Season of goodwill

If the media are mirrors on our world, then social work and the
care system have been viewed largely through glass used in a
funfair’s hall of mirrors: distorting and mocking.

In general, the public has quick, easy, ready-made opinions which
take no time to conceive but which for those who work in or who
have experienced care find hard to stomach. As one care leaver,
says: “I don’t talk about my childhood. As soon as I mention care,
people just fill in the blanks.” The popular image seen is that of
someone taken into care because they were (and thus probably still
are) bad.

This care leaver’s presumably common experience surely reflects
that of a social worker who might well similarly utter: “I don’t
talk about my job. As soon as I mention social work, people just
fill in the blanks.” Here the image is at best of interfering
do-gooders and at worst one of incompetence and failure to protect
those in their care.

Television – particularly drama – has a tried and tested, long-term
comfortable relationship with police, health and fire services (no
doubt the uniforms help). But with social services there has been
an uneasy, frosty association – as if it was the unsavoury cousin
that nobody in the family has anything to do with or ever talks

But perhaps it is beginning to come in from the cold. The BBC has
just completed its Taking Care season “exploring a different kind
of childhood” by highlighting the experiences of young people in
care. To its credit the BBC has treated the subject seriously and
researched it well. Seetha Kumar, head of life skills at the BBC
and the season’s co-ordinator, says: “Over the past year, I have
met many people who’ve experienced care. Feisty, lively and
outspoken, they want passionately not to be seen as victims or
villains. They said, ‘Please don’t make the programmes dark and
dismal. They have to be uplifting’.”

So did Kumar meet the spec? On the whole, the season – which cut
across television, radio, helplines and web, and included
self-contained dramas, documentaries, news and storylines in
popular soaps – was welcomed and well received. Despite the
unimpressive and perhaps (given the public’s ambivalence towards
the subject matter) inevitably rickety ratings, the BBC has
defended its decision to run the season. The broadcaster might have
stumbled occasionally but it kept to its true path and came

The season kicked off with the drama Bella and the Boys,
starring former pop star Billie Piper. She played Bella who along
with friends Lee and Martin experiment as 15 year olds do. The
language, alcohol, strip poker, name-calling, drugs and sex
(despite what any head of children’s services might publicly
announce as a corporate parent) is as true for this group as any
other. However, it neatly scored by not overplaying the care angle.
It was a triangular relationship between young people who happened
to be in care.

The critics were impressed. The Guardian called it “a
beautiful portrait of teenage friendship and adolescence”. The
was similarly gushing but also exposed the general
ignorance of the care system that the season sought to challenge:
“This touching drama showed that a well run care home can be a
warm, supportive place, and not a dark cauldron of child abuse.”

Piper enjoyed working on the film. “The whole project was just so
brilliant and gave us all the opportunity to get a real insight
into what it’s like being in care,” she says. It certainly
impressed Mark Houston, a care leaver from Hampshire: “This was
very well written. It clearly highlighted the difficulties that
young people in children’s homes face in their everyday lives. We
see the prejudices they face and how the lack of stability affects

This authenticity was the product of a consultation with 11 care
leavers aged 16-21 from Lewisham, south London. “The care leavers
were invited to take part not only as extras but to act as
consultants to the actors – to advise on how to portray someone
looked after,” says Martin Hudson, service manager, leaving care
service, Lewisham Council. “They talked about their experiences and
how to pick up elements of behaviour. The writer and director,
Brian Hill, allowed young people to have a say about the script and
settings. And he listened. This was by no means tokenism. They
advised that some parts were unrealistic and offered an
alternative. They felt the film was authentic enough and,
importantly, that the portrayal of people in care was a positive

However, the small home from the outside did resemble – space-wise
– Dr Who’s Tardis inside, seemingly full of 15 year olds with an
outrageous lack of staff. Equally unconvincing was the package
hotel-like breakfast scene: full cooked breakfasts, menu boards and
everyone down at the same time. Even such well stocked authenticity
occasionally took a back seat to the driving narrative.

Bella’s care home (set in 1990) was run by a near-omnipresent
mother figure functioning more like the woman who ran Burbank
children’s home in the 1960s which was featured in the documentary
Living the Legacy. This was a moving, delicately handled
and simple tale of three older generation ex-residents. Here,
Pauline and June, who were friends at the home, met up for the
first time in 40 years, while the music journalist and author,
Paolo Hewitt, talked about how it had taken him longer to mirror
his career success in his personal life.

Hewitt mentioned his social worker positively. This was striking
as, in much the same way that the word “mafia” was carefully
removed from the film scripts of The Godfather, throughout
the Taking Care season it appeared that the words “social worker”
were excised from broadcast as if too offensive for the viewer. In
Bella and the Boys, social workers were resource workers.
It seems ironic that while the government is announcing protective
status to the title “social worker”, its use, if Taking Care is a
barometer, is burning out – much like the workers themselves.
Perhaps social workers ought to be awarded protected species status

To be fair, another positive mention came in the documentary
Breaking Out, similarly exploring life after care, and featuring
Callie, Andrew and Ewurama. Callie Rogers, who put herself in care
when 14, spent two years with foster carers and then won £1.8m
on the national lottery. She was unreserved about her experience:
“Being in foster care was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I was part of this family. I love them both to bits. If it wasn’t
for them I don’t know where I’d be.” Callie said she wanted to be a
social worker.

Andrew could not help getting into trouble and ending up in prison
(nationally, one in four prisoners have experienced care). As with
many young people featured in the season, Andrew just wanted to go
home: “The most important person in my life is my mum. End of day –
family is family,” he says. His social worker, sorry, “leaving care
worker” came across as honest and caring.

At the age of four Ewurama went into care because of her mother’s
drinking. Now 19, the programme followed her attempts to form a new
relationship with her mother and meet her father for the first
time. She described her time in care as “one of the best
experiences of my life”. Her “I’m proud of myself” declaration was
great viewing: a lack of self-esteem and confidence often form the
shifting sands that frustrate growth and development.

Ambling in from a different angle the documentary No Place Like
took the bold step of speaking to young people still in
care “to gain an insight of what childhood is like for them”. It
followed Robert, 14, who had run away from foster care, wanted to
go home but could not get on with his stepfather; Charlotte, also
14, who dreamed of living in a family again; and Shaun, 15, who had
been sent to foster care on a remote farm as a final attempt to get
him off drugs.

But care leaver Chantelle Gordon had reservations about the
programme. She says: “I thought it was biased. It gave the
stereotypical impression that all young people in care get into
petty crime. It showed young people as unable to settle, feeling
unsafe or unsupported and who cannot be loved. It was good that
they spoke to the young people but it needed a broader view.”

Kerry Kane, also a care leaver who now works as a children’s rights
officer, turned off after 15 minutes: “I couldn’t believe they were
showing these young people, all of whom had negative problems. It
was like it was their entire fault that they were in care. One
young person I’m working with said ‘What do you expect? The focus
on negative experiences and upset make good TV viewing’.”

No Place Like Home, shown at peak time at 9pm, was watched
by just 2.8 million viewers. In the same slot a week later
Crimewatch had an audience of 5.3 million. “It’s
absolutely what we should be doing as part of our public service
remit and not about ratings at all,” responded the BBC. “You would
never commission Taking Care as a ratings winner but, if we didn’t
commission it, it wouldn’t get made at all.”

However, the broadcaster also sought to take the message to
guaranteed bigger audiences by featuring storylines in its popular
soaps such as EastEnders and Casualty. For
example, Casualty looked at foster care. Houston says:
“Many people seem to believe that foster placements are nearly
always stable and long term. The episode succeeded brilliantly in
proving this idea to be just a myth. I have on many occasions
spoken to people about aspects of the care system and their
response has usually been along the lines of, ‘Well I’d never
really thought about that’. I sincerely hope that this episode will
have had a huge impact on thousands of people.”

But did Casualty stitch up the social worker? “The social
worker was certainly put in a bad light,” agrees Houston. “To be
fair to social workers, they are tied by the current bureaucratic
system and understaffing. However, the programme showed that in the
care system social workers often aren’t there to support the young
people when they need it. The character Charlene was clearly in a
lot of distress at the time, yet the social worker was still unable
to spend time working with her to help her get through this.”

Despite her reservations, the highlight for Kane has been that
“young people have spoken powerfully and movingly about their
experiences.” And their voices have not been restricted to
television and radio. The excellent Taking Care website,,
provides plenty of information and is full of real stories. One
contributor writes: “I remember the day they took me into care. Me
and my brother got dumped on the town hall doorstep by a family
member and all that was said was ‘you’ve gotta do something about
it now’. That was one of the worst days of my life, not because I’d
been taken into care, but because of the way I’d just been left on
the doorstep. The feelings of abandonment and rejection hurt so

The season managed to pass muster with its take on adoption in
Storyville – My Flesh and Blood. It followed a year in the
life of Susan Tom, of Fairfield, California, who is the adoptive
mother of 11 children with a range of disabilities.

Fiona Strachan, development officer for Adoption UK in Scotland,
says of it:”I enjoyed the programme, although the family is
probably not representative of many adoptions in the UK. However,
they did show the difficulties associated with children adjusting
to life outside their birth family, in particular Joe [who has
cystic fibrosis] and his interaction with his birth mum. The
children dealing with physical disabilities all seemed to have a
positive approach and good self-esteem. The adoptive mother seemed
to be a patient and remarkable woman.”

The programme won both the audience award and best director award
(for Jonathan Karsh) at the US’s prestige 2003 Sundance film

Although most programming was new, the season did permit the BBC to
showcase its own award-winning drama, Care, based on the
experiences of young people systematically sexually abused in care
homes in Wales. “I was drawn to the subject by a mixture of all
sorts of emotions: pity, anger, despair and a feeling that
somewhere in this morass of darkness there was a huge story, a
story that had to be told, voices that had to be heard,” says
writer Kieran Prendiville, previously better known as the creator
of Ballykissangel.

His challenging twist was to have the abused character – the hero,
as it were – shown candidly as an abuser (albeit physically)
himself, something that is not uncommon but seldom recognised or
understood. It was difficult to identify or root for such an
unsympathetic character despite his history.

Prendiville says: “The more I read and the more I talked to victims
of abuse, the people who loved them and sometimes those who didn’t,
not just in Wales, one thing became clear: there is nothing heroic
about being damaged. As a child, you may have suffered
spine-chilling abuse and still be a right bastardÉand I mean
in the way that normal people are right bastards, I don’t mean in
the mythical way that supposes all abused children grow up to do
the same thing.

“You may feel this is no discovery at all. With hindsight it isn’t
to me either but, without that knowledge, I bet the temptation
would have been to make my fictional character somehow nobler, more
dignified. Let’s face it, he’d been through enough. But I have no
doubt that making him as flawed as he was made him more truthful. I
think you can smell it.”

Indeed, that seems a fair reflection on the Taking Care season.
Occasionally it may have been flawed but it powdered the airwaves
with essence of truth. If it taught an innocent, misled or sniffy
viewer anything perhaps it was this: a childhood without love is no
childhood at all. It’s a non-existence.

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