By David Jones*
Recently, I went to the wedding of a young woman who used to be in care at the home I worked in.
Jasmine had told me she regarded this as a fitting occasion to acknowledge some important events in her life, which she saw as vital in shaping her. She also wanted to share this celebration with those people whose interventions she would never forget.
One such intervention had involved me.
I’d seen a fellow member of staff caress Jasmine’s leg as she was helping him to clear the dinner table. While I was trying to take in what I’d just witnessed, an act so sudden and lasting barely a couple of seconds, Jasmine had began screaming uncontrollably and throwing cups and plates at my colleague.
He retreated across the room as the poor girl absolutely lost it.
I ran to Jasmine and put my arms around her. She was shaking like a leaf. I told the colleague to take a break.”
I know what I saw, and at the disciplinary hearing later that month, his union representative attempted to paint Jasmine in the worst possible light: a feckless 15-year-old and a drunk (she’d bought a can of lager earlier that day), someone not to be trusted and an entitled attention seeker.
It was appalling and distressing to hear. Thankfully, Jasmine wasn’t required to attend the hearing.
‘I know what I saw’
Most of the staff at the home supported me, but to my shock, some didn’t. But I know what I saw. As for the colleague involved, he insisted that I’d got it wrong, that his touching Jasmine’s leg was merely an innocent, friendly gesture. He was also very keen to remind me of the risks I was taking, how whistleblowers often lost their position and damaged their reputation.
He was sacked shortly after the hearing. I felt massively relieved and vindicated, not just for myself, but for Jasmine. The next time she saw me on shift at the home, she quietly thanked me, adding: “You had my back. This is why trust matters.” I could have cried on the spot, and did shed a few tears when she talked about this at her wedding.
But the issues this experience brought to the fore are exactly what looking after children and young people in care is all about.
The importance of being believed
Being believed and trusted are crucial to our sense of self and identity. Just how much more acutely must this imperative present for a vulnerable, looked-after kid, a kid who might have their identities challenged and compromised by family members and authority figures? In a care setting, it is so easy for a young person to feel cancelled.
In turn, being able to believe and trust others can prove hugely problematic. Having to navigate what can be a psychological minefield is hardly conducive to a youngster’s emotional stability and development.
It is the duty of staff – some of whom need reminding – to show respect to the kids in their care; to let them know they have worth and are valued. I have seen and been told about enough bad practice and it’s unforgivable.
‘Attitudes show how rotten the care system can be’
The attitudes of the sacked member of staff, the union representative and some colleagues epitomised the rejection of any notion of the welfare of the young person coming first.
In fact, this episode proved a textbook example of just how rotten the care system can be when a youngster is actually mocked and derided, precisely because he or she is in care.
An older, happy and settled Jasmine can now reflect calmly on events.
“I remember being so shocked when he touched me,” she explains. “But at the same time I also felt terrified, because it occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t be believed. How could the word of a kid possibly trump that of a member of staff?”
The social worker’s view
Jasmine’s social worker, Sharon, recalls the disgust she felt at the time. “The incident itself was bad enough, but the things the union rep said about Jasmine were beyond the pale.
To vilify a child in care in this way, in order to try and save the skin of an employee, really highlights how the care system gets it badly wrong at times.”
“This case also highlighted an ethos that can still suffer from what I call faulty wiring. In my 20 years as a social worker, I’ve made countless visits to children’s homes, and the attitudes of some workers really have made me pause.”
‘You put your job on the line’
“The fact that I was believed almost took my breath away,” Jasmine recalls. “I knew that you would be in my corner, but beyond that I had no confidence that the right outcome would be reached.
“You put your job on the line and I could have been moved to another home, my name not worth a fig. I thought the system, and the odds, were stacked against us.
“Looking back now, no care system worth the name should make a kid feel like that.”
The author is a freelance journalist and former residential child car worker. His name has been changed.