female workers felt threatened by Jamie’s apparently aggressive mannerisms, some would only work with him in pairs and that wasn’t financially sustainable for the charity.

Lorraine had met George at the office to brief him on Jamie’s situation, she gave him enough details regarding his past to ensure he was up to speed as to the reasons for his behaviour, though she always retained many details until she knew whether Jamie would accept the worker in the long-term. On the way from the office to Jamie’s flat she gave George a rundown of the likely behaviour Jamie would exhibit on meeting him for the first time, giving warning of the smell and the presence of animals and weapons. George had been around and was someone who had experience of being in a children’s home as a child, he wasn’t easily shocked, he knew that behaviour of this kind was usually the result of some negative experience,

“lord knows, I acted out often enough as an adolescent,” he’d said.

Jamie spent a lot of time in bed, especially if he had run out of money, which, given his inability to budget, was most of the time. His lack of budgeting skills would include not buying any electricity tokens, resulting in him often living in the cold and dark. On the day his unemployment cheque was to be delivered, Lorraine would try to arrive with the postman, so she could march him to the shops, to ensure he bought some basic foodstuffs and a supply of electricity for the two weeks until his next cheque arrived. She would put the electricity tokens in herself after previously realising that he had just kept them in his pocket and later sold them on to a local drug dealer, at half their value, for a small piece of poor-quality hashish.

On arrival at the flat door, Lorraine first checked through the kitchen window to see if she could catch Jamie unawares. However, Jamie had taped a poster to the window. Lorraine then banged hard on the door, after several thumps she began to bellow through the letterbox,

 “Come on Jamie, you know me, I ain’t leaving till you show yourself!”

After two minutes she switched tactics and began to bribe him with offers of food at the local cafe. Eventually, they heard a grunt emanating from inside the flat. Lorraine turned to George and smiled,

“hunger usually gets the better of him when he has no money and he likes going to the happy café down the road, the women there are really good with him.”

George made a mental note of the successful strategy for future use.

The key turned in the lock and Lorraine pushed open the front door, various stuff lay along the wall, an assortment of worthless bits and pieces, some of it broken, all of it fit for the bin. George caught a glimpse of Jamie up ahead as he turned the corner, clad in boxer shorts and black t-shirt, dark hair covering both his head and most of his face. As they entered the house Lorraine shouted up the corridor,

“make yourself decent,”

The smell hit George straight away, it was so strong he almost retreated into the relative fresh air of the piss-stained tenement stairwell. Lorraine headed straight towards the kitchen and opened the window before then heading into the living room, throwing the curtains open and opening both windows wide, the noise of the busy street rushed in with the cold air. George followed and scanned the room, he had known what to expect and therefore didn’t react at the sight of the swords, living creatures, and various other bits and bobs that many a support worker had been visibly affected by.

I can handle the debris but that disgusting smell, jeezo!’ he thought to himself.

Jamie sat scrunched up on the couch, hugging his knees, he looked at George and said,

“Have you got a cigarette?”

“sorry, I don’t smoke,” said George.

George did smoke occasionally when he socialized, but never in front of someone he worked alongside, not only was it forbidden, he subscribed to the pro-social role modelling theory, act as you wish others to act. Some staff did smoke with young people as a way of gaining acceptance – complicity is not a good strategy thought George.

Lorraine introduced George then fired questions at Jamie as she started to tidy up, she pulled a bin liner and pair of latex gloves from her pocket and began ramming anything she considered to be rubbish into the bin liner,

“Have you got any money left?”

“Has that drug dealer been bothering you again?”

 When did you last see your Social Worker?”

“When was the last time you ate?”

Jamie didn’t reply other than to say he was hungry and wanted a bacon roll. Lorraine bargained that if he washed his face and brushed his teeth she would take him to the cafe. Jamie smiled to himself as he picked up his throwing stars and began launching them at the target on the wall, which just happened to be near where George was standing.

“Jamie, enough of that,” said Lorraine.

 George picked up two of the sharp metal spiked stars and handed them back to Jamie and said in a matter of fact way,

 “You should really learn the correct throwing technique if you want to do it properly, that way you won’t hurt anyone or make such a mess of your wall.”

Jamie put down the stars and headed off to get his clothes on, he was hungry, he hadn’t eaten anything other than Weetabix spread with margarine, washed down with cold tap-water for two days.

Over the next few months, George met with Jamie several times a week, Jamie always tested a new support worker to the max, after meeting with them initially, he would then embark on a mission to get them to disengage with him by displaying oppositional behaviour and emphasising his many repulsive habits, he called this his ‘testing test’.

For his part, George had seen it all before, he had been in various children’s homes from the age of eleven until his sixteenth birthday, he had witnessed and endured several forms of abuse as well as both witnessing and taking part in a range of negative and destructive behaviours, he allowed Jamie to act out his ‘welcome routine’ and turned up regardless.

Slowly, Jamie began to accept George, he appreciated that he didn’t try to tell him what he ‘should’ or ‘must’ do all the time, as did most other workers. George told Jamie he had the right to choose his own path, then went on to explain the options available to him and the potential consequences to each choice, saying which one he would choose himself and why.

Jamie also enjoyed listening to George give examples of ‘someone he knew well’, ‘someone’ who had been involved in a number of situations that had seen him make the wrong choice at the wrong time or indeed the right choice at the right time. Jamie was a sharp individual, he knew George was most likely speaking about himself as well as friends he had had, he felt that this gave them a sense of shared history in some way. Further to this, George always took Jamie to the happy cafe.

George had realised early on that Jamie felt most at ease when sitting in that run-down little place with the dingy toilet and the two down-to-earth women who owned it. The food was basic and low-quality, but they made a right good cup of tea and George was happy enough to down cup after cup as Jamie munched on a bacon roll or two. It wasn’t long before George felt right at home and was on good terms with both Ethel and Angie. He found that if he could get the corner seat beside the window, and if both he and Jamie sat in the two chairs facing the half-frosted pane of glass, so that they could watch the many people and the constant stream of traffic passing by, then Jamie was at his most relaxed and would be open to both talking and listening.

Other than Lorraine, this was more than any other support worker had managed, because Jamie was adept at speaking about some aspect of his life just to the point that he had secured either food or cigarettes and then the monosyllable responses would return. After a few weeks, George would nip into the cafe to give either Angie or Ethel a couple of extra pounds to keep their preferred table free for half an hour, to give him enough time to get Jamie out of his bed and down there.

Their little corner trysts continued for some 18 months or so, during which time Jamie managed to keep his self-destructive and risky behaviour to a minimum, he even got a cleaning job at the Happy Cafe three morning a week. This had been organised by George and paid for by the charity. George had told Ethel and Angie that Jamie had had,

a right bad time as a child,

this was enough for them, they knew it anyway, and had no need for other details. They were caring individuals and helped more than a few poor souls in the area with a free bite to eat or a hot cup of tea every now and again. They agreed to take the time to encourage Jamie to develop some sort of responsibility and routine, the extra twenty pounds per day they received was welcome given the struggle they had keeping the café in profit. After an initial few false starts, for the first time in as long as he could remember, Jamie felt positive and useful, he wondered when it would all go wrong, he’d long ago accepted that all good things come to an end.

It was at this point, George had persuaded Jamie to get involved in helping to train the constant stream of new support workers that came to begin their careers at the charity. He surmised that Jamie could build on the stability he had achieved by taking on this opportunity, that it would be both character-building and therapeutic at the same time. George knew that Jamie was well-placed to give new workers an insight into the job and could benefit himself from explaining what he believed a worker should provide, he laughed to himself,

well, those things other than money for cigarettes.

 There was always an initial induction period for new workers and George suggested to the board of directors that some of the young people supported by the charity could come in to speak with new workers and tell them their thoughts as to what a ‘good’ worker should consist of. The board agreed, and George developed a training day that entailed an initial meet-and greet session, followed by some group work and finishing with a question-and-answer session. At first, Jamie refused to become involved, but George negotiated a daily rate of pay for participants after some of the young people (rightly) pointed out that everyone else involved would be paid. This had been enough to see Jamie agree to commit, for at least one day.

The training days became a monthly event and Jamie revelled in the attention, and in trying to shock the new workers. He had developed a ‘what would you do if…?’ Series of questions, which made George laugh as he watched the new staff try to come up with answers they thought would be acceptable to both the young people and those senior staff observing. 

After three months, he was given the title of ‘senior training assistant’ and seemed to love wearing his badge, he led some of the discussions during the group work and took his role seriously. He had even started to clean himself up for these days, appearing with freshly-ironed clothes and a manicured beard. George then discovered that Ethel had been taking Jamie’s dirty clothes home with her on the Monday, washing and ironing them,  then returning them to him when he came to work on the Friday.

Jamie flourished in the café, he became a real help to Ethel and Angie, he loved to jokingly point out things they had missed and made sure they filled in all the health and safety sheets that they never seemed to remember. He became friendly with some of the regulars and his sense of self-worth markedly improved. It certainly was a happy café for the three of them and he seemed to bring a smile to the faces of some customers due to his idiosyncratic, but ultimately caring, way of being. George would smile on seeing the three of them gently chastise each other about all manner of small things, they were genuinely happy together and it gave him immense pleasure to see this newly-formed ‘family’ interact.

Things continued to improve for Jamie over the next months, he stopped smoking cannabis, this made him less insular and paranoid, he was more able to communicate with people outside of his close circle. The training days continued to go well, and George encouraged him to join a group for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. He also began to write poetry, he was surprised to find that it served as a kind of self-administered therapy, it seemed to help him process his feelings. At times, he still felt angry and sad and there were days when he just couldn’t face the world, but the poetry was a way to channel those feelings without resorting to the self-defeating behaviour of the past. It was at this point that two things happened that would change his life forever.

The first thing was that George announced he was leaving the charity, he’d been offered a senior position in another organization and was moving lock, stock and barrel some 200 miles to begin this new challenge. He announced this news one day as they relaxed and chatted in the Happy Café. There was to be no ‘long goodbye’, George was to leave his job and the city the following month. He had planned it this way, he wanted the end of the way things were to be relatively quick, so Jamie did not dwell on it too long, just in case he reacted by changing his behaviour. He felt a month was enough time for them both to deal with ‘moving on’ and aimed to frame it as the positive development he believed it to be.

Jamie was at first shocked, he hadn’t thought of not seeing George, which was strange given he usually counted the time a relationship with a worker lasted. Though, when he thought about it, he had hardly seen George in the preceding two months. This was also intentional on the part of George, who had started a process of withdrawal some weeks previous. Jamie was doing well and didn’t really need George to be around, he just needed to know he (or someone he trusted) was there should he need them. In recent weeks, he had hit it off with a support worker called Alistair, they had developed their relationship after meeting at one of the training days, so George knew Jamie had someone who would be ‘there’ for him in a professional sense, if he needed them.

 In a frank discussion at the Happy Café, with Ethel and Angie in the background, George told Jamie he would miss him and that he had learned a lot over the last couple of years thanks to their relationship,

“I truly believe you are going to keep on doing well and I’ll always think good things about the times we have shared, especially here. I’m going to miss these cups of tea!”

He turned and beamed a smile at the two women hovering around behind them.

“And anyway, you’ll have my number if you want to phone me up and remind me how great you think I am” he said with a wink.

Smiling, George again looked over his shoulder, he was sure that twinkle in Ethel’s eye had turned into a tear. Jamie turned his head sideways to look at George, narrowed his eyes, smiled, and said,

“don’t you worry, I don’t need you and I’ll easily find someone else to pay for food, Oh, and I’m never going back to the darkness.”

It would turn out that they would never see each other again, though each would think of the other often.

The second major event to happen at that time was that Jamie met a woman and embarked on his first-ever intimate relationship. They had met at the survivors group and he had been starry-eyed ever since their first introduction, though it would take some weeks for him to ask her out and it took some prompting from Alistair to get him to act. It was the hardest thing he had ever done.

Shona had immediately said yes, she had felt protective of Jamie from the outset, she felt his vulnerability, she had wanted to put her coat round him, to keep him close, to protect him. They laughed a lot together. Shona was painfully quiet in front of strangers yet had a great sense of fun and was always teasing Jamie when they were alone, or when she thought no-one was looking. Jamie loved the attention, he clearly adored Shona and admired her for coming through all that she had as a child whilst still managing to remain positive and believe that people were generally good.

Jamie would write her poems, some terrible and romantic, others beautiful and heartfelt, most a mixture of both. Shona loved them all, no-one had ever written her poetry before and she knew millions would go through their lives without ever receiving even one poem written especially for them. Their eyes would shine at the sight of each other and they were soon inseparable. George was fortunate enough to have met Shona before leaving for his new job and he logged it as another protective factor in Jamie maintaining the progress he had made thus far,

even if it eventually fails, at least he is really living, he thought.

One of the last occasions George saw Jamie, he had left him with Shona at the ‘reserved’ table in the happy café, he had turned to look back through the window as the two of them smiled and waved him off. George noticed the bounce in his step as he headed down towards the office,

love conquers all’ he thought and quickly called his wife to tell her he loved her, to catch the moment and share it, to spread the love.

Some months later, Jamie was offered a part-time position with the charity, he had started a social care course at the local college and was managing his studies well. Shona had moved into his flat and the difference was amazing to see, gone were the dark posters and Alistair Crowley books, they had been replaced by bright, cosy furnishings which seemed to reflect the warmth of their relationship. The swords had been banished to the cupboard at the bottom of the corridor, along with his throwing stars and collection of knives. The rats and reptile were still there but in much-improved living conditions, the meter always had electricity and the kitchen was hygienic if not always tidy. It looked like the regular set-up of any young couple.

The biggest step by far, was that Jamie now bathed regularly. When, in the survivors group, Shona had first heard him mention the bath as a place of particularly bad memories relating to his abuse, she immediately understood his aversion to washing. She had then initiated their first shared bath, setting the scene with lots of bubbles, a few candles and their favourite singer – Van Morrison – on the iPod, delivering a heart-felt rendition of into the mystic.

Jamie was panicked at first, however, his desire to please Shona was stronger than his aversion to the bath, and they then shared an hour of such intense intimacy that he could no longer associate the bath with only negative thoughts, the cycle had been broken. They would go on to share many a bath after that, rubbing each other’s feet, washing each other’s hair and having more than the occasional water fight.

After an initial induction period of training (whereby the tables were turned, and Jamie got to feel exactly what it was like to be quizzed by a group of young people), he was to meet his first young person.

Wow, he thought, as he ventured down the path of the children’s home where he was to have the first contact,

 here I am going to meet a kid in in a children’s home, can I actually do this?

He felt the urge to do an about-turn and head back up the driveway, but he knew he had to keep going, he wanted to help other children if he could, he knew exactly how important good support was.

The young person’s name was Billy. Jamie didn’t get a chance to meet him properly that day, on seeing him walking up the driveway, Billy had decided to run out of the home and launch stones in his direction from some distance away. Jamie laughed when this happened, he recalled throwing his CD collection out of a window when he was in a similar-type children’s home, he had barricaded himself in his room and decided to throw them out of the window at the Social Worker in her car below, so she couldn’t get out of it. Jamie spoke with the staff member on duty, saying he would come back the next again day and to let Billy know he would be wearing a helmet next time!

Billy had noticed Jamie laughing when he had thrown the stones at him and this little fact had sparked enough interest for him to want to discover more about this man,

maybe he’ll be ok, or take me bowling or something, he’d thought.

The next day, Billy stood waiting at the door for Jamie, who, when walking up the drive, pulled a bicycle helmet from behind his back and shouted,

Should I put this on to protect my head?

Billy laughed and shook his head. Jamie walked up, introduced himself, and asked,

Do you want to go to a wee café where they sell the best cakes in the whole town.”

Intrigued, Billy had nodded, they said goodbye to the member of staff, then walked off up the drive together. First contact had been achieved.

Jamie had popped into the Happy Cafe earlier that day and asked Ethel to reserve ‘the table’. When they walked in, Ethel’s eyes were twinkling brightly, and Angie had an enormous smile on her face, as they walked towards the counter, Jamie greeted a couple of regular customers, they too were obviously pleased to see him.

“So, Billy, which of these fine cakes would you like and what do you want to drink?”

Billy chose a huge chocolate éclair and a fruit juice. When Jamie went to pay, Ethel refused the money, telling him,

 “get away with you, you’ll never pay for a cake in here again ye big lump.”

As they walked towards the window seat with the ‘reserved’ sign sitting on it, Billy thought to himself,

what is it about this guy that everyone seems to like?

That first experience was enough for the relationship seed to take root and it wasn’t to be the last time they ate cake and watched the world go by in the Happy Cafe. Some negative cycles and patterns of behavior need broken whereas others, the positive ones filled with love, are best continued or passed on to those who may benefit from them.

 

Letters to the Little People

Your Life Your Story is off to Windsor this week to the INTERNATIONAL annual conference of  THE CONSORTIUM FOR THERAPEUTIC COMMUNITIES to deliver a workshop. 

Care experienced poet and activist, Tasmin Trevorrow-Earl, care experienced artist and poet Yusuf McCormack and care experienced poet, artist and qualified social worker, Saira-Jayne Jones will be inviting participants to hold on to their seats, lean in and open their ears, as Your Life Your Story transports them on an emotive, profound and immersive journey into the ‘care’ experience through the decades of their lived experience; using narrative, poetry, verse and spoken word.

 

A Date For Your Diary

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19th to 26th NOVEMBER 2019

Proudly announcing the rebranding of the first Your Life Your Story inspired book and BOOK BLOG TOUR organised by  Anne Cater a successful book blogger, and reviewer for some of the largest publishing houses, including Penguin, Harper Collins and Orion as well as smaller independent houses such as Orenda Books, No Exit Press and Arcadia. 

Ann has twenty years experience in the Voluntary Sector and is passionate about the value of volunteering, enabling people to make changes in their communities and having their voice heard.