Ruth Neville, head of social work at Huddersfield University, and I were tired with bashing away the barrage of negativity that surrounds children’s homes. So, we decided to challenge these views by turning the perception of residential child care on its head.
We planned an event to celebrate the deeply therapeutic, healing work that goes on within the lives of children and adults who are thrown together, often in a mish mash of emotion and pain. A life that is full of paradoxes, of humour, grief, loss, happiness, excitement and confusion. This life is called Residential Child Care.
Eighty people gathered – social workers, managers, residential workers, academics, policy makers. The atmosphere was calm and expectant. And then, a production by drama students at the University, featuring an adaption of some chapters from my memoir Hackney Child, was about to start.
Comfort zone? Well, I think we all left ours at the station, in the car parks or on the bus. The students’ powerful raw portrayal of the very real experiences of neglect that bring so many children into the care system left many people stunned and moved to tears.
A reading from my new book, Tainted Love, set the scene for showcasing storytelling within residential care. Jonathan Stanley, chief exec of the Independent Children’s Homes Association, created a story from the emotions and memories of volunteers.
So, what are the emotions we bring to the lives of children in residential care? There was worry and sadness from a care worker, at having to prepare a young person to move on, following the difficult decision that the children’s home could no longer guarantee their safety.
Stanley spoke movingly, about the turmoil the decision had caused to all concerned, and his worries about what will happen to this young person. Will they feel abandoned? Will they look back in later years, and see the warmth and care that the staff had for them?
There was also love, from someone seeing the picture of the baby they were to adopt for the first time. The stories reminded us all of the potential, stories and creativity that are within all children in care, if only we can find ways of unlocking and reaching them. We reflected that in outstanding homes they are.
Almudena Lara, representing the Department for Education, was strong in her message that the government supports residential care. She was open, brave and courageous. She took the brunt of people’s anger and frustration, she let people know she wanted to listen. The buzz that followed as people talked and shared their experiences was energizing.
I looked at Ruth thinking, ‘we should have held a two-day event, people need this’. Ruth looked at me and, without speaking, nodded in agreement. You know that special relationship between a care leaver and a social worker, where it just clicks – this is it.
Ofsted also took to the stage. The new Residential Care framework is to concentrate on the life of the looked-after child, and not the adults – spot on, about time.
For the first time, Ofsted will have the power to close inadequate children’s homes – a good thing young care leavers tell me. “They shouldn’t let any new kids move in until they improve, but the kids living there, unless they are in danger should be allowed to stay” the young people at a Who Cares? Trust consultation tell us.
A message about simple acts of humanity and kindness, which are unnoticed to the outer world but so important in our children’s homes, followed next. I described my memories of being rescued from a childhood life of deprivation, destitution and degradation.
My life changed dramatically once safe in care. I gave the audience heat pads to hold; the feeling of warmth coming from them matched the story I read about my care staff wrapping me in warm, fresh bedding straight from the tumble dryer.
This was a favorite part of the week in my children’s home and a tradition I’ve carried through to my children and granddaughter. My daughter, now 20 and nodding in the audience, recognised the traditions I described. We were left to reflect on how we can build loving and nurturing traditions for children in residential care.
So, how to sum up a day that at times was deeply personal, uplifting, inspirational. In the words of one person: “It gave me ‘permission to admit I love the children I work with!”