Poet, playwright and careleaver Lemn Sissay tells Judy Cooper why children in care should aspire to be anything but social workers
In the Southbank Centre, next to the Thames, is a small Portakabin grandly named The Riverside Rooms. This is the home of the artist in residence, Lemn Sissay. Internationally acclaimed poet, playwright, broadcaster, writer and speaker, he has a doctorate and an MBE.
His tiny desk and surrounding walls are a collage of projects including a one-man play, readings on BBC radio and a GPS mapping system of poetry around the country. His favourite is some graffiti on the wall of a now defunct store: “hip hop, chip shop”.
“This place used to play the best northern soul. After it closed down this appeared on the wall beside it. Someone loved that shop and wrote it. I love the story behind poetry.”
He is also patron of The Letterbox Club, which posts boxes of books individually to children in care, and a writer in residence at the 2008-9 conference for directors of children’s services in northern England.
“That was a bit weird,” he admits.
Because this elegant, courteous 42-year-old has spent most of his life grappling with the effects of having been in care for his entire childhood.
Sissay was three months old when his birth mother, an unmarried Ethiopian woman living in Lancashire in the 1960s put him into care temporarily.
However, the social worker on the case renamed him “Norman” and gave him to deeply religious, white foster parents, telling them adoption papers would be signed eventually. He was 11 when the first streaks of rebellion surfaced and his foster parents told him he “had the devil inside of him”. They put him into a children’s home.
and devastated, he ran away back to them a couple of times, but on those occasions he was kept in the front room, reserved for visitors, and his foster parents acted as if they hardly knew him.
Sissay’s mouth twists a little as he recounts the story. “I had been naughty because I’d taken some biscuits from the tin without asking and smoked a cigarette with some of the other boys on the estate. These people were my parents. It took me a long, long time not to refer to them as mum and dad. I’d been with them since I was a baby.”
Shifted five times from children’s home to children’s home he was finally shunted into an assessment centre, not because he’d been bad, but because social services had nowhere else to put him while they sorted out a flat. He was there for a year.
“This was a place where the doors were locked at night,” he recalls. “A guard patrolled the corridors.”
Since leaving care, Sissay has spent much of his life searching for his family and piecing his memories back together. The social worker who took him to the children’s home when he was 11 helped him track down much of the detail, starting with his birth certificate and letters from his mother showing she had tried to get him back. “He said I should know that somebody had loved me and wanted me. He’s a good guy, I still keep in contact with him.”
Sissay’s story, resonates with all those who hear it in his plays, documentaries and interviews. Anger seeps into his voice as he talks of it, but he says that he has learnt through therapy that “bitterness rots the vessel that carries it”. He maintains that all children leaving care should be entitled to therapy.
However, he points out he’s a poet, not a professional care leaver. “If I’m a role model it’s by accident, not design,” he says. “When I was growing up in care people always used to say ‘you should be a social worker’ and I thought ‘why?’. Children in care should aspire to be storm chasers, doctors, lawyers, writers, builders, plumbers, not social workers.”
But Sissay does make a plea for more creativity within social services. “Everything and everyone need to be managed in the care system and it ends up in institutionalised thinking,” he says.
“Social workers often become more institutionalised than the children. If we could just embrace the creativity in the human spirit it would make such a difference.”
This article is published in the 18 February 2010 issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Accidental role model