It’s a warm summer’s day when I meet Fatima, in the offices of Essex County Council. We are here for her to meet social workers and take part in the ‘It’s My Life’ festival, a week-long event for children in care held by the council at Danbury Country Park. She’s dressed for a day of outdoor activities, and her yellow Action for Children top with cycling shorts and trainers are hard to miss. She is an ambassador for the charity, having run the London Marathon 2023, and continues to fundraise in various walking challenges.
But first we meet the many social care staff who are eager to have their photos taken with the legendary Olympian. Fatima, always smiling, is keen to see how social work has changed since she was in care, and revels in the multiple photo requests.
When I interviewed the 62-year-old a few weeks ago, she talked very openly about her childhood in children’s homes. What became apparent was how much the care system has changed since Fatima was young.
As a Community Care journalist, I was eager for Fatima to see the changes in social work practice since the darker days of the 60s, which she describes as an era “where children should be seen and not heard”.
A childhood of abuse and abandonment
And Fatima was equally as eager to spend the day with social workers and children in care, and share her childhood story with them.
And what a story it is. I hear it a few times throughout the day but it still shocks every time. Abandoned as a baby and taken into care by Hackney Council, Fatima vividly recalls the memories of her early childhood.
In the 60s and 70s, house aunties and uncles used to run children’s homes with the children contributing to the chores and having to abide by strict routines. There were 25 children in one home where Fatima lived.
What motivated her to become an ambassador for Action for Children and speak so candidly about her upbringing?
“It’s really important to know where I’m coming from. I spent the first 14 years of my life in children’s homes, so I have experienced what it’s like to feel vulnerable, neglected, insecure, not loved and guilty, or to think, ‘perhaps I’ve done something wrong?’
“I’ve been emotionally, mentally and physically abused, and sexually abused too so I guess at this stage of my life it’s because I want to help give these children a voice so they can be heard and be seen.”
Fatima was 14 when she met Margaret Whitbread, a PE teacher and coach, who gave her the first gift she had ever received: a javelin. Fatima practised javelin throwing in the garden of the children’s home but got into trouble for breaking a few windows. Soon after, she was invited to stay with the Whitbread family for the summer holidays, and Margaret went on to adopt her.
“When Mrs Whitbread asked me to stay I was nervous and excited. When the house aunty found out she said, ‘what do you want to do that for?’. But she was constantly telling me, ‘we’re going to push you up to a place in London and you’ll end up on the streets as a prostitute’.
“It’s not the ideal encouragement for us kids and I was petrified about what was going to happen to me. So obviously when Mrs Whitbread offered me the love of the Whitbread family it was no surprise what a wonderful experience that was for me.”
Unsurprisingly, Fatima is a huge advocate for fostering and adoption, and wants to raise awareness of the need to recruit more foster carers.
“There’s a shortage of 9,000 foster carers,” she tells me. “We need social workers in the same vein as we need foster carers, that have got that wealth of knowledge, that empathy and understanding, that have got the passion and the drive to make a big difference in a young child’s life.”
We interviewed Fatima Whitbread as part of Community Care’s Choose Social Work campaign, which aims to champion the brilliant work social workers do every day, inspire the next generation of practitioners, and counteract the negative media coverage of the profession.
Read about why we’ve launched this campaign, and the five steps you can take to support it. On our campaign page, you will find more inspiring stories about the difference that good social work makes, as well as our series of Dear Future Social Worker letters, encouraging the next generation to choose social work as a fulfilling, rewarding career.
A key professional
There is one professional in her early life who Fatima speaks of fondly: her Aunty Rae, one of the support workers in the children’s home.
“I was fortunate to have Aunty Rae. She was such a lovely lady. My day didn’t start until Aunty Rae got me out of bed. When she was on duty I’d wait there, she’d say, ‘come on Fats, up you get’. She kind of humanised me and that made me feel happy and I know I was eager to please, and that’s all kids really want.
“Aunty Rae was a shining star in my life and this is what I want every child to have, a shining star, someone they can connect with so that they can believe in themselves, and feel loved and secure so that they can thrive, not just survive,” she says.
In an incredible coincidence, Fatima tells me that Aunty Rae’s granddaughter, Jo, works at Essex County Council. When we are walking around the council offices in the morning, Fatima spots her. Not only is Jo a social worker, but she is in the fostering team. They have an emotional embrace, and the rest of us are left stunned, thinking what a small world it is.
Becoming an adult
One of Fatima’s main concerns is the support care experienced young people get when they become adults. When she was growing up, the state relinquished responsibility for children in care at 16. Her own son is 25 and still lives with her.
“I experienced this myself in my childhood days, but if you’re emotionally disturbed and your emotional needs are not being met, it’s very hard to concentrate and study and get the qualifications. You need them to skill you up enough to be able to survive so it is a great concern of mine. Eighteen is still a very young age to ask these children to stand on their own feet and support themselves,” she says.
At midday, when we get to the outdoor centre in Danbury Country Park, Fatima is in her element. After all, it is sport that she refers to as her “saviour”.
The outdoors and physical activities, such as the high ropes and zipwire, make her feel right at home. The annual festival invites different groups of children in care on separate days. Today, it is all about the 8 to 13-year-olds, and Fatima is keen to talk to as many of them as she can.
She shocks some of the children when they find out she’s been on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! (twice).
“Have you met Ant and Dec?”, one girl asks in amazement. Fatima reminds them that it’s not about celebrities and glamour, but about believing in yourself and going out and doing what you love.
Her warmth and the passion she has to help vulnerable children is obvious. There is a certain child-like innocence that Fatima possesses which makes her the endearing character she is.
She spends the afternoon talking to many different children while joining them in the various activities.
Reflecting on change in the care system
Towards the end of the day, when we leave the country park, I ask Fatima if her opinion of social workers has changed. “Yes massively! Completely different. [They have] much more connection with young people. They’re all passionate about what they do.”
She explains that when she was young, she used to see a social worker about once a year, across a table in a stuffy room, and then never saw them again.
“Now they live in [the child’s] world, they’re not segregated in the way that we felt with our social workers, they came every so often and disappeared and that was that.
“They’re [now] someone [the child] can trust, someone [with whom] they can share what’s going on in their lives, what’s in their hearts and also emotionally as well. They don’t have to be hiding away, they can be themselves.”
Does she think her childhood would have been different if she had the support of a social worker like one of the ones she met today?
“Massively,” she says. “I wouldn’t have felt isolated, and I wouldn’t have felt so scared of the future.”
More from Choose Social Work
- ‘It was wonderful to have somebody show me they really cared’
- Thinking of becoming a social worker? This letter is for you
- Isabelle Trowler: ‘Cherish the responsibility you have’
- ‘You can literally change a young person’s life’: an 18-year-old’s message for social workers
- ‘What I wish I’d known before becoming a social worker’
- Jenny Molloy: ‘Social workers have been so important in my life’